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A Giant Future

Delivered by Rabbi Elaine Zecher on Yom Kippur 5781 at Temple Israel of Boston
What a time this is. Going to work in pajama bottoms? Trying to parent children and do your job at the same time. Gazing out the window at  empty streets or looking through photo albums you haven’t opened in years. The pandemic has disrupted routines, habits, and any sense of “normalcy.”
What a challenging time this is. Physical distancing denies the primal human need of social contact. Disparity, despair, dis-ease and disease roll off our tongues, the lexicon of how we describe our situation. We can feel lonely whether surrounded by lots of people we love or none.
Let’s also be clear. Blessings abound. More time with family for those who can work from home. And even those who can’t. Intentional conversations that are deeper and more honest. New hobbies, more cooking, (not me!) less commute time. And more truth when we are asked how we are.
So we arrive on this day of introspection and reassessment. To see our lives differently. To reprioritize beyond what we imagined could be ever possible in light of today’s giant challenges. That is what we do every Yom Kippur and even more so today because of Covid. We shed our daily behaviors of food, drink, and other actions of regular life and consider the path forward.
Yet today is a funeral for the past, for the assumptions that have ordered our lives and the predictions of what to expect. This year, we laid to rest our definition of normal. We mourn what we thought we knew and grieve for the many losses we have experienced. We have buried that regular life, or at least how we once defined it. And let’s acknowledge that many of us are in a state of grief for our lives altered unexpectedly and without our consent.
I, too, have felt paralyzed by this virus. Late June, I spiraled into a state of denial and sadness, overwhelmed by the thought and then the realization that whatever vision of the future I had, turned on its head. The world was swirling around us all. The pain and anguish expressed in the protests on the streets gave voice to the blatant racism coursing through our nation. Back then, we had reached more than 100,000 deaths, disproportionately reflected in communities of color. Three months later and just this week, we are up past the grim milestone of 200,000 deaths. Every loss from the first to those happening today in our nation and the world have many grieving families and many more in an anxious state.
How can we imagine a future when we are mired in an impossible present, trying to make it through each day? Yet we must, so tonight, I want to name our vulnerability and uncertainty, and the complex and ambiguous(i) shared state of existence so that we might invite the future toward us as we learn to lean into it.
Winston Churchill said, “when you are walking through hell, keep going.” [On this day of Yom Kippur, we ask how?]
The story of King David who faced the giant Goliath has been relayed as the tale of the triumph of the underdog, but there is another way to understand it. When young David, volunteered to fight Goliath, King Saul provided him with armor, sword and shield to take him into battle. Weighed down and encumbered, David took it all off. He insisted on facing the giant with the only weapon he knew, the slingshot he used to fight off ferocious animals attacking his sheep. Goliath, on the other hand, a veteran soldier appeared for battle with heavy armor. He would face the enemy prepared, so he thought. Goliath laughed and mocked
David when he saw him advance with only a slingshot in his hand. David could have taken one look at the giant and thought, “He is so big, how could I win?” Instead David recalibrated, “he is so big, how can I miss?” One rock in a slingshot; the rest is history. And a message for the future.
David came running toward Goliath, powered by courage, ingenuity, and faith(ii) with an innovative strategy to face his adversary. Goliath couldn’t comprehend that his view of the world had been shattered and it hit him right between the eyes.
Perhaps, we think our present and the future is some big Goliath staring us down with heavy armor. And we feel initially as vulnerable as David appeared. But the story of David offers us a new perspective. What drove David was the security he knew he already had to defend his people and to step forward.
Armed with faith, ingenuity, and the courage to address the challenges before us, we can defeat any goliath.
On Yom Kippur, we decide how we want to be. We determine the kind of person who will rise at the final blast of the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur. Our liturgy praises God, but the words we say and the prayers we offer demonstrate human ability and agency as well. We are here to rediscover that the resources we can call upon have been with us all along and are part of the fabric of our tradition.
We take the voices of the prophets as inspiration and guide.
Let’s consider Jeremiah and the Israelites exiled in Babylonia. Carried off from a world they knew, those taken captive lamented that they were forlorn and lost. Jeremiah wrote to them:
Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit.
Get married and have children. Ensure your children marry and have
offspring. Multiply there, do not decrease.
