Don’t Let Them Win — Yom Kippur Sermon

My husband, besides being a stunning musician, makes the perfect cup of coffee.  I don’t know if it’s the variety of coffee, our particular machine, or if he lovingly talks to the beans before grinding them, but there is little in this world that makes me smile more than when he appears in the bedroom with a cup of it, on a lazy weekend morning.

The day I started to write this sermon, I walked into my yard with a hot cup of this decadent coffee in hand, sat on the steps with our Maltipoo, enjoyed the gentle breeze coming in off the Pacific Ocean, and exhaled.  It was August, and the marine layer overhead was a welcome respite from the heat that had been and would follow. Etsy, our little rescue dog, tucked her face under my arm for a bit of love and protection, and I gave her a scratch, sipped another sip of my coffee, and got lost in the fact that there were so many varieties of the color green in my eyeshot.  It was one of those perfect summer mornings when I didn’t have to be anywhere quite yet and could just be and enjoy the moment.

And then, the guilt set in.  I literally ripped myself out of the stillness in a rage of internal anguish.  It was the week of both the El Paso and Dayton shootings, on the heels of the murders in Gilroy, Ca, and the morning of stabbings in Orange County.  That week I had attended a protest at City Hall about the treatment of asylum seekers, was considering a caravan to Adelanto detention center, and planning on attending another event at a different Detention Center downtown that weekend.  With all of the pain and dangers in the world, with all that so many are facing , how dare I enjoy my little yard, my maltipoo, my perfect cup of coffee, or the color green? How dare I feel joy or be nourished when there are too many without joy or nourishment?  How do I not spend every waking moment writing, marching, screaming at the top of my lungs about the state of our world? And if I’m not doing that, at least be writing my sermons (which I guess in a way I was), working on the curriculum for our classes, brainstorming about growing our community so I can maybe provide others with a tiny slice of sanity and calm from the storm through our Kehillah Sababah, our Cool Shul?  Ocean breezes and maltipoos? I’m a spoiled brat, and I have no right to either one.

But I decided, that summer morning, to try to quiet my mind for a little while, and enjoy the coffee, the dog’s snuggle, the gentle breeze, and the color green.  And here is why… 

If there is any gift for us in this time in history, it’s the gift of paying attention to the little joys of life…  To remember to breathe, to eat something delicious, to admire nature, and to hug our loved ones (be they furry or not).  Because not enjoying them isn’t helping anyone and will leave us drained and exhausted. We can’t fight 24/7.  We can’t stress 24/7. If we do, we will not have the strength to face everything we may have to face in the future months and years.  And that’s what those who would separate nursing babies from their mothers’ arms at the border, want us to do.  They want us to ignore our kids, our work, our fun, and obsess over them, and run out of steam, and give up.  But we won’t.

Plus, with the trauma of the news cycle, as I spoke about during Rosh Hashanah, we are often reacting a bit too strongly to the little things because our nerves are frayed.  Taking a few peaceful breaths and sips and cuddles is what we need to center ourselves. We need to remember that many of our problems pale in comparison to what others are going through, so we might as well not make ourselves suffer through them and enjoy what we have instead.  So, our kids aren’t perfect. So, camp cost more than we expected. So, our car needs repair again. So, the printer jammed. So, the cell phone got dropped in the toilet. All of this is mild in comparison to overcrowded detention centers, or another shooting. So we might as well just tackle our issues one at a time, in gratitude for the instances when our problems are not crises, and try not to lose it over the small stuff so we have the strength to battle the big stuff.  

