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Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5782 ~ Fairy Tales...

Bruno Bettelheim, noted psychologist, and author teaches of the importance of fairy tales to children, even scarry ones.   His belief is that for children, the many fairytales that we read to them, touch places that they deeply repress.

In many instances, as they listen to fairytales, either in their original, which may be quite “Grimm” or in the Disney adaption, they are opened to an opportunity not only to speak of the story itself, but in many instances the fairytale provides them with a resolution to some of their problems.  In that regard, Bettelheim in his study of fairytales entitled: The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairytales suggests that “the child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue ...” 

Have you ever thought about which fairy tale is your favorite? Have you ever asked yourself why? Is it actually your wishful hope that they live happily ever after; or the prince saves the damsel in distress; or the common seven dwarves saves the beautiful young lady; or the beast is seen in a different light by the beauty; or is it because as Bettelheim suggests it helps you “clarify” your “thoughts and feelings? “With this, certain inner tensions which are the consequence of events long past may be relieved; previously unconscious material can then enter one's awareness and become accessible for conscious working through. This can happen if the observer is deeply moved emotionally by the myth, and at the same time strongly motivated intellectually to understand it.”

A new Netflix Documentary, “Misha and the Wolf,” takes the reader inside a tale of a young Jewish girl’s experience during the Holocaust. Her parents are sent off to the Concentration Camps, and she is hidden in the home of a Christian family. As she weaves the tale, she shares that someone in the family is able to show her on a map where her parents have been taken. As a youngster, wanting to find her parents, Misha, sneaks out of the home, and travels through the forest. She tells of a wolf pack taking her in, protecting her and providing her with some of the leftovers of their food, as she travels on her search.

I remember meeting Misha for this first time, when I assumed the pulpit of my previous congregation. Everyone was mesmerized by this fanciful tale and were taken in by this Holocaust survivor’s story. Oprah wanted her as a guest on her show. A congregant, who is a chairman and CEO of a multinational corporation, who intuitively knew people believed her.  And why not, how does one not believe a story of a Holocaust survivor? One of those congregants reminded just yesterday as we wished each other a shana tova that some of his friends felt sorry for Misha when she told them that she was about to lose her house to the bank. They gave her food and  they gave her money to pay her outstanding bills.

My predecessor left me her copy of the book that had been written. When I first heard of Misha’s story, I quietly disbelieved the story. So too did my predecessor. After I read the book, I was even more certain that this was no more than a child’s fairytale made up to help her deal with her repressed feelings of her experience. (pause) Misha would show up to shul, get an aliyah at the Torah, and would strut about while people would be so proud and honored to be with her.  Throughout Europe, Misha was a celebrity, with a book and a movie made about the experience. She was on TV talk shows and went into schools to share her story.

If you are familiar with the story, the publisher who she sued, even went so far as to post an email to me on the World Wide Web, not only on my shul email, and it still exists in a Google search, sharing with me the truths. Unfortunately, since there was litigation involved, I consulted with an attorney and to this day, have not responded to it. 

As it turns out, Misha’s father was a traitor to the Belgian underground. She was born to a Christian family. And her father, when he was captured, provided the Nazis with the names of everyone in the resistance. He was then sent to a Concentration Camp. Everything about Misha was a fraud: not Jewish, did not live with wolves, and did quite a bit of damage to the reliability and acceptance of the personal stories of other real Shoah survivors.

As Misha’s story unraveled and truths came out, I quickly made my way to the shul, and removed her parent’s yahrzeit plaques from our memorial boards. The words seemed to me to be more like dots and dashes, rather than possible Hebrew names. They were a sham of what we all hold dear in our hearts.

But what the documentary will not allow Misha to feel is what Bettelheim suggests is the nature of fairytales; something that we all need when we listen to or tell stories – a means to go through a most traumatic moment in our lives on any level. I do not feel anything for Misha or her husband Maurice, nor do I excuse them, because they committed a great and irreparable fraud. But what I do understand is her need to create a fantasy to escape from the trauma she experienced daily as “the traitor’s” daughter.”

It is that same pain and need that continues to resonate within each one of us as we reflect upon individuals who have passed away or who are experiencing symptoms of Covid.  (pause) While the great thing about a human mind is that we can put things into our subconscious, many of our friends and families know of someone who tragically perished with the collapse of the Surfside Condominium. As we watched as families told their stories of survival, of the miracle of not being in the building, at the same time we heard the pain in the stories of those whose loved ones were still buried in the rubble.

I am still pained by seeing the daughter telling of the story that she had asked her mother to come stay with her that day, since her father was going out of town. Her mother said she wanted to stay overnight and would come over the next day. That never happened. But here is where the events for many of us turned from pain and anguish for the families, to that of hope. It was listening to the stories of each of the victims, as shared by the family or the newscaster. Who were they…what were their lives all about! They were not simply a casualty, a victim…they were someone, a mother, a wife, a son, a grandfather.  As a nation, as we commemorate the twentieth anniversary of 911, once again we remember the victims. We once again listen to their stories, and who they were.  It was the woven tales that helped the families, as they told the story and it helped us as well too.

