October 11, 2016
Let There Be (Yom Kippur 5777)
Ari S. Lorge
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Whether you read it or not, you’re likely familiar with the novel Don Quixote. I read Don Quixote in high school as required reading. Which means, you could say, it was thrust upon me at a time and in a manner that made it difficult to appreciate; which is code for I hated it. To be honest, I don’t remember de Cervantes’ prose as well as I recall the musical it inspired: Man of La Mancha. The lyrics may seem tired to some, but for me, they never fail to resonate: “To dream the impossible dream.” “To right the un-rightable wrong.” “To try when your arms are too weary.” “To reach the unreachable star.”1 I can’t help but admire the person who insists on dreaming the impossible, reaching for the unreachable, trying even when overwhelmed. It always bothered me that Don Quixote was portrayed as somewhat of a buffoon, or somewhat insane, a tragic figure. I viewed his ability to hope amidst hopelessness to be not tragic at all, but heroic; in fact, it always struck me as rather Jewish.
How do you regard an inveterate optimist? As a naïve, tragic figure or as a heroic one? It turns out, our answer to that question may depend on whether we root ourselves in the camp of Ancient Greece or Ancient Israel? These two civilizations gave humanity two diametrically opposed ways of thinking and acting in the world. Even if it is subconscious, every community and every individual chooses one of these ancient perspectives; and that choice dictates how we react to the world around us. If we subscribe to the worldview of Ancient Greece we believe Don Quixote is foolish because our world is entrenched in cycles and certainties. Our fate is determined, and try as we might to change or direct it, the forces we face are insurmountable, their victory inevitable. Most of the time, most of America chooses the camp of Ancient Greece. But this fatalistic paradigm has a counterpoint rooted in the surprise of optimism and possibility – a worldview that is the gift of Ancient Israel. It tells us Don Quixote is a hero because there is always hope – the future is still undecided. In this worldview, we live to make real, what Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls, the “not yet,” in history.2 We can dream and build and change in order to bring about what has not yet been created. It is the gift of our people Israel, who call ourselves asirei tikvah, captives of hope. So we ask ourselves; consciously or sub-consciously; do we live in the camp of Ancient Greece or Ancient Israel? Don’t be fooled. This choice is not an academic exercise. Our answer will dictate how we face the year ahead.
It doesn’t come as a shock that one of these pervasive worldviews comes from Ancient Greece. To reframe the words from the comic film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, “you give me an idea, any idea, and I’ll show you that the root of that idea is Greek.”3 If we look at Ancient Greek myth, our future has already been set by our past. Like the natural world, we live in patterns that repeat. Our fate is mapped and sure. And the great tragedy; the very definition of tragedy, is watching people believe they can change their fate, and ultimately fail trying. Tragedy is seeing even great heroes – full of what the Greeks called hubris and what we might call hutzpah – try to escape their destiny, only to meet their downfall. Think of Oedipus. The King and Queen of Thebes are told by an oracle that they will have a son who will kill the King and marry the Queen. From that moment on, they take actions to make sure that future will not come to be. And yet, every action they take brings them closer to that very outcome; they move inexorably toward a fate they cannot escape. And if it’s true for Kings and Queens, we’re meant to believe it is true for all of us. You can tell Caesar to beware the Ides of March; it will do you no good. Romeo can cry out, “then I defy you stars,” and yet his very acts of attempted defiance will bring about the stars’ design. In this worldview, we shouldn’t dream the impossible, reach for the unreachable. It is hopeless; to try is foolish. Don Quixote is an old fool; maybe a comical one, but a fool nonetheless.
The seductive whisper of this worldview surrounds us. And, the more we are surrounded, the truer it feels. It feels true when we witness massacre after massacre committed with firearms and yet we see no change in policy no matter how many innocents are slain and despite the fact that overwhelming public opinion supports change.4 It seems true when African Americans and Jews march together these past two summers holding signs that read, “New generation/Old Battle,” because we’re still fighting for an elusive equality. It seems true when policy makers and academics tell us about entrenched cycles of violence, cycles of hate, cycles of poverty. It seems true when friends or family say, “why vote when the election is rigged,” or “real change makers cannot fight the establishment,” or worst of all, “no matter who I vote for nothing will change.” It’s hard to shut out the seductive voices of the insurmountable. They tell us, don’t reach for that unreachable star. Stars are for the young or naïve. Remember what you learned the hard way, you will fall short. Stay grounded in what is real, what is practical, what you already know and have. Make the best of it and let it be.
