The Moral Courage to Be Our Best Selves
Rabbi Jill Perlman
Erev Rosh HaShanah 2016/5777
Tonight, I want to talk about courage.
I don’t mean the courage to stand up in front of a room packed with upwards of a thousand people, but come to think of it, that’s not a bad kind of courage to have either.
I want to talk tonight about moral courage, and about the moral choices that we make every day from the small to the grand to do right, despite our fear of punishment and consequences, despite our fear of rejection and ridicule. I am talking about the moral courage we must continually cultivate within to be our best selves.
Because sometimes we forget those best selves, don’t we? Even those who were filled with moral courage once upon a time forget.
Like Elijah, our prophet who watched as other prophets of God were being killed or forced into hiding as corruption ran rampant in the kingdom of Israel and the cult of Baal overtook the land. Elijah stood tall, filled his heart with moral courage, and, in a public confrontation with the priests of Baal, was victorious on behalf of the people.
However, what did Elijah do when his own life was threatened soon after? He ran. He climbed a mountain that may sound familiar, a mountain in the wilderness named Horeb, that is Sinai and hunkered down in a cave. And God asked, simply, What are you doing here, Elijah? (…As if God did not know.)
Even our greatest victories can not squash our greatest fears. Despite his successes one day, Elijah had his doubts the next. And so he, like us, squirrels himself away when those fears loom too large or they cut too close to home for comfort. This time, it was his life on the line. But God wasn’t about to let Elijah hide.
What are you doing here, Elijah?
Our prophet’s fears became manifest when the wind started blowing harshly and the earth shook in a quake and the fire erupted all around in seeming dramatic shows of power. And the text could not be clearer here when it states that God was not in the wind blowing or the earth shaking or the fire erupting as if to remind us that we don’t need to look out there for the answers.
But then… then there was the kol d’mama daka, the still small voice. And again, our text couldn’t be clearer. God was in that still, small voice.
Sometimes, God is not out there; God is in here. And when we can quiet the fears and the doubts inside… when we compel ourselves to listen to that still, small voice and we amplify it, that’s us beginning to act on our own moral courage.
We know that we don’t need to look out there to figure out how to move morally in this world. We don’t need to acquiesce to the demands of the popular, the common, or a commitment only to the self. We don’t need to run and hide even if everyone else is running and hiding. Nor do we need to scream and point fingers even if everyone else is screaming and pointing fingers.
Now have no worries. Lest you think this is really a preamble leading to a commentary on the upcoming election, it is not, but I am, as we all are, influenced by what is happening around us, wondering what the wisdom of Judaism can contribute.
We are living at a time when questions that demand what I would call moral courage are taking center stage.
Many are questioning if we have reached the end of civil discourse. We’re hit seemingly daily with video of unarmed black men dying and are left to wonder what happens what the cameras are not rolling. We are faced with a global refugee crisis in numbers that we have not seen since World War II. We live with the possibility that the next terrorist bombing or mass shooting may be in our own backyard.
If there was ever a time for moral courage, this is it.
Perhaps that which is prompting moral courage in you right now is hitting closer to home: pursuing love again after loss, standing up to a superior, saying no to something else so that you can be the present parent or spouse you need to be.
I won’t presume to know what the issues are that move your heart, but I do know our texts and traditions tell us over and over this message: Do not run, do not hide yourself away in a cave. Be a part of this world and get your hands dirty.
Midrash teaches us that in Sodom, this society that had gone over the edge, there was a man, a righteous man, a tzaddik who began to teach and preach. “We do not need to be murderers,” he cried. “We do not need to be thieves. We must change. And we must speak up. We must not be indifferent.” He continued teaching and preaching day in and day out – and finally someone asked him, "Why are you doing this? Don't you see it is of no use?" He said, "Let me tell you why: in the beginning I thought I had to protest and shout in order to change them. Now I know I must protest and shout so that they should not change me."
The tzaddik lived with moral courage and acted on it even in the most difficult of times and places. I can imagine the fear that must have grown inside him and the threat it posed to his integrity.
Fear, like nothing else, has the ability to drown hope and so we must stay vigilant and take control of our fear. Fear is not intrinsically bad. It helps us understand when a situation is not right; it has the potential to get our adrenaline running to ready ourselves to act. We must give fear space and listen to it, but we must not let it speak louder than the still, small voice.
