Rosh Hashanah 2020 – Fear

Esther and Shmuley Rothenberg are getting ready for bed. Esther stares at her reflection in a full-length mirror.

“All I see in this mirror is an old woman. So many wrinkles, bags under my eyes, flab on my arms. Shmuley, tell me something positive so I can feel better about myself.”

Shmuley considers this for a long moment and then says thoughtfully, “Well, Esther, there’s nothing wrong with your eyesight.”

Services for Shmuley Rothenberg will be held Tuesday morning at Sinai Memorial Chapel.

While that story might suggest otherwise, with age often comes great wisdom. The fulness of life’s experiences tends to give us perspective, insight into human nature, empathy for others as well as self-understanding. And then, on the other hand, there is Shmuley Rothenberg.

A different story about a different man: He too was advanced in years, philosophical and self-aware.

His name was Rabbi Israel Salanter and he lived in the 19th century. He said: When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my community and family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, but I’ve come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, I then could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the world.”

It is, it’s way, as perfect High Holy Day story. It suggests that through self-reflection and course correction we can grow to exert influence and strive for change on ever larger scales. These High Holy Days, the story will shape my remarks when we are together. This morning, I want to speak of the current challenges in our world. At Kol Nidre, I will address issues of our Milwaukee community. And on Yom Kippur morning, I’ll address, as the holy days itself does, the challenge of fixing ourselves.

This week, we received a shanah tovah card from friends in the west, a collage of photos of children and grandchildren. It said: L’Shanah Tovah u’metukah: meaning for a good sweet year. It continued: Love and health: end virus, fires, smoke, racism. It reminded me of an alteration I make on the greet we use: L’Shanah Tovah – for a good year. This year, I am saying: L’Shanah Yoteir Tovah. To a better year!

For a lucky few, this past year saw great happiness and blessing: a longed-for birth; for others for a joyous, yet physically distanced, wedding.

Yet, for most of us, 2020 will go down as an annus horribilis, a perfectly horrible, miserable year.

The past two weeks, the west coast has been aflame, scores have died, thousands have lost homes, and millions have been breathing air so hazardous it is the equivalent of having smoked hundreds of cigarettes a day.

It has been the warmest summer on record, temperatures reaching 121 in Los Angeles just last week. Permafrost has been melting in the arctic, releasing methane that itself accelerates global warming. Growing numbers of refugees are migrating because their homelands are no longer able to sustain agriculture. And the frequency and severity of hurricanes makes plain the need to address, rather than ignore, climate change.

If that weren’t scary enough, a novel coronavirus emerged and became a global pandemic. Unlike climate change, the presence of which is hard to miss, the coronavirus is composed of non-living segments of RNA so small you need an electron microscope to see them.

The presence of a pathogen so easily transmitted, so potentially deadly and absolutely invisible makes for a makes for a degree of paranoia I’ve never seen in my life time. Every passerby is a potential carrier, with the emphasis on social distancing. We can call it something else, like physical distancing, but that word play belies the alienation at the core of the pandemic.

In a perfect world, the American institutions of academic science, public health and government would work closely together to control the virus’ spread. Not this year. The attacks on science, expertise more broadly, and academic research, are all reminiscent of Mao’s cultural revolution. Our country is divided between those who want a robust governmental response based in science and those who argue the pandemic is a partisan hoax. Once could justifiably be fearful of what lies ahead.

Particularly, because while the year 5780 has drawn to a close, we still have three months of left of 2020!

In truth, I’ve never seen so many of us so beleaguered, worn out and depressed. How much are we supposed to be able to take? Just since last Rosh HaShanah: separated families at the border, children in cages under mylar blankets, their parents deported, with no way to reunited the family. Troubling stories about women undergoing hysterectomies for which they hadn’t given consent, COVID preventing loved ones from being with dying family members, the inaction of government, from the ugly name calling and belittling to the disappearance of post office boxes and sorting machines; the election interference from outside and now inside our country, the widespread erosion of democratic norms leading us… I don’t know where… but I am fearful of what all this portends. And I do not think I am alone.

How can we best respond to such fears? An answer may lie in the Hebrew word for fear itself – Yirah. The word Yirah has two, at first seemingly unconnected meanings. It means fear but it also can mean awe, the awe one might feel at a sunrise, or at a baby’s birth. How can such a sense of awe and the dread of fear be two sides of the same coin?