I have mentioned that I recently took a class in modern Jewish thought, and one of the authors we studied, Emil Fackenheim, wrote a book entitled, The Commanding Voice of Auschwitz.  Fackenheim believed that the existence of the Holocaust created a message as loud and as clear as any heard at Mt. Sinai in the Torah.  This message, which he calls a new, additional commandment for all Jews (and in my mind, for all people), is the 614th commandment. That commandment is to not do the work of the Nazis for them by extinguishing ourselves.  To uphold this commandment, Fackenheim says we should never, ever stop telling the story of the Holocaust. He says we must not abandon the promise of Jewish existence, either through our own Jewish practices, or through the support of the Jewish people.  But most importantly, Fackenheim says we must do this, by living in joy.  Yes, we should mourn the tragedy of World War II, but he warns us against allowing Judaism to exist only for the sake of existence or to have the main thrust of Jewish culture and practice be one of mournful remembrance.  He says we must find song, and love, and beauty and meaning and passion and joy in how we demonstrate our Jewishness. If we do so, if we find glory and peace in Jewish spirituality, culture, food, and community, then we will have performed the ultimate resistance against Nazism.  Fackenheim believed that Hitler would want nothing more than for the Jews remaining on this planet to allow themselves to survive only in states of despair. If Judaism is only about beating ourselves on our chests, only about sad melodies, only about the pain of the past, then we have destroyed ourselves.  We have let them win. Yet everytime we find happiness in Jewish expression, it is a fist in the face of Hitler.

I think the same is true now in this world, and specifically in the United States.  Every time we don’t allow ourselves to go insane with the next news update or spend dinner arguing around the table about the latest tweet… every time we, instead, choose joy, we win.  If we share a meal, share affection, share a job – yes, with those we know and love, but especially with a stranger, or with someone who might be considered “undesirable” in this new American dynamic, or a person of a different faith than our own, a person of a different color than our own, a person from another country than our own… then we are spreading love, not fear.  Doing so is shaking our fists in the face of those who are anti-immigrant, anti-diversity, and are thriving on a message of fear and hate not so different from the one Fackenheim is begging us to remember.  

It is our mandate, and I never use that word, but I feel it so strongly right now, to step boldly and fearlessly into the light, as dangerous as it might be, and spread joy and live in joy, and scream out to the world, “I am here!  I won’t hide! I will live joyfully! You can’t take that away from me!” We owe this kind of thinking to our children, who are hearing us discuss the news, or are themselves reading or hearing the news, or worse learning about it from their friends.  Many of them are confused and afraid, and we must be examples for them of dreams still being alive, hope still being alive, and discovering solutions together in a world with endless possibilities of reconciliation and beauty. If we live in fear, anguish, hatred and anger, especially in front of our kids… If we spend our time fighting and screaming, the more “fun” the other side is having watching us fall apart.  Then we have done their work for them. We have allowed them to rob us of our very souls.  

If we could band together, not just in protest, but arm in arm in pride, we win.  We already have Gay Pride Parades, and now a Women’s March, but let’s also organize Diversity Pride Parades, Immigrant Pride Parades, Minority Pride Parades, Interfaith-Pride Parades, Education Parades, I Believe in Science Parades (I think there actually was one of those!) and take to the streets not only in despair but with hope.  Let’s celebrate the world we know we can mold. That will annoy them the most.

And so, yes, now it is time to beat our chests and admit the times we were wrong, the times we were selfish, the times we were petty, the times we were mean, the times we were jealous,  the times we didn’t see or didn’t listen. We will try to shake it all out, and let go of the guilt of the past and start with a new day, so we can be like Jacob of the Torah after his wrestling match… who faces his past, earns a new name, loses the title of his past errors, and finds a second chance.  He leaves that wrestling match with a limp, and perhaps we, too, after the past year will have some remaining scars, but then it is time to move on. Let’s not wallow in this regret. Let’s say our sorries (especially to the next generation who will have to clean up our world), march boldly into the light, and live this life with joy.

If we don’t, we will have let them win.

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One thought on “Don’t Let Them Win — Yom Kippur Sermon

  1. What a powerfully beautiful, thoughtful and brilliant sermon that was! Your heart, your soul and your mind never cease to amaze me and keep me in awe! XO

    Liked by 1 person

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