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Rosh Hashanah 5780/2019 Sermon

10/02/2019 11:06:05 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Sometime in the fall of 2016, a young man was at a bar with his friend. Let me clarify: with his boyfriend. They were enjoying a moment, enjoying a drink in public, as any young or even not so young couple might. They’re sitting at the bar, minding their own business, when a man, a stranger, clearly into his cups, came up to them. He came up to them and said something like, “after January, we’ll be able to kill folks like you.” He added a word to describe them, a word I would never say on the bimah.

Summer of 2017, I’m sitting on the deck at the faculty housing at Camp Harlam. The sun is shining, and working on my High Holiday sermons, when I see a post from my colleague in Charlottesville Virginia about how, that Saturday morning, they had to evacuate the building and take the Torah scrolls out the back door, as the Unite The Right protest and march, surged toward the building, dozens if not hundreds of people chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

A Shabbat morning last fall: I’m coming off the bimah after a bat mitzvah service. It had gone particularly well. We were in high spirits as we were preparing to go to the reception, when the president tells me there’s been a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the clergy scramble to find out which one and how our colleagues are doing.

It’s August, I’m back from camp nursing a cold, and I’m working on my sermons for these high holidays, when the news report comes out that the Amazon Rainforest, the world’s lungs, is burning, barely weeks after multiple mass shootings, at the same time we know children are locked in cages, denied even a toothbrush, and now denied flu vaccines as well.

Perhaps the last thing you wanted on this Rosh Hashanah morning was this litany of woe, but I think they tell us something important about how whipsawed we are. It’s hard to know which way to look these days, or how to respond, except with an aching heart and a sense of dread. There is so much happening in our world right now, so much wrong, so much pain. It’s not that there wasn’t pain before, of course, but increasingly we are awake to the suffering of the world. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas used to write of how the human condition was to be asleep to the pain in the world, to be literally unconscious to anyone else’s existence or need, and that the ethics of our time demand that we wake up. But, he cautioned that being “awake” was to invite a kind of spiritual and moral insomnia. Well, if Levinas is correct, then we are there; we are ethical and spiritual insomniacs, dwelling on every pain, every crisis, every act of violence in our community and our world. No matter how much we may want to be plugged back into the Matrix, we are awake now.


Part of our moral insomnia, as well as our sense of whiplash, is the sense of helplessness in the face of so much pain. What do we do? What can we do? How can anything we do be enough? In so many respects, I feel like we’re like Abraham and Isaac in the Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, our Torah portion for today. We will read as Abraham and Isaac set off, after God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, and are walking to the place God has shown, and Isaac will ask: “Father, here is the knife and the fire and the wood, but where is the offering?” As if somehow knowing, fearing what the answer will be. Similarly, it feels as if we’re walking together to some place, we don’t know where, knife and fire in our hand, wondering whether we’ll survive, physically or spiritually. What are we supposed to do? What is our task? How do we wrap our arms around the enormity of the world’s pain? Where are we supposed to start when the pain of the world is everywhere? Do we start with our community? Do we start with political action, or direct action? Do we find something we can do, something small? And what about our own pain? As I said last night, there are so many of us, perhaps even in this room now, who are on the razor’s edge. That’s what insomnia does to you, after all; it puts you on edge, makes you aware of your own fragility. A Christian colleague described to me an experience in his church. They have a women’s book club. It runs itself and is purely social. They read novels, the kind of thing that shows up in the New York Times Book Review. Last month they were discussing the latest book, some murder mystery, and somehow the topic turned to politics. Which lead to yelling. And screaming. An uncontrolled and uncontrollable revelry of invective and hostility. And this isn’t unique. Only a month ago, at Saturday morning services, when a congregant mentioned a public figure for the prayer for healing, another person present interrupted the service to share their hostility to the point where the congregant had to get up and leave services. How can we heal when we ourselves are hurt?

The answer is hope. We must begin with hope.

Yes, hope. It feels like such a pathetic word today, hope. It doesn’t help that the word was coopted by a political candidate back in 2008, emblazoned on some snazzy looking posters. Perhaps you remember. And perhaps you remember the disappointment that was felt when no kumbaya moment emerged and we were squabbling even worse than before. “How’s that hopey changey stuff?” Sarah Palin asked two years later.

