Rabbi Steve Cohen: Yom Kippur Sermon 2020 – Helplessly Hoping
Six long months ago, in late March, my sister sent me a link to a video of an Italian teen choir from Rome, singing a song from our youth, “Helplessly Hoping.” [See bottom of this post to view the video — Ed]. I had never seen anything like it. First one young woman, Irene, singing on her own, in her apartment. She was then joined by a second, Matilde, in a separate frame on the screen, also singing alone in her own home. And then a young man, Lorenzo, singing with them…also from his own home. I quickly realized that I was seeing some new music technology at work. But the technical magic was not what grabbed me.
As more and more singers joined their friends, I saw an emotional tsunami gathering force before my eyes: one after another, exquisite voices, hopeful, serious, profound young faces, each one singing out of their isolation, their voices somehow joining together, in heartbreaking harmonies, all against the tragic background of a great country brought to its knees by a terrifying modern day plague. Helplessly Hoping.
At the time, Italy was the European epicenter of the pandemic. 11,000 Italians had died within just a few weeks. The Italian healthcare system had been utterly overwhelmed, bodies piled up in hospitals, in churches, while the rest of the world still clung to the hope that it would not happen to the rest of us. In the midst of that chaos, those young Italians were singing for their lives, for their country, for our entire world.
Those young Italian singers are singing for us, tonight, on the holiest day of our year. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in this year of the great pandemic. Now we know that the pandemic did not end with Italy; it has spread to every corner of the globe. At this moment, together with the entire human race, we are deep inside an event which exceeds our comprehension. Tonight, we need our religion to speak to us. What is the ultimate truth of Yom Kippur, and how does the most sacred night of our year speak to us about this unfathomable, heart-breaking global crisis?
For two thousand years, the sacred fire of our holiest day has blazed forth steadily from two apparently simple sentences in the mishna: For sins between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones. For sins between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until they have first made peace with the other person.
Here is the essence of the Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur, we seek an authentic, living, sustaining personal connection to the divine. To be alone, with God. On the other hand, on this day more than any other day of the year, we reach out to each other. In hopeful vulnerability, in apology and forgiveness. On this day, we seek love and trust and human relationship. Healing with God and healing with each other.
Can Yom Kippur heal us this year?
In any other year, on Yom Kippur our people make pilgrimage to the synagogue. Everyone comes, in their thousands. There we stand together and alone. Together with everyone: Friends, family, enemies, acquaintances, strangers. And within that gathered crowd, each one of us hopes for a moment of authentic encounter with our deepest self, with God.
That is in a normal year, which this is not. This year there are not even ten of us here at the Temple, and all of you are at home out there somewhere in the vast world. Goleta or Santa Barbara, New Jersey or Australia or Israel. We have never experienced anything like this, ever in Jewish history. This year in a completely new way, we are alone, together. We are unable to gather for Yom Kippur. We are each of us, alone. But more than ever in our history, we are in this together. Together, in fact, with the entire human family. Never has this happened, in all of human history.
The words “alone” and “together,” are the two touchstones of Helplessly Hoping. The Italian teenagers, each of them from their own home, sang together: “They are one person. They are two alone. They are three together. They are for each other.” The song uses language for religious purpose, the opening words moving us from helplessness to hope. A modern-day psalm evoking first our isolation and bringing us at last to each other.
From helplessness to hope, from isolation to relationship. Those Italian kids sang for us back in March the deep meaning of Yom Kippur, especially this year, the year of Coronavirus. Their singing, alone and together, encourages me to believe that Yom Kippur can heal us this year.
Many members of this community have shared with me that, after Rosh Hashanah services, they were surprised by how connected we felt. I was too. I expected the High Holy Days this year to feel horribly empty and lonely. To my surprise it did not feel that way at all. This was in part thanks to our brilliant technical team. But beyond all of the technological achievement, I think that our intense collective desire to connect made it happen. The human will to connect to each other is a titanic force of nature.
I keep thinking about the first weeks of the pandemic, when we were still innocent of the truth of what was about to happen to us all. None of us imagined back in March the way our world would be changed by Covid-19.
