Kol Nidre, Yom Kippur, October, 2005
On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I suggested that we look to Torah to find clues about how to awaken the hero within. We find heroism not only in individuals but in the history of our people. To be a Jew is to be small in a big world and not to be afraid. We have survived not as warriors but as dreamers of a world in which might does not prevail.
Again and again our narrative shows that it is not the firstborn son who wins but the one who is most worthy. It is not Esau the hunter but Jacob the quiet tent-dwelling student who takes the birthright. It is Joseph, Jacob’s son of old age, who is most loved and who saves his family. It is Moses, the youngest of three, leads the people out of slavery.
What does being the smaller one have to do with heroism? Everything. It’s the counterintuitive path. It means that we cannot take the shortcut of using our worldly power to get our way. It means that we must develop and believe in metaphysical strength, the spiritual glue that connects us to God, and hope for the day when justice and mercy prevail.
In the meantime, God gives us life each day not to simply keep our heads down and stay out of trouble. We were born to do what is most difficult: to stand for principles when no one else stands with us, to set examples of balance and dignity in an often chaotic, amoral or immoral society, and to make contribution to humanity.
While none of us is capable of constant heroism and not every moment requires it, our practice is a constant training for the moment when we are called to bring forth the highest within us, the part that makes us in God’s image.
On Rosh Hashanah, I suggested that we make a list of heroes or heroic acts that we’ve witnessed in the past year, and I’d like to offer you a few examples of heroism that have helped me to see how all of us are called to be heroes. Leslie Davis is at the top of my list. Throughout her cancer journey of almost four years she has demonstrated the heroism of courage, candor, faith, hope, and generosity. A year after Leslie was diagnosed, she asked to take the presidency of HaMakom. After a note from her doctor, I accepted her offer, and we are here tonight largely because of her effort in organizing and strengthening HaMakom into a community of which we are proud and grateful to be a part.
Wonderful presidents are leaders who get things done by not only awakening the hero within themselves but in others. Leslie has been an extraordinary leader not only because of her innate ability, but also because of everyone knowing of how much it took for her to find energy and time for the community. Her physical limitations encouraged all of us to offer more of ourselves.
For someone like Leslie who has always been the one to offer help, asking others for help has been a challenge. As she has struggled with this, Leslie has become an even greater person in a newfound humility that has made her more open, gentle, and loving. She has demonstrated courage with physical pain, and even more, with the emotional challenge of not knowing what will be.
Through it all, she has never lost hope, despite a roller coaster ride of not feeling well for months, to needing to spend most of her time in bed, and then to being able to hike in the aspens, farther than her rabbi, I might add. She has adjusted to God’s mysterious flight path with grace, and I’ve seen her grow in a willingness to live with uncertainty and faith that teaches and amazes all of us.
Those who love her are also heroes, for they have been called to face what is most difficult for us. Drawing near someone who suffers challenges our power and awakens our fear. It forces us to face our inability to slay the dragon of illness, and it draws us near our own frailty and mortality.
Doctors offer boundless treatments and rabbis open books full of prayer and philosophy, but what is often more heroic is washing dishes, massaging feet, and fluffing pillows. One’s presence is what is needed. Many of you have volunteered to be helpers for Billy and Leslie, as drivers, cooks, and friends who come to sing, listen, and drive away the loneliness of being in the land of the sick. This is the heroism of empathy and caring, of humility, and of courage and sacrifice.
Sharon Woods deserves particular mention for her decision to run a marathon for the first time in her life to raise money for cancer research in honor of Leslie. Characteristically, Leslie asked that the money go in memory of a child she knew who had died of the disease.
Acts of altruism are not only practical. They are also heroic evidence that love is stronger than illness and death. Just as Moses must come down the mountain and enter the challenge of life’s frustrations and terrors, we too must leave the safe land of the healthy to be with those who are sick. We remind them and ourselves that our love for them does not depend upon their usefulness or power. We become healers through our presence, and we too are healed by drawing near to that which frightens us.
On Yom Kippur, we face the brevity of our lives. When we sit with someone who is ill, we are with one who is closer to the mysterious journey that we all will take. Our tradition teaches that if we want to be close to God, we should visit the sick because God is closest to them. We offer assurance that they are not forgotten, and we glimpse of what we hope to receive when it is our time.
