Rabbi Benjamin David
YK AM 2018
Built by the Aztecs in 1325, Mexico City sits at 7,000 feet above sea level. At that altitude the air is incredibly thin. To live there is an exercise in fortitude: a heavy rain season, occasional hail, frequent earthquakes.
Maybe you remember that the Olympics came to Mexico City in the summer of 1968, bringing the world’s best athletes to this harrowing, but beautiful landscape.
The first games broadcast in color, those Olympics offered no shortage of headlines. American swimmer Debbie Meyer won three golds. Marathoner John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania finished his epic race despite a dislocated knee.
As they received gold and bronze in the 200 meters, two Americans raised a fist high into the Mexican night, a statement in the name of civil rights. Tommie Smith and John Carlos would later be banned from the Olympics for life, though that picture of them on that podium still resonates, fifty years later.
And quietly, as the games were winding down, Bob Beamon, tall and strong, jumped further than any human ever had, gliding through the mountaintop air, seemingly hanging midflight for an eternity. He went 29 feet 2 ½ inches to set a new world record in the long jump. How far is that? It’s far.
That once-in-a-lifetime leap established a record that would stand for decades. And I know there are some impressive records out there: Joe Dimaggio’s hit streak, Cal Ripken’s consecutive games played…
But think about it: How many backyard sprinkler games had kids trying to jump the furthest? How many teenage track standouts, in a moment of existential clarity, declared that they would one day exceed every previous distance?
Maybe there’s something about the long jump that symbolizes our human propensity to try to go further, further than I thought I could, further than others predicted I would, further than my DNA would dictate.
And how many, Olympians or otherwise, dreamed of going far, further than far, only to come up short again and again?
This is a sermon on coming up short.
The prayer we recite over these holy days has us utter, al chet shechatani… It is often translated as ‘for the sin I have committed.’ We rattle off a list of myriad ways we were in the wrong this past year. But the more accurate translation is not ‘I sinned’ but rather ‘I missed the mark.’
Here our prayer book is acknowledging what we already know to be true. We’ve all missed the mark. Even I, your esteemed rabbi, missed the mark countless times this past year. We all have.
We could have judged less and listened more. We could have given more time to the people in our life. We could have been more patient, less cynical, more generous, less close-minded.
But this is about something more, something we rarely talk about, that nagging feeling so many of us live with, something larger than any one mistake or misspoken word. It is rather the disappointment we live with every day, even if quietly.
What do we do with the fact that we feel we’ve come up short not on one jump but on hundreds, not one decision, but so many? How are we supposed to live with life-sized disappointment?
Because we thought that by now we would have gone further as professionals or parents or Jews, or maybe as a couple or a family, maybe there are relationships in your life that simply aren’t where they could be, or should be, or maybe we feel we are just so far from contentment itself.
Of course our disappointment almost always comes from a place of love. It’s because we care so much, about our family, about our faith, about our health, about our goals, that we feel let down at all.
As Martin Luther King, Junior said: There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.
So many times we have looked down at our feet only to be humbled by where we landed.
If we wanted to study disappointment, then we should look no further than the Torah. Good news: There’s disappointment all over the Torah!
The obvious place would have us study Moses not being able to enter the Promised Land, even after leading the Israelites forty long years across the wilderness. What an absolute let-down. It would be like training all your life for the Olympics, then twisting an ankle at the Opening Ceremonies.
Instead these holy days bring us to Akedat Yitzhak, that timeless story of Isaac and his father Abraham. If ever there were a disappointing story, this is it, this saga that has God call for a father to sacrifice a son at the mountaintop.
I wasn’t there but I imagine that Abraham leaves the episode profoundly disappointed in a deity that would demand such a thing and Isaac leaves profoundly disappointed in his father who would apparently listen.
And to be fair we can understand both points of view. Is there anyone here who has not been angry with God? Once and again we are Abraham, walking down the mountain, shaking our head as we try to understand a God who oversees a world of such injustice and inequity, a God who seemingly allows for so much pain and sorrow.
We are also Isaac, fully flummoxed by our fellow human beings, the words they choose, the decisions they make, what they do and don’t fight for, and why.
To live with disappointment can be so debilitating. How did Isaac go on? How did he get out of bed in the years following that heart-wrenching moment with his father? In a complex and often mystifying world, now he couldn’t even trust his own dad. What was he to do with that?
Maybe our tradition is instructive here too. If it shows us disappointment it also shows us how to handle disappointment.
Isaac coped by soon finding a partner to share his emotion with; Rebecca will be wise and discerning. They will navigate life together, bumps and all. In their trust and companionship they find solace, that if humans can be so unknowable and God is by definition so unknowable, well then in our togetherness we have sustenance and support.
So it is for us. We need people too. We need kind, gracious people and not just in the traumatic moments, but in the less obvious times too, on the couch, on the drive, on the sidelines, people we can laugh with and talk with and wander and wonder with when it comes to all the ridiculous things this world wants to throw at us.
We can be like Isaac and surround ourselves intentionally with good, benevolent souls.
