My favorite part of the Torah is the end.
It’s a tender and sweet moment. Moses dies, God buries Moses in a place that is unknown to anyone else. The Torah says some nice words about Moses, how he was unlike any other prophet that the Israelites has known—our liberator, our lawgiver, our defender, our guide.
And that is it, the Torah ends.
So we can say this is a nice ending, a literary ending…if the story of the Torah is the story of Moses. And despite the fact that the Torah is called the Five Books of Moses, it is not the story of Moses, but the story of the Israelites. The story of our people that begins as the narrative of a family saga to the narrative of a nation, oppressed in slavery, finding liberation and redemption, and journeying, both physically and spiritually to a new land, a new reality, a new future.
And since the story of the Torah is the story of the Israelites, it is, then, when it ends, incomplete. For the Israelites never achieve their goal, never reach the land, the text finishes with Moses dying and the Israelites still on the eastern bank of the Jordan river, poised to cross but not making it. Roll end credits.
The Israelites do make it over the river and into the land: In the book of Joshua, the book that follows Deuteronomy. But it is not part of the Torah itself, the central sacred text of our people.
The next book of the bible following the end of the Torah is called Joshua after its main protagonist, Joshua ben Nun, who takes over the leadership from Moses. This is preordained, Joshua is first appointed to be Moses’s successor as leader earlier on in the Torah, after God tells Moses that he is to die in the wilderness and not enter the land. Moses, concerned for the people, asks God for a successor. God then tells Moses to take Joshua in front of all the people and anoint him as the successor.
Then, just as the Torah is coming to a close, and Moses knows he is about to die, he offers a blessing to Joshua in front of all the people, “Be strong and have courage, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that God swore to their ancestors to give them, and it is you who shall appoint it to them. And God will go before you. God will be with you and will not fail you or forsake you. Fear not, and do not be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:7-8) These are the words that Moses uses to charge Joshua for what he is to do next. Facing an uncertain future, Moses tells Joshua to have strength, but more importantly, to have courage.
I think about these words as we face an uncertain future. Indeed, the nature of the future is that it is uncertain. We do not know what comes. We make plans, and they are broken for us. And at the same time we like to project from our current circumstances into the future as a kind of foretelling of what will be. We ask ourselves, based on where we are now, are we moving in the right direction?
And these days, it feels like we are particularly challenged in that regard. Do we feel we are moving in the right direction?
I remember walking around the halls of Pomona Junior High School, growing up in the 1980s under the specter of nuclear war, all our destruction held at bay by the diplomatic notion of detante and treaties and a cold war with the Soviet Union. And now, the threat of nuclear war once again hovers over us, albeit with a different enemy.
Environmental destruction seems imminent, and weather patterns change and storms become stronger, all due to the scientific certainty around climate change. Yet there are those in power who deny these facts and view environmental regulation and protection as an infringement of individual rights as if they do not breathe the same air we do, or drink the same water we do, as if we as individuals can exist separate from the environment.
Our leadership posits moral equivalency between those who would seek to destroy Jews and African Americans and others with those who oppose them. When white supremacist leaders feel comfortable enough to come out from under their sheets to march through cities chanting slogans of hate and violence, given sanction by the leaders of our government, we are less secure.
When immigrants are seen as the enemy, when immigrant children are punished for the “transgressions” of their parents, when your religion and nationality automatically makes you an enemy worthy of exclusion, when your gender identity means you can not serve in the most selfless capacity that our nation can offer—the military, when your desire to exercise your free speech by taking a knee rather than putting your hand on your heart makes you an enemy and not a patriot, we have come to a point of devaluing human life to a dangerous degree.
And looking at my own personal situation over these past two years, I have had to change my health insurance plan two years in a row, first when Providence, our primary hospital, and its partner Swedish, where I get my neurological care, dropped my individual Premera plan, and now when my current carrier Regence decides to cancel my plan—indeed all individual plans in Thurston County—because, as the letter I received stated, “of instability in the market.”—I am reminded very directly and personally that access to affordable health care through insurance coverage remains not a right but a commodity.
