Yom Kippur Morning 2019
Rabbi Benjamin David
William Petley and Keri Bean never met. William, his friends knew him as Bill, lived most of his life in Wichita, Kansas. He was a scientist. He was a husband and a dad. On July 20, 1969, he was doing what so many Americans were doing: watching the television as Apollo 11 traveled toward the moon.
William – Bill – had placed his TV set on his front lawn so that the entire neighborhood could gather round. When the shuttle at last touched down his five children roared with excitement. Everyone did.
At that singular moment, across an entire nation, people reveled in a sense of unity, a sense of joy, physicists working with geologists working with engineers to accomplish the long-held, almost unthinkable dream of landing an astronaut safely 239,000 miles away.
If ever there was a project that represented the human propensity to imagine broadly, to move boundaries drastically, to use our God given powers positively…this was it.
And Bill Petley from Wichita had made it all possible. Sort of. After years of effort he had created a small chip which allowed one of the space shuttle's central computers to work. It could be said therefore that he personally had contributed to the historic mission. And no one could ever take that away from him.
Maybe you too were watching your TV that day as Armstrong and Aldrin boarded their small module and neared the surface of the moon. After a precarious approach Buzz Aldrin famously broadcast: ‘The Eagle has landed.’
If you remember he then sent the following back to NASA: ‘This is the lunar module pilot. I'd like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause… and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.’
Armstrong carefully descended the rickety stairs and put his foot on the moon’s surface. With that he declared: ‘That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’
That was fifty years ago. The world has changed so much since then. Technology, medicine, education, communication. But our fascination with space is as strong as ever. Maybe it has something to do with our wondering how far of an impact, literally, we might have. I think we want to know what kind of difference we can make. What am I really capable of? How far can I go? Those are questions as profound as any.
Maybe it’s why we keep sending people and satellites up into space. Yes, we want to know what’s out there. Yes, we’re curious to find out if we’re alone after all. I think we also want to know that our toil and our energy can actually have a significant effect.
And these days it feels like we need to go further than ever just to be noticed, let alone make even a small difference.
Speaking of going further, a few months ago there was more space-related news, when the Mars Rover Opportunity lost contact with Earth. If you remember, Opportunity was sent to Mars to explore the red planet.
It was supposed to be a ninety-day mission. In the end Opportunity lived on Mars for fifteen years. It helped find water there. It helped scientists understand the different environments there. It would re-charge its own battery with solar panels.
But then, out of nowhere, NASA stopped receiving return messages from Mars, 34 million miles away. One by one those who worked closely with Opportunity left the team to work on new endeavors.
Keri Bean was one such person. As a kid she was inspired then to pursue a career with NASA and in time came to work on the Opportunity project. When it ceased to respond, she was among those who tried to get it to come back to life. They thought that if the sun hit Mars at just the right angle maybe it would start to warm up. But it wasn’t to be.
As Bill Petley was elated, Keri Bean was dejected. At least at first. It felt like a loss. But eventually she came to realize that she too had had a hand in creating something incredible, something that would change our understanding of the world and maybe our very understanding of words like ‘limits’ and ‘possibility.’
This is the part where you’re all wondering where on earth, or beyond earth, this sermon is going. I should tell you that I was thinking of launching a couple of a Bar Mitzvah kids into space, but decided against it. I even had a name for it. It was going to be the first ever Mars Mitzvah, or Mar Mitzvah. I don’t know; it still needs some work.
I was also thinking of maybe instead of our next synagogue trip going to Israel we’d try some place even more remote and harder to get to, like the dark side of the moon. I even have a soundtrack for that one. Oh wait. Never mind. (Feel free to look up my Pink Floyd sermon from a few years ago for further reading).
This is a sermon on the idea that, even when the whole world wants to make you feel small and limited, you have abounding worth as a human being and you have it in you to move us forward in extraordinary ways. We humans who are made of matter, we do matter. You do matter. And your efforts as a parent and a role model and a Jew are in fact making a difference, even when you’re not so sure.
Our kids and teens feel it most poignantly and wonder – sometimes defiantly – if they really do count. They want to know if their voice is being heard, if their pain is being noticed, if all their hard work and worry in this overcrowded world will ever amount to anything, if their dreams are even worth dreaming.
