Rabbi Benjamin David
Kol Nidre 2018
The Boston Marathon is notoriously hard, which is what makes it so compelling. Twenty-six miles. Rolling hills all the way from the start in Hopkinton to the finish on Boylston Street. Next you add highly unpredictable New England weather, which was the story of the race this year, when runners woke up on Patriot’s Day to forty mile-per-hour winds and driving rain.
What you had in the end was a race of attrition that tested even the most fabled of athletes.
Yuki Kawauchi of Japan won on the men’s side, Des Linden on the women’s side. She was in fact the first American winner of the Boston Marathon in thirty-three years. They both overcame their competitors, the course, and the conditions in achieving nothing short of glory.
Des Linden is smart, tough, relentless. Her work ethic is unparalleled. She’s been running since she was a child in Southern California, when she learned early on that she had innate endurance and speed. Everyone predicated that the sky would be the limit for her but in truth all those predictions turned shockingly false.
Even though she’s run stride for stride with other pros at the front of the pack in Boston, and the New York City Marathon and the Chicago Marathon. Even though she’s run with the best at the Berlin Marathon and even represented the U.S. in the Olympics twice, even though every one of those races held great promise for her, her real claim to fame, at least until this year, was that she always finished second:
She had finished second in Chicago, second in Boston, and second at the Olympic Trials, twice.
Again and again her goal was right there, just in front of her, and then, mercilessly, inexplicably she watched it slip away.
People talk about Heartbreak Hill at mile twenty-one of the Boston Marathon. It got that name in 1936 when Ellison Brown passed Johnny Kelly on the iconic uphill and went on to win. For Des heartbreak came year after year, usually just steps from the finish, when her whole career, her whole life might have changed, but alas she was the runner-up, again.
Well in one of the interviews after her breakthrough victory this spring she said the following:
‘Some days it just flows and I feel like I’m born to do this, other days it feels like I’m trudging through. Every day I make the choice to show up and see what I’ve got, and to try and be better. My advice: Keep showing up.’
This is a sermon on showing up.
Many were with us this past Shavuot when I spoke of Franz Rosenzweig, the Jewish writer and philosopher who, living in Germany in the early years of the twentieth century, was all but ready to renounce his Judaism. He was tired of being in a minority. He was tired of having to explain the holidays, the foods, the prayers and sacred texts of our people. He was tired. Jewish life was hard.
Sometimes we don’t have the energy. Sometimes our motivation wanes. He knew what we knew: For as much as Jewish life brings genuine blessing, sometimes it also brings genuine struggle.
He decided he would go to synagogue one last time: Yom Kippur Day, 1913. He sat in the pews, as we do now. He heard the music. Unetaneh Tokef. Avinu Malkenu. The melodies, the familiar faces, the familiar prayers, the call of the shofar, it returned to him, washing over him.
In it all he heard something of his past. He heard his parents, and theirs. He saw in his mind’s eye his Jewish books, his Jewish friends, even Jewish arguments. He heard the distant whisper of his Jewish heroes and a thousand Jewish traditions. On that Yom Kippur his heritage was reaching out to him.
And because he showed up that day, because he chose to be present, his life changed. He came back to Judaism and back with renewed vivacity.
We live in a time when we would be tempted to retreat, and not only from Judaism. But retreat from public life. Retreat from relationships. Retreat from the news. Retreat from dialogue. Retreat from a place of optimism.
Sometimes, in 2018, we just want to go and hide. To hide, the noise of the world finally shut out.
Would anyone even notice if I, a teenager, a college student, a grandparent, a human being, went into a kind of hiding? In a world of 7.6 billion, would it even matter?
On this Yom Kippur, as we come back together, and back to our Judaism after a long summer, after all the heartbreak that you may have experienced, maybe personally, maybe as a family, maybe at work or home, after all the pain you may have felt spiritually or physically, after everything that life has thrown at you, after all of it, I invite you now to keep showing up.
This all sounds lovely. But you might be asking: Where? How do I show up? Well, to start, show up as a Jew. Judaism doesn’t happen on Facebook or Snap Chat. Real Judaism doesn’t happen as we cloister ourselves neatly among the likeminded.
Real Judaism, the Judaism of Jacob and Miriam and Esther, isn’t always comfortable. Our beautiful faith offers a foundation of wisdom, perspective, a mission for the messiness of the real world of right now.
