Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Yom Kippur 5775

Our Search for Meaning

A Kol Nidre Sermon by Rabbi Marc L. Disick DD
Interim Rabbi, Congregation Emanu El, Houston, Texas

Audio Version available - click to play mp3

I used to be a salesman, the fancy title they gave me was marketing director, but, essentially, I was a salesman working largely on commission for an upscale assisted living company.  And as those of you in sales know all too well, success or failure is judged by one thing alone: how much I sold, and specifically in my case, how many leases I got signed, monthly, weekly, even daily.  Workplace pressure was exquisite and driven by those higher on the corporate food chain for whom the consequences of sales reports were either incredibly rewarding and lucrative, or dire and desperate, who will keep their job and who will get fired, who will close a deal and who will be shown the door.

Lease signings were big-deal and happy events which took highest priority.  Which is I was despondent when I received a voice mail from an elderly gentleman's daughter who called to cancel their scheduled lease signing appointment.  I placed a follow up call to the man's daughter, he was a perfect customer, fitting our profile to a "T": in relatively good health with very mild dementia, solid financial resources, he'd be with us for a long time, and now he was cancelling.  Was it me?  Had I failed in some way?  Were we undersold by the competition?  Did I do something wrong?  Dejected and depressed, I made a follow up call to his daughter, worried that I lost the sale somehow, when I got her on the phone, I asked her, why wasn't he coming in to sign?  Then she told me that the day before he had a colonoscopy and they found colon cancer.  I thought privately to myself, Thank God, I thought it was me[1].  My relief was palpable and my disgust with myself, at the absurdity of thanking God that a good man cancelled an appointment to sign a lease because he was gravely ill, not because I had fouled things up somehow, was not lost on me.  Everyone and anyone in sales faces their own moral roller coaster and finds a way to sleep at night.  I had spent so much of my career, so much of my life, caring for the vulnerable.  I simply could not believe that such a thought even came to my mind.  But losing a sale could, at any moment, mean losing my job.  That the customer had cancer, and meant that I did not mess up…Thank God!

We all have favorite books, books we reread, and each time, over the years, it becomes new again because, because over the years, we ourselves change and read them with new-older eyes.  And like old friends, these books meet us wherever they find us.  It was time for me to visit my well worn oft reread copy of Man's Search for Meaning by the Austrian psychotherapist Viktor Frankl. 

This brilliant physician and Auschwitz survivor, Frankl witnessed the daily sight and smell of the black smoke that carried the remains of millions skyward.  

Man taught Frankl can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress[2] [at a concentration camp].

If Viktor Frankl could maintain his moral compass in hell, then I could maintain my moral compass in sales. To Frankl, there is something far, far beyond, far more important than asking "What is the meaning of my life?  Why am I here?  What is my purpose?"  Actually To Frankl, it is not we who ask the questions of life, but life that poses the questions to us: Life he wrote ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each [of us].[3]

People who live through the extremes, I believe, teach the rest of us what it is to be human, what it means to be created in a Sacred image, what it is to be an altruist, a child of God.

Becoming a new parent always comes with a measure of unexpected and unpredictable insanity: my child won't sleep, my child won't eat, my child won't stop screaming.  And in each generation, thoughtful parents going insane, find a book, an author, that helps us through, the names Dr. Spock, T. Berry Brazelton, Lawrence Kolberg and Tina Bryson come to mind in our day.

In the years before the war, Janusz Korczak's name was the Dr. Spock of Poland, Germany, indeed throughout much of Europe.  But more than that, like Charles Dickens, he also wrote about the unacknowledged plight homeless orphans, like Jacob Riis, he revealed the squalor of destitution to the middle class, and in keeping with Viktor Frankl, Janusz Korczak transformed tragedy into triumph, and, as we'll learn, when he could no longer change the situation, he transformed himself into nothing less than a saint.

This author of dozens of best-selling books, translated into dozens of languages, this physician, this man who served as a medic in WWI and as a vastly popular radio personality on child rearing, Janusz Korczak, who when visiting Kibbutzim before Israel declared statehood could easily have settled there, Janusz Korczak stayed on with the 200 children in his Warsaw orphanage after the Nazis took over in 1939.  And then, when the deportation order came in 1942, he was given several opportunities to save his own skin, by both the Jewish underground and by Nazis who remembered how helpful he had been to them in raising their children in his radio broadcasts and his books.  Up until the very last minute he could have saved himself.

Instead, as the cattle trucks pulled up in front of the orphanage, he told his children that they were going for a picnic in the country, they packed and dressed in their best. Abandoning them was beyond his ability, he boarded the trucks with his little angels.  He and they disappeared forever. 

We are taught that when a person answers the needs of his community, the Almighty accounts that as devotion to the Torah.[4] 

And we each write a Torah, every word and every deed written on the scroll of our lives.  Tonight we are each called upon to hear the Torah scroll of Janusz Korczak's life.

