Yom Kippur 5783: At the Gates of Hope

Mario Zacchini, the last surviving member of the original generation of human cannonballs, passed away in 1999 at 87 years old. According to his obituary in the New York Times, Zacchini’s routine employment was being explosively propelled from a cannon across a circus tent into a net. Mr. Zacchini would fly through the air at 90 miles per hour while accompanied by a fanfare from the circus band and a roar from a silver-painted cannon. He did this several thousand times. Zacchini was born into an Italian circus family. In the late 1920s, the family was discovered by John Ringling of the Ringling Circus. Until 1991, Zacchini canon acts were performed throughout the United States, though in those later years, by the next generation. Mario Zacchini was known for saying, “Flying isn’t the hard part; landing in the net is.” With all due respect to Mr. Zacchini, I completely disagree.

After flying through the air thousands of times, I imagine that soaring across the roof of the circus tent became quite normal for Mario Zacchini. As long as he could land safely in the net, all would be okay. To the best of my knowledge, we do not have any human cannonballs praying in our midst today. As we are soaring under the circus tent of life, I imagine very few of us are that sure of where we are trying to land, of how our stories will end. Rather than human cannonballs, we might feel more like actual cannonballs, heavy and misguided. For most of us, we are simply soaring through the heights and hoping for the best. We don’t talk much about hope as a theme for the High Holy Day season, but we should.  After all, it is hope that fuels our teshuvah, our response to this season. If we were not hopeful that we have the ability to change our course, to draw nearer to God and to each other, there would be little point to trying.

The Psalm for this season reminds us that hope has a caveat. Hope comes along with uncertainty. It means that we don’t know where the change process will end or into which net we will eventually land. Starting in the month of Elul, and all the way through the end of Sukkot, we include Psalm 27 in our daily prayers. The psalm begins, “Hashem, you are my Light, my Savior – whom need I dread? With You as my strong Protector, who can make me panic? When hateful bullies gang up on me, wanting to harass me, to oppress and terrorize me – they are the ones who stumble and fall. Even if a gang surrounds me, my heart is not weakened; if a battle is joined around me, my trust in you is firm.” (Ps. 27:1-3) I love the way that the psalm invites us to imagine being free from anxiety. The author is confident in their relationship with God and in God’s protection. I so badly want to feel this confident in my relationship with God. So much of our year cycle invites us to draw nearer to the Divine, whether by dwelling in the impermanence of the sukkah, scraping away the proverbial hametz standing between us and Hashem, or recommitting ourselves to receiving Torah. If we are lucky, we sense this nearness to Hashem a few times throughout the year. However, when we leave the sukkah, or return to our leavening, or back away from Mt. Sinai, the real world is inevitably waiting for us.

This lack of surety creeps in as we continue reading Psalm 27. Rather than being confident that God will protect us, the Psalmist cries out, “Listen, Hashem, to the sound of my cry and, being kind, answer me. My heart has said: I turn to seek you. Your Presence is what I beg for; don’t hide your face from me. Don’t just put me down, You, who have been my helper; don’t abandon me, don’t forsake me, God, my support.” (vs. 7-9) Dare I say that I think we can all relate to these verses? I imagine I am not alone in the feeling of sometimes being afraid and pleading for God’s comforting presence. The psalm is taking us on a journey from the ideal to the real.  We’ve descended from the brevity of our spiritual highs and have begun to search for the Divine among the ordinary.

Psalm 27 continues, “Please teach me Your way and guide me on the straight path; discourage those who defame me.” (vs. 11) When the psalm began, we were sure of God’s presence. Then we asked for God’s presence. Now, we hope the Divine will instruct us so that at least we can circumnavigate the most difficult paths, even if we know that we will surely encounter other dangers from which God cannot save us. Suddenly, things get real.

Real is terrifying. Joy and gladness can be real. However, so is grief, depression, and anxiety. How could we bear it all without hope? Our psalm ends with the words, “I would not have survived if I had not hoped that I would yet see Hashem’s goodness fully alive on Earth. Place your hope in Hashem. Be sturdy and make strong your heart! And most of all – keep hoping.” (vs. 13-14) What started without fear and with intense confidence, has ended with a reminder that sometimes the best we can do is hope things will turn out okay and brace ourselves for whatever comes our way.