I am challenging you to show up as a Jew in your daily life, in what you read, in what you learn, in the decisions you make, in how you speak with others, both those you love and those you hardly know.
After all we Jews have always shown up. It’s what we do. We show up to services, to shiva, to simchas. We show up at hospital beds and fundraisers. We show up for Israel.
Tomorrow afternoon we will read that classic two-thousand-year-old story of Jonah, told in four succinct chapters. He is a young soul singled out to go and help the wayward people of Nineveh. Instead, as you know, Jonah attempts to flee God, paying to board a boat to Tarshish.
Jonah is us. He wants to escape, because that would be easier. Hiding, retreating, maybe it felt easier back then too. Jonah wants nothing more than to flee his responsibility to his fellow humans and escape the realities of a significantly broken world, where there’s poverty and war and disease and injustice at every turn.
Unlike 23,000 runners on race morning, Jonah chooses not to run but to run away. And we get it.
But Jonah’s very role in this world is to be a beacon of greater hope and righteousness, just as the role of the fish that swallows him, as the rabbis will argue, is to be in exactly at that place at that time to save Jonah from the depths of the sea. Jonah cannot truly escape his role, his self, just as the fish cannot escape his, and we cannot escape ours.
It’s here that Jonah reminds us of another way we must keep showing up: for people.
He reminds us to be present for people who are hurting, people who are less fortunate than we are, people whose lives have been made hard by circumstances about to devour them like an oversized fish.
Last year I sat on the bimah as we prepared to celebrate a Bat Mitzvah on Shabbat morning. I’ve met a couple of Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids over the years. OK more than a couple.
Actually headquarters is sending me a set of steak knives if I officiate at just fifteen more.
Our teens are as unique as the sand on the beaches of Tarshish. Well this Bat Mitzvah was happening against the odds, against every IEP, against every doubter, against everything, a girl who many thought would never be able to stand tall and proud and lead the congregation in prayer, inspiring with her erudition, her will, her eloquence.
Just before the Torah service, getting ready for the big moment, I said to her sitting right next to me: ‘How’s it feel to be here?’
She paused and then said: ‘It feels good to be here.’ I said to her: ‘You are here. You are here. No one can ever tell you anything otherwise. You are here today.’
Our Bat Mitzvah reminds us to show up not only for our Judaism, not only for other people, but for ourselves.
To show up even in spite those who argue we can’t or we won’t or we shouldn’t. When we talk of life’s biggest challenges, the goals you keep hidden way in the back of your mind, the hopes you are reluctant to even consider, when we show up in spite of our fears and demons and worry, in spite of any would-be skeptic, we are giving ourselves a chance at happiness and fulfillment.
The great modern-day theologian Anne Lamott wrote recently that Linus held onto his blanket and in time it really did offer him true comfort. Schroeder kept playing his toy piano and ultimately he did get the hang out of it.
These were their rewards for keeping at it. Like Franz Rosenzweig. Like Des Linden. Like our Bat Mitzvah. All of whom had the courage and chutzpah to keep showing up.
Of course the most lasting lesson in showing up didn’t happen on Patriot’s Day or en route to Nineveh or even on any bimah, but on Broad Street this past February, when a green wave took to the streets to celebrate the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
A fanbase that had been showing up for generations was rewarded at last. A city that had been showing up to watch everyone from Jaworski to Cunningham to Foles was finally able to rejoice. And rejoice we did.
It is in this persistent, untiring commitment to showing up that good things can and do happen, yes in our Judaism, yes in our relationships, and certainly within ourselves.
It’s a good message for us and a good message for our kids, who are ready all the time to give up on themselves, give up on their sense of worth and all that makes them the sacred beings that they are.
It’s about moving past doubt and pessimism and frustration, sticking with it, through the rain and wind, in the name of something bigger, maybe even holy.
In closing I share the words of one of my colleagues, who recently told the following anecdote:
A teacher was once asked by his students about the spiritual truths he had learned throughout his life. The teacher had traveled across the world and had gone on numerous adventures and expeditions.
He had interviewed those who were famous and had many followers. He had read many books and manuscripts, some of them rare. But the teacher thought for a while, then admitted to the students that the spiritual truth he found the most important was the one he discovered while joining his elderly parents at a public bingo game in Florida.
There on the wall, in huge letters, was a large sign reminding the bingo players of an important rule, and here it is: “You Have to Be Present to Win.”