Six months later, we still do not understand. We are deep within this story, with no end in sight. Our most reliable scientists cannot tell us with any certainty how long this journey will take. How long until there is a vaccine? When it will be safe to return to sports arenas or concert halls, or for us to sing together in our sanctuary or for grandparents to hug their grandchildren? The future is hidden from us.
But one truth that has slowly dawned on me is that we human beings are designed for long journeys. Some of our most ancient ancestors, among the first human beings, walked on foot out of Africa. The earliest ancestors of the Chumash and other indigenous people of this continent traveled all the way from eastern Siberia. We Jews walked for forty years on our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. God and evolution have conspired to equip us for long journeys.
This Covid-19 Pandemic is another kind of long journey. We once thought it might be over in a few weeks, or at most a couple of months. Last March we would not have tolerated the suggestion that our children would not be back in school by September. We simply could not picture our world continuing for month after month without air travel, or concerts, or sport stadiums full of fans. Our world without communal weddings or funerals. Our world with tens of millions of people falling even deeper into poverty. Families throughout the developing world, faced with new economic hardship and desperate for any income, have halted their children’s education, and sent them out to work. One million people have now died of this unknown disease, with no end in sight.
This has all taken time for us to absorb. But slowly we are adjusting our expectations. God and evolution have prepared us for this moment. Even our little children, whom we try so hard to protect from loss and disappointment, are becoming wise and strong for this journey. Repeatedly over the past six months, little children from our community have explained to me the realities of Covid, and why their lives have changed, and how we need to be patient. As David sang 3,000 years ago, mipi olalim v’yonkim yisadta oz. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings You have established strength (Psalm 8:2). Behold the miraculous resilience of our children!
Before closing I would like to share a final story, a story of distance and connection, right here at Congregation B’nai B’rith. The story takes place last May, but it feels appropriate to Yom Kippur, the night on which we seek healing for our connection with God, and for our relationships with each other.
Last spring, among all the other losses and disappointments, we knew that we would not be able to celebrate our graduating high school seniors as we have always done. In a normal year on a Friday night in May, our graduating seniors, most whom we still remember as tiny preschoolers or as rowdy adolescents, would stand before us as magnificent adults. Calm, confident, articulate. They would come to the synagogue one more time before they set out for college, and we bless would them as they go on their way.
But this year, because of Covid, we could not invite our graduating seniors into the synagogue. We announced that we would hold our High School senior Shabbat on zoom, grieving but resigned to yet another lost moment. One of our most thoughtful parents wrote to me, saying: “These kids have lost so much; isn’t there anything more the Temple can do?” So we invited our graduates to come with their families and to drive through the Temple parking lot. Then to step briefly out of their car, wearing a mask, and the Cantor and I would be there, wearing our masks, and we would bless them. In the event, most of them did come, and each one came for their blessing.
There we stood, far apart from each other, wearing our masks, arms stretched out in an air hug. In this desperate moment of needing to bless and to be blessed, we were forced to use our eyes. It had been years since I had made real eye contact with some of them. They are teenagers for God’s sake! But just that once, with a worldwide pandemic swirling all around us, we were forced back into the most ancient form of human connection…eye contact.
The day my daughter Rachel was born I held her on my lap for the first time. On the first day of her life, my daughter looked up, and gazed directly into my eyes. I felt that I was looking into the eyes of God. I felt the same way there on the Temple sidewalk, reaching out to our high school graduates. Unable to see each other’s smiles, our mouths hidden behind our masks. We connected with each other in the most ancient human way. We beheld each other with the eyes of God.
This year, we need to reach out to each other in every way we possibly can. With zoom. By email and with hand-written notes. With our eyes. We are on a long journey, much longer than any of us could have imagined six months ago. We cannot yet see the end. But every day we are learning how to make our way, how to do this together. We know it will take intelligence, creativity, discipline and cooperation. Adaptability, courage, patience, and hope. These are our human strengths. Deep inside of us, hardwired into our genes by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and migration. We have been endowed by our Creator with everything we need for this long journey.
Years from now, we will look back upon this pandemic, with sadness and with wonder. We will tell our grandchildren the story of how in the midst of immense hardship and unfathomable suffering we learned in a completely new way the oldest human truth. That we are here for each other. Ken yehi ratson. May this be God’s will.