Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Monday, September 28, 2020

Battling our Goliath Problems - Yom Kippur Morning 5781/2020

Given the online format of services, this sermon was delivered in three parts. Part one was before the recitation of Unetaneh Tokef. Part two before Avinu Malkeinu. Part three was after the reading of the Cain/Abel Story and before the reading of Isaiah 57-58.

Part 1

Imagine the Biblical Goliath. A powerful Philistine, he’s 9 feet 9 inches fall, wearing heavy armor and wielding an assortment of top-of-the-line weapons: a bronze helmet, a mail coat, bronze shin-guards. He’s got a bronze javelin slung between his shoulders and a heavy spear with a head of iron in his giant hand. The first Book of Samuel describes Goliath as an unmatched, expert warrior, stepping out each day onto the battlefield, haughtily demanding the ancient Israelites send him an adversary who he will expeditiously defeat.

As the story goes, the Israelites are terror-stricken at the sight of him. Once...and a then again...the Israelites see Goliath and flee in horror. The Book of Samuel takes care to repeat the word that expresses their emotion: yirah - fear.

The mighty King David is only a young, ruddy-faced shepherd at this point in the story. But for his part, he’s not afraid. He’s strangely confident, actually. He comes before King Saul claiming that he can take on the giant. King Saul, eventually won over by David’s bravado, sends him to fight. The king places his own bronze helmet on David’s head, fastens his breastpiece to David’s chest, and hands over a sword. David, armed in the finest armor...can’t move. It doesn’t fit, it’s getting in his way. He sheds the protective gear and grabs a simple stick. From here we know the rest of the story: with just a slingshot and some moxie, David wins the day.

The well-known moral of the story is to believe in the underdog. If small, boyish David could take down an arrogant giant, we can certainly rise above our goliath problems. But Eli Wiesel, the famous philosopher and Holocaust survivor chooses to highlight a different detail in the story:

“David, on his way to fight Goliath, was given the king’s armor. For a battle this unequal, with life-and-death stakes, armor made sense. But David removed the armor, for it didn’t fit him. This image has stayed with me as a symbol of a key concept: that vulnerability is the greatest weapon if you are brave enough to use it.”

Throughout COVID times, the story of David and Goliath has moved me in a way it never used to. No longer a fairy tale with a trite moral, it painfully represents how we feel navigating our lives right now. It speaks to the pandemic and the way it has pummeled our sense of normalcy; how it has stolen our relational intimacy. It’s how we feel about the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the shadow it casts on the November election, which feels more high-stakes than ever before.

Like our ancestors on the ancient battlefield, we are terror-stricken. We pray for a vaccine, we long for a political hero or an electoral sweep, whatever it will take to wipe out these colossal threats in one fell swoop.

But alas, like the generations before us, we still await King David’s descendent, the physical or metaphorical Messiah. No modern medicine or governmental turn over can change what we’ve really discovered during this time: a multi-front battle with our own fallibility and failures. There’s the realization that our bodies are frail; the recognition that our nation is structurally flawed. Yirah - fear - lurks and pounces as we feel powerless against these giant realities.

Yet Wiesel, a person who lived through the worst - a scary, unprecedented amalgam of all these afflictions - urges us in these most precarious times to embrace our vulnerability.

Consider King David. He was God’s anointed, yet he was not too unlike us. David performed almost every sin we’ll confess this morning - he lied and killed and lusted and cheated. Our sacred texts put his mortal flaws on display to serve as an example. Stripped to his physical and spiritual essence many times in his story, we watch as David applies his most authentic, basic strengths to face formidable foes, even when that foe is himself.

We too must strip to the bare, difficult truths of who we are and what we’ve done, individually and as a collective. The challenge is not to cower in fear of what we discover, but to instead tremble in awe: with nothing holding us back, imagine what we are capable of!

Yom Kippur is the day we strip to our spiritual essence in order to discover our authentic strengths. We recite “Unetakeh Tokeif” - a piyyut that throws our frailty and our cosmic insignificance in our faces. “Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day because it is norah - fearful and full of awe.” The Day of Judgement, where God, and we, take note of our vulnerability.

R. Edward Feinstein is quoted in our machzor as saying, “[When it comes to the prayer’s questions,] the answer to “me.” Who will live and who will die? I will. Who at their end and who not at their end? Me. Like every human being...Fire, water, earthquake, plague? In my lifetime, I’ve been scorched and drowned, shaken and burdened, wandering and at rest, tranquil and troubled...This is the central truth of the High Holy Days...We are vulnerable and powerful at the same time.”

