Thursday, October 13, 2016

From Despair to Hope - Yom Kippur Morning Sermon

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about how having a positive attitude matters in accomplishing our goals. On Rosh Hashanah morning, I spoke of what it means to be a Jew and why I am a Jew. Last night, I spoke of remembering the trials and tribulations of our ancestors along with tremendous acts of courage that enabled us to survive as a people. This morning, I will speak to you about hope. First about biblical prophecies that have inspired generations and then, about how we might envision a brighter future even amid troubling times.

This morning, we read from Chapter 29 of the Book of Deuteronomy:

10 All of you are standing today in the presence of Adonai your God—your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, 11 together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water. 12 You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with Adonai your God, a covenant Adonai is making with you this day and sealing with an oath, 13 to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 14 I am making this covenant with its oath, not only with you 15 who are standing here with us today in the presence of Adonai our God but also with those who are not here today.

This passage brings to mind on this traditional day of judgement the rabbinical directive, “Da lifnei mi atah omeid,” “Know before whom your stand.” These words are often written above the Holy Ark and remind us that we are not merely standing in a congregation of people, but that all of us come before God individually for judgement.

The passage from Deuteronomy serves a dual purpose. In its original context, it comes at the end of the consequences of failing to uphold the Covenant on the one hand or fulfilling them on the other. Among those curses for failing to uphold the Covenant is one that proved itself prescient in the minds of generations of Jews. It is found at the end of the previous chapter of Deuteronomy. In chapter 28, only a dozen verses earlier than today’s Torah portion, we find a description of exile:

64 Then Adonai will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods—gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your ancestors have known. 65 Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There Adonai will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. 66 You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life.

In conjunction with the Kol Nidrei prayer from last night, the prayer of those who were forced to say “yes,” when they meant “no,” people scattered among the nations, people threatened with further exile, people living in a state of constant anxiety, how much more accurate could a description of their lives be? For most of the past two millennia, this was the life of the Jews.

This fact was not missed by Isaac ben Moses Arama who lived during the time of the Expulsion from Spain. He wrote of these words from Deuteronomy:

We may possibly find an allusion in this verse to the time when thousands of Jews would change their religion as a result of suffering and persecution. Regarding this, the Torah states “and among these nations shalt thou have no repose.” For although they would assimilate among the nations, they would not find relief thereby, since the nations would still constantly revile them and denounce them as relapsed converts as we indeed have seen in our day, when a part have perished in the flames of the inquisition, a part have fled, and yet others continue to live in fear of their lives.

For a people inclined to believe in the truth of the text already, the seeming accuracy of the vision from Deuteronomy was strong reinforcement. Not all of the texts that were seen as relevant were filled with doom and gloom, however. Somewhat in parallel to the curse from Deuteronomy that proved all too accurate for generation after generation was another textual source, the Book of Ezekiel the prophet. With the seeming accuracy of the passage from Deuteronomy, why couldn’t this passage be accurate as well?

From Ezekiel (37: 11-14, 21-22, 26-28)

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 

12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign God says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am Adonai, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I Adonai have spoken, and I have done it, declares Adonai.’”

21 Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign God says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. 22 I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel.

26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I Adonai make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”

Looking at these two passages together, Deuteronomy and Ezekiel, it is not that difficult to understand how the creation of the modern nation of Israel could be viewed in their context. There is no messianic figure involved here. God makes the exile happen and then God affects the return from exile.

When we speak of God feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, we believe that God acts through us. Likewise, when we speak of God gathering the exiles, it is we who make Aliyah, who return from exile into the Land of Israel.

In his recent book, Future Tense, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talks about his great-grandfather and Israel:

In 1871, my great-grandfather, Rabby Arye Leib Frumkin, left his home in Kelm, Lithuania, to go to live in Israel, following his father who had done so some twenty years earlier. One of his first acts was to begin writing a book, The History of the Sages of Jerusalem, a chronicle of the continuous Jewish presence in Jerusalem since Nachmanides arrived there in 1265 and began reconstructing the community that had been devastated during the Crusades.

