At our Erev Rosh Hashanah service, Rabbi Steven shared a powerful, personal drash about the little legacies we each leave behind. You can listen to this sermon on the Contact Chai podcast or watch it on the Mishkan YouTube channel.
The rabbis tell a story that on the sixth day of creation, as the newly-formed sun set and a world in its infancy teetered on the cusp of that first Shabbat (an evening not unlike this Rosh Ha’Shanah), God made ten miraculous objects — and among them: Moses’ staff, Miriam’s well, and the instrument used to create Aaron’s priestly garments. These were the tools of our ancestors’ liberation from slavery and journey toward the promised land. Moses’ staff called down the plagues that would force Pharaoh to set us free, split the sea so that we could cross safely to the other side, and help us overcome various obstacles as we wandered toward our destination. We are told that Miriam’s well miraculously appeared wherever the Israelites encamped in the wilderness, an essential and life-giving source of water that sustained us for those forty years. And Aaron’s priestly garments designated him as the intermediary (and sometimes remediator) for the unique relationship between our ancestors and God, bringing us together under a common cause and shared identity when the stress of the journey threatened to pull us apart.
The tragic fact about Moses, Miriam, and Aaron is that none of them actually lived to see the completion of our ancestor’s journey toward the promised land. Moses — the youngest of the three siblings — is only allowed a glimpse of their final destination before he dies, and he dies not knowing if a single Israelite will ever set foot on the other side of the Jordan River (much less create the home that they had been promised, that they had been dreaming of). The miraculous objects the three siblings had been given were tools for making the journey, not a guarantee that they would reach its end.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about Moses, Miriam, and Aaron — not just the figures of legend but the people who, like them, fought so hard for a future that they never lived to see. People not unlike us. We live in a world on fire, in ways both literal and metaphorical — and the work required to fix it seems impossible. What can I do, what can any of us do, when the changes that need to be made — whether it’s global warming, or systemic racism, or the dismantling of democracy — will take the coordinated and consistent effort of entire generations to accomplish? On Rosh Ha’Shanah we declare hayom harat olam, today the world has come into being — but more than celebrating the birth of the world, sometimes it feels like we are preparing for its death.
We know that despair is not a strategy. I’ve often quoted these words by the activist and community organizer Ruth Messinger (and if you’ve listened to any of my sermons, you might be tired of hearing them). Yet if we want to bring about our tradition’s vision of a better future, we cannot — in her words — retreat to the convenience and the luxury of being overwhelmed. And it is convenient, if unfortunately understandable, to throw up our hands and do nothing at the prospect of a seemingly endless journey. I think about how many times our ancestors wanted to give up on their way to the promised land, when they looked back toward Egypt (the place of their enslavement) and wondered why they ever left. We know that they eventually make it — but they didn’t, and setting out into the wilderness with no sense of how far they must go or how long it might take, it would be hard not to despair. How much more so for us. We know that even if we take the necessary steps to ensure that a better world might one day come into being, none of us will live to see that future. None of us. Like the generation that was liberated from slavery alongside Moses, Miriam, and Aaron, we won’t make it to the promised land. Our children might. But short of a miracle, we will age and die in a world on fire.
But if we do nothing, we only guarantee that our children and our children’s children will inherit the world as it is now — perhaps worse.
Last month when the news of wildfires spreading across Hawaii reached us on the mainland, the fact of a world on fire suddenly became very real for me. These weren’t photos of strange people in strange places, but friends from school, old neighbors, folks I grew up calling auntie and uncle evacuating their homes. The fires took an unimaginable toll on our community: at least 115 dead, hundreds still missing. And so many places from my childhood, damaged or destroyed — the backroads of Kohala where my friends and I would go joyriding late at night, the banyan tree in Lahaina where my mom and I would share a shave ice, the kiawe forests near my uncle’s house in Kihei.
My Uncle Bill doesn’t live there anymore. He died shortly after I left for college. But that house was more than just a home. Before I came out to friends and family, Uncle Bill was the first person I confided in, and the little shack by the beach that he shared with my Uncle Mike was one of the few places where I felt like I wasn’t alone.
Uncle Bill was a survivor. When I met him, one of his legs had been amputated below the knee — the result of an opportunistic cancer that had spread when his immune system was compromised by HIV. He was one of the first reported cases of the virus that came out of Key West, back when it was still called GRIDS or Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Somehow he made it through an epidemic that nearly claimed an entire generation of gay and bisexual men, but not without his scars.
He wasn’t really my uncle, at least not in the technical sense of the word. Bill was my mom’s best friend. They met when I was 9 or 10 years old, during a particularly difficult chapter of our lives. He was family in the most important ways. A caring companion. A trusted source of advice. A person who insisted that we find the beauty in every moment, with the kind of gratitude that comes from the hard-earned and deeply personal understanding that each day we are alive is an unexpected blessing, not a guarantee. At the beach, people would stare at him as he popped off his prosthetic leg and leaned on one of us to hobble into the water. But where some might feel self-conscious or ashamed, Uncle Bill only found joy in living: the sun, the sea, the salt in the air —a wordless prayer, a still small voice reminding us of the simple and profound fact that he was here and us with him.
This year marks forty years since virologists at the Institut Pasteur isolated HIV, proposing that this virus might be the cause of a new, deadly condition devastating gay men and other minority communities. This discovery was the genesis of further research that allowed the medical community to better understand the virus, enabling them to test for HIV, monitor its progression, and develop treatments. In 1987 (the year that I was born), the first medication to combat the virus was made widely available — and by the mid-90s, the development of new antiretroviral drugs led to the advent of highly effective combination therapy. Eventually multiple doses of multiple medications became a single pill. Then in 2010 it was found that taking antiretrovirals each day not only helped those who were HIV-positive, but could prevent HIV-negative people from acquiring the virus as well.