We can wield our vulnerability. Perhaps not as a weapon, as Wiesel posits, but as a tool. If we can tolerate the fear that shakes our bones, we eventually can steady ourselves enough to chart a creative course. Aware of our faults, frailty and doubts, might we finally begin to move toward the path of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah? Stripped of our distracting armor, the hubris of our modern technologies and demagogues, we can more freely turn the course of our lives, directing our hearts toward holiness.

Part 2

So what happens when we surrender our armor, make ourselves vulnerable and then the worst does come true? What happens when we face the harsh truths of a harsh environment, and we are in fact injured: physically or spiritually?

I ask this question, because all of us are wounded in some way right now. We have watched hundreds of thousands of Americans die by plague. One or more may have been your loved one. If you are a person of color or part of another marginalized community, you have the added trauma of assault after assault, of struggling to thrive in an oppressive environment. If you are a front line worker or teacher, if you are suddenly both a parent and a teacher right now, if you have lost your job, if you’ve lost your routines, your freedom of movement, whatever it may too are wounded. Some of us carry the trauma of our wounds like a weight. Some of us experience it like a live wire, lying quietly before you touch it and it jumps up hot again.

How do we muster the courage to face our goliath problems when we’re wounded, traumatized and exhausted?

Ariel Burger’s book Witness synthesizes what he learned as Eli Wiesel’s teaching assistant. In it, he remembers:

[One day in class, Wiesel told the following story:] “During the expulsion from Spain, a family escaped into Morocco, into the desert. They faced the blazing sun, hunger, and disease. The mother was the first to die. So the father dug a grave and said Kaddish - the prayer acknowledging God’s greatness even in the face of death - with his two children. Then the older child died. The father dug a grave and said Kaddish. Then his younger child died. The father dug yet another grave, and then he spoke to God. He said, “God, I know You want to test me, You want to see if I will lose my faith, if I will despair. I will not! In spite of You, and for You, I will not!” And he said Kaddish.

Wiesel let [the class] feel the silence the father might have felt, then he [commented], “God’s silence is an old problem. But the father in this tale has a new response: faith as protest, loyalty as an act of rebellion. This is what I call wounded faith.”

Wiesel went on: “Kierkegaard wrote that faith must be lost and found again. I replace the word lost with wounded. At one point in our life it must be wounded in order to be true. One Hasidic master said, ‘No heart is as whole as a broken heart.’ I believe that no faith is as whole as a wounded faith.”

There was a time when we thought all we were up against was fleeting. How many times have you said “2020 can’t get worse?” But then it does, and each of us continues to imbibe waves of grief, anger and fear. 

Our challenge this morning is to shed our expectations of the year 2020, as hard as it is to let them go.

The sound of the shofar, blasted at the end of this day, howls at us to shed the fantasy that what we were, what life was, was perfect. When we are told to “return” each year, it is never to what we were before. Instead, it is a call to return to an unguarded, primordial state - to the very beginning - to the potential of what we can be.

The Yom Kippur day is not here to scare us into submission. It’s here to make us alert, aware, compassionate, and responsible. For the injuries we caused, we atone. For the wounds we received, we pray to endure them.

And endure them we will. We can decide to thrive despite our injuries. We can carry our unease and pain as evidence of our will to live, our ability to grow and survive.

Burger, experiencing his own wounded faith, weighing heavy questions about God and life’s purpose, eventually had a realization: “Maybe it wasn’t true that faith and doubt were opposites. Maybe my questions actually emerged from faith and served to telegraph the immensity of the subconscious spaces that I had yet to fill with meaning. As I walked through my days, I felt my questions as a comet’s tail behind me, marking my crossing, illuminating rather than darkening the path before me.”

This conjures two images for me, one I like more than the other. The first: we could see hope as a torch in a cave, lighting our way inch by inch.

Yet it is easy for a small lantern to be dwarfed by the vast darkness around it. Instead, I’m compelled by Burger’s metaphor: seeing fear, anger, doubt and disappointment as a comet’s tail - evidence of your propulsion forward, peeling off as you fly forward into a starry unknown.

The heat of your anger, the turmoil of your fear and doubt, let it be your thrust.

On this day, we shed our emotional armor and stand vulnerable before the Holy One, not sure if we will be met with Avinu or Malkeinu. God is Avinu, our parent, the source of our life and light. God is also Malkeinu, the ruling body that operates outside the realm of our control.

Will the new year be a good year for us? Never before have I been so unsure and so scared of what the answer will be. But I do know, that despite the fear, I am filled with so much awe, and so much reverence for the lessons I’ve learned about my own failures, about our society’s failures, that I feel ready to shoot through the unknown, leaving a trail of insight - its dust and humility - sparkling behind me.