In Miami, it was my friends and colleagues sharing with me the moments they went into the family area and spent time with the families, holding hands, saying prayers, just being there quietly.  They were there vicariously for us as well. It was knowing that Hatzalah was there providing dignity to the bodies of the victims; it was the Israeli army search and rescue team. But most importantly, it was the stories. Those stories became sacred not only to those telling the story but to us. They took on a sense beyond reality, to the level of kedushah, sacredness, capturing their essence and capturing the moment.

One Biblical passage that we are familiar with was made famous by Pete Seeger in the 1950’s as a folk song: “To Every Season Turn Turn Turn” teaches us the value of time. The Biblical author Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time for every experience under heaven, a time to die, and a time to be born, a time to laugh and a time to cry, a time to seek and a time to lose.”  One translation changes it from “time” to moments.  I like that clever use of words. Moments – life is a collection of individual moments, some happy, some sad and some simply a bridge from one moment to the next.

Our Torah reading for this morning, provides us with a narrative, a tale, passed on from generations to generations that provides us each year with a coping mechanism and a trust in the sacredness of not only the concept of hope, but of the reality of hope. (pause) Real or fanciful, the Biblical narrative provides us with a most impressive understanding of how people deal with a moment of joy, of simcha, the birth of a child.  Yet at the same time provides us with truths about life, from that of jealousy, dissension, despair, frustration, to that of seeking out shalom bayit, peace within a home, and hope.  The narrative begins with the birth of Isaac, his brit milah, the proud moment when Abraham fulfills the mitzvah. (Pause) And then everything in the world, turns into the Torah’s version of a Grimm’s Fairytale.

We need this story more than ever on this day. Once again, standing here in my basement shul rather than with you in person, we need something to help us deal with what we are feeling; we need to find a way to cope and experience a sense of hope. I believe that hope at the end of the tunnel is found in our Torah reading for this morning. Yet, I do not find that mechanism of hope through the birth of Isaac, which often is referenced as to the rationale behind its reading. “Va’Adonai pakad et Sarah, “And God remembered Sarah,” and God provided her with the blessing of a son at the ripe old age of ninety. And here is why, because everything following that moment is filled with animosity, fear, and represents the tragic moments that many of us sense in life itself. (pause) I do not find that hope with our matriarch Sarah, who not only becomes jealous for her infant Isaac, but also for herself, taking it out on her handservant Hagar and her son Ishmael, who was also the son to her husband Abraham. I do not find any good thoughts as Abraham banishes Hagar from his home, at the demand of an ugly Sarah, and with God’s approval.

Instead, I find the hope through Hagar herself. As I recently shared with a friend, in my humble opinion, we see the pain of everyone in the story, and we recognize our own, be it repressed or be it in the moment. As we read through this story, I see what God sees. He sees the pain and anguish of Hagar as she is forced to make difficult and tragic choices for both herself and her son. She cannot watch her son die from lack of water. She needs to move away; just as we try to do in moments of pain and loss, uncertainty, and fear.  It is not what we might expect from a mother; but I think it is more in her mind, not in a physical way, that she has distanced herself.

God senses her motherly instinct and her motherly love. He senses her pain of the moment.  He also hears the cry of her son Ishmael. They are not only their fears in the Biblical story; they are ours in our lives today. So, God sends an angel down to Hagar and tells her ““Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make him a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.”  And the story helps us as Bettelheim says as it touches a place within our souls and provides us the opportunity for hope.

My colleague and classmate Rabbi Irwin Kula wrote a book called "Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life."  Rabbi Kula asks us to grasp onto that hope through the concept of kedushah, sacredness, by suggesting that the sages taught that holiness in our lives is surrounded by how we understand the moments in our lives. He asks: “how many of us see our daily challenges— a disagreement with a loved one, a deadline, and even a traffic jam—as holy?  Never mind major disappointments or crises, those eruptions of chaos. We relish order, neatness, resolution…. We long for happy times of satisfaction, even celebration, of feeling like all is well, balanced and fulfilled. During those times we can look back on our lives, even the tough times, and see all that led us here as somehow necessary and right.” He suggests “that the messes are the point. Joy and sorrow, good and evil, greatness and triviality, hope and anxiety, the ideal and the actual. The ability to live with these seeming contradictions and the ambivalence and tension they create is what gives rise to wisdom. Even our daily frustrations and desire, when we bring them to the surface and wrestle with them, can imbue our lives with meaning.” He adds “when things work out as we hoped, when things feel orderly and right; these too are holy moments.”  Holiness is not a state beyond the ordinary, but rather in the ordinary. It is even achieved in the ordinary messes — "The Sacred Messiness of Life." In real terms, then, happiness is not when we find joy instead of sorrow, but joy and sorrow. Fulfillment is not when we have hope and no anxiety but hope and anxiety. Fulfillment is not a as Ecclesiastes suggests a "time to laugh" rather than "a time to weep." It is when we laugh and when we weep. That is what Rabbi Kula means by the "embracing the sacred messiness of life." 

Mary Oliver wrote:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

May we learn how to tell our own stories and weave our fairytales so that we may understand the uniqueness of each moment in our life, that there is a time for everything under heaven; moments to weep and moments to laugh; moments to seek and moments to lose. The real challenge in life is learning how to use the moments wisely, to make each moment of our lives kadosh, to raise each moment to its own level of meaning and holiness; and to hopefully find the truths within our own fairytales.

Fri, March 1 2024 21 Adar I 5784