Rabbi Rachel Smookler
This sermon is entitled: I Love You. you will figure out why a little later on.
Sometimes it takes years to unravel meaning. As you will soon see, through an incredible set of circumstances that didn’t so much as—- “happen to me,” but rather hit me in the face.
As many of you know, preparation for the High Holy Days begins one month before Rosh Hashanah. And it is at this time that we begin to take stock of our lives.
This year, as we began the month of Elul, I felt this process so acutely. It pretty much took hold of me. And it was nothing I was in control of.
Memories of Elul’s past came flooding back to me in ways that I am now eternally grateful for. I sat down to write a sermon for Parshat shofetim, just a week into the month of Elul. I had a bunch of notes that had to with Justice-With the role of witnesses. But even as I looked at these notes, and realized that they had so much relevance In our current world.
I just…. couldn’t write about that. And instead, my fingers began typing faster than my thoughts could even get out….And I wrote these words……….:
I will never forget this week’s parsha — Parshat Shoftim, and I will gladly tell you why.
About 18 years ago, my husband and I, and our newly born twins moved from New York City to Minneapolis, where my husband, Harrison, would be attending the University of Minnesota Business School, and… where I would have endless reserves of support raising the twins from both sets of grandparents.
In mid-August of that year, it was only a few weeks away from the High Holy Days. The senior rabbi of the synagogue I grew up at knew that I was in town and asked if I would be the guest speaker for one of the shabbatot leading up to the High Holy Days because he was busy writing his sermons for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
I had been ordained just three months before and I was a bit nervous. After all, this was the synagogue I grew up in…I knew so many people, and most of all, I wasn’t really getting that much sleep with newborn twins. And I certainly didn’t have a lot of time to write sermons, or even think of anything outside of nursing and diapers.
But…like I said, I will never forget that Shabbat morning. Not because of any amazing sermon I wrote. In fact, I don’t even remember what my point was.
Because… the most extraordinary thing happened. It was quite a big production getting to shul that morning. Dressing up the twins, packing their diaper bag, getting their stroller in and out of the car, belting and unbelting them, in and out of their car sets and stroller.
I guess I really didn’t have a moment to be nervous about delivering a sermon. Both sides of our families were there to support me and there was a large bat mitzvah that morning.
As I walked into the sanctuary I was handed a little booklet explaining the bat mitzvah traditions and all the honors were printed out.
I gave a start when I looked at the name of the bat mitzvah on the front cover. Joy Sela…
I was stunned momentarily. Here I was….with my entire family who were there to celebrate me, and support me. And that name Joy just stopped me in my tracks. For it was the name of my parents’ first child. A little baby girl, who was born — and lived for three months until she died — due to complications from my mother contracting the German measles while she was pregnant with Joy.
Joy is not a very common name, and seeing it printed there, as we were all together at the synagogue, and..that very Shabbat, it was another Joy’s bat mitzvah. I couldn’t help but feel as though we were celebrating for our Joy, For the bat mitzvah she never had. My whole family commented on the coincidence of it all.
As I sat down, someone tapped me and my family on the shoulder. I turned around. It was the Gabbai. He knew that I was the guest speaker that day. And He saw on the yahrzeit list the last name Rubenstein, my maiden name.
He showed me the list and asked me if this was a relative and would we like to have the honor of an Aliyah? When I looked down,to where he was pointing, I saw the the last name..Rubenstein. Yes. But directly in front of it….the name….Joy. My sister, whom I never had the chance to meet, who died when she was just three months old.
We were all just silent. It was Joy’s Yahrzeit. On top of the fact that it was another Joy’s bat mitzvah. And that “I” was the guest Rabbi delivering the sermon.
The only part of the service I remember was going up on the bimah with my parents. Taking our Tallis to the open Torah scroll, kissing the fringes and chanting the blessings before and after the Torah readings. When Joy…Joy Sela was chanting the Torah portion.
When I tell people this story, sometimes people ask me Why didn’t you know that is was Joy’s yahrzeit? Joy…my sister who died when she was three months old. Didn’t we mark that each year? To be honest, I know now why my parents did not visit her grave, and did not say the Kaddish each year for her on her yahrzeit. It was so utterly painful and devastating for them..
