After the accident, Cronin's daughter Iris reacted by spending the week after the accident on the floor of her closet. She rejected any conversation on the subject for more than three years. When Cronin brought up the accident at that time, he asked Iris, "How did you feel?" and she responded with only one word, "Abandoned."
We rarely verbalize such a word in our sanctuary, a word that encapsulates the seeming difficulty that many of us may have, from time to time, with the word "God." Abandoned. Deserted. Ignored. Dejected. Rejected. Disposed of, chucked out, cast aside, left alone. Abandoned.
Ever felt this way before? Ever sit there during services, trying to cope with the notion of children being shot at in schools, or innocent people being massacred in movie theaters, and Baruch a-ta, blessed are You, doesn't really cut it? Ever refuse to come to services, because you've seen too much religious violence and terrorism in the world, and would rather raise a fist and rail against the seemingly silent heavens than sing along joyfully to Oseh Shalom? Ever consider that so little of our liturgy actually speaks to our real pain - the loss of a job, a suffering marriage, a prolonged inexplicable illness, the dreadful silence of a casket being slowly lowered into the earth? You know, real pain, when the universe pushes you to the brink of disbelief, and you simply hear yourself asking, "God, are You really out there?"
Abandonment is much more prevalent a feeling than any of us would ever want to discuss. But a few weeks ago, I posted a question on Facebook, "If you had the chance to ask one and only one question of God, what would it be?" Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are there so many unanswered prayers? Why did my best friend, my spouse have to die? Why are we here? Why do people hate? Why is this world that You created so messed up? Why did you allow the Holocaust and other genocides to happen? Question after question, one "why" appeared after another. We are exasperated by deep questions that go unanswered and unresolved. We want and we crave so much from our Jewish tradition, but given the state of the world and aspects of our own lives, that "deeper meaning," that sense of "satisfaction" and "wholeness," a feeling that "things are really right with the world," can be so painstakingly elusive. Many of us feel abandoned.
Yet questioning, wrestling, struggling and doubting as we do, we return to the synagogue on this night of Kol Nidrei. Why? Why confess our sins, acknowledge our misgivings and give voice to transgressions for which we may not be responsible? Why go through the meaningless chest banging and recitation of seemingly useless verbiage when most of us are pretty good people who try our very best? Is this whole day of confession and purification and self-denial really going to make a difference in the world? Can our observance of Yom Kippur actually offer us some healing from the profound brokenness, abandonment and loss we encounter in our lives and world?
Yes, it can. Yes, it has. Yes, it will. None of us enters this sanctuary full, complete, a finished product, having worked "all of it" out. We enter this sanctuary only as we are, only amidst the reality of our lives, only as human, and to be human, is to be anything but complete. How we endure and support one another in times of abandonment, how we own our brokenness, how we recognize our own humanity and humanity in others, is where and when we find our greatest strength. Yom Kippur is about forgiveness - forgiving ourselves, forgiving others, and even for one small, seemingly inconsequential twenty-five hour period, forgiving the world, and forgiving God for the imperfect nature of the universe's existence.
But as we try to begin again, allowing that kind of clean slate is so very hard. Yet last year, after Dylann Roof killed 9 people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Nadine Collier, daughter of one of the victims, was shown on CNN offering her forgiveness to the killer. Many of us sat stunned watching this interplay. We speak of abandonment, but her mother had just been brutally murdered, and here she was, forgiving her mother's killer. How could she find the strength and courage to find such forgiveness in her heart? A year later, in a recent interview, Collier commented that she still misses her mother and that moving on has been difficult. But nonetheless, "forgiveness is power," she said. "It means you can fight everything and anything head on."
Powerful words for sure, and yet, an even harder practice, given the unspeakable tragedy she endured, and given how life can be so chaotic, unpredictable, and at times senselessly tragic. We never know what another person or life's circumstances will do to us. But forgiveness is power. Forgiveness allows us to begin letting go of some of the pain, the heartbreak and even the grudge. Forgiveness allows us to begin moving on, so that our lives are not consumed by feelings of abandonment, brokenness and loss.
Some of our biblical ancestors knew these feelings all too well. How could Joseph forgive his brothers after they cast him into a pit and sold him into slavery? How could Aaron continue to serve as High Priest after witnessing the tragic and untimely death of his sons Nadav and Avihu on the altar? How upon learning of Haman's plans to kill the Jews of Persia, could Esther, at risk of her own life, have the strength to approach King Ahasuerus and let him know of Haman's nefarious intentions? How could Moses turn around, remind the Israelites of the Ten Commandments and their obligations to God and to one another, and even say Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad after God told him that he would not enter the Promised Land for failing to speak to a rock?
