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“To Look For America”
Rosh HaShanah 5779
Rabbi Joshua Hillel Strom

I love the suburbs. I really do. I grew up in the suburbs, lived in the city for a good long time, and am happy to be back in the ‘burbs. Especially with my boys. One of my favorite suburban pastimes, when the weather is good enough, is going to the Chappaqua Farmers’ Market. We’ll get Jonah and Gabriel some fresh bread, Tali will explore to see if her Indian friend is there selling her simmering sauces; we’ll see some friends and their kids, but most of all, we love to listen to the live music they have there. On one such Saturday morning this spring, as I was dancing with Caleb on the lawn, musician Jon Cobert began to play the first chords and sing the first hummed notes of a classic Simon and Garfunkel song. Swaying slowly on the green, with Caleb’s head nestled into my neck and shoulder, my big boys running around joyfully, the words of the song struck me, almost cut through me, in a way I can’t truly describe.

Cathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping,
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why,
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike.
They’ve all come to look for America.
All come to look for America…”   

As I began to get a little emotional, as many of you know I am wont to do, I found that it was me who was empty and aching. Empty and aching precisely as I thought of those who so boldly founded this country 242 years ago, who fought for a fairer way of life than they had known, who laid out a blueprint for the rest of the world of what a democratic republic could look like. Empty and aching at the thought of our ancestors, who left behind literally everyone and everything they had ever known for even the slightest of chances of improving their lot and the lot of those who would come after them.  Empty and aching as I recalled my own family being turned away by America, and those to whom that rejection, that feeling of sheer and utter helplessness, is still happening right now. Empty and aching, I feel, because no matter who we are, how long we and our families have been here, that it’s everyone, all of us, who have come to look for America.

I thought even more about this over the summer as Tali and I were privileged to see our friends on Broadway, two of the leads in the hit musical Waitress. As I watched my buddy of 30 years, Shappy – or, as the rest of the world knows him, Adam Shapiro, steal the show as Ogie, all I could think was that Shappy is living the dream. His own dream, his parents’ dreams, the American dream. At one point in the play, the doctor’s assistant asks Jenna, played by Katharine McPhee of American Idol fame, what she calls the flavor of pie she brought for her doctor-boyfriend. “Pursuit of Happiness Pie,” she replies. To which the assistant can only lament, “Honey, we could all use a slice of that.” And ain’t that the truth. We’ve all come to look for America, for our own understanding of the American dream, and shouldn’t there be at least a slice of it for everyone?    

The pursuit of happiness. A fascinating and peculiar phrase. Along with life and liberty, the final of three unalienable rights outlined in the Declaration of Independence. The drops of ink that etched this famous phrase into existence, encoded it into the very DNA of our nation, are nothing compared to the oceans of ink that have been spilled, the stacks of volumes authored in dissection of its meaning. What is this pursuit? Who exactly is entitled to it? And just what is this happiness that we are entitled to pursue?    

There is the first, most glaring problem here, one brought to the attention of a new generation of theater-goers by Anjelica Schulyer in the smash hit “Hamilton.” These simple truths, these basic rights bestowed upon humanity we recall and return to again and again, for whom are they self-evident? For whom are they inalienable? For men. For white men. “All men are created equal” the text avers. But Anjelica promises, “When I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’mma compel him to put women in the sequel!”

Sadly, as we know, Anjelica’s vow came to no avail. No sequel has been written, neither by Jefferson nor anyone since. The struggle has been waged for as long as this country has existed. It has slogged on, forward through the drudgery of oppression and suppression, accomplishments like women’s suffrage only 144 years into the American experiment notwithstanding. Still there are the seemingly intractable issues, like the 80-cents-to-a-dollar pay gap we’ve known about for decades and done precious little to correct or mitigate. In their frustration and pain, women engendered unwavering support through the #MeToo community, where women of all ages, colors, and backgrounds have shared with those who need to hear  – which is all of us, to be sure, but most especially with us men – what it is truly like to exist as a woman or girl in this world, an ever-present and ever-invasive experience of harassment and objectification, of verbal and physical assault and much, much worse; of having to plot possible escape routes from a room upon entering it; of the vulnerability and fear that strikes at the heart of every encounter, in any place she is, that at any second everything could change forever, and for the worse. And while we know that to be true objectively about life, while each of us has experienced moments of before and after, we men – even those of us who thought we had an idea, some vague sense of just how foreign this worldview and life experience is from our own – *we* *had* *no* *clue.* We had no clue that these horrifying, chilling, and despicable experiences shared so bravely over social media are happening every day, all the time, everywhere in the world. That they have happened to almost every woman we know and love. Period. Paragraph. And we had no idea. Admittedly, we still don’t. But a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And this, I hope and pray, is a step in the right direction – education and understanding of the systemic inequality that plagues so much of our society, preventing us from actualizing the beauty and glory of one-half of humanity’s potential.

