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From Despair to Hope

Rabbi Denise L. Eger

Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780 by Rabbi Denise L. Eger

The world is broken.  But you already knew that. You didn’t need to come here to understand the fragile nature of the times we are in.
We just have to look around us to see the world is on fire. Literally and figuratively. The Amazon is burning. Truth is under attack. Totalitarianism has reared its ugly head. Children are in cages. Anti-Antisemitism is palpable.  You can taste despair with every breath.
When we sat here together last year at the holy days, we couldn’t have imagined Pittsburgh and Poway.  Violent attacks on synagogues and fellow Jews. Anti-Semitic violence is a growing menace.  We can’t comprehend the growing gun violence.
But now in their aftermath, exhausted by the constant assault on our senses and our institutions, I see despair and sadness and grief creeping into our collective psyche. We thought Charlottesville with Nazis marching in the street was shocking and disturbing.
But now two years later, the increase of anti-Semitism fueled by a president who continuously reinforces anti-Jewish stereotypes and dog whistles along with the blatant racism and homophobia and islamophobia can crush our souls.  This is not the world we imagined. It is not the world we prayed for.
The truth is you didn’t need to come here to see the despair in our world.
You just had to drive under any freeway to see the bulging homeless tent cities on our streets.
Or the growing prison population including those who are truly refugees from even worse conditions in their own countries.
You didn’t need to come here to know that many are struggling financially to pay for their insulin, or to get off of the opioids that were prescribed to them.  Yes, even in our own temple community that struggle is real.
The despair is real. Each day there is a desperate sense that hope is fleeting for our nation, for the planet and sadly despair eats away at many of us
And even as we try to maintain our sense of outrage and righteous indignation at what is happening and even as we try to maintain our will to protest and work for
change, I can see the despair creeping in.  The awareness of the deepening crises leads us to feeling burnout and exhaustion. I don’t know about you, but I can’t listen to talk radio anymore.  I stopped listening. I need my soothing music to help me rebuild my spirit to fight another day.
I see many who are mired now in sadness, depression and despair. A sense of hopelessness about the future.
No. You didn’t need to come here to make a list of the world’s pain, the tzoris in front of us.
But the New Year has arrived, and our tradition teaches us that to deal with despair and hopelessness we have to face it head on.
As Carl Jung taught: People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.[1]
Despair is something that happens to all of us at one time or another in our lives. It is a common human experience. We all have highs and lows in our personal journeys. We may despair about jobs or family or relationships or yes, the state of the world around us. But for most people this will dissipate over time.
But for others, this deep despair will haunt them and harm them exerting control over their lives.
This deep clinical despair often leads to a horrible end. it can lead to recklessness, addictions, self-harm or even suicide.  In our society today suicide is rampant among white middle age men and in the Western US and has become epidemic.[2]  It is rampant among teens and college age students:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the now the second leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, resulting in more than 4,600 lives lost each year (CDC, 2015).
Also, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center ranks suicide as a leading cause of death among college students (SPRC, 2015).[3]
In a national study, 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt. 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25[4]
 And according to a number of regional and national studies, LGBTQ adults and youth face an extraordinarily elevated risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior. LGBQ adults have a two-fold excess risk of suicide attempts compared to other adults.[5]
While older adults, seniors only account for 12 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 18 percent of suicide deaths, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). Additionally, this risk increases with age; 75- to 85-year-olds having higher rates of suicide than those who are between 65 and 75, and individuals 85 or older have the highest risk yet.
This level of hopelessness, loneliness that would cause someone to take their own life is something we must look at. We cannot turn away.
If the pain of living is so great that the only seeming solution is to end living the conditions around us require our attention.
And so, we must not hide from our own despair or that of our loved ones. When we are feeling such deep despair and sadness, we dare not ignore it. And we cannot and must not stigmatize those who have died by suicide and their families nor any who have attempted it.
There are real warning signs: When people talk about unbearable pain. When the talk about being a burden to others. When they talk about killing themselves. 
These are real signs of a potential suicide.  When their behavior changes by withdrawing from activities, increasing use of drugs and alcohol, sleeping too little or too much, giving away prized possessions-these are warning signs of great despair and potentially suicide. When there are rapid mood swings, rage, anxiety, irritability, depression.  All of these can be warning signs of suicide.
As we can see by the numbers the despair is real and it is deeply affecting so many of us in society to the point of no return If you are feeling such despair, I am here for you. Your temple is here for you. And we urge you to talk to us. Or call the Suicide prevention hotline. The number is here on the screen.
