By Rabbi David
Shanah tovah. May 5781 dawn bright for you and your beloveds.
Last night we introduced our High Holy Day theme of love to power our journey of teshuvah – returning to our best selves, each other and a world urgently needing repair. We explored how love‘s core impulse is to flow and grow, connect beyond self, and reshape the self. We saw how in most situations, Judaism’s core mitzvah is to love, and how love‘s connectivity can not only power teshuvah but also leverage emergency conditions to catalyze the emergence of a better world.
We say emergence because we must emerge better than this. Lest we squander this spiritual moment, we must emerge from these High Holy Days better as people – more aware, more loving, more real and more connected. And lest we squander this historical moment, we must emerge from this tumultuous days better as a people – healthier, safer and saner – as Jews, Americans and global citizens. Emergence asks every quality of love that can help catalyze these transformations. Yesterday, love‘s focus was connection. Today, love‘s focus is courage.
Courage is a choice to face challenge, pain or danger despite fear. Moral or spiritual courage makes this choice with introspection, faith and principled action for a higher purpose. Fear is where courage begins: as Franklin D. Roosevelt famously put it, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something is more important than fear.” Nelson Mandela picked up where FDR left off: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave is not one who does not feel afraid, but who conquers that fear.” As John Lewis put it in his final words to the nation, “Fear constrains us like an imaginary prison.”
If it’s unclear how courage relates to love, consider that “courage” is all about heart: in French it’s courage, from cœur (heart); in Hebrew it’s אומץ לב / ometz lev, strength of heart. Yesterday we saw how love‘s connective impulse to flow and grow can redefine self-interest. Often it’s love – for another, ourselves, principle, country or God – that will value something else more important than fear. Real courage doesn’t harden the heart: it softens the heart so it can flex and stretch.
This is the courage that teshuvah asks – to flex and stretch into seeing parts of ourselves that maybe we fear to see, because maybe we’re not the people we want to be or think we are. It asks courage to reach out to people we wronged, or receive people who wronged us. It asks courage to seek forgiveness, and to give forgiveness without clutching rightness – especially when situations feel close to heart.
Much of Torah is about those very situations. Most every journey in Torah ventures into the unknown amidst adversity. Abraham stood up to leave most everyone he knew to follow a God he’d never seen to a place he’d never heard of. In today’s Torah reading (Genesis 21), Abraham felt torn between two loves: it took courage to follow God’s voice as best as Abraham could discern it. Hagar needed even more courage to take her son into the desert. And for both Abraham and Hagar, courage came from adversity: they could, because they had to.
The desert of Hagar’s journey is a fitting metaphor. Anyone who’s ever been in a desert knows that its vastness is humbling. The desert strips our hubris and sense of control. It disorients our senses. It seems lifeless. And exactly through the desert is the path of transformation.
Sociologist Brené Brown wrote in her book Braving the Wilderness that transformation comes from our courage to stand in the deserts of our lives, precisely in our discomfort and fear. She drew this conclusion from actual data about how people experience adversity and adapt. And as often happens, sociological data confirms spiritual wisdom. It’s the same lesson Torah offers over and over again. Maya Angelou said much the same thing: “You are free only when you realize that you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all.”
Where do we really belong? – not necessarily the place that’s easy and comfortable, but the place that’s real and right? What values are core to us, do they fit what exists now, or must we make changes? Will we summon the courage to stand, even alone in the desert if we must, to emerge into who we are called to become and what seems most right?
This spiritual challenge – the courage to take our teshuvah journey for real – is not only our individual calling. It’s also our political calling, in the sense of the collective public good. It’s why John Lewis urged us to get into “good trouble, necessary trouble,” to do what is right even if we are afraid, even if the stakes are high. It’s why the leading biography of John Lewis is called Courage in Action. It’s why John Lewis won the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for lifetime public service.
What made John Lewis a profile in courage isn’t that he was so successful, though he was. What made him a profile in courage is that he chose to stand in the desert of hate, bearing its fearful vastness and even its tragic violence. John Lewis was a profile in courage for living the principle that racism makes a liar of God, because racism shakes the foundation of all spirituality – that all are created in the image of God.
Racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, misogyny and homophobia: they are different, but all make liars of God. They are a different kind of desert – lifeless spiritually, and literally. In the year 2020, hate-crime homicides spiked massively. In the year 2020, this shul‘s congressional district suffered the highest hospital death rate from covid: health funding varies by wealth and race, and this district is among the nation’s poorest per capita. In the year 2020, fatal police encounters vary by race. In the year 2020, LGBT suicide rates are triple the national average.
This desert of inhumanity is as perilous as the physical desert Hagar wandered in our Torah portion, and it demands our courage to transform as a society – and as individuals, especially if we don’t think we need to. Look inside: if you harbor any stereotype based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, career, wealth or level of ability, then this moment of reckoning is for you. It’s for each of us. It’s for all of us.
It takes courage to see inconvenient truths given our incentives not to see them. But turning away is a luxury we can’t afford and a privilege nobody deserves. We Jews were enslaved, exiled and more: we’re not allowed amnesia or ambivalence. Our Torah, our spiritual identity and the whole point of these Days of Awe, all stand on the purpose that we are to manifest good in the world because we and our ancestors saw the bad and the ugly. Anything else makes a liar of God. So we, most of all, must summon the courage to act, to get into the “good trouble” that John Lewis urged, so that a better world can emerge. “Justice,” said Cornel West, “is what love looks like in public, just as tenderness is what love feels like in private.” Love without justice and tenderness is not love.
Here’s another example. If you use Gmail, thank Tristan Harris for inventing the “Inbox.” If you use Facebook, thank Justin Rosenstein for inventing the “Like” button. Their inventions brought fame and wealth, but in 2013 they found unintended effects from their well-intended digital connection tools. They began seeing emotional disconnection, hyper-reactivity and even digital addiction. Harris felt that Google had a moral duty to address it, so he sent a few colleagues ideas about respecting people’s attention as a public good instead of a commodity. His email went viral: in days, tens of thousands had seen it, including Google’s CEO. Harris felt a movement starting to value humanity in digital space.
Then it fizzled. Nothing. Nada. They were surprised at first, but then they realized that the corporate business model was to capture our attention by maximizing our distraction, not by minimizing it. Rosenstein and Harris had happened onto an inconvenient truth that threatened the bottom line, and folks tend not to see what we have incentive not to see. But they couldn’t un-see, and they didn’t feel free to look away.
Instead, they created a nonprofit called the Center for Humane Technology to tackle the issue – and it cost them. Their finances took a hit, they lost friends, and they were exiled to the desert of their industry. They were ostracized: they no longer belonged. But just three years later, in 2016, The Atlantic magazine was calling Harris “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience.” By 2018, Facebook adopted their reforms as systemwide design principles for the future. By 2020, their story had become an award-winning documentary, The Social Dilemma.
Courage: it can be hard to see inconvenient truths, harder to accept them, and very hard to act on them. Often it’s hard even to open hearts and minds to genuine self-reflection. It’s hard to enter that desert, away from the comfort of what’s safely familiar, away from what we think we know and who we think we are. But that’s the path to real freedom, our cœur-age, our אומץ לב / ometz lev, our strength of heart. And like John Lewis’s love that inspired nonviolent social action, like the love of human dignity that inspired Harris and Rosenstein to uplift digital ethics, it is love that can power our own courage to see deeply and act boldly.
It’s telling that Torah imagined our desert-wandering ancestors instinctively hardening their hearts to withstand challenge. Humans are wired to brace for impact; we tense up in preparation for conflict; we anticipate future hurts and we re-live past ones. But a “hardened heart” is what Pharaoh was – and, of all people, we are not to be like Pharaoh. Maybe that’s why Deuteronomy 10 calls us to “walk only God’s path, to love… and circumcise the foreskin,” literally obstructions, “of the heart.”
It’s courageous love that can lift the obstructions from our hearts. It’s the heart more soft than hard, more open than guarded, strong enough to hold more, that is most courageous to become and act. This is the love that can transform fear and hurt, and us, and the world:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do,
though the voices around you
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.
– Mary Oliver
In the merit of a love both inwardly real and outwardly connective, may our hearts soften into the truest courage of deep vision and bold action. May this love power our emergence into the better world that is our calling and our birthright – for ourselves and our loved ones, and for a shanah tovah um’tukah / a year of sweet goodness.