The Power of Love – Rosh Ha-Shanah 2012

As most of you know, last month, Adira and I welcomed our first child into
the world. In place of a sermon this morning, I wanted to invite you to listen in
on a letter I wrote to my daughter.

I want to share it with you because I think its lesson is important for us all
to hear. It’s a personal letter, yes, but I think its message is relevant to this
moment in our lives. I invite you to listen as if it were written to you as well as to
my daughter, for in some senses, it was. As individuals and as a congregation
standing at the cusp of a new year, it is my hope that this letter can help us all
find our best pathways forward.

Dear Lilah Sasson,

One thing you will learn as you come to know me is that I am a news
junkie, especially during election season. I became painfully aware of this after
you were born, as the first two weeks of your life coincided with the Republican
and Democratic Parties’ conventions.

There I was, unable to take my eyes off of you, checking every couple of
minutes to make sure you were breathing, obsessing over every involuntary facial
twitch, while at the same time, trying to steal away from rocking you to sleep, just
for a moment or two, so I could listen to some of the speeches.

As I listened, I noticed something incredibly rare, at least in today’s highly
polarized political climate: Agreement.

Just over a week after you were born, the Republican presidential nominee
said, “My mom and dad gave their kids the greatest gift of all – the gift of
unconditional love.”

Then, when you were two weeks old, the First Lady said, “Barack and I
were both raised by families who didn’t have much in the way of money or
material possessions but who had given us something far more valuable – their
unconditional love.”

So there you have it: Bipartisan agreement, in the most partisan era in our
history, that the most important gift we can give is the gift of “unconditional
love.”

Now, I recognize that it’s easy to dismiss something like this as a
meaningless nicety. But I think they are right. Love is essential, maybe even lifesaving. Let me tell you what I mean.

There are many powerful forces in our world that try to convince us that
we are small and insignificant. On TV, at the movies, in ads, we are constantly
told that unless we are skinny enough, wear certain clothes, act a certain way, or
buy certain products, we are worthless. It is not surprising that today, among
youth, there are epidemics of eating disorders, depression, addiction, STDs, and
suicide. Many kids are killing themselves because they are being told that who
they are will never be good enough, will never meet others’ expectations of them.
The one thing powerful enough to combat these forces is a strong internal
sense of one’s own value and worth. This is the gift that only love can grant us.
Knowing that we are loved can provide us with an internal voice reminding
us how precious we are. This has the power to drown out the voices that that
prey on our self-doubt, that constantly whisper in our ear, “You are worthless.
Here, wear these clothes; give up your body; drink this; take this hit –
then, then, you’ll feel better.” Many of us yearn so deeply to feel accepted and
acknowledged that we’re willing to do just about anything – however wrong or
unsafe – to get that feeling. Some of us, feeling insecure about our self-worth,
simply cower before life’s challenges. We assume that we will fail or be rejected
before we even try, so we run away or give up.
While counseling recovering addicts at Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish treatment
center in Los Angeles, client after client would tell me about how they used drugs
to quiet the internal voices that taunted, “you are unloved; you are worthless.”
Take Eddie. Eddie’s biological father ran away when he was just a boy,
and he grew up believing this happened because his father hated him. Eddie has
carried this terrible baggage with him his whole life. Seeing himself as
fundamentally loathsome, he assumes that anyone with whom he gets close will
inevitably leave him, so he has a pattern of sabotaging his relationships. And
Eddie used heroin for years to escape his painful perception of reality.
Eddie’s perception, of course, is not reality. He is handsome, affable,
sensitive and smart; a talented musician; an excellent surfer. But with his
perception of himself serving as his reality, Eddie was robbed of his dignity, his
humanity, and his ability to flourish. What would Eddie’s life have looked like if
he were given the freedom to see himself as he truly was?

This is what Shir ha-Shirim, Song of Songs, means when it teaches us, “ki
azah kha-mavet ahavah; love is as powerful as death.” Love, like water, seems
soft and supple; yet it is powerful enough to penetrate stone, mighty enough to
extinguish fire. Love is a liberating force more powerful than fear, hate, and in
some ways, even death.

I once asked my rabbi, Brad Artson, how he was able to speak with such
poise to rooms filled with thousands of strangers. I’ll never forget his answer:
“It’s easy for me. I had the best Mom in the world. She showed me that I was
loved in everything I did. So when I walk into a room full of people, I assume
they all love me like my mother did. And then I can speak with confidence and
conviction, believing that they will love me no matter what.”

Of course, love is not a panacea. Sometimes, love doesn’t do what it’s
supposed to. Sometimes, for example, people have problems that are so deeply
rooted no amount of love can resolve them. Some struggle with issues like
addiction and depression even though they have been given lots of love from
parents or other authority figures. Their challenges are not the result of bad
parenting or a lack of love.

