Rosh Hashana Sermon for 5775

Sermon delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashana 5775 at Oheb Shalom Congregation.


A new year has begun and, in keeping with tradition, we have gathered together to celebrate the occasion and to pray as a congregation. The prayer book asks that we pray about sin and forgiveness, about personal growth and change and about getting another chance to dedicate our lives to righteousness and goodness.

But our hearts tell us to pray about something else. We pray for the people dear to us, for good health, we pray about the frailty of life and our own mortality. If we dig deeply enough into our souls, we also pray about finding ways to solve the problems of the world. And perhaps we reserve special prayers for the Land of Israel and the People of Israel, prayers about the painful and violent struggle between the descendants of Abraham over who has the right to live in the Land. This year, especially, we need to pray about Israel and her people, about the dangers and fear Israel faces, and how to protect the Jewish State.

Fear…it is among the deepest of all human emotions. We become afraid of things we cannot control and that rob us of our peace of mind. We fear that which has happened to us in the past and that which has yet to happen. We fear things that are real and tangible, and we fear that which we can’t see or touch. At times our fears are justified, and at times they are unfounded. In all of its manifestations, fear has the power to consume us. The Bible gives voice to our fears, perhaps more intensively at this season of the year than at any other time. In Psalm 27, the psalm of the penitential season, we read these words:

Adonai ori ve-yishi, mimi ira
Adonai ma-oz chayai, mimi efchad?
God is my light and my help, whom shall I fear
God is the strength of my life, whom shall I dread?

The author of the psalm gives expression to his fears that he will succumb to the power of his enemies. He continues:

Should an army be arrayed against me, I would not fear. Should war beset me, still would I be confident. O Lord, do not hide Yourself from me. Turn not in anger away from your servant.

The author is afraid of something, and he expresses his fears in poetry. It is for this reason that Psalm 27 is recited at this time of the year, for it mirrors the fears and apprehensions that we may be feeling as we face God on these Holy Days.

I want to talk about fear today, but not about our personal fears of the future and how we might confront them. I want to talk about the fear that those who love the State of Israel and her people may be feeling, and what we can do about it.

The Talmud contains an intriguing passage about fear that says the following: “Our Rabbis taught: there are five instances of fear cast by the weak over the strong—the fear of the mafgia over the lion; the fear of the mosquito upon the elephant; the fear of the spider upon the scorpion; the fear of the swallow upon the eagle; and the fear of the kilbit over the Leviathan.” The passage clearly needs explanation and interpretation, and these five instances of the fear of the weak cast upon the strong has something to say to us about the fears experienced by those who love and care for Israel.

The first instance of fear cast by the weak over the strong is the fear of the mafgia over the lion. The mafgia, according to the medieval scholar Rashi, is a tiny beast that has an exceedingly powerful cry. When the mafgia screams, the lion fears that a great beast, much larger and stronger than itself, is coming to challenge him. In actuality, the lion has nothing to be afraid of but he doesn’t know it—he has been “psyched out.” The lion’s fear of the mafgia is not a fear of anything real; it is a fear of fear itself. But the mafgia’s scream has a real effect, for it prevents the lion from doing what comes naturally to him and living life normally.

The second fear is that of the mosquito upon the elephant. Why should an elephant ever be afraid of a mosquito? Because, again according to Rashi, the mosquito can get up the elephant’s trunk and, since it cannot be dislodged, it will drive the elephant crazy. The fear of the mosquito upon the elephant is real indeed, for it reflects the disturbance that a small creature can bring upon a larger one. There is no extensive or lasting damage to the body of the elephant, but there is nonetheless great disruption to its sanity and its daily life.

The third fear mentioned in the Talmud is the fear of the spider upon the scorpion. Now, a scorpion is a deadly creature and is larger than a spider, so why does it fear the spider? Because certain spiders, by injecting poison, can kill a scorpion. To what fear is this analogy? To the fear that perhaps someday we will not be able to defend ourselves against those who wish to harm us.

For much of the summer, Israelis endured the screams of sirens warning of incoming missiles. Most of the missiles missed their targets, and a large number of them were intercepted midair by Israel’s Iron Dome system. A small number of them landed, and an even smaller number caused damage to property and even loss of life. Daily life was disrupted each day as millions of people scrambled to safety in bomb shelters. And there was the scream of threats made by terrorists who inhabit a tiny sliver of land on Israel’s southern border.

Are these terrorists not examples of the screams of a small beast trying to disrupt daily life for the lion, the disturbance caused by a mosquito crawling up an elephant’s trunk, the poisonous spider attacking the scorpion? Yossi Klein Ha-Levi, the Israeli author and journalist, in a column appearing in The Times of Israel just a few days ago, wrote about the fears he feels as the New Year dawns: He writes, “I am fearful for the future of Israel in a region that is turning mad. Fearful for an Israel surrounded by Hamas and Hezbollah and Al Qeida on its borders and Islamic State moving toward the Jordanian border, and with a nuclear Iran becoming more of a reality with every passing day, even as the West negotiates and delays.” The threats facing Israel are real, and cause fear.

The fourth fear mentioned in the Talmud is the fear of the swallow upon the eagle. Again, Rashi is helpful, for he explains that the swallow creeps underneath the wings of the eagle and hinders it from spreading its wings. In other words, the eagle cannot soar to its usual heights. To what is this fear compared? To the fear that Israel will be forced to make choices that will prevent her from soaring to the highest levels of moral achievement, a moral identity that lies at the very core of her being.

