October 2, 2016
Rabbi Batsheva Appel
Saroo followed his brothers everywhere growing up in a small town in India. He was one of four siblings being raised by a single mother. There wasn’t much food at home, and the boys would hop the trains at the train station in the town center and go to the next towns over to scrounge for food. He was only 4 years old the day that Saroo followed his brothers on the train to the next town. When his older brother told him to stay in the train station, Saroo, 4 years old, took a nap. When he woke up, he didn’t see his brother anywhere and thinking that he must be on the train that was in front of him, he got on. Saroo ended up in Kolkata, a thousand miles away from the town and family that he knew. He knew the names of his mother and his brothers and sister, but he didn’t know his own last name. He didn’t know the name of town he had come from. He didn’t know the language in Kolkata. He was lost in a vast city of millions and no way to go home. He survived for five months on the streets of Kolkata and in an orphanage before being adopted by a family from Tasmania, where he grew up.
Saroo would think of his family in India and his home, but how would he be able to find them again? Where would he to look in a country as vast as India? As an adult, still wanting to find his home, Saroo began using Google Earth to search. It was a seemingly endless task, after all he was searching a huge area of the country. He would look at different towns, looking at the various features, hoping that things had not changed beyond recognition, hoping that he would remember accurately. He was essentially virtually driving down random streets in town after town looking for something familiar.
As Saroo related in an interview with Arun Ruth on NPR:
I thought to myself, well, you know, the first thing you've got to see before you come to your hometown is the river where you used to play with your brothers in the waterfall. And, you know, the architecture of this particular place where I used to visit quite a lot has to be exactly the same, otherwise if it's not, I'll just sort of, you know, fly over and go somewhere else. And so I studied it very carefully - extremely carefully. And the architecture of this particular place where I used to play with my brothers in the water was exactly the same. And I quizzed myself. Well, that's a bit unusual, but there could be another place that looks exactly the same, too. You never know. And so I thought to myself - well, why don't we just scroll a little bit more? … before you know it, I was looking from a bird's-eye view at the town's central business district right in the middle. And I thought, well, on the right-hand side you should see the three-platform train station. And there it was. And on the left-hand side you should see a big fountain and there it was. And everything just started to match. And I said well, from this point I pretty much know how to get back to my suburb. And so I just traced a road that I would follow back as a child. And before I knew it, I was sort of looking at the suburb where I had grown up. And just on the right of it was the house that I grew up in.[i]
We begin this new year of 5777 in some ways just like Saroo Brierly scrolling through Google Earth. We are remembering where we have been in the past year, in the past years. We are tracing the path of our lives and considering. Where we are? Where we are going? and how will we find our way home?
We scroll through the past year. We begin to recognize familiar paths in our lives, we know them so well. Some of these paths we are proud of, and rightly so. Other paths we wish that we could redirect. We also begin to see the barest outline of those paths that don’t quite exist yet, despite our best efforts at change. Change is hard. It takes resolve and effort. It is easier to follow the paths that are familiar and comfortable. Even after we create new paths, the old path can still call to us.
We look at where our paths are leading us in this coming year. Is this where we want to be? Is this the goal we have in mind? How can we direct our steps this year?
And how will we find our way home? Of all of the names for God in rabbinic literature, one of my favorites is Makom, Place. The idea being that God is Omnipresent, a name that emphasizes God’s immanence and presence, no matter where we are. And how do we find our way back to that Makom, Place, or home?
As we choose our way this year, we each follow a different path of connection. I believe that there are four ways in which we can connect with God and find our way home: through social justice, through worship, through learning, and through community.
As individuals, just as some of us are blessed with certain talents in art or music or math and sciences or languages or athletics, some of us are more talented at Jewish learning, or social justice or Jewish worship or connecting with the Jewish community. This means that I understand that there are Jews for whom Jewish worship is just not their thing, they really would rather go out and work to make the world a better place. Or if they are at services, they really want to learn something from the sermon. I understand why there are people who come for Torah study religiously every Saturday morning and don’t attend services. I understand that there are Jews who are devoted service goers, but are not much interested in taking a class or engaging in social justice. I would want to encourage all of us to consider developing their abilities in those areas that they don’t like as much, because just as we seek balance in other areas of our lives, we should seek to balance our innate strengths by developing the talents that aren’t as strong, so that we can become more whole-hearted in our connections with God.
