Sign In Forgot Password

Rosh Hashanah Sermon - Bravery

09/24/2020 01:57:28 PM


Humans like God are story tellers. As Elie Wiesel phrased it, “God created persons because he loves tales.” We as humans take the events of our life and we create multiple narratives – sometimes complementing one another, sometimes conflicting. The story we tell at any one moment shapes who we are as spiritual beings and gives meaning to who we are as a community, or as a people. A story can unite or divide us, depending on how it is told. After all, two people can experience the same events and offer two completely different stories with two completely different interpretations. Ask yourself and any of your siblings to recount an event from your childhoods and you will see how true that is. However, be that as it may, the stories we tell help us to shape how we understand and view the world and comprehend the events of our lives. 

As I reflect on this year of pandemic and trial, there is a favorite passage of mine in the book “The Little Prince,” a story I have always loved, that provides a framework for me that helps me understand my own life at this time of challenge as we stand on the precipice of a New Year. In this passage, the child author shows a picture to some grown-ups.  The adult says it is a hat. The child imaginatively says it is a python with an elephant in its stomach! There is a spiritual dimension to how the boy views the picture in contrast to the more prosaic interpretation the adults offer. In offering his perception of the drawing as a python having consumed an elephant, the child-author displays a spiritual creativity that leads him to view the world in unique and perhaps even hopeful ways. His “spirituality” causes him to view and endow his world with new possibilities and unexpected hopes beyond the more mundane vision of the adults in the story. His ability to see things uniquely provides a lesson for us as we approach this New Year of 5781.

Many of us have looked at this past year, a year in which the patterns of our lives have been so radically altered and where hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have died from the coronavirus, as one in which we have told a story of fear. This is surely understandable. After all, so many of you have told me how fear has gripped you and provided the overarching narrative for your lives during these past six months. I respect that sensibility and understanding very much. All of us are understandably frightened by the prospect and reality of the coronavirus epidemic. 

However, I would suggest tonight that there might be a different way story to tell this story, a different misgeret (framework) for viewing our world, that would provide a completely different lesson and approach to the trials we are experiencing.  What if, instead of cultivating fear and having it frame our response to the coronavirus, we turned to bravery as our guiding principle for approaching the events of our day. Bravery, in Hebrew, is omatz lev, literally strength of the heart. The Torah tells us that it is the quality Moses passes on to Joshua as he transfers the reins of leadership to his disciple at the end of Israel’s wanderings after forty years in the desert. It is the quality Joshua and the people must internalize as they confront the challenges of an uncertain and unknown future as they move on to the Holy Land, eretz Yisrael.

How can we emulate Joshua, how can we, like Israel at this moment of transition, have ometz lev, “strong hearts” and courage – bravery – at this time when so many of us are so justifiably concerned and afraid? How can we reshape our narratives and provide a different story so that confidence and hope can triumph over the fear and anxiety so many of us understandably now feel? It is not easy to do this, to change our narrative framework for approaching this moment in time. 

However, I would suggest that we have the capacity to do so. After all, Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays stand on a foundation that each of us has the capability of doing teshuvah, which literally does not mean “repentance,” but turning. We can “turn” and understand the meaning of this moment in a different way. After all, bravery is not the absence of fear, but the response to it.  Bravery is what we have all done in response to the past few months.  It is brave to get up every morning and face the day.  It is brave to not be paralyzed by mortality.  It is brave to find new ways to survive and thrive during this time of calamity.

Consider the following story from Neil Gaiman’s book Coraline: 
Coraline, a young girl, tells a cat a story from when she was younger. She recalls that she went on a walk with her father, when suddenly, her father tells Coraline to run. They had stepped on a wasp nest, and her father let himself get stung so Coraline could run away. After he ran, he dropped his glasses and needed to return to retrieve them. However, he forgot where they were. Coraline tells the cat:
"He said that he wasn’t scared when he was standing there and the wasps were stinging him and hurting him and he was watching me run away. Because he knew he had to give me enough time to run, or the wasps would have come after both of us . . . And he said that wasn’t brave of him, doing that, just standing there and being stung,” said Coraline to the cat. “It wasn’t brave because he wasn’t scared: it was the only thing he could do. But going back again to get his glasses, when he knew the wasps were there, when he was really scared. That was brave."
The cat asks her why that was brave of him, and Coraline answers, "Because . . . when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.” (

Maimonides teaches the following about the correlation between experiencing hardship and cultivating bravery. Speaking about the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, Maimonides says, "God has first trained you in the hardships of the wilderness, in order to increase your welfare when you enter the land of Canaan.”  He goes onto say, “It is indeed a fact that the transition from trouble to ease gives more pleasure than continual ease. It is also known that the Israelites would not have been able to conquer the land and fight with its inhabitants, if they had not previously undergone the trouble and hardship of the wilderness.” Tribulations provide the foundations, the testing ground, for courage and bravery – ometz lev.

Most of life is lived in a metaphoric and, as we have experienced these past six months, a literal wilderness. Life lived in a wilderness, life lived in the shadow of a pandemic, is scary.  Most often, we do not know what is coming. We are at the mercy of forces beyond our control and that is frightening. However, the weapon we take into the wilderness is the gift of bravery.  The ability to face fear, respond to it, and conquer it, that is bravery, and it is a quality we all possess as we face the trials of our lives.

Maimonides goes onto say, “Ease destroys bravery, while trouble and care for food create strength; and this was [also for the Israelites] the good that ultimately came out of their wanderings in the wilderness (Guide for the Perplexed 3:24).”

Look back at the past year at your life and see that while you were surely afraid at so many moments, your ultimate response was nevertheless brave. We cannot exhibit ometz lev, bavery, unless we have also been scared. Remember this and allow the quality of bravery to complement the anxiety of fear as you frame the story of your life during this past year and as you reflect on the year ahead. The torment of wandering in the wilderness has been and is real. However, this should not obviate our confidence in the future. Understand that when we respond to fear with resilience and hope that this is an act of bravery. Every time we move forward instead of backwards, speak up when we feel silenced, fight back when we are afraid, offer support when our friends and family cry out for healing and support -- these are all acts of bravery that frame the story of our lives during this past year.

Bravery is not something you need seek. Rather, it is embedded in your very souls.  It is an essential part of who you are. You are stronger now then you were before the trials of this past year and that is going to serve you well both in the years ahead and for the rest of your life.  

Bravery – ometz lev -- provides a different way to tell the story of your actions this past year. It offers a positive narrative for us as individuals, as a congregation, and as a nation that needs to be embraced, a narrative for each of us to understand that despite our fears, we acted bravely.   Cultivate that bravery as we enter the wilderness of 5781. Shanah tovah u’metukah – may this year be a better one, one of sweetness, goodness, hope, and courage for us, all Israel, and all humankind.

Thu, October 29 2020 11 Cheshvan 5781