Somehow our broken, seemingly abandoned, deeply human biblical ancestors found a way to forgive life, and even to forgive a seemingly absent God, moving forward purposefully in their life's quest. That we still read about these characters year-in and year-out means that there are still life lessons that we can learn. That our people's history is one of exile, dispersion, torture, massacre, slaughter, and challenge on all sides from unforgiving enemies, but that somehow, over three thousand years later, we are still here, should say something. Maybe it says, somehow, through forgiveness of events beyond our control, we find a way to move forward purposefully in our lives.
The truth and reality of this thing we call life, is that life breaks us, day in and day out, and it is so painfully hard to avoid feelings of hopelessness and abandonment. Retaining faith that there is a higher Power, or even retaining faith in life itself, is challenging, and at times, heart wrenching and soul crushing, but succumbing to a life of faithlessness and hopelessness would be even worse.
But we must remember that our broken, abandoned, human journey is more than faith, feeling, and forgiveness. Our shared brokenness defines and strengthens us as a people and is a catalyst for healing, for compassion, and ultimately for action. Bryan Stevenson is an author, an NYU Professor of Law, and an attorney defending inmates on Death Row. At the conclusion of his monumental book Just Mercy, he writes how he often thought of walking away, of turning his back on the people that he has come to serve, because he felt broken by his work. But in the truth of his confession, he teaches:
[Our] brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.
Our synagogue remains one of the few places in our lives where we can express our brokenness, with each other, with God, and emerge personally stronger, challenged to share in life's journey with one another and continue giving back to our fractured world. Rabbi Paula addressed us beautifully on Rosh Hashanah morning, inviting us, along with our teenagers, to accept environmental responsibility, to truly become stewards of our broken earth. Our temple does not yet recycle. Will you step forward to help us create a new initiative?
We take seriously the responsibility of participating in the Family Promise homeless shelter and "Feeding the Hungry" at the Bergen County Human Services Center but we need more volunteers and we need members to help coordinate our efforts. Will you step forward and be a leader?
With ongoing violence and displacement in Syria, we are facing the worst refugee crisis in the history of the world. Congregations across America are launching initiatives to support the cause of Syrian refugees. Will you step forward and join me for a conversation about how our community can help?
In the coming year we are looking to build on the concept of becoming an even more caring community. When we ask for a minyan we are blessed to have a minyan at funerals and shiva. We are able to support congregants in time of need with meals and cards and phone calls. Rabbi Paula and I are able to visit most, if not all, of our community and family members who request our pastoral presence. But we can and must do more of this sacred work, sheltering and embracing one another, through the difficult aspects of life's unforgiving journey. We need your help. Are you willing to help make phone calls, to be trained in conducting hospital and convalescent visits, to reach out to members of our community so we can extend the support that we presently offer?
Community exists so that we surround ourselves and we surround others with other thinking, thoughtful, caring individuals, sharing our questions, instead of hiding from them. Community exists so that we embrace and cherish one another, we celebrate, we comfort, we support. Community exists so that we might have a place we can call sanctuary and use that space in order to regroup. Community exists because some of us need a place to talk to God; all of us need a place to talk to one another and because both forms of conversation strengthen us and enable us to respond to life's difficulties and brokenness in kind.
Together as a community, we look inside ourselves, we look at others around us, we think of those who are suffering and in pain, and we resolve, no matter how shattered and abandoned we may feel, to continue finding a way, to continue going on. But God, even as we wrestle with feelings of abandonment and brokenness, we ask that You help us to see that there are still glimmers of light and hope and that we can be those glimmers, those sparks of the Divine. Help us to use our brokenness to see the depths of our own humanity, and the depth of humanity in others whom we encounter on life's path. When life breaks us, give us strength. When life becomes difficult for others, enable us to respond with compassion and with kindness. Grant us forgiveness, give us the strength to forgive others, and inspire us to continue engaging in the sacred work of healing our broken world. And help us, please, help us to remember, in the words of the Kotzker Rebbe, "There is nothing so whole as a broken heart."
 Justin Cronin, "My Daughter and God," Best American Essays 2015, Kindle Edition, p. 61.
 P. 71.
 The Joseph narrative spans Genesis chapters 37, 39-50.
 Leviticus 10:1-3.
 Esther 4, 7.
 Numbers 20, Deuteronomy 3:23-6:9.
 Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy, p. 289.