The True Grit of Avraham 

Hayyey Sarah ~ חיי שרה ~ Sarah Lived 

Rav Baruch Frydman-Kohl 

Kehillat Beth Israel, Ottawa 

11 November 2023 ~ 27 Marheshvan 5784 

Some of you will remember a 1969 film, for which John Wayne won his only Academy Award. “True Grit” starred Wayne as U.S. Marshal Rooster Coburn, hired by Mattie Ross to track down her father’s killer. She heard that Rooster had true grit. In 2010, Charles Portis’ novel was again adapted to film; this time by the Coen brothers. in this version, it is 14 year old Mattie who has true grit to catch her father’s killer. What is grit? 

Angela Duckworth, who left a high-flying job to work as a math teacher to seventh graders in a New York public school, identified grit as a predictor of success.  

Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint. 

Grit includes the courage to face what is hard, whether that be a challenging conversation, a difficult decision, or an arduous aspiration.  

Erica Brown writes: Grit has become a popular word that is foundational to success and has made its way into the language of education. …You want to teach grit so that kids learn how to pick themselves up and develop the resilience to face a life that can be, at times, punctuated with disappointment. …You may never develop subject mastery, but you will gain something more important: determination. It will serve you as one of your best life-skills. 

Sara was an exemplar of grit; she made some difficult decisions to enable the covenant to continue through Yitzhak. Rivka, whom we met in today’s reading, will also make faithful and fateful decisions. 

Avraham is a model of grit. As he tries to attain blessings from God, Avraham discovers that divine blessings are not simply gifts. They are opportunities that he must strive to attain. Even if he has to leave the Land of Promise. Even if he has to banish one son and almost sacrifice the beloved one. Even if the promise of the land has to be accomplished by bargaining and buying. He is a model for Israel today and for our personal challenges and resilience.  

Today, as we honour veterans and remember the sacrifices that they made, let’s realize that they left family and endangered their lives to serve this country. Many were too young to realize what they were actually doing. Today we offer acknowledgement and appreciation to those who served, who kept going despite difficult challenges. 

Star athletes and successful entrepreneurs do not always succeed. Often they fail and fail and fail, but pick themselves up again and again. My uncle founded a major grocery store chain. He had an idea that failed in the first location. Yet he tried again.  

Shira, a young woman from my former congregation, lost the use of her legs in a climbing accident. Yet Shira came to represent Canada in wheelchair basketball, winning a bronze medal in the 2002 para-olympics. 

As we mark Kristallnacht and devote attention to Holocaust education, as we note the testimony of survivors, we are inspired. Yet there is a lingering question. Would we be able to do it?  Would we have what it takes to fall down and stand up?   

If we were to face comparable challenges, failures and fears,  would we survive? Would we push forward? Would we forge new lives in Israel, Canada or elsewhere in the Diaspora? Or would we fall deep into failure, depression and even death? 

In the past month, we have heard many stories of the heroism of Israeli soldiers. 359 have died in Gaza since Simhat Torah, October 7, with 44 lost since the start of the ground operation. Many soldiers and first responders who saw the bodies in the decimated kibbutzim and others who fought in the ground battles will need psychological renewal and restoration to reclaim their souls. And what about the survivors who lived in villages near Gaza? And what about the hostages held under ground in Gaza? And their families? 

As Jews in Canada, who love and support Israel, we too need grit  — to stand in pride, not fear. We must not allow Molotov cocktails and bullets directed against our schools, hateful graffiti scrawled on our doors, antisemitic slogans shouted during demonstrations, bomb threats, or physical attacks and altercations to silence us or token us away from Jewish schools, souls, and JCCs. We must assert and reassert pride in our moral and ritual traditions,  support and love for our beloved Israel, concern and prayers for the soldiers of the Israel Defence Forces in their very difficult mission. 

Mishlei, the Book of Proverbs, is attributed to Solomon, whose ascension to the monarchy we read of in the haftarah this morning.  There we read: “A righteous person can fall down seven times but rises again…” (Proverbs 24.17).  In the arena of spirituality, people can also fall multiple times. Those who aspire to goodness, to righteousness, to kindness, to softness, to holiness, to intimacy with God may have the best of intentions and still fail and possibly fail spectacularly because they set the bar very high. (Erica Brown) 

I hope the righteous will eventually be rewarded. That is certainly what Proverbs suggests. But doing mitzvot, leading an honest life, remaining faithful when tempted, these acts of fidelity and love do not always provide safety or spiritual satisfaction. As individuals, as parents, as couples, as siblings, we know that there are many oscillations, ascents and descents, often again and again. 

Faith is a hope and belief that, in the end, God will provide the support we need. Isaiah prophesied:  You are…  the seed of Avraham, My friend whom I have taken from the ends of the earth… Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed… I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you.  (Isaiah 40.31, 41.8-10) 

Erica Brown suggests that Faith involves grit. Mastery over the self involves grit. Doing good and doing right involves grit. 

We have to keep going back to those things that matter the most. We have to keep training, remain vigilant, maintain resilience. Maybe we’ll see setbacks as challenges, as an opportunities. Maybe we’ll have the grit to trip and stand and go forward one again.  

The Biblical Abraham had grit. So do his descendants.