“All of It Is Completely Worth It.”

Yom Kippur Sermon 2019 ~ Makom Solel Lakeside Congregation

This year screenwriter Aaron Sorkin adapted the novel To Kill a Mockingbird for the theater. I had the chance to see it on Broadway with my dad. Interestingly, while the movie version is dominated by Gregory Peck playing the father and attorney Atticus Finch, the play is driven by his eight-year-old daughter Scout. One of her scenes has imprinted itself in my mind and heart.

It is the scene where Tom Robinson, the accused African American client, is in jail. A group of men dressed covered in white sheets—the KKK—has come to lynch him. Atticus had learned of their plans and is standing in front of the jail. Scout is hidden behind it, watching the men confront her father on their way to Mr. Robinson.

It is the scene where Tom Robinson, the accused African American client, is in jail. A group of men dressed covered in white sheets—the KKK—has come to lynch him. Atticus had learned of their plans and is standing in front of the jail. Scout is hidden behind it, watching the men confront her father on their way to Mr. Robinson.

Everything stops. Mr. Cunningham takes off his white sheet. We in the audience recall another scene in the play where Atticus Finch had helped out Mr. Cunningham, whose farming livelihood had been hit hard by the great depression. The tension then melts into a tender moment of human connection. Mr. Cunningham turns to Scout and says it is indeed him, and thanks her for the kind words about his son. He calls the other men away, and Tom Robinson’s life is saved.

Why is this scene so powerful? One reason is Scout’s courage. She steps up in the midst of a confrontation to save a man’s life. Another reason is her emotional intelligence. She seemed to know exactly what to say to Mr. Cunningham to get him to back off. Another reason is her love of her father. She sees him defending an innocent man with his life. And she risks her own to protect him.

But there’s something more. She believes in human possibility. She has a certain innocence, a hopefulness that leads her to believe the men about to fight her father and murder an innocent man might still have a spark of goodness inside of them.

In this regard, I thought of a quote from another young woman whose story is memorialized in another famous book, though this story is a true one. In the Diary of Anne Frank we read the words, “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” It’s that sentiment—that idealism and hope—that Scout’s actions displayed. That’s what moved me and everyone in the theater.

And yet, in both To Kill a Mockingbird and The Diary of Anne Frank, there is no happy ending. We do not leave feeling people are really good at heart. Their endings are not like the endings of the stories we may read in Chicken Soup for the Soul. They leave us pained, even unsatisfied. In doing so, they capture a core Jewish belief: the world as it is is not yet the world as it ought to be. And that leaves us—those in this makom—with the task of repairing, of healing in it.

In other words, perhaps what moves us most about that scene in to kill a mockingbird is not the sense of innocence, the naivety. It is the sense of hope, of faith, of confidence in the ultimate good of which we are capable. Scout’s intervention, her actions her courage remind us that WE ARE CAPABLE OF SO MUCH MORE THAN WE think we are.

When we are no longer 8 years old, though, we develop limiting beliefs. Beliefs about our intelligence, our skills, our fears, our potential. Now, as adults, some of these limiting beliefs are unconsciously buried within us. Others we may be aware of but don’t know what to do about. These limiting beliefs hold us back. They keep us in a state of inaction, of fear. They tell us to stay behind the wall, as Scout was tempted to, rather than step out and speak, as she did.

Today, on this most sacred day of year, we have the best opportunity to look closely at these limiting beliefs. We can ponder them and commit to do something about them. The first step is to convince ourselves we can overcome them. We need to believe that we are capable of more than we know. That takes effort. It takes courage.

In the exodus story, the Israelites did not believe they would ever leave Egypt. They laughed at Moses. But over time they did. They saw what God—and they themselves—were really capable of. And we need to see what we are capable of. And it’s often much more than we think.
That truth jumped out at me as I worked with my daughter Allie on a project. She had to do a profile of someone her age who was doing something unique.

She found a story about a 10-year-old girl in Washington, DC. This girl, Sarah Hinesley, had just won the national handwriting contest. But something else was special about Sarah. She was born without any hands. She holds the pencil between the ends of her arms to write. I’m sure people told her she could not write. They told her she couldn’t play sports.

But in the story about her victory, we also learn that besides writing, Sarah likes to create art, ride her bike, play basketball, read and swim. Like Sarah, we all have our struggles. We all have our limiting beliefs. Some are minor. Perhaps we think we can’t cook. Or we think we can’t say the prayers in Hebrew. Or we think we’re bad with directions. And some are bigger.

Perhaps we think we can never forgive our mother or father. Or we think we can never have a meaningful relationship because of our own personal or emotional baggage. Yet, Sarah—and this day of Yom Kippur, of renewal and possibility—remind us that we are capable of so much more than we know. They beckon us to see the possibilities for our lives, to imagine what we can do, regardless of age or background. We can do so much. As my friend Jason Hartman put it, “It is an amazing time to be alive.”

Now once we see the possibility, we have to begin the journey. Let’s return to the exodus story. As you may recall, after the 10th plague, the death of the first-born sons of Egypt, Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go. Right after they leave, however, Pharaoh changes his mind. He sends Egyptian troops and chariots after them. Soon the Israelites arrive at the shores of the Red Sea. What should they do?

