Rabbi Ben David’s Yom Kippur Sermon 2016

Rabbi Ben David, senior rabbi, Adath Emanu-El, Mt. Laurel, NJ
Rabbi Ben David, senior rabbi, Adath Emanu-El, Mt. Laurel, NJ

So much has happened since 1976.  Think about it for a minute.  Think about how different life was for you and for your family forty years ago.  Maybe you were a young parent.  Forty years ago.  Maybe you were working a different job or living in a different place.  Maybe you weren’t even born yet.

1976 was a year of beginnings.  There was the beginning of a new company, with a promising future ahead of it, a company with a simple name, Apple.  There was a new musical group that raged into the spotlight, the Ramones.  A little loud for my liking. 1976 also saw the launch of a new TV program, the Muppet Show.  A little loud for my liking.  It was the year that there was a new and very real threat in the Son of Sam.

On July 4, 1976 the Israel Defense Forces rescued 102 hostages from Entebbe Airport.  One Israeli soldier died during that fateful mission, Yoni Netanyahu.

In 1976 there were births: Reese Witherspoon, Blake Shelton, Peyton Manning, Matthew Shepard.  And there was loss, as the world said goodbye to Agatha Christie, and many others.

Ironically the two most popular songs during America’s Bicentennial year were not by Americans but by English artists.  Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Song” and Elton John’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” topped the charts that year.

And the Academy Award for best picture in 1976 went not to Taxi Driver, as many had predicted, but to an improbable, lesser known film, Rocky.  Maybe you’ve heard of it.  Have you heard of it?  You know the movie, but maybe you don’t know the story behind the movie:

Right after watching Muhammad Ali beat an unheralded Chuck Wepner, Sylvester Stallone sat down to write the screen play that would change his life forever.  He worked on the project for three straight days.  He was all of twenty-eight years old at the time.  Earlier Stallone had come to Philly with his mother, just after his parents divorced.  He tried acting, but his career never really got off the ground.  Casting directors had trouble getting past a speech impediment.

More than once he thought about quitting.  At one point he spent three weeks sleeping on the floor of a bus station.

The Rocky story, though, was a story he believed in.  It was his story, but more than that somehow.  It was our story too.  Yours and mine.  United Artists loved it and agreed to buy it, but they refused to have Stallone star in the film.  He had no name, no experience, zero star appeal.

He said: Either I play the part, or I keep the script.  The choice is yours.

The movie itself is an underdog and it’s about an underdog Italian fighter who stands toe to toe with the champ, Apollo Creed.  Their epic battle at the end of the move takes place on New Year’s Day, 1976.

The skyline of our city is shown once and again throughout Rocky, especially in that iconic scene, right before the big fight, when Rocky bounds up the Art Museum steps.  You can picture it, right?  It’s like Philly itself is one of the characters, right there alongside Paulie and Adrian.  We can practically feel Philadelphia at a real crossroads in the movie, wondering what it might become, who exactly it wants to be, just like Rocky, just like us.

If you look closely when they show you that skyline you see one building, the Penn Tower Hotel, rising high above the others.  Actually back in 1976 it wasn’t called the Penn Tower Hotel.  Back then it was a Hilton.  Penn bought it and re-named it and many of the guests who stayed there over the years were accompanying loved ones who were being treated at Penn’s hospital, HUP, just across the street.

You can imagine the restless nights spent in those 320 guest rooms, nights spent in anticipation of the most harrowing tests and procedures.  You can imagine that one hotel housing both so much uncertainty and so much hope.

If you’re wondering where I’m going with all of this, you’re probably not alone.  If you’re wondering whether the rabbi is working his way up to talking about his cancer this morning, you’re probably not alone. If you’re wondering whether the rabbi would have it in him to stand up in front of everyone and give a Yom Kippur sermon about what the last year meant for him and his family and the lessons they learned throughout this ordeal, well the answer to that big question on this big day is…yes.

