Rabbi Hillel Skolnik

Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5775

Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation

I’ve never really been one to say that any specific person is my hero.  To be sure there are people I look up to, role models in my personal and professional lives whose example I hope to follow and I have been blessed with many incredible such people in my life who have shaped the person, father and rabbi I am today.  But I wouldn’t say that any of these people is my hero.  While that’s still true, one particular event of this past week has forced me reevaluate this stance on heroes in our lives.  With apologies to all the Boston Red Sox fans with us this morning, including Cantor Ramsay and Mr. Ben Bolusky who spoke so eloquently last night, that event was the retirement from the game of baseball of Derek Jeter.

For those of you who may not know, for the past twenty years Derek Jeter has played shortstop for the New York Yankees.  To put it simply and hopefully not in what might me incomprehensible sports terminology, he was incredibly good at an incredibly difficult position in baseball for an incredibly long time in a city that is known to be incredibly tough on its sports stars as it demands nothing less than championships and greatness.  In that environment Derek Jeter was always great and was nothing less than a hero to children around the country and the world who grew up wanting to be the shortstop for the New York Yankees.  He is their hero because back when he was growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan that was his dream too and he made it into a reality.  And make no qualms about it, it was my dream as well – in fact, and this is a true story, last year when I was called to serve jury duty, one of the attorneys asked me if I had always wanted to be a rabbi to which I answered “once I realized I wasn’t going to play shortstop for the New York Yankees, yes.”  He lived the dream and that he did so gracefully and seemingly without blemish for his entire career earned him the respect of the entire sports world, including those whom were quite often defeated by his team.  For a sports star, that’s about as close to a hero as it comes.

As his career came to an end this past Sunday I started wondering to myself why we need heroes in the first place?  What is it about the human condition that makes us predisposed to having people that we look up to in a way that we put them on a pedestal as if they were chiseled out of stone like Michaelangelo’s  David?  Why do we need someone like that in our lives? Why do we need for there to be someone who is perfect and why can’t we be satisfied with the good, moral and just people that we all are?

While I’m certainly not a psychologist, if I had to guess I would say that it has to do with the fact that many of the famous people we look to as heroes are leading the lives that we wish we could have.  Sports stars and singers lead lives that we see as glamorous, live in big houses and seem to have enough money to buy whatever they want and do whatever their heart desires.  While deep down we know it not to be true, from the outside it looks like they lead lives without worries, lives we wish we could have.  As a rabbi though, I’d like to suggest to you a spiritual answer as well.   During these Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah, these Ten Days of Repentance that began with the first day of Rosh HaShannah and conclude today with Yom Kippur, we have been engaged in our personal and communal cheshbon hanefesh, our yearly chance to take stock of our lives and the actions of our souls as we think seriously about the things that we have done wrong in the past year.  We acknowledge, out loud for everyone to hear, transgressions that we have committed before God and wrongs we have done to one another.  And while this can be and is spiritually cleansing, it is not always an exercise that leaves us with the highest self esteem.  Yes, we are all good people who are expected to make mistakes but when we spend so much energy at this time of year thinking about our mistakes it is no wonder that we would want to have heroes in our lives who in our eyes never make mistakes.  As we strive for perfection as we are expected to do, it makes sense that we would look up to those who in our humble eyes are perfect.  And frankly it’s not a bad idea.  Having that model in our mind of the person we hope to emulate is a helpful tool in our t’shuvah, our acts of repentance.

Except that there’s no such thing as a perfect person, no human being that never makes mistakes.   Even Derek Jeter struck out from time to time with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth.  Yet despite the fact that we know this to be true, we continue to admire these heroes only to be constantly let down, disappointed and strangely surprised when these heroes of ours often turn out to be even more broken than we are.  When a star of the music industry is arrested because they in possession of illegal drugs, or a sports star is pulled over for driving under the influence or as seems to be the new disgusting and despicable trend committing acts of domestic violence, or when our elected officials are found to be corrupt or engaged in acts of infidelity we never cease to be shocked that this could possibly be true.  They seemed like such good people who had captured our hopes and our dreams of finally finding a real hero who wouldn’t let us down like everyone else had before, until, as always seems to happen, they do.

While the problem is of course them – as plenty of people out there in the world can lead imperfect lives and make mistakes without being arrested for drug possession, endangering people’s lives while driving under the influence, committing acts of domestic violence or any one of the other crimes that those who are supposed to be our heroes are so often found to be doing – the problem is also us.  We are just not good at choosing our heroes.  As victims once again of our own human nature we are attracted to the flashiest and the brightest stars only to be let down when they burn out just like every star before them.  We need to be choosier and we need to more careful in picking the people that we and that our children look up to.

In that light I’d like to offer a few suggestions for all of us of real heroes in our own world that we can use in this new year as models for behavior and people who are not perfect, but whose actions truly represent the kind of people we all strive to be.  Here’s one idea for those of us continually craving a hero from the sports world – this past June, a young man named Devon Still who plays for the Cincinnati Bengals (that’s football) received the terrible and immediately life changing news that his daughter, Leah, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.  She was given a 50% chance of survival and immediately went into intensive treatments to combat her awful disease.  Still told the team of the diagnosis and was up front with them that his first priority was to be a father and he couldn’t say for sure how much time or effort he was going to be able to devote to the team.  He said this knowing full well that over the summer is when football teams make their decisions of who is kept on the team and who gets cut.  To their great credit, the leadership of the Bengals told Still that he should go and be with his daughter and when he could be with the team he’d always be welcome.