At the same time, it is no coincidence that a First Lady and a former
governor both point to love as a defining feature of their upbringing. Knowing
that we are loved frees us to be ourselves, to take risks, and to confidently achieve
our goals.

Olam hesed yibaneh, proclaims the Psalmist. The world will be built
through love. Our lives are most successfully built if there is a foundation of love
upon which to build them.

This is why our tradition is so insistent that God loves us. Each morning
we pray, Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu Adonai Eloheinu; You, Holy One, our God,
love us with a great love. Scripture repeatedly offers the assurance that we are
truly valuable, for we are important enough to be loved by the Master of the
World. Through this faith we can be empowered to live better lives.
If the goal of the High Holy Days is to get us back on the track of living our
best lives, then it is not surprising why our tradition has us recite Psalm 27
throughout the entire season: “The Holy One is my light and my help; whom
should I fear? The Holy One is the Stronghold of my life; whom shall I dread?”
The work we have to do on the High Holy Days – which, in essence, is the work
we are continually invited to do – depends on us knowing that we are loved.
As your mother and I were preparing for your delivery, we made a couple
of iTunes playlists for the hospital room, hoping the music would distract and
soothe us during labor. There were more than a hundred songs on those
playlists, and we played them on shuffle. Somehow, serendipity saw fit to have
the song “When You Believe.” playing at the moment you came into this world. A
beautiful ballad from the film The Prince of Egypt, “When You Believe” testifies
to the great things we can achieve when empowered by faith in God’s love.
In the movie, the song appears right after the Israelites cross through the
Reed Sea, reminding us of the midrash that the sea would not have split without
the confidence of some Israelites, who bravely waded into the Sea without
knowing for sure that God would split it. Uncertain whether they would be killed
by Pharaoh’s charioteers or by drowning in the water, some heroic Israelites had 4
to be confident enough to close their eyes and slip below the waves on the hope
that God would do great things for them.

In life, many of us feel paralyzed, metaphorically trapped between Egypt
and the Sea. Knowing we are loved, knowing that we are worthy of love, knowing
that God wants greatness for us and wants to do great things for us, can give us
the confidence necessary to face down and embrace our fears, to liberate
ourselves from that paralysis. “It’s easy to give in to your fears,” the song teaches,
But when you’re blinded by your pain…
A small but still, resilient voice
Says love is very near.”

And now we come to the heart of the matter: Why am I writing you this
letter? I am writing you, first, to make sure you know that I will love you always,
wherever you are, wherever I am, no matter what. And I want you to hold this
truth deep down, no matter what anyone else tries to tell you, no matter what
challenges you face: you are special, you are worthy, you are enough. I hope that
this knowledge gifts you with the confidence to achieve great things.
And I am writing to make sure you know that every bit as much as your
Ima and I love you, God loves you. This is important because…we will not be
with you forever. This is why Psalm 27 goes on to say, “Ki avi v’imi azavuni, vaAdonai ya’asfeini, even when my father and mother leave me, the Holy One will
gather me in.” I want you to believe in a God of love because it will strengthen
you while Ima and I are alive, and it will help sustain you after we have left this
world.

But most importantly, I write this to you as a challenge.

Olam hesed yibaneh, the Psalmist proclaims. The world will be built
through love. Our world will be repaired when we bestow our love on others,
when our love erupts in acts of justice and righteousness.

Love, if it is doing its job right, frees us to serve others. Those who do not
know they are loved tend to focus on themselves. Too busy looking for ways to
alleviate their own pain, to fulfill their need for validation, they simply can’t
worry about others’ pain. Knowing that we are loved enables us to think less
about ourselves, and more about others.

More than this, knowing you are loved means you are duty-bound to love
in return. As God loves us, we are commanded to love God back – v’ahavta et
Adonai eloheikha b’khol levavkha u-v’khol nafshekha u-v’khol m’odekha/ You
shall love the Holy One your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with
all your might.

Having been loved, you become charged with giving that gift to as many
other people as possible, especially to those who are most vulnerable to the 5
unrelenting and dangerous anxiety that they are unworthy of love. Our Torah
says that we must love the immigrant, who is persistently denigrated and cast to
society’s shadows; the orphan, the one who has lost her parents and therefore has
no living reminder of her parents’ love; and the widow, the one struggling with
grief who may not know how to pick up the pieces. To this list, for our time, I
would add the homeless, the jobless, victims of war and slavery, those with
special needs, and those who are LGBTQ. Your task is to make sure that they
know they are loved, that they are infinitely valuable manifestations of the Divine
Image, that they are enough. Your task is to ensure they know that they
matter to you and to the Creator of the Universe.

