Rabbi Maderer Rosh Hashanah Sermon: 
The Shofar of Loneliness Awakens

There is a new four-letter word in my household — plan. 

In these past months, we have essentially banned the word plan. We have hopes, we have scenarios, but when it comes to school, work, spending, visits with family, my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, there is no plan. 

The Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote: “Clear understanding means realizing what is and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change.” In other words, uncertainty.

Obvious now, but always present, uncertainty is embedded in our ancient High Holy Day words of prayer.

A great shofar will cry and a still small voice will be heard. Who shall live and who shall die? Who will rest and who will wander? We do not claim to know. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer from this morning, and this season of pandemic life, and really, any season of our lives, compels us to face uncertainty.

Uncertainty leaves us on shaky ground. Yet, as I try to maintain solid footing on what feels like an earthquake, the cracks in the foundation are not only brokenness, they are space.  Uncertainty leaves a space — space to ask the big questions that do not otherwise captivate our full attention. What are my essential needs? What is my responsibility in a society where we do not all have the resources to stay at home or to survive? How do I run a business or classroom or little league team or household during isolation, in a way that reflects my values? If I am hospitalized, what are my wishes for care, and are my loved ones aware? If my life were to end, what do I need my loved ones to know. What gratitude and forgiveness do I need to express? What are the absolute priorities of my life?  

Today, in that space of uncertainty, we ask the profound questions of our lives. Even in this unprecedented time, when massive numbers of people are ill or dying, when our livelihoods are at risk, when societal injustices reveal tragic impact to the most vulnerable, when we feel the pain of distance, when nearly everything is out of our hands… even in these times, when I need to pre-record this sermon, not knowing precisely what our reality or news headlines will be when you hear these words…I have faith, that our tradition’s timeless wisdom was written for just this moment.  For every moment. We are pre-recording. And it does not matter. Because the wisdom of our tradition is eternal.

When we ask: Who shall live and who shall die? Who will rest and who will wander…our timeless Jewish wisdom, in the words of Unetaneh Tokef, proclaims this response:

The essence of the High Holy Days and of all Jewish life: t’shuvah, t’filah, tzedakah. Repentance, prayer, and justice.  

T’shuvah, t’filah, tzedakah, Jewish wisdom’s answer to the uncertainty that abounds, cannot exist in isolation.  Judaism cannot imagine any of this holy work, absent from community. The work of repentance, or relationships…of prayer, or deeper consciousness…and of justice, or righteousness, drives home the ultimate Jewish message: we are not alone in this world. T’shuvah, t’filah, tzedakah are tradition’s way of saying: We are a part of something greater than ourselves.  

To miss that message—that we are a part of something greater than ourselves—to miss that message is to miss Judaism.  But circumstances out of our control can distance us.  

In whatever are the most challenging struggles you face right now—health, income, boredom, missing friends at a Bat Mitzvah, missing family at a wedding, missing neighbors at a funeral, missing a loved one in a hospital bed, isolation from friends and even from strangers, or close quarters with a roommate, close quarters with a partner who is wrong for you, or with loved ones whom you’re loving a little less—Perhaps you’ve felt alone in it.  Separate, cut off, and distant. Even if stuck in the house, not quite at home.

Years ago, during shiva—the immediate period of mourning—during shiva for her husband, a grieving widow said to me: “I am not isolated. I am surrounded by family and friends, but I am lonely.  I feel unseen. I feel no sense of belonging.”

The profound experience of grief is unique, but still, anyone can feel what she felt: you can be with other people, yet still lonely.  

I believe what our Jewish community has learned in these past 19 weeks is that the reverse is also true! Together, we are discovering: you can be isolated, yet not alone. Still, part of something greater than ourselves. In this pandemic that demands we live separated in a way humans should not

be. A Jewish life of t’shuvah, t’fillah, tzedakah—of tightly bound connection—remains possible. 

In his book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy teaches: Solitude can be constructive; isolation is not the same as loneliness. But isolation is a risk factor for loneliness. Loneliness serves as a signal to attend to human connections. 

Loneliness is the shofar sounding, “Awake!”

A wake up call— to reach out to others, to lean into community. Dr. Murthy teaches, when we share ourselves, we aren’t sacrificing; we are strengthening ourselves. He submits: We are wired, to deepen our sense of belonging with the sharing of stories, feelings, concerns. Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, wrote: Almost without exception, alcoholics are tortured by loneliness. That understanding was his basis for the notion of sponsorship—trusted mentors whose own sobriety is strengthened through relationship.  

It takes a lot of energy to connect, but I believe it is what sustains us. When we hear the shofar call of loneliness, it is time to check in with ourselves, and reach out to others, for a dinner over Zoom or a masked meet-up in the park.

Ultimately, Dr. Murthy teaches: To be home— to feel at home— is to be known. Loved for who you are. It is to share a sense of common pursuits and values with others who care about you. 

No matter the news headlines, no matter the current crisis, this wisdom of Dr. Murthy, this truth in Judaism, remains eternal. To be home is to be known.  The shofar that awakens us to our loneliness, returns us to the connections that sustain us.

In congregational life, it has been so moving to see the way you have sustained community-building in virtual gatherings, deepening our closeness and shared purpose. 

Over 100 years ago, the 1918 Flu epidemic caused Rodeph Shalom services to be suspended for a month. They may not have had Zoom, but old-school, they connected. The Sisterhood helped needy families obtain coal and transport family members to hospitals. So in a way, we’ve been here before.  

Today, too, congregants reach out, especially to our most isolated members. You make mitzvah calls; you provide Mitzvah Zoom tech-support.  

Your Rodeph Shalom Do it Yourself kit for these Ten Days of Repentance suggests for today, Day One, you reach out and call someone you think might be lonely.  

So much interaction used to take place in large group gatherings. Yet, truth is, even before pandemic restricted our large events, the extraordinary power of small group gatherings had become clear. And so, we are creating a network of small groups within the congregation—smaller than our wonderful connection groups—where we will gather regularly. There, we will nurture relationships where we are truly known. 

For me, a high point of “virtuality,” has been those moments on Zoom each Friday evening, just before and just after our Shabbat service. During the business day, Zoom may be another four letter word; but what a blessing it has been for our congregation. As one newer member recently said in the chat, “I never knew I could be comforted on a computer by 200 people I barely know.”

The expressions of warmth from one congregant to the next reflect genuine care and uplift me.  In fact, when we engaged our High Holy Day film crew, they were touched by our answer, when they asked: what was our highest priority for virtual services? A chat feature, and breakout rooms!  

As much as I want your soul to soar in awesome words of prayer, glorious music, and deep contemplation, the relationships we nurture in precious virtual moments, the way we ensure that others are seen and known, the way we plant seeds for further conversation, the way, even for just a moment, we can fill each other with joy and gratitude, the way we lift each other out of the separateness, to a place of home…these connections have become an essential part of what Rodeph Shalom is—our identity, our values, our purpose.  It is undeniable: we are a part of something greater than ourselves.

Amid uncertainty, and on ground that has always been shaky, tradition’s eternal wisdom was written for just this moment:

A great shofar will cry and a still small voice will be heard! 

As the shofar awakens us to sacred community, 

Deep in our souls, may we know:

We are not alone in this world. 

We are a part of something greater than ourselves.