The Challenges of Parenting . . . Even for God

Erev Yom Kippur 5773

Temple Sinai, Reno, NV

I continue, this Kol Nidre evening, with the theme of my High Holiday sermons this year, which is “The Shema and its blessings”. With the help of liturgist and scholar Lawrence Hoffman, we’ve been looking at these opening prayers of our worship service, that – in many ways – articulate who we Jews are. In so doing, I hope that we’ll come better to know and understand those prayer book words that we regularly invoke. And we’ll also try to find special meaning within them for the sacred tasks of this awesome time in our Jewish year.

On Rosh HaShanah, I spoke about the first of these prayers – the Barchu, or call to worship, and about the first blessing that follows it and precedes the Shema, which is the Yotzeir prayer about God as Creator. Tonight, I move to the second of these post-Barchu blessings – the Birkat HaTorah or the blessing for Torah. This is not the Torah blessing (or blessings) of an aliyah, when one is actually called to the reading of our sacred scroll. Rather, this is a blessing that more broadly affirms the manifestation of God’s love for Israel by way of the gift of Torah. In our evening version, this blessing begins Ahavat Olam – “everlasting love” – you offered your people – and in the morning, the corollary blessing begins Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu – “with a great love you have loved us.” While their wording is slightly different, the theme of both evening and morning versions of this prayer is the same. That theme, as the prayer further on makes explicitly clear, is that God’s love for the people Israel is made manifest through the giving of laws and commandments – specifically, by means of the gift of Torah.

Now “love” is surely a wonderful thing! But it is also not easily defined. Precisely, how does God love us, the people Israel?

Well, this love, that is manifest through the giving of Torah, is further explained in our prayer as most closely resembling parental love. With apologies for the gender-bias, God is evoked as “our father” and “our father, merciful father.” This fatherly, or parental love, is underscored by word plays in the Hebrew, where the word for “father,” or Av, and the word for “love,” ahavah, sound very similar.

Still, the complexity of love remains. One image of fatherly love links it simply to a kind of natural compassion. So in Psalm 103 we read, “Just as a father has compassion upon his children, so Adonai has compassion upon those who revere him.” In Proverbs 1.8, the imagery is of a “father (and mother) as teacher,” when we read there, “Heed, my son, the instruction of your father and do not abandon the teaching of your mother.”

Which brings us nicely back ‘round to the central notion of tonight’s prayer, which – again – is that the primary way that God manifests love for us is just by giving us the Torah in the first place. Now, as liberal Jews, it may be a bit hard to swallow that God loves us by handing us a code of rules and regulations. But think back to that analogy of parent and child. Children who grow up in a home without rules are likely more often to experience apathy rather than love. As any parent knows, it takes considerable commitment and energy to frame and enforce reasonable rules. At their worst, rules become an expression of parental power exerted over children. This, perhaps, is our image of fundamentalist religious faith. But at their best, parents make rules as an act of love, hoping to teach their children proper behavior and generally guide them in becoming a mensch. In like manner our Birkat HaTorah asks God to enable us to experience Torah as an expression of divine love, that we – in turn – will value learning its teachings ourselves, will transmit these life lessons to others, and – most importantly – will fulfill the precepts of Torah in our own lives.

Think back to the prayer that immediately precedes our Birkat HaTorah and about which I spoke on the morning of Rosh HaShanah. This is the Yotseir prayer in the morning and the Ma’ariv Aravim prayer in the evening. From those prayers to this prayer, about the gift of Torah, you may notice an important – and maybe difficult – theological jump. The prayer, that we talked about on Rosh HaShanah morning, was about an awesome Creator God. That aspect of God, while accessible to us in nature, is ultimately transcendent and far away in the heavens and in the mystery of creation. When we turn to the Birkat HaTorah, however, our image of God has moved to one that is immanent and near, first at Sinai and then ever after in the revelation received there. This tension between divine transcendence and imminence is something that we hear, throughout our High Holiday liturgy, especially every time we read and sing the Avinu Malkeinu. God is both Malkeinu – a transcendent King or Sovereign – and Avinu – a warmer, nearer Father or Parent.

