Rabbi Cohen’s Rosh Hashanah 5778 Sermon – The Lessons Our Daughter Taught Us When She Went to College

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5778
September 21, 2017
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

The Lessons Our Daughter Taught Us When She Went to College

I love our hakafah. It’s the time when I walk around this entire sanctuary and see everyone who is here. I purposefully turn off my mic to make sure that I can say hello and talk without the world hearing, and since we stream, the world would hear all those conversations. If I could, I would take an hour for one of our hakafot just so I don’t feel rushed and I could really connect with everyone. Unfortunately, that’s not a possibility, so let’s make it a priority for the rest of the year. I want to hear what’s going on in your lives.

There is a sense of loss as well – there are those who are no longer with us, those who have died since last High Holy Days. Their memories are great blessings to us and I carry them with me as I carry the Torah in my arms.

And then there are those who are not here today because they are off doing amazing work in our world. These are our college students who have gone off to college throughout the country and even throughout our world. Many of these students I have known their whole lives. Over the past 19 years, I have watched them grow and discover their identity. Some of you might be watching on our streaming from where you are, or parents, feel free to tell your students I miss them and know they are doing amazing work. I’m counting on them to change our world!

Some of those students have since returned and started the cycle all over again with getting married and starting your own families! I love the circle of life!

This morning, I stand before you all, in the same shoes many of you have worn and I finally get to say, ‘Ok I get it!’ This is our first High Holy Days with one of our children not in the sanctuary, this is the first year with a kid in college! How did that happen? When did that happen? It was just yesterday that Dahvi was born and Matt was wearing her in the Baby Bjorn and writing his article about bringing our kids to services with the magic backpack. By the way, the article is still available and kids always belong in services.

Just a few weeks ago, I took Dahvi to school at George Washington University in Washington DC. Throughout this summer I’ve been trying to think about, what are the lessons, blessings and hopes I want to impart on her? And then a friend reminded me of an idea that Rabbi Paul Kipnes shared when his kids started school, it was a list of values and lessons that he and his wife wanted to impart on their kids at this time. Then I started to think more about this and the image of Mt. Moriah came to mind.

In a few minutes, we are going to hear and read the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. As you may or may not recall, God’s final test to Abraham to ensure that he was ready to enter into a sacred covenant with God was to take his son, Isaac, and offer him as a sacrifice to God. Abraham, after a bit of questioning as to which son, and after the mission was made clear, didn’t waver and saddled his donkey, gathered the knife, packed his pack and brought along two servants and of course Isaac. Abraham leaves the servants and donkey at the foot of the mountain and he and Isaac head up the mountain together. We read how Isaac questions his father that he sees the wood, the flint and the knife, but where is the offering to God? To which, Abraham replies, God will see to the offering. Fortunately, we know the ending of this story – as Abraham lays his son on the makeshift altar, an angel appears and stops Abraham. A ram is caught in the thicket near by and serves as the sacrifice and the two go down the mountain together. However, Abraham and Isaac never speak again after this. In some ways, I think it’s pretty obvious that this was very traumatic and I am sure there is a level of trust that was broken between father and son. And a fear of, ‘what’s next!’

First, I can assure you, there are no sacrifices planned or travels up a mountain with firewood any time soon. Second, I wonder, what would Abraham have shared with his son if he had the chance or it was recorded? Not having that information, I want to take this time and offer my message to Dahvi as she is starting her own climb up her own new mountain. As I’ve been thinking about the words I want to share with her, I realize that these are also words of advice and reflection that are good for all of us.

Dear Dahvi,
It’s hard to believe that it’s only been 3 ½ weeks since I left you at your dorm at GW! It’s hard to believe that we got everything in that you wanted along with your three roommates and I know that there will still be more orders with Amazon and Bed Bath and Beyond for more stuff as you build your new space. I know I don’t have to remind you to clean your room, I never did when you were at home. I know I don’t have to worry about you learning how to cook, you did that very well at home and some of those Tasty creations have inspired me. I know I don’t have to remind you to study and get your assignments in on time, you always had that under control your whole school career! I know that you are in a safe place, you’ve got three police agencies watching over the campus: Campus police, DC Police and the Secret Service! Not bad! So, what can I share with you? What words can I share with you as you begin this amazing journey?

