Tough Choices

Sermon delivered on Yom Kippur Day 5770 – September 28, 2009

by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

A congregant approached me on Rosh Hashanah morning. He said: “Last night, when you began your sermon by singing, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want,’ I was sure you were going to talk about health care reform.”

Well, I didn’t. And I won’t be doing so today. But not because the subject is not relevant, or timely, or reflective of our collective sins. And certainly not because I don’t have strong opinions on the matter. Those who know me are well aware that I have strong opinions about, well, everything; and I’m particularly concerned about health care.

Health care would be a great example for today’s topic. This morning’s sermon is a meditation on the last sentence of Chapter 5 of Pirke Avot: “Ben Hei Hei taught: ‘According to the difficulty is the reward’.” Or, as we usually put it: “No pain, no gain.” That’s right, Texas football coaches might have come up with the slogan, but the concept has been around for at least 2000 years. When we have decisions to make, we most often make the choice that is easiest for us. We avoid hard work and we steer clear of unpalatable consequences. No doubt, that impulse is making it harder for our nation’s leaders to agree upon a health care reform plan. But those football coaches, like the ancient Rabbi, know better.

Parents do, too. We do a pretty good job of making the point to our children. We expect them to take courses of study that challenge them, not merely to skate by. We want them to learn, and we know that they will best succeed in the future if they do not take the easy way out. Whether in sports or studies, debate or dance, intuition and experience teach us, like Ben Hei Hei: “According to the difficulty is the reward;” or, “No pain, no gain.” Sure, natural ability helps, sometimes a great deal, but hard work is required for achievement.

Almost every Shabbat that we have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah at our Temple, a guest will ask me a rhetorical question: “Wasn’t Stephanie,” or whatever the child’s name, “the most remarkable Bar or Bat Mitzvah you have ever seen?” I respond: “Stephanie is just wonderful.” And she is. The truth be told, though, I’ve seen thirteen year olds achieve as Stephanie just has, week in and week out, for over seventeen years. The guest will continue: “At our synagogue, the kids don’t do nearly so much. Stephanie must be unique,” I’m told. Naturally, I don’t want to spoil the moment. I have no reason to disabuse our guest of believing that Stephanie is a wunderkind the likes of which I’ve never seen. The truth, though, is more complicated.

At some point along the way, Stephanie’s parents have complained – probably to fellow Bar or Bat Mitzvah parents, not to me – that Bat Mitzvah preparation here requires an inordinate amount of time and effort. We have very high standards at Temple Beth-El, established long before Rabbi Bergman Vann, Cantor Berlin or I ever came upon the scene. The kids work hard.

Several weeks after each Bar or Bat Mitzvah, we distribute an evaluation form to the parents. We have learned much from the responses. We ask the extent to which parents agree or disagree with a series of statements: “By the time of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the service was the most important part of the experience for our child.” Almost invariably, the response is, “strongly agree.” “Our child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah enhanced his/her Jewish identity.” “Strongly agree.” Comments about our needing to consolidate appointments, to cut down the number of drives to the Temple? You bet. Criticism of the amount of work expected of the student? Never.

So, when it comes to children, we get it: Hard work communicates important lessons. Achievement of a challenging goal is of inestimable value.

Let me tell you about a remarkable group of adults in our congregation who have undertaken a similarly challenging task. Well, I shouldn’t say “group.” A stigma is attached to what these men and women have done, so they don’t necessarily know one another. Often, the Rabbi doesn’t know.

I’m talking about the scores of men and women in our Temple family, and the millions across America, who have successfully achieved recovery from addition to alcohol and drugs. Most addicts in recovery participate in 12-step programs. The work is hard, every day.

Scientists continue to struggle to understand the root causes of addiction: the biological and the psychological, the genetic and the behavioral. Many people, though, continue to view addicts as weak-willed, self-indulgent, even sinful. Whatever the explanation, I know it’s too complicated for me to judge. Addicts who have maintained recovery are nothing short of heroic.

First, these men and women must admit that they have lost control over their lives. Many go through “detox,” a dangerous period in which they must be weaned from physical addiction, often enduring tremendous physical pain despite medical attention. Now sober, some for the first time in decades, they must come to terms with the lives they have ruined, their own and others, the loving partners they have abused, the children they failed to raise. And now, aware of all the terrible things they have done, they must stay sober, and continue to confront life’s harsh realities every day.