Part 3

These are the Days of Fear - Yamim haNoraim. Norah - terrified, fearful - just like the Israelites in Goliath’s presence, just like each of us at the close of 5780.

Yet, as R. Bachya Ibn Paquda said, “The fear of Heaven has two aspects: the fear of tribulations and Divine retribution, and the awe of God’s glory, majesty and awesome power.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer expands on Ibn Paquda, saying: “...there are two types of reverence of Heaven - the fear of future accountability and the awe of Divine majesty. However, it must be stressed that the two are not equal. It is clear that awe of God’s majesty is on a more exalted plane than the fear of future accountability.”

Cain served as a perfect example of the fear/awe dichotomy in our Torah portion this morning. Early in the story, when Cain and Abel both bring a gift to God and God favors Abel’s, God warns a grumbly Cain: “Would it not be better to rise above your anger and jealousy? Sin crouches like a beast at the door: you are what it craves; and yet - you can overcome it.” (Genesis 4:7)

Famously, he does not. Fear of Divine retribution is not enough to help Cain rise above his disappointment and he kills his brother. Yet, after the whole episode, when Cain realizes he may have banished God from his life, he can’t bear it: “Hidden from your presence, I am a homeless wanderer on earth,” he exclaims.

Having now seen the fault line between life and death in the eyes of his murdered brother, Cain saw God. He glimpsed the ineffable in the most extreme and perverted way. The awe of God’s majesty changes him more than fear ever could.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the Eternal.”

That is what Cain saw, and what Isaiah, the prophet of Yom Kippur morning, preaches. In the haftarah, Isaiah starts by reminding us to acknowledge our sins, our transgressions, our evil inclinations - just like God did with Cain. “Yes,” Isaiah affirms, “ask God the “right” way to live.” “But beware,” he warns, “fear of doing it wrong will not keep you from wrongdoing.” Cain lived in this baser realm of fear. Not until he grasped awe did he transform into a better person.

We are experiencing multiple pandemics these days. If we act upon them with fear of the consequences (political, financial or otherwise) we’re going to come up short. Fear leads us to giving into our lesser impulses. Yet if we act with awe - reverence for life and our legacy - we may achieve the expectations God has for us this day.

Scholar Susannah Heschel wrote back in June about a ritual called a shvartze chasene—a wedding in a cemetery. East European Jews have been known to organize these weddings when “cholera, typhus, influenza, and other epidemics would strike. A black chuppah (wedding canopy) was set up in the midst of the graves in the town’s cemetery, the rabbi performed the service, and the townspeople rejoiced and brought gifts of everything the new couple might need to set up a household. The shvartze chasene was also distinguished by the bride and groom: not an engaged couple in love, but two people chosen by town elders, often impoverished orphans, marginalized and neglected by society.”

These ceremonies are also known to have taken place in America during the 1918 Flu Epidemic as well as during the Holocaust. The ritual has little to do with magically trying to ease the plague at hand, although it appears that way at first. Instead, the shvartze chasene set its sights on the plague of fear, gripping the community. Heschel notes that “A wedding, a moment of joy, is held in a place of death and sorrow. A wedding is organized at a time when disease is hovering over every household. Why a shvartze chasene? Certainly, it is an effort of the community to do a good deed, an appeal to God to lift the epidemic. Perhaps it is intended to fool the forces of evil into thinking they have no power. Or perhaps it is a way to deceive one’s own emotions, rejoicing when the heart is filled with mourning.”

She continues:

“I’m not advocating a revival of the shvartze chasene but take a lesson: that all the rational advice of doctors, epidemiologists, and virologists is not sufficient. Racial terror and the terror of mass death are also epidemics needing our attention. There is one cure for the epidemic of fear: justice, the assurance that we live in a society rooted in moral values, that health is the concern of all, that everyone’s family is secure and will never be abandoned, but always cared for, and that all human beings are equally precious.”

Wise words indeed. If we could manifest this dream, and heed this most holy call to rightful action, “then shall your light burst through like the dawn” says Isaiah, “and your healing will sprout up with haste.” (58:8).

God of our ancestors, God of the wounded, the orphaned and the fearful, we have shed our armor this morning before you. You see our wounds, how our bodies tremble. Help lift our faces toward you, adjust our eyes to see even the faintest breaking of the dawn. And if still our retinas cannot distinguish it, may our small perception of your glory, our fleeting sense of your presence today be enough to propel us to better days. Then, in the words of your prophet, “righteousness shall march before you, the glory of God will be your rear guard. When you call, the Eternal will answer. When you cry, God will say, Here I am.”

Ken Yhi Ratzon.