Rosh Hashanah Sermon Day 2 - 2017-5778

Rosh Hashanah Day 2  - 2017-5778
Fear or Love?

Several years ago the Israeli movie “Ushpizin” appeared in theaters. In the film we are introduced to a pious and impoverished Hassidic man in Jerusalem and his family who manage to survive from one charitable donation to the next. Before the holiday of Sukkot the man is blessed with an overly generous gift from the communal funds. The man is ecstatic and immediately knows what he can buy with that money. With young children at home and the holiday approaching the man goes to the etrog dealer and buys the most expensive etrog he can. Of course we know that on all the days of the holiday of Sukkot we are commanded to gather palm, myrtle and willow branches and a citron, to recite a blessing over them and shake them in all directions signifying our acknowledgment of God’s presence on earth. We are not told what size these 4 species, as they are called, should be nor are we told how much to spend. Those decisions are left to our desire for hidur mitzvah - glorifying the commandment. This Hassidic man decided to use that charity fund money to buy the most expensive etrog in order to glorify God and the holiday.
Though the story continues with plot twists it is clear that the director of the movie wants us to think about the Hasidic man’s choice - was it right for the man to think first about God and the holiday or should he have used that money to buy food for his family? Even more deeply we should ask is faith only about observing the finest points of the law and the ritual? What kind of faith is it that would ask a Hasid to buy an etrog before buying eggs and milk for his family?
This movie came to mind after I attended a class last June taught by my former rabbinical school dean, Rabbi Gordon Tucker. At that session at the Baltimore and Washington Boards of Rabbis study day, Rabbi Tucker shared his insight on this morning’s Torah reading. That famous portion in which God tested Abraham’s faith, asking him to bring Isaac to the mountain to offer him to God, has inspired lengthy commentary by all monotheistic religions over the centuries. All those religious thinkers attempted to understand how a father could so readily agree to sacrifice his child, especially a child that had been prayed for, for so many years. Most ancient commentators agree that Abraham is to be regarded as a model of undying faith and trust in God. We, the rabbis teach us, should look to Abraham as a model for how we should conduct our religious lives today.
Abraham, like the Hasid in our movie, is driven by fear. That fear of God is in one sense a fear of punishment or retribution. The recognition that God could intervene in our lives and punish us for our actions drove Abraham to be as faithful and obedient as he was. He saw how God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and he also saw how Sarah and he could become parents in their 90s. Abraham saw God’s glorious and wrathful actions on Earth and his faith could be seen as a response to being  fearful  and in awe of God’s infinite power.
Being fearful of God’s power could lead one to be as observant as possible. If one is afraid that God may punish those who do not follow the law and may bring hardship and crisis to those who stray from from God’s path, then one would want to be as pious as possible to avoid such misery. The more one observes, the more one practices all the finest points of Jewish law and ritual, the better chance supposedly one has to have a life filled with God’s blessings.
This line of thinking and method of being religious leads one to have a very narrow, black and white view of life. It leads one to have a very specific and defined interpretation of Jewish thought. There can’t be any grey areas in life. One must know how to act and what to do in every situation so that God will be happy with us. We have to be resolute in our belief, we have to be uncompromising in our behavior as an expression of our fear and awe of God.
The Hassid in the movie reflects that model of behavior. In fact Hassidim in Israel are known as Haredim - those who tremble or quake in fear. All Hassidim dress the same way, live in the same neighborhood, study much of the day and pray three times a day, and fulfill all the commandments in exacting and fine detail. All Hasidim do that in order to satisfy God’s demands and to express their undying devotion to God’s word.
But is acting out of fear or awe of God the way we are supposed to act? Is that what a religious lifestyle is supposed to entail? Is that really how God tested Abraham? Rabbi Tucker, through careful analysis offered a radically different interpretation of our Torah reading this morning. If we look carefully we would understand that we don’t exactly know how God tested Abraham. The Torah says, “after these things God tested Abraham. God said to Abraham, “take your one and only son whom you love to the mountain I will show you.’” It seems that the order to take Isaac is the test. But there are many other places in the preceding chapters of Genesis in which God ordered Abraham to do something - e.g., go to the land of Israel, circumcise the male members of his household, sacrifice animals and birds - and none of those commands were preceded by God saying that it was a test. Why is the order to offer Isaac introduced as a test?
Perhaps, Rabbi Tucker suggested, we need to understand what the word test means. The word appears in a few other contexts in the Torah as God tests the people with the manna in the desert and with the thunder and shofar on Mt. Sinai. Those instances seem to be tests of faith. But there is one other context that adds another dimension. We are told in the book of Deuteronomy that when the people enter the land of Israel they will face many challenges. Among the challenges to their Israelite lifestyle will be prophets and preachers of other religions. Those pagan prophets may attempt to sway the Israelites and convince them to abandon God.  So Moses says, “don’t listen to the words of those prophets for God is testing you, to know whether you love God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deut. 13:4) According to accepted standards of interpretation of the Torah, if a word is clearly defined in one context, that definition can be applied in another context. We don’t really know how Abraham was tested or what the test was. We only know what he was commanded to do. But if testing means assessing one’s faith and love of God, then we should understand Abraham’s test as not only whether he had faith in God, but whether he truly loved God. The test wasn’t whether he would blindly follow God’s command, but whether he would exhibit love of God!
We could argue that trusting in God and unquestioningly obeying God’s command are ways in which we exhibit love of God. One cannot argue that Abraham was devoted to God. He uprooted his family and traveled to an unknown land with them and put his life and the life of his household in God’s hands. The Hassid in our movie surely also loved God. He unhesitatingly purchased the most expensive etrog in order to better observe the holiday of Sukkot. His faith was pure and he felt that he truly loved God.