But it is not just women, not just girls, who have had to fight their way, tooth-and-nail, for their chance to pursue happiness, against the forces that oppress, that seek to relegate human beings to second-class citizens at best. To be an African-American, to be a person of color in these United States is also to know that paralyzing fear, that constant reminder that everything you’re supposedly entitled to under protection of the law will be disregarded, if not completely trampled upon, in the blink of an eye, at the whim of someone with hate in their heart or merely an ax to grind. To be a person of color in this country is to have to have the “talk” with your children about what to do and how to handle being pulled over for “Driving While Black.” To be a person of color in this country is to know that homicides in your community are investigated, and solved, at rates significantly lower than those with white victims. #BlackLivesMatter was never a zero-sum game; it never meant to negate the incredible sacrifices made by our police officers and detectives every single day. If anything, that keen awareness of how quickly and drastically a situation can change might be a place of common ground from which to begin an ongoing series of honest and difficult conversations. #BlackLivesMatter, similarly to #MeToo in this regard, is to serve as a wake-up call – a long shofar blast, if you will – to both the shared humanity within and amongst us, as well as to the stark contrasts between radically different experiences of life. And for a country not so far removed from legislation which stated that a black man is 3/5 of a white man, there too, the journey towards t’shuvah, towards communal repentance and a societal transformation, is long and arduous, with many challenges along the way. But it is a journey we absolutely have to take together.     

So maybe the pursuit here is rigged. Or perhaps, at least, the path of that pursuit is littered with obstacles, stumbling blocks before the blind and blind-folded, unaware of or uncaring for the fact that their slice of the Pursuit of Happiness pie is much, much smaller than everyone else’s. Maybe for some of us, with privilege bestowed upon us for no merit and for no reason save the lottery of genetics, maybe the time has come to acknowledge that while the pursuit is available to all of us, some of us begin the pursuit a lap or two into the race while others are held back at the starting line. Perhaps, like the prophetess Lauryn Hill sang, “It seems we lose the game before we even start to play.” Perhaps the time has come, as the expression goes, for those of us born on third base to realize we didn’t hit a triple after all.

But does all that mean that the pursuit of happiness is pie-in-the-sky, a quixotic dream of a utopia we can never attain, never hold onto for any more than a fleeting moment? Does it mean that seeking happiness, whatever that means, is, at the end of the day, a trivial pursuit?

I certainly don’t think so, and I’m guessing most of you don’t as well. But a whole lot of how you answer that depends on how you define this happiness we’re apparently entitled to pursue, doesn’t it. No matter how each of us defines happiness, well we know how many factors, known and unknown to us, contribute to whatever we think that is. In a Time Magazine special edition on “The Science of Happiness,” the data connecting happiness and faith were intriguing. For starters, of Americans who said they were “very happy,” 41% of them go to their house of worship pretty much every week. (I’m just sayin. No pressure, I’m just sayin’.) Ok, that’s interesting, but why? What is it about our faith, our religious identities, that both overlay and undergird our idea of happiness? A 2015 study by the London School of Economics and Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands found that “participating in a religious organization was the only social activity associated with sustained happiness—even more than volunteering for a charity, taking educational courses or participating in a political or community organization.”

And it seems to me that the link between happiness and, yes, organized religion, is based precisely on its potential to do all of those things – volunteering, charity work, ed courses, community organizing – and then some. And if that’s true, then it follows that the synagogue, the congregation, can and should be that hub of whirring activity, that ultimate vehicle for pursuing true happiness, binding us together in building something beyond ourselves; because we are grounded in a tradition that reminds us again and over again: t’shuvah, tzedakah, t’fila ma’avirin et roa hag’zeirah, that repentance, prayer, and acts of righteousness will lighten or even transcend the severity of whatever awaits us in the new year and beyond. Whatever else is going on in your world or the world at large, the introspection and self-improvement of t’shuvah, the reflection and gratitude of t’fila, and tzedakah in its truest form, pursuing social justice and tikkun olam, repairing what is broken in our otherwise beautiful world – these will never cease to add meaning, purpose, and connectedness to your life. I promise you that. Jewish tradition promises you that. And now, it seems, science even backs it up. Jewish tradition and synagogue life are centered around goodness, of being good and doing good and, as such, are places where happiness – yes, true happiness – can be real and lived. It’s no wonder Time writer Bryan Walsh concluded, “It’s as if a sense of spirituality and an active, social religious practice were an effective vaccine against the virus of unhappiness.”

How true that is. How much truer that could be. Because, as Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck once said, “An act of goodness is itself an act of happiness. No reward coming after the event can compare with the sweet reward that went with it.”

Did you ever notice the slight discrepancy in how we greet each other at this time of year? In English we wish each other “Happy new year,” but the Hebrew is shanah tovah, wishing each other a good year. And I like that a lot. Because maybe, after all, goodness and happiness, at their essence, are truly inseparable. Maybe, at the end of the day, the pursuit of goodness and the pursuit of happiness are one in the same.

So let’s not just wish each other a happy new year, let’s wish us each other a good year as well. A year of goodness, of being good and doing good. And then let’s go out and make that happen, for ourselves and each other, for a more perfect union and a better world.  

So I wish to all of you, each and every one of you, a Shanah tovah. May it be a year of health and sweetness – for all of us; of building a wider path and a fairer pursuit – for all of us; and a year, God willing, of both happiness and goodness – for all of us.

Kein y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will.

AMEN.

Fri, May 7 2021 25 Iyar 5781