You’re Never Off the Court

May 31, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove


In 1919, when the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats penned what is perhaps his most famous poem, “The Second Coming,” he saw a world on the edge of collapse. With the carnage of the World War , the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, and the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence, Yeats believed himself to be witnessing the upending of the natural order of things. In his words: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” For Yeats, the outbreak of physical violence was symptomatic of the stripping away of the very veneer of civilization and the reemergence of ancient passions and fears thought long buried – a breakdown of long-assumed codes of conduct, ethics, and belief. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” Yeats famously wrote. As bad as the anarchy, bloodshed, and breakdown of morality may have been, Yeats was further troubled by the inaction of those who could do something about it all, but failed to do so. There is an ironic critique in the title of the poem “The Second Coming,” in that Yeats saw those on the sidelines passively awaiting a messianic redemption while the forces of evil took the lead. Again, in his words: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” A world turned upside down, the unthinkable made commonplace, and those positioned to remedy society’s ills reduced to doing nothing.

It is exactly 100 years since Yeats’s poem, and once again we look out at a world in disarray, teetering on edge. The rise of noxious populist sentiment in our country and abroad, the erosion of our democratic institutions, a polarized public discourse made more toxic by the dark underbelly of social media. Our own elected leaders in a do-nothing gridlock, and this past week, the Israeli leadership unable to perform even the basic task of forming a government. A breakdown of the international order and institutions and the exacerbation of economic and military tensions between nations. Refugee crises, environmental crises, a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. For so many, the center is not holding. I have been particularly struck of late by the reemergence of troubles that I believed to have been long since settled. My thoughts turn to the alarming rise of anti-Semitism in America and abroad, on the left and the right, the recrudescence of an ancient hatred no longer behind whatever firewall may have once kept it at bay. I am distraught at the current attacks on reproductive rights in our country; far from a nuanced debate on the conditions in which abortion may or may not be defensible, we are living through an all-out assault on a woman’s right to choose. Or, if you like, consider the environment. It is not just that hard-won environmental protections have been halted or rolled back, but the very science behind them, the epistemological underpinnings that shape our policy discussions about this earth upon which we live and depend are now up for grabs. I grew up on the promise of a two-state solution, not out of any love for the Palestinians, but because I was taught that such a stance was in the best interest of Israel’s long-term safety and security. That is an idea that, best as I can tell, is now dead on the vine. Were it the case that our problems – both in substance and number – were of such magnitude as to appear insurmountable, that would be disquieting enough. But we seem to be going backwards; conversations believed to be long settled, in Yeats's words, put to “stony sleep,” have now been stirred; there is a chipping away, both fast and slow, of ideals long held dear.

There are those who believe that the challenges of our time are without precedent. And there are those who believe that there is nothing new about our era, that it was the last seventy years that were the anomaly, and that our present moment is a reversion to the norm. There are those who have a cheerful view of history, believing that progress is just around the corner, and there are prophets of doom who believe that it is only a matter of when, not if, the bottom will fall out.

For Jews, more important than our view of history, is our view of humanity’s responsibility towards shaping history. This morning’s Torah reading is a difficult one, filled as it is with promises of reward and punishment. Are we really to believe that God’s justice is dispensed measure for measure: good for good, bad for bad? More likely, I believe, the Torah is expressing an aspect of our existence that we know to be true, but more often than not fail to recognize, namely, that there are no promises in this world. If you walk in the right path, the Torah states, championing the values that God commands, then safety, security, prosperity, and peace may indeed be yours. But if you, as human beings are wont to do, take your eye off the ball, if you cease to defend the values you are called on to uphold, if you take your foot off the gas believing yourself able to cruise on the coattails of those who came before, then that safety, security, prosperity, and peace can all be taken away in an instant. Commenting on the tokhehah, the admonitions contained in this week’s parashah, the eleventh-century commentator Rashi explains that the rupture of the covenant does not happen in one fell swoop. Rather, it is a seven-step process beginning with a failure to learn from the past and continuing with a failure to act in the present, a failure to engage others, and so on – one failure begetting the next, begetting the next – a seven-step downward spiral that eventually leads to the unraveling of all the blessings that we worked so hard to bring about. It is not so much that good is rewarded with good, and bad with bad, or that good is followed by bad, or the other way around. The message seems to be that a value-driven life demands constant vigilance. The good that you enjoy can be gone in an instant, the values you hold dear taken away. Without constant attention, the center will not hold.