The psalm of the season takes us on a journey. There are moments when we trust God’s process, as in the beginning of the psalm. Yet, inescapably, our hearts turn toward doubt. When we traverse those murky waters, we find that we are left only with hope, with our faith. The work of this High Holy Day season is to confront our doubts and move hopefully into the New Year in spite of them. Unlike Mario Zacchini, we are unsure of where we aim to land. Yet, with hearts that are strong and sturdy, we regain our confidence, albeit in a different way than before. Our faith becomes not a faith born of certainty, but rather a faith that transcends certainty.

Twelve years ago, in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks famously interviewed four distinguished and engaging atheists in a television special called, “The Case For God.” Novelist, Howard Jacobson, asked Rabbi Sacks if he could be certain of God’s existence. Rabbi Sacks brilliantly responded, “I believe faith is not certainty, but the courage to live with uncertainty.” One year later, Rabbi Sacks published his book, “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.” In which he continued his thought, “Faith is not certainty. It is the courage to live with uncertainty. Faith is never easy. The great heroes of the moral life, like the great artists and scientists and thinkers, like anyone who has undertaken to live a life of high ideals, know failure after failure, disappointment after disappointment. What made them great is that they refused to despair.” (Pg. 97) Rabbi Sacks reminds us that hope follows disappointment. When things get tough we have the option to give up, to toss in the towel, to accept our fate. This is not the Jewish way. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Our real strength and our real character appear when we find ourselves amidst failure, disappointment, and uncertainty.

The courage to live with uncertainty and the refusal to despair can be even sharper weapons than conviction alone. I was surprised to come upon a teaching in the Talmud that considers our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through this lens. In a most subversive way, the narrative invites us to reconsider the typically praised convictions of our ancestors. In Shabbat 89b, our Talmudic sages are discussing the ritual of the scapegoat about which we read during this morning’s Torah reading. You recall, the priest releases the scapegoat into the wilderness to carry away the sins of Israel. The Talmud turns to a dialogue between God and our ancestors about how our people just can’t seem to keep from sinning. God says to Abraham, “Your children have sinned against Me.” Abraham, our ancestor who is associated with the value of lovingkindness, responds, “Eradicate them in order to sanctify your name.” God decides that God might have better luck talking to Jacob. After all, Jacob’s children caused him all sorts of troubles. Perhaps Jacob will understand a parent’s love and be more merciful. God says to Jacob, “Your children have sinned against me.” Jacob replies, “Let them be obliterated for the sanctity of your name!” The Master of the Universe is distressed. God says, “The old folks aren’t willing to reason and the young folks lack good council. Let’s see what the middle child has to say.” God finds Isaac and says, “Your children have sinned against me.” In this interaction we see a different side of Isaac. Isaac says, “Wait a minute, Hashem, what is this ‘my children’ nonsense. Aren’t they YOUR children, too? Remember? The same ones who told you at Mt. Sinai that they would do whatever you said, even before understanding why. How much could they have really sinned?” Isaac continues, “If the average lifespan of a person is seventy years, you can’t hold them accountable for anything they do in the first twenty. That leaves us with fifty years. Then you have to subtract the nights because, you know, they are cute when they’re sleeping. You can’t sin while you are sleeping. So that leaves us with twenty-five years.” But Isaac doesn’t stop there. “Of those twenty-five years, half of them are spent praying, eating, and going to the bathroom. How much trouble could they get into there? So that only leaves Twelve and a half years of concern.” At which point Isaac puts a finer point on his argument with God. “Ideally, you would shoulder any sins that could have happened in these twelve and a half years. But if you won’t, let’s split ‘em. Or, if you insist that I bear the burden of all twelve and a half years, so be it. My father already tried to sacrifice me at your command, I can handle this.” The Talmud concludes that, upon hearing Isaac defending us, we will declare Isaac to be our true ancestor. Then, Isaac will humbly direct our hearts back to God.

This is not how we typically view our ancestors. When we think about Abraham, we consider his righteousness among the wicked. We think of the midrash of Abraham the idol smasher. We consider Abraham’s bravery to leave his home and follow God’s will. We recall Abraham talking back to God over the righteous of S’dom and Amorah. We remember the way God tested Abraham. Abraham was so certain in his belief that even after being asked to sacrifice his own son, Abraham remained fit in the eyes of the Divine. Our sages can’t say enough positive things about Jacob. Jacob keeps his eye on the prize. He finds ways to get the birthrights and blessings that he is sure he deserves. He takes the wives and the wealth he is entitled to from his father in-law, Lavan. Jacob fights an angel, wins, and once again demands a blessing. These guys seemed to have it all figured out.

