“Compassion: It’s in the Stars” – Erev Rosh Hashanah 2022

Finally! For the first time in three years, we are physically together as a community for Rosh Hashanah. For prayer, for food, for celebration of the New Year. And for giving thanks. Thanks for the love we share for this congregation and for one another. Gratitude for the hope and support and perseverance with which we have supported one another. Appreciation for the strength we have shown as we have faced down challenges large and small, throughout this long siege of COVD in all of its stages and strains.

So for this year’s High Holy Days, I want to highlight, in my four sermons, four fundamental values we have lived out during this time -values that are both keenly Jewish and essentially human. All of them point to a message of hope for the future, no matter how hard our struggle has been these last few years. No matter how hard we may still be struggling.

I’m grateful to the legal journalist Dahlia Lithwick for identifying these values for me in an interview she did with Ezra Klein recently in The New York Times. She quoted from the memoir You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train, by historian and teacher Howard Zinn. This is what he said in his message of hope:

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.”[1]

Compassion. Sacrifice. Courage. Kindness. Tonight, I start with a message of compassion. It is a message that calls on us not only to bear witness to the astonishing acts of goodness we have seen all around us in these past few years of struggle — but also to the urgency of the “still, small voice” with which God commands us to continue to act with compassion every single day.

For us, every single day starts today. The day on which we celebrate the birthday of the world and the rebirth of our souls. Today is the day on which we accept the torch of Torah from those who came before us, take a deep breath, and let its light and warmth guide us as we step forward onto a path whose way is not always clear.

Today is the day that God gives us to dig down deep within ourselves and find that mother lode of compassion that may be lying dormant, so that we can release it into the world.

And for that inspiration, God has given us the world itself.

All summer, we have been treated to the astonishingly brilliant and beautiful photos taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. But the Webb has brought us more than just a spectacular view of what’s out . . . there. It actually gives us insights into what’s in here – in ourselves. It physically shows us how compassion can guide our lives.

Just a few weeks ago, NASA captured incredible images of the so-called Cartwheel Galaxy. The Cartwheel is about 500-million light years away from us. Scientists think it used to be a normal spiral galaxy, like the Milky Way. But it acts like a cartwheel spinning around. That’s the result, apparently, of a high-speed collision between a large spiral galaxy and a smaller one.

The collision gave the Cartwheel two rings: a bright inner ring, and a colorful outer ring, in glamorous shades of orange and yellow, both expanding outward, with spiraling spokes of blue stars in between, connecting the two rings.[2]

But here’s the thing that struck me about the Cartwheel Galaxy. The smaller ring – the seemingly less consequential one, the one with less bling and pizazz – is actually the one that’s doing all the pushing. The energy of the galaxy comes from the center, and this core drives the rest of the Cartwheel. Without that core pushing and prodding, the Cartwheel could not be the great, magnificent galaxy that it is.

I think each of us kind of has a Cartwheel Galaxy inside of us. There’s an intense and powerful light that God has implanted at our core. It is the power of compassion – the essence of human existence, the command of Torah to love one another as we love ourselves.

It is our responsibility to access that light of compassion and let it guide us. It is our mission to use that force as part of the greater galaxy of humanity, moving forward toward a better world.

It’s an awesome power – and an overwhelming responsibility. The challenges and troubles of our world are so big – and we are so small. But we see how the small ring at the core of the Cartwheel can move an entire galaxy. And we know it can be done.

When we saw the first images from the Webb telescope this summer, science writer Shannon Stirone wrote in the New York Times:

“Viewing images like these can provide a profound sense of insignificance . . . they offer a sense of proportion and understanding of just how small we are on the grand scale.”[3]

But I think our relative smallness in the world makes every single act of compassion even more grand – in ways we might not even know.

Writing in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, Catherine Pearson, told this story:

“In late August, Erin Alexander, 57, sat in the parking lot of a Target store in Fairfield, California, and wept. Her sister-in-law had recently died, and Ms. Alexander was having a hard day.

“A barista working at the Starbucks inside the Target was too. The espresso machine had broken down and she was clearly stressed. Ms. Alexander – who’d stopped crying and gone inside for some caffeine – smiled, ordered an iced green tea, and told her to hang in there. After picking up her order, she noticed a message on the cup: ‘Erin,” the barista had scrawled next to a heart, ‘your soul is golden.’

“’I’m not sure I even necessarily know what ‘your soul is golden,’ means,’ said Ms. Alexander, who laughed and cried while recalling the incident.

“But the warmth of that small and unexpected gesture, from a stranger who had no inkling of what she was going through, moved her deeply.”[4]

It turns out, writes Pearson, that a lot of the time we have absolutely no idea how a small act of compassion can change a person’s life – or at least make today a lot better. Scientific studies have shown that people who show compassion to someone else tend to underestimate just how much the recipient will appreciate it.

