Yom Kippur Afternoon Sermon by Rabbi David Cooper: On “Sumud,” Uncertainty, Hope, Losing and Winning
In the summer of 1967, as a teenager, I was on tour in Israel just after the Six Day War. I arrived as a committed supporter of Israel in every way. A day or two after arriving there, I was at the Western or Wailing Wall. I knew that Jews were unable to go there since 1948 – that was before I’d been born. So I was excited to see it. Now I knew exactly what the wall would look like. I grew up going to synagogues where there were photos or paintings of the kotel. In those pictures, the wall faced a narrow street with houses on the other side.
But when we got there it looked completely different. There was no narrow street and there were no residences across from it. The wall faced a cleared open area. I turned to the tour guide. “Did the Jordanians tear down the houses that were here in the years since 1948?” “No,” he replied, “we just did it.” Then I asked the question that seemed obvious, “What happened to the people who lived here?” With a look of some incredulity and disdain he replied, “What does that matter?” Well, it did matter in several ways, not the least of which was the life of a woman, Hajii Rasmia Tabaki, who died in the ruins of her house.
So my first exposure to the occupation was being at the site of its first house demolitions. All I knew at that time was that I could not fully rejoice in the face of what I felt was an injustice. That was my first cognitive dissonance that summer. But I thought that dissonance would fade as Israel would — no doubt — conclude a peace agreement and hopefully soon.
But I have aged from 16 to 66 and in these years my dissonance has turned to disillusionment, which turned to sorrow, to anger, then to opposition and eventually to joining the effort to start a synagogue where progressive social activism was valued and where principled opposition to Israeli policies would not be anathema.
Spiritually, I needed to be back in Israel/Palestine on this 50th anniversary. So in May, I was in the West Bank to work with and learn from Palestinians committed to nonviolence who were struggling against the occupation. I was there with the Center for Jewish NonViolence or CJNV along with some 120 other diaspora Jews.
I was with a group working with the Bedouin residents of the village Umm Al-Khair which had been operating in the shadow of an Israeli plan that could demolish the village at any time. That is how they lived for years improving their village, raising their children, trying to survive, knowing that the village could be destroyed.
At Um Al-Khair, I struck up a friendship with Eid Hthaleen, one of the village leaders more than 20 years my junior. Eid, with his skills in engineering, could have left the village and gone elsewhere to make a life and a living away from the occupation. But he elected to stay and to use his skills to improve the village. He also used his artistic skills to create sculptures of resistance using the debris left of buildings bulldozed by the Israeli authorities. Last year, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was so impressed with Eid’s work that he held a joint exhibition with Eid in Berlin. Eid spoke to me about the influence of Thich Nhat Hanh on his outlook and I saw how it helped him turn from anger to Sumud.
Now years ago I learned this Arabic word, sumud, usually was translated as “steadfastness.” And when people have asked me what I learned in Palestine this last spring, I realize that
what I learned was what sumud really means, and this is connected my relationship to the concepts of hope, success, defeat and uncertainty.
In our society, we have very shallow ideas about success and failure. We define these in very
time-limited ways. If we do not achieve success finally and fully within a short time, we regard our efforts as a failure or a defeat. A limited definition of victory and defeat creates both a misplaced optimism and a misplaced pessimism.
Optimism and pessimism are two sides of the same coin. The optimist is confident that eventually it will all come out right. The pessimist, that no matter what, everything is sure to fail. Extremes of pessimism and optimism lead to complacency. There is no reason to act if you ‘know’ the inevitable outcome. Both views see certainty where no certainty exists.
The certainty of optimists and pessimists relieves them of any responsibility for taking action. What enables action is hope. Hope lives in uncertainty. And where hope and uncertainty cohabit, there the responsibility to act on that hope arises. Our tradition imposes the mitzvah to never stand idly by.
Our past traumas and our grief can potentially snare us into a place of pessimism. But grief and hope are not mutually exclusive – and may be mutually necessary. We will always carry our past pains with us, not only those we suffered personally but also those of past generations. The point is not to forget or deny the traumas that are still within us, but to name them, face them, so that it may be possible to move forward.
Those who hope must operate without any guarantees. This is what I believe is meant by fearing no evil as we walk in the shadow of death. Yes evil is a possibility and a reality, but I will not allow its shadow to stop me from walking in this valley.
At the core of hope is a leap of faith – not that it will all come out right, but a faith that holds that what we do matters. How it will come to matter, who it will come to inspire, what positive effect it will have – is not ours to know. Like Moses we are likely to die before we see any ultimate outcome. If we use a shallow definition of success, then every one of the Hebrew prophets died a failure.* So did Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Sacco and Vanzetti.
I only hope I could die with a tenth of their claim to failure.
Last year in my [Kol Nidre] sermon I read Assata Shakur’s statement that it is our “duty to win.” When I read that statement, I don’t hear it as an admonition that I should realize victory in my immediate actions but rather that it is my responsibility to take the leap of audacious faith that my actions do matter and that I must act with the intention that we will win.
We do have to accept that every two steps forward will be followed by a step or two backward. The Civil War ended slavery, but Jim Crow and Reconstruction followed. The civil rights movement overthrew Jim Crow followed by a New Jim Crow of mass incarceration. And the victory of electing a black president (and it was a victory) did not end the racism that elected the current inhabitant of the White House.
And yet each backward step also opens the door to the next forward step and we have had victories that have sometimes even come sooner than we expected. Same-sex marriage is only the most recent example.
And so this brings us back to steadfastness. For the Palestinians whom we encountered, the future does not look good. They know that the Israeli authorities would like nothing better than that the Palestinians would abandon their homes and their country willingly as the occupation becomes more and more intrusive and destructive. And so just the act of remaining is subversive. I heard often two phrases that I think are even better definitions of sumud: “Persistence is resistance” and “Existence is resistance.”
We have a very long road ahead of us. And none of us have to travel that road alone. None of us are able to travel it alone. That’s why we build communities of resistance of which Kehilla is but one example. And we need to remember that we also have a very long road behind us going back at least as far as the prophets’ demand for justice, or perhaps even the earlier demand to “Let my people go.”
It our holy responsibility – our mitzvah – to keep steadfast in our efforts. In these last hours of Yom Kippur perhaps consider how sumud you can be – how to slog through resisting yet another year, persisting another year, and staying intent on building the society that is a realization of our hopes: a beloved community. And when we persist and act on our hopes, we are already winning.
*Jonah is an exception. He actually succeeded in his mission although he bemoaned his success.