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Taking the Long View - Rosh Hashanah Sermon

09/19/2020 10:48:42 AM


Rabbi Samuel Gordon

In the months since John Lewis’ funeral, I have thought a great deal about one particular comment from President Barack Obama. President Obama asked those in attendance to imagine what the Alabama State Troopers would have said the evening of Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, after their attack on the marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They probably went home to their families or sat around with their friends over a few bets and celebrated their victory that day. They thought they had won.

But, thankfully, history doesn’t always work that way. Their vicious attack on peaceful marchers exposed the evils of Jim Crow and forced the rest of America to confront the injustice of inequality. Two weeks later the Civil Rights activists successfully marched to Montgomery under the protection of the Federalized National Guard. The vicious attacks by the Alabama authorities, attempting to stop the march from Selma to Montgomery, led inevitably to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. John Lewis suffered a concussion and a broken skull on Bloody Sunday, but the eventual victors that terrible day would be the marchers themselves. Only five months later, Lewis stood in the White House beside President Johnson as he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As you well know, John Lewis went on to serve seventeen terms in the United States Congress. And at his funeral, John Lewis’ coffin was borne by horse-drawn carriage across the Edmund Pettus Bridge one last time, and there on the other side of the bridge, it was met by an honor guard of Alabama State Troopers.

There is a great lesson there, especially as we live through these very challenging times. These past seven months have been very hard on all of us. Some have become ill with COVID-19. Some have seen loved ones suffer and even die. All of us have been forced to isolate. Many have suffered financially and emotionally. We’ve had to keep children home from camp and now school. Our usual safety valve outlets of work, theater, gyms, movies, and so forth are largely shuttered. And it isn’t over yet. In this moment, in the press of immediacy, it might appear that we are in a dangerous moment of great loss. We do not even have a clear path yet to the other side of a cure or universal health and safety.

But we must always remind ourselves that we are part of a longer story that cannot be limited or defined by these seven months since March. John Lewis certainly understood that. He kept his eyes on the prize.

After Dunkirk and the near-defeat of the British forces in Europe, Prime Minister Winston Churchill rallied the spirits of his people in their darkest hour.

You know the lines: ‘We shall go on to the end. We shall fight on the seas and the oceans…We shall fight on the landing grounds; we shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.

But his private secretary, John Martin, described Churchill’s leadership genius as the ability to convince people that they were “protagonists on a vaster scene and champions of a high and invincible cause.”

That was the secret of inspiring his people—Reminding the British that they were part of a high and invincible cause.

We are well aware that, right now, we are desperately hungry for inspiring leadership to help us navigate these troubled waters. Instead of a shared vision and cause, our nation is divided and polarized by racial unrest and inequality, and this pandemic crisis has become politicized and subject to wild and paranoid conspiracy theories. Instead, we need a shared vision and purpose.

In the Book of Proverbs, we are taught: "B’ein Hazon, yipareh ha Am.”—“Where there is no vision, the people perish.

But it doesn’t serve our purposes to bemoan the lack of visionary leadership to see us through this crisis. There is no Churchill. There is no John Lewis.

But we do have a source of vision and inspiration available to us. Our tradition teaches us to see a larger story, an escape from the focus only on the immediate.

Let’s examine once more our story of Abraham and the Binding of Isaac. In Genesis 12, God spoke to Abraham and said: “Lech lecha,” Go forth. Leave your land, your birthplace, the home of your father, and go to a new place, a strange place, somewhere unknown that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation. I will bless you. You will have descendants as numerous as the stars of the heaven and the sands upon the seashore.

Abraham believed God. He trusted God. He thought that if God promised him generations and generations of children, grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren and on and on, that God would keep that promise. But now God is telling Abraham to sacrifice his son. This is in direct contradiction to the promise. The promise of future generations will all come to a screeching halt on the altar on Mt Moriah. But Abraham obeyed God’s terrible command.


Abraham saw himself as part of a greater story. He believed that God had a plan. The way to that goal might be convoluted and seemingly impossible. There would be walls and barriers standing in the way of fully realizing the future promised by God. But Abraham perceived that there was a much greater, overarching narrative, and Abraham was a player in this family saga that would go on for thousands of years. Like John Lewis refusing to see Bloody Sunday as a defeat or the British people who Churchill inspired, Abraham realized that he was a “protagonist on a vaster scene and a champion of a high and invincible cause.”

I know there are times when it appears that current reality seems very hopeless. This past half-year has tested us. And it isn’t over yet. But we cannot live only in the moment. We are part of something much greater and a story that will go on being told long after we are gone.

Each year we return to our sanctuaries. We hear the familiar melodies and repeat the phrases of the prayer book. We connect with friends and family, but we also connect with our past and our future. Giving us some perspective.

Never forget that we as a people have survived great challenges and disasters in the past. We are here today because those who went before us saw the promise of a greater story that we were only a small part of. This narrative must not end with us.

There is a folktale associated with King Solomon. It seems that the King asked his advisors for a simple phrase that would be true in all times. When he was sad, it would make him happy. But when he was happy it would make him said. The wisemen went away and returned with a ring on which three simple words were inscribed: Gam Zeh Ya’avor.” “This too will pass.”

This universal truth is not intended to create in us an attitude of passivity. We have power and agency, but at times like these, we might forget the larger picture or longer narrative. These are the times when we must carry each other through and remind ourselves that we will shape the future. As we learn from RH and YK, the past does not define the future. We must continue to share a vision of promise, hope, and blessing and be called to our highest and most noble selves. This too shall pass, but we will find for ourselves a more hopeful future.

May this New Year be one of safety, health, hope, and blessing.

Click HERE for a PDF version of the sermon.

Wed, November 29 2023 16 Kislev 5784