Courage is choosing to do the right thing even when we are scared, even when the consequences are real and painful. Moral courage means accepting that it is probably going to hurt.
So how do we do that? How do we cultivate courage and bravery despite the risks?
An Ethiopian folk tale tells of a woman who adopted a boy whose parents had died. The woman desperately wanted the boy to love her, but he was not ready for his heart was still grieving. This woman loved her adopted son and when he couldn’t return the same feelings, she was devastated. So she went to the village’s wise healer to ask for advice. Perhaps, she thought, there was some magic that could make the boy love her.
The healer listened to her plea and responded, “I will make a special drink for you. When the boy drinks it, he will love you as his mother. But to make it is quite dangerous for it requires the whisker of a living lion.”
The woman was filled with fear, but she took a deep breath and thought of her son. “I will do what you have asked.”
And so with meat in hand, she went outside the village and began to follow the tracks of a lion. She put the meat down on the path and hid behind a tree to wait. Time went by and eventually, the lion found its way to her. She watched as he sniffed the air; he knew she was there, but he didn’t attack. He was satisfied with the meat and he left her be.
She repeated this for several nights, waiting behind the tree as the lion ate his fill. Until, finally, one night, she took a risk. She put down the meat, but did not hide. She stood in full view as the lion came near. The lion looked at her; she was frightened, but she stayed where she was. She did this day after day, moving a little bit closer each and every time until finally, she was placing the meat directly in front of the lion and crouching next to him. She did not run because the boy was in her heart.
One night after much time had passed, she crouched next to the majestic creature and reached out to bravely pluck one whisker from his cheek. The lion looked at her… kept eating. When he had finished, the woman found the wise healer once again, proudly displaying the whisker she had tried so hard to earn.
The wise healer smiled at the mother and said, “You now have everything you need to earn the boy’s love.”
“You will make the drink?” The woman asked.
“There is no special drink,” the healer responded. “You have learned what to do. With your son, have courage, have patience. Take small steps. And do not run away.”
The woman went home that night to her son. She was courageous and she was patient. She took small steps and she never ran away. And eventually, this boy found room in his heart and he loved her as his own mother.
Moral bravery does not mean rushing in unabashedly demanding what you think you deserve or you think someone else needs. It is filtered through patience and intention, through care and compassion. We often think about courage as rushing into battle. Why need that be our only example?
We build physical courage by testing our boundaries. We don’t automatically go and climb the most difficult mountain around, right? We start small. We exercise our muscles to prepare us for the long climb. We constantly assess: Are we ready yet? Can I move a little faster? Can I add more weight to my routine? Can I get closer tonight to the lion than I did the night before? And we know that if we don’t keep it up, our muscles will forget. At worst, they’ll atrophy.
It is no different with our hearts. It is no different with moral courage.
We must make decisions with intention. We must take steps that make sense. We must take risks, all while accepting the possibility of failure. And sometimes… sometimes we will get hurt, but if our actions are grounded in the greater good and in the affirmation of life, then we will find –almost miraculously- that we still have the strength to endure and keep standing even in the face of failure.
Shimon Peres, may his memory be for a blessing, was laid to rest just two days ago. A father of Israel, he held just about every political office one could, including that of Minister of Defense, Prime Minister and President. Peres was courageous in countless ways.
After spending the first half of his lifetime securing Israel militarily, Peres pivoted and stretched beyond the imaginable to bring the potential of Oslo and peace for our people to the table. To say that he was challenged in this endeavor is an understatement. There were threats to his reputation, his work, his life, but he pressed on because he believed that a lasting peace with the Palestinians was the only way to solidify Israel’s security and Israel’s standing among its neighbors. As we well know, Shimon Peres never saw that vision become a reality, but his dream lives on.
Just last year, he shared, “The greatest mistake was that our dreams were too small. I tell people, don’t dream small, dream of great things.” The outpouring of so many now as we actively remember the courageous arc of his life and the passions of his soul, I hope, are re-invigorating the dream for peace. Even in death, he is a messenger from on high inviting us to act courageously and dream of great things.
I find that it is much easier to dream big and act with moral courage when I whole-heartedly accept the notion that we are all made in the image of God, b’tzelem Elohim. Being made in God’s image reminds me that I am no better than you and you in turn are no better than me. Even when we disagree and even when we go to war, we must strive to live out the truth that just as I am God’s, so are you.