And seek the welfare of the city where [God has] exiled you and pray to
the Eternal on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.(iii)
Keep living, Jeremiah implored the people that was his strategy as to how they would thrive. Build, sow, and reap. Jeremiah who himself had been jailed in Jerusalem conveyed to the people that they were still connected to one another and to the Divine. Jeremiah’s vision was that God would fulfill the promise to bring them back with “plans for their welfare, not disaster and hope for their future.”
Life has not stopped happening. We cannot be stuck in “in between time” any longer. We go on living during the Covid era just as Jeremiah reminded the ancient exiles. Armed with masks, physical distancing, washing hands, and mitigating risks, there is work to be done!
Our future is not ours alone, however. The pain, despair, inequity, climate crisis, and loneliness stare us in the face just as much as any Goliath sized Covid does. As one rabbi recently wrote:
Not every crisis empowers. We are well advised to face up to the fact that the situation is bad, and it’s
likely to get worse. But…there is no period of history devoid of the potential for learning and growth.(iv)
We learn from the prophets of old and in our own time how we take care of one another matters. Radical empathy(v) for understanding the experiences of others in need demands our attention and efforts. Judaism pushes us to be better at the way we live.
Tomorrow morning, we will hear the how the prophet Isaiah recognized the power of action:
…this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness…To let the
oppressed go free… It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take
the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe
[them], And not to ignore your own kin. (vi)
It is not just the inspiration of our ancient prophets, however, that guide us on this path. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s life and legacy lifts us up that much higher as we face the challenges before us. We have read, heard, listened to the noble tributes and eulogies as they speak of hope, ingenuity, and courage. She understood the power of her voice coupled with the clarion call of justice and dignity for every person. She summoned us to our higher selves, embodying the prophetic insistence that we take responsibility for a world improved through equal inclusion of every soul.
That vision and its result is reflected in Isaiah;
Then shall your light burst through like the dawn. And your healing spring up quickly…And you shall be called Repairer of the breach, restorer of pathways for living.(vii)
Our kindness toward one another can provide the antidote to despair. This is how we recalibrate. Imagining a future powered by compassion and justice for one another. We must face and work to overcome racism, bias, and anti-semitism. Our actions and behavior take us into the future. One day we will live in a post Covid world, though its effects will not disappear quickly, if ever.
Of course there is fear!
Moses, the prophet extraordinaire charged his successor, Joshua, with the blessing, Be strong and of good courage.
These words acknowledge that fear resides close to the surface but it is balanced by strength and courage. We know this fear has become part of the way we operate now. It helps us be aware and cautious, too, but not so cautious that we become immobilized. Our innate strength and courage push us forward.
We learn from death and funerals that shivah ends. Life goes on. Today may be the funeral for the past of how we defined normal, but it is also the birth of the future.
The words we will offer tonight and tomorrow speak of the power of we, not I. Our prayers teach us that we are all included. That makes us stronger. We, like David are armed in our tradition’s guidance of courage, ingenuity, and values. Recalibration is our future. We will create vaccines and better treatments to address Covid-today’s Goliath. We will wear masks, physical distance, wash our hands. We have our community, this gathering of Temple Israel, guided by Jewish tradition with the values of love, justice, and compassion to enable us to defeat giants.
We will persevere.
How fortunate we are to have Yom Kippur provide us a pathway into this soon to be constructed new life, rebirthed and reborn, to see ourselves and the future differently and yet with more clarity so that we can run toward those Goliaths with courage, ingenuity and the values of our tradition.
May it be so.
Keyn Yehi Ratzon
(i) The acronym VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. It originated as a military
concept to describe the world when the Soviet Union fell. It is often used now to understand many
situations beyond its original definition. See The New Leadership Literacies by Bob Johansen
(ii) David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, chapter 1
(iii) Jeremiah 29:4-7
(iv) Rabbi Michael Marmur, Rabbis for Human Rights Newsletter, 9.25.20
(v) Isabel Wilkerson writes of radical empathy as “putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen to
another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel.” Caste, pg 368
(vi) Isaiah 58: 6-7
(vii) Isaiah 58: 8; 12
Some of the resources that helped me think about the ideas in this sermon:
Caste, The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson
David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell
Morality, Restoring the Common Good, Jonathan Sacks
The New Leadership Literacies, Bob Johansen
Together, Vivek H Murthy, MD