Rosh Hashanah 2020 - Taking Our Faith Back
Updated: Sep 11, 2021
The following is the sermon delivered at the Valley Temple in Wyoming, Ohio on September 19th, 2020 for Rosh Hashanah morning.
I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted. Not the kind of exhausted that requires a good night of sleep. I mean the kind of exhausted that comes from an extended period of high anxiety, high stress, constant struggle. I am the kind of exhausted that comes from an unending exertion that doesn’t seem to go away. I’m exhausted from a loss of faith.
The year 5780 has been the year where our faith has been tested. I don’t mean faith in God, per se. I mean the faith that we have in the world working out as we expect it to. In March, we lost our faith that daily life will continue as expected, that a sense of “normal” would always be an option. In June, we lost the faith in our police, when the people who are sworn to protect our health and wellbeing demonstrated that they are incapable of doing so fairly across demographics and backgrounds. In July, we began to lose faith in one another, when the response to the pandemic became a partisan issue, rather than a desperate course of action to preserve health and wellness for all.
In each of these examples, we felt the crush of emotion that comes with the inability to assume certain things about the world. Our brains are programmed in order to take things for granted; I don’t have to think about the way certain things work, because they’ve always been this way, and I can just assume it will be like that again. But all of that isn’t true anymore.
When we talk about faith, this morning’s parashah is one of the defining moments in Jewish tradition. When God tells Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, we read that this was a test of Abraham’s faith, that this was a way for God to assess just how much Abraham trusted in God’s guidance and partnership. Abraham is so willing to go through with God’s wishes that he makes, what could be considered rash, irresponsible, overzealous decisions. But in so doing, Abraham actually models for us what we can do to better understand when our faith is tested by individuals, by institutions, and yes, even by God.
Abraham’s first action is to move forward immediately in following God’s instructions. Our sages tell us that this is because of his devotion to God that he didn’t wait even a moment to fulfill God’s wishes, but we might learn a different lesson. Abraham did not give himself time to step back, to reflect, to think about what it is that God was asking and to potentially ask for more information or clarification. Elsewhere in the Torah, Abraham does demonstrate a willingness to argue with God, to make sure he and God were on the same page. In this instance, though, it was his eagerness that likely got him into trouble. We, ourselves, need to take the time to be connected with our own inner voice, to listen when our minds and bodies are telling us something is amiss. We are often our own best defense mechanism against the places where our trust and faith are most challenged. We need to re-engage the faith in ourselves, knowing that we have all the tools to make healthy choices in life, if only we pay enough attention to what our minds and bodies are telling us.
But this isn’t universal. There are plenty of factors that make it so that we can’t blindly follow the faith we have in ourselves. Because as Abraham went on his journey with Isaac to the mountain that God would show them, Isaac questioned his father, saying, “I see the wood and the flint, but where is the offering that we are giving to God?” In questioning his father’s behavior, Isaac symbolizes the way we hold each other accountable, the way each of us in society is able to ask questions of each other with poise, care, and thought. The people with whom we engage are our release valve against the moments when our faith in ourselves in limited. We have the opportunity to have faith that others will catch us when we fall. We learn from Abraham that we owe it to ourselves and to others to have faith that we can help guide one another, and that we have to have faith that everyone is willing to do the work to make a better world, which starts with our own ability to listen, to learn, and to react to the new information that others might show us.
Finally, Abraham shows one more time the way that faith can be problematic, when, after setting up the sacrifice and getting all of the details in order, he is stopped by an angel, calling down to him that he shouldn’t harm his son. What a difficult lesson for us, his ancestors, to make sense of when we ourselves don’t get this kind of divine interaction. We cannot have our faith depend entirely on an angel stopping us from our misguided acts of faith. Instead, we have to work to build an understanding of God that allows us to feel connected to holiness and our sense of sanctity without the hand of God pushing us overtly in the right direction. As we borrow from the teachings of Saint Ignatius, “Pray as if everything depended on God, act as if everything depended on you.”
From the personal to the communal to the institutional, Abraham serves as a challenge for us in understanding how we are to relate to faith. In his missteps, he gives us an insight into some of the ways we heal from our broken faith: it isn’t through having less faith in the world, but rather in putting our faith in new directions.
Jewish philosopher Maimonides taught a concept known as the “negative theology.” Essentially, he posited that it is impossible to know God for certain, and that instead we hone our faith through all the things that God is not. God is not hateful, God is not cruel. God does not send an angel to yell at us when we get carried away. So too it is with our faith; this is a year in which our faith has been constantly tested. But if this year is going to teach us anything, it is how to respond to blind faith, to re-engage with the faith in things we know to be true, and to stop taking for granted those things that were never real to begin with.
When we blindly throw our faith in the wrong directions, it leads to the kind of exhaustion and frustration that has been the calling card of the past several months. The way we combat this struggle of faith is by re-negotiating where we put our certainty. It is, in fact, our people’s calling to grapple with our faith; our very name, Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, literally translates to “the ones who struggle with God.” It is our sacred task to grapple, but we are not expected to blindly have faith in our Judaism. It is normal to struggle with our faith; what makes us Jewish is our willingness to participate in that struggle, to engage in the work grappling with what we believe.
We have to trust in ourselves, knowing that we have the inner consciousness to do good work, to fight for justice, and to show us the way. We have to foster healthy relationships with others who can help to point us in the right direction, and who can accept the feedback when we nudge them in return. We have to use our voices to make change to the institutions and social structures that no longer deserve our faith, instead finding better, stronger, more vibrant ways to blaze a path toward the future. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once taught, “the arc of moral history is long, but it bends toward justice.” We are at a time when we can’t necessarily see the path very far in front of us. The past few months have made it so that we no longer have confidence in where we are going. But true faith, real faith, beautiful faith, is that power that tells us we can believe in things unseen, that the path up ahead may be murky, but we have all the tools to navigate our future with confidence, with conviction, and with faith.