And it’s hard. We must stretch these moral muscles, most especially at times when we feel that others are not doing the same. But saying “if they play badly, then I’ll play badly, too” – well, that takes us nowhere.
To move into moral courage, we must rise above the very human desire to deliver the same sneaky punch that we just received in the gut.
It’s easy to say, not so easy to do. To be brave surely does not mean that we must be punching bags - No. Instead, to dodge, to rise above, we must be willing to change the nature of the conversation, to alter the playing field, to put what really matters on the table – nothing else.
And we need to be honest with ourselves and recognize when we are the ones that have the inner work of change to do.
Each and every year, the high holy day season thrusts us into the gap between we who are right now and who we know we can be. Living in the gap makes us ask ourselves the big questions like: is this the life that I was meant to lead? Who have I been serving this year – is it myself or the greater good? Who is at the wheel in my life – is it fear… or is it courage?
Well, tell that courageous part of you: it is time to take the wheel.
When I was a child, I never had the opportunity to sit where you are sitting tonight. I was told that I was Jewish, but I had no context for what that was supposed to mean. We didn’t belong to a Jewish synagogue; I wasn’t educated in a Jewish school. My parents were definitively not interested, but I was.
And so, with some courage and honestly a little chutzpah, I began the process of choosing for myself the path that I was to walk. It was scary, terrifying at times, to veer away from the road that my family had set before me and to rise above the objections (You’re too religious. You’re too Jewish. You don’t really fit in with us anymore. What about the side of our family who isn’t Jewish? What about your dad? Are you rejecting us?).
I had to rise above their objections to find a path of my own. And I had to figure out how to do that with love and compassion, without judgment while also honoring the choices that made sense for me. Sometimes I did that well… and sometimes I didn’t.
We all go through this in own lives in our own ways as we grow up; we all hit that period of time when self-definition is in order.
One of the many gifts of Judaism is the belief that the time for courageous self-definition is not just reserved for our teenage years. It is eternal and on-going.
As a Jewish people, we know perhaps more than anyone that our tomorrows depend on our chutzpah today. Our courage is based in holding onto hope even when the world is filled with fear.
After all, we are Abraham arguing with God that it is not right that the whole must be destroyed for the sins of some. We are Yocheved defying Pharaoh and the decree of the land as we place a basket into the water with the flesh of our flesh. We are Mordechai and we are Esther risking our very lives for our people.
And we are eternally that tzaddik, that righteous one, wandering around Sodom, refusing to bend to moral corruption, refusing to change the direction of our hearts, refusing to give up on the world.
Torah is all about learning to live with fear and grow courageously into our best selves.
Maybe the choices we are making aren’t on the same dramatic scale as defying Pharaoh (maybe they are), but whatever choices you have in front of you, whatever is stirring your soul, do not be afraid to be bold. Boldness for the greater good is our story, our gift, our obligation – it is who we are.
Remember that rush you felt the last time you were truly brave? Brave for something bigger than yourself?... Now is the time to be brave again… for if not now, then when?
The words of Rambam often accompany the blowing of the shofar, which we will hear tomorrow, that courageous call to renewal and re-birth. And it’s like I can hear Rambam now, on the eve of this new day, this new life, softly trying to rouse us in a still, small voice…
He whispers to us, “Awake, awake from your sleep.”
But then, much to his dismay, we roll over and hit snooze… And this time, the voice becomes more insistent. Now the voice is the sound of the shofar, a tekiah for our hearts, telling us: “Wake up! Wake up from your slumber.”
Let us listen to the voice, the call before we’ve slept through the whole day, before we’ve slept through our life.
If we’re not awake yet, it’s time. Who are we and who do we want to be? Let us be brave and bold. Let us cultivate courage from within. Let us let loose that inner chutzpah that we all have inside and in-so-doing, let us bring beautiful blessing into this world.
 I Kings 18 and 19.
 Adapted from Elie Wiesel, “Words of a Witness.”
 Traditional folk tale from Ethiopia adapted from Jennifer Armstrong’s telling at www.lionswhiskers.com/p/about-lions-whiskers.html?m=1
 Genesis 1:27.
 As described in Genesis 18:16-33.
 As described in Exodus 2.
 As described in the book of Esther.
 Hillel, Pirkei Avot 1:14.
 Adapted from Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4.