It’s a big school. Everyone striving for AP this or varsity that. Who got into which school and won which scholarship and received the biggest trophy on the brightest day from the most respected coach who drives the coolest car. They are wondering all the time whether they matter.
And our job as their parents and teachers and grandparents and clergy is to answer the question with an unequivocal YES.
You matter and not for the grades you get or how well you can hit a baseball, not because of how you look or the number of followers you have on Instagram, not because of how much you weigh or who you hang out with or the kind of shoes you wear but precisely because of who you are, in all of your messy imperfect miraculously perfect glory.
It sounds obvious, but if you’ve spent any time on the sideline of soccer games or in the bleachers at little league games recently, you know it isn’t obvious at all. As I spotted on a sign this summer: Your child’s success or lack of success in sports does not indicate what kind of parent you are. But having an athlete that is coachable, respectful, a great teammate, mentally tough, resilient and tries their best IS a direct reflection of your parenting.
They need to know that who they are, to quote Scott Freid, is enough.
In a complicated and overly judgmental world, when kids can be ruthless and bullying is real and anti-Semitism is real and hate is real they need to know that they are sacred human beings and we love them, whether they struck out every time they were up or went five for six with seven RBIs. And that their contributions to our world can change our world even if those contributions are as seemingly small as a chip in a computer half a century ago.
In the Torah itself we see what happens when teens are made to feel small: Joseph’s eleven scorned brothers ‘nasu mi’zeh’ go off and wander, away from their father Jacob, away from a home where they were always in the shadow of Joseph and his precious coat. Joseph was the favorite and everyone knew it. The other eleven, stewing, become the epitome of our young people who are quieted or worse.
Just last year, we saw what happens when teens are told precisely that they do count and have power and are so truly needed. With the March for Our Lives in cities across the U.S., a new movement to stop the epidemic of gun violence was born, teens suddenly feeling a jolt of self- confidence and motivation to stand up tall precisely because they were told they could.
Lisa and I and an entire bus from Adath went down to DC and marched right there with them. We were proud to do it.
And just last month we saw what happens when a single teen has the chutzpah to challenge all of us to do more to protect and safeguard our environment and the natural world. Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old from Sweden, sparked marches and protests around the world, then told hundreds assembled at the United Nations that we – the youth of today – and the eyes of all future generations – will be watching you.
And more than that she did so while knowing full well that her words would immediately be denigrated by so many, and they were.
Or how about the teens right here in our own building who, each year, have a hand in feeding homeless young adults of Covenant House as part of our Teen Night program or the teens who come out to volunteer on Sunday mornings at a Camden soup kitchen or those who tend to puppies awaiting adoption once a month or those who cook in our kitchen right here for those who are food insecure and often hungry.
How about Kelsey Talarico, a college senior, who traveled to Peru not once but twice, to help educate villagers regarding hygiene and nutrition.
Or Marissa Magasiny, a high school senior, who spent half of last year on a kibbutz, learning about the various tensions in our Homeland, traveling throughout the country, and deepening her connection to the State of Israel.
Or how about Maya Kares who, before rushing off to college, is spending a gap year teaching at a girls’ school in Africa that serves kids from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, while also volunteering her time at a rhinoceros sanctuary.
How about the tenth graders who come with me each year to talk with Congress about the issues that matter most to them as Jewish teens: supporting Israel, disability rights, the environment and more.
These are just some of the young people who got the right kind of encouragement and were reminded that they can make a difference and so that’s what they’re doing.
But it applies to us too, the parents and grandparents. You’ve started to feel like you don’t matter either, at least sometimes.
Is anyone even listening? Does anyone hear me? Who acknowledges my plight, my fear, my joy? Or are we all too wrapped up in our own scattered stressed out lives to even take notice of each other?
Have you started to wonder if even God is listening to you? Or do you feel, echoing the great Trey Anastasio, that in these times of angst and turmoil when I need God most that ‘God never listens to what I say.‘
Or how about…Billie Eilish who sings ‘even God Herself has enemies.’ Maybe you’ve wondered in a dark moment if you’re an enemy of God.
Worse than even that, are we so jaded and cynical that we have also somehow given up on ourselves? Are we all of a sudden questioning whether my words, my work, my choices are moving our world further at all? Do my kids hear me when I talk to them about empathy or patience or embracing otherness? In a hundred years will this world even remember me?
I hope you don’t feel that way but I understand if you do. I hope you know how much you do matter and that this world desperately needs you, that you were put here precisely to be you and to be you precisely now.