And that might seem wise, were it not for the flicker of our heart that is not yet weary nor cynical; that is aflame with passion and ideals. There is that stubborn voice inside of us that simply cannot accept that things are immovable, inevitable, as good as they will ever be. That voice that asks, “don’t we all really want to be Don Quixote,” don’t we all want to believe that change is possible?
This is Yom Kippur. And for this period of time, we Jews gather and hold up the worldview given to us by our ancestors in Ancient Israel. Time and again, we have been the voice of the “not yet” in history. Judaism calls on its adherents to be sentries on the watchtower of the possible. To believe that there are times when unprecedented change can occur. As Rabbi Sacks writes, “Abraham leaves Mesopotamian city-states to begin a new way of serving God. Moses and the Israelites leave Egypt to found a new social order. They are about to build a future unlike the past. That was the revolution…” 5 Judaism calls on all of us: break the cycles, re-write our destiny, don’t accept this as all there is. During creation, God calls out in Hebrew, “Yehi,” “Let there be.” Let there be light, let there be waters and trees and birds of the sky and beasts on the land. Nothing that had ever existed before that very second. With each new act of creation God calls out, “Let there be,” not “let it be.” Because in one word there is a world of difference. One phrase heralds resignation the other defiant imagination. “Let it be” has its time, but not on Yom Kippur. We commit ourselves once again to saying, “Let there be.” We creatures made in God’s image—we too can create. How would you, how should we finish the phrase, “Let there be…” What new and needed thing could we call forth? Our tradition teaches that God needs us as partners to perfect the world and that trying to do so is not tragic, not foolhardy, not quixotic, not Pollyannaish; rather it is decidedly Jewish. And we all want to so badly; even when the rest of the world assures us it cannot possibly be different; it cannot possibly be better; that we’ve been here before and we know how this story ends. “Let it be,” they say to us. But, tonight we commit to replying, “Yehi…” “Let there be.”
Our nation needs it of us. This is a country whose foundational documents were based on the idea – “Yehi, let there be.” America’s earliest generations did the unthinkable, throwing off the yoke of a tyrant and dreaming into reality a nation and government of, by, and for the people. Today we seem so far from a country grounded in a belief that the unrightable wrong can be made right. When did we lose that? When did we become overwhelmed by the insurmountable? Our leaders and our elected representatives dare not be daring for fear of losing their constituencies and their jobs. Cynicism seems the fashion when it comes to our democracy as polling shows faith in the American system to be at all-time lows.6 But there are embers of faith within each of us which have not yet been extinguished. Could we return to, “Let there be?” We all know, “Let it be,” is not working. It hasn’t been working for some time. What might we do, what might we imagine, what might we act upon in order to make a more perfect union – in the truest sense of that phrase – more fair, more compassionate, less divisive? One way we’ll begin to seek answers as a community at Central is through the listening campaign you heard about on Rosh Hashanah. We’ve all been invited to participate. It is perhaps one way we can begin to dream the impossible so that we wake up to its reality.
And like our nation, our community needs us to act as though the plagues around us are not imbedded in our nature; not destined to repeat. Let me tell you two stories of people who did just that. Let me tell you about Irvin Westheimer. One day Westheimer saw a boy rummaging through trash cans searching for food. That image stirred his soul; he couldn’t let it be. He entered the alley and introduced himself to the boy whose name was Tom. Irvin took Tom to get a proper meal and over lunch learned more about Tom’s life. Over time he developed a deep relationship with the boy and his family. He even helped Tom’s mother find a better job. Later that year Irvin helped organize the first chapter of what would become the Big Brothers and Big Sisters Organization by connecting colleagues with other youngsters in need of help and mentorship.7 Did Irvin break the cycle of poverty? No. But the organization has changed the lives of countless thousands and mentoring remains one of the most effective ways to narrow the opportunity gap. His dream in 1903 changed for the better our reality in 2016.
Let me tell you about a Central employee named Stephen Harris who is saying, “Let there be.” When Stephen is not at Central, he spends hours coaching basketball and mentoring boys and young men in his neighborhood in New York, not far from here. Why does he do it? He is trying to keep these children from getting swallowed up by the violence going on in the neighborhoods. Stephen described being overwhelmed walking past the memorials that would spring up in the spots where young boys were murdered; victims of gang violence and gun violence. Stephen says these memorials became as common as trash on the street. He couldn’t let it be. He said to me, “I have to save some of them.” And so he has devoted himself to teaching these children to be champions on and off the court, instilling in them life skills like leadership, responsibility, but most important, he says, dreaming. He doesn’t know what will come from this, but he says he is full of faith and – a word he picked up at Central, full of “hutzpah.” He’s dreaming the impossible so that we can wake up to its reality.