But this is not a new phenomenon.  We can look in our Torah and find examples of even our greatest leaders who fell into the depths of despair. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shares:
We can see it in Moses in the book of Numbers, the Children of Israel are complaining bitterly. They have forgotten the horrors of slavery. They complain that they miss the food of Egypt. And the people are at their negative and whiny heights. God is angry and Moses is in the depths of an emotional breakdown.
He cries out bitterly to God:
“Why have You brought this evil on your servant? Why have I failed to find favor in Your eyes, that You have placed the burden of this whole people on me? Did I conceive this whole people? Did I give birth to it, that You should say to me, ‘Carry it in your lap as a nurse carries a baby?..’ I cannot carry this whole people on my own. It is too heavy for me. If this is what You are doing to me, then, if I have found favor in Your eyes, kill me now, and let me not look upon this, my evil.” (Num. 11:11-15)
Moses feels utterly defeated. Hopeless. Angry. Annoyed. Bitter. He feels like a failure.  He is isolated and feels completely alone. And yet, Moses doesn’t succumb to his despair. He confronts it through his service to God and to leading the people.
Other leaders of our people, articulate similar feelings of hopelessness.  Even Elijah the prophet, (1 Kings 19:4), and the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 20:7-18) and of course, Jonah (Jon. 4:3) whose story we will read on Yom Kippur afternoon all cry out to God and pray to die. In the Book of Psalms, especially those attributed to King David, are filled with deep despair and utter hopelessness at times, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:2). “From the depths I cry to You”
(Ps. 130:1). “I am a helpless man abandoned among the dead … You have laid me in the lowest pit, in the dark, in the depths” (Ps. 88:5-7).[6]
Even our greatest leaders, give voice to despair that creeps into life.  But what is the difference? Between their depths of pain and despair and those of whose statistics I recited.
It is a Jewish difference. The difference is our faith’s focus on creating a better reality.  Even when it is hard. Even when it seems impossible.  Judaism puts the emphasis on building a new world, not just for the Jewish people but for everyone.  Judaism puts the emphasis on resilience.  Judaism puts the emphasis on hope.
A favorite story is from Rabbi Hugo Gryn, He was a well-known British rabbi in the Reform movement. Rabbi Gryn was born in a village that at the time was part of Czechoslovakia, and now is in the Ukraine. As a young boy his family was sent to Auschwitz. For a while he and his father shared a barrack. One midwinter evening one of the inmates reminded them that it was the first night of Chanukah, the festival of lights. His father constructed a little menorah out of scrap metal. For a wick, he took some threads from his prison uniform. For oil, he used some butter that he somehow obtained from a guard. If he were caught lighting the menorah, he would have been severely punished – perhaps even killed. Beyond the risk, Hugo protested to his father at the “waste” of precious food. Would it not be better to share the butter on a crust of bread than burn it? Then his father said something he would always remember: “Hugo, both you and I know that a person can live a very long time without food. But a person cannot live a single day without hope.” Hope sustains. It allows you to live with meaning, dignity and purpose, and defined Rabbi Hugo Gryn throughout his life.
So, you see, you needed to come here tonight to be reminded that we are to imagine a world that is not broken. A world healed of its pain and trouble.  We came here to imagine a world and future of hope. You needed to celebrate this New Year with hope in your hearts. It’s why we come together as a Jewish people to commit to lifting our world from despair to hope, and we begin by lifting up one another.
Our Talmud in Berakhot 5b teaches “A prisoner cannot generally free themselves from prison but depends on others to release him from his shackles. Tonight, we must help one another be released from the shackles of despair.
Because on Rosh Hashanah that is what we do.  We begin to let go of the pain and suffering we have experienced this past year. The sin we have caused, and disappointments we have lived through.
On Rosh Hashanah we imagine a new world. A world reborn. A new chance to take all the brokenness inside of us and the brokenness inside the world and rebuild our lives and rebuild our world.
Tonight –we take the dark abyss of our discontent, the grief that has accumulated, the fears that haunt us and we turn it over to God. We let the New Year wash over us to lift us from the despair toward a new day of hope.
When we celebrate Rosh Hashanah with the sound of the shofar-we are being called to awaken our souls from the dark night that haunts us, and we let the sounds of the t’kiyah lead us to toward renewal and revitalization. Its sounds remind us to preserve in the face of adversity. The prayers we recite help us build grit.
