Yom Kippur 5777 Sermon

“How the Jewish People Learn Grit”

At one of the most momentous points in Torah, at the beginning of Beshalach in the Book of Exodus, the People of Israel finally freed from bondage, the Egyptian army fast approaching, the Torah states, “God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, because it was near, because God said, “Perhaps the people will reconsider when they see war, and they will return to Egypt?”

Instead of a clear path through the land of the Philistines, we were led toward the Red Sea, where pinned between the Egyptian army and the sea, Moses raised his staff and led us toward freedom.

What you say? There was another way, an easier way?

After hundreds years of slavery, why was it necessary to endure another forty in the wilderness?

Rashi and other Jewish commentators point to the fact that the ease of the path forward toward the Promised Land, also meant it was easier to return to Egypt. “Lest they change their minds,” Rashi writes, “they will think a thought about the fact that they have left Egypt; and will set their minds on returning.”

Hasn’t the path of the Jewish people always been the harder one? “Zis Shver Zu Zein a Yad,” “It’s not easy being a Yid.” For generation after generation we have tzurus – hardship that would have led lesser nations to give up and return home. But, we persevere, that is what it means to be part of a people whose very name, Israel, means to struggle with God.

Recent studies show that more important than brains or brawn, more important than talent and training, is a quality that is hard to quantify, a determination to persevere, a refusal to surrender. It is a quality that scholars call “grit.”

Angela Duckworth, in her best-selling book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, writes, “Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”

She continues, “The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.”

In her study of West Point cadets, she asked the question about why 5 percent of candidates drop out in the summer training before their first academic year. Now, this summer training, is no ordinary training. Called the Beast Barracks, it involves a period of 7 weeks where the new cadets are put through both a rigorous academic and physical gauntlet of tests. Rising at 5:50 in the morning they go non-stop until 9 at night.

The military had been mystified for years as to why so many of these highly qualified, highly motivated men and women would drop out in such a quick time span. What Duckworth helped figure out is that it came down to grit. Questions about how you overcome setbacks and how stubborn you are with your goals, were much more important than SAT scores or whether you were the captain of your high school sports team.

Perhaps, the importance of grit also explains why God chose to direct us the long way out of Egypt, and also why we have managed to survive and overcome for so many thousands of years.

Before I continue any further, I’d like to teach you a few important Hebrew sayings:

  1. First, one we teach at every Bar and Bat Mitzvah, right before he or she recites the blessing before the Torah, Harvey Horowitz will announce the child’s Hebrew name and then collectively we say, “Chazak” or “Chizkei” depending on whether it is a boy or a boy, meaning strength.
  2. Next, is what we say after we finish a book of the Torah: “Chazak, Chazak, V’Nitchazek,” “Strengthen, Strengthen, Let us Be Strengthened.”
  3. Then there is the Biblical saying Moses offers to Joshua before he takes over as leader, “Chazak V’Amatz”, be strong and have fortitude.

 

 

  1. And, lastly, something that can be used anytime someone has just had an honor, whether an English reading, opening the ark, or carrying the Torah, we greet them with the words,“Yasher Koah,” “May you be filled with strength.”

CHAZAK, AMATZ and COAH, are all Hebrew words meaning strength. More important than “Mazel,” luck, is strength. We should both have it before an experience, and be granted it after we have fulfilled our obligation. And, it is more than physical strength that we are noting, but spiritual strength, the ability to take on a task and see it through to the end. For what we often translate as strength is more accurately grit.

  • Grit is fasting on Yom Kippur.
  • Grit is going up to friends and family and asking forgiveness.
  • Grit is granting forgiveness to those who have hurt us.
  • Grit is making amends and changing in a way that makes things better.
  • Grit is doing this year after year, not only as individuals, but as a community.

By taking on life’s challenges head on, we hope to teach ourselves how to overcome any obstacle that may on our path in the year ahead.

In order to learn Grit, you have to also learn how to fail. Not once, not twice, but over and over; because it is only through failure that you learn success.

It takes me back to two experiences in my life that most shaped me into the person I am today.

The first was when I was in ninth grade. School had always come easy to me, until suddenly it didn’t. In ninth grade at the Jewish Day school I attended, I found out you actually had to study. And not just the night before, but weeks and months in advance. For the first time we had in class essay exams.