This is an incredible story: a forty-year journey leading to one small pill that is safe, prescribed by your primary care physician, and covered by insurance.
The medicine cabinet at Uncle Bill’s house was always filled with pill bottles. HIV has an unfortunate way of adapting to treatment, especially when medications were prescribed one at a time in the early years of the epidemic; sometimes he had no choice but to try experimental medication that wasn’t covered by his health insurance or take a combination of pills with debilitating side effects.
We now have the tools to end this virus within our lifetimes. Yet the backdrop for this miracle of human ingenuity is a more painful, more personal history. When combination therapy first became available in 1995, the number of people who had contracted AIDS in this country had surpassed half a million. The mortality rate was 62%. But numbers — as awful as they may be — don’t account for the real human cost of this epidemic. Every day otherwise healthy people were dying, suddenly succumbing to an illness with unclear causes and no known cure. Finding a way forward must have felt impossible. Yet even as clinics and social service agencies closed their doors to patients, as politicians joked about or deliberately ignored the virus, as the public gave in to mass hysteria — people picked up the tools that they had been given to protect, comfort, and care for each other. These are the Moseses of this story, individuals who will be remembered for helping us navigate a wilderness of misinformation, bigotry, and neglect as their friends and loved ones died around them so that we could emerge on the other side alive and hopeful.
And then there are the ones we don’t learn about, the unnamed Miriams and Aarons who were no less important, no less resilient, no less resourceful. Too many of them knew they would never live to see this moment, yet we have only reached this moment because every single one of them refused to let despair dictate their choices.
Uncle Bill was one of these people. He didn’t do anything remarkable, at least by the standards of history. But when I was a young boy who could not imagine a future for myself, he showed me that I could come out, I could grow up, I could learn to take pride in who I was — and that I would be okay. Uncle Bill didn’t live long enough to know if the world he hoped for would come into being. He didn’t get to know how things turned out for my mom, or see where I ended up. I wish he was here now, to know that I’m okay. That we’re okay. I think he would be proud, seeing that people are still working for a better future despite it all. I think he would probably tell us to stop putting so much pressure on ourselves, to remember that this moment is a gift — and he’d take off his leg, make us jump into the cold lake, and laugh at the numbness in our fingers and toes because it is a sign that we’re alive.
The ten days that begin with Rosh Ha’Shanah and end with Yom Kippur are a time for cheshbon ha’nefesh — literally, taking stock of our soul. We are called to examine our rough edges, make amends for our mistakes, and set an intention for how we might grow into a better version of ourselves in the year to come. But this is not only about seeing our brokenness; it is also about accounting for our blessings. Yes, the world is on fire. And also, look at how far we have come (no seriously, look at how far we have come). Alongside all that is wrong with the world is the fact that we live at the most safe, most equal, most resourced moment in human history. Hand-in-hand with the heartbreak and regret we hold inside each of us is our resilience and resolve. On Rosh Ha’Shanah we remember what we have lost — and we also recognize the incredible possibility that comes from being alive here and now. Both can be true, because both are true.
The reason we are able to turn away from despair and refuse the convenience of being overwhelmed is found in the journeys that we, collectively, have taken to reach this moment — all those wildernesses we have come through, that we owe to the Moseses, Miriams, and Aarons who came before us. Yes, the ones we know about — the heroes of history, who ensured that the future we live in now could come into being — but also people like my Uncle Bill, whose actions aren’t recorded in books or articles. Their decision to persevere, the kindness they offered and the hope they held on to is no less vital, no less important.
It’s not easy. The Torah tells us that there were times when Moses wanted to cast aside his staff and abrogate his position of leadership; from the very beginning he doubts his ability to lead, and it is only through some divine encouragement and the support of those close to him that Moses picks up the staff. The rabbis teach that the miraculous well that followed the Israelites through the desert appeared on Miriam’s merit alone, yet she did not always show up as a paragon of virtue (and how could she, she’s only human). But when Miriam gives in to ignorance and hate, her brothers help her do teshuvah — repairing the damage she has done and rediscovering her best qualities. And when Aaron loses his sons Nadav and Avihu too young and too soon, when in his grief he couldn’t find the right words to say, the entire community gathers around him to mourn.
Our tradition tells us that although we are all obligated in the work of making this world a better place, none of us are solely responsible. The success of our journey is not dependent on any single person —and thank God for that. Like Moses, Miriam, and Aaron each of us has a particular task, something that we are uniquely gifted to do. I believe that if you are alive right now, it is because there is an ability, a talent, an insight that only you can offer — so needed by the universe that it conspired you into being.
And just like those three siblings in a moment of doubt, or in the aftermath of a mistake, or in the shadow of loss we can and we must turn to each other. Being there to care for and support one another is just as crucial as the work itself.
We will probably not get to see the world that we are fighting for — but we can use the time we have to ensure that it may still come into being. Perhaps you’ll do something remembered by the history books. Perhaps you’ll do something only remembered by a few people, but no less important. The lesson is that what we do matters, often in ways that will only become clear from the vantage point of a distant future. Hayom harat olam, today we decide what worlds may one day be born.
We are the next Moseses, Miriams, and Aarons. We are the next Uncle Bills. We stand at the place where those who came before us left us. We have been given the tools to take us farther on this journey, even if we won’t reach its end so that one day there will be a generation who lives in the world that we dreamed of — grateful that we didn’t put down the staff or abandon the well. We are the reason that someday, someone we will never meet and never know will be able to say thank god, thank god they didn’t give up, because I am alive — and I’m okay.