The problem is that we got confused. We mistook hope for optimism. There’s nothing wrong with optimism, per se, but it isn’t as durable as hope, nor is it especially helpful to us right now. Optimism is passive, it doesn’t demand anything of us. Optimism is that Pollyanna idea that everything will turn out just right, that the future is bright, that our best years are always ahead of us; we just have to wait for someone else to act. Optimism is sitting at the gates, waiting for the messiah to arrive. And what happens when she doesn’t? What happens when the disappointment sets in?

That’s not hope. Not real hope. Real hope is much more urgent, much more prophetic, than that. Hope, I would argue, goes hand in hand with grief, that sense that the world is topsy-turvy. Hope, real hope, is subversive. To quote the theologian Walter Bruggeman: “Hope, on one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion.” Or, to quote Adam Savage of “Mythbusters” fame, “I reject your reality and substitute my own.” Not in the way of the conspiracy theorist, mind you, or the delusional, but in the staunch refusal to accept that we are doomed, that the people around us are beyond salvation, that nothing we can do matters. It is, in effect, how Abraham responds to Isaac’s question that we discussed a moment ago. When Isaac asks where is the offering to be sacrificed, Abraham responds quixotically: “God will see to it that there is an offering.” At first, we might read this as terrible foreshadowing, or a hint of Isaac’s fate. But the other way to read this is as words of hope, as if to say, “I, Abraham, do not accept that God will make me sacrifice my son today. I refuse to accept that that is my son’s destiny, or mine. So, God, I’m calling you out. And who knows, maybe I’ll find a ram to offer instead, whose horn my descendants will use year after year to call you out, and remind you, and remind themselves, of what must be done.”

And that is what hope demands of us. And yes, real hope makes demands. Hope demands that we question and protest and push back, that we use our moral imaginations to conceive of a better world. Hope is a call to action. It is the call to be prophetic. Not to predict the future; that was never the Jewish understanding of prophecy. Rather, and here I quote Bruggeman again, to be prophetic is “refuse to accept the definitions of reality that are imposed upon us by the socio-economic political power structure.” The person of hope, the prophetic person, refuses to accept that there are those unworthy of love, or compassion. The person of hope refuses the narratives of fear and demoralization. The person of hope refuses to accept that we are helpless in the face of crushing certainty that all is lost. The person of hope refuses to accept that this is our world now, and that we are merely doomed to live in it. The person of hope refuses to give in to the pain, refuses to throw up their hands in helplessness, refuses to go back to sleep. The person of hope, the prophetic person, understands what the prophets understood: that there is always something to do, and that we are called to do it, and that the doing changes the world entirely. That the balm for moral insomnia isn’t sleep, but getting up and getting to work. It’s choosing to care for the Other however we can, with whatever we have. And we have resources: our time, our energy, our imaginations, our love, and our tradition.

To be a Jew is to be a prophetic person, a person of hope. That is the beauty of our tradition, going all the way back to Abraham. That it is a tradition of hope. That it understands that our path is one of action; that there is always a task, a mitzvah, before us, and none are more important than the other. That they are not, at the end of the day, empty rituals and moldy texts, or merely rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic, but tasks that restore hope in others and ourselves, tasks that lead to healing, tasks that lead to dignity and holiness. That’s what we need to do.

In Warsan Shire’s poem “what they did yesterday afternoon”, toward the end, it reads

I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered


The world hurts, everywhere. We are awake to the pain; we cannot go back to sleep, back to indifference or helplessness. Our tradition demands that we act with hope, with the moral imagination that things could be different, and work toward that difference however we can, with whatever we have: caring for and healing the Other. To use our moral imaginations to reject the reality presented to us, and substitute our own, a world of Justice and wholeness and mercy and peace.  We hope for that world by doing justice now. By loving mercy now. By repairing what is broken, now. By walking humbly, now. As the New Year begins, as we hear Abraham and Isaac’s words, as we hear the sound of the shofar, may we hear the sounds and words of hope, and may we choose to live them, each and every day. Amen.

Tue, September 26 2023 11 Tishrei 5784