Rosh Hashana 5779 Sermon

Rosh Hashana - 5779
“The Fear of Isaac”
Rabbi Jamie Gibson
September 10, 2018

Have you ever been scared? I don’t mean “Phantom’s Revenge at Kennywood” scared. I don’t mean “That movie was so scary” scared. I don’t even mean “My kid broke her wrist and we had to go to the ER” scared. No, I mean so scared your life flashes before you.

I have been that scared. It was Spring, 1983. I was driving on a two-lane blacktop to Seminole, Oklahoma, on my way to lead services at the little congregation I visited twice a month as a student rabbi.

It was one of my last visits before ordination. Driving down the highway I saw a car roaring up the other way, a Cutlass 88, if anyone remembers those. I noticed that it was fishtailing, its rear swerving from right to left. I watched as the right front tire dipped off the road and the driver wrenched it back up which only made it worse.

At that moment, I knew we were going to crash. I was driving a Chevy Chevette. We were going at least 50 when we hit. And thank God I was wearing my seatbelt or I would not be here today. I remember vividly the moment of blind fear. Nothing I could do would prevent this crash, and I didn’t know what would happen.

I think most of us have experienced that kind of fear. From car accidents to getting fired to receiving a terrible diagnosis, from hearing about an affair to getting divorced, from finding out our child is in jail to learning our best friend had a heart attack, we know that kind of fear. We feel it in the pit of our stomachs. One of the earliest examples of this fear is what we just read in the Torah this morning.

Reading Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son I cannot get past the moment when Isaac realizes he is about to die. The text is simple, direct, and clear. “Abraham bound his son, Isaac and laid him upon the altar, on top of the wood. He stretched out his hand and took up the knife to slay his son.” (Genesis 22.9-10)

Now, in the very next sentence, the angel calls out to Abraham to stop him. But there this nanosecond between the two sentences when even we, hearing the story for the umpteenth time, are terrified for Isaac. According to our tradition, that fear traumatized Isaac for life.

How do we know this? We get a hint in the next generation. Isaac’s son, Jacob tries to flee from his uncle, Laban, with his wives, children, and livestock. Laban chases after him.

When he catches up to Jacob they argue but reach an agreement for Jacob to continue on to Canaan. Jacob swears that he will keep his word, promising by “Elohei Avraham, the “God of Abraham,” and then, “Pachad Yitzchak,” translated as the “Fear of Isaac.”

This term for God is found nowhere else in the Torah. It is a powerful phrase, Pachad Yitzchak, the Fear of Isaac. Our commentators struggled to parse its meaning. One Sage has no doubts: Rabbi David Kimchi, from 12th century Spain, says this refers to the moment that Isaac was bound on the altar by his father, an unforgettable pachad, or fear.

But we know that this kind of fear is not limited to Isaac. Many of us here today feel pachad, not just from remembering our Torah portion. What kind of pachad pulls us up short today, even as we celebrate a new year?

Take Dave and Nancy. They got married young, brought three kids into the world and raised them with love. But after their youngest was born, Nancy was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was game to fight it with everything she had, but it was so scary.

That fear came to a head just before Nancy’s bone marrow transplant. Finding a compatible donor had been hard enough. Now the doctor warned the procedure would be very painful.

The night before the transplant was the longest of their lives. Abraham’s knife seemed to hover over them into the wee hours. Although they tried to pray, terror robbed them of words and faith. They held hands through sterile gloves and held on for dear life through tears. That is pachad.

Then there’s Paul. He’s a State Patrol officer. He investigates everything from speeding cars to rural drug dealing. Every traffic stop his stomach flutters. Is this the time he will have to not only draw his weapon but use it? He is terrified that he will either hurt someone or be hurt because he hesitates. He has a wife and two teenagers at home. Once he fires his weapon he knows his life will change forever.

Late one night Paul pulls someone over on the Parkway West, the driver doing 85. At first, the driver does not respond to his lights and siren. Finally, the car pulls over. Paul pulls in behind. He gets out and, to his surprise, the driver also gets out and starts walking toward him. It is a white man, and his hands are tucked into his jacket pockets. Paul can’t tell if the man has a gun or not.

Ten yards away, Paul yells for the man to stop and take his hands out of his pockets. He stops, but his hands don’t move. Paul stands his ground, and shouts again for the man to show his hands. He doesn’t, so Paul raises his weapon and firmly says, “Sir. Take your hands out of your pockets right now. If you don’t, this will become very dangerous for the both of us.”

The man slowly takes his hands out. No weapon. After patting him down, Paul says calmly, “Sir, get back in your car and put your hands on the wheel.” The man complies, moving sluggishly. Paul approaches warily. 

“Now what do you want me do?” the driver asks, slurring his speech. “Do you want my registration?” And he reaches for the glove compartment. “Don’t!” Paul yells. He has no idea what might be inside there.

Suddenly, the man darts his hand toward the glove compartment again. Furious now, Paul pulls the driver out of the car. He handcuffs him and places him in the back seat of his cruiser. Paul checks the glove compartment. Sure enough, there is a loaded weapon inside. 

