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2007-09-13 Rosh Hashana 5768/2007 First Day by Rabbi Zeev Smason
I love the story of the high school football coach who was trying to motivate his players to hang in there during a difficult season. Halfway through the season he stood before his team and said,

"Did Michael Jordan ever quit? The team responded, "No!"

The coach yelled, "What about the Wright Brothers? Did they ever give up?" "No", the team said loudly.

"Did Wilt Chamberlain ever quit?" Again the team yelled, "No!"

Then the coach said, "Did Elmer McDonald ever quit? There was a long silence. Finally one player was brave enough to ask, 'Who's Elmer McDonald, Coach? We never heard of him."

The coach snapped back, "Of course you never heard of him -- he quit!!"

When I participated in sports when I was younger coaches would often tell us: Quitters never win, and winners never quit. When I became older I found that there was a uniquely Jewish way of expressing a similar idea:

"Even if a sharp sword lies upon your neck, don't give up hope."

'Don't give up hope' is certainly a theme that we can connect to Rosh Hashana, can't we? It was Sarah (about whom we read today) who never gave up hope of having a child, even though she and Avraham were childless until the age of ninety and one hundred. We read in today's Haftorah of Chana's great faith, and how despite years of no children and taunts from her rival Penina, she also never gave up hope of having a child. And if you think about it, throughout the Torah and throughout the ages it was the refusal to give up hope that sustained our ancestors, encouraged our parents, and has helped us weather the challenges of life. After all, what's the name of Israel's national anthem? 'HaTikva' -- 'the hope'. Hope based upon trust in G-d is part and parcel of who we are as Jews.

"Even if a sharp sword lies upon your neck, don't give up hope." Where does this vivid imagery come from?

When Moshe Rabbanu said in Shmos(Exodus 18:4) "And He saved me from the sword of Paroh", Moshe wasn't just using a colorful expression. When Moshe said to the king of Egypt 'Let my people go', Paro wasn't exactly prepared to give Moshe an award as 'Employee of the Month.' The Midrash says that, "The executioner came to cut off Moshe's head. However, the blade dulled when it hit Moshe's neck because Hashem turned it into marble."

Talk about being a stiff necked people!

This morning I'd like to share three reasons why it's important not to give up hope.

A refusal to give in even when the sword is on our neck builds deep character, in addition to deepening our connection with G-d. I have a quote taped to my computer at work that is one of the most meaningful and inspiring things I've ever read. I'd like to share it with you; see if you can guess as I'm reading it who the author of the statement is:

If we were allowed to go through life without any obstacles we'd be crippled... Character can't be developed in ease and quiet. Only through the experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened ...and success achieved. Silver is purified in fire and so are we.. It is in the most trying times that our real character is shaped and revealed.

That quote, if you haven't guessed, is from Helen Keller.

Have you ever asked yourself why bad things happen? Helen Keller would tell you, 'the hotter the fire, the tougher the steel.' Sometimes, the best things in life come through difficulties, as the following true story so beautifully illustrates.

Yoni, an Israeli Defense Force soldier stationed in Hevron was shot by an Arab terrorist. It happened very early in the morning, and no one else was awake to hear it. Yoni passed out, was bleeding, and his life was slipping away.

But another soldier nearby heard the shot and went to investigate. He tried the best he could to stop the bleeding and called for help. Waiting for help to arrive, he kept applying pressure to the wound -- literally holding Yoni's life in his hands.

Yoni was taken to a hospital where he underwent surgery and survived. The mystery soldier left the hospital when he heard that Yoni would survive. Yoni's mother was bothered by not being able to thank the mystery soldier, and tried unsuccessfully for a year to trace his identity through the Army .....but then she had an idea.

Yoni's parents put up a sign at their grocery store which they owned, describing what happened. They reasoned that Israel is a small country and eventually they might find out who the mystery soldier was.

Months passed with no response. Finally, one morning about a year later a woman customer noticed the sign hanging by the door of the store. She recalled how happy her son Yair was when he came home one Friday night and told them how he heard a shot and was able to save another soldier’s life in Chevron. She went back and told the owner of the store. The story matched.

After a tearful thank you from Yoni's mother, Yair’s mother asked “Look at me- you don’t remember me?” “No", Yoni's mother said, "I’m sorry. Did we meet before?"

"Yes, " Yair's mother said. "You see there is a particular reason I came into your store today… I used to live here and this time I was just passing by but I wanted to give you my business, even though I was only buying a few things.”

"You see", the woman said, “Twenty years ago I used to live around here and came all the time to buy milk and bread. One day you noticed that I looked really down and you were so nice and asked me why I was so down. I told you that I was going through a very difficult time and on top of that I was pregnant and planning on having an abortion. As soon as I said “abortion” you called your husband over and the two of you didn’t seem to care about your own store but sat down and patiently listened to me and I remember what you said."

“You told me that it is true that I was going through a hard time but sometimes the good things in life come through difficulty, and the best things come through the biggest difficulties. You spoke of the joy of being a mother and that the most beautiful word to hear in the Hebrew language is “Ima” (mother) when spoken by one’s child.. you both spoke and spoke until I was convinced that I actually should have this baby -- so you see G-d paid you back!”

"What do you mean? asked Yoni’s mother. Yair's mother said, "I had a boy twenty years ago that you saved by telling me to think twice before doing the abortion" With happy tears she said "My son Yair wouldn’t have been alive if not for you. He was the one you were looking for. He was the one who grew up to save your son, Yoni’s life!"

