THE HOUSE ON THE HILL – Erev Yom Kippur, 5772

Still standing on the hill after the tornado

The House on the Hill
Erev Yom Kippur – 5772
Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff

Temple B’nai Or, Morristown,NJ

There’s a house on a hill in Cordova, Alabama, a big white house with four pillars in front and balconies on the first and second floors. It looks like an antebellum home, although they say it was built in the 1870s by Cordova’s founder, Captain Benjamin Long. I would not say it was a huge house, although it is fairly large compared to the other homes that are there – or that used to be there. I say used be there, because, as I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, on April 27th of this year, this small rural town northwest of Birmingham was struck by two tornadoes The second one, a half mile wide, left just about every large building damaged beyond repair, every large building except for the house on the hill.

Some of us got to know this house well because last August, a small mission from Temple consisting of Audrey, Ira and Rachel Forman, Nancy and Ben Soifer, and Dan Kannel went down south to help with the post-tornado devastation that destroyed so much in those southern states. Not sure exactly where we were going or what we were going to do, we were sent to this town of Cordova, and immediately started cleaning up the rubble around the house. I asked one of the AmeriCorps volunteers who seemed to know something about something, why this house was still standing. He explained that it was because of the materials they used back then and the way houses were made. Building on a firm foundation, they used old, solid wood. Everything was held together with secure joints and strong connections. A similar house built today would not have stood the test of time. That’s what it took for the house to weather the storm: a firm foundation, old, solid materials, and strong connections holding it all together.

The person in charge at our site was Andrea Lewis Pate, who had coordinated a massive disaster relief effort for the town. Andrea is a life-long Cordova resident, a spirited and inspiring former teacher turned lawyer whom some of you met two weeks ago at Selichot Services. Andrea and her family had moved about ten minutes outside of Cordova. She and her husband saw the second tornado coming straight at them, then watched it as it turned and headed into town.

After the tornado had passed, her husband said to her, “You stay home and I’ll go in to town to see if I can help.”  Well, if you met Andrea, you know that that was just not going to happen. She knew where she was needed. When she went, she found Cordova in a shambles. These people were going to need something to eat and somewhere to sleep. Andrea was a woman on a mission, and no matter what she was lacking, no matter what hurdles she had to jump over, she believed that God would provide. And throughout this whole ordeal, she has seen no proof to the contrary. With a budget of nothing, she set up a soup kitchen which on some days served 1,500 meals, and started repairing and flipping homes to be made available to the newly homeless with the first year rent free.

But there was one house that Andrea was saving for herself and for the community.  It was that house on the hill. She and her husband bought the house at a miraculously low price with the determination to restore it to its original grandeur. It’s not that the house was untouched, far from it. The house needed massive repair. The tornado tore the roof right off which then crashed into the sanctuary of the church across the street which then had to be demolished. The house itself was left a bit off center and leaning; they had to bring in jacks to lift it up and get it straight.  Inspectors said it could not be saved.

But Andrea was determined to save it anyway. You see, she knew that this house was more than a building. When you stand in just about any place in Cordova, you can look up and see the house on the hill. This house embodies the town’s history and identity, and Andrea knew that whether or not the building stood would, to no small degree, determine the town’s future.

Oh boy, did we see that!  Every few minutes, as we were working in the front, someone driving by would stop, roll down the window and shout, “Is it staying up  or coming down ?” “It’s staying up,” we shouted back. You should have seen the smiles, the looks of relief! Most often they would give us big thumbs up.

InCordova, Alabama, when people lift up their eyes unto the mountains, it is the house on the hill that they see. “You must rebuild this house,” I told Andrea. “This is the house of hope!” These people from whom so much had been taken need something that represented stability and continuity, concrete proof that not all had been lost, a testament to the promised future. They need a symbol of hope; and for them, it was and remains that house on the hill.

Friends, they are not the only ones who need a house on the hill. We do too. We all need something which lifts not only the eye but the heart and stands as the promise of hopes fulfilled.  We need something built on a firm foundation, made of solid stuff, with strong connections, a symbol of hope which draws a direct line between yesterday’s glory, today’s challenges, and tomorrow’s triumphs.  We need such symbols of hope and I think we have quite a few.

For us as Americans, the Freedom Tower, the rebuilt World Trade Center, will serve as a house on the hill. As we see it rising one floor a week to its ultimate height of 1776 feet, my hope is that it will lift not only the eye but the spirit and the soul of our nation.