Throughout your life, Aba and I, along with so many others in your life, have tried to impart life lessons to you. And there are going to be many more left to come. There are new teachers now and new life experiences that will shape you every day. I just want to share with you some bits of learning and advice as you take these next steps up the mountain of life!

The most obvious lesson but one that is easily forgotten because we are always seeking approval from others and building new relationships – remember that you are the most precious gift ever! This applies to everyone, don’t worry Yoni, you’re still my favorite son. You are created not only in the image of me and Aba, but you also possess the spark of God within you. Therefore, always remember that you are beautiful, you are talented, and you are priceless. There is no other “Dahvi” in the world and you cannot be replaced. You are one of a kind. Therefore, take care of yourself. Remember that your body belongs to you and no one else! Never let anyone tell you what to do with your body. Only you know your body and only you know how it feels to be in that body. K’vod et ha’guf, honor your body because you only get one!

In caring for yourself, make sure you rest. Find time to honor Shabbat, even if it is only for a moment. Find time to rest, find time to play, find time for the white space of allowing you to take a pause between everything going on in your life. There is a reason why Shabbat is mentioned so many times in the Torah – God most likely anticipated that we humans were going to take on way too much and forget that in order to be our best selves, we must take the time to rest and reenergize ourselves for whatever will come next. You might feel like there is too much on the to-do list, but as Papa taught me when I started working, there will always be something on the to-do list and piles on the desk. Leave them because they will still be there and you’ll get them done, one thing at a time.

Life is about always learning something new. You will never know everything and don’t ever pretend that you do. Some of the best words are: “I don’t know.” But then, find out! Learn. Discover. Teach! You should be learning something new every single day and more! Here’s a great reminder, even Aba and Ima don’t know everything! We’re always learning, especially from you.
Talk to strangers! I know as parents we were supposed to teach you to not talk to strangers unless we were around. Well, we’re not around and I’m changing the rules. Talk to strangers! Don’t be afraid to reach out to the person next to you at the coffee shop or restaurant or on the Metro and smile! I’ve found that just by smiling at someone you break down barriers. And then, if there is time, talk to them! Find out their story. You might meet a diplomat, professional sports player, or someone who works in an office of someone really interesting that is hoping to change the world. Open your heart, your eyes and yourself to meeting someone new. You never know who you are going to meet when you just smile or say hello! But then again, I wouldn’t be your Mom if I didn’t remind you to still be cautious! Talk to strangers in public places and stay safe!

As you meet lots of new people, surround yourself with those who inspire you, support you and strengthen you. Never judge a person at first glance, people’s gifts are sometimes buried deep within and they are just waiting for you to uncover them. Create a diverse circle of friends and don’t be afraid to let them get to know who you are as well. Making friends is risky business and not every friendship will develop. That’s ok, just keep trying and don’t be discouraged. But when you make those friends, invest time and energy into them. There might be days or weeks that go by that you don’t talk, that’s ok, but make sure to touch base and don’t always wait for them to make the first move. Be your own cruise director and don’t be afraid to make the plans if that’s what it takes. And remember, friendship is a reciprocal relationship. It’s not how many friends you have, it’s the quality of friendship that matters.

As you go out and experience life, remember some important guidelines when you are choosing to do something: 1. Is it safe? 2. Is it legal? 3. Is it moral? And, because what you do today in your dorm room or at a party is apt to show up that night on someone’s Facebook page: 4. Would you want your mom, dad, grandparents, teacher, or rabbi to know about it? Make sure to ask all these questions often!

Be a pursuer of justice, a Rodefet Tzedek. I’ve been so proud of what you accomplished last year as the Social Action Vice President for the Southern California NFTY region. You brought Social Action and Justice to your peers and reminded them, that even before they can vote, they can make a difference in our world and we need their voice. You have a voice that calls out for justice and when you see intolerance or injustice, I hope it will continue to throw you off balance just a little. Then do something! Speak out, listen to all sides, and remember that now, that voice can vote and every vote counts! Rally behind what you believe in and don’t let anyone try to tell you differently. If you fully believe in it, if it is good for us as Americans and as Jews, then fight for it!

Every person is created in God’s image, b’tzelem Elohim and we have a responsibility to make sure that every person is treated with dignity and respect. You can and you already do that. Don’t stop!

