Rabbi David’s Rosh Hashanah Morning talk 5781
There’s a well-known idea from the world of Star Trek that I think has become particularly relevant at this moment in the real world – an idea that I’ve always thought of as an important Jewish concept. In the movie Star Trek Two: The Wrath of Khan, we see a military command trainee taking a test in a simulation of the bridge of a starship. This is a test taken by all command trainees, in which they have to decide whether or not to attempt to rescue another ship that has become marooned in enemy space. If they try to rescue the ship, it will be considered an act of war, and they will surely be attacked by their enemies, the Klingons. If they don’t attempt the rescue, they will violate their policy about aiding distressed vessels, and the officer will likely face mutiny from their crew. Whichever decision the trainee makes, the simulation quickly progresses, resulting in destruction, and possibly death. This test – which is known by the name of the marooned ship, the Kobayashi Maru – is meant to give potential starship commanders experience in seemingly no-win scenarios – the kind of scenario that, presumably, starship captains have to face many times during their career.
In the movie, the cadet tries to rescue the crew of the other ship and watches her crew die around her. Her taking of the test is is being supervised by Captain Kirk, about whom it is mentioned that he found a way to ‘beat’ the simulation – a way to make it through the scenario without harm coming to anyone. Later in the movie, it’s revealed that Captain Kirk is the only person to ever quote unquote ‘pass’ the Kobayashi Maru test – which Kirk did by reprogramming the computer and creating a way to ‘win’ the simulation. Kirk says that he received a commendation for original thinking for his solution, and when death comes to those close to him later in that film and in the movie’s sequel, he notes that while he had always found a way to cheat death, he had never truly had to face it before. Captain Kirk’s unwillingness to give in or give up when faced with scenarios in which none of the choices are particularly good ones, is often celebrated as an essential part of his character. One way or another, no matter the odds, Kirk seems to always find a way to survive – if not to win – no matter how unlikely the chances seem for success.
You may know that Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was Jewish, and that its two lead actors, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, were also Jewish. I‘ve always felt that the Star Trek universe is replete with Jewish values and ideals, found in both obvious ways – like Leonard Nimoy famously reappropriating the ancient symbol for the Cohanim as the gesture of greeting for Vulcans – in addition to the less obvious, like Kirk’s solution to the Kobayashi Maru. I believe that Kirk’s much-celebrated ability to successfully navigate his way through seemingly no-win scenarios happens to be a trait of our people – one that is both taught in the Torah, and which has anecdotally been proven to be a part of who we are, over and over again, throughout our history. I also believe that this character trait, and the lessons we can learn from it and the ways in which we can apply it, are especially relevant to all of us living on this planet, right now.
The Covid-19 pandemic has presented us with six months’ worth of challenges that most of us could never have imagined. All of a sudden, in the middle of March, we had to stop being physically together with anyone we didn’t live with – a prohibition that continues to be advised by scientists and public health officials, and which is why we’re not all sitting together tonight in the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists’ sanctuary. Many of us know people who’ve died from Covid-19 and people who’ve become seriously sick from it, and most of us do whatever we can, whatever it takes, to prevent ourselves and our friends and families from getting this terrible disease. Some of us – like my family and I and many of you – are incredibly fortunate to have lives that allow us to stay home and stay safe, and to still be able to work and eat and exercise and go to school and take walks and do some fun things. I’m well aware that SO many people have had it SO much worse than we have.
And yet, at the same time, the last six months have been difficult, overwhelming, and depressing for me – like, I’m sure, they’ve been for many of you. The things that my family and I haven’t been able to do have ranged from feeling like mild inconveniences, to moderate disappointments, to genuine emotional, psychological, and spiritual losses. From the generic to the specific, from the everyday to the once-in-a-lifetime, there have been so many things that we’ve missed, and missed out on, in the last six months, in order to try to maintain our own health, and to help maintain the public good. Judaism teaches us the principle of Pikuach Nefesh, that preserving and saving a life is more important than almost everything else, and with that principle in mind we do what we can to make the best of a difficult situation, recognizing that the loss of a life would be a far greater loss than all of these others.