Looking at all of these, and more, I will admit that I find it hard to stand up here and know exactly what to say. I share all these, because when I add them up, I am not feeling particularly hopeful about the way things are. I can’t in good conscience tell you to have hope, that things will turn out OK, that this too shall pass, because it seems so overwhelming, and it doesn’t feel like it will pass.
So rather than talk about hope, I share this story of Joshua and the death of Moses because I really want to talk about courage. In facing an unknown future, Moses did not tell Joshua to have hope. He told him to have courage.
Over this past summer I had the privilege to learn from Parker Palmer, the Quaker thinker and writer and one of the compelling spiritual teachers of our day, when I attended a retreat sponsored by his nonprofit, the Center for Courage and Renewal. During his lectures (and also found in his most recent book Healing the Heart of Democracy), he spoke of the “tragic gap,” which he calls “the most fundamental and most challenging” of the tensions that we hold as people. The tragic gap is the space between the harsh realities that surround us all the time, that we see, that we feel, and the things that we know to be possible, a world that is possible because we can see it, we can vision it. This is the tragic gap.
And tragic is not used here in the colloquial sense of being “sad” or “bad,” but rather in that classic sense that this is, as Palmer writes, “an eternal and inescapable feature of the human condition.” This is where we are at all time, between the what is and what could be. This is the space between the present and the future. This is the Israelites, waiting on the eastern bank of the Jordan river as the Torah ends, never making it to the other side. They can see and envision the future, but they have not achieved it yet.
The fact that the Torah ends in this place—and liturgically as well for with our yearly Torah reading cycle as we end the reading of Deuteronomy we then turn around and pick up the reading at the beginning of Genesis—teaches us that powerful lesson, that we are always in the tragic gap. We are always in the place of holding tension between the world in which we live and the world that can be. We are always in the tension between who we are at any given moment and who we could be moving forward.
And again, the blessing given to Joshua at the cusp of the ending of the text, as both he and the Israelites recognize the tragic gap that lay before them, as they know they will need to move forward not sure what awaits them, is to have courage. To have courage.
It is courage that will allow the Israelites to cross the river and realize their futures. It is courage that will allow Joshua to act in the face of the unknown. It is courage that will bring the Israelites that much closer to a better future.
For what courage ultimately means is that in the face of fear, or an uncertain future, or even a state of hopelessness, we act anyway. We move forward anyway. We take a chance, even when you do not know what the outcome will be. We act on our values, we express our authentic selves, we see a wrong and wish to right it. We act.
We are all facing an unknown and challenging future. We can say things will get better, but we don’t really know. Sometimes we are up against such massive forces like the ones I mentioned before: governments, militaries, the environment, markets, that it does not feel that we can move them, or make an impact, or do anything about them. That we are at the whim of others. At the same time we have our personal challenges, of health, finances, or relationships that we don’t know how they will be resolved.
But if you sense that something is wrong, if you feel that your values are being tested, if you can articulate that tension that you are living in, you can see a challenge even though you are uncertain how it will turn out, you can act anyway. That is courage.
A recent blog post by Miguel Clark Mallet on the On Being blog resonated with me. He wrote, in a post titled, “We’ve Hoped Ourselves Into this Current Crisis”:
You see, whether I get what I want turns out to not actually be my business. This insight came as quite a surprise, living as we do in a culture of control (not to say domination), a culture that deifies power over people, nature, possessions, aging, time, even death. But I don’t control whether I get what I want because I don’t control the universe; I live within it.
So I don’t need hope (or control) to act. I don’t need hope to figure out what I should do and how I should live. I have values. I have beliefs. I can examine whether they’re grounded in reality. And I can use those values to ask myself with each choice, “Am I being — right now — the person I believe I should be? Am I acting in line with truth, with reality, with the way I think life should be lived?”
If I believe in justice, do I express that belief? Do I work against injustice? Do I choose to undermine oppression or further it? Not because I know I’ll “win” or “succeed,” but because I’ve committed myself to living the way I think I should live.
At my best, I answer what each moment and my values call me to do. Sometimes it’s to rest, to reflect. Sometimes it’s to play. Sometimes it’s to connect with friends and loved ones. Sometimes it’s to struggle, critique, speak out. Sometimes to listen. Sometimes to celebrate. Sometimes to grieve. Each moment makes its demand, and I’m seeking the kind of life where I hear and answer that need as often as I can.