On this holiday I urge us to say to ourselves, “Let there be” instead of, “Let it be.” What feels insurmountable, relentless, and unchanging in our personal lives? Is it that grudge we’ve born quietly inside? Is it that hurt we caused that that we never owned up to? Is it the argument we’re resigned to cycle back to time and again with our parent or spouse or child? Is it the relationship we’re in that we know is broken, yet the fear of leaving it or the shame of leaving it gives us pause? Is it our job that we no longer find fulfilling or maybe even asks us to compromise our values? Is it the dream we put on the shelf years ago, thinking we would one day return to it, or is it the cause we said we would champion if ever we had more time? Our tradition says it is not too late. We can begin to whisper ‘yehi,” “let there be.” We can try…we can always try…no matter how many times we’ve come up short in the past.
When I sent a draft of this sermon to my father he wrote to me, “I think your grandfather gave a similar sermon.” I didn’t give it much thought until the next day when I received an email in all caps saying, “I FOUND IT!” I opened the attachment and there was the handwritten outline of My grandfather, Rabbi Ernst Lorge’s Rosh Hashanah sermon from 1968, delivered at Temple Beth Israel in Chicago. He used the same song from “Man of La Mancha” to pose the same questions. So I guess I’m just a big walking Jewish cliché. Or, worse, I’ve disproven my own point because I’ve just repeated my grandfather’s sermon thesis. You could say I’ve just illustrated the cyclical worldview of Ancient Greece: a message my grandfather preached in 1968 is still relevant today in 2016. So let’s resign ourselves to our fate. But I would argue in fact that what this demonstrates is the opposite. Rabbi Buchdahl spoke about the call of Judaism, one tribe, to raise up all the tribes of the world; to shed light where it is most needed. That is not just Judaism’s call for this day. It has been our call in every generation. We’re not repeating the past; we’re continuing to work toward a dream we know is possible. A dream we’ve carried for thousands of years. And while we haven’t yet realized it, we persist in trying. My grandfather, after speaking about the discouragement of Vietnam, the racial prejudice being lived out on the streets of America, the upcoming 1968 presidential election, and the pervasiveness of fear, declared that Judaism is not quixotic in its demand that we reach for the unreachable. He said it’s not that we live in a delusion or wear rose-colored glasses. And perhaps this is where we differ from Quixote. Rather, he said, with eyes wide open to the brokenness and the despair we still find within ourselves the fire that allows us to take that all in and defiantly declare, “Af al pi chein…lamrot bachol.” “In spite of all this…” still we dream. That is Judaism. In spite of all this he said, “We must bring the unreachable star close to Earth and thereby reach it together.”9 That was the mission and challenge of his day. It remains ours.
Don Quixote’s anthem finishes: “…the world will be better for this, that one man scorned and covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage, to reach the unreachable star.”10 My Grandfather suggested that phrase needed editing. Not one man alone striving. Rather it must be all of us together. So let us be not dismayed or deterred. We remain captives of hope. If our people could labor in the shadow of pyramids, weep by the rivers of Babylon, sail forth from under the skies of Spain, mourn by the banks of the Tiber and the Rhine, toil in the furnace of the Pale of Settlement, and survive the deep night of ghettos, labor camps, and death while still affirming slaves can go free, and an eternal Promised Land, a world to come, lies on the horizon, so too can we. Our stories are not yet complete. The year ahead is unformed. It is waiting for us to call out, “Yehi…Let there be…” There will be an evening and a morning; a new day. Breathtakingly, optimistically, defiantly new. It is waiting for you. It is waiting for us.
- Joe Darion, “The Impossible Dream,” in Man of La Mancha, Original Cast Recording, MCA, 1965.
- Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense: Jews Judaism and Israel in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Schocken Books, 2009), 231-263.
- My Big Fat Greek Wedding, directed by Joel Zwick, Gold Circle Films in association with Playtone, IFC Films, 2002.
- Pew Research, 5 Facts About Guns in the United States
- Sacks, Future Tense, 235.
- Poeple Press, Beyond Distrust: How Americans View their Government
- The New York Times, Irvin F. Westheimer, 101, Founder of Big Brothers at Start of Century
- Robert D. Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 258-261.
- Rabbi Ernst M. Lorge, Is Religion Quixotic?, Outline of Rosh Hashanah Sermon 1968. Ernst Mordecai Lorge Papers at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives.
- Darion, “The Impossible Dream,” 1965.