(Note: the first part of this sermon is adapted from an article that JTA asked me to write. Then it goes off into new territory — expanding and completing the ideas I articulated for JTA.)
All summer long, I struggled to find the words for this sermon.
The enormity of what’s broken in the world feels paralyzing. Unprecedented heat and wildfires, a flaming oil spill turning the Gulf of Mexico into an inferno, and extreme flooding across Europe and China and Louisiana and New York: “Who by fire, who by water” lands differently this year. Dayenu, that could be enough — and there’s more.
The past eighteen months were hard even for those of us who have it easy (a job, a place to live, no illness). For many the isolation was crushing, or numbing. For many without stable income or a roof overhead, the pandemic has been unimaginably worse. So too for frontline workers and those who jobs are “essential” and often unseen.
When vaccines became available, my heart soared on wings of hope. I felt certain we would be together safely at Rosh Hashanah this year. But I hadn’t reckoned with the power of social media influencers lying about the putative risks of the vaccine, or lying about the virus. The New York Times reported recently that disinformation is now a booming business. As a result, countless thousands are now refusing vaccination, claiming “personal freedom” at the expense of the collective good.
I keep thinking of the parable of the guy in the boat drilling a hole under his own seat. He doesn’t seem to notice that his personal freedom is going to drown everyone else. As a parable, it’s tart and a little bit funny. In real life, it’s horrifying. Dayenu: that too could be enough to spark despair. And wait, there’s more.
Several governors have made it illegal for municipalities to require masks. To many, masks have become a symbol of government control. To me, a mask is literally the least we can do to protect the immunocompromised (and children.) Refusing to wear a mask during this pandemic is like leaving your lights on during the London Blitz.
Between the anti-maskers, and the anti-vaxxers, and the new Delta variant, cases are rising again. We’re facing another long winter of mounting death counts — and it didn’t have to be this way.
Between what we’re doing to our planet (disproportionately harming those who are most vulnerable), and the impact of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers on public health (ditto), and the persistence of the Big Lie that the presidential election was “stolen,” it’s hard not to despair. How could I write sermons from this place? I’m pretty sure no one comes to High Holiday services to hear their rabbi say she’s given up.
I poured out my heart about this to my hevruta partner, who reminded me that in Torah even God despaired of humanity sometimes. When God despaired of us, it was our ancestors’ job to push back and remind God of reasons to hope for humanity’s future. This is part of why we live (and learn!) in community: to help each other find hope when our hearts despair.
Our Torah readings for today and tomorrow cue up that inner journey. We just read about the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael, a tale of how jealousy almost caused a child’s death in the desert. Tomorrow, the stakes may feel even higher with the binding of Isaac. And yet these same Torah stories also remind us of hope in tough times. An angel opens Hagar’s eyes to a flowing spring, and she and her son are saved. An angel opens Abraham’s eyes to the ram caught in the thicket, and Isaac’s life is spared.
The Days of Awe open the door to new beginnings, even when (or especially when) we can’t see our own way back to hope for change. Our job is to be be those Biblical angels for each other: helping each other reach the hope a that we can’t find alone.
Our Torah stories for Rosh Hashanah are stories of courage and strength. Hagar needed courage and strength when she set out into the wilderness with her son and a single skin of water on her back. Isaac needed courage and strength when he lay down on his father’s altar on the mountaintop. In Hebrew, one word for this kind of courage and strength is gevurah: our theme for this year’s Days of Awe.
We’ve seen a lot of gevurah in this difficult year. In the firefighters battling horrific blazes across the Pacific Northwest and California and Turkey and Greece — in the doctors and nurses working in every covid ICU — in the police officers who defended the US Capitol from an angry mob. Those are extraordinary forms of strength and courage.
I want to name and uplift a different kind of gevurah. I mostly didn’t watch the Olympics this year. (That’s not the courageous part.) I just couldn’t get excited about the pageantry or the competition this time around. But Simone Biles caught my attention even so.