In the interest of being balanced, I want to explore all four of these paths of connecting with God this evening.
One way, one path, with which we can connect with God is through social action and social justice. Is there a better time to remember that we are partners with God to make this a better world than Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world? Social action and social justice help us to connect with God because it reminds us of the Divine that is found in every human being and that we are expected to act.
Temple Emanu-El has an active Social Action program helping in a number of areas, from helping TIHAN with the POZ Café to collecting school supplies for children in our community to collecting food for Project Isaiah, which you will hear more about at Yom Kippur.
The path of connecting with God seems obvious when we are engaged in worship services. The point of the music we sing and the words that we pray is to reach out to God. Some of us come to sit in this place and feel a sense of calm, of rightness, of connection.
Temple Emanu-El has so many ways to engage in worship, there is something for everyone. There are services for our tots and our families with children. We take our worship onto the trails with Wandering Jews and into the Northwest and once a month we go to our home on Stone Avenue for Downtown Shabbat. There are multiple possibilities almost every Shabbat and something for every festival. There is a Kabbalistic Shabbat service by candle light with time to prepare for prayer beforehand. And there are very special Shabbatot, such as at the end of this month when the great singer, Neshama Carlebach, will be joining us for Shabbat worship.
Rabbi Louis Finkelstein said, “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.” Which creates another path for connecting with God, learning. Our Jewish learning always has the possibility of connecting us with God. This is why we say a blessing before studying Torah on Saturday mornings, to remind us of what we are studying and to prepare ourselves for the connection.
As Rabbi Educator, I am proud to say that this is a very strong broad path for Temple Emanu-El. We have something for every age. Our amazing Strauss ECE and our great Kurn Religious School have strong programs for our children and our youth. Our Adult Education Academy has classes every day of the week for everyone, no matter where they are on their journey. Just beginning and considering conversion or much further along the way.
Saroo Brierly went back to that small house in India where he had lived as a small child months after identifying it on Google Earth. He stood in front of the door and knocked, but the door was locked and no one was there. A neighbor asked if she could help. Saroo explained who he was and who he was looking for and she told him that these people no longer live here. Another neighbor came to help and Saroo repeated his story. She told him, I will take you to your mother now. They walked around the corner, just minutes from the house he had found, he saw his mother and was reunited with his family.
Another story: A person is lost in the forest and spends days trying to find a way out. Finally, they encounter another person. “I have been lost for days in this forest and will you tell me the way out?” The other person replies “I too am lost in this forest and cannot find my way out. But I can tell you the paths that I have tried and you will tell me the paths that you have tried and together we can find our way.”
We are not alone on this journey of return, this journey home. We are part of a community and in being part of this community, we can connect or re-connect with God. We are together on this journey, even if we are not sure what direction our path is going to take us, whether we feel lost in the forest or just need the help of one person to direct us around the corner to find our way home.
There is the old joke that somebody asks Abe Cohen why he goes to services every day. Abe replies: “Irv Epstein goes every day, too. Irv? He goes to talk to God. Me? I go to talk to Epstein.” For those of us who are like Abe Cohen, we aren’t much interested in connecting with God through worship. Jewish worship might not be the way in which we most easily connect with God. We might not be interested in connecting with God at all. But we are interested in connecting with community and it is important that we make those connections. When we are engaged with our community, it doesn’t matter if we believe in God or not, we strengthen our ties to each other, we support and nourish each other. We might not be at services or at an Adult Education Academy course or working in a food pantry in order to connect with God, but we can be in all of those places in order to connect with others.
We are scrolling through our lives, looking for the pathways, looking for the journey, seeing where we are, where we have come from, and where we can be.
It is important to remember the end of the poem by Alvin Fine:
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination
And life is a journey,
A sacred pilgrimage-
To life everlasting.