As psychologist Marisa Franco says: “We just don’t think the positive impact of our behaviors is as positive as it is.”

The studies referenced in Catherine Pearson’s article are based on small experiments and seemingly small acts – giving someone a ride home, baking cookies, buying someone a cup of coffee. The people who performed these acts of compassion consistently underestimated the impact they had. And one of the researchers, Amit Kumar, at UT Austin, concluded that “not knowing one’s positive impact can stand in the way of people engaging in the sorts of acts . . . in daily life.”

The bottom line is that no act of compassion, however small or unimportant it may seem to us, goes unnoticed. Sometimes it can change a person’s life forever. Sometimes, it just makes a bad day a little better.

And you don’t have to know how to bake cookies to do it. As Dr. Franco said in the article, “It’s about: What skills and talents do you already have? And how can you turn that into an offering for other people?”

I like the way she uses the word “offering.” I find that a very Jewish proposal. Remember that, in Biblical times, our offerings consisted of sacrifices brought to the priests at the Temple’s altar.

Wealthy people would bring dozens of fatted calves to cultivate God’s favor. But poor people who brought one turtledove or a handful of flour were welcomed, and treated, and blessed by God just the same. No offering was too small or too inconsequential for God.

The early rabbis taught that we cannot differentiate a “minor mitzvah” from a “major one.”[5] And it’s no different for us today.

I think of the simple acts of compassion we’ve witnessed during the COVID crisis, when all of our lives were impacted by isolation, illness, loneliness or even death – but we knew others needed help more.

Remember when toilet paper was in short supply because of hoarding? I can’t imagine having kids and no TP in the house. Word went out through the digital grapevine from the local carwash that had turned into a pop-up food bank that they were all out. Neighbors drove from all over the area just to drive through and drop off a twelve-pack.

Remember when people missed time at work or lost their jobs because their kids were home-schooling and they had no one to care for them? Word went out through the grapevine again, and up popped “Mutual Aid Blair County” on Facebook. Neighbors set up food banks on their porches and spread the word around town. Individuals posted where families could find infant formula or paper goods. The group is still active, with more than 750 members, because the need has not gone away, it’s only become more public. “Help is available to any and all who want/need it,” the site operators say. Need never takes a rest – and so neither can compassion.

Remember when we were all being encouraged to wash our hands thoroughly, wear masks any time we were in public places, and keep up with our COVID vaccines and boosters? That’s not just past tense. That’s all just as relevant right now. I promised my physician, when I saw him last week, that I’d quote him: “Wash your hands. Wear your masks. Keep up with your vaccines. That’s what we do for one another.”

Just as NASA was able to draw back the veil on unknown realms, we have the capacity to uncover previously unknown opportunities for forging relationships, for imbuing these relationships with compassion, and ultimately for lighting the lamp of hope for the future of the world we celebrate today.

Author Rebecca Solnit, who also was recommended reading by Dahlia Lithwick, put it this way:

“This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative moments that could not be foreseen. . . hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen – and in the spaciousness of [that] uncertainty is room to act. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable . . . it is the belief that what we do matters – even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”[6]

Our lives, like God’s universe, are full of twinkling lights full of brightness and clarity, that stun us with their beauty and power. They also are filled with dying stars shedding their gas and light as they weaken. And black holes that mark the places in our hearts where the people we loved once stood.

The fact is that, when we walk out of this sacred space tonight, we journey into a darkness that gives us no clue of what’s to come in the year 5783. There may be predictions. Or presumptions. Or probabilities.

But the broad space accorded to uncertainty in life is all the more reason for each of us to fill it with love, and hope, and let the spark with which God imbues each of us move us to act with compassion every day.

Like the inner ring of the Cartwheel Galaxy, the seeming smallness of our acts, performed purposefully day by day, drives the entire world forward to healing.  

As historian Howard Zinn concluded his memoir:

“If we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”[7]

I think this world deserves a marvelous victory. Don’t you?

Ken yehi ratson. May this be God’s will in the universe and our own mission here on earth, whatever the New Year may bring. As we say together: Amen.

#####

©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), p. 208.

[2] https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2022/webb-captures-stellar-gymnastics-in-the-cartwheel-galaxy. Accessed September 5, 2022.

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/12/opinion/nasa-james-webb-space-telescope-awe.html.

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/02/well/family/random-acts-of-kindness.html.

[5] Pirke Avot 2:1.

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/15/rebecca-solnit-hope-in-the-dark-new-essay-embrace-unknown. Accessed September 5, 2022.

[7] Zinn, p. 208.

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