It’s Time to Believe | Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5779
Delivered by Senior Rabbi Rachel Timoner
I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love even when I can’t feel it.
I believe in God even when he is silent.
These words were found on a cellar wall in Cologne, Germany where Jews hid from Nazis. They also are the epigraph of a short story: Yosl Rakover talks to God, in which Zvi Kolitz imagines a Warsaw Ghetto fighter at the end of his life.
In the story, Yosl Rakover is leaving a note for the future, telling us of the final hours of the ghetto. He begins by relating in detail how his wife and six children died. He is one of the last of the fighters still alive in one of the last houses still standing, armed with Molotov cocktails. The house is crumbling, and Yosl Rakover is preparing for his own death. He questions God’s silence, he accuses God, he does not excuse God.
But Yosl Rakover is a believer. He writes: “You have done everything to make me lose my faith in You, to make me cease to believe in You. But I die exactly as I have lived, an unshakeable believer…”
I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love even when feeling it not.
I believe in God even when he is silent.
His words are reminiscent of the relentless faith expressed in song by Jews in concentration camps: Ani ma’amin, ani ma’amin, ani ma’amin. I believe, I believe, I believe in the coming of the messiah, and even though he tarries, with a complete faith, I believe.
The word “faith” can sound Christian, but it is ours. It is believing in what you can’t see. Believing against all odds, sometimes, against all evidence. Our people have believed, trusted, not only in God, but in the sun, even when the world seemed cold; in love, and fundamental goodness, even when we experienced evil. Faith, belief, trust: in Hebrew, Emunah.
Was there ever a time, once upon a time, when you believed… in something?
Maybe before the world seemed so dire and bleak. Maybe before all of the complications of adulthood, the sophistications, compromises, and practicalities. Maybe before it seemed that all that was left was greed.
Did you ever believe in God: a force, a presence, a source, connection, belonging, being led?
Did you ever believe in love? Did you ever trust another person with everything, your very life, your heart, your mission, your ideas, your longing, your secret, your truth?
Did you ever trust other people to do good, to try hard, to care, to tell the truth?
It is time to believe again.
Was there a time when you believed in your own power? You could crawl, climb catch leap swim, hop whistle snap, sing, read. And since then? When did you believe in your own power?
Now is the time to believe again.
Was there ever a time when you believed in leaders? People who would dedicate themselves and their power to right wrongs. Courageous people who took risks to stand for truth. Loving people who sacrificed to champion justice for all.
It’s time to believe again.
Did you ever believe in the Jewish people? We immigrants, dreamers, survivors, we bearers of Torah who hear the cry of the oppressed, the stranger, the widow, the orphan. Called upon to love our fellow human being as we love ourselves. Did you ever really believe in us as a people? Do you now?
Did you ever believe in government, by the people for the people, checks and balances, public servants and the common good? Did you believe in “liberty and justice for all.” Did you ever believe in “Send me your poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Did you ever believe in America?
Please, let us believe again.
We come together on this Rosh Hashanah 5779 in a most consequential time.
It is possible that this is the year we will save – or lose—American democracy.
We stand by agog as an unpredictable, absurd, yet high-stakes drama takes place on the national stage. The seas are rising, the west is burning. Families are still separated. People are in detention. Citizens are being denaturalized. We do not have the luxury of inaction caused by doubt, but we have a crisis of faith.
Democracy depends on faith, emunah. Belief in others, belief in ourselves, belief in our collective ability to create a free and just society.
What is the Torah, but a manual for faith in a free and just society?
Felicia and I have had a disagreement for more than 25 years. I believe in human progress. I believe that we are evolving in every generation. Morally, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically. I see it in the growing interconnectedness of our species around the globe. I see it in the advancements in consciousness regarding fundamental human equality across gender, race, sexual orientation, national origin.
Felicia thinks that the idea of human progress conveniently places us at the pinnacle of all human existence. She sees this as a conceit of our time, and believes it comes from our failure to imagine and honor past civilizations. I understand her argument, but I can’t deny the growth in consciousness I witness in individual lives, in families, in human societies.
In Judaism, on one hand, older is better. Moses is Moshe Rabbeinu, the ultimate authority and teacher. Each generation after Moses declines in access to God and Torah. But on the other hand, Judaism is centered in history: the idea that actions change the future. Not only can God change the world, but human beings can as well. Ever since we stood at Mount Sinai, Jews have had a specific mission: to use our actions to be partners with God in the redemption of the world.
Recently an article in the New Yorker addressed our debate, and came down on my side. In “The Big Question,” Joshua Rothman reviewed several books on the matter of human progress. He summarized Steven Pinker’s well-researched case that by every measurable standard life on earth is better now than ever before. However, in 14 countries including the United States, the majority of the population believes that the world is getting worse.
“This bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong,” Pinker argues, “wrong, wrong, flat earth wrong.” Pinker shows that children the world over are now better fed, better educated, and less abused. Workers receive better pay, are injured less frequently, and retire earlier. Globally, fewer people are dying of violence, disease, war, or genocide than ever before.