So here goes:

On the many nights I spent at Penn, I would sit in my chair, a machine hooked to my arm, the drip drip drip of chemo, an incessant beeping from the hallway, the on-going rush of nurses in and out of my room.  I would sit and I would stare out the window and I would watch as they dismantled the Penn Tower Hotel.

They are in the process of demolishing it, slowly, piece by piece, bone by bone.  Day and night I watched them work outside my window.

I could relate because I felt like I too was being taken apart, slowly.  That’s exactly how I felt.

I know that so many of us have been touched by cancer.  We’ve been gradually undone by cancer. You have.  Or your husband has.  Or your wife.  Your partner.  A parent or grandparent.  A brother or sister.  It’s a disease that has demolished so many.

And I also know I’m not the only one here who has felt pain.  For you the pain came in the form of another illness perhaps, or in the form of searing disappointment, maybe the pain of a relationship ending, or the unspeakable pain of loss.  Maybe your pain is in looking back forty years, or further than that, and wondering why it had to go like that.

Maybe your pain is your own quiet pain.  Maybe your pain is personal or maybe it’s public.  Maybe it can be fixed.  Maybe it can’t be fixed.

I’m not the only one who has felt pain.  And I’m not the only one who has tried to make sense of the anguish and the brutal setbacks that come with just being a human being.  In some way we are all the boxer in the ring, hurting.  Every one of us.

Last Spring Rabbi Stephanie Kolin addressed the graduating class of the Hebrew Union College.  She stood before a group of wide-eyed souls about to embark on their journey as Reform Rabbis.  From the bimah of the Plum Street Synagogue she said: ‘We arrive at the first thing the world needs from you. Deep and endless wells of compassion. There is not one person in your community-to-be without a moom of some kind. (‘Moom’ is the Hebrew word for ‘wound’)…

The person standing before you in every moment needs your radical compassion.  The world today offers us sharp edges and cracks to fall into.’

She’s right.  We’ve all fallen.  We’ve all felt the blunt pain of the edge.  And there are many who now feel that our scars, whether physical or emotional, those deeply personal defects we all carry, prevent us from being the person we can be, that these bottomless wounds tugging at us incessantly preclude us from fully becoming the community member, the Jew, the parent, the spouse, the friend, the human being we know in our heart that we can be.

Parul Sehgal writes: ‘How do we understand our own suffering?  With what words and to what ends?  Does great suffering always diminish us?’ He asks.

You and I know that having cancer is much closer to the Penn Tower story than it is to the Rocky story.  You’re not a fighter leaping to the top of the museum steps with verve and enthusiasm, your hands held high; rather you’re a building coming apart one lousy brick at a time.

You’re not a warrior running through a cheering South Philly, eager to slay the mighty behemoth; actually you’re the steps themselves, getting trampled time and again as your back aches and you’re exhausted and your head is screaming and the side effects are too much to bear and you feel yourself being reduced slowly slowly slowly to a fragment of what you were.

I watched them work outside my window.  I watched them take apart the building as the drugs took me apart.  I read all of your cards.  I read some good books.  I read some not-so-good books.  I didn’t listen to the Ramones.  I read all of the inspirational quotes and texts you sent me.  Some of them were really good and really inspirational.  Some were funny.  They were heartfelt and earnest and beautiful.  I learned so much about you as you shared your own story with me and yes I learned a lot about myself.

But mainly what I did during that time was sit and read from the best book, the only book, our Bible.  It helped me to hold on tight to hope and not feel so ‘diminished’ all the time.  Those texts reminded me that our pain, our very real pain, can in fact lead us to something else altogether and it can: greater love and greater gratitude and greater courage and greater everything.

Those texts reminded me that the pain need not take me apart at all or reduce me in any way whatsoever, but quite the opposite actually.  And the same is true for all of us.

What is it about the human spirit, the neshamah, that soul deep within us that gives us the power to even consider coming away from our hardship with renewed zest and courage.  What is it?  What is that?  Maybe that’s God.

