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Yom Kippur Morning Sermon

10/01/2020 02:49:51 PM


Rabbi Bruce Alpert

“Save me, God; for the waters are come in even unto the soul. I am sunk in deep mire, where there is no standing…let not the flood water overwhelm me, neither let the deep swallow me up."

Those words are from the 69th Psalm, attributed to King David. But we are taught that when he composed this psalm, David was actually quoting his great, great great grandfather, Nahshon who cried out those words as he sunk into the Reed Sea.

With Pharaoh and the Egyptian army bearing down, the tribes of Israel looked out at the roaring waves, each swearing that “I am not going to be the first into the sea.” (Sota 37a) In jumped Nahshon, followed by his entire tribe. Nahshon trusted in God’s promise of deliverance, and the sea parted because of his trust. In reward for his this act, he would be the first to bring the dedicatory offering when the Tabernacle was inaugurated, and the kingship of Israel would ever be held by his tribe - our tribe - the tribe of Judah.

If you are looking for an account of Nahshon’s actions at the Reed Sea, you won’t find it in the Torah. In the Torah, Nahshon is singled out for his leadership of the tribe of Judah and as being the brother-in-law of Moses’s brother Aaron. The story of him jumping into the sea is told in the Talmud by Rabbi Yehuda. It is, in short, a midrash - an interpretation of the Torah meant to draw out its deeper meaning.

I have long puzzled over this particular midrash, wondering what deeper meaning it adds to the already fantastic story of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery, especially in its culmination at the Reed Sea. Now, I think I know the answer. It adds the element of courage.

Israel is passive throughout the story of the Exodus. God, through Moses’s agency, brings about the ten plagues. The Israelites merely watch as it all unfolds. After the final plague, the Israelites don’t force their way out of Egypt, rather they are thrown out - hastily leaving before their bread could rise. Then, with the Egyptian army bearing down upon them, they cower before Moses, declaring “Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14:12) This response reflects the basic passivity of the Israelites in the drama of which they are the center.

In telling the story of Nahshon diving into the roiling sea, Rabbi Yehuda is adding something crucial. He is adding Israel actively seizing God’s blessing. And they are doing so by an act of courage.

When we think of the traits that characterize us as the Jewish people, much comes to mind: intelligence, tenacity, stubbornness, humor, creativity, resilience, adaptability. We are indeed all those things. But we are also a courageous people. Indeed, the secret behind our long history is the constant of courage.

Courage is an essential part of Judaism and it has been since the Torah. Abraham’s life is marked by a series of trials, all of which he meets courageously. Judah courageously faces his own sins against his brother Joseph, and offers himself as a pawn to preserve his father’s life. And in appointing him as his successor, Moses encourages Joshua regarding the enemies he will face with the words, “Be strong and courageous. Be not in fear or dread of them, for the Lord your God Himself marches with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

As the Torah celebrates courage, so too does it warn against the consequences when courage fails. Israel’s great sin of creating a golden calf is, at its core, a failure of courage. So too is its greatest sin - the failure to take the promised land when commanded to do so because of fear of the enemy and a lack of trust in God. This lack of courage condemns an entire generation to pointless wandering in the desert until a new generation - one that possesses the necessary courage - can take its place.

The Torah gives us our identity as God’s chosen people, and demands of us the courage to maintain that identity. So it is no surprise that Jewish history is filled with men and women whose lives are marked by courage: Saul and David who fought against the Philistines, Deborah and Jael who helped defeat the Canaanites. Nehemiah, who led the restoration of Jerusalem’s walls, his builders “doing work with one hand while the other held a weapon.” (Nehemiah 4:11). Ruth, who followed her mother-in-law to a land and a people she did not know, and bore what would become a line of kings. Esther, who would brave the intrigues of the Persian court to save her people. The Maccabees, who took on half the Greek empire to save the Jewish faith from paganism.

Jewish courage goes beyond the heroes we celebrate in the Bible or with our holidays. In the first century of the common era, Jews fought tenaciously against Rome. Unfortunately, in a story too painfully similar to our own times, the Jews also fought tenaciously against each other - breaking into factions like Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Sicarii. This infighting condemned Jerusalem to destruction, and to one of the most shattering acts of Jewish defiance - the mass suicide atop fortress Masada, where Jews took their own lives rather than be led away by the Romans in chains. The symbolic power of their act of defiance echoes today in the modern state of Israel, where soldiers mustered into the Israeli Defense Forces swear their allegiance with the oath Sheynit Masada Lo Tipul - Masada will not fall again.

