The following is the text from my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon.
This past August, over my summer vacation, I was in New York City visiting some friends. My first afternoon in town, I made sure to go for a run in Central Park, one of my favorite spots to be. The weather was perfect, like something out of a Woodie Allen film, with small puffy clouds and perfect temperatures. It seemed like everyone was making excuses to be outside.
Within Central Park, there is a wonderful 6-mile road that is a runner’s delight; it is a perfect route. As I got into the second mile of my run, I was heading toward the southern bend in the road. This area, which goes near Columbus Circle, along Central Park South, and turns up on the East Side near the Apple Store, brings in a lot of tourists. Mix those people with other runners, other bikers, walkers, and dogs, and you have created a veritable mine field.
To this point I had always made it out of this corner of the park unscathed. On this occasion, my winning streak ended. As I came around the corner, I was finally hitting my stride, able to pick up my pace. All of a sudden, I sensed something behind me, and my legs began to buckle underneath me. Before I could process what was going on, I was knocked to the pavement, landing hard on my shoulder. As I fell, the guy who crashed into me came tumbling down, too, along with his bicycle. The bike dug into my hip and all six feet, five inches and 220 pounds of him came down on top of that. From underneath this pile up, I heard something metal and plastic hit the ground too, and shatter.
Fairly quickly, the other guy was up, and another person had lifted the bike off me. I was able to get up, and I checked to see if I was okay. A few scrapes, and I knew there would be some bruising, but I was okay.
I spun around looking for the guy who hit me. He was on the ground picking up the pieces of what I had heard shatter–his camcorder.
The man, still crouching, picking up his broken camera, had not even stopped to ask if I was alright. His first priority was that camera. Well, I was not going to wait for him. I saw red, and I went ballistic. I yelled and I screamed. I shook off the dust, tapped into a buried, Hulk-like New Yorker that I somehow picked up along the way, and shared with him every single four-letter word I had within me. I detonated verbal nukes that I am embarrassed to say I knew.
As I gave into this flash of anger, I noticed standing next to the man, on anther bicycle was his seven-year-old son. I went from seeing red to feeling red. My anger transformed into embarrassment. I was angry this man had run over me with his bike, and rightfully so, I still believe. Anger is anger; we feel it when, we feel it. And, I now realize, having been hot under the collar then, I did not react in the most appropriate fashion. For that, I am profoundly sorry. But, missteps are wonderful teachers.
In that moment, standing there a little scraped up in Central Park, but mostly okay, my anger abated. As I stood there, trying to figure out what to do next, I imagined Moses standing beside the rock with water flowing, holding onto his staff, having just disobeyed God, yet still having met the Israelite’s thirst.
Moses and the Israelites had been wandering through the Wilderness for a generation.
The community was aging, and Moses led them from Egypt to this place, but not yet to the Promised Land, that place that flows with milk and honey. God guided the way by smoke and by fire, and as the generation who knew Egypt came to a close, a second generation of Israelite was coming of age in the Wilderness.
The Israelites knew about loss. At this particular moment in the Israelite’s story, Miriam, Moses & Aaron’s sister, died. The community watched and grieved as Moses, the Prophet, and his brother, the Priest, sought out a gravesite and laid their sister’s body to rest. At the same time, another problem presented itself along with the grief the community felt: with Miriam’s death, the wells that were the Israelites’ source of water dried up, and thirst began to set in.
Because of their thirst, the Israelites showed up on Moses doorstep, pleading with him to find water. Otherwise, they were the ones who would surely meet death, not just Miriam. Moses, in his grief, must have been thinking: G’valt, I have to deal with this now, too?
Moses and Aaron took themselves before God, and they lowered their faces. God speaks up with a plan: Take you staff, go over to the rock, and speak to it, and it will give you water for the Israelites.
Talk to the rock? … Can’t we get something a little bit bigger? Something more Red-Sea? Something more… miraculous? Moses looked down at the staff in his hand, hot anger welled up from within, and he felt the weight of it. The staff did so much for him before. It helped him free the Israelites from Pharaoh’s grasp. He had extended that very staff over the Red Sea to make it part. He held it up over the Israelites as they vanquished the Amalakites in war.
Suddenly, like Abraham about to slay his beloved Isaac, Moses lifted up his staff again over his head. But unlike Abraham in the Akeidah, no angel appeared to stop him. Moses brought the staff down, striking the rock with such anger and force, that the rock cleaved open. Water flowed out, and the Israelites’ thirst was quenched. But Moses failed in his relationship with God. Moses struck out in hot anger and in faithlessness against God, letting his human qualities flow out, and in doing so, he fell short.
We get angry; we’ve all been there. Anger is a hard-wired emotion. In response to some sort of wrong that we feel, anger–hot or cold, fast or slow–can well up within us.
When the lightning fast flash of rage is there, we are subject to a violent, destructive force. That is fast, hot anger.
Still, we know another type of anger, one that burns slowly. In this anger exists power and energy. When anger burns as a low flame, we keep it far from becoming an explosive moment. Still, its heat is recognizable. This type of anger–slow, cold anger–is a transformative gift. When we allow it to become an engulfment of rage, we squander its power. But, when we slow it down, we harness its power.
We find the lessons of slow anger throughout the liturgy in our High Holidays. Many times in our services over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we will pray: “Adonai, Adonai El rachum v’chanun, erech apayaim v’rav chesed; Eternal God, Eternal God, merciful and gracious God, You are slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” This is Avinu Malkeinu, the parental and ruling God whom we meet in these days. Not a vengeful and wrathful God, who is far from us. But a real presence who–even with all of our failings in this past year–models slow anger as balanced best in the company of kindness.
