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Keeping Our Setbacks in Perspective Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Saturday, December 21, 2013

On September 15th, 1963, in the midst of the struggle for civil rights and school integration, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama was bombed and 4 young African American girls were killed. It was a time of desperation. Many people looked at the bombing and feared that the efforts to secure civil rights were making things worse and not better. This was only one of many houses of worship to be destroyed in this era: most were black churches burned to the ground, but the attacks also included the bombing of The Temple, a prominent Reform congregation in Atlanta, Georgia, and attacks on both the synagogue and rabbi’s home in Meridian, Mississippi. Only much later and in retrospect, did the bombing of the Birmingham Church come to be seen not just as a low point of pain and loss, but as a turning point as well.

Ben, your Torah portion includes many great stories, but the section you chose to chant for us in Hebrew this morning is the description of the failure of Moses’ first efforts to free the Israelites. Moses confronts Pharaoh and things get worse. The people curse Moses and Aaron saying, “May the Eternal look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers- putting a sword in their hands to slay us.” And Moses reflects this failure back to God, “Why did You bring harm upon this people?...Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people.”

Given the awesome power of nature that God would shortly harness on behalf of the Israelites, our sages wondered at this initial failure. Why make the Israelites and Moses go through this setback? Moses brought the people God’s promise of freedom and a land of milk and honey, but Moses initially delivered only failure, tragedy and suffering.

This is not the first time in the Torah that a mission begins with a significant setback. Think about Abraham. He follows God’s call to Canaan, only to arrive there and find that the famine is so bad that he must flee to Egypt. Jacob too finds his life initially filled with disheartening failures.

Our tradition teaches maaseh le-avot, siman la-banim, that which happened to our forefathers is a sign for the generations that will follow. The Torah is trying to teach us something about progress. It is reminding us that initial failure is something that must be expected and overcome.

Recently a friend of mine went to a trainer because he was having a lot of injuries when he ran. The trainer felt that he needed to learn to run in a new way. Initially his times went way down. What if he had stopped at that point? What if he had let that setback derail his efforts? He would have returned to the same bad habits that were leading him into trouble and would likely have had to eventually give up running entirely.

Another friend of mine, started voice lessons when we were in rabbinical school. Though to me, it seemed like she had a lovely voice, her teacher, composer Bonia Shur insisted that she was singing the wrong way. She had to start all over and breathe and sing differently. At first she sounded terrible using this new method. But I ran into her at a conference and what she learned from Bonia is continuing to pay dividends in her vocal performance.

We are heading into the secular new year when many of us will make resolutions, particularly concerning our health and well being. Only 8% of us will ultimately succeed in these resolutions, with 25% of us abandoning them within the first week. Perhaps if we can recognize that initial failure should be an expectation we will be after to persevere even after the first aches and pains from our new exercise regime, or the first unhappy surprise at the scale. Even when we have a well thought out plan of approach and have carefully defined our goals and removed the obstacles we recognize in advance, there are still pitfalls and opportunities for failure.

This is also true for the larger efforts that we take on. Whether we are the President of the United States or a local activist, there will be failures and setbacks and some years more than others. Whether we are tackling health care or housing, hunger or violence against women, we are unlikely to experience unremitting success. But we need to keep these failures in perspective. One rabbi writing about the challenges facing rabbis and community leaders at this moment in America, which many in light of the recent Pew study see as significant, reminded us: “Moses would have given his left arm for the mild tzuris that our leaders experience every day.” Perhaps if we can keep our setbacks in perspective, we will be better able to persevere in our own efforts for improving the world, Tikkun olam.

In the beginning there was darkness and chaos, but our tradition assures us that order and light can emerge.

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