Everyone seems to agree that she’s one of the most extraordinary gymnasts of all time. I can’t do a cartwheel to save my life, so I think all gymnasts are pretty amazing, but I can see that she’s more amazing even than most of her peers. And right before the individual all-around gymnastics competition, she withdrew from competition in order to focus on her mental health.
It takes courage to say I’m not okay right now, and I need to do some inner work so I can get where I need to be. A lot of us are not okay right now. Global pandemic, an almost unthinkable amount of death, the climate crisis, the rise in misinformation, the deep divisions in our body politic — the world is not okay right now.
Simone Biles said she “got the twisties,” a condition in which an athlete loses their spatial awareness and can’t tell up from down. Given the kind of literal acrobatics involved in Olympic gymnastics routines, losing her spatial awareness could be deadly. But reading about it, I realized it’s an apt description of how a lot of us are feeling emotionally and spiritually. We’ve lost access to some of the certainties that oriented us. It’s hard to trust in things that used to seem stable. I think we all “have the twisties” a little bit this year.
I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that none of us can do the gymnastics routines that Simone Biles can do. But all of us can follow the courageous example she set. And she didn’t make that decision in a vacuum. She said she was inspired by Naomi Osaka, the pro tennis player who withdrew from the French Open in order to tend to her mental health. Using our Torah metaphor, Naomi Osaka was Simone Biles’ “angel” — the messenger whose words and actions helped Simone admit that she wasn’t okay and begin to work toward healing.
Because here’s the thing: we’re not in this alone. Even if we feel fundamentally alone sometimes, we have each other. This is why we live (and learn) in community: so we can help each other find the flowing spring that will sustain us in the wilderness, or the ram whose presence will save the day, caught in a thicket just beyond where we ourselves can see. We live in community so we can inspire each other to hope and to build. We live in community so we can strengthen each other.
The activist Mariame Kaba offers some deep wisdom about hope. “Hope doesn’t preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger,” she says. “Hope is not optimism. Hope is a discipline.” She goes on to say:
Hope is a discipline and… we have to practice it every single day. Because in the world which we live in, it’s easy to feel a sense of hopelessness, that everything is all bad all the time, that there is nothing going to change ever, that people are evil and bad at the bottom. It feels sometimes that it’s being proven in various, different ways, so I get that, so I really get that. I understand why people feel that way. I just choose differently. I choose to think a different way and I choose to act in a different way.
When she says hope is a discipline, what I hear is that it’s a practice — like a yoga practice or a spiritual practice. And the more we practice it, the stronger we become. She names this as a choice: we can choose to let despair overwhelm us, or we can choose to strengthen our hope. This, too, is gevurah.
5781 was not an easy year. I don’t know what 5782 will bring, but I’m pretty sure the challenges of the old year will follow us into the new one. What can we do for each other to give each other courage, to help each other hope? Jewish tradition teaches that even those who receive tzedakah are also obligated to give it. In other words: even if I’m in need of assistance myself, I’m obligated to give what I can to someone else in need. I love this because it breaks down the binary between giver and receiver. And it works as a teaching about intangibles, too. Even if I need emotional support, I can still offer support to others.
Helping others is part of Jewish spiritual practice. Focusing on “ugh, who’s going to help me through this” sometimes is normal, but it’s also self-centered, and it can lead to feeling more alone. Focusing instead on “how can I help someone else” lightens our hearts. Helping others is good for the soul. If you prefer, here’s a social science framing: studies show that when we help others, we feel more energetic, stronger, and more hopeful! And that’s true whether we’re doing organized volunteer work, or “just” offering a listening ear over the phone or Zoom.
Helping each other cultivate hope does not change the realities of pandemic or injustice or fires and floods. But it can help us be resilient in the face of those realities. It can help us make meaning in the face of those realities. This is our work: to use our gevurah to support and uplift and strengthen each other, so that together we can resist despair and keep working toward a better world.
This is Rabbi Rachel’s sermon from the first morning of Rosh Hashanah (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)