Still, the Jews chafed under Roman rule and in 132 CE they revolted, uniting under a would-be Messiah, Simon Bar Kochba. For three years they courageously fought against the most powerful military in the world before finally being defeated in the village of Beitar.

With the end of Jewish sovereignty in our own land, the history of Jewish courage becomes less one of discrete acts and individuals, and more one of survival and tenacity. European anti-semitism brought us the murderous Crusades in Germany, viscous blood libels in France, the sadistic Inquisition in Spain, the stigmatizing ghetto in Italy, the cruel pogroms of Poland. Throughout Europe there were discriminatory laws that kept Jews isolated and on the sidelines of society, relegating them to despised jobs like money lending which made them even more hated by the people while being financially exploited by their kings, who would expel them once they had bled them of everything they had. Set against such a history, Jewish continuity is a testament to Jewish courage. Every one of us who identifies as an Ashkenazi Jew has tales of courageous tenacity and survival in our now, sadly long forgotten past.

Today the State of Israel stands as the emblem of Jewish courage - the courage of its settlers who worked its neglected land, the courage of its founders who fought against overwhelming odds to bring it into existence, and the courage of their children who have battled not only an intransigent foe, but an increasingly hostile world to keep it safe and thriving. Israelis once saw themselves as a new kind of Jew, or at least a throwback to a very ancient kind - one that embodied physical courage over what they saw as the meek, bookishness of their European forebears. In truth, they are the rediscovery of the courage that has always been an essential part of our character and the essence of our survival.

Courage is an essential part of the Jewish character because Jewish vision naturally looks beyond itself for meaning and purpose. It is this capacity to look beyond oneself - to one’s people, to one’s children, to one’s ideals and principles - to one’s perception of what is the highest in life - that is the very stuff of courage. For in the end, what is courage other than the desire to find meaning in one’s life by attaching oneself to something bigger, something eternal?

The book of Leviticus offers what I read as a fascinating reflection on the meaning of courage in a strange section known as the Tochechah or the Admonition. It consists of a long series of blessings or curses that will come upon Israel, depending on whether it follows or forsakes God and God’s commandments. One of the blessings is that, in pursuing one’s enemies, “five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall chase ten thousand.” (Leviticus 26:8) But should Israel abandon God, it will be scattered, and among those who remain, God will “send a faintness into their heart in the land of their enemies; they will flee at the sound of a driven leaf … and they shall fall though none pursues them.” (Leviticus 26:36)

A literal reading of this section has God directly and responsively sending blessings or curses upon Israel in accordance with its actions. But I read it as a reflection on human nature. Faith in God - attachment to something bigger than oneself - gives one the courage to accomplish great things. Lose that faith - lose the courage that comes from the ability to see beyond yourself - and the sound of a driven leaf will put you to flight.

We are living through fear filled times. You have expressed that fear to me in many ways: the disorientation that comes when our lives’ patterns are overturned; the shock that comes from discovering our perceptions of the world are so thoroughly at odds with those of our neighbors; the dread that that passing stranger may infect us with his lurking disease; the loneliness that comes from isolation from those we love; the anxiety that comes from not knowing what tomorrow may bring. More than once people have told me they feel as though our very society is coming apart - as though it has descended into a whirlwind from which it may not emerge whole.

I tend to think that worst case scenarios will not actually befall us. But history is a long train of catastrophes, natural and man-made, and there is no reason to believe our generation has some exemption from all that. The fears we feel - even perhaps the worst of them - are not without reason.

But amid all this uncertainty, this much I know. We are Israel. We are an eternal people. And we are an eternal people because we are a courageous people. We understand that, as Israel, we have a transcendent purpose in this world - to be witnesses to the being whose existence makes life matter. It is this transcendence that gives us courage, even when the world seems to be falling apart around us.

I offer this message with a profound sense of humility. Courageous has never been a word I would use to describe myself. But I have tried, as best I can, to face my fears and carry on in spite of them. When I have succeeded, I have felt the pride of living up to my highest ideals. When I have failed, I have at least not sought to avoid the shame of having done so.

And so it is that each morning, when I say my prayers, I conclude with these words, drawn from the books of Proverbs and Isaiah:

Have no fear of sudden terror or of the ruin when it overtakes the wicked. Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted; propose your plan, but it will not stand, for God is with us. When you grow old, I will still be the same. When your hair turns gray, I will still carry you. I made you, I will bear you, I will carry you and I will rescue you.

Confronted with the roiling waves that crash around us, it is upon each of us to find that Nahshon that lives within - knowing that when we do, God will bear us, God will carry us, God will rescue us.

Sat, May 18 2024 10 Iyyar 5784