It’s been ten years since that once populated space in the sky has been empty – ten years since 3,000 good souls were murdered, snatched before their time. And in those ten years, tens of thousands more have died in the war against terrorism, including thousands of Americans of all colors, creeds, and identities who answered the call to service and paid the ultimate price. There is and ever will be an empty space in the hearts and lives of the family and friends they left behind. But it is my hope that their spirits and the spirit of all Americans will come together again and rise as that tower takes its place in the sky. And as together we lift up our eyes, I pray that we will feel again the solid stuff we Americans are made of, feel again the strong connections with each other we felt a decade ago as differences dissolved in common destiny and resolve. I pray that we can know again that regardless of where we are in this spectrum or that, we are one nation under God and indivisible.

For most of us as Jews, and for the Jewish People as a whole, the State of Israel has been a symbol of hope. It is no coincidence that the holiest structure of ancient Israel, the Temple in Jerusalem, with the holy of holies within, was a house on a hill, God’s house on Mt. Moriah. And in our age, it was with deliberate purpose that Hatikvah – the hope – was chosen as the national anthem of the third Jewish commonwealth.

To return toIsraeland to national sovereignty was the hope of a people too long powerless to determine our own fate. Ever since we were taken from our historic homeland, we have been tossed from this continent to that, most of the time thriving and growing, too many times being reviled and persecuted , uprooted and killed. But then, grounded in historic connection and rising out of the ashes of the Shoah, Israel realized the hope for a displaced people and for thousands of displaced persons.

Home, wrote Robert Frost, is the place where when you get there, they have to take you in. Israel brought and brings the Jewish People home.

Israelis a house on the hill for the Jewish people as it has been and yet can be a symbol of hope for the entire world. When let in the door, Israel’s resources have fed people and saved lives across the globe. We saw how Israel was there in Haiti like no other country. How many advancements in science, medicine, and technology this tiny country has given to the world! Israel has so much to offer, if only the offers would be accepted. There is a sad irony that those who would urge others to avoid using products made in Israel do so using products developed and made in Israel. If you live in the modern world, it is nearly impossible not to benefit from what Israel has given you.

Just as Israel has been a symbol of hope, it has been the object of hope and of worry as well. Israel faces existential threats from without and from within. From within, by those who would prefer theocracy to democracy, who believe that loving your neighbor as yourself only applies to other Jews, other Torah-true Jews. Israel is threatened from without by men who would not think twice about using the bomb if they had it and who may get it soon, threatened by those who deny our history, who talk as if the Jewish people never had set foot on the ground before 1948.  Just look at Abbas’ speech before the UN and his rewriting of history. The naqba, the catastrophe he referred is not what happened in 1967 when Israel captured the territories, the catastrophe is what happened in 1948 when the Jewish State of Israel was born. Reentering history, regaining sovereignty and national power among the nations is difficult, messy, and demanding, especially when you live in such an inhospitable neighborhood.

For sure, the continued occupation is highly problematic and deeply tragic. We did not reenter history in order to be an occupier, but as events took their natural course, history got us there and we need to find a way out without sacrificing security.

As the Jewish house on a hill and symbol of hope, we look up to Israelwith only the highest of expectations. High expectations, of course, set us up for big disappointments.  Many of our hopes for Israel have yet to be realized, hopes, by the way, shared by most Israelis: our hopes for normalization among the nations, our hopes for true Jewish religious pluralism, our hopes for social equality for Israeli minorities, including Arabs and Ethiopians, our hopes for a just and secure peace with the Palestinians, our hope that Israeli and Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian, Lebanese and Turk will soon be able to sit under vine and fig and no one will make them afraid. Lofty hopes they are, but as the anthem says, od lo avda tikvatenu – we have not lost our hope yet, and, I might add, we never will.

One hope that is being fulfilled, not enough, but more than ever, is the increasing number of our students and former students who are going to Israel. They are going on Birthright programs. They are going for semesters of study in high school or college. What I am most proud of is that there are those of our children who have performed the mitzvah of aliyah, the most recent being Sarah Truesdale. Thumbs up to them all! We’ll see her next summer on our Temple Pilgrimage– I hope you will join us. For when you do, you will see howIsraelis our faith’s house on a hill where the hope OF our people and FOR our people is substantiated every day.

There is yet another house of hope – in many ways the most important one – that is the house of hope we make of our own homes. The families we came from and the ones we create form the foundations of our lives and as such, they need to be as firm, solid and connected as possible.

