"HOPE IS INVENTED EVERY DAY"
SERMON FOR EREV ROSH HASHANAH
RABBI YONI REGEV
I'm sure I was not the only one watching in awe as a carriage carried his casket wrapped in the stars and stripes one last time across the Edmund Pettuce Bridge. Fifty five years after John Lewis became an icon of non-violent resistance, marching with peaceful protesters for civil rights across that bridge toward the awaiting brutality of the segregationist police force, he was treated to the honor of a military guard in recognition of his stature as an unshakable and steadfast moral voice for the nation.
We rarely see change so starkly represented – it often happens in fits and starts, so slowly and incrementally that we might doubt that any change was even made, but when the time is right and the pressure mounts, change can happen so quickly we are left wondering what ever took it so long.
This is why the High Holy Days fill me each year with new hope because of the belief that change is truly possible. We enter into this holy season filled with the promise that deep introspection will lead us to action – to better ourselves and the world.
These are lofty goals we set for ourselves, yet I am a pragmatist – so I safely assume that by the time the next High Holy Days roll around, there will be plenty of new faults I will commit myself to repair, and plenty of changes I have yet to complete from years past.
Does this make my intentions insincere? No. Because I know that the ancient wisdom of scheduling the High Holy Days in advance to come around at the start of each new year recognizes the essential part of human nature that is prone to faults but hopes and yearns to be better.
This is the essence of the great teaching from Pirkei Avot – Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorim l’hibateil mimenah – no single one of us is expected to complete the work of transformation, but we are not free to desist from trying. To hope is to believe that change is possible – despite every bit of available evidence and personal experience to the contrary.
These days, hope feels in short supply. As spring turned to summer, and summer now yields to fall, we cannot escape the dismal reality and painful loss that suffuses our days.
The course of so many lives has been altered or cut short by this pandemic; so many plans have been dashed; so many jobs have been lost; so many special occasions have been transformed into virtual gatherings—like this one.
I could go on for a while — but you have doubtless each experienced your own emotional rollercoaster of new limitations, lost opportunities, and existential crisis. I don’t have to tell you how hard it has been to stay at a distance from most everyone I know, or the heartbreak of having to explain to my toddler why he cannot go back to school or play with his friends for months on end.
In the midst of all of this, the social fabric of our country has been strained beyond its breaking point and we have come to a time of great reckoning on issues of race and equality. Like many of you, I have spent the last weeks and months trying to listen and learn from perspectives and voices I do not regularly encounter; voices that represent a reality that I have known about, but never fully explored.
Among these, I was struck by the piercing insights and compelling words of James Baldwin, an influential African American writer and thinker, about whom (I am embarrassed to say as someone who grew up in Israel) I knew almost nothing before.
I recently listened to a podcast conversation about James Baldwin with the author and Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, and found myself rewinding the recording three or four times to process something he said.
Glaude explained, “In addition to racism, Baldwin dealt with homophobia and a sometimes crippling self-hatred, internalized in part from an abusive stepfather. Following the 1968 assassination of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin collapsed. “He can barely pick up the pieces. He tries to commit suicide,” Glaude said. However, it is then that “[Baldwin] gives utterance to this line: ‘Hope is invented every day.’”
Hope is invented every day — that simple yet radical notion has stuck with me and given me some measure of comfort when the world has felt quite bleak. I recognized that Baldwin’s hope was the hope of the truly downtrodden who refuse give up. That is the hope that rings out from the words of the Book of Lamentations — written after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2500 years ago: Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva, chadesh yameinu k’kedem — Take us back O Eternal that we may return - renew our days as in old.
We don’t seek to simply go back to the way things used to be — because there is so much work yet to be done. We pray to be renewed so that we may have the strength and fortitude to keep making change.
All of the heartbreak and disruption caused by this pandemic did not erase the systemic issues our community and our world confront. From Climate Change to Racial and Social Justice; from LGBTQ rights to peace between warring neighbors; hunger and homelessness, access to health care and school safety — the list goes on and threatens to weaken our resolve, undermining our belief that meaningful change can really take place.
The list is long and we rightfully may feel depleted and displaced at this moment, but this is the time to remember and repeat: Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorim l’hibateil mimenah — no single one of us is expected to complete the work of transformation, but we are not free to desist from trying. This is the time to show up — even from a distance — and do our part to bring about these transformations.
Just this year, scores of young people in our community and across the world showed us how their concern for the environment and climate change mobilized them out of their classrooms to demand a better future than the one they are currently expecting. The Women’s Marches and the March for Our Lives over the past few years have called attention again and again to unresolved issues of national concern, and the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests this summer focused our attention on the unyielding tragedy and inequality surrounding issues of race in our country.
Systemic change does not come about quickly or easily — but it will never take place if we don’t show up and support the causes.
One of the most significant ways for us to show up and express our values is by casting our votes and becoming an informed and engaged electorate. Whatever party or candidate you support, I urge you to make sure that every eligible person in your household and in your social sphere registers and exercises their right to vote.
Temple Sinai has joined a pledge taken by Reform congregations across the country to become 100% Voting Congregations as part of the Reform Movement’s “Every Voice, Every Vote” nonpartisan campaign for civic engagement. Over the summer, nearly a hundred members of our community joined thousands of Reform activists from congregations across the country in an effort to combat voter suppression by sending postcards and calling voters who may not be aware their names were removed from the voter rolls. The campaign set a goal of one million postcards being sent, and thanks in part to the enthusiasm and commitment of our Sinai Social Action volunteers, they easily surpassed 2.5 million cards – a truly inspiring achievement.
Voting for our values is a sacred act, and it requires our engagement and commitment not only for the national races every two years, but on the local ballots and measures that impact our lives every day. I urge you to join us on Yom Kippur afternoon as we discuss and learn about some of the most significant propositions and measures that will be on our ballots.
Hope is invented every day because we are given a new opportunity to act and make change happen. In this holy season, as we search our souls and commit ourselves to the work of transformation within ourselves and in the world around us, we fill ourselves with hope at a time when hope may be in short supply.
Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva, chadesh yameinu k’kedem – Take us back O Eternal that we may return — renew our days as in old. We don’t seek to simply go back to the way things used to be because there is so much work yet to be done.
We pray to be renewed so that we may have the strength and fortitude to keep making change.
We pray for hope.