Maybe we are taught that we humans were created ‘btzelem elohim’ in the image of God so to remind us that God is within us, and with us always, urging us out of bed each day, walking with us through this often-horrifying world.
Opportunity lived for fifteen years. What if we could create something that will live forever, like a footprint on the moon? Imagine if you made something that will live eternally. Imagine knowing that it would live forever. What would that feel like?
Because there is something that can live forever, through hardship, through the seasons, something that’s outlived the most heinous moments of history.
It’s lived even when six million did not, it’s managed to breathe life as the crematoriums spilled dark clouds into a frigid sky; it lived again and again when the world looked so bleak; it put hope in our veins, reminded us always of who we are whether we were fleeing Russian pogroms or mourning heartbreak in Pittsburgh, whether we were arriving in a new land or fighting illness from the oncology wing or celebrating new life or praying for help, some help, something that encouraged us to keep reaching no matter what and to keep living out those high ideals set forth by the countless exceptional souls that came before us, not only Abraham and Sarah and Moses, but your grandparents and mine, something written long ago that still sings today above the cacophony of noise and misunderstanding, something that has the great nerve to take us past cynicism but rather to a place of peace and possibility, something that holds us by the hand and helps us back to a heritage that is so rich and has given us all so much, it has shaped our lives, yours and mine, connected us across generations and oceans, taught us and challenged us, changed us, brought meaning to our days in big obvious ways and in the smallest and quietest and most personal and poetic and often perfect of ways.
Of course that something is the Torah.
I want us to write a new Torah, together, one that will live beyond you and me and our children. I want us, you and me, us, to write a Torah, and yes I’m talking directly to you.
Why write a new Torah? Why now? Well first of all, we have to. The scrolls you see in our ark are worn, many of them unreadable.
But maybe that’s not compelling enough and if not then there’s this: We write a new Torah as an affirmation of life, Jewish life, in the face of a world too often devoted to our demise or at least too often too ready to insult us and belittle us and all those who dare to practice a faith of inclusion and justice and yes love.
Why now? Because our kids are in fact paying attention.
Greta was right: Their eyes are on us, watching us. Our kids want to know what matters to us as they begin to think about what should matter to them. Is our life all work and social media and paying bills and running errands and driving carpools or is our life…more?
They want to see us making a difference so that they have permission to go and make a difference right here in 2019.
We may not be able to go to the moon. There will almost definitely not be a Mar Mitzvah. But Torah. The scroll that tells our story. The scroll that speaks of courage and perseverance, that can be our legacy, the chip we put in the space shuttle.
You and I can be part of giving this congregational community a Torah that our Bar and Mitzvah students will read from and our Confirmation classes, a scroll that will be part of every holiday for years to come, an affirmation not only of life, but of your life, that you…are…here and that your life will forever be inscribed in a book of enduring life.
And more than write a Torah we’ll learn alongside the scribe, the sofer, who will visit with us throughout the year so that each one of us, including every person in your family, can literally hold his hand as he carefully writes every letter of our Torah, all 304,805 letters, all of them sacred, all of them needed to make it whole and holy.
Every letter matters just like every one of us matters.
At this time of year when we look inward and reflect, let this be part of your reflection. Let it be part of you. This project exists for you and because of you, to comfort you, inspire you, transform you, and re-ignite the engine within you as we launch into the new year.
I’ll close with this. Before Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon went into space in 2013 as part of the fateful Columbia mission, he was asked what he would like to bring with him.
Some of you may recall that Ramon chose to take two items with him: The first was a miniature Torah which had been used at a secret Bar Mitzvah of a young boy named…Joseph…at the Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp.
The prisoners in Joseph’s barracks held their blankets over the windows as the rabbi and the young boy quietly said the prayers together. Joseph survived against all odds, maybe because of the Torah.
Ilan Ramon brought that scroll and he also brought a picture of the moon, sketched by a young boy in Auschwitz.
When that space shuttle went down on that heart-wrenching day…sixteen…years ago the Jewish people mourned the loss of life and yes the loss of those two precious objects, a scroll and a picture.
Yet we knew in our heart of hearts that just as Ilan Ramon’s soul will live forever in stories and memory and legacy so will the soul of the Torah survive eternally. It cannot die. It will never die. And the reason is: We will not let it die.