Still, some of the necessary restrictions of the pandemic can have serious consequences, and there are many aspects of this experience that remind me of the Kobayashi Maru simulation – instances when no matter which path forward we take, none of them feel like a win. Personally, I detest having to do my entire job by phone and by Zoom. I miss being with all of you! I miss spending time together, celebrating Shabbats and holidays and life cycle events together, and learning and living with each other. I miss the social interactions that happen between scheduled events. I miss eating with all of you (I really missed eating with you all last night, and I’ll really miss that again after Havdalah on Yom Kippur). And yet, being together right now, especially indoors, would be dangerous – the infection rate for our area is still too high for us to consider it safe to be back together physically, an opinion that is shared by several churches and most synagogues in the region. Thanks to the Internet – imagine a pandemic without the Internet! – we at least have this way to carry on under these circumstances. It’s most definitely not the same, but the fact that we can share moments like this, at a time when it’s not clearly safe to be physically together, is actually fairly miraculous. Like virtual work, virtual school, and so many other things that we can’t do in person right now, virtual synagogue life may not feel like a victory, but at least it’s not a total loss.
As I mentioned earlier, I think that successfully facing no-win scenarios – as embodied by the unofficially Jewish character of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk – is a particularly Jewish speciality. Starting in the Torah and then continuing throughout our history, Judaism has taught, and Jews have embodied, the ability to survive, if not thrive, when the apparent paths forward are problematic or dangerous. In Genesis, Jacob – who will later become Yisrael, the person our people are named for – is stuck in a difficult situation when he is preparing to meet his brother Esau as an adult, which will be the first time they’ll have seen each other since Jacob stole Esau’s birthright and blessing when they were younger. Jacob is understandably afraid of his brother and what he’ll do to him, and that fear is exacerbated when Jacob learns that his brother is advancing towards him with four hundred men – a much larger force than Jacob has. Jacob initiated this encounter, so backing out isn’t an option, and it seems likely both that Esau is planning to attack him with this large force, and that he’ll be successful. How can Jacob get out of this situation? He comes up with a solution that ensures at least some degree of survival: he divides the people with him – which includes his large family – into two groups, and sends them in two different directions, thinking that if Esau sees and attacks one of the groups, the other will survive and escape. While certainly not ideal, Jacob is able to find a path to survival for at least half of those in his care – a solution that’s certainly better than if none of them survived. If you don’t know what happened, by the way, it turned out that Esau was coming to see his brother with healing in mind, not vindication, and their reunion was amiable. While no blood was shed at all, Jacob ‘reprogrammed’ the situation, so to speak, assuring the survival of at least some of his family – and their unique-to-the-region theology, in which his brother did not believe.
In Exodus, when they’re leaving Mitzrayim, God engineers a scenario in which the entire people of Yisrael are stuck between a superior army and the sea – again, a seemingly no-win scenario. The people are clearly outnumbered and are afraid – so as their namesake did, they cry out to God. In the Torah’s telling of this story, God tells Moses to lift up his hands and his staff over the water, and when Moses does this, the water miraculously parts, giving the Israelites a Divine solution out of what had surely seemed like a no-win situation. In Midrash – the rabbinic tradition of writing stories to fill in missing details in the Bible – the waters don’t part until one person, Nachshon Ben Aminadav, has the faith to walk in up to his nose. I’ve always appreciated that particular detail, since making it through a difficult situation takes not just having an idea of how to do that, but the courage and the temerity to put the idea into action.
Throughout history, many peoples have faced seemingly no-win situations, but few have survived the destruction of something as foundational to their social, political, and religious identities as our ancestors did when the second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed nearly 2000 years ago. The Temple was the center of almost EVERYTHING in Ancient Israel. People scheduled their years around visiting it for the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Farmers – the majority of the residents of the country – frequently brought offerings to the Temple. It was literally God’s home on earth, and the physical center of the kingdom’s capital. When it was destroyed by the Romans, all of that went away, and there wasn’t any apparent way to move forward. Judaism, to that point, wasn’t really portable: its rituals and its deity were housed in, and were centered in, one place – a place that had been devastated. This was the epitome of a no-win situation – the only way to do pretty much every ritual that those people valued was no longer possible. The creation of Rabbinic Judaism, the mobilization and the decentralization of the Israelites’ religion, was an incredible feat of reimagining. Without any apparent way to continue their religious culture, the ancient rabbis reconstructed Judaism, creating something that was in many ways new, yet also based on some of the rhythms and structure they’d always known. If they had been in the Kobayashi Maru simulator, they might have changed the setting from outer space to the deepest oceans, or something like that. They looked the death of their way of life in the face, and found a new way to carry on – one that in many ways survives in our Jewish lives today.