And, in one of those exams for 9th Grade English, I remember sitting in the room as all my classmates scribbled away, knowing I had failed.   This was a subject that had always come easy to me. What had happened?

My teacher pulled me aside the next day. I thought she would be mad, but she wasn’t. We sat in her office and she showed me step by step how to take an exam; how to write out a thesis, how to make an argument, and how to draw a conclusion. It was the tools that I learned that day that gave me the pathway forward, through High school, college and eventually rabbinical school.

Failure number two came in my first teaching job, just after graduating a Masters of Education program at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I had always loved working with kids in camp and, later in afternoon school, but this would be the first time I would be teaching in a day school. I was 22 years old.

As I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah, the school was in Orlando, and it would be the first time I would live in the suburbs, drive a car, and be completely on my own. It turns out I was not great at teaching. Day in day out I came back feeling like a failure. The kids didn’t respect me. I didn’t have a plan for how I was going to teach.

Every day I felt lost. The principal was great, she stuck with me, encouraged me. And, I tried my hardest, coming in every weekend, arriving early, staying late, but it was so very hard.

Near the end of my first year there, I was invited to help pitch our new middle school. The school had always gone just to fifth grade, now it would expand to eighth grade. Passionately, I explained the need for Jewish education and for the first time I realized I had a voice and a calling. While Jewish education might not have been right for me, it was not entirely wrong either. The next summer I enrolled in rabbinical school and the rest is history.

In my two years in Florida, I learned a lot about myself, about how much I could endure, and about how, in the end I could figure it out.

All of us have faced challenges we thought were impossible to overcome. Looking back it may seem amazing that we did.

As one congregant wrote me about a particular painful ordeal:  “It may sound like a cliché, but I know that none of us can know what life will bring – the challenge is to make yourself think about what life means and how to go about living it.  I know I am stronger today because of what I dealt with all those years ago. I think I have a story to tell and if my story can help someone else who is going through a tough time for whatever reason, it helps me feel like I am able to give back. Life is full of challenges.  I think the biggest challenge we face is figuring out how we choose to deal with them.”

We have all taken the long road, when the short path may have been right in front of us. It is that fuel that motivates us, and hopefully, leads us to finding the way forward.

One of the most important lessons we learn on Yom Kippur is that all of us, in some way make wrong turns, take hurtful actions, fail to live up to the best of who we are. We are all Benoni, somewhere on the spectrum in between rashaim, complete sinners and, tzadikim, pure and righteous. Teshuvah, repentance, is not meant to be a punishment. It is a process that we all must go through in order to get better.

We stand on a doorway of a New Year. In the coming year we will face obstacles, some of which will seem impossible to overcome, and some of which will, in fact, be impossible. You must try not to get discouraged, but, of course, at times, you will.

This is the day when we reach deep within ourselves for the will to overcome. Instead of an easy fast, a Tzam Kal, I pray for a meaningful one, one that inspires within us the capacity to push forward even when the path ahead seems too long. God did not lead us on the straight path for a reason. We are a People that has learned to persevere.

Nowhere is that more evident than in birth of the modern State of Israel. After two thousand years of waiting we found our home. I would like to leave you with the words of Shimon Peres, zichrono L’vrachah, may his memory be for a blessing, who died just last week. He was a true paradigm of grit, having fled Poland in the early 1930s, and made a new life in Eretz Israel, a land he helped to nurture into the proud country it is today.

Here is what he said at his inaugural address as the President of the State of Israel: “My years place me at an observation point from which the scene of our life is a reviving nation is seen, spread out in all its glory. It is true that in the picture stains also appear. It is true that we have gone astray and have erred – but please believe me, there is no room for melancholy… Permit me to remain an optimist. Permit me to be a dreamer of his people. Permit me to present the sunny side of our state. And also, if sometimes the atmosphere is autumnal, and also if today, the day seems suddenly gray, the president whom you have chosen will never tire of encouraging, awaking and reminding – because spring is waiting for us at the threshold. The spring will definitely come.”

If that’s not grit, I’m not sure what is.

Chazak, Chazak, V’Nitchazek, Stegnthen, Stregnthen, May we all be Strengthened.