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Rosh Hashanah Sermon - Strength of Spirit

09/24/2020 02:01:12 PM


2020 may have been the toughest year any of us have ever faced. The pandemic has surely presented all of us with unique trials and challenges. However, this does not mean that it was a year devoid of learning.  In a year that would otherwise have been intolerable, I can say that I have learned or come to deepen my own understanding of certain aspects of life.  For these high holy days, I would like to share with you what I have learned and come to appreciate on a deeper level since last Yom Kippur.

There are tools, aspects of our spiritual selves, that we spend a lifetime cultivating.  The pandemic that we have been experiencing has served as a crucible that has allowed for, if not required, each of us to cultivate certain tendencies of the spirit. Spiritual muscles that perhaps we had not had occasion to use or strengthen before, we now recognize as necessary and essential.  We generally acknowledge that we must cultivate our minds and our bodies, but we should not forget that the very act of living – especially at this time of challenge – can cultivate our spirits as well.  Today I would like to explore the aspect of the spirit that in Hebrew is called ‘oz ruach, strength of spirit.

The story of Cinderella ends with the phrase, “and the prince fit the slipper on Cinderella’s foot and they lived happily ever after.”  I am left to wonder if Cinderella ever truly realized how much spiritual strength she actually possessed prior to the prince coming to save her.  I like to think that had she recognized her inner strength the story would have played out much differently.  I appreciate that perhaps she could not get out of her situation without help (consider the mice and the fairy godmother!), but she never realized how strong she truly was while living with her evil stepmother.  Similarly, do we recognize how spiritually strong we actually are and have been during this past year? Or do we take that strength for granted at the least or, at the worst, dismiss it?

You might think yourself weak, like Cinderella, that because you are the victim of forces so much more powerful then yourself that you need to wait for others to make the world and your lives better. I do not mind relying on others for help. In fact, as the Beatles put it in their iconic phrase decades ago, each of us needs to “get by with a little help from our friends.” But I think sometimes we have a tendency to think of ourselves as lacking, as possessing less ‘oz ruach, strength of spirit then we actually do.  

We tend to think of ourselves as dependent, as only being capable of what theologians would call, “redemption,” being saved from suffering, at the hands of someone or something else.  It as if we do not possess strength of our own.  As if we are not strong.  Well, we are strong with others, but we are also strong as individuals.  

The problem with not recognizing how truly strong you are is that you surrender, you give away, your own power.  This act of giving away or ceding our strength to others has a negative effect on our spirits.  It is only by recognizing and holding onto our strength, our capacity for oz ruach, that we actually become spiritually stronger. Recognize who you are. Never give away your strength.  Your strength is the source of your power and your strength can only be diminished if you yield it to someone else.  

Recognize how strong you are in place of depending solely on the strength of others for redemption.  Humans are resilient, but we have for far too long internalized a myth that we are not capable of being the source of our own salvation.  

The position of doubting our own strength of will is the result of centuries of conditioning, not an innate fact of our genetic make-up as human beings. Humanity has long labored under a caste system where hierarchies held ultimate power. A system dominated that did not affirm the autonomy and worth of the individual. With the French and American revolutions in the 18th century, the idea of the dignity of the individual person, the notion that “we hold these truths to be self-evident” that all persons “were created equal,” however imperfectly realized, began to be manifest in the world. Our democracy and our striving for equality rests on this ideal.  

The idea of needing a messiah, a savior, rises out of a sense of helplessness that has long been prevalent in history.  For example, when the ancient prophets saw that the kingdom of Babylonia come to conquer the people of Israel in our ancient homeland, the people Israel felt helpless and held out hope that God and the Messiah would save them.  The prophet Zecharia sustained the people by promising them a savior. He proclaimed to Israel,

“Behold, your king will come to you; he is just and victorious”  (Zechariah 9:9).

Isaiah, too, can only imagine that the antidote to darkness is that God will come and save.  He reinforces the peoples’ sense of powerlessness and tells them to wait.

“For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and fog the peoples; but the Lord shall shine upon you, and His glory shall be seen upon you” (Isaiah 60:2).

These prophets did not imagine a different approach to salvation. For them, salvation could only come from the divine, a savior, a mashiach sent by God. However, we can imagine a different way, a path they did not envision.   We can imagine a better future that we ourselves can mold that is not dependent on anyone else giving us strength or us gifting our personal strength away, for our Tradition asserts more than our dependence as individuals upon God. It also asserts the dignity and the importance of each of us as individual people possessed of infinite dignity. Judaism teaches that each person, however frail we often are, is also possessed of ‘oz ruach, a strength of spirit that allows us to be shu-ta-fin, partners with God in the work of creation.

I would now share a talmudic story that speaks to this dignity, this ‘oz ruach and greatness that each of us possesses and marks us as human beings. The Talmud states:

There once was a man named Elazer ben Durdaya, who strayed from the path of the good. One day when he realized that his life was being wasted, he felt an intense need to return to God.
In his earnest desire to repent, Elazer sought external help, he called out, “Mountains and hills, ask mercy for me.”
“Ask mercy for you?,” they stated, “We must ask mercy for ourselves.”
Elazar then turned to heaven and earth and beseeched them. “Heaven and earth,” he implored, “ask mercy for me.”
“Ask mercy for you?,” they responded. “No, we must ask for ourselves.”
Elazar then stated, “Sun and moon, ask mercy for me.”
“Ask mercy for you?,” the stated. And again, the familiar refrain, “We must ask mercy for ourselves.”
Finally, Elazar asked, “Stars and planets, ask mercy for me.”
“Ask mercy for you?” But they, too, said, “We must ask mercy for ourselves.”
Elazer sat upon the ground, and after a long and serious period of probing introspection, realized while crying, “Ein hadavar talu ela bi” — “It all depends on me.”
Elazer spent his life feeling weak. He surrendered his strength. In his desperation for salvation, he looked to others to be strong for him. He did not realize that he was strong enough to advocate for himself. Only at the end could he realize that he was only one who could grant himself the strength to be redeemed.  

At the root of this ability to act on the phrase, “it all depends on me,” is the concept of oz ruach, strength of spirit. If bravery is a response to fear, then strength of spirit is a response to weakness. It is a quality we all possess.  

On this morning of Rosh Hashanah, we need to recognize, as Elazar did, “ein hadavar talu ela bi -- It all depends on me”. You, each of us, does in fact possess the strength to create a shift in the nature and state of society and humanity, in the nature and state of our familial and personal lives, as individuals.

The story of Elazer ben Durdaya rightfully reminds us that each of us is capable of changing the world, of flourishing even during this time of pandemic. When you hear the shofar and its calls, wake up to the realization that you possess a strength that is beautiful and powerful. Show your strength to the world and fear not. You are strong and able in ways that you could not imagine. You are marked by strength and dignity, not weakness and despair.  Imagine who you are in the deepest recesses of your soul.  Recognize that when you do so you will strengthen both yourself and those who surround you and whom you love. Be the messiah God knows you can be as you enter this New Year, and make 5781 a year of sweetness and goodness, a shanah tovah u’metukah, for yourself, your family, your community, the people Israel, and the larger world. Amen.

Thu, October 29 2020 11 Cheshvan 5781