Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5782
Two construction workers sat down together to have lunch at their jobsite. The first worker reached into his lunch box and pulled out a sandwich. He took a bite, spit it out with disgust, and said, “Yecch, ham on white bread.” He reached into the lunch box again and took out a second sandwich. He bit into that one, again spit it out and said, “blecch, turkey on whole wheat.”
The second construction worker said to him: “you know, if you hate what you have for lunch so much, why don’t you speak to your wife and ask her to make you something different?”
“My wife?” the first construction worker said. “I made these myself.”
About a hundred and twenty years ago there was a rabbi in Warsaw named Yehuda Leib Alter. He was the rebbe of the Gerer Hasidim and he wrote a Torah commentary known as the Sfas Emes, which means “The Language of Truth.” The Sfas Emes, in his commentary on Exodus, asks an interesting question. What did the generation which left Egypt do to merit redemption? After all, they were, when it comes down to it, not such righteous people. They rebelled against Moses several times, tried to overthrow him and tried to return to Egypt. No less astonishingly, after witnessing God’s power both at the Red Sea and at Sinai, they committed the sin of the Golden Calf. So, how is it that they merited redemption?
The answer, the Sfas Emes teaches us, is quite simple. Prior to the generation that left Egypt, the Torah does record that the Hebrew slaves complained about their lot. But they never asked to go free. When the people asked to go free, God freed them.
The point is not some arbitrary insistence by God that the people ask for freedom, like a five year old that won’t lend out his toy until his friend “asks nicely.” No, the point is that the first step on the road to freedom is to imagine that freedom is actually possible. It’s not enough to know that you don’t like the current situation. Or, to go back to our construction workers, it’s not enough to know that you don’t like ham on white or turkey on whole wheat. The point is, you have to imagine a different possibility. “Imagining a different possibility” is what we mean by hope. That hope, I believe, is a gift of God, if we choose to accept it; it is inherent in the idea of teshuvah, of transformation.
What is hope? It is the belief that things can be different. NY Times columnist Margaret Renkl wrote a column this summer called “Everything I Know About Hope, I Learned From My Dog.” As a dog lover, I was moved by what she wrote and it helped me to understand why dogs are so important to so many of us.
Renkl wrote: “Dogs regard any delicious smell emanating from the kitchen as a meal they can reasonably expect to share. An elderly dog may have been fed only kibble in all the years of his long life, but he will nevertheless haul his arthritic self to his feet and wander into the kitchen, confident that this time the lasagna sitting on the counter will be his.”
She continues: “Our Lab mix, Scout, taught me that a dog who has never caught a squirrel will keep chasing squirrels the same way a dog who is not allowed on the bed will climb under the covers the second a bed is left unattended. Betty, a feist who had never been taken to school even once, would wait hopefully beside the back door every morning, just in case it was Take Your Dog to School Day at last. A UPS delivery driver once tossed a dog biscuit to Clark, our rangy old hound, as she turned the corner, and every day for years, that dog would wait in the yard for his biscuit, no matter how many delivery trucks rounded the corner without a pause.”
We often use “hope” and “optimism” interchangeably but they are not the same thing. The late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote : “One of the most important distinctions I have learned in the course of reflection on Jewish history is the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope. Knowing what we do of our past, no Jew can be an optimist. But Jews have never – despite a history of sometimes awesome suffering – given up hope.”
Rabbi Sacks’ distinction between optimism and hope is important for us to understand at this moment we find ourselves in.
The late Admiral James Stockdale, as you may recall, was a candidate for Vice President in 1992, running alongside Ross Perot. Before that he had been a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for almost eight years and subsequently the President of the Naval War College.
Admiral Stockdale said that throughout the years of his captivity he never gave uphope that he would ultimately be released and turn his experiences into something positive. But at the same time, he was brutally honest with himself about the realities of his situation.
Stockdale was asked who of his fellow-prisoners did not make it out of Vietnam. He responded: Oh, that's easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.
Stockdale then added:
This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
This became known as the Stockdale Paradox and in the face of the current pandemic we need to understand the difference between hope and wishful thinking. Most rabbis report that preparing for the High Holidays this year was much harder than last year. Last year, we knew that we could not meet in person. There was no second guessing and constant reevaluation, there was no pressure from congregants or board members to reconsider, there was no worry about losing congregants to a different shul that was meeting in person if you were not. No worry about how to be present to those in the sanctuary as well as those on Zoom. And no fiddling with the tech until the very last minute to try and include both the Roomers and the Zoomers.
A week before Rosh Hashanah, a prestigious online Jewish publication called Tablet Magazine published an article urging synagogues to open their doors wide on the High Holiday to every Jew -- vaccinated or not, mask-wearing or not, capacity limitations be damned. The author, Liel Liebovitz,wrote, “any congregation that takes any measure that bars any Jew from praying in communion on the Days of Awe is divesting itself from the very core of Jewish life. He wrote that rabbis should “Comfort us with the eternal Jewish story: we worship God and He, in turn, protects us.”
Without getting into questions of theodicy -- like the Jews who worshipped God and yet perished in the Holocaust -- if God protects us, it is through the gifts of the intellect which God has implanted in us -- the gifts which allowed the development of the COVID vaccines and allows us to understand what we can do to minimize, but not eliminate, the risks to those who chose to attend in person.
The kind of thinking represented in this article is both dangerous and profoundly un-Jewish. The Talmud teaches chamira sakanta me-isura -- life-threatening health concerns take precedence over halachic restrictions.
I have hope that this pandemic will end and that once again we will have several hundred people in this sanctuary for the High Holidays. But that day will come, not by wishing away reality, not by imagining that somehow the virus knows or cares that I am in a synagogue rather than a movie theater or a concert hall. It will come when our unvaccinated fellow Americans understand that they have a responsibility to others. As Rabbi Sacks taught us, “together, we can make things better.”
We must believe that a better future is possible but acknowledging our reality means that we understand that not everything is OK. For the first time in 20 years our beloved Hazzan will not grace us with her beautiful voice and her mastery of the liturgy. For the first time in many years, we did not hear Curt Levinson sound the shofar and he will not come up to the bimah during Musaf to duchen.
It is easy to ask “what have we done to deserve this?” but it is the wrong question. Especially on Rosh Hashanah, the question we must ask ourselves is “what is it I am being called to do”? Each of us has a task. Each of us has a purpose. We will never discover what that is unless we have hope.