In the God of the High Holy Days lives an example for how we can approach the anger we feel. We too can be slow to anger, and we too can abound in kindness. Maybe it is a particular relationship that sets us on edge, or maybe it is a particular issue that fires us up. With erech apayim v’rav chesed as our mantra, there is a fuel within us that–this time–can transform that anger, that can transform it into something else, into something better. In slow anger, we have a medicine for brokenness, and we find a path toward wholeness. We know that “hot anger and rage are wrong. Apathy and resignation are wrong. [Yet] There is an in-between–a cold anger–this is right on.”
I say it is right on, because when we look at examples within our history, we see moments that slow, cold anger was harnessed to bring about lasting change for the better in our community. We know it from our own people’s story as we established ourselves here in the States.
In the early 1900’s, as young Jews settled in the Lower East Side, they sought out work and opportunity. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was a large factory that gave easy employment, but maintained miserable working conditions. They were not alone in these practices, and a labor movement was already underway.
On Saturday, March 25, 1911, many of these young Jewish immigrants went to work at the Triangle factor. Late in the afternoon, a discarded cigarette butt lit up scraps of unused fabric, and a fire broke out. Workers tried to put out the fire, but they were unsuccessful, and people tried to evacuate. Except they could not; the door to the stairway had been locked from the outside, a tactic to deter workers from taking unapproved breaks or from leaving early from their shift. In the end, 146 individuals lost their lives in that fire, most of whom were just at the start of their adult lives.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was one example of many in the early 20th Century of big fires that had led to senseless death. After each fire, there would be heated speeches and impassioned pleas to fix the communal wrongs that the fires exposed, to address the callousness that permitted such disasters. Slow anger built over time, because of these various events, and because of the awareness building that writers like Upton Sinclair and photographers like Lewis Hine did. Out of the Triangle factory fire, a resolution was drafted to demand action in Albany. Legislation was quickly created and passed, only three months after the fire. Out of this fire, survivors and activists harnessed meaningful, slow anger, and created something called the “Fire Escape,” which has saved how many countless lives since then?
Hot and cold anger were to be found in the community who organized after that fire, and we can point to other moments in our community’s narrative in which slow, cold anger led to significant moments for our community. Having just commemorated the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington, we are reminded that it began because of anger over racial inequality in the workplace. This past year, supporters flooded the State Capitol Building in Texas as State Senator Wendy Davis filibustered against a resolution that would limit a woman’s reproductive rights. At the start of each month Women of the Wall gather at the base of the kotel in anger that prayer there cannot be expressed a personal freedom. All of these are manifestations of communal anger over status quo. They represent watershed moments in fights for various rights and equality. In many respects these are all fires sparked of the same flint: a group’s slow, cold anger at perceived communal brokenness, which fuels a want to see something better in the world.
Friends, anger that is focused, deep, slow, and cold is a key element in actively pursuing justice and tikkun olam, in actively working to leave this world a little bit more whole than it was the day before.
On this Rosh Hashanah, as we begin to engage in the process of Cheshbon Hanefesh, the appraisal of our beings, identify within ourselves a slow, cold anger upon which we would like to act? Personally, I stay up at night wondering if I will ever be able to get out from underneath my own burden of student debt. I find myself to be angry about the status of college financing. How many of us wring our hands when we learn that health care costs will go up, and wonder what that will do to our take-home pay? I had a conversation with a friend recently who grew up here in Newton, and even as he makes a comfortable living, finds himself struggling to find an apartment in the Boston area whose rent is affordable. After the shooting at Newtown and the bombings in Back Bay, were we not scared about our children’s and our own safety on any given day? Opening up the news to see what’s going on in Israel, hearing friends who live there talk about how they had to head over to the Post Office to pick up new gas masks–does that not wake something up deep within us? Do the words SYRIA and IRAN not stir us?
Real problems and challenges exist in our world. And I believe, based out of anger and also hope, I fervently believe that we–as a community– are poised to do something meaningful and impactful, to shake off the feelings that the problems are too large, and to make some change for the better, by being proactive. We can begin to feel the pistons of slow anger churn us in a direction that make us feel like we can win in the challenge to better our community, our city, our corner of the world.
On Sunday, September 22 at 11:30, our congregation will gather to kick off the new year. As part of that, our Social Action committee–the vehicle by which we engage in bettering our community–will present countless ways to do something in 5774. We talk about the various ways that we as a congregation can be dedicated to tikkun olam. I know that many of us are already deeply engaged in this sort of work either here at Temple Shalom or with other wonderful non-profit organizations. Im lo akshav eimatai? If not now, when? Now–at the start of this New Year–is the time to acknowledge, embrace, and get angry about the fact that we live in a fractured world. And then, we get to work. On September 22, we are going to offer many ways to jump on in.
Let me end with a prayer, one that we will hear over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Adonai, Adonai El rachum v’chanun, Erech apayim v’rav chesed. Eternal God, Eternal God, merciful and kind God, You are slow to anger and abounding in kindness. Teach us the gift of slow anger. Allow us to feel it, to embrace it, to be energized by it. Guide us with good counsel toward ma-asim tovim, good, righteous, and sacred acts that bring about tikkun olam, the meaningful repair of Your fractured world. For we pray that one day, our children, and our children’s children can experience Your ideal–a world that is whole and complete, a world that filled with shalom.
Amen. Shanah Tova.