Paul starts shaking. It was so close, the man’s hand a couple inches from it. He is so lucky. This night he would neither shoot or be shot. But it was terrifying, even for a veteran like him. That is pachad.

And if Paul feels pachad, what about the African-American men in our city who are this scared from the other end of this encounter, who wonder if complying with a police officer’s instructions will be enough to keep them safe? That confrontation is too often fraught with pachad on both sides, a fear that we have not been able to manage in this city.

Then there is the Cohen family. They’ve traveled to Washington, DC, to take part in a peaceful demonstration on behalf of immigrants. And suddenly, they find themselves caught up in a brawl between hooded Antifa members and swastika-wearing white supremacists. A bottle hits the father’s head, gashing him. Blood runs down his cheek. The parents instinctively shield their kids with their bodies until the fight moves on. “What was that about?” one of their kids asks. And the parents can’t answer, they are shaking with fright. That is pachad.

What scares you this day? What gives you pachad, the kind of fear that won’t go away with a few deep breaths, a glass of water, and a hug? Is it personal? Is it political? Does it threaten your well-being?

I feel pachad today. I feel pachad for Israel, for America and for our people.

I feel pachad for Israel. I am no novice to its challenges. This year I will visit for the 32nd time. I am a proud Zionist. I have lived there. I have led 11 congregational trips. I smile when I land at Ben Gurion airport because it is my second home.

But I feel pachad when I read stories of journalist Peter Beinart and philanthropist Meyer Kaplow being detained at Ben Gurion airport because the government doesn’t like their views or the political pamphlet they carry. 

I feel pachad when a Conservative rabbi is hauled out of bed in Haifa at 5:30 in the morning for police questioning. Why? Horror of horrors, he performed a wedding without the sanction of the state rabbinate! The only good part of the story is that requests for him to do weddings have tripled since his interrogation!

I fear for Israel because, even though I understand the motivation for the recent Nation-State Law, it has divided Israel from within and exposed it to withering critique from abroad. Even President Ruvy Rivlin has said that this law is “bad for the Jews and bad for Israel.” That said, I believe in Israel as a Jewish state. I don’t apologize for that in the least. 

But I also believe in the democratic ideals of Israel as set out in its Declaration of Independence. It proclaims equal treatment for all of Israel’s inhabitants as well as equal standing under the law.

Liberal Zionists like myself and more conservative ones, like Yossi Klein Halevi, believe passionately that Israel cannot be only Jewish or democratic. It must be both to fulfill its vision and promise.

So, I believe that stifling Palestinian identity and economic life is itself a threat to Israel’s well-being. And I wonder, will I be questioned when I land at Ben Gurion the next time? I will live with that pachad, that fear, because I love Israel so very much. But the fear is real and it is not going away.

I fear for our country, the America that I love. I grew up in a household in which there was a lot of political argument. We’d raise our voices at dinner. It was that dinner table taught me that engagement, not rabid partisanship, is the essence of being a citizen. 

I love that word, citizen. As kids we were graded on citizenship. To be a citizen means accepting rights and responsibilities. Raising our voices is not enough. Citizenship demands we inform ourselves, that we advocate, and most important, we VOTE. Elections determine our direction, policy, and vision as a nation.

But I feel pachad, fear, when our leaders demonize other human beings as part of national policy. Demonizing Latinos and Latinas as criminals has made it possible for our government to put children in cages and separate families in a way that gives most of us the chills.

I’m feel pachad, fear, when our government arrests children and puts three-year-olds in front of judges for legal proceedings. To this day we have not reunited all the children and their parents despite a federal judge’s order to do so!

We have taken illegal immigrants out of their homes, their work places and even arrested a man driving his pregnant wife to the hospital. Does this not give you pachad, fear?

I’m scared for the sake of those who are arrested, incarcerated, separated, and deported. But it also scares me because we don’t know where this policy will end. Which group should we fear next? This fear of the other, especially the brown other, is blinding us to their humanity. This pachad is not going away. It is getting worse.

I am terrified of the name-calling that has erupted in the Jewish community, not just during the tenure of this President. People have lost friendships, colleagues have stopped speaking to each other. Some Jews have been seduced by the notion that if a person thinks differently from us, that person is either morally repugnant or deserving of attack.

Now, we Jews are the masters of argument. I won’t say we invented it, but sitting in my office is the Babylonian Talmud, 20 volumes of rabbis arguing over a period of 700 years! And, with one notable exception, no one is read out of our people because they disagree.

But in Boston, two Reform colleagues dared to support the Muslim community, which was attacked in the Jewish press. As a result they were themselves attacked by Jewish conservatives online and by phone with the worst kind of personal slander. They were trolled mercilessly, deceitfully, and with malice. Even in Boston, a beacon of Jewish community vision, we have leaders who seek to ruin lives and reputations by branding opponents as enemies of the Jewish people.