I think, I know, that they couldn’t move on–unless they moved on. They never forgot. How could they? In fact as early as I can remember, I knew that I had a sister named Joy, and that she died when she was just three months old. Her story never stopped being told. Her memory always for a blessing.
SO what did all of those signs mean to us that day? How did we, as a family interpret the flood of emotions and memories, of what could have been? Of what might have been? If Joy had lived, and if she…had celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah. It has taken me years to decipher that Shabbat 18 years ago.
But..I think I have an idea of how, not only was Joy’s presence there that Shabbat, but that the Torah portion, Parshat Shofetim, helped me unlock some very long and painful memories, especially for my parents.
And I found that spark in the most unlikely of verses. In Deuteronomy it is written:
“Before you join battle, the priest shall come forward and address the troops. He shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them.
Then the officials shall address the troops, as follows:
“Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her.”
The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say,
“Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.”
When the officials have finished addressing the troops, army commanders shall assume command of the troops. This speech seemingly has nothing to do with the story I have told you. And in fact, it wasn’t until AFTER I read a midrash about these verses, that I was reminded of that Shabbat so many years ago.
But…right at the end of this paragraph, something, I can’t tell you exactly what, caught my attention and I was interested to seeif I could connect with this passage.
At the very end of the speech gathering the troops, I was truly moved by the last question, “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.”
And it turns out, so was the Kotzker Rebbe. The rabbis agree that this fear stems from having committed past transgressions…
The Kotzker asks: With the bar set so high, how large could the Jewish army have possible been? How many people would really have nothing –not even to fear? How many soldiers could honestly claim innocence from any and every possible wrongdoing and confidently head out to battle?
The Kotzker suggests a remarkable answer. Clearly not everyone who sinned left the battle; that would be completely unrealistic. Rather, the exemption was specifically for someone who, despite having already repented, was still distressed over past transgressions.
In other words, even though he had already done teshuvah, nevertheless– he still felt like the memory of the transgression was still haunting him to the extent that he remained distraught and discouraged. A person who could not move beyond past transgressions lacked the necessary inner-strength and confidence to be a warrior in the Jewish army and was, therefore, sent home from battle.
True repentance requires that we be honest with ourselves and confront past mistakes; and at a certain point, we need to have the courage to “pick ourselves up” and move on with inner-strength.
But what does this have to do with my parents? Surely, nothing that they did caused my sister Joy’s neshama to leave this world when she was just three months old.
But I have a feeling that when something as devastating as losing a child happens, perhaps there is a feeling that is impossible to let of go of. The Kotzker’s teaching reminded me of my parents. Perhaps carrying around a silent and heavy burden, the Kotzker’s teaching propelled me back to that day 18 years ago—when time stood still, when our whole family was given a gift, that lifted a great burden from our hearts. We were given the gift to be able to celebrate Joy. At the bat mitzvah of a stranger–named Joy–And on the very Yahrzeit of our Joy Rubenstein, we could truly transfer this Joy to my newborn twins who were born to receive this love.
I gave a version of this sermon, like I said, nearly a month ago. And I realized how incredibly important this teaching was as I was speaking it. I realized that there was NO more important message for the High Holy Days than this message.
To relieve ourselves of past burdens that we have been carrying around. We might have done teshuva for them, or at least…we thought we had…But there they are…still a heavy weight upon our heart…
After Shabbat services when I told the story of our our family’s Joy, and of the Joy who became a bat mitzvah the day of Joy’s yahrzeit, some congregants asked me about Joy Sela. What is she doing now? Wouldn’t it be so interesting to find out?
And…of course… I couldn’t get it out of my head. The first place I checked was Facebook. The name Joy Sela was unique enough, and being that her hometown was Minneapolis MN, I knew I had found her.
She had beautiful auburn curly hair at her bat mitzvah ceremony and she looked quite the same today, 18 years later. But that wasn’t what caused me to catch my breath, her cover photo on Facebook, the large banner taking up a third of the screen read “GOD IS LOVE” all in gold capital letters.
