Sermon: Yom Kippur 5769

Yom Kippur 5769

October 8-9, 2008 

Rabbi Joe Blair

Facing Down our Fears

Gut Yontiff.

As one of my colleagues, Rabbi Lewis Eron of Voorhees NJ, has recently described it, we have completed the first two legs of the annual Jewish Spiritual triathlon.

We spiritually trained hard through the month of Elul, doing the work of Teshuvah.

We got to the starting block, and took off at the sound of the gun at Rosh Hashanah. We pushed ourselves and made it through the initial stage of that distance swim.

We clambered out, limbered up, and launched ourselves again immediately into the next stage, and have just completed the nine day endurance bike/run of the Yamim Nora’im, the days of Awe. Now, finally, we are here, in the midst of the 25 hour heavy power-lifting effort of Yom Kippur.  

This metaphor is apt because the work we are supposed to be doing for this holiday is hard; we have to prepare ourselves for it, it comes in stages, and at the end, we can find ourselves exhausted, and though elevated by the effort, not having achieved the coveted status of ‘the winner’ – that one person recognized as the best, the highest achieving, the mark others aim to surpass in future. Most years, that seems like challenge enough.

This year, however, it feels even harder and more of a challenge than usual. This year there is so much happening in the world around us that demands our attention, that tugs at us and pulls our focus away from the world of the spiritual. It all feels so urgent, burning, and insistent.

Think about it. The news we heard just this week is terrible. Not to list all the ills of the world:

Today, in addition to the sorrows that all of us must face, the pains of losses, of illnesses, and of deaths, we are burdened by what is happening around us.  We are faced with an economic crisis which is affecting most – maybe all — of us, and which is destroying many people’s lives. Think of those who are being evicted for being unable to keep up with the rising interest payments on their homes, as one example of this disaster.

Think of the kinds of natural disasters that have struck, which seem to have increased in numbers of late, and the toll in lives and property lost has been staggering, with no end in sight.

There are genocides ongoing in the world, wars that seem to have little purpose and no end, and little being done about them. Even when we try to help, it is so little compared to the needs of those suffering.

Terrorism has spread and become the de facto means of waging wars worldwide. From the middle East to India to the former Soviet Union, and now elsewhere in the world, terrorism is on the rise.  We are watching tensely as nations and groups whom we have good reason to fear, some of whom hate us for simply existing, both as Americans and as Jews, come ever closer to acquiring access to weapons that are terrifying to contemplate ever being used – yet apparently they have every intention of doing so.

Our own civil liberties and most cherished rights to due process have been curtailed in the name of combating terrorism, without a hue and cry arising.

We see a massive rise in the number of anti-Semitic acts and hate crimes in the world – not just ‘over there’ – the statistics show that it is rampant right here at home.

We see the increase in power of forces of intolerance and bigotry. Here at home, the push to rescind some of the social gains that have been made over the past two generations has gained new force and adherents, and is making inroads in the public mind.

Taken altogether, in light of all this the future looks bleak, and very uncertain. We don’t know what to expect next, what will happen, how to react, how to protect ourselves and our loved ones.  

So these are difficult times. Times of uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and even dread. None of us is immune or exempt from these feelings.

In times such as this, it is easy to lose heart, even easier to fall prey to fears. The crisis du jour calls us to attend. Look NOW! it screams. REACT!  But I urge you – think carefully, do not fall into this trap. Do not be tempted by the siren song of urgencies!

In the words of Mordecai Kaplan:

"To find life in the present worth living, people must have faith in a future.  The ultimate in human tragedy is not suffering or even death, but hopelessness.  This is the true meaning of damnation.  Men have been known to suffer all manner of torments and to maintain, throughout them all, a deep and abiding interest in life, to experience life as worth living.

“Martyrs, like Akiba and Socrates, have gone to their death with serenity, because they believed their death was not the final verdict on all they lived for.  But it is hell to suffer evils without feeling that there is anything that we can do about them, or without the confidence that they will be abolished.

“It is the function of religion to save men from this hell, and the Jewish religion did so.  How keenly our Sages predicted the need of faith in a future to give meaning and worth to the present is beautifully expressed in a midrash that comments on the prayer of Jacob at Beth El.  We are told in Genesis that Jacob, when fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esau, was accorded a vision of God in a dream, and when he awoke, he set up the stone, on which he had lain, as a pillar and vowed that, if permitted to return to safety, vehayah adonai li lelohim, "the Lord shall be my God."  In saying this, our Sages explain, "Jacob gave permission to the key-word by means of which God would in future ages redeem his descendants."  All the solace and bliss that would fall to the lot of Israel would be theirs, by virtue of the rallying cry vehaya, "it shall come to pass," that is to say by virtue of faith in the future.

“We always seem to be confronted with the alternative of either accepting the present situation as the norm, with its violence, falsehood and hate as the ultimate reality, or we must seek to save ourselves from demoralization by applying the traditional key-principle of salvation, vehayah, "it shall come to pass."  There is still a future, and in it are concealed unfathomed possibilities for good. As our vision for the future appeals more clearly to us, the evil in the world will cease to be an obsession that prevents us from beholding and enjoying the good there is in it.  When we recognize an evil, let us see whether we can do something to correct it.  If we can, let us do it. If not, let us defer the correction of that evil until some future time, pressing on, meanwhile, to other goals that are immediately attainable.  Our tactics in contending against evil should be those of modern, noble warfare.  When we encounter an obstacle that we cannot surmount, we need not let it stop us; we can bypass it while moving onward in the general direction of our goals, determined by our ethical ideals. This is the experience of salvation.  It is not so much dependent on our attaining our goal as in our confidence that the goal is worth attaining, and on our wholehearted devotion to attaining it."

