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September 7, 2021

All Is Not Lost: We Return to the Stone (Rosh HaShanah 5782)

Angela W. Buchdahl


Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Rosh Hashanah 5782

My friend Stacy once shared a bit of wisdom
on how to sustain a long relationship:
Whenever your spouse or partner does something that drives you nuts,
instead of getting upset, just say to yourself:
Isn’t that adorable!

It’s surprisingly effective. 

Like when my husband Jacob is so engrossed
in the New York Times Crossword puzzle,
that he seems unable to hear my voice: “Jacob?” 

“Hey JACOB!”


Isn’t that adorable?! 

Jacob will tell you that one of the things he finds most adorable about me,
is my propensity to misplace things.
My mind is engaged in so many holy thoughts
that I cannot possibly keep track of the little details --
like where I put my phone, or my keys, or my wallet. 
I can’t count the number of times
I’ve walked out of a restaurant without my purse.
And a couple of years ago
I left my bag on a bench in Central Park;
by the time I returned, it was gone. 

A Good Samaritan returned it to my apartment 2 days later
with everything intact,
but not before Jacob had cancelled all our credit cards
and changed the auto-pay settings on every account.
At this point, I stopped taking a purse, and only carried
one credit card with me when I went out. 

One day Jacob asked:
“I notice you haven’t used your Visa card in 3 months.
Did you lose it?”

“No, it’s definitely not LOST,” I said honestly. 
“I just don’t remember the safe place I left it.”

“You mean you lost it.”

“No, it's temporarily missing.  It’s not lost--until I can’t find it.”

He found that response even more adorable than usual.
But it turns out that it was a very Jewish response. 
In fact, when I studied the laws of lost objects a few year ago
with my brilliant Talmud hevruta, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz,
I felt like the ancient rabbis were reading my mind.

To set the context, you need to know that our tradition sets an incredibly high standard
for returning what is lost--
where the onus is on the finder to restore lost objects to their owners. 
Back in ancient Israelite times, a lot of people’s most valuable property
could literally walk away from them.
The Torah is clear [quote]: “When you see your neighbor’s ox,
do not see it as lost.[1]
This is a proactive mandate.
You must see that what is “missing,” does not become “lost.”
For most of us, returning lost property sounds like a good deed.
But in Jewish law, returning a lost object was an obligation,
to be initiated by the finder.
And not returning lost objects was considered theft! 

I’m guessing it wasn’t that difficult
to recognize your neighbor’s wayward ox.
It would have “identifying signs,” like an iron brand, a name collar,
what the Talmud called simanim,
which made it easier to recognize its owner
and easier for the finder to return.

But what about items in our lives with no simanim, no “identifiers?”
Like that $20 bill that falls out of your pocket,
or that pair of sunglasses you dropped on the subway?
Surely, a finder could not be responsible for returning those!
Here, the Talmud creates a status of hefker,
for those generic, lost objects deemed “ownerless,”
which a finder could keep--without guilt.
You know when you leave behind that umbrella, that it’s really GONE.

But here is the interesting part,
a window into the Talmudic mindset:
When exactly does an object change status from belonging to you,
to being “ownerless”? 
It’s not the moment that your object goes missing.
It’s the moment that you give up on ever finding it.
The Talmud calls it the moment of yeush, ‘despair’.
It’s only when you feel yeush, or despair,
that the thing you were missing, really becomes lost.

So you see I actually was in a Talmudic mindset
when I told Jacob that my credit card was not ‘lost,’
because I still had faith that I could find it.
Which I did, a month later
when I finally reached into the right jacket pocket!

But think for a moment about the profound lesson
our tradition is teaching us:
As long as you hold onto hope, nothing is truly lost.

Until that moment you despair, that ‘something’ is not ‘ownerless.’
It still belongs to you. And could be returned.

But we cannot restore it by ourselves.
And we cannot find it by staying in place.
But where would we go in search?

Legend has it that during Temple times, in the center of Jerusalem,
there stood an Even HaToen, a Stone of Lost Objects. 
Archeologists imagined it to be like a large pyramid
with wide platform steps.
During festivals, like Rosh Hashanah,
when the entire community made pilgrimage to the holy city,
they would gather at its center and
anyone who had found an object brought it with them to the stone.
Anyone who lost an object came looking there.[2]
It was a giant, communal Lost and Found!

But the Even HaToen signified something even greater:
The Stone of Lost Objects was an assertion of our mutual bond:
You will help me find what I am missing.
And I will help restore what you lost.

The Stone was our antidote to despair.

If you knew that on our holy days, you
and our entire community would return,
well, then you would know that all is not lost. 
Isn’t it fitting that the entire theme of these high holidays is teshuva:

You have all returned for this festival,
whether you’re in person or joining us online.
Today, as in ancient days,
I want you to imagine that we're all gathered around our Even HaToen.
Where we can ask each other: 
What have you lost since we last gathered?
What are you hoping to find?
How can we help each other stave off despair?