A reason to have hope is that sometimes the good things in life come through difficulty, and the best things come through the biggest difficulties. Don't give up hope even when the sword is on your neck.

A second reason why we shouldn't give up hope, is that there's always something more that can be done -- even if the only thing we can do is to offer a heartfelt prayer.

Our rabbis tell us that after the destruction of the Temple, 'all the gates of prayer were closed, except for the Gates of Tears." The Gates of Tears are the channel of last resort for prayers, and they are never closed.

One remarkable couple here in the St. Louis Jewish community whose prayers penetrated the Gates of Tears are Albert and Shifra Glassman -- a couple that many of us here at Nusach Hari Bnai Zion Synagogue know.

Year after year Albert and Shifra attended baby namings, kiddushim and bris milas of countless children that their friends had. Yet, year after year and fertility treatment after fertility treatment, they remained childless. Being childless is hard enough in any community. To be Orthodox/Observant Jews in a community where families routinely have four, five or even more children, being childless is particularly painful and challenging. How did Albert and Shifra survive?

Albert told me, "We never gave up hope, and we always believed that the medical treatments and our prayers would help. We had bitachon -- trust in G-d. It's up to us to do what we can do, while at the same time realizing that everything is in G-d's hands. G-d (Albert said) has a bigger plan for all of us that we can't see. But even when some of our friends had given up hope on us ever having children, Shifra and I kept saying, 'let's try this one more time. Hope and prayer. Hope and prayer.' "

We can't give up even when the sword is on our neck. Keep trying and keep praying. The happy ending to the story of Albert and Shifra Glassman is that after more than seventeen years of marriage, Hashem blessed them with a beautiful, healthy baby girl.

Why are there are gates on the Gates of Tears? The Kotzker Rebbe says that the gates serve to screen out tears of desperation and hopelessness. Despair is not considered a prayer to the Almighty. However, if a person feels backed into a corner and then realizes that Hashem is their only hope of salvation, and if his tears are an expression of his heart and soul -- like the tears and prayers of Albert and Shifra Glassman -- then there are no barriers in Heaven to a prayer of this sort. It travels directly to the Heavenly Throne.

The final aspect of 'hope' that I'd like to discuss with you this morning is: Don't ever give up hope when it comes to our children and grandchildren.

Raising children -- as any one who has ever tried it knows -- can be a maddening experience. Before I was married I had no children and nine theories on how to raise them. Now, I have nine children, but I've run out of theories!

The Talmud says that there are three things that require excessive pain and difficulty. One of them is 'Gidul banim' -- the raising of children. You've heard of the expression 'Little kids, little problems, big kids, big problems'? Personally I prefer to look at things as 'Little kids, little challenges, big kids, big challenges.' But nevertheless the challenges can be enormous.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. But my kids have a bad habit -- they like to eat. And eating, together with clothing, tuition and other necessities costs money. I hope I'm not shocking anyone here today by telling you that the children of rabbis don't always get straight A's on their report cards Rabbi's children sometimes argue amongst themselves. And believe it or not, the children of rabbis don't always jump up to help clean the house, take care of the baby or walk the dog. Quite a shock, isn't it? How do you think I felt when I realized it?

Even the little things with kids can get to you. Many of you know my son Boruch, who is eleven. Boruch is a great kid, but sometimes it's very difficult to get him to put on his tzitzis. On Erev Rosh Hashana we had a non-Jewish handyman (Drew) doing some work at the house, and I was shocked to see that the handyman was wearing tzitzis! I asked Drew why he was wearing tzitzis, and he said something about it being part of his Christian religious beliefs. I dropped the topic, and let Drew get back to work.

Back inside, I saw Boruch without his tzitzis on. I said to him, "Boruch....Drew, the non Jewish handyman is wearing tzitzis, and you, who are Jewish, aren't wearing tzitzis. Isn't there something we should do about that?"

Boruch said with a smile, "Yes, Dad. Why don't you tell Drew to take off his tzitzis?"

In my weaker moments I'm sometimes disappointed in my children, and find raising them to be almost overwhelming. However, I'd like to mention a few things that give me hope to keep my chin up. These things and ideas and might be of benefit to you in your own struggles and challenges in life.

1) My wife Chani is my rock that I lean on. No matter how difficult things become, she gives me hope that everything is going to turn out alright. I hope that all of you have someone like that in your life.

2) George Strait is one of my favorite singers. In one of his songs the lyrics say: 'Daddies don't just love their children every now and then -- it's a love without end, Amen.' Being a parent is a job that never stops.. It's not only a 24/7 job with our younger children, but even after the kids turn eighteen we don't go 'off duty.' Just as the job of parenting never ends, the love that we feel for our children never ends. So, when I remind myself of the love I have for my children and my commitment to them, I realize that quitting isn't an option.

3) Finally, when I look at the bigger picture Hashem has taken pretty good care of me. We celebrated the birth of our first grandchild this year, the marriage of our oldest daughter Chasi, and so many other good things with each of our children. And perhaps the best news of all that many of you aren't aware of: Our baby Yelli, just this past week, became a potty girl! Knowing that Hashem has always been there for me in the past gives me hope when things look bleak that He'll be there for me again. I hope that I continue to merit His continuous blessings that He constantly showers upon me.

We're about to listen to the Shofar. The shofar represents hope, as well: the hope of the coming of the messiah and better times.

There are many reasons not to give up hope, even when the sword is resting upon your neck.

Sometimes the good things in life come through difficulty, and the best things come through the biggest difficulties.

When all else seems lost, we can pray. The Gates of Tears are always open.

And finally, There are many very good reasons to be optimistic about our children and grandchildren