As time has gone on, it seems more and more difficult to establish the home as a place which grounds us in hope. I am speaking more right now to those with children. Friends, so many of our children are hurting, hurting in a way of which they themselves are not aware. The optimism of previous generations – the faith that with education and hard work, we can accomplish all our goals and have the lives we would choose for ourselves – that optimism is not on as firm a foundation as it once had been.  Our children and grandchildren are headed towards a workplace in which doing more with less is no longer a strategic decision, it is a means of survival. The material and emotional resources that once were out there are less and less available.   Our children need our support and our guidance, and they need to know they are measured by who they are and how they are in the world, not by the degrees they have or the jobs they do and do not get.

The next generation is entering a world their parents and grandparents did not know, an exciting and frightening new world. Sure, my generation was raised under the threat of nuclear war, although with as many drills as we had hiding under our wooden desks (which certainly would have saved us from a nuclear blast), I never really internalized the possibility I might be vaporized at any moment.   I just had this sense that the future was there waiting for me with open arms, as indeed it was.  I don’t think that many young people are feeling the future’s embrace. And that can be a scary thought, filled with self-doubt and loss of self- respect.

And it’s not just about the children. Many of us have been and are unemployed or under employed. And when identity and self-worth are linked to having this or that particular job, the loss of that job can take away more than a paycheck. It can take away the firm foundation on which you have built your life, the way you see yourself and the way you see others as seeing you. Our homes need to be places of acceptance, where children and adults alike know they are not valued for what they have or how much they can get.

You need to know that a smaller house is no less of a home, for a house on a hill is not defined by its square footage, or the numbers of bedrooms and bathrooms it has. Our houses of hope are as large as the love that dwells within. They are measured in units of loyalty and acceptance, of understanding and forgiveness. Our homes, our families, need to provide that safe harbor we can go to in the midst of life’s storms. They need to be places which instill what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls courage to face uncertainty.[i] Such a home, such a family, will serve as a house on the hill, when we know that alive within are faith, love, and hope.

Hope, you know, is not the naïve belief that all will turn out well in the end, because with death being the end of it all, it never does. No, hope comes from knowing that you have the resources to be able to cope with whatever comes your way and stay whole. And in fact, our resources are many: they are our family, our friends, our communities, and our connection with God.

And as it happens, these resources all converge for you in one place, one very special house on a hill:  our Temple. This Temple is a house of hope, a very precious house on a hill we all share.  OK, so the Temple building is not actually on a hill, but when we pray together, sing together, learn and grow together, when we laugh and cry, find comfort and give it, when we embrace and when we care, we build a mountain of  love and elevate the Temple to its top.

Your Temple serves a purpose like no other institution in your lives – for we are a community which gives voice to the highest aspirations of the Jewish spirit, which brings meaning to the everyday and hope when it seems all is lost. Like the house on the hill in Cordova, Alabama, our Temple is built on a firm foundation of history and of identity, of  tradition and innovation  that has stood the test of time and weathered many a storm. OK, so we may be off center now and then and need to be jacked up. But, imperfect as we are, as a community, we are made of solid materials, the good stuff which is the minds and the hearts of dedicated people who care. We are bound together with strong connections. For those who feel that bond, let’s tighten it. For those who don’t feel the bond, let’s find ways to better connect.  We all need to be better connected. Many have bonded with Temple with the loss of a loved one. Don’t wait until that happens to see how we can help you feel that which so many other fellow congregants feel, that there is something which links us like no other connections in our lives.

Here at Temple you can find community and comfort and understanding and healing – the resources we all need to face whatever might come our way and remain whole. Our Temple is not only a symbol of hope, it is a community of hope. And I hope you will join us in making it even more so.

Finally, there is one more house I want to mention; it is that house on the hill in the hearts of every one of us. Your inner house on the hill is where you find your history and identity, where your spirit finds life and you find the courage to go on. I pray that you have found your own house of hope within. I know too well that there are times when it seems like the house of hope within it has been blown away by the storms or obscured by the dark clouds, but I tell you it is there – you just need to search and you will find. There may be damage that needs repair to shore up the shelter within, to aright the heart that has been off center. But know, the house of hope that is in your heart has a foundation that is firm. Your house is constructed from the best that you have been given, the old solid values to which you aspire; it is held together by connections of love, concern, and community which bind us each to all and all to the One who dwells without and within.

For friends, when we lift our eyes and hearts to the house on the hill within, we will have found the holiest of holies and entered into the very house of God!

Shanah tova – Shabbat Shalom!


[i] Sacks, Jonathan, Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-first Century, 2010, Schocken Kindle Edition, p. 10.

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