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Despair is Not an Option – Rosh HaShanah morning 5781

What a year!

Nothing has been normal since Spring.

Literally every human being on the planet has had to reckon with COVID-19.  With nearly 30 million cases and close to 1 million deaths worldwide, there is no place untouched. We are indeed blessed who live in upstate New York, where we were shut down early and most people (in my experience) wear masks.  But the suffering, sometimes in our own families, and certainly in our own state, across our country, and in many places in the world, has been tremendous.

But the suffering hasn’t been shared equally.  At first, I heard people say “we’re all in the same boat.”  But then it turned out that while we all in the same storm of the novel coronavirus, some people are cruising in 5-star yachts, some being blown off-course in small boats, some paddling a canoe and bailing, some clinging to a life raft, and some … without even a piece of wood.  And if our eyes were open, we began to see that safety and health and the ability to stay home are not distributed equally or fairly among our citizens.

And some people brought guns into state legislature buildings, protesting the drastic measures that were helping to save lives.

Then Black Lives Matter exploded into everyone’s consciousness after George Floyd was killed.   More and more White Americans have started to understand that many of the comforts we take for granted in our lives are not shared by everybody — and not for any good reason, just because of which family we were born into.

And some people have taken their protests violent — or used Black Lives Matter rallies as an opportunity to indulge in a little property destruction, though they themselves are not Black.

We have seen an outpouring of compassion and support, as communities mobilized to care for their most vulnerable members.  I’d guess that most of you have been giving more tzedakah this year than ever before — whether you donated all or part of a stimulus check, or responded to the many groups doing lifesaving work, or volunteered, or all three.

We haven’t been able to reach everybody.  Food insecurity and hunger have risen.

And there’s been an uptick in hate, in violence, and in fear.  People are afraid and depressed.  Some people are afraid that life in the US is about to change, in ways that scare them.  Other people are afraid that nothing is going to change, and that scares and depresses them.   Some of us look at what’s going on right now and can’t wrap our minds around it.  We don’t know where this story is going.

The news, of course, shows the most violent and provocative images; otherwise it’s not news.  That’s not to say that it’s not out there, but it’s important to keep some perspective:  The bad things that are happening, though real and terrible, are a tiny proportion of everything that’s happening.  As the rabbis say, if you drop a drop of milk into a pot of chicken soup, and there’s at least 60 times as much chicken soup as milk, then it’s not trefe; the infinitesimal drop of milk gets lost in the much larger volume of chicken soup.  But if you keep a strictly kosher kitchen, you’re still going to obsess about that drop of milk, aren’t you?

But we have to keep a healthy perspective.  Because despair is not an option.  I don’t care what you’re afraid of happening, we, as Jews, have seen it before.  Mass genocide?  Not very long ago.  Rulers who are afraid of immigrants and don’t appreciate their contributions to society?  Pharaoh.   Massive expulsion and displacement?  Spain, 1492.   Factional fighting among radical groups?  That’s what was going on in Jerusalem in the years prior to the destruction of the Second Temple.

Even Avinu Malkeynu was first prayed in response to a climate crisis, an ancient drought that threatened to bring famine to the land.

We just read the story of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, where that young man came close to being slaughtered for a burnt offering.  It’s a story of near disaster.  But disaster was averted.  Yes, there were consequences.  Sarah dies in the very next chapter, and some say that it was the flip-flop of emotions that she experienced — first learning that her only child was dead, and then hearing that he lived — that was too much for her strained heart.  The next time we hear of Isaac, he’s coming from Be’er la-Chai Ro’i, “The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me” — which was given its name by his half-brother Ishmael’s mother Hagar, when the well saved her life when she was pregnant with Ishmael.  So I imagine for him the consequences include running away after this horrible experience, to trade stories of Dad’s brutal behavior with his brother.  He doesn’t come home until it’s to be married.

But Isaac didn’t die, and that wasn’t the end of the story.

Many years later, as the wealthy and powerful of Judea were being led away in exile to Babylonia, after their central Temple, which had stood for well over 300 years, was in ashes, they passed the roadside grave of Isaac’s daughter-in-law Rachel, at Ramah.  And this is what we’re going to hear in the haftarah.  The prophet Jeremiah, who lived through the utter disaster of the seige and fall of Jerusalem, imagines Rachel weeping as she watches her distant great-great-grandchildren being forcefully re-located.  

And Jeremiah also imagines God comforting Rachel.  “There is hope for your future,” God assures her.  “This is not the end of the story.”

And that is the message of Rosh HaShanah.  Every year, a new beginning, for 5781 years, says our tradition.  And that is the message of Shabbat: every seven days a taste of the world to come.  Every day, the Morning Blessings, the everyday miracles that surround us, unnoticed.

You have a choice.  You can participate, live your life to the fullest, and die knowing that the world is a little better because you lived.

And if you want to continue to contribute to the story, that is the choice you must make.

“The only direction in which we can assert our free will is to work voluntarily within a set of conditions we have not determined.”   (Catherine Madsen, “A Vote of No Confidence,” in All These Vows: Kol Nidre (Ed. Hoffman, Jewish Lights Pub. 2011), p. 189)   But we have that free will.

And as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, may her memory be a blessing, wrote in October, four years ago:

“…it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.”

… When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.

When we hear the three shofar calls, they remind us of the work particularly of this year.

T’kiah! is a call to wake up!  It announces that there is glory and majesty and amazing wonder in the world!  It tries to awaken our sense of cosmic awe — both for the big miracles, and for the little tiny ones that are still blooming at this season of the year.

But when you are truly awake, you have to face the brokenness of the world as well.  And that’s what Sh’varim means: “broken things.”  We have so much to grieve for.  If we don’t pay attention to that as well, we’re not caring for ourselves the best that we can.  

Yizkor this year will not be only for the people that we’ve known and loved.  We need a collective moment of grief: for all that we see, for all that we’ve felt, for all that we’ve experienced and were afraid of, for all that we’re just becoming aware of.  For all the brokenness in the world.  

Remember that middle shofar call, and honor it as much as you honor the glory and the cosmic awe of T’kiah.

But we don’t stop there.  We go on to T’ruah!  And T’ruah is such a joyful call!  I always think of it as “Charge!”  [bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup!]  It’s a lot of little running steps.  T’ruah is a call to action.

We sustain ourselves by remembering that we’ve seen this before; by appreciating what’s happening right now: the blessings in our own lives and that we hear of in other people’s lives.

We sustain ourselves to be certain that — even though it feels like it sometimes — this is not the end of the story.

We feel, we acknowledge, we honor our grief over the brokenness of the world.   Over all the unneeded, unnecessary death.  Over the ways that bad things have happened that were out of our hands — but somebody else could have prevented.  We grieve.  We feel our brokenness.

And when we’ve done that, we take a deep breath, and celebrate our survival; and go out  into the world and find an action — not too big — that you can actually do, that will make a difference.

Lo alecha ham’lachah ligmor … v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah! Rabbi Tarfon said:  It’s not your responsibility to complete the job.  You’re not God.  (I’m not either!)  But you are not permitted to quit.  Do not despair.  The story is not over.


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