Too often, addicts relapse. Most of us aren’t up to keeping up that level of tremendous effort, of hard work, for a lifetime.

Isn’t that what Yom Kippur is all about? Today is not an easy day. We are commanded to fast. We spend our day in the synagogue. We confess our sins, repeatedly. We are expected to come to terms with the ways in which we are harming the world, the people around us, and ourselves. We are required to make difficult choices, to change our lives, to become better people, to make the world a better place. We are asked to do so, not only when the change is easy, but because repentance is hard work.

On Rosh Hashanah, and again on Yom Kippur, we ask God to forgive us on account of our ancestors’ righteousness. An example of their remarkable behavior: Torah tells us that Abraham and Sarah left not only the place where they lived, but their homeland, their parents’ house, to travel to the Promised Land. Why use three descriptions of the place they are leaving? To make sure we understand that Abraham and Sarah undergo real hardship in order to establish the covenant.

On Rosh Hashanah, and again on Yom Kippur, we ask God to forgive us on account of our ancestors’ righteousness. Another example of that piety: Elijah is scorned and oppressed, as he does verbal battle with Ahab and Jezebel and with the prophets of the idol Ba’al. Elijah’s labor is as intense as it is lonely. He flees the hordes that want to murder him, finding himself alone in a cave. In the process, he is victorious for God; and the prophet gives us hope for our future.

On Rosh Hashanah, and again on Yom Kippur, we ask God to forgive us on account of our ancestors’ righteousness. One more example: Chaim Solomon, the Jewish financier of the American Revolution, ultimately impoverished himself in order to secure the funds General Washington needed to win American freedom. His later years were harsh and cold, but he provided all Americans with freedom and American Jews with a glorious legacy.

In the week before Rosh Hashanah, two young men gave their lives, for us. One was a graduate of Judson High School, killed in Afghanistan. Another was Asaf Ramon, son of Israeli Astronaut Ilan Ramon, who was killed in the Colombia disaster. Many of us knew Asaf, and indeed Ilan and all of the Ramon family, at Greene Family Camp, which they attended when they lived in Houston during Ilan’s training for the Colombia mission. Asaf was killed when his plane crashed in a training mission for the Israeli Air Force. These young men, Ilan Ramon included, undertook most difficult tasks, risking everything, and ultimately making the supreme sacrifice, safeguarding our good and infinitely easier lives.

Today, our nation faces a terrible decision about that war in Afghanistan. We have left Afghanistan before, and we know what will happen if we do so again: The Taliban, and ultimately al-Qaeda, will fill the vacuum. The security of the civilized world will be threatened. And yet, we also know, if we send more troops to Afghanistan, more valiant American men and women will perish. Maddeningly, we are supporting one of the world’s most corrupt regimes – a kleptocracy, really – which is the only real way to understand our fair-weather allies in the supposedly elected Afghani government. Our budget deficit will grow. And we know of no exit strategy.

Will we raise our own taxes, to share the burden of the war? Will we engage in increasingly serious efforts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, the only way that we will ever really cut into the power that Middle Eastern terrorists hold over our heads? Will we submit to universal national service, in the military or elsewhere, so that the burden of protecting our nation will be shared by all, as it was in World War II, the last time we really won a serious war? Or will we again look for an easy way out?

We know that sliding by will ultimately lead our children to failure. The same will be true for our nation.

The time has come for tough choices. This Yom Kippur, let us urge our national leaders to join us in repentance, in the hard work we need to do to make our lives, and our nation, better.

If we fail, Medicare and Social Security will bankrupt our nation.

If we fail, al-Qaeda will again be at our doorstep.

If we fail, our moral standing will diminish, as tens of millions continue to go without the “greatest medical care on Earth.”

Hashiveinu Adonai eleicha, v’nashuvah. Make us repent, O God, and let us return to do your will. Like Abraham and Sarah before us, let us know that our lives will be better only if we leave the comfort of the devil we know. Like Elijah before us, let us feel your presence, even when we fight a lonely battle. Like Chaim Solomon before us, grant us the strength to undergo personal hardship for the greater good.

Then, may our repentance on this Yom Kippur Day enhance our lives. Then may our nation achieve its destined great. Then may our souls be pleasing in God’s sight.