For these reasons, I want to emphasize to you that love is not simply an
emotion. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “I’m not talking about emotional
bosh when I talk about love.” Love is an action. Rabbi Artson teaches, “In Jewish,
love is something that erupts in behavior. Before the word hesed comes the word
oseh. One does hesed.” It is not enough for me to feel love for you internally or
even to constantly tell you how much I love you. Ultimately, my actions speak.
So giving others the gift of your love means that you are tasked with
showing it through deed. Our tradition has a term for this: gemilut hasadim, a
category that involves being an empathetic presence for people in pain, for those
who have been cast to the margins, for those who have been told that they are
small and worthless. Accompany them. Befriend them. Comfort them. Laugh
and rejoice with them. Provide them with food, shelter, and clothing.
And Judaism teaches that just as love is infinite, there is no limit to the
deeds we can do to show others our love. There is always more love to give. And
your task, Dear One, is to keep giving.

As you do, your Ima and I pledge to continue to love you endlessly, and we
affirm the faith that God does, too.

Love,
Abba

Dear Har Zion Temple,

I just shared with you a letter to my daughter, offering her the best wisdom
I can at this moment in my life. I share it with you believing that its wisdom has
relevance for us as well.

As individuals, I hope that in this New Year, you will choose love. As a
new parent I want to remind those of us who are still blessed to have our parents
around that there is no limit to the love we should show them. And Parents, as a
son I want to remind you of what you doubtlessly already know: it is impossible
to show your children – even your grown children – enough love. Every
expression of love – in word, and especially in deed – strengthens, empowers, 6
and encourages them. So in 5773, parents and children, please love each other
more.

More than that, this New Year, I urge you to perform as many deeds of
love as possible for others, especially for those who are most vulnerable to feeling
unloved. Be there for those who are sick, in pain, or bereaved. Act with love
especially toward immigrants, those without homes, and those without jobs.
Show your love to those with special needs, and those who are LGBTQ. In our
brutal time, these folks need your love more than ever.

And this New Year, in those moments when fear and doubt plague you,
when taunting voices seek to convince you that you are unworthy or insignificant,
when you feel you’ll never be enough, I hope you remember that God loves you. I
hope this offers you courage and confidence. I hope it propels you to look
outward and help others, to make sure that as many as possible feel emboldened
by the power of your love; to offer a love that erupts in acts of kindness,
generosity, and justice on their behalf.

Finally, as a community, I know that this coming year looms as one of
great challenge for us. Many of us find ourselves troubled by our past and
uncertain about our future. Anxiety hangs thick in the air, with many openly
wondering whether Har Zion’s best days are behind us.

So I want to tell you: I believe in Har Zion Temple, and so should you.
Over the past year, and especially over the past several weeks, Adira and I
have been overwhelmed by this community’s kindness, warmth, and love. Your
gifts, your meals, your generous charitable donations, and, most importantly,
your calls, emails, cards, hugs, and kisses have meant more than you can know.
The kind deeds of hundreds of you in this room are embodiments of gemilut
hasadim. You are a testament to love’s extraordinary power, for I know how
strengthened I feel by your love. Your importance in our lives is profound and
deep.

I know that Adira and I are not the only ones in this room who feel this
way about this Holy Community. Have folks here made mistakes? Of course.
Have we missed the mark from time to time? No doubt. Sometimes, the errors
were grave, the pain very real. Where possible, true teshuvah must occur. Those
of us who may have hurt others in the community, whether intentionally or
unintentionally, should do whatever it takes to bring reconciliation.

Nevertheless, I would still bet that nearly every person in this room could
attest to Har Zion, at one point or another, helping them through a difficult time,
contributing to a joyous celebration, or offering them a new insight. Har Zion is
worthy; important in the lives of so many of us and, I believe, to God as well. Yes,
I believe in Har Zion, and so should you.

So this year, I want us to believe in our value, to know how loved we are.
Armed with that belief, armed with that love, we can step boldly and 7
courageously into our future. And we can focus on gifting our love to those in
need, maximizing the good we do for others and the contributions we can make
to world-repair.

I believe in Har Zion. I believe in Har Zion because this is a place of a lot
of love. I believe in Har Zion because I believe in the Psalmist, who said our world
will be built through love. I believe we are up to the challenges before us because
I believe in love’s power to help us overcome any obstacle. I believe in love’s
power to change destinies. And a song, playing at the birth of a baby, reminds us,
“There can be miracles when you believe, though hope is frail, it’s hard to kill.
Who knows what miracles you can achieve? When you believe, somehow you will.
You will when you believe.” I believe in Har Zion, and I hope, in this New Year,
you will too.

Shanah Tovah.

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