In a speech in memory of Holocaust victims delivered a month ago at Platform 17 in Berlin, Yair Lapid, Israel’s finance minister and the chairman of the Yesh Aid party, made these comments: “The Holocaust placed before Israel and, I would add, before all Jews, a dual challenge. On the one hand it taught us that we must survive at any price, and be able to defend ourselves at any price. Trainloads of Jews will never again depart from a platform anywhere in the world. Our security must forever be in our hands alone.” “But,” he continued, “On the other hand, the Holocaust taught us that no matter the circumstances we must always remain moral people. Human morality is not judged when everything is okay, it is judged by our ability to see the suffering of the other, even when we have every reason to see only our own.”

Lapid’s words resonate with me. The State of Israel, indeed, all Jewish people, have an obligation not only to protect ourselves, we have an obligation to live by a high moral standard. One of the ugly, disheartening aspects of the war with Gaza was the death of so many Palestinian civilians. Israel never intentionally kills civilians, and when it happens it’s never a cause for celebration or joy. Israel’s military and political leaders are guided by the spirit of Jewish tradition, by the teachings of the Torah that tell us that it is a sin to rejoice over the downfall of our enemies. In Israel, the death of innocents evokes a sense of remorse, feelings of regret. The murder of Muhammed Abu Khdeir, the 16-year old Palestinian killed by Jewish Israelis out of revenge for the murder of three teenagers near Hebron, triggered, for the vast majority of the Israeli public, an expression of national shame and soul searching. The fear that we will have to do things out of self-preservation that are a compromise of our moral standards is a real fear.

The fifth instance of fear cast by the weak over the strong is that of the kilbit over the Leviathan. The kilbit is identified as a small fish and the Leviathan is a whale from Jewish folklore associated with the messianic era. According to the Talmud, the Leviathan, a huge animal, fears the tiny kilbit because it can kill it. To what is this fear analogous? It is analogous to the fear that we will lose hope of a better future, symbolized by the coming of the Messiah.

Israel would like to welcome a better future not only for its people but also for the region. Open borders, travel and tourism, diplomatic ties and increased trade are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, one of the symbols that the Zionist dream can be fulfilled, a sign that the Messiah had finally come. Along with its human victims, the past summer has dealt a blow to that dream of a better world, one in which Israel and her neighbors can relax their military posture, invest in building a better life for their citizens and not in guns and tanks. Israel dreams of a future in which her Arab neighbors might teach their children about the great spiritual achievements of Judaism and how our people have enriched the world, a Middle East in which mutual respect, admiration and trust would replace hostility, manipulation, provocation and war. The fear that the kilbit casts over the Leviathan is the fear that such a dream is impossible, the fear that Israel is doomed to guarded isolation for generations to come. And we who love Israel share that dream—it is our fear too.

There you have it—five fears of the weak cast upon the strong. Now, before I go on I want to say clearly that I don’t mean to suggest that all Arabs are weak and all Jews are mighty and strong. The metaphor offered by the Talmud is not perfect, but it does help us to give expression to the fears that we might say Israel, and those who love and care for Israel, feel. Is there anything that can save us from fear, or must we face a lifetime of being afraid. There are no perfect solutions, and in some ways living with fear is built into our DNA as a people. But that said, how do we cope with it?

The answer comes to us from Psalm 27, the psalm I quoted earlier. First, it tells us:

Shivti b’veit Adonai kol y’mei chayai…I wish to dwell in God’s sanctuary all the days of my life.

In other words, the author wishes to not be alone but to cling to a community. Who among us has not seen his fears calmed by the presence of family and friends. Not only is there strength in coming together as a community, there is self-confidence. Our fears abate when we are with others. As a community, we not only pray and talk together, we can unite in action that can be of help to Israel.

Then, the author then turns to perhaps an even greater antidote than community… it stretches beyond the confines of time and space and can have a more lasting effect:

Kavey el adonai chazak, ve-ya’ametz libecha…kavey el adonai- Trust in God and be strong…take courage and hope in God.

The author of the psalm tells us that the antidote to fear is hope. Indeed, hope is one of the great gifts that God gives each human being. Just as we have the power to love, to empathize with the brokenhearted and to feel joy, we have the power to hope that tomorrow will be a better day than today and that it will bring us one step closer to the fulfillment of our dreams. Hope has always accompanied the Jewish people in our travels through the world and sustained us in times of difficulty.

In the face of fear, we dare to hope. We dare to hope that old antagonisms will end and that the extremists among our Arab neighbors will come to understand that violence will not solve the conflict over who should control what portion of the land that God promised to Abraham. We dare to hope that Israelis will be able to offer their gifts of the mind and the heart to help build and develop the Middle East and the world, and that those gifts will be accepted in a spirit of friendship and cooperation. We dare to hope, in the words of the Prophet Micah, that each person shall sit under his own vine and under his fig tree and none shall make him afraid.”

My friends, hope has been our companion for as long as we have journeyed on this earth. Indeed, it is the national anthem of the Jewish people:

Kol od ba-leivav penima, nefesh yehudi homiyah…As long as true Jewish hearts yet beat…u-lefa’atei mizrach kadima, ayin le-tsion tsofia…And Jewish eyes turn longingly Eastward…od lo ovda tikvateinu, hatikva bat shenot alpayim…Our hope of two thousand years is not lost…lihyot am chofshi be-artseinu, eretz tsion veyerushalayim… To be a free people in our own land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

As the New Year dawns may hope conquer our fears. And may we be blessed with a world at peace.

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