WALK HUMBLY IN YOUR DESPAIR
An Uplifting High Holiday Sermon
Every year since my first High Holiday pulpit at TBS in 1996, I’ve talked about a crisis; either I’m a drama queen or we are living in interesting times. Economic collapse, environmental decline, and public moral scandals in the Jewish and general community are just a few of the subjects that have demanded attention.
For the last fifteen years, we fellow citizens of the planet have been through quite a lot. It is ten years since the World Trade Center was attacked, and we are still learning how to live in a world for which we feel unprepared.
It should come as no surprise that as the world goes through rapid dramatic changes, individual lives are being affected. It feels as if there are more unexpected deaths, more global crises, more financial woes, more divorces, and more illness. In a time when many feel the pinch of having less, we are called to do more for our wounded loved ones.
Perhaps there are experts who can explain why things are as they are today. That is not the purpose of my words this evening. Rather, it is to explore what I’ve observed is most useful for living to in uncertain and challenging times, and how to keep going and growing.
In the last year, many have come to me to speak about the struggle to keep hopeful. Depression is contagious and there is lots of it. The news throws us into panic. We worry for the children alive today of the world we are leaving them. We are also are affected by what is going on in the lives of loved ones. All these stresses add to a sense of things falling apart.
Some believe, and perhaps find bleak comfort in waiting for the world’s end. I recently went to the doctor, and as he cuffs me to get my blood pressure, he tells me of his disappointment and frustration with a health care system that doesn’t let him practice the medicine he wants to offer. He goes on with other injustices and concludes with informing me America’s best days are over and we’re heading towards another world war. I absorb his words and will my heart not to pump too hard.
I ask if he learned fortune telling in medical school. Because I like and respect this man, his words disturb me. I defend against them because I’m afraid of the part in me that is all too ready to see nothing but bleakness ahead, too.
Doomsday stories like Armageddon and the Rapture get more attention in hard times. We’ll be seeing lots of books, games, and films coming out in 2012 to coincide with one prediction of world’s end. While it may be entertaining and profitable to play with people’s fears, it worries me that it will become an excuse to let go of hope for the future. If the world is coming to an end, what stops us from becoming ruthless survivalists bent on getting all we can right now? Just as Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed the world, so predictions of omnicide can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Some of the most thoughtful people I know are talking about America, if not the planet, being toast. Once upon a time things were good. They aren’t anymore. All empires fall, we read in the other new genre of books that feature “declinism” as their subject. Adam Gopnik decries the trend in a recent New Yorker article. He writes, “The lessons of declinism are manifold, but the central one is that obsessively fretting about your possible decline can be a good way to produce it.”
Are these really unprecedented terrible times? What was it like for our great and great great grandparents who watched their children leave them for a place called America, not knowing if they would ever see them again or even know that their family continued after them?
I agree with Reb Gopnik that the current wave of pessimism is not only arrogant but also toxic, and I see it this way because I’m a Jew. While Judaism does offer a vision of the end of days, we don’t spend much time thinking about what we’re going to wear that day, No generation of Jews, even during the Holocaust, has ever spent much time worrying about the end of the world.
Still, when things are mess, everyone is tempted to destroy everything and start over. This is what Freud called the death instinct, and this is what God did with the Flood. Drowning the world for a fresh start didn’t produce positive results for the protagonist. Noah’s response to surviving catastrophe and loss was to get blind drunk. When he lost consciousness, one of his sons either raped or castrated him. Still, the world continued, given courage that there would never be another flood again.
We have ample evidence in Torah of our ancestors losing hope and giving in to fear. During the forty years of wandering, the people wanted to go back, Moses wanted to escape the people, and God wanted to wipe them out.
But it didn’t happen. Instead, God told Moses that a catastrophe would happen if everyone, including God, gave in to despair. Instead, God asked Moses to recite the words of God’s ways of kindness to remind the Holy One to how to behave towards the Jewish people. We still chant these words that begin, “Adonai, Adonai, El Rahum v’Chanun…”, to remind ourselves of God’s loving-kindness, especially during the High Holidays. In the darkest moment, God was there for us and still is.
Despite the anger and frustration, we have kept on walking towards tikkun olam, repair of the world, rather than its destruction. We learned to live in the desert of not knowing, and we lived though the dark night to see the Promised Land.