Which is why I stand here tonight with you as a witness for Janusz Korczak.  For you are my witnesses says the Lord.  We are witnesses for Janusz Korczak.

Be strong and resolute, do not fear or dread them, for the Lord your God Himself marches with you.  He will not fail you.  He will not forsake you.[5]

Viktor Frankl teaches us that…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way[6]

If life had put me in Korczak's shoes, would I be like Janusz Korczak?  Life is asking me the question?  Would I have his courage?   Would you?

Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart's secret places.

Blessed is the heart that knows, for honors sake, to stop its beating.

Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

Blessed is the match, Ashrei HaGafrur, was written by a 23 year Hungarian Jew in 1944.  She'd been keeping a detailed diary of prose and poetry since the age of 13.  The daughter of a noted writer herself, and amazingly brilliant in her own right, she left Hungary in 1939 for Palestine where she continued to write and write and write.  Her dad died when she was only six and she was raised by her mom.  By 1942, when she was 21, she trained to parachute back into Europe to warn the Jews of what was coming, of what was already happening, to transform them into a fighting force, to plead with them to resist.  After staying with Tito's partisans in Yugoslavia, she crossed the border into Hungary, now desperate to save her mother, Hungarian Jews were being rounded up and sent to their deaths…she was arrested, not by the Nazis but by the Hungarian police, she was tortured with great cruelty, revealed nothing, she was tried by a secret court, condemned to death and then executed by a firing squad, at the age of 23, alone in a Budapest prison courtyard.

Her name is Hanna Szenes.  Eli, Eli, O God, I pray, she wrote, that these things never end, the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, the prayer of man.

I stand here tonight with you as a witness for Hannah Szenes.   She gave spirit to many she knew and to generations to follow, she was, "a singular light [from] which many candles were kindled, yet the light of the flame, even with her death, never, ever grew faint." [7]

And we each write a Torah, every word and every deed written on the scroll of our lives.  Tonight we are each called upon to hear the Torah scroll of Hanna Szenes' life

Which is why I stand here tonight with you as a witness for her.  For you are my witnesses says the Lord.  We are witnesses for Hanna Szenes.

Do not be afraid, for I am with you,

Don't be scared, for I am your God;

I strengthen you and I help you;

I hold you up with my right hand.[8]

Viktor Frankl teaches us that If there is meaning at all then there must be meaning in suffering.  Suffering is a…part of life, even as fate and death.  Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.[9]

If life had put me in Hanna Szenes' shoes, would I be like Hanna Szenes?  Life is asking me the question?  Would I have her courage?   Would you?

About thirty years ago I was running a retreat at URJ Kutz for a group of 8th graders with the promise that by the end of the retreat each of them would have courage.  In our final friendship circle, in fulfillment of my promise, I handed out a gray business-sized card, printed upon it was the definition of courage: the attitude of facing and dealing with anything recognized as dangerous, difficult or painful, instead of withdrawing from it.  Those long years ago, I placed one of these cards in my wallet and, to this day, I carry it still.

I've taken it out and read it more times than I can count.  Because I believe that courage is one of the few things we can pray for that God will always deliver.  So many of my own personal prayers start with the words, God, please give me the courage.  And each and every time I have prayed for courage, God has helped me to find it, my failing is that I too often forget to ask in the first place.  I find strength in a tradition that  teaches that God gives courage in divine measure, and demands courage in human measure.  It is not so far that we cannot reach it, courage is always within our reach, always.

And we each write a Torah, every word and every deed written on the scroll of our lives.  Tonight we are each called upon to hear the Torah scroll of Viktor Frankl's life

Which is why I stand here tonight with you as a witness for him.  For you are my witnesses says the Lord.  We are witnesses for Viktor Frankl.

When I am afraid I trust in You,

In god I trust

I am not afraid

For you have saved me from death,

My foot from stumbling

That I may walk before God in the light of life.

God will always deliver courage if only I would remember to ask.

Viktor Frankl, who lived through hell on earth somehow after the Holocaust he still found a way to say L'Chayim, to teach, to treat patients, to believe in life, Viktor Frankl teaches me is that we are capable of transforming personal tragedy into a triumph, that through an sheer act of will we can turn our predicaments into human achievement.[10]

In a sense then, I've been asking the wrong question all along.  Life is not asking me if I have the courage to be Janusz Korczak.  Life is not asking me if I have the courage to be Hanna Szenes.  And nor is life asking me if I have the courage to be Viktor Frankl.  Life asks a far, far simpler question: Do I have the courage to be myself?

[1] Grammatically incorrect but colloquially required

[2] Frankl

[3] Frankl

[4] Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot

[5] Deuteronomy 31

[6] Frankl

[7] Numbers Rabbah 15,19 [paraphrased]

[8] Isaiah 41

[9] Frankl

[10] Frankl [paraphrased]