This I Believe- Rosh HaShanah 2020

 In Holidays

This I Believe- Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

        A few lyrics- “I believe the children are our future.”  So sings Whitney Houston, and I am inclined to agree.  “Do you believe in life after love?”  Cher posed that question and I believe that I do.  The Lovin’ Spoonful want to know, “Do you believe in magic?”  I guess it depends on how you define the term.  Of all places to find inspiration- Elvis Presley[1]

I believe for every drop of rain that falls
A flower grows
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night
A candle glows
I believe for everyone who goes astray, someone will come
To show the way
I believe, I believe

I believe above a storm the smallest prayer
Can still be heard
I believe that someone in the great somewhere
Hears every word

Everytime I hear a new born baby cry,
Or touch a leaf or see the sky
Then I know why, I believe

        What do we believe and why do we believe it?  What do I believe and why do I believe it?  Well- if I had an unlimited amount of time and an unlimited number of words, I’m sure I could come up with a LONG list of things that I believe.  I believe in family and community, I believe in kindness and forgiveness, I believe in truth, justice and the American way.  The list could go on and on and on.

        But what if I had only 350-500 words?  That’s the challenge that National Public Radio created when it launched the series, “This I Believe” in 1951.  “The core principles that guide your life.”[2]  The invitation went out and the series was born.  Participants were challenged to focus in on one- only one- belief.  Something that could be summarized in a sentence or two.  A challenge and an opportunity.  One writer compared it to “packing for a long trip using an overnight bag.”[3]

        I’d like to share with you some of the responses collected in a book published in 2006.  Then I’ll attempt to share my own “This I Believe.”  And then it will be your turn to at least discern the seed from which your core belief grows.

        The editors note some common themes- “the Golden Rule, living in the moment, the importance of love and giving. . . family, god, and country.”[4]  Many lessons were gleaned from times of challenge, from illness and death which have a way of focusing our attention on ultimate issues.  Jay Allsion, one of the editors, commented that his own “This I Believe” essay begins, “I believe in listening. . . “”[5]  That’s a darn good answer; I wish I had thought of that!

        I loved the very first answer in the collection- “I believe in being cool to the pizza dude.”[6]  I think that if we extract that principle and apply it to the current moment, we all have come to notice all the folks we have never appreciated who keep the wheels of our lives in motion. The pizza dude is symbolic of all the unsung heroes who have emerged to the fore during this terrible time of quarantine.  The grocery clerks.  The delivery folks.  Coolness to the pizza dude represents kindness and seeing the tzelem Elohim, the image of God, in every person we encounter.  “I believe,” one person observed back in the 1950’s, “in the patient gallantry of nurses, in the tedious sacrifices of teachers.”[7]

        A mother who lost her child speaks of “throwing overboard all excess baggage.”[8]  In the wake of that tragedy, she came to understand the insignificance of all of the things we spend a lifetime accumulating.  Her conclusion?  “You only have what you give.”[9]  How many of us have spent these past months cleaning closets and cabinets and letting go of “stuff.”  How blessed we are that it did not take a devastating personal loss to shift our focus from getting to giving.

        There are individuals who have, quite literally, died of loneliness during this quarantine.  According to one author, “I believe this is the worst thing in the world- that loneliness.”[10]  As God creates the world in the early chapters of Genesis, each act of creation concludes with the refrain, “And God saw that it was good.”  What is the first thing in the Torah about which God says, “It is not good?”  “It is NOT good for humans to be alone.”  (Genesis 2:18) Our interdependence may have been driven home in a negative way as we have watched the COVID-19 virus spread across the globe.  Yet, we can’t escape the way we can and must depend on each other.  Listen to these prophetic words, “In my own life, I’ve put great stock in personal responsibility.  But, as the years have passed, I’ve also come to believe that there are moments when one must rely upon the good faith and judgment of others.”[11]   Another writer put it this way, “I believe in my neighbors. I know their faults, and I know that their virtues far outweigh their faults.”  [12]We are designed to be in community and I have become powerfully grateful for the technology that has allowed us to stay connected during this pandemic.

        Other takeaways:

  1.  “I have a simple faith in (God) and a hope that my attempts to live a decent life are pleasing to God.”[13]– Amen to that.
  2. “Being fully open to your grief may be the hardest work you will ever do.”[14]– That has certainly been my experience
  3. “I believe that the world is inherently a very dangerous place and that things that are now very good can go bad very quickly.”[15]– Wow, yes, and NOT written in 2020!
  4. “I believe in the simple healing power of presence.”[16]– This is my summary statement regarding the work of our incredible Elisa Lanes Caring Community.