                               ---Mordecai Kaplan, The Future of the American Jew, "Hope."

Instead of despairing, as Kaplan tells us, we must turn to religion as the source of strength and comfort that has been given us. You have already taken the first step in that direction by coming here today. Now all you need to do is attend to the very words we all say each time we come together. 

In our services, in the Geulah, the section on Redemption, we read:

“In a world torn by violence and pain, a world far from wholeness and peace, a world waiting still to be redeemed, give us, Lord, the courage to say: there is one God in heaven and earth.”

This seems a pretty fair description of what we are seeing around us today.  And we do need courage to assert God in the face of what we know is happening in our world. Continuing, in the Amidah, we read:

“God of Israel, may our worship on this [Sabbath] day bring us nearer to all that is high and holy. May it bind the generations in bonds of love and sharing, and unite us with our people in common hope and faith. And through [Sabbath rest and] worship, may we learn to find fulfillment and joy in the vision of peace for all the world.

“You are with us in our prayer, in our love and our doubt, in our longing to feel Your presence and do Your will. You are the still, clear voice within us. Therefore, O God, when doubt troubles us, when anxiety makes us tremble, and pain clouds the mind, we look inward for the answer to our prayers. There may we find You, and there find courage, insight, and endurance. And let our worship bring us closer to one another, that all Israel, and all who seek You, may find new strength for Your service.”

This tells us that God is with us, within us. How can we give up or give in to despair if we believe that?  The very Creator – the Source of Being - is our taproot and the bedrock of our strength! Together, we acknowledge the inner source of our strength.

“We gratefully acknowledge, O Lord our God, that You are our Creator and Preserver, the Rock of our life and our protecting Shield. We give thanks to You for our lives which are in Your hand, for our souls which are ever in Your keeping, for Your wondrous providence and Your continuous goodness, which You bestow upon us day by day. Truly, Your mercies never fail, and Your lovingkindness never ceases. Therefore do we for ever put our trust in You. O God, let life abundant be the heritage of all the children of Your covenant. Blessed is the Eternal God, to whom our thanks are due.”

How do we access this inner strength? We are offered the gift of prayer to help us as we face our fears and uncertainties. We are told:

“Prayer invites God to let God’s presence suffuse our spirits, to let God’s will prevail in our lives. Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.”

And we are told, we are not alone. Not only is God within us, we have each other. We are a holy community, and we support one another.

“We have come together to strengthen our bonds with our people Israel. Like Jews of generations past, we celebrate the grandeur of creation. Like Jews of every age, we echo our people’s ancient call for justice. We are Jews, but each of us is unique. We stand apart and alone, with differing feelings and insights. And yet, we are not entirely alone and separate, for we are children of one people and one heritage.  And we are one in search of life’s meaning. All of us know despair and exaltation; all bear burdens; all have moments of weakness and times of strength; all sing songs of sorrow and love. In this circle of hope, in the presence of the sacred, may the heart come to know itself and its best, finding a fresh impulse to love the good. May our celebration lead us to work for the good; and may this day give strength to us and to our people Israel.”

More:

“Let there be love and understanding among us; let peace and friendship be our shelter from life’s storms. Eternal God, help us to walk with good companions, to live with hope in our hearts and eternity in our thoughts, that we may lie down in peace and rise up to find our hearts waiting to do Your will.”

Each time we pray together we announce what it is we have each committed to by our very presence:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind, with all your strength, with all your being. Set these words, which I command you this day, upon your heart. Teach them faithfully to your children; speak of them in your home and on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up. Bind them as a sign upon your hand; let them be a symbol before your eyes; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Be mindful of all My mitzvoth, and do them; so shall you consecrate yourselves to your God. I, the Lord, am your God who led you out of Egypt to be your God; I, the Lord, am your God.” 

In light of all this, knowing that we have the strength of God within us, and the community around us supporting us, we should not be cowed by fear or doubts. We are not alone! We are not powerless!  

These beliefs are our touchstones. Our only chance of dealing with fears and uncertainties is to face them in light of our core beliefs and knowing that we are loved and supported. How, then, can we give in to despair?   

Rather, with the certainties and the support that this knowledge brings us, we have hope and strength. We can face our fears. We can overcome our troubles and afflictions. We can rise above them. We can scale the heights, and keep our focus on the spiritual aspect of life, seeing God in those around us, seeking to do God’s work in the world.

So as we come to the end of this third leg of the spiritual triathlon, even if we aren’t declared ‘the winner’ of the spiritual marathon of these holy days, each one of us who has seriously undertaken the effort ‘wins.’ Even now, in the midst of this solemn occasion, this high holy day, I want to offer my congratulations to each of you for being a ‘winner’- a status you have earned simply by making the effort, holding your focus, being here as part of our community and as an expression of God in the world. Please accept my ‘high five’ to you. No need for gator ade showers today. Our spiritual high is enough. J

May you, may we all, know that we have support and strength that arises from deep within us, from a place that taps the core of our beliefs as the source. May we draw on that source wisely, and use it to do what we know is right and good in the world, and in that way, go from strength to strength and be strong. Chazak, chazak venitchazek.

Leshanah tovah umetukah tichateimu!