Let me say it clearly here and now. I am friends with right-wing Zionists and left wing peace-niks. I meet with Muslims and have, for the last two years, invited them to share Shabbat dinner and services with us. I am a friend of Bishop Zubik and other wonderful Catholic priests who are literally shattered over the abuse scandal.

This summer I and two pastors organized a rally to protest our government’s policy of the separation of families. Eight hundred braved a tempest to take part. I planned this with clergy who question my support for Israel. We strongly disagree yet work together for the common good. My dear African-American pastor friends are often to the left of where I stand. I work with Evangelicals who are certain I am headed for perdition because I don’t believe in Jesus.

It would be so easy to give in to the fear, to gather like-minded allies and band together against the other side. Because some dangers we face are real, not imagined. Why would we want to give aid and comfort to those whose views threaten us? Shouldn’t we just gird ourselves for battle?

But this is pachad speaking, not our best selves. This fear corrodes our hearts and deforms our spirits. Living with the fear of Abraham’s knife over our heads is no way to live. So how might we respond to the fear that grips so many of us?

The opposite of fear is not love. It is not faith. It is trust. And just as we Jews are masters of argument, we have a long history of trust. Trust in God. Trust in each other. Trust that the world is good and not evil, even when we are dismayed by what is going on around us. It’s in our sacred words: The first chapter of Genesis, the whole second half of Isaiah. The world is good. God is good. Human beings are good.

I challenge us today to find someone we know we disagree with on an issue of substance, sit down with them and talk. Find out what drives them, what makes them tick, why they believe as they do, even if we think they are wrong. Even if they are wrong, they just might be good people. As Yossi Klein Halevi wrote about his outreach to Palestinians, curiosity and empathy dissolve our self-righteousness.

It will take more than one conversation to appreciate another whose views challenge us to our core. We may only agree to disagree. But we are not, we must not, we cannot be each other’s enemies, as Jews, as Americans, as human beings.

When Derek Black, son of notorious white nationalist Don Black, enrolled in New College, the honors college of Florida, he hid his background so he wouldn’t get hassled on campus. He believed in hate, just like his father. Since New College is extremely liberal he tried to go unnoticed. But social media being what it is, he was outed fairly quickly. He prepared for the worst on campus.

Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jewish student, heard about Derek Black and the hate he stood for and he did the only thing he could think of to confront it: He invited Derek to Shabbat dinner. Derek accepted. He even brought a bottle of wine. 

And so began two years of Shabbat dinners in which Derek Black came face to face with the Jews he had opposed his whole life. Matthew and his friends did not hassle him for his beliefs. They talked about life, art, history and music. And over time, Derek Black realized that he could no longer hate Jews or blacks. Matthew Stevenson trusted that caring and friendship could build trust, and trust would be stronger than hate and fear. And he was right.

Pachad, fear, is real. But so is trust. Isaac certainly feared the worst, but he trusted that whatever happened, life or death, would, in the end, be for the good. His trust was rewarded with life, even though this is not guaranteed for any of us.

The Cohen family escaped the demonstration in DC without further harm, although they were terribly frightened. They learned to trust each other more than ever. They trusted that taking part in our nation’s public life was important.

Paul, the state patrolman, walked away with a bad case of nerves but a better sense of what to do next time. He came to trust in both his training and his humanity, that he would never endanger a life unless it was to save another.

Dave and Nancy suffered heartbreak when Nancy lost her battle with cancer. But Dave came to trust his friends and family to help him raise his kids. They are now incredible adults who trust in the love their mother instilled in them. That pachad, the fear, did not derail their lives, although its memory will be with them forever. It strengthened them.

I survived my head-on crash and somehow led Shabbat services that night. 

When I arrived at my host home, Wendy, an osteopathic doctor, asked if she could examine me. I sat in her examination chair as she put her hands on my neck and back. 

I flinched at her touch. “I’m okay,” I said. “I’m sure you are,” she replied. “Are you afraid I’m going to hurt you?” “No, I trust you,” I said. “I’m not sure you do,” Wendy said. “Try to relax so I can examine your neck.”

I took a deep breath. Her hands felt cool on my skin. She examined with infinite patience and gentle touch. All the time, she spoke in a quiet voice: “You’ve had such a shock. You must have been terrified. I think you still are. Do you know that no one expected you to lead services tonight? Except you.”

Her words challenged me. Her touch soothed me. I breathed deeper and deeper until I was in a light sleep. Wendy said softly, “You are worthy of living beyond fear. You are worthy of healing. You are worthy of life, love, and trust.”

She repeated her words: “You are worthy of living beyond fear. You are worthy of healing. You are worthy of life, love, and trust. Life, and love, and trust.” I woke up. Dr. Wendy said I had many tears in my neck muscles but that they would heal. She said I would heal, that I could trust her words. My fear finally began to dissipate.

Despite all pachad, all fear, we are worthy, too. I pray that our pachad, our fear, as a country, as a people and as individuals, might find healing in Dr. Wendy’s words. For you are worthy of a life beyond fear. All of you. You are worthy of life, love, and trust. All of you. You are worthy of life, love, and trust. Life. Trust. Love.


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