But according to Rabbi Tucker, the faith that was exhibited by Abraham - faith born out of fear - led to Abraham’s downfall. In other words, Abraham failed the test. What happened in Abraham’s life after the events of this morning’s Torah reading? Abraham and Isaac parted ways, never to see each other again. Sarah died and he bought a burial plot and buried her. Sure he remarried and had more children, but God doesn’t speak to him again. His life that had been filled with active dialogue with God and had been filled with actions performed in God’s name has been transformed. As described in the subsequent chapters, God has left Abraham.
Why did this happen? Because Abraham failed to understand what true love means. Love born out of fear, is no love at all. Dedication to a covenant born out of awe of God’s power, is no commitment at all. We can describe such piety as love and devotion, we could describe such religious figures as observant and faithful, but according to Rabbi Tucker, we can’t call them true lovers of God.
Religion is a lifestyle and way of life that attempts to structure and define our existence on earth in a particular way. Religion attempts to explain the mystery of life and the creation of the universe through the actions of God. Seeing our lives as a product of God’s creation leads us to attempt to acknowledge God’s presence in everything we do. How we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives and in the world around us is how we express our religious belief.
By reading the story of Abraham and Isaac this morning and in the words of the liturgy in our machzor today, our rabbis seem to have us understand that we are meant to fear God. Thinking about “who shall live and who shall die”, imagining God sitting on a throne with the book of life and death before Him, reciting words that express our apology and forgiveness all play into this aspect of fear.
But is fear useful and inspiring? Do we come away from the Abraham and Isaac story wanting to be like Abraham? Do we wish after that story that we could have Abraham’s piety and are we inspired to believe in such a powerful and vengeful God?
I can’t and I don’t believe that religion demands us to be fearful. I am not inspired by fear nor do I see any value in instilling fear in the community. The fear of Abraham and the fear of our Hassid in the movie led them to ignore other equally significant religious values in their lives. Abraham’s fear led him to ignore his own son,  seeing Isaac not as his child but as a tool by which to express his devotion to God. The Hassid’s devotion saw the gift of charity as a means to observe a ritual instead of a way to feed his family and perhaps no longer have to accept charity. Instead of leading to love, fear really leads to blindness and a lack of compassion for one’s fellow human being.
In fact fear can even lead to actually hating other people. When one strives to act as pious as possible one would stay far away from anything that would tempt one’s faith. In the ultra orthodox community internet access is restricted or prohibited completely. In some neighborhoods in Israel large signs are printed at the entrances to those neighborhoods imploring proper attire by those women and men passing through. These examples show the fear the ultra orthodox have of being tempted by non-religious elements. That fear leads at best to ignoring other human beings who aren’t like them and at worse to hating those people who aren’t like them. We don’t have to look that hard in world history to see the ugly and horrific result of religious figures acting out of fear and hatred against those who don’t agree with their religious belief. The laws in the Torah to annihilate the indigenous pagan population of the land of Israel, the priests of the Catholic Inquisition and the terrorists of ISIS all acted and still act today in the name of their religious belief.
One can also argue that an underlying aspect of the deep-seated level of bigotry in our country can be ascribed to such religious belief. The perpetuation of the screed decades ago that Jews killed Jesus, the popularity of the Christian Right that expresses a fundamentalist belief that America is a Christian country are examples of how black and white interpretations create an atmosphere of hate, bigotry and discrimination. Fear of God leads one to neglect more basic and valuable aspects of life and relationship with others.
Instead of fear and awe, my religious belief and expression is defined by love. That very test described in Deuteronomy was whether we loved God with all our heart and all our soul. That should remind us of the same phrase we recite after the Shema twice a day - “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” Sure we express that love through performance of the commandments. But that performance is based on loving God not being afraid of God. I understand religion to provide a sense of compassion in my life. As I try to navigate the chaotic nature of life in the world today I want to feel as if God loves me. I need to know that the beauty in the world, the acts of lovingkindness I perform and others perform, are expressions of God’s love. When making choices in life, even the choice in the test of Abraham, one should always act out of love.
The central verse of the Torah, the line that Rabbi Hillel says is key to understanding all of Jewish tradition is (Leviticus 19:18) ve-ahavta le-rey-acha kamokha - “love your neighbor as you would be loved.” Love, compassion, empathy are the guiding values on which Judaism is based. All moral and ethical values, all commandments in our tradition, are to be understood as based on love. When deciding between observance of Shabbat and saving a life, saving a life comes first. The sanctity of human life, love of our fellow human being always takes precedence. In fact that concept of kevod habriyot - respect for humanity -  underlies many values in our tradition. The changes the Conservative Movement has made in traditional practice - e.g., egalitarian worship, acceptance of homosexual relationships, advocacy for the religious rights of people with disabilities - were made in recognition of the dignity of all human beings.
Perhaps then we were meant to read the story of Abraham and Isaac today not as a model of fear and blind faith, but rather as a model of failure. Perhaps we are meant to read this story as a failure to see how important it is, as we start this new year, to love God and by extension to love our fellow human beings. When we allow society to perpetuate discrimination and bigotry then we are allowing Abraham to be seen as passing the test. Instead, unlike Abraham, we need to stand up for Isaac and Sarah. We need to love others as we would be loved. We need to advocate for love and dignity. We need to protest against fear and hatred.

The rabbis commented on the High Holiday liturgy that we need to act as if we are attempting to move God from the the throne of judgment to the throne of mercy and compassion. In other words, we have to change the climate of the world around us. Let us be the force of love and compassion. Let us act as if we love God. Let us feel God move within us inspiring us to be a force for good. If we can be moved from our chair of fear and judgement to our chair of love and respect then we, one person at a time, can make this year one of peace and blessing. Amen.