Furthermore, God of nature – the image in the Yotseir and Ma’ariv Aravim prayers – this God of nature is a universal God, for nature is there for all of us – Jew and non-Jew alike. In this evening’s blessing, the Birkat HaTorah, God is – on the other hand — very particular. This God is our God, the God of revelation to us at Sinai. God has moved from universal concern for all of creation to specific care for, and revelation to, a particular people – that is us, the people Israel.

Which brings us to that sticky theological wicket that seems always to rear its thorny head . . . that is, this matter of “the Chosen People.” In fact, the second paragraph of the morning version of this Brikat HaTorah states this doctrine quite baldly with the words “You have chosen us from among all peoples and nations and brought us closer to your great name with truth, to acknowledge You and declare your unity with love. Blessed are You, Adonai, who chooses his People Israel with love.” The wording, of the evening version of this prayer, makes the chosen people case a little less strongly, but still it is there.

Now I’ve spoken to this issue of chosenness before. To sum up briefly, once again tonight – Torah and rabbinic tradition are repeatedly and explicitly clear that this notion was never meant to be a statement of any kind of superiority of the Jewish People. In fact, we are repeatedly told, by traditional Jewish sources of all stripes, that we neither were, nor are, the most moral nor the most numerous nor the most anything-else among the other peoples of the earth. We are also told that to be “chosen” is more about obligations than privileges. Our covenant with God comes with a rigorous price – that is, the privilege of knowing and the responsibility for fulfilling God’s commandments.

But with all that, the issue of chosenness remains challenging. It is the centerpiece of that tricky dance we do within that tension of universal versus particular. We are citizens of both the world and the Jewish people. We share universal values with all others and yet have a distinct way in which we learn and live them. We try to maintain that every group can have its special relationship with God and the Ultimate, while at the same time celebrating the unique covenant that is ours.

And we see that dance of thought and faith played out in our prayer book. We praise the God of universal creation, and we celebrate the God of particular revelation. We pray to a God who is transcendent, and as far away as the heavens, and to a God who is as imminent and near as our own breathing. And whatever the tensions among these various poles of deity and covenant, we somehow try to live out our faith betwixt and between and among them all.

And that is my ultimate message on this Kol Nidre evening. On this perhaps most awesome night of our Jewish year, we ought be deeply challenged by the tensions intrinsic to being a faithful Jew. Except that I don’t really want to call any of this a “tension.” For if we dig really deeply into what it means to be a committed Jew, we had better – in my opinion, at least – we had better come upon challenges that demand we stretch our minds and hearts and faith. If we believe in any sort of God at all, then we better know that such belief is not going to be uncomplicated. And working through those “interesting complexities” should be at the very heart of our Yom Kippur introspection and atonement. And we had also best be ever aware that both the universal and the particular demand our best efforts in thought and deed.

As we weigh our transgressions of the year past and make our commitments for the year to come, let us constantly be challenged to evaluate and promise with a strong sense of both our universal obligations and our very particular faith grounding. I think that we just can’t have one without the other. Not if we mean to be serious about the work of this sacred, and complex, season.

And so, tonight’s prayer – the Birkat haTorah – taken in context with the earlier prayers that surround the Shema, tonight’s prayer reminds us that the work of faith is challenging and multi-vocal. A real God is complicated. As is right living. On this awesome night of Kol Nidre, we don’t pray that the complexities be made simple. We pray instead that the complexities will compel us to never stop asking the hard questions of ultimate meaning and the behavior it demands. We pray that our worship, especially the deep soul-searching of these High Holy Days – we pray that our worship will give us comfort as we chart a path among the challenges of a truly thoughtful faith life. And we pray, even, to be discomfited. Enough so that we will have no moral choice but to keep bravely facing the hard questions of belief and the deeds that such belief requires.

As Yom Kippur – and our entire High Holiday season – begins to come to a close, we give real thanks for the gift of Torah, as does our Birkat HaTorah prayer. We pray for strength to walk in its challenges, we pray to be shepherded through them by a God whether far or near, and we pray to arrive at a place where all our theological wrestlings will lead to right living.

No small task to be sure. But just in taking the task seriously . . . doing our best to accomplish whatever portion of it we can – just that, I believe, holds the promise that we will, indeed, be sealed for a year of blessing. And Torah will truly be a living gift.

Chatimah Tovah. May we indeed be sealed for a year of faithful challenge and the blessings that flow therefrom.