A pessimistic view of humanity leads us to make bad choices, Pinker says, to elect leaders with dark visions. Our perception that things are getting worse is influenced by many factors – media coverage of bad news, an aging and nostalgic population — but most of all a lack of perspective. Our lifespan is too short to take in the grand sweep of human existence. But if we could grasp our species’ development, we would be amazed. We have grown in extraordinary ways – in empathy, the embrace of difference, awareness of global interdependence. Our progress is slow and uneven and we must take a leap in consciousness in these next generations to save ourselves – but our development is undeniable. Our misplaced pessimism, Pinker says, our doubt in ourselves, can be self-fulfilling. It could be what defeats us. Instead, we must decide to believe in humanity, and our ability to change.
Ten months ago I got a call from a member of the CBE community. “We have to change the conversation,” he said to me. “We have to create a way for blue voters and red voters to talk to one another about what they really feel. If we do that we can change how they vote in the next election.”
He was starting a new organization, sending volunteers door-knocking in red districts, engaging voters in deep conversations. I knew the model: pioneered and tested by a man named Dave Fleischer, deep canvassing can undo bias and change hate-based voting behavior.
On a ballot measure about transgender rights in Florida, for example, Fleischer sent volunteers door to door to engage voters in honest, vulnerable conversations on their views. The volunteers solicited stories and listened compassionately for life experiences that led the voters to the feelings they held. The volunteers challenged voters’ stereotypes, often sharing stories of their own. Studies have proven that deep canvassing, in-person human exchange around controversial issues, has significant and lasting impact on voters’ perspectives and behavior. These conversations also make people on both sides more compassionate and understanding of one another.
Though I believe in Fleischer’s model, in this case I doubted it. We have seen the president do dishonest, abusive, unstable, vindictive, treasonous things, and his approval rating has gone up. I thought, “How could someone hear what Trump says, and see what he does, and still support him?” What could I say to that person that could make a difference?
We’ve seen hundreds of American leaders, elected and appointed, continue to defend the president, cower in fear of him, support his behavior and in so doing participate in dismantling our democratic institutions; we’ve seen widespread greed, hypocrisy, mendacity, corruption, cruelty. When almost half of the voters of this country still support him, after the Access Hollywood tape, after Charlottesville, after Helsinki, after the indictments of his closest advisors, it’s hard to keep the faith in Americans, in America.
Our country is full of doubt on all sides—Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike– about whether what unites us can be greater than what divides us. We are dangerously close to giving up on each other, and on the hope of America.
Let me be clear: I do not think this is a matter of two equally valid views that simply need to understand each other better. This is a conflict between backwards and forwards, debasement and dignity, criminality and justice.
This phenomenon is the intentional exploitation of racism and sexism to gain and retain power for corrupt purposes. But we already knew there was racism and sexism in America, in its very bones. It is as old as our history and as present now as ever. What if we seized this opportunity to face the unfinished business of America: the white supremacy and misogyny that are waiting to be healed?
There is not such a thing as good people and bad people. Our Rabbis teach in the Talmud that we all have yester tov and yester ra, the good inclination and the evil inclination. The evil inclination – the entire confession of sins we will chant on Yom Kippur which are on display writ large on the American stage right now– these impulses are in all of us. And the impulses we prize – kindness, compassion, truth-telling—are also in all of us.
We know that whatever happens with Donald Trump, we Americans are stuck with one another. There is no escaping each other. There is no way forward except together. Fleischer’s model is based on the idea that people are capable of overcoming racism and sexism, homophobia and transphobia, that people can change. With an opportunity to reflect, people are compassionate and kind.
In Kabbalah there’s an idea of mochin d’katnut and mochin d’gadlut. Mochin d’katnut is small mind. We all get caught in it. Narrow thinking. But we all also have access to mochin d’gadlut – big mind, in which we remember who we really are, interconnected across our differences, part of something so much greater than ourselves. Those short conversations in voters’ doorways are designed to support that move from mochin d’katnut to mochin d’gadlut. What if we decided to believe that every human being has the potential to make that move?
There are so many reasons to doubt people right now, to doubt our own power, to doubt God, to doubt human potential for good. Doubt has its place. Rabbi Leonard Beerman, of blessed memory, wrote “To question, to doubt, is a sure sign of our freedom and our reason. It is the image of God within us. But doubt is an ambiguous blessing. It is a sign of our freedom, but it also can be a sign of our inability to give ourselves over to a decision, a commitment… Through the luxury of unexamined doubts”, he wrote, “we can evade the responsibility of taking a stand, all the while pretending to be open-minded.”
I know that so many of you in this room feel crushed right now. Demoralized. Alienated. Utterly hopeless. I know that millions and millions of people are standing up and speaking out, including many of you, and it can feel like it hasn’t made a difference. It can feel like the forces of corruption have a lock on power and there is nothing we can do to stop it, so what’s the point?
We look out at the size of the mess and think “I am so small. It’s not possible that what I do matters.” Yet all of Judaism hinges on the idea that what you do matters. The entire mitzvah system is the idea that your actions make all the difference in the world. That the whole world depends on your actions. Even if you can’t believe that right now, even if you’re too crushed and alienated to believe in anything, pretend you do. Fake it until you make it. Because you are needed. And all you’ve got, all we’ve got, are our actions.
