Fear and Repentance: 5769

For many Jews, the most meaningful element of High Holy Days synagogue services is the rabbi’s sermon.  Indeed, careers are won or lost here.  However talented our clergy, reliance on their performance for spiritual elevation reduces our commitment to God to paid entertainment or sound-bite movie reviews.   I hope the ancient liturgy and melodies make the uncomfortable topic of our t’shuvah (repentance) real.  Amid the lengthy Hebrew and English readings, may you find small nuggets that provoke or disturb you after the service heading to Yom Kippur.

With that said, I want to share parts of Rabbi Andy Bachman’s Rosh Hashanah sermon entitled “No Fear.”  Andy reflects on existential fear that, more than anything concrete, pervades the lives of his Brooklyn congregants.  Meaning, Purpose and Rootedness are the themes congregants always use to describe what they want.  Here, toward the end of the sermon, Andy suggests active Jewish life pushes back against fear and allows us to step into the unknown.

Learning, Spirituality and Acts of Lovingkindness. The Pillars of the Universe. Shimon Ha Tzadik said the world stands upon three things: Torah (study), Avodah (service), Gemilut Hasadim (generous acts). Meaning, Beyond the Self, and CommunityEach serve as a kind of antidote to fear that we encounter on a daily basis.

In my years of Jewish service I believe that the greatest obstacle that prevents the acquisition of people’s desire is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of change. Fear of facing the reality that to live life is to never remain the same, to accept that to live is, fundamentally, to always be growing. To always be crossing that bridge of life, to attempt, fearlessly, to obtain what we want.

Kol Ha Olam Kulo, Gesher Tzar Me’Od. All the world is a very narrow bridge [taught R. Nachman of Bratslav]. Of course it is! We’re all just one phone call away from the call we don’t want to get! Our lives can change at any moment! V’ha’Ikar, Lo L’Fached Klal–But the most important thing is not to be afraid. Not to be ruled by fear. The paralysis that comes with [inhibits] the growth we need to live.

In another one of Nachman’s teachings, he wrote that while fear can be distancing, debilitating, and depressing, God exists in such darkness. “The whole earth is filled with God’s glory,” (Isaiah 6.3). God is in the darkness–not just the light. It makes sense, actually. Moses learns this lesson at the moment of his own fear, his own hesitation to take upon himself from God the mantle of leadership in leading the Jewish people out of slavery. Remember? Moses wanted to know who this God was, what was its name? “I am that I am,” God replied. And when the people ask who sent me? Moses asked. “Tell them I Am sent you,” came the reply.

As simple as it sounds, it’s the most profound truth of our season as Jews at Rosh Hashanah.

Our goal is not to ignore fear or come to a place without it.  In fact, during these 10 days, God is the source of  ourfear.  God enscribes our name in the Book of Life.  Only repentance, prayer, and charity will lessen the severity of the decree.  So it is the mixture of daily and sacred fear that leads to repentance.

I want to note that upon reading the sermon again, I had overlooked its moments of elevated lyrical speech.

Our world has become so ridiculously diffused–from the internet to our micro-communities to our cellphones and handheld gadgets–maybe we are so siloed into individuation that we risk not the atomization of our existence from weapons but from the poet Eliot’s whimper. From the dystopic side of Elijah’s still small voice. An avalanche of echoes, an infinite number of quiet, lonely pleas.


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