I think several important Jewish concepts are part of this Jewish character trait. One is the primacy in Judaism of Pikuach Nefesh – the value of saving a life – to which I referred earlier. Many of us colloquially know that in Judaism, life and health comes first. This principle is thought to be derived from Leviticus 18:5, which says “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them.” In other words, Jewish practice is meant to be something to live with, not to die because of. Religiously, this most often manifests in the idea that if life or health is at risk, you can violate almost any religious restriction (one example of this is one of the first things I’ll say next week on Yom Kippur eve, that you are commanded NOT to fast if fasting will disrupt your health). Pikuach Nefesh is frequently cited as the primary Jewish reason why we haven’t been gathering in person right now: if someone ended up catching and dying of Covid-19 because they attended a Jewish service or holiday observance (a situation that has happened at some churches), they and their community would be in violation of this Jewish law. There’s no question that it’s difficult to not get together to observe the holidays. But if the entire community decided to prioritize getting together for Rosh Hashanah or Passover or Shabbat instead of observing Pikuach Nefesh, our entire community could easily disappear. It’s clear to me that by prioritizing the preservation of health over the traditional observance of ritual, Jews have, and continue to, survive scenarios in which a stricter adherence to practice could be dangerous.
Another concept that I think really helps us in these scenarios is one of the key ideas of this time of year – Teshuvah. Literally meaning turning or returning, we understand Teshuvah to mean the process of atonement or repentance, the way that we make up for the things that we’ve done wrong. While Jews are always supposed to repent when we realize that we’ve done something wrong, the month of Elul, and then the Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, are considered to be times when God is particularly open to accepting repentance. Teshuvah requires us to recognize our mistakes and to take responsibility for them – actions that might enable us to better navigate a difficult situation – but I think it’s what you expect to get out of Teshuvah that really applies to how you deal with no-win scenarios.
One of the most basic realities of atoning for something you did to someone else is that you have no control over the result of your apology – in fact, how the other person responds (and how you respond to that) is almost a completely separate matter. Therefore, atoning in Judaism isn’t about erasing or correcting the mistake that you originally made – there’s actually no way to do that. Instead, it’s about letting the other person know that you recognize what you did, and it’s about the honesty and vulnerability that you show by acknowledging your mistakes. Truthfully, this can be unsatisfying and/or frightening, and it can easily result in us not having the courage and the temerity to actually make a necessary apology. Doing Teshuvah requires being comfortable with not having control over the results of your actions – an attitude that requires a degree of flexibility and openness that may be what’s most necessary in order to successfully navigate difficult, no-win situations. Like Jacob, it means being open to the idea that success in a given situation might mean only some people getting some of what they want, and not necessarily everyone getting every thing they were hoping for. Like the Israelites at the sea, it means not just noticing when an opportunity presents itself, but pushing yourself to see it through and make it happen – even when a positive outcome seems difficult or unlikely. Like the creators of Rabbinic Judaism, it means being flexible enough to recognize when to try something new, courageous enough to actually do that, and then open enough to not get caught up in exactly what the results of that something new end up being. It means not being overly attached to your intended outcomes, so that you can go along with the new ways to survive – if not thrive – that your new circumstances dictate. It doesn’t mean surrendering your most cherished principles and beliefs, but it does mean being able to apply them in new ways, as new circumstances demand. It means being willing to re-form, to re-construct, what you do and how you do it when your reality changes – because if you don’t, existence will move ahead, and will leave you behind.
May 5781 be a year in which we find ourselves in fewer no-win scenarios. BUT if we do continue to find ourselves in them, may this year be a time when we are able to incorporate the teachings of our people to more successfully navigate them. May it be a year when we find ways to re-program the computer simulators of our lives – either by changing our approaches to these situations by utilizing the teachings of Judaism and being realistic, creative, flexible, and open-minded; or, by finding some way we may not be able to imagine right now, and completely re-writing the rules, like Captain Kirk. May 5781 be a year that is just plain better – for us, our loved ones, our country, and our world. Ken yehi ratzon – may this be God’s will. And let us all say, Amen.