Through our dramatic history, we’ve survived exile, persecution, programs, and Holocaust. We’ve had close calls, but we’re still here to tell the story of what it’s like to be always on the verge of extinction. Despite being the eternal dying people, we’ve managed to have babies, write books, and make generous contribution to the world. We are here tonight because we have never given up.
Just as the Dalai Lama met with a group of Jews to learn how we survived without a country for millennia, I would suggest that we can be a model for a very frightened world.
We are a blessedly existential people that sees heaven and hell not as exotic supernal real estate but right here on earth. Why spend time in speculation about the future? We’d love to know that there is a heavenly payoff for our good behavior, yet our tradition doesn’t depend upon it. Rather, heaven and hell are right here every day of our lives. Worrying about what is going to happen is hell. Enjoying the wild adventure of our lives with God’s guidance is heaven. Paradise is here on earth.
The Yiddish word sechel, one of my beloved father’s favorite words, captures what is needed desperately now. Sechel is emotional intelligence and common sense wisdom. Since no one knows what is going to happen, ever, why are so many people behaving as if they know? Running around like Chicken Little is not useful.
One of my favorite stories from my grandmother Rae taught me at a young age that sometimes it’s easier to believe that everything is falling apart and to give up. One of eight children to a widowed mother, she told me that she was on the street one day and an older boy told her that the world was coming to an end that very day. My six year-old grandmother and her five sisters quickly determined that they had to prepare for the coming catastrophe. They pooled their precious pennies and had a conference about what to do with the money they had saved for months.
The decision was clear. They raced for the candy store and spent the savings accumulated for a year and bought all the sweets their money could buy. Settling themselves on a stoop, they ate it all and stoically waited for the cataclysm. By dusk, they wandered home to see their mother one last time.
When they told her what they had done and why, she uncharacteristically broke into laughter. It took months before she had enough to buy a stick of candy.
The story of such foolishness buoyed my self-esteem. I never would have fallen for such a story. The world is never going to come to an end, right? Some may respond to the dire environmental and political predictions as my grandmother did, reasoning that they might as well enjoy themselves while they can.
Those of us with grandchildren, and those who care about all who will come after us, see it differently. First, we mustn’t believe the big kid that there is nothing we can do, and we mustn’t buy into Armageddon mentality.
Do we seem smarter if we predict the worst? Maybe sechel reveals itself as humility. Not even God knows what is going to happen. Walk humbly in your despair. It takes modesty to admit how little you know.
We’re living in a time where much that we once claimed and enjoyed as ours is gone. We’re frightened because we don’t know what the loss means, and we’ve told ourselves a story of decline instead of the song of birth pangs. We are living in a time when we are seeing great changes amidst great loss. All beginnings are hard and they begin in darkness. The seed in the ground and the child in the womb represent the unknown that endings begin.
There is a beautiful Midrash of twins in the womb. One worries that things will change and they will have to leave. That will be a catastrophe. The other says, no, it could be wonderful to experience something new, beyond what we can imagine.
At that moment, the contractions began and they began the journey. One cried to the other, “It’s all over for us!” and the other sang her way into the new place, ready for the next adventure.
The only choice we have is to decide which twin we want to be. Since no one knows what is going to happen, I’m going with the kid who has enough humility not to predict disaster.
Much of what is happening is not in our hands, but we have a choice about whether we’ll give in to the current despair or take it as an opportunity to see what we still have and what we may have in the future.
I look around this room and see the faces of so many that have been through very tough times and I confess I worried for you. I had no choice but to give it to the Expert Tech for help. I’ve seen how you have healed and grown from your experiences, and your health gives me humility and faith. You’ve shown me that the dark night does end, and I needn’t worry so much.
The New Year dawns, and once again we dare hope that we can change and become new beings. Every year we are given this promise. If ever there was a High Holidays when we need to hear the shofar blasting away our despair and worry, this is the year. If ever we need to hear the sound of the newborn in the shofar, this is the year. If ever we needed to hear the primordial solace of its raw call, this is the year.
May we have strength to face what is real, enjoy what remains, and listen for the cries of new birth in ourselves and in a rapidly changing world.
Ken yehi ratzon.