Remember your connection to Israel, continue to be an Ohev Yisrael, lover of Israel. You went for the first time before you were one, and two other times since then. We’ve been fortunate enough to spend a whole summer in Israel during which we got to live and breathe the land and be a part of the people. You’ve worked closely with Israelis who come to work at camp and you’ve learned that life is very different in Israel than it is here in the United States. You know that there are many critics of Israel and at the same time, Israel is not always perfect. You’ve already heard and seen the clashes that can happen on college campuses – we’ve lived right down the street from UCI who hold a week of hate as do many other colleges throughout the country. Make no mistake, anti-Zionism is anti-semitism. BDS, the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel is anti-Semitic – but they are attracting Jews, especially liberal Jews, by pretending to be a social justice movement. Zionism is the belief that Jews are entitled to a nation in our ancestral homeland, Israel. Reform Zionism believes that the Jewish Homeland must be a society reflective of both democratic values and religious pluralism. Modern Zionism encompasses our values of democracy, pluralism, and equality. That love of Israel demands honesty and a commitment to the continuation of building a morally exceptional society.

Learn, listen, and wrestle. But never let the challenges of politics and policies cloud the ultimate vision, Israel is and should always be the Jewish homeland for the Jewish people. Join those groups on campus and nationally such as ARZA or AIPAC and know that you are a part of Israel and Israel needs our support today and always.

I know you have a strong Jewish identity. As you get out there you will encounter other belief practices. Use your foundation to further develop your Jewish identity. Explore who you are as a Jew today. Remember that Judaism is about community and is challenging alone. Check out Hillel, check out the local synagogues, have Shabbat dinner in your dorm room and pack them in. You have a kitchen in the dorm, invite friends over to cook with you, bake challah, or just heat one up in the oven. Order pizza if you want, but remember to make time for your Jewish self and connecting to the Jewish community where you are now.

Finally, well, I don’t think there is ever a final, but for now, remember to be fierce! Pursue your dreams and give yourself time to discover who you are and where you want to go. Just because you are enrolled in one program does not mean that this is where you have to stay. Be happy! If you’re not happy, then make changes to your life where you will find your happiness. Don’t let anyone tell you what your happiness should be – you are the only one in control of your own life.

Every moment is a blessing and should not be taken for granted. Yes, being successful takes a lot of work, but at the same time, you have to find a balance. There have been times when I’ve wondered if I’ve had enough balance in my life. And when I do, I try to change course and create a little more time for me, Aba, you and Yoni.

Dahvi, we are so proud of you. I wish I had a crystal ball and I could tell you where the road will lead you, but I don’t, no one does. And to be honest, life would be boring if we knew what to expect when. You get to forge the path. There will be times that it will be cleared for you and easily walked upon and there will be times that you will have to clear it for yourself. No matter what, we know you will be successful especially if you just remain true to who you are. That is our hope for you!

Dahvi, these lessons I share with you I realize are lessons you share with us. The values, hopes and dreams we hope for you are the same ones we too must hold onto. Remember to take care of you body and soul. Take time out for you. Learn something new every day and don’t be afraid to talk to strangers. Surround yourself with people who inspire you and create deep and meaningful friendships. Be a pursuer of justice and a lover of Israel, and always be fierce and know how powerful you are, you can change the world!

Every Friday night, we will do our best to remember to send you our blessing. Aba and I have it ready on our phones and we try to send them at the same time. It’s the blessings I left you with in front of your dorm. It’s the blessing one generation says to the next and that we all can offer one another. May God bless you and keep you. May God’s light shine on you, in you and through and may God be gracious to you. May God’s light always be there guiding you and inspiring you and may God grant you a good, healthy and happy life that is filled with Shalom.

Love, Ima

One Response to Rabbi Cohen’s Rosh Hashanah 5778 Sermon – The Lessons Our Daughter Taught Us When She Went to College

  1. Paul Groner September 25, 2017 at 4:20 pm #

    dear Rabbi,

    What a wonderful sermon. I consider this the best sermon I have ever heard and it delighted me. Truly masterful, thoughtful, lovely, spoke to the heart, great advice. I plan to pass this on to my kids and grandkids.
    Thanks again!!

    with love, paul