I read such verses such as this one found in chapter thirty of the Book of Samuel: ‘And David’s strength grew as his faith in the Eternal One grew.’  Or this one from chapter twenty-nine of the Book of Jeremiah: ‘I have a plan for you and it is a plan for good…a plan for a hope-filled future.’  Or this one from chapter seventeen of the Book of Proverbs: ‘We are born anew amid adversity.’

I also read a verse that we heard just now during our Torah service: ‘I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life that you may live.’

I didn’t stand toe to toe with Apollo Creed, but I did stand toe to toe with cancer.  And I believe, on this Yom Kippur morning, I believe in life.  I believe that the antidote to life’s pain and suffering and unfairness, all of those edges and all of the heartache, I believe that the answer to all of it is choosing life, as our portion commands, not victim-hood or sulking or retreating or anything else, but life.

So that sounds…great.  It sounds totally obvious perhaps.

But what does it mean to choose life?  What does that mean?

Here is what I think it means to choose life.  Take it or leave it.  Ready?  Are you ready?

I believe that choosing life is about choosing hope over despair.  Of course!  Whether we are talking about our own national discourse, or the future of the State of Israel, whether we are talking about your family, or your very own self, I believe that the Jewish way is to very purposely choose hope.  HaTikvah, the Hope, this is our people’s anthem, and we as a people have forever chosen hope, even in the face of those who would call hopefulness naive or soft or downright misguided.

I believe in hope.  I believe, like so many great Jewish souls who came before all of us, souls living in times that were marked by great pain, that to be a Jew is to still believe, to believe stubbornly, that tomorrow can be better and more peaceful and more moving than today.  It’s a question of attitude.

Did Rocky go to bed the night before the big fight assuming he would be knocked out the next day? Did he wait for the worst?  No.  I don’t think he did.  He knew, not unlike our own Moses, that he had it in him to be different, to be brave, to do something lasting, and that spurred him on.

Or how about Yoni Netanyahu.  He boarded the plane to Entebbe not because he was skeptical and convinced that the mission was futile.  Rather he believed we would rescue the hostages and return them to their families and, at least on that day, allow good to prevail over evil.  And he gave his life in the name of that very idea.

William Winsdale wrote the afterward to Victor Frankl’s acclaimed work Man’s Search for Meaning, which tells the story of Frankl surviving the concentration camps and going on to live a full and fulfilling life as a physician.

Winsdale notes: ‘Even when confronted by loss and sadness, Frankl’s optimism, his constant affirmation of and exuberance about life, led him to insist that hope…can turn challenges into triumphs.’

Hope is about not cloaking ourselves in scorn and hate and negativity but rather seeing possibility, possibility in yourself, the possibility that you can make a difference, the possibility for love, the possibility for tomorrow, the possibility for dialogue, and yes hope is about leaving room all the time for a good and benevolent God.

Late at night I would lie there thinking not about the pain but about everything I would do when I finally got out of the hospital, the marathons I would run, the places Lisa and I would visit, the breakfasts I would have with our kids, the simchas I would get to be a part of with you, all of the weddings and celebrations we would all be part of together.  I thought of this moment.  I thought of this.  I thought of right now.

And I chose hope.  And I choose hope.  And I invite you to join me.

Next, I believe that choosing life is about choosing forgiveness.  Why do we keep grudges?  To hold sway over others?  To prop ourselves up convinced of our righteousness?  Forgiveness, one of the watch words of the high holy days, is about seeing the humanity in others, even those who have hurt you.  And forgiveness reinforces what we know to be true, namely that we humans are far from perfect and we often make less far from perfect decisions.

Most importantly, and here is such a crucial message, when we forgive we give ourselves the space to finally move forward defined not by tension or anger but new found contentment and wholeness.