When I say I believe in you, it doesn’t mean that I am without doubt. I know that you might disappoint me. But I choose belief over doubt. I have decided that the good I see in you will shine through your limitations, that you are more powerful than you know, and that together we can make the world that needs to be.
When I say I believe in you, it does not mean that I think you are perfect. It means I believe in your ability –and your will –to change. I believe that if you say something untrue, you will correct it. I believe that if you hurt someone, you will do everything you can to repair the harm. If you hate, if you realize that you are biased, you will do the work to change. If you hurt someone repeatedly, you will do whatever is necessary to create a new pattern for your behavior. You will commit yourself. You will not give up until you change.
When I say I believe in myself, it doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten all of the times I’ve failed. It means that I am willing to do what is difficult. With determination and persistence, I will follow through on my commitments until I have changed.
When I say I believe in us, I know the evil we are capable of and I know that we are limited. Despite it all, I am choosing to believe that we can be a force for good and we can be powerful.
Faith is not blind. Faith is not the absence of doubt. True faith is a decision.
We do not have the luxury to give up on ourselves or each other. The seas are rising. The west is burning. We have two months, maybe two years, to save our democracy. Believing is essential. Believing is a decision. And all of us can decide to believe.
In Jewish tradition God believes in you — whether or not you believe in God, and whether or not you believe in yourself. When we wake up in the morning, the first blessing Jews say, is “Modah ani lefanecha melech chai vekayam shehechezarta bi nishmati bechemla raba emunatecha. I am grateful before You ever living God, who returns my soul to me in compassion. Great is your faith.” What a bold theology. God has faith…in us. God sees our potential, even with all of our flaws God believes that we can be instrumental in the redemption of the world.
These High Holy Days are the ultimate testament to God’s belief in you. In Judaism you are not defined by the worst things you’ve done. You are pure and beautiful in your neshama, in your soul. God’s doesn’t let us off the hook or ignore our silences, inaction, our wrongdoing. We have to account for all of it.
But God does not give up on us. Ever. God believes in your power to repair and change. We call this teshuva, which means turning. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz says, “All forms of teshuva, however diverse and complex, have a common core: the belief that human beings have it in their power to effect inward change.” God never gives up on you.
God believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. Teshuva gives us proof that we are worth believing in. If we say “I’m sorry,” and change in a specific, measurable way, later, when we’re full of doubt, we can point to that triumph and know we’re worth believing in.
I have given each of you a teshuva journal, at your seats. This is a tool I use to help me reflect on my life and actions. Please use it. If you’re like me, this self-examination will surface many wrongs, many flawed patterns of behavior. But if we each leave these days committed to change in 25 ways, we are likely to change nothing.
If, instead, after surfacing many shortcomings we each pick just one goal for this year and enlist a friend to support us, we can succeed. My hope is that you will identify a single SMART goal: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-Focused, Time-bound. Achieving this goal will require dedication. It will require forgiveness of self when we fail, and the determination to get back up and try again.
This is real. If I think vaguely that I ought to pick up the phone and apologize, but I let these days go by and do not, then I come here and beat my chest on Yom Kippur, that is not teshuva. As Maimonides teaches: “sins between people… can never be completely absolved until one … appeases that person… until one is forgiven.”
If I set goals and abandon them, if I know that I’m not good for my word, how am I going to believe that you will be? And if I don’t believe that anyone will keep their word or follow through, or change, what is our hope? How are we going to take on the massive challenges of our time? It all begins right here.
Cognitive behavioral psychology has shown that belief is essential for motivation. We are only motivated to achieve something we believe we can achieve. The future of our democracy, the future of life on earth is dependent on our collective belief in ourselves, which is dependent on each of us proving we can change. Starting with you and me. Starting now.
Here is my charge to you this Rosh Hashanah:
- Before Yom Kippur, right a wrong. Apologize to someone you’ve harmed. Take a stand for human accountability.
- By the end of Yom Kippur, set one SMART goal for 5779: specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, time-based. Change a pattern. Find a friend to help you stay on track. When you fail, get right back up and recommit. Come back next year having succeeded. Prove humanity’s ability to change.
- Between now and November, get out there to save our democracy. Register people to vote. Vote THIS WEEK. Give to candidates you believe in. Get into conversation across the divide. We have a goal at CBE to get 100% of our members to the polls this election; and to register voters on Rikers Island. You can register to vote and sign up to register others in the back today and on Yom Kippur.
There is a reading in Mishkan Tefila, our Shabbat siddur, that always calls to me: “The good in us will win. Over all the wickedness, over all the wrongs we have done. We will look back at the pages of written history and be amazed, and then we will laugh and sing, and the good that is in us, children in their cradles, will have won.”
O God, we know that time is short and we stand on the brink. Fill us with urgency and power. Give us faith in ourselves and each other the way that you have faith in us. Give us the courage to believe in the words of the prophet Amos, that justice will roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.