Next on my list is my young niece, Chaya, who is now 25. When she was a little girl, she and my mother enjoyed a delicious relationship. They played with dolls and had endless arts and crafts projects. Today my mother has aphasia, is self-conscious about it, and is losing her connection to the world. Chaya and her husband spent a week with my mother this summer.
At first my mother wasn’t sure who Chaya was–she remembers the child, not the Orthodox young woman she has become–and was resistant to Chayas’s plan to make things with Nanny. But little by little my mother left the safety of old movies on TV and relaxed into making a box to hold photographs of people dear to her. Chaya’s heroism of patience, generosity, and love helped the family to value her religious commitment and showed us that kindness is contagious. Just as my mother had once sweetened her granddaughter’s life, so that kindness was now being returned.
I have a close friend whom I’ve known for forty years. When she called to tell me that her husband wanted to end their long marriage, I heard the terror in her voice. Both of us are children’s book professionals, and I suspect that it is a world that is well suited for those who claim Peter Pan as a hero. Now my friend was called to grow up, and she did this by taking the opportunity to know herself better. She bravely faced her part in what had happened to the marriage. This is the heroism of teshuvah, the technology of turning within and having the faith that we can become better people.
During the High Holidays, we are called to do this work that is imperfectly translated as repentance. In Hebrew, “answer” and “return.” We look at ourselves instead of looking at everyone’s part in our pain. If we’re honest, we may uncover a layer of defensiveness and complacency mingled with angry self-righteousness. We may find fresh grief and fear hidden under the anger that has driven us to behave without compassion. We may come to understand that it is not our job to punish anyone.
From my friends in 12 step recovery groups, I have learned the heroism of forgiveness. No one knows the difficulty and the liberation teshuvah offer better than people who face the hard truth of their past and struggle every day to become better people through forgiveness of themselves and others.
To forgive someone who has harmed us takes a willingness to let go of blame and to accept another’s shortcomings. To forgive ourselves for where we have fallen short in the past year takes a willingness to recognize that we are not God. To forgive God requires accepting the imperfection of life.
The secret of being able to forgive others is to remember that we have a vital role to play in the perfection of the world. Remembering this gives us the strength to rise above the pain others have caused us and to forgive both them and ourselves.
The word for forgiveness in Hebrew–mechilah–is connected to the word machol, or circle. Like the circle, we are interconnected, and when someone hurts another, the circle breaks. Nothing is as whole as a broken heart.
The great hero of forgiveness in our time is the Dalai Lama. He has forgiven the Chinese and is not angry, because he doesn’t want his spiritual life stilled by negative emotions and he doesn’t want to bring harm into the world with such feelings. You may find it strange that I include a Buddhist in my list of heroes, but our tradition welcomes all wisdom. We even have a prayer to say when we meet a wise and righteous non-Jew.
He uses a breathing exercise that I find useful to reach teshuvah. I invite you to try it with me for a couple of minutes. Close your eyes, get comfortable, and take a luxurious, relaxed breath. This is the air Adam breathed, Galileo, and anyone you’ve ever loved, has breathed, and it enters every cell of you, from your toes to the top of your head. This is the breath God breathed into you and into the world. Breathe.
Feel the air enter you and surround your heart. Let your heart soften and absorb the breath you receive from the Beloved One. Our hearts hold hurts, burning anger, and pain from injustice. Imagine the heart with which you entered the world, ready to receive joy love. Let the breath purify this heart you were born with, delighted with life and open to wonder.
When you breathe out, let your heart send loving kindness, forgiveness, and empathy for everyone, including yourself. Your breath can turn darkness into light, poison into medicine, and fear into faith. Think of someone you struggle to forgive. They suffer, too, perhaps more than you, with their imperfections. With each breath you are growing the heart of a hero and repairing the world.
Look around you. Everyone in this room has faced brokenness and have become more whole because of it. Our tradition possesses great wisdom in teaching us to look to one another so that we do not feel alone in our imperfection. May God grant each of us the hope, love, and strength to begin breathing and walking the path of the hero.