Next, I believe that choosing life is about choosing to understand rather than judge.  This is about the choices we make over the course of our day, when we see someone who prays differently, whose skin color is different, whose accent is different, whose social media posts are different than yours, whose age or politics or profession or parenting or sexuality or body type is different than yours, choosing life is about choosing both your life and their life, not denigrating the lives of others simply because they don’t fully mirror yours, but rather seeking to understand and, more than that, to love.  This is the Jewish way.

The Mishnah urges us: ‘al ta’doon chavercha ad sh’tagia limkomo.‘  Do not judge another until you have stood in his or her place and centuries later the Talmud provides a model of this as the rabbis’ myriad discussions maintain a level of respect and appreciation even when they strongly disagree with each another, as they almost always do.

We are all human.  No matter who you root for or what you wear or what you look like.

On the Oncology wing at Penn there were men and women, black and white, young and old, every ethnicity you could fathom, every language and history and height.  In the room next to mine was a sixteen-year-old with leukemia.  Next to him a grandfather.  We all had the same beating heart and the same desire to get home, back to our families and back to our lives.

Next, I believe that choosing life is about choosing laughter.  This one is so important.  Maybe it’s the most important.

Someone called me the other day and said: ‘Rabbi, I have to ask you, I’ve always wondered this.  I’m sorry if I’m overstepping my bounds, but I’m just so curious.  Do you drive on Yom Kippur?’  I thought about it for a second and I said, carefully, ‘well, actually, yes, I do.  I do choose to drive on Yom Kippur.’

Then he paused for and said: ‘Great, would you mind picking me up?’

Let’s choose to laugh.  Laugh at ourselves.  Laugh our way through it.  Humor has gotten me through so much, maybe you too.  I say this as a rabbi on Yom Kippur.  I say this immediately following cancer.  Please, laugh.  Let yourself laugh.  If we expect perfection of ourselves or others what will our lives become?  If we become mired in our own importance, then what?

And finally, a prayer.  Because we are all healing.  Every one of us is recovering in some way.  We are working our way back to wholeness and so a prayer.  I’m going to ask you to close your eyes.  You can take the hand of the person next you.  I’m going to ask you to take a breath as I offer these words on behalf of all of us:

May this coming year bring us closer to wholeness.  May we honor those who are no longer with us with our deeds and with our words.  May we, each and every one of us, love and be loved.  May God’s countenance shine upon us.  May we experience joy and kindness this year.  May our hearts be made full.  And may our lives be lives of great blessing and of peace.  Amen.


About the Author

Rabbi Benjamin David was born in Philadelphia, PA and raised in Cherry Hill, NJ. He is the son of Rabbi Jerome and Peggy David. He attended Cherry Hill High School East and Muhlenberg College, where he majored in English Literature. In 1999, he graduated Magna Cum Laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In 2004, he was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. While in rabbinic school, he served numerous congregations, including Kol Hanishama of Jerusalem, Temple Beth Am of Monessen, PA and Temple Shaaray Tefila of Manhattan. He also served as intern at the Jewish Guild for the Blind and the Makor Steinhardt Center. He received numerous awards in the field of Talmud and Hebrew Literature and was the cofounder of Davar Aher, a student review.

From 2005-2012, he served as assistant and associate rabbi at Temple Sinai of Roslyn, working closely with youth and teens, overseeing the Hebrew High School program, officiating at lifecycle events, teaching broadly, and helping to further develop the congregation’s social action, community organizing, and interfaith programs.

A competitive distant runner, he has completed sixteen marathons and twenty half marathons. He is a co-founder of the Running Rabbis, a social justice initiative that works with clergy worldwide to run and walk in the name of worthy causes.

Rabbi David is also active in the Jewish Federation of South Jersey, especially within the Young Adult Division, the Jewish Community Relations Council, Jewish Family and Children’s Service, and is on the advisory board for The Voice.

He is married to Lisa David, the Associate Director of Camp Harlam.  They also met at Camp Harlam, where they both spent time as campers, counselors, and supervisors. They have three children: Noa, Elijah, and Samuel.