Though ours is an ancient tradition, The Young Adult and Family Center (YAFC) at the University of California, San Francisco also believes that “grit”—or the ability to persevere in the face of adversity—is key to preventing such tragedies such as death by suicide. (YAFC, 2015).[7]
At the University of Chicago, the work of Dr. Alex Lickerman, assistant vice president for Student Health and Counseling Services, focuses on building hope and resilience in those who despair. So important is fostering such resilience that Dr. Lickerman has developed and tested a unique curriculum designed to help young people build resiliency.
The Resilience Project covers a series of important topics (The Resilience Project, 2015) including:
– Leveraging the power of expectations
– Resisting discouragement
– Using the power of habit to achieve individual goals
– Self-modulating in the face of adverse events
– Learning to accept unpleasant feelings/outcomes and to move beyond losses
– Expressing gratitude for personal gifts and opportunities
– Defining one’s mission in life
Lickerman notes that short-term analysis of his resilience training shows reductions in anxiety and depression among youth of 60 percent and 35 percent, respectively.[8]
We may not be members of Lickerman’s Resiliency Project but you have something even more enduring to help you build such resilience. During these ten day of repentance we are in the boot camp of building your grit, refilling your resilience quotient for the year.
In our Jewish way of life are the tools necessary to persevere in the face of adversity.  We have it in our very DNA as Jews.  We have experienced so much trauma through the centuries. So much hatred of our people. But we have taken those experience through the centuries and woven them into being Jewish with skills and traditions that help prevent us from succumbing to despair and hopelessness.
So, here is our Jewish antidote to living with despair and hopelessness for these horrible times; To building a life of resilience and grit.
First and foremost; be with others.  One of the greatest fuels of despair is isolation and disconnection.  We have a mirage of interconnectedness through social media—but in truth our disconnection has never been greater. We are divided more deeply than ever.
Our tradition teaches us to show up. We need a minyan to pray with each other. We gather for holy days and holidays.  And it is our obligation to do so.  These are part of the great antidote to developing resilience to the despair around us. And we are to show up for one another.  We are to visit the sick, comfort the mourner and dance with brides and grooms.  Be with others in their moments of vulnerability. We are to include the lonely, the widow, orphan and stranger in our midst.  These are not just random acts but acts that are incumbent upon us.  WHY? Because each of these acts builds deep connections and thick bonds of community. Each of these help lifts the person who is alone into the family of community.  No one will preserve Jewish life unless it begins with you. Show up, be counted, build relationships in your temple community.
In our story about Moses, God acts as Moses’ comforter.  He is not alone in his leadership or in his life.  As so too, God is with us as we walk through life.  And if we are living up to the mitzvoth of our Judaism, we will have others to be with us in our times of loneliness and despair.
Second is expressing gratitude.  When we take time to express gratitude for personal gifts and opportunities, we place our lives and situations in a greater context.  As Jews we say “Modim Anachnu Lach.”  We thank you God. For our souls which are in your hand and our lives which are in your keeping.  Thank you for our very life and breath.  Gratitude for what you do have, no matter how small should be a habit! Take a moment to focus on the people and memories and opportunities that you have. And appreciate and let that gratitude fill you up with a nod toward hope. It is only by looking through the magnifying glass of gratitude that we can begin to change our focus from despair to hope.
Third, is resisting discouragement and negative talk.  Jewish teachings tell us that even as we recognize we are dust and ashes; the whole world was made just for us.  We thank God each day for making us in the Divine Image. In our humanity, we possess a nobility of being.  Just by living.  And in our tradition, we are not measured by our wealth or prestige our titles or educational attainments.  Instead just because we exist and breath, we human beings are holy beings, sacred vessels made in the image of God!  This is what Judaism believes. And God believes in you even when you are struggling to believe in God.
And as Jews our entire calling toward our covenant lifts us up to even more sacred being as our covenant with God calls us to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. The mitzvoth we do refine our souls to even greater heights. The mitzvoth help us build not only the right frame of mind and heart but the right framing for our souls.
Through prayer and repentance and yes, tzedakah, acts of charity and justice we are building the grit to face the bleakness of the world and to recharge our batteries
On this New Year 5780 let us recommit to living with resilience. To shaping our souls and our hearts through these sacred acts of living. They will help us build grit and resiliency.
Let us persist in our pursuit of hope. Heeding the shofar’s call toward hope, to repair the brokenness around us.
So that we will be able to say the age-old prayer: of hope Od Yavo Shalom alienu val kol Yisrael v’kol yoshvei tevel imru amein.  Let there yet be peace that is in us and spread over us, over all the people Israel, over all who dwell on earth.
And Let us Say: Amen.
Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784