Since this COVID pandemic hit our shores 18 months ago,
Over 600,000 small businesses have closed.
10 million Americans have lost their jobs
635,000 people have died in the United States.
Four-and-a-half million have died around the world.
And there will be many more.
These are staggering numbers.

Then there are the losses that are much harder to quantify.
The ones that you’ve told me about personally:
I lost touch with people in my neighborhood: my local deli guy,
my SoulCycle friends, people in my pews at services,
whom I loved but never see anymore.
I walked past my favorite Italian restaurant and it's gone.
I lost my passion for my job, working at home,
with the kids running underfoot.

I missed my last baseball season of high school.

I lost a critical year of dating, said a twenty-six-year old.
I lost a critical year of dating, said a sixty-two-year old.

Each of us carries personal losses from this past year,
and almost everything has felt so much harder,
because we are still limited in how we can gather.
Just 6 weeks ago I thought things would look very different
than they do today.
In anticipation of ‘full capacity’--
we booked Radio City Music Hall!
I cannot tell you how much I had been looking forward
to bringing in the new year in a full sanctuary
and seeing your unmasked smiles.
Hearing your unfiltered voices singing.

But we’re not there. Yet.

But if there is one thing we have found in the last 18 months,
it’s that we can still show up.
You are here. 

And YOU too, are here.
And we have found that we CAN still connect and comfort, 
we can learn,
and yes, even date
in ways we would have dismissed before.

And we must keep doing it.
Because this showing up is more important than ever.

And while the Even HaToen no longer stands in Jerusalem,
this bima -- like countless bimas across the world--
can still function as that Stone of Lost Objects.
But its power can only be made real by YOU.
The stone only works when we are brave enough
to tell each other what we have lost.
And when we commit to helping each other find.

When we sing our Mishebeirach healing prayer,
we call out the names of those who have lost--
their health, their mobility, their hope.
and we pray together for it to be restored.

When we say the Kaddish,
mourners and those observing a yahrzeit stand first
and silently announce to our community:
I have lost.

My spouse. My sister. My friend.

What do we do when we stand at the Stone with people
who are missing something that cannot come back?
Death is so severe in its finality.
Our obligation then, becomes to keep the mourner from yeush,
from sinking wholly into despair.
While we cannot restore for them, a life,
we can sit with them. We can weep with them.
We can tell stories.
And we help them find a glimmer of an easier day--
that all is not totally lost.

Remember: the Talmud teaches that when we lose something
that carries simanim, those unique, identifiable markers,
we hold out hope that the object might return.
We stave off despair.
And the thing we lost never becomes ownerless.
It still belongs to us.

And so it is with people we love.
Think of their countless simanim, which return to us in surprising ways,
and assure us that they still belong to us:

Like when you catch yourself in the mirror
and see your mom’s eyes looking back at you.
Or when you realize you’ve started telling his ‘Dad jokes.’
When the song you both danced to at your wedding comes on.
When you hear your child ward off the evil eye like Bubbe did:
“Ptoo. Ptoo. Kine Hora.”

When our community gathers around us at a funeral or shiva,
we learn details we never knew,
we actually find moments to laugh about,
and we are reminded that we don’t carry all those simanim by ourselves.
So does...
Your husband’s college classmate, who remembers him at 18.
Your grandfather’s friend who set him up on his first blind date.
The colleague who still makes your grandmother’s kneidlach recipe.
Your community is holding those memories with you.

Sometimes the simanim we remember most about our loved ones
Are those things that made us most crazy when they were alive.
Their quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Now, in hindsight, we think:
you know-- they really were adorable.
Each becomes a treasured siman, “a sign” of the person we loved.
They reassure us that while our loved ones no longer walk the earth,
they are not gone from our hearts and minds. 

Jewish law has a lot to say about lost objects.
But at its core, it is about our communal responsibility to each other.
So for one moment, take a look around this room.
This is your congregation.
And if you’re not in our sanctuary right now,
picture the people who make up your community.
And let’s remind one another what the Even HaToen symbolizes:
I am obligated to YOU.  To return what I found.
I have to seek you out.
Tell me what you’ve been missing for the last year.
And I will help you...
Find a job
Find a doctor
Find a bashert
Find a new apartment
Find a caregiver
Find that person to talk to

And you, who feel like you’ve lost so much
--and I am not minimizing loss for a moment--
our tradition asks you to resist despair.
Don’t give up hope on finding those things
that are most beloved to you.
Fight for them. 
And they will return in unexpected and meaningful ways.

Gather with me around the stone.
After the isolating days of this relentless pandemic
we return to this place,
and we say:
I have lost something precious —
can you help me find it?

I have found something wonderful —
tell me if you need it.

You are not alone.
We are here with you.

We return. And return again, to each other.

1 (Deut. 22:1)
2 (BT. Baba Metzia 28b) 

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.