An answer might be found in today’s Torah portion, which is called the Akedah or Binding of Isaac. God had previously told Abraham that, through his son Isaac, many descendants would issue, and that they would become as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the sand at the seashore.

Moving imagery, but also a hint why the concepts of fear and awe are two sides of the same coin. To recognize that we are like a single star in the heavens or a single grain of sand among all the sand at the seashore is realize that we are just a tiny part of the universe, insignificant, really. Our existence has fixed limits in time and space and this reality can lead to an upwelling of deep, existential fear.

Yet out of this existential dread can come a sense of awe. An awe that grows out of a sense of awareness of our place in the cosmos: when we understand we may be a small part of the universe but also that we are unalterably linked with all of creation, a weave of interdependent life transcending time and space. That we are made of stuff that has been around since the dawn of time, that we breathe the same molecules as did our ancestors Abraham and Sarah in the land of Israel, all this underscores that we are more than this moment in the here and now. Our lives are infused with elements of eternity.

But now back to our story: when God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the divine promise to increase Abraham’s numbers through Isaac seems in doubt.

You’ll hear Rabbi Brickman read the story in as few minutes, but here’s a spoiler alert: at the last moment, an angel of the Lord says to Abraham: Lay not your hand upon the lad, nor do anything to him; for now I know that you have Yirah for God, seeing that you did not withheld your son, your only son from me.” Here the word Yirah here means not fear, but awe. Abraham is rewarded not for his fear and trembling before God but for his awe and his faith. Faith that his life and actions have meaning and purpose even though at that moment he can hardly envision what they might be.

Don’t misunderstand: I don’t mean to say that, in the end, Abraham understands and is comforted that everything he went through was “part of God’s” hidden plan.” Frankly, I imagine Abraham was miserable; his wife had died, his son was now estranged, and he never speaks with God again. I don‘t believe the tragedies we face are part of a hidden divine plan, the meaning of which is beyond our ken. Sometimes, we are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet, even in moments of unspeakable, meaningless tragedy, we have the capacity to choose how we respond. In that choice lies the potential for meaning and purpose.

The arc of the Akedah suggests what is possible when we hold existential fear and awe together at the same time. The word Yirah appears in today’s portion one more time. When the ram appears to take Isaac’s place on the altar, the Torah says Abraham called the name of that place where he almost sacrificed Isaac, Adonai-Yireh; the verse says: “as it is said to this day, In the Mount of the Lord there is vision.” Perhaps the Torah is suggesting a further trajectory for Abraham’s journey; having first moved from fear and trembling to awe and faith, Abraham ultimately arrives to a place of vision and understanding. He is then able to fulfill God’s promise through helping Isaac find Rebecca, his love and mother of Jacob and Esau, through whom the family continues.

In this way, Abraham’s story suggests a model for the task ahead. Each of us individually, and all of us collectively, face so many fears: the climate crisis, the pandemic, political and cultural turmoil, the manifold fears that have come to confront our lives and infiltrate our dreams.

Encounter awe: go outside. Go to the lake front early in the morning before there are lots of people. We are told to say a hundred blessings a day precisely to reinforce our sense of gratitude for the blessings we do have, to allow awe and gratitude to balance the fear that life sometimes presents.

Remember the Hasidic teaching: that every person is born with a particular purpose on this earth. If you didn’t have such a purpose, they reasoned there would have been no reason for you to have been born.

So as we take these days to ponder what our personal purpose on this earth might be, looking back to the year we[‘ve finished and peering ahead into a year yet to unfold, remember this:

We too can’t let fear overwhelm us. We can’t be cowed into inaction. We can be paralyzed with fear, or we can, like Abraham, set out to transform it. Like Abraham we will have to be willing to take risks and make sacrifices. We will need both to recognize and accept life’s inherent limits and come to appreciate that each of us has brought a unique blessing to the world, that we might transform yirah – our multitude of fears – into awe and a sense of direction, meaning and purpose. If we can achieve that, then we, like Abraham, will access within is those elements of eternity and come to a place of vision and hope for the future.

May it be so for all of us in this new year. AMEN