Do Not Despair: A Yom Kippur Sermon

There is cable news station that is often on in my house, or on my Sirius XM radio in the car… until someone tells me to turn it off. I don’t have a lot of time to listen or watch the news, but over the course of the last few years, I have almost obsessively turned on this station whenever I can.  It is actually problematic because the news often puts in a despair.

This has been a difficult couple of years in our country.  No matter which side of the political aisle you stand, the hate spewing, the lies, the harsh rhetoric of hatred of the other, the natural disasters, the images of toddlers alone in jail cells, and in our own lives, we grieve with the loss of a loved one, we’re faced with unemployment and worry about how to make ends meet, there has been recent diagnoses and health concerns, there is family strife, there is an uptick in teen suicide, of overdosing, of gun violence.  It is a lot to hold. It’s enough to bring on depression and despair.

Much of Jewish text and literature is devoted to despair. The psalmist writes of it, our history teaches it and our Sages speak on it from an intimate place of knowing. The trauma of despair is ingrained in our collective memory.

There are antidotes to living in depressing times. Today I see a threefold answer to despair.  One: celebrate life with gratitude and passion. Two: get involved in causes that matter to you and help others, and three: belong to a community of support.

To celebrate life with passion and gratitude does not mean to forget or ignore that which needs a tikkun, a repair.  Living one’s life, knowing that our life is of value and purpose is an answer to despair. To truly live means we experience both joy and sadness and we are able to see that our aliveness is enriching, miraculous and stunning!  Each morning when we wake up we are to say the words Modeh/Modah ani lefanecha—“Grateful am I! Thank you, God, for this new day of life!” When we engage in our life, we can find beauty even when we think there is none to be found.  Living as our best selves is how we survive in difficult times. We do not retreat, we do not hide. We answer life, even if whispered, with Hineini, “Here I am.”  We do our best to get out of bed and greet the day because it is ours and the alternative leads to further darkness and despair.

I am not so naïve to say that offering a “Here I am” to the day alone is the answer to overcoming despair. Some of us have great difficulty facing the day. We may be diagnosed with the medical condition of depression or anxiety or something else. And for this, the remedy is to get help from the professional community and seek care in order to live one’s life in the way one is able. This alone is a blessing in life.

The answer to despair lies in the foundational belief that we are created to live our life– to experience joy and pleasure, the mundane and yes, even the painful.  When we love and engage in our life, even as we might hold the pain, our despair is diminished.

I’ve often heard that the answer to our own pain, or to the societal and political ills of our time is that we have to have hope that things will get better.  I do not believe that the answer to despair is hope.  I think we have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to hope. Since we were children we have been told that if we have a positive mental attitude and show up with a smile, it will all work out for the best, that “we can if we think we can.”  The problem is the good guy doesn’t always win, the underdog does not always come out on top and believing this generally leads to frustration, self-doubt, and even more despair.

Take for example a close friend of mine’s terminally ill mother who is in hospice right now.  Hope for this woman is not helpful, yet she is very interested in living her life despite her fears and keen awareness that the number of her days is finite.  She is living her life, she gets her hair done at her home, her friends come over and bring dinner from the places that she loves, she hosts guests and she goes to the dentist, still.  She is not biding her time, waiting to die, succumbing to the depths of despair that she has every right to get to.    For her, response to suffering is to live as she is able.  She still is able to find passion in her days because as long as she has breath, she has life and the opportunity to have meaning.

Hope implies that things are going to get better. Sometimes that happens for sure, but as a rabbi who is with you in times of great need, and as a person who has suffered herself, I know we don’t have a fairy tale God. There is a God, a Higher Power however that will help us get up one day at a time, who will be there for us when we fall and who will pick us up to try again.  There is a God who helps us live and find meaning in our life on the best days and on the worst too.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav one of our greatest teachers, a Hasidic master, knew despair well.  He suffered from depression and despite that, encouraged us to have joy.   He was known to say, “Do not despair!” “Do not despair!” Because for every fall, or descent, there is an ascent and we get up.  He did not want us to live as though we were in exile and remove ourselves from daily living but rather he taught, “One must …constantly strive to free oneself from exile and to seek living conditions which are conducive to joy.[1]

We don’t live life and forget what is going on in our life or the world that needs our attention, but it is precisely because of what is going on that we must live life fully.  Emil Fackenheim, a post-holocaust theologian added a commandment to the 613 mitzvot that are in the Torah.  Fackenheim’s 614thcommandment is that we do not give Hitler a posthumous victory.  Meaning, we live and shout our presence and purpose to the world and we do good and we take care of each other and we continue to bring the Jewish values of righteousness and justice into our lives and into the world.[2]

We combat our despair through gratitude, passionate living and recognizing the value of the self and we combat despair in an age of challenge and pain by using our energy, passions, and resources to change that which we believe needs fixing.

There is so much that is wrong with our Country right now.   Whatever it is that you feel needs to be repaired, please, get to work!  We read in Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Ancestors: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I? and if not now, when?”[3]  We belong to the Reform Movement in Judaism which has at its core the belief in the prophetic call to social justice, the need to make this a better world and we take welcoming the stranger, providing for the needy, being stewards of the land, protecting the climate, fighting for equality and the rights of all people, to heart.