As the summer progressed, he spent a great deal of time with his daughter and so when the time came, it was not a huge surprise to learn that the Bengals could not keep him on their active roster of players.   It was not a punishment by any means, but a recognition that the team had a responsibility to the other players and the fans to put together they best roster possible.  But instead of just letting him go as they could easily have done, the Bengals kept Still in the organization so that he could keep his health insurance which would cover his daughter’s extraordinarily high medical expenses.  And on top of that, the Bengals are donating all of the proceeds from the sale of Still’s jersey to fight pediatric cancer.  As of earlier this week sales of the jersey, which goes for about $100, are approaching 10,000 sold and last I heard are on backorder.  That’s $1 million dollars that the team is donating to the Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center and they have since asked Still to come back to playing in games no matter how much time he needs to spend with his daughter.   At this time of year, when we’re looking for heroes we can look up to, how about a man who said openly to his employer that he is a father first and wants to spend every possible second with his sick child knowing that her seconds might very well be numbered, and how about an employer encouraging him to go and be a father while keeping him and his daughter covered and then raising money on top of that.  That’s what I call a sports hero.

It was back in the summer of 2000 while on USY Israel Pilgrimage/Poland Seminar that I first had the chance to hear a man named Danny Siegel speak.  Danny is a former International President of USY and for twenty-seven years chaired something called the Ziv Tzedakah Fund which gave grants to projects founded by people like you and me who saw a need in our society and decided to step up and fix it.  In its twenty-seven years the Ziv Tzedakah Fund allocated more than 13.5 million dollars to support these projects.  And every summer he speaks to USYers in Israel and tells them about these projects and their founders who he calls Mitzvah Heroes.  These are people like a woman named Phyllis Heimowitz who along with her daughter Tamar founded a group called Amuta to support the girlfriends and fiancés of fallen Israeli soldiers who were not receiving official support from the state because they were not yet married to their fallen loved one, like Noach Braun who founded the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind which trains service animals, and a man named John Beltzer who founded an organization called Songs of Love here in the US  which “is dedicated to providing children who face serious illness with a personalized, professionally-recorded song to help them deal with the pain and sadness that illness has brought to their young lives.”[1]  These Mitzvah heroes and the thousands of others out there in the world are the inspiration that our own Bar and Bat Mitzvah students look to in picking their own mitzvah projects and when we engage in the holy work of tikkun olam, of fixing our broken world, we can all be mitzvah heroes as well.

But if we’re still looking for a hero, for someone to look up to at this or any time of year, we need look no farther than those who have in the past and continue to serve in the Armed Forces of  the United States and in the Israel Defense Forces.  These incredible and brave men and women who have stood up to defend our country and the State of Israel, following in the footsteps of so many who came before them,  they are the true heroes of our worlds, the ones who willingly risk their lives and travel to the far corners of the earth to fight not only for our way of life, but for our safety.  Their commitment and sacrifice allows us to lead the blessed lives that we do, making sure that we here in America and our brothers and sisters in Israel can continue to wake up in the morning, go to work or to school and come home in a safe and secure environment.   And we will never forget those most amazing heroes who laid down their lives to preserve these freedoms and ways of life while fighting for this country and for Israel.  Sixty-five Israeli soldiers lost their lives this summer defending our homeland against those who sought not only to disrupt the way of life but to force the citizens of Israel to live in constant terror.  It is due to their heroism and that of all those who fought along with them that their mission was fulfilled.  And we remember this day as well the eighty-one American soldiers who laid down their lives this past year in the mountains of Afghanistan and fields and desserts of Iraq.  They are our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, our classmates and friends, and most of all, our heroes.

Our recitation of Yizkor this morning forces us to recognize the sad truth that so many of our heroes are no longer here with us which leaves our lives feeling empty and utterly lacking their presence.  As happens each year we have lost people in our families and in our world who brought us happiness and inspiration and this year was no different as our world was robbed of the likes of Robin Williams, Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela to name just a few.  This morning as we remember them we think as well of our own fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, spouses and loved ones who continue to be our heroes even as they have gone to their eternal homes.  They were the ones who made life worth living, who taught us how to be the people we are by being part of our lives.  They taught us to read, to drive, to laugh and to sing.  They were there for us when we were down and made our happy moments all the more sweet by being there to share them with us.

It seems to me then that in this world where we all go on in search of heroes that we can and must honor the memories of our loved ones by taking it upon ourselves to be the heroes in our world.  By being present in each others lives, by volunteering, by being good, generous, caring and loving people to those around us we can be the role models that our loved ones raised us to be.  To paraphrase my favorite fictional president, “this is a time for heroes and we reach for the stars” and we know full well that these stars are not up in the heavens, they are all around us.  The stars are us.  We just have to choose to shine.

In typical Derek Jeter fashion, he finished off his final game at Yankee Stadium with a flair for the dramatic, getting a base hit in the bottom of the ninth inning that allowed the winning run to score.  And as he went and stood at shortstop for the final time, I – and I suspect many other people who witnessed that moment – cried like a little baby because this man who so many idolized would no longer do what had brought so many of us joy.   But then it was clear once again why he really is and will continue to be my hero during his post-game interviews.  He kept saying that he was surprised that fans were thanking him when he should be the one thanking the fans.  That all he ever did was come to work and do his job to the best of his ability.  That he has always strived to be respectful to his parents and to everyone around him and that he modeled the behavior he expected from others.   Let us in this new year be wiser in deciding who is worthy of our respect and admiration but let us also follow the tremendous examples being set for us by the true heroes of our world.  And let us always remember the heroes of the past who made our lives rich with happiness and love.  Their memories are with us now and their heroism always will be.

© 2018 Rabbi Hillel Skolnik  

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