Contrary to our control-obsessed culture, the alternative to hope isn’t passivity or despair. It’s living. It’s being humble and real.
And, I would add, it’s courage. For living is courage. For we are all in our own tragic gap, a place of tension that has meaning for us, a place of a present of our own harsh reality and the place of a future fulfilled.
It is even an act courage to show up here today, on Yom Kippur, to ask the questions that you have of yourself. What is your gap? What is the tension you hold? Another lesson Parker Palmer teaches, as part of his larger teaching of the different habits of the heart that we can cultivate, is that we must develop “an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.”
Think about the questions you bring with you today. What are the tensions that you are holding? What is it that you are bringing into this holy space at this holy time? What is the tension between who you are and who you could be? As I learned this past summer from my teachers at the retreat, courage can be simply entering in spaces that allow our authentic selves to show up, and making the room for others to show up as well.
And that is the work of Yom Kippur: repentance, forgiveness, laying yourself bare and moving forward. Forgiving others, and forgiving yourself. Showing up. Yom Kippur is a day of courage, it’s being honest with who we are and rejecting the false narratives we tell about ourselves and the narratives that others tell of us. It’s opening up to our next chapter, whatever that is.
To take the step forward. To live in the face of adversity. To choose life. All of that takes courage.
And courage is not easy. It means facing fears. It means facing life when it challenges us. It means stepping into that tragic gap of the in between. A midrash teaches of a person walking along the road who comes across a pack of dogs and was afraid of them. So what did he do? He sat down in their midst. Courage.
And courage does not require hope. In fact, it is the acting even without hope that can define true courage. We make this declaration today, on this most sacred day of the year, when we chant the Unetaneh Tokef, that prayer that asks who shall live and who shall die, who is inscribed and who is left out. It is a statement of reality, of acceptance, of the fact that despite our best hopes, life may have something else planned for us.
But then we say tefillah, teshuvah, tzedakah can avert the decree—that in the face of an unknown fate, of problems in the world, of seemingly everything against us—we still choose to live, by, among other things, creating a sense of the sacred, of forming and strengthening relationships, acting for social justice and the common good, being who we know we must be. This is what it means to live a life of courage.
And the irony of it all is that this then gives us hope.
Hope does not breed courage. Courage breeds hope.
The minister Victoria Stafford defines it well when she writes,
Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.
The image of the gates echo on this day, when we speak of the gates of heaven being open to receive our petition. Here, then, the gates of hope are only available to us if we act with courage. The personal challenges we face, the litany of societal ills plaguing us right now, we can hope to overcome them, if we first act with courage in the face of them.
And we return to the words Moses tells Joshua before he is to die and Joshua is to take over, before he is to enter the unknown gap, “be strong and have courage.” For these words are echoed in Psalm 27, the psalm that is added to our liturgy over these High Holidays. In the last line we read, “Hope in God, be strong and of good courage, hope in God.” How do we have hope? By acting courageously.
The point here, in this psalm, and at the end of the Torah, is that we do not wait for God to show us what God can do, rather, we show God what we can do.
A few years ago, I gave a sermon about a garden, about the things that I have learned about life and repentance from having a garden. I ended that sermon talking about carrots, and how carrots are the vegetable of hope. They are the vegetable of hope because unlike cucumbers, or beans, or tomatoes, we do not see the growth of the vegetable. As a root vegetable it grows underground, and so the time to harvest could be determined by time, by the greenery that is found above ground, by our best guess. And because of this, I said carrots are the vegetable of hope because we do not know whether or not we have been successful until after pulling them.
So I wish to amend this slightly if I may. Yes, carrots are still the vegetable of hope. We hope that they are grown to maturity by the time they are to be harvested. But picking the carrots, even without knowing the result, is an act of courage. And perhaps even planting them in the first place is an act of courage.
Generating, cultivating, and acting with courage.
That is the first step towards transformation. That is the first step towards revolution. That is the first step towards hope. That is the first step to changing ourselves and changing our world. This is the step we take tonight. The courageous step into the tragic gap.
So on this day of days, as we all face our own gaps and our gap as a society, I offer you the same blessing that Moses gave to Joshua: May we all be strong and have courage.