We believe the words of our prophet Amos “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[4]  And we are with Isaiah when he demands,  “See that Justice is done: defend widows and orphans and help those in need.”[5]  Judaism demands that we pursue justice, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” we read in Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”[6]

The time is now to pay attention to what is going on around us. To not “stand idly by”[7]but rather to pursue justice and to make our voices heard.  One tremendous way to accomplish this, to head the call of our tradition, is to use our inalienable rights to practice the great gift of democracy and Vote!

We live in a representative democracy and we have the power to change that which does not serve us. We have the power to elect smart and compassionate, action-oriented leaders that protect and defend and repair that which is broken and causing harm, distress, and despair.    In this regard, voter engagement is essential. Rabbi Yitzhak taught, “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted.”[8]   The Reform movement, through the Religious Action Center, the RAC, has taken on the righteous task of voter engagement and Beth Am is one of many congregations across the country that are joining together to “ensure that our voices and commitment to social justice are heard in the public sphere, [to do this we know that] we must educate ourselves on the voting process, register to vote and show up at the polls. We also have a responsibility to engage with our wider community to ensure that access to the vote is a reality for all.”[9]

There is voter registration information in the foyer and more information is and will be on our Facebook pages.  Beth Am is committed to being a congregation with 100% voter engagement and registration. We really want and need your help with this task. It is not only our civic duty, but it is also an answer to despair and what it means to be a responsible citizen in our great democracy.

I have offered two ways which I think help alleviate despair:  To live life with passion and to be involved in bringing about justice in the world. And thirdly, despair diminishes when you belong to a supportive community and are with others who care about you and of whom you care about.

One of the most powerful sections of Torah is when Moses is in great despair. The people are in the desert and they are crying out to him, they are angry and asking to be sent back to Egypt, where at least they knew where their next meal was coming from and where they felt they had better food!

The Israelites cried out to Moses,

“If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all!  Nothing but this manna to look to!”  Moses heard the people yelling and weeping, everyone focused on him at the entrance to his tent. Our text continues, “And Adonai was very angry and Moses was distressed.  And Moses said to Adonai, why have You dealt ill with Your servant and Why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive all these people, did I bear them?….Where am I to get meat to give all this people when they wince before me and say, “Give us meat to eat!” I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If you would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You and let me see no more of your wretchedness!”[10]

Moses—our Rabbi and the greatest prophet was in utter despair.  And God’s answer? We read, “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place there with you…. [T]hey shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.[11]

God’s answer to Moses’s despair: ‘you do not have to do this alone.’  God did not exempt Moses from doing the work, but God did say, the task at hand is to too big for one person, even the greatest leader of our people.  We are commanded to do justice, we are told, do not despair and we are taught, you cannot do this alone.

In moments of despair, times when we think we can’t possibly go on, moments where we think we can’t take one more minute of the insanity or hardship or struggle, when we feel useless, or powerless or when the heart suffers or aches from loss, we are to seek the comfort, care and support of community.  Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski teaches us in his Introduction to Healing from Despair, “What kind of human communication can help a person in distress? Empathy, the feeling that there is someone who can identify with another person’s suffering.”[12] As a people of faith who has experienced a history of moments of despair and horrifying tragedies, we follow God’s teachings and we make sure to gather together.

Each of us comes to the synagogue on this, the holiest day of the year for a different reason.  Why are you here?  There must be some reason because we can be anywhere else, it is a Wednesday morning after all.  Whatever the reason, something drew you to sit with other folks on Yom Kippur,  a fast day that reminds us of the mistakes we made and the repair that needs to be done.  It is a day where we admit our sins, not as Al Chet—I have sinned, but rather, we say together, “we have sinned.”  We are in this life together—for better or for worse.  In the Talmud we are taught, “A prisoner cannot free himself.”[13] Alone we will not be freed from our despair, but together, we find ways to lift each other up and live! We are a people who seek connectedness and it has proven invaluable and a source of life to us and our people.

May we each be blessed with more joy than sadness, together may we lift each other out of despair, and May our life lived with gratitude and passion be for us and the world a blessing.

Ken yihi ratzon. May this be true.

[1]Chaim Kramer, Edited by Ozer Bergman, The Treasure of Unearned Gifts: Rebbe Nachman’s path to happiness and contentment in life.  Breslov Research Institute, Jerusalem/New York 1996, p.45.

[2]Emil Fackenheim first published this idea in an article, Jewish Faith and the Holocaust, a Fragment,

in 1968.

[3]Pirke Avot 1:14



[6]Deut 16:20

[7]Leviticus 19:16

[8]Talmud, Brakhot 55a


[10]JPS translation Numbers 11:4-15

[11]Ibid 11:16-17

[12]Spitz, Rabbi Elie Kaplan.  Healing from Despair: Choosing Wholeness in A Broken

World. Jewish lights publishing, Woodstock, VT. 2008. P. xiv

[13]Brachot 5b

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