I am not sure I would have it any other way, but in retrospect, growing up when I did, where I did, and how I did, my coming of age endowed me a delightful naivete. I innocently believed that if everyone just kept on keeping on, everyone would come to realize that democracy was inevitable, that the second amendment was not intended to include semi-automatic firearms, that our schools and houses of worship would be safe havens for intellectual and spiritual uplift, that anti-Semitism would be revealed to be ridiculous, that any law that diminished the humanity of another due to race, gender, sexuality, or otherwise would eventually be wiped from the books, and that pretty much everyone would come to understand that we should all be recycling and driving fuel-efficient cars. Stony the road may be, but “no lie can live forever,” and while the arc of the moral universe may be long, it does bend toward justice. Keep your head down, I thought, follow your moral compass, and one day, as the prophet Micah taught: “Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.” Naïve as it was, this is what I believed and, more naively, what I believed others to believe as well.

Now, I believe that I was wrong. More importantly, I believe that believing is not enough. It is not just that I cannot assume that my values are shared by others. I need to assume that the values that I hold dear, the values that I would like to see instantiated in this world, are under attack and must be actively championed and defended. History is replete with examples of hard-won gains being rolled back; eras of reform meeting the backlash of retrenchment. Immigration restrictions were set in motion following years of turn-of-the-century arrivals on American shores. Perhaps most famously, all the gains of post-Civil War Reconstruction unraveled with the rise of Jim Crow segregation, sharecropping, voting restrictions, and other discrimination at the hands of a recalcitrant South and an indifferent North. In these cases and so many others, the message is one and the same as that of the parashah: You’re never off the court! Nothing sorts itself out all by itself, nothing is self-evident, and the progress of human history is certainly not assured. We say, “Never again,” and then “again” comes in Rwanda, Srebrenica, Darfur, and Cambodia. Our values stand at odds with others, our ideals are challenged at every turn, the gains of our forebears are ever at risk. History alone is not a moral force, nor does it have an agency of its own. Evil persists from age to age and the levee protecting humanity can break at any minute. What Deborah Lipstadt once said about anti-Semitism – that it is like the herpes virus, always there just waiting to erupt – applies to so many evils. There is no fight that is ever settled – the evils are always there crouching at our door.

I have no idea what keeps you up at night. For some of you it may be anti-Semitism; for others it may be Israel; for others, reproductive rights; for others, the skyrocketing cost of Jewish education, and still others, the environment. I imagine there are as many passions in this room as there are people in this room. But the message is one and the same and it is one of urgency and agency. Whatever value you hold sacred, assume there is someone else who believes the exact opposite, and that that person is actively working to see their ideal become a reality. Assume that “the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Do not assume, now or ever, that the values that you hold sacred, that you perhaps have even come to enjoy, may be taken for granted. Without accompanying action, “Never again,” is an empty slogan. Merely to mouth the words “It can’t happen here,” is a policy of negligence. Irons don’t stay hot forever, and even when they cool, we must still be willing to strike. The arc of history does not bend towards justice on its own. We ourselves have to bend that arc – with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our might. It is simply not enough, in this day and age, to have a moral compass. Important as values are – and they are – even more important is what you say, and even more important is what you do.

One week from now we will celebrate Shavuot. The countdown – or literally, the count up – is on, as it has been since Passover as we count the days until the upcoming festival celebrating the covenant between God and Israel. There are many explanations as to why we count these forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot, but perhaps the most simple one is that in doing so, we link the two festivals, thus reminding ourselves that the hard-won freedoms of Passover are significant only insofar as we leverage those freedoms towards serving a cause greater than ourselves. The counting is a focusing mechanism; we know how easy it is to miss a day, to lose track, to slouch back. and let that downward spiral begin. But we dare not let that happen. In our era the unthinkable has become thinkable again. Our future will be determined by whether we have the requisite focus, stamina, and fight to dedicate ourselves and defend those very values under assault. May we show such dedication, may we inspire others to do the same, and may we look back at this time secure in the knowledge that we have left everything out on the court, having done everything in our power to mend this world of ours in such desperate need of repair.