In 1881, pogroms broke out in more than a hundred towns in Russia. In 1882, the notorious antisemitic May Laws were enacted, sending millions of Jews into flight to the West.

As an aside, this was the beginning of the major wave of immigration to the United States from Eastern Europe that ended after World War I. Rabbi Sacks continued:

Something happened to him [Rabbi Sacks’ grandfather] as a result of these experiences. Evidently he realized that Aliyah, going to live in Israel, was no longer a matter of pilgrimage of the few but a vital necessity for the many. He moved to one of the first agricultural settlements in the new Yishuv [the new area of settlement]. It had been settled some three or four years earlier, but the original farmers had contracted malaria and left. Some were now prepared to go back to work the land but not to live there. It was, they believed, simply too much of a hazard to health.

He led the return and built the first house there. When the settlers began to succeed in taming the land, they were attacked by local Arabs, and in 1894 he decided that it was simply too dangerous to stay, and he moved to London. Eventually, he returned and was buried there…

What fascinates me is the name the settlers gave to the village… It was set in the Yarkon Valley, and when they discovered that it was a malarial swamp, it appeared to them as a valley of trouble. But they knew the Hebrew Bible, and they recalled a verse from the prophet Hosea [2:15] in which God promised to turn the “valley of trouble” into a “gateway of hope.” That is the name they gave the village, today the sixth largest town in Israel: Petach Tikvah, the gateway of hope.

By the way, this is from the same passage in the Book of Hosea that discusses the marriage between God and Israel from which we often recite these verses during a wedding ceremony:

19 I will betroth you to me forever;
    I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
    in love and compassion.
20 I will betroth you in faithfulness,
    and you will acknowledge Adonai.


Hope is what helped our people survive nearly two thousand years in exile, enduring great suffering.

To despair of the hope of redemption was one of the greatest of sins according to the rabbis. Our Golden Age was not one of the past, but one not yet reached. As the historian Cecil Roth once noted, “The worse external conditions grew, the more profound and deep rooted was the certainty of deliverance.”

This hope is the very same hope, the very same hope that is found in HaTikvah, the national anthem of Israel:

Od lo avdah tikvateinu, “We still have our hope!”
Hatikvah bat shnot alpayim, “The hope of two thousand years,”
Lihiyot am hofshi b’artzeinu, “To be a free people in our land,”
Eretz Ziyon, vi’rushalayim, “The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

Hope is the true beating heart of the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people.
We know, furthermore, that it isn’t just our hope that matters. We must help those without hope find hope for us to truly live in peace.

And this morning, we see this in the words of the traditional YK morning Haftarah portion from Isaiah 58 (verses 4-12):

You cannot fast as you do today
    and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to Adonai?

What is desired of us in not merely inward reflection and contemplation, not merely mourning over the sad state of our world; it is instead that we bring hope to the hopeless. That is our great task. In the words of Isaiah:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Doing these things gives people hope in the midst of their despair. It brings light into their lives and just as it does for them, so too will it for us. As Isaiah tell us:

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of Adonai will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and Adonai will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the chains of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.

Hope makes one’s light rise amid the darkness so that even at the worst times, there will be light. Once we have become the people of hope, the people of light, the people whose job it is to be a “light unto the nations,” to quote from Isaiah chapter 49, then the people of Israel will be restored unto the land. Then, as we read in our Haftarah this morning:

11 Adonai will guide you always;
    he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
    and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of the Breech,
    Restorer of Streets with Houses.

It is often said that the first commandment in the Torah is “Pru urvu”, “Be fruitful and multiply.” But that isn’t actually true. That commandment is the first one given after human beings were created. The very first commandment in the Torah comes at the very beginning of the creation narrative and is given to all beings, “Y’hi Or!” “Let there be light!”

This Yom Kippur, this day which recalls to mind generations of Jews past and urges us to regain the right path in our own lives, may we strive to bring light and hope into our world, through our words and our actions.

Y’hi Or! Go forth and bring light and hope into the darkness.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah! May we all be sealed in the Book of Life and Blessing for a good, happy, healthy and sweet year!

Kein Y’hi Ratson! May it be God’s will!

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