So much wisdom- the belief in humility and in a little outrage, in empathy and poetry.  And this favorite-

  •  “I believe in the absolute and unlimited liberty of reading.”[17]
  • As well as this- “I believe in always going to the funeral.”[18]  It is never convenient to go to a funeral.  Always go the funeral is a metaphor for “always do the right thing,” even when it’s inconvenient.

So, then, what do I believe?  Well, I believe in holiness.  I believe that the possibility of holiness inheres in every moment, in every action, in every relationship- if only we open our eyes and our hearts.  I believe that God wants us to be holy- it says so right there in the Torah, “You shall be holy as I, God, am holy.”  (Leviticus 19:2)  When we say a blessing before we eat, we lift up a mundane act and make it holy.  When we are kind to someone who challenges us, we walk the path of holiness.  When we are moved by the beauty of nature, this is a moment of holiness.

I believe that many of the insights the teachers in this book direct us towards are fundamentally about creating holiness.  The gift of our listening presence, our patience and humility.  The gift of forgiveness of self and others.  The gift of community sharing the journey.  The gift of teaching and learning. 

I believe that Judaism is a spiritual path that leads us towards holiness.  When I pray with someone who is ill, I experience a sense of holiness.  When I offer guidance in a moment of anger or sadness or worry, there is a sacred nature to that interactions- it is holy.  When my heart swells with love towards a family member or a friend, I recognize that fleeting sense of completion and I call it holy.

I believe that we are surrounded by the possibility of holiness, that there is always potential for holiness if we are open to it.  On May 1st, Rabbi Chernow invited davveners to share their experiences of holiness on our Temple Chai Facebook page during services.  Here are a few of the responses:

Holiness is a smile that comes up from inside and gives energy to the world. It moves the wind and sets things on fire and hallows everything.  Holiness is swimming toward the light and missing and getting up the next day and striving for it again. Nancy Dallett

Holiness is the love of friends and neighbors waving, saying a kind word while walking their dogs, leaving cookies on our doorstep! Holiness is watching a little bird take a drink from our birdbath.  Alan Zeichick

Holiness is serenity and peace. I still feel the holiness around me when I stream Friday night services from my home. Cori Rosen

Holiness seems to me to be a state of being filled with goodness in both deeds and thought… comes sometimes from being with friends, family, or out in nature, helping others…. many ways. Sarah Paikowsky

Interesting that the Torah asks us to be Holy because it says that I, Hashem, is Holy. Holiness is the work of Tikkun Olam. Felix Salomon

Holiness is community. Teri Cohen

Holiness is loving humanity and community; treating each other with kindness and compassion. It also means protecting the universe that God created. Joyce Opria

Holiness happens when we take early morning walks under the beautiful blue sky and listen to the birds chirping. It’s as if all is perfect in the world. Ann Spector

Holiness is the commitment we are all making (large and small) for the greater good. Hilary Barnes

Holiness is the empathy we can feel for others and it’s the actions of helping others. It’s kindness. Holiness is also looking around and seeing the beauty of nature- feeling the wind, listening to the sounds of life, tasting a snowflake, smelling the rain, seeing a newborn. Joan Neer

During hard times one can see so much HOLINESS in so many different ways!! Ruth DuBois

Holiness is the empathy we show for each other. We value the love and caring we have for each other. Joel Zolondek

I’d like to conclude with the words of Elizabeth Deutsch, as they encapsulate, for me, the essence of what this holy day is all about.  She writes, “I’ve come to appreciate once again that communal reflection about life’s deepest matters is sustaining and uplifting and provides a consistent nudge in worthy directions.”[19]  May you feel sustained and uplifted, and may we all feel that nudge in a worthy direction, as we reflect communally. 

    Now, it’s your turn.  This I Believe. 


[1] Words & Music by Erwin Drake / Irvin Graham / Jimmy Shirl / Al Stillman

[2] Allison, Jay, and Gediman, Dan, editors, This I Believe, NY:  Picador, 2006, p. 1

[3] Ibid., p. 5

[4] Ibid., pp. 4-5

[5] Ibid., p. 6

[6] Ibid., p. 8- Sarah Adams

[7] Ibid., p. 120- Robert A. Heinlein

[8] Ibid., p. 14- Isabel Allende

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 16- Elvia Bautista

[11] Ibid., pp. 35-36- Warren Christopher

[12] Ibid., p. 119,- Robert A. Heinlein 

[13] Ibid., p. 54- Elizabeth Deutsch

[14] Ibid., p. 38- May Cook

[15] Ibid., p. 78- Newt Gingrich

[16] Ibid., p. 100- Debbie Hall

[17] Ibid., p. 159- Rick Moody

[18] Ibid., p. 235- Deirdre Sullivan

[19] Ibid., p. 56

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