On the other hand, Isaac was not known for his self-assurance. Isaac is the epitome of passivity. His mother steps in to separate him from his childhood squabbles with his brother, Ishmael. His father binds him to an altar and raises a knife to him, with minimal questioning. Someone else finds Isaac a wife. As he ages, he goes blind and remains outside of the drama that unfolds in his house. While this reading of our ancestors varies from the typical ways our tradition lifts up Abraham and Jacob, the Talmud gives us a wonderful example of what a hopeful Isaac can accomplish against Abraham and Jacob’s sense of certainty. In this narrative, Abraham and Jacob are confident that there is no hope. Yet, even after all he has been through, Isaac remains so hopeful that he is once again willing to lay his life on the line.

Abraham and Jacob were sure of the correlation between deed and outcome. Good things happened to good people and those who transgressed deserved Divine punishment. Our earliest prophetic writings reflect the same attitude. This afternoon we will read the story of Jonah, who is frustrated with God when God breaks the cycle of reward those who do good and punish those who do bad. Like Mario Zacchini, our human cannonball, Jonah was sure that if you gracefully soar through life, you will land safely at the end. If you don’t, you might find your landing difficult. Thankfully, God breaks this cycle by giving us the opportunity to do Teshuvah. Those who transgress are not transgressors forever. Those who do good are not entirely good. The idea is quite countercultural. It is hopeful. The unexpected rise of Isaac as our model ancestor is a good reminder for Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the day when we are reminded that the story doesn’t always end as we might expect. People can change. Even if we have reason to believe otherwise, Teshuvah is possible and we can place our hope in that process.

The arc of our Torah narrative also reminds of this idea. Like many ancient origin narratives, we have a story that begins with the creation of a place, an exile, and a return. However, when reading the Five Books of Moses, we find that we never actually get to the end of the story. We never land safely in the net. The Torah ends with us in the process of entering the Land of Israel. At 120 years old, God shows Moses a beautiful view of the land before Moses dies. Joshua is then imbued with the spirit of Moses to continue forward, unsure but hopeful. As Moses experienced before him, things might not necessarily turn out the way Joshua expects. Yet, with strength and courage, he leads us forward anyway.

My former synagogue in New Jersey was called, “Temple Hatikvah”, the hope. After I left, more than six years ago, things began to rapidly decline. This past summer, they sold their building and said goodbye to their beloved spiritual home. When I came to Shaarey Tikvah, I thought it was cute that I was transitioning between two communities that placed hope at their center. Yet, there is a major difference between, “The Hope” and “The Gates of Hope.” Shaarey Tikvah remains a vibrant community. Thanks to all of you, we are financially secure and our membership grew this year by twenty-two individuals and families. As I reflect upon this, I think about what it means to be standing at the Shaarey Tikvah, the Gates of Hope, but not quite entering. Like our ancestors, we too are on a journey. We are not overconfident and we do not take a safe landing for granted. Rather, like the author of Psalm 27, we spend most of our time building our resilience and placing our hope in Hashem.

False confidence, in life and in faith, leads us to believe that the journey is easy as long as we stick the landing. It leaves us despondent when things don’t turn out as we might expect. Standing at the Gates of Hope, however, reminds us that our story is ever changing. If and when we don’t like our trajectory, we have the ability to change our course. In the ever hopeful words of Lecha Dodi, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “Hitna’ari me’afar kumi.” “Shake off the dust and arise!” (Isaiah 52:2) If we believe that we have already passed through the gates of hope, we are likely kidding ourselves. If, however, we see ourselves as standing at their entrance, we remain engaged in the process of aspiring toward new and better versions of ourselves and our world. We lick our wounds and we move forward.

As we enter into 5783, may we be hopeful that this year will bring us every blessing it has to offer. May we put aside our certainty of a smooth landing and focus on the journey ahead. May we remember that although it is likely that there will be moments when we find ourselves a bit off course, with courage, strength, and the ever-present ability to change, we will continue to have faith.

G’mar Hatimah Tovah – tikatayvu v’tichataymu. May we all be inscribed for good this year. At the same time, may we remain full of hope and faith when troubles come our way.

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