Abraham will cope with his disappointment in another way, and his approach might also shape ours. We watch as he works to secure the wellbeing of the next generation. He and Isaac are barely back home when we find Abraham sending off his servant, Eliezer of Damascus, to find Isaac a bride.
If Isaac gets up and goes on due to partnership with people, his father goes on because he has found peace of mind in providing for those who will live beyond him.
How are we doing that? How are you doing that? What work are you doing to build a world of greater wholeness for those who will inherit this world?
We have been disappointed by God and disappointed by people. And more than once. I for one am thankful for a Judaism that allows for us to voice these frustrations honestly, and not outside the confines of our faith, but precisely within the context of our Judaism.
We can emote together, process together, we can heal together as a community, in a place of safe, mutual support. That’s so much a part of this very day after all.
Now if we’re being honest, we would say that, on a national scale, no matter your politics or your age or your ideology, there has been some very real disappointment as well.
Dr King had it right: It comes from a place of love. We love this land. This is, thank God, our home, but as is sometimes the case home has offered its share of disappointments and frustrations.
We feel so strongly about this great nation. How many of our ancestors passed beneath that towering Statue of Liberty, on to Ellis Island, in the wake of pogroms, persecution, and the Holocaust itself in order to find new life here?
How many of us have shed a tear of pride at the closing chords of our national anthem? Home of the brave. I know I have.
How many have felt a pull of patriotism on the Fourth of July, your child’s hand in yours, or a grand feeling of pride in thanking a veteran, including one of the many who make up our beloved congregation.
In truth we Jews have a longstanding love for America. Patriotism within our community has been rock solid for generations, ever since the first Jews came to America along with none other than Christopher Columbus.
Some will recognize the name of Columbus’ personal interpreter. He was known to his contemporaries as Yosef Ben HaLevi.
And now, more than five centuries later, we are not just one or two Jews on an explorer’s mission to a new land, but five million spread across every state and industry, and while we may largely feel at-home here, so many do not.
Our nation can do better, and it’s ok to say so.
Even if there is so much to celebrate, and there is, from those who defend us to those who educate our children, our inimitable doctors and scientists, our iconic artists and musicians, the countless souls who have helped craft an America of opportunity for so long, even if there is such good, we have work to do as we seek to build that more perfect union.
We could be going further on so many fronts. It’s ok to say so.
Maybe it’s because so many of our parents and grandparents died for the very idea of America.
Maybe it’s because our understanding of the America that can be is as rooted as much in the Bill of Rights as in the Hebrew Bible and the precious teachings of our tradition, a fact our forebearers also believed to be true.
It is in Isaiah, chapter one, where we are urged to ‘do good, devote ourselves to justice and the aid the oppressed;’ it’s the Book of Proverbs which encourages us to ‘defend the rights of the poor and needy;’ on and on all the way to modern day luminaries Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and indeed Rabbi Richard Levine, who urged us as Jews once and again to stand up for the other at every chance we get.
And if you are feeling at least slightly disappointed by the media or the tone of discourse or the rancor or rampant partisanship, for all of us, for every one of us present here today, there are antidotes available to you.
You can turn off the talking heads on TV and actually read up on the issues. You can volunteer in a way that mends your heart and helps to make real an America you envision. You can donate to causes that matter to you. And absolutely you can and should vote. I hope you will.
Long after Bob Beamon’s historic jump, a young man named Mike Powell came along and, in the summer of 1991, against all odds, stretched the record two inches further.
Some suggest it was competing against Willingboro’s own Carl Lewis that day that pushed Powell to the new record.
Mike Powell’s legendary leap reminds us that coming up short need not be our fate. He reminds us that disappointment need not be our lot. And it’s true.
Now, whenever I give a high holy day sermon I get a lot of comments. You email me. You call me. You find me at Wegman’s. Wawa. CVS. Target. The JCC. Costco. And I like that. We’re in this together and I want us to be able to talk about it all. Some will invariably ask me about the sermon, why I chose to say this and not that, or that and not this.
Some might even ask why in the world I talked about the long jump.
A select few here will know the answer. Part of the reason is that I did the long jump on my high school track team. I was no Bob Beamon. I was a teenager. The world was far bigger than me. My parents were working hard. My brothers were finding their way.
At fifteen we know a lot. At fifteen we know so much, maybe we know everything actually, everything except what our future holds.
Where was I going? Where were any of us going at fifteen? What would be for you? Who would you be? What would your adult world look like?
Think of yourself when you were fifteen. You were wide-eyed. Life wasn’t going to hold you back.
We were going to fly through the thin air of adulthood, past every would-be obstacle, past all potential disappointment, dejection, past all of it. We were going to go further, as far as this outsized world needed us to go, and then some.
It’s a feeling I had in me and I know you had too.
And so I’ll ask you to find your way back to that, to at least go back there in spirit: How far can you go? How far can we go? What if you went as far as you could? What if we all did?
What if? Could there be a more sacred question? What if? I’m asking it and I am inviting you to do the same. Amen.