I had wanted to contact her. I was a bit nervous. Not because I’m shy, but I had no way of knowing how she would receive such a deep and mystical story from so many years ago…from a stranger. But when I saw her cover photo “God is Love,” I felt confident that this Joy would somehow welcome such an intrusion from the past into her life.
I sent her a private message…
Hi Joy, you don’t know me but I belonged to the Adath and delivered the sermon as the guest rabbi at your bat mitzvah. This past Shabbat I delivered a sermon about something incredible that occurred to my family and I on the morning of your bat mitzvah. I was wondering if I could send it to you. It has a lot to do with your name, Joy.
I really just wanted to find out where you are in life now. It was pretty incredible for me to open up your Facebook page and see your beautiful cover photo “GOD IS LOVE” and what a beautiful woman you have become.
Shana Tova. If it’s ok for me to send you the sermon, just forward your email. Thanks so much! Rachel
A few hours later…I received a message:
Hi Rachel- sure! Joy@createblueprint.com. Thanks. Looking forward to seeing it! I am working on a new project about pushing love and am featuring work from israel between Arabs and Jews. I’ll share it with you upon launch in a few weeks! I am booked all day and leave to israel tonight. I can speak when I get back at the end of the month though
The next day I received the following email: She had read the sermon–
Hi Rachel. This is so incredible! What an honor to be a part of something so special and transformative for you and your family. I just shared this with my mom in Israel and we were both stunned.
I would love to talk more and tell you about the project I’m working on. It’s all about sharing love and joy with the world. Thank you so much for sharing this!
At the end of September I contacted Joy again..
Hi Joy, Let me know when you have a minutes to talk. I wanted to finalize a few things before Rosh Hashana. The photos of your sister’s wedding are beautiful!! I would love to move to Israel! Hope you had a great trip!
Joy: Can you talk now?
It was pretty amazing to hear Joy’s voice after so many years. And as you can imagine we both felt as though it wasn’t the first time we had spoken. I was eager to hear about her work in Israel and she enthusiastically told me about a new project she is working on.
She films people, celebrities, even, saying “I Love You” to a mirror and to a screen.
She did this on the streets of New York and then had complete strangers say “I Love you” to another. Recently a few weeks ago when she was in Israel she paired Arab Muslims and Israeli Jews saying “I love you” to another in the streets of Jaffa.
So what she wrote me about, her mission of sharing Love and Joy with the world has become a reality.
I think a lot about what I could have found when I set out to find Joy Sela, now 31 years old. She could have been anything…in my mind, a real-estate agent, a lawyer, a teacher, an accountant. Anything!
But I was stunned and I am still stunned and humbled to find that Joy became a woman whose entire mission in life is to share love and Joy with the world! The Kotzker’s message!!! We talked about how her artistic and transformative initiative is really a living embodiment of the Kotzker’s teaching!
Can you imagine! I had the opportunity to talk to a complete stranger I shared the bimah
with 18 years ago about the Kotzker rebbe’s unbelievably profound message.
And it resonates today, lifting burdens that are so rooted in the past and so heavy, through practicing saying “I love you”. Arabs and Jews saying “I love you,”attempting to erase centuries of the heavy burden of animosity that exists between the two.
Through celebrating….. Joy….and mirroring it out into the world. It is just as the Kotzker said. Carrying our burdens infects not only us but others around us.
Right before we hung up the phone, I asked her how she came to have the name Joy. “Well,” she said. “You know my dad is Israeli. And my mother wanted to name me after a relative named Joseph. And they thought about Josephine or Jocelyn. But my dad…couldn’t pronounce it. And then my Aunt said, “Since we are all so happy, why don’t you name her joy.”
I feel deep down that there exists within her a spark of our Joy. Perhaps her light never did go out, and she still is bringing Joy to the world.
Maybe it’s hard to ask for forgiveness. But I really wouldn’t have learned anything at all. I met joy in order to bring you this New Year’s message. It’s where teshuva starts. Loving yourself, loving your neighbor, and sending love out to the world.
Let’s all say 3x “I love you”
Joy was what I was searching for, for she taught us all how to start teshuva, o start the new year with a simple “I love you.”