Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson
Sermon Shabbat Chayei Sarah 5781
As the returns from the recent American presidential election are being certified around the states of our nation, it becomes clear that our president has no immediate plans to concede the election he has clearly lost. There are many reasons, perhaps, for this, including political and economic goals unrelated to the results of the actual election, but it also may come down to something rather basic: an inability to ever say that you have failed.
I was thinking more generally about the tendency of people not to admit difficult things. It’s not surprising, really, when you think about it. It’s always much easier to celebrate triumphs than to concede losses. If we can find excuses—it’s not really over, the bad guys cheated, it was a conspiracy, the umpire blew the call, the dog ate my homework—it eases the pain of losing. And if we can find embers of victory in the ashes of defeat—it was a moral victory, we gave it everything we had, we won a lot of the battles even if we lost the war, everyone was against us and we still managed almost to pull it out—we feel better about ourselves and the effort we gave.
It struck me that this is far from the first time in history that someone has been unwilling—perhaps unable—to admit failure. Often that sort of obstinacy, the inability to admit failure, is viewed as strength, or even resilience. You know, the idea that if at first you don’t succeed try, try again, and that the seeds of triumph are often planted in the manure of failure.
But in order for that to be true one must first acknowledge the original failure, accept loss in order to rise from it and succeed. That is, it is OK to lose—everyone does—but it you hope to overcome it and rise again that depends largely on your ability to accept that loss, make changes and only then choose to move onward and upward.
In our Torah portion of Chayei Sarah this week, Abraham must bury his wife Sarah, after a very long marriage. Only after mourning that great loss does he figure out how to get Isaac to move on and marry and have children so that Judaism can continue. Our ancestor Jacob had to flee from his home in Canaan with nothing but the clothes on his back, was tricked by his future father-in-law Laban into serving essentially as an indentured servant for 14 years, and then had to flee yet again before becoming a successful man and major patriarch. Joseph, the favored child with the fancy coat, ends up sold into slavery and then dumped in a prison and forgotten in Egypt, all before rising to become the second most powerful man in the world.
There are many examples of this in the Jewish history. I have a T-Shirt made by a recent past guest of Too Jewish, Rabbi Ken Spiro, who is an author and guide on Jewish history—I also gave one of these shirts to my dad, who wore it earlier today. It reads, “Civilizations, nations and empires that tried to destroy the Jewish people” and then lists Ancient Egypt, the Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonian Empire, Persian Empire, Greek Empire, Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Crusaders, Spanish Empire, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union and shows the status of each as “Gone.” It then says, “The Jewish people—the smallest of nations but with a friend in the highest of places, so be nice!”
All of that is true, of course. But what was so crucial to the Jewish ability to survive disaster and find new ways to live and thrive was that we were able to admit and accept defeat, learn the lessons it taught, and then seek new ways of being and evolving. It is, in many ways, the central aspect of our national story. Defeat damaged us, but it never defined us. We were able to rise from it to achieve new heights.
That is, when our people was defeated we accepted that defeat—how could we possibly do otherwise when the pain and destruction were so evident?—mourned our losses, and studied how we might strengthen our community in ways that would help us survive under new circumstances. It would never be the same—but ultimately it might prove to be better for us in many ways.
Imagine, if you will, that somehow or other the Jewish people survived the Roman Empire without the destruction of the Temple and the end of animal sacrifice and the priestly functions. Would we still be practicing that Biblical form of Judaism today, in our 21st century world? Would any of us here see the best way to connect to God expressed through killing and burning a cow or a sheep or a pigeon? Would we wish to trade prayer for rituals that includes splashing animal blood around an altar?
Of course, there were no sermons in those days, so some things might be better.
In fact, it often was precisely the losses that made it possible for our religion and our people to change and grow and survive in many different places, climates and cultures. It’s not that the many tragic disasters in Jewish history were beneficial to us, of course. But it is true that we found ways to transform loss into learning, defeat into evolution and growth. Something new came from something broken. But first we had to admit that we were defeated—not destroyed, just defeated for now. And then we would grow.
There is a great lesson there for each of us personally. We will all experience loss, even disastrous loss in our lives. It is our ability to admit defeat, learn from it, then rise from those defeats and seek to affirm the best within us, and tseek to achieve greater heights than we did originally.
Look, everyone loses sometimes, even the most successful person. Sometimes we lose disastrously. It’s not our inability to acknowledge reality that marks us as brave; it is our honesty and courage in facing loss that do so. It is how we respond after admitting failure that demonstrates our character and our true inner strength. It is not the experience of loss that defines us as individuals, either. It is the ability to admit it and then find new ways to thrive again after.
You know, we are all losing something now, during this COVID-19 pandemic. Tragically, some right here in Tucson have lost their lives. Others have experienced complications that continue to impact them. Still others have been significantly ill and recovered.
Some businesses have failed during this period of deep economic restriction. Others have struggled along, just barely making it, holding on for better times ahead. It has not been easy for synagogues and churches either, of course, and that won’t change over the next few months. That is a loss, too.
Holidays have now passed without being able to gather together normally: Passover, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah. Soon we will experience a peculiar Thanksgiving and a very different Hanukkah. And we don’t know how long this will continue, not really.
And all of us—all of us—have felt restrictions on our activity. We can’t go where we want, when we want. We can’t do what we want, when we want. We’ve lost much of our ability to see our loved ones—children, parents, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, friends, colleagues—and that, my friends is loss indeed.
So how do we respond, now? Do we pretend nothing is different, do we protest the loss of these valuable experiences, or do we innovate new approaches, reach out in creative ways, seek to connect with people we love and miss in different ways?
If we emerge from this with both the ability to connect in person and with new ways of connecting when we can’t be present, we will have turned this loss, too, into an opportunity for growth and development.
Look, pretending defeat is victory leaves no opportunity to grow and evolve. But accepting loss and choosing to move beyond it to a new, better place does allow us to become both stronger and better. And, of course, it’s very Jewish indeed.
May we all find ways of doing just that in our own lives, and in the life of our community, our congregation and our country, during these strange days and in the better days ahead.