Removing the Obstacle of Despair

I have written a d’var Torah for T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights which was posted today. Below you will find the D’var Torah preceded by an introduction that I gave at Beth Israel before reading it this past Shabbat.

Each year it seems I discover that a somewhat “contemporary” song inspires me for the holy day season and I find a way to work it into a sermon or teaching around the holidays. I heard a song for the first time a few months ago and I immediately loved it. The song, called Roll Me Away, was written and performed by Ann Arbor’s own Bob Seger. It describes a motorcycle rider who decides to take off down the road in an attempt to be free of responsibilities towards thinking about what is right.

After hearing the song a few times, I realized that the final verse was perfect for the High Holy Day season.

Here is the first part of that verse:  
“Stood alone on a mountain top
Starin’ out at the Great Divide
I could go east, I could go west
It was all up to me to decide
Just then I saw a young hawk flyin’
And my soul began to rise
And pretty soon
My heart was singin’
Roll, roll me away
I’m gonna roll me away tonight
Gotta keep rollin’, gotta keep ridin’
Keep searchin’ till I find what’s right”

This is the essence of the High Holy Days. We stare at the great divide between last year and this year and realize we have choices to make. But, as important as it is to make the right choice between right and wrong, we must make choices which help our souls to rise l’ayla u’layla (higher and higher.

The song ends with these words which I used as the introduction to the T’ruah D’var Torah which follows:

As the sunset faded I spoke
To the faintest first starlight 
And I said: “Next time, Next time 
We’ll get it right.” 

Several years ago, while I was studying Parashat Kedoshim with my daughter for her bat mitzvah, she asked me an insightful question: “Why did the Torah command us not to put a stumbling block before a blind person? Couldn’t we have figured that one out on our own?” 

The rabbis obviously had the same question as they expanded the prohibition to include giving inappropriate advice and taking advantage of another’s weakness. 

This teaches us that when a Jewish text seems too obvious, we have to find another explanation. 

In this context, consider the statement in the Mishnah concerning teshuvah/repentance. The Mishnah warns us against saying: “Echteh v’ashuv, Echteh v’Ashuv”; “I will sin and repent, I will sin and repent”, teaching that teshuvah in that case would not be successful.

Clearly, this is meant to teach us that using teshuvah as an “escape clause” in order to justify pre-meditated sin doesn’t work. 

But, I think that should strike us as self-evident and too obvious to be the whole story. 

So, I have begun to think of this text differently. Why does the Mishnah repeat the phrase “I will sin and repent” when once would have been sufficient? 

The Mishnah could be describing a person who approaches the season of teshuvah with frustration, wondering what the point to repentance is since he or she would be right back in the same position the next year and every year after that: sinning and repenting over and over again. That person believes we are trapped in a cycle of disappointment that we can never escape. 

Seen this way, the Mishnah is warning us against believing that teshuvah is futile simply because we know that each year will bring some failure. If that is our attitude, then repentance can never work. We must believe the day will come when the cycle will be broken. 

And, what is true for us as individuals is also true as we consider the state of the world. 

This past year has been a frustrating one for so many of us. We have watched in horror and disgust as in the United States, Israel and throughout the world leaders spew rhetoric of division. We have been saddened to see the precious values of compassion and justice, values rooted so deeply in Jewish tradition, ridiculed and mocked.

Naturally, many of us are tired and justifiably have become more than a bit cynical. 

But it is at this moment that we have to look back at the warning of the Mishnah and realize that we have to rise above the frustration and cynicism and find the energy and the desire to continue to work for what we believe to be right, for right will triumph some day. We simply have to believe this. There is no other choice. 

In the haftarah reading for Yom Kippur, Isaiah teaches that “the fast God desires” is to do good in the world, to free the oppressed, clothe the naked, feed the hungry and bring the world closer to perfection. 

This beautiful haftarah begins with words which remind us of the Torah verse about the stumbling block: “hareemu michshol,” “remove the obstacles” in our path. 

Cynicism, despair and frustration are the most prominent obstacles preventing us from doing all we can to repair the world. We need to remove those obstacles from our path in order to fulfill our role. We need to believe that the world can return to the proper direction.

It has been a difficult year. We are tired. But the cries of children at the border, the cries of those who have been targeted because of color, the cries of families who have lost loved ones to gun violence, the cries of the earth begging us to make the changes necessary for us all to survive can not be ignored. Despite our fatigue, we can not despair. We can’t get caught in the trap of “things will never change”. We must believe they can and they will. 

While we admit that we are tired and frustrated, let us commit ourselves and our communities to continue the work. As sunset brings in the first Shabbat of the New Year, may we discover the light of renewed energy and passion to continue to work for what we believe. And, most importantly, may we always be inspired by absolute faith that the day will come when the world will “get it right”.

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