They have no ships to sail across. And the Egyptians are closing in on them. Now of course we know what happens next. God splits the sea.
But there is a midrash, a legend, about what happened before God performed the miracle.

The legend tells of a man named Nachshon. He was standing with Moses and the rest of the Israelites. He heard the Egpytian chariots coming from behind. He saw that no one was doing anything. The people, including Moses, were just frozen. So what did he do? He started walking into the sea. He kept walking until the water reached his eyes. Then God split the sea.

What’s the message of that story? We need to take the first step. We need to act even when we are afraid. Life is not like a GPS or google maps. We don’t always know the exact steps for getting from where we are to where we want to go. All we know is that we have to start. And once we start, we begin to realize what more we are capable of doing. Taking the first step opens up more possibilities. The hardest part is starting.

To be honest, this truth guided our congregational fusion. When Rabbi Serotta and I and a few lay leaders sat down a few years ago, we did not know how to bring together two successful vibrant synagogues. We did not have a blueprint. We didn’t have an instruction manual. But we did see possibilities. We saw how together, our congregations could make a bigger impact on the community. We saw the way we could grow our religious school—Lev Learning–to serve more students and help them feel a closer connection to our tradition.

We remembered the way our Jewish people have always been on the move—and we needed to keep moving and changing if we are going to survive and thrive in the future. So we took the first step. And, like Nachshon, we just kept walking.

Ask yourself: What’s the first step you need to take? What are your limiting beliefs? We all have them. Some are small. Some are large. Every step we will bring us forward. Now we will trip sometimes. But as the great Israeli poet Chayim Bialik said, “There is no worse failure
than a beginning that stops there.”

After seeing the possibilities and taking the first step, we need to bring others with us. Let’s return to the Exodus journey once again. Moses is, of course, front and center. But who would Moses have been without Aaron, his brother, his spokesman? Moses, as we read, had a speech impediment. The only way he could communicate was through his brother Aaron.

And who would Moses have been without his sister, Miriam? She was the one who ensured the Israelites had water during their journey through the wilderness. Her name itself means “from the sea.”

And what would Moses have been without his father-in-law Jethro, who tells Moses he has to stop making all the decisions himself and appoint lower officials and judges to bring order and stability. We only realize our own greatest possibilities when we work with others to achieve them. Realizing our dreams depends on helping others realize their own.

And together we not only realize our dreams. We do things we never imagined we were capable of doing.

I began by discussing a play—To Kill a Mockingbird—I saw over the summer. Well, I also saw a particular musical over the summer here in Chicago. It’s called Come from Away. It tells the story of the people in a tiny town called Gander, in Newfoundland, Canada. Gander has 3500 residents.

The airport in Gander had at one point been the largest in the world because as the most eastern point in North America, it was a refueling stop for transatlantic planes. But by the 1990s, with new airplanes, it no longer served that role. On September 11th, 2001, however, 38 planes were diverted to the Gander airport. 7000 passengers—scared, hungry, shocked—descended on the town.

What happened next? The ordinary people of the town did extraordinary things they never imaged they were capable of doing. They housed, fed, clothed, secured, comforted and bonded with the passengers. They opened their homes and their hearts. Fear and anxiety transformed into hope and friendship. We saw what people can achieve.

Particularly moving and symbolic is true-to-life scene where a Gander resident brings one of the American passengers to church and they join another passenger in the singing of the Catholic prayer of St. Francis. The music of that prayer soon merges into the singing of Oseh Shalom, our Jewish prayer for peace, and then a medley of other prayers for peace. It’s a touching example of the way faith need not divide us, but can bring us together. We can find hope amidst tragedy.

But that’s not all I took from the musical. I also realized that we have a limiting belief that we need tragedy to bring people together. Is that really true? Do we have to experience tragedy in order to listen to one another, respect one another, join our hands and voices together with one another?
I don’t think so.

The challenge for each of us—HaYom, this day—is to look closely at ourselves and see the capacity we have to be like the people in Gander. We do not have to endure tragedy for our best selves to emerge. Our inclinations, our souls are not set in stone. That is a limiting belief.
And the opposite of a limiting belief is a liberating truth. And Yom Kippur offers us a powerful liberating truth—we are not yet who we are meant to be. We can change, grow, embark on teshuvah, return and renewal.

We can work on ourselves—HaYom, this day, and every day—to cleanse ourselves of the prejudices, excuses, fears, we so often cling to. Our liberating truth is the power to uvarchta vachayim, to follow the example of Scout, of Nachson, of the people of Gander, and choose life.

And that is the greatest liberating truth of them all. It erases, in God’s magnificent Book of Life, all the limiting beliefs and excuses we put before ourselves. As Nadia Bolz Weber, a powerful and contemporary writer put it, “And this is it. This is the life we get here on earth. We get to give away what we receive. We get to believe in each other. We get to forgive and be forgiven. We get to love imperfectly. And we never know what effect it will have for years to come. And all of it … all of it is completely worth it.”

Rabbi Evan

I show the way Jewish wisdom make our lives richer and happier. In particular, I help Jews appreciate their heritage and Christians uncover the Jewish roots of their faith. Get my FREE Jewish holidays cheat sheet by clicking here.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 0 comments