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Rosh Hashanah 5780. September 30, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Hag Sameach

Many years ago, when my children were young, they decided one Sukkot that they wanted to sleep in our Sukkah. The sukkah was in the back yard; there was a solid fence around the yard, and it should have been a pretty safe place for children to spend the night. They lasted about five minutes. As they came back in the house I asked them what happened. They told me that there was lightning in the sky. They were afraid to stay the night. They slept in their own beds that night.


You have to understand that there is lightning in the sky almost every night in Florida. Florida is the lightening capital of America. Because the ground is so flat, you can see lightning that is miles and miles away. The horizon is blinking with lightning almost all the time. My children were not afraid of being struck by lightning and there was little fear of rain. The lightning just reminded them that things get very scary at night, and they preferred the safe surroundings of their own bedrooms.


According to research, the greatest power that we have in our brain is fear. Eric Vance, Author of the Book “Suggestible You” in an essay on NPR writes, “If there is one thing that psychologists can say for sure, it’s that fear is more deep and powerful than just about any other emotion that we can experience. … Saying that “fear is a powerful thing” is a little like saying “money can come in handy” – it kind of undersells it. Fear is the number one tool for selling newspapers, insurance, snake-oil medicine and Swedish cars. Sometimes that is a good thing, and sometimes it is not. It’s what kept our ancestors alive for millions of years, and its’s history’s favorite way of selling political ideology.”


I don’t know if anyone here remembers President Franklin Roosevelt. He was well before my time. He came to office when President Herbert Hoover could not find a way to overcome the great depression of the 1930’s. People had lost their jobs, lost their farms, and lost their savings. Banks closed and people lost money. Nobody had any money to spend so many small businesses went bankrupt. People who were retired lost their retirement income and were reduced to poverty. Roosevelt came into office with these words; So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.“ Fear can paralyze us from doing something that we might need to do in order to alleviate our fears.


We have so much to fear in our day and age that it sometimes is overwhelming. There are no scientific facts to back up the fear that immunizations lead to autism. And yet we see that there are parents who are too afraid to have their children get the needed shots for their own good health. Political parties are quick to tell us what we must fear from the opposition party’s candidates. News organizations are ready to fill us with fear about what the future might hold if one law is passed or if it isn’t passed. It seems like no matter what we do, some terrible thing will happen, so maybe we just shouldn’t do anything.


Someone asked me the other day if I was afraid of the evil people in the world and what they might do to our society if they were to gain power. I said that the number of such evil people in the world is so small that there will always be more good people than evil people and we should be able to keep them at bay. Then my friend said, “But will people do what they need to do to keep the evil people out?” I replied, “Well, they say that all that is needed to bring evil to power is for good people to do nothing.” That is the power of fear. If good people do nothing, if they don’t vote, if they don’t protest, if they don’t speak out, or if they don’t show up, then that is all that is needed to undermine all that is good in our world.


All we need is for someone to sow suspicion in our minds and we will close ourselves off from all that we need. Like Shakespeare’s Othello, all we need is someone whispering in our ears about what we fear and we will accuse our spouse of infidelity, accuse medicine of not curing our diseases, accuse our government of conspiring against us and we will be sure that refugees are all murderers and rapists no matter what we might hear to the contrary.


Long ago, the prophet Micha said, “God has told you, o humans, what is good and what the Lord requires of you, only to do justice, and to love goodness and to walk humbly with your God.” To have a good world means to block fear out of the way. The prophet tells us that justice, kindness, humility and God are all we need to construct a good world.


The Psalmist writes, “I lift up my eyes to the hills, what is the source of my help? My help comes from the Lord, Maker of the Heavens and the Earth. … The Lord will guard you from all evil, God will guard you, body and soul.” And that is the fact of our Judaism. We have nothing to fear. God is with us. God has stood by us from ancient times and God stands by us today. Ancient pagans needed to be in the right place for their gods to save them. Pagan gods only had power in their home country. Our God created the world so there is no place where God is absent. Our God created day and night so there is no time where God is absent. God created human beings, so God knows what we are afraid of and God is for us in our time of fear.


Sukkot is all about God and God’s protection. We don’t need protection from the sun or storm, we sit in a sukkah with a flimsy roof knowing that God will protect us. We don’t worry about rain, we wave the lulav and etrog and we are sure that God will not leave us in a time of famine or drought. We sit in our Sukkah in thankfulness for the bounty of the harvest that is completed, and we are now assured of another year of plenty. We sing the psalms of Hallel knowing that God was there for our ancestors in Egypt and God will be there for us as well.


It is our faith that makes us fearless. To know that God watches over us with the same loving compassion that our parents once watched over us. Does this mean that bad things never happen? No, I think all of us can remember things that have happened in our lives that left us fearful of the future, but God always returns so that we can live a good life again.


I admit that there have been times when I was afraid of the future, times when I didn’t know what would come next, and feared for an outcome that seemed all too possible. God has always been there for me. But when I am afraid, I just turn to the final verse of Adon Olam, a poetic description of God and how God in the world. The last words of the poem are “H’ Li v’lo irah – God is with me; I have no fear works.


Our world, no matter what anyone tells you, is safer today than ever before. We don’t worry every day about being eaten by a lion; God has taught us to protect our families from lions. We don’t have to worry anymore about many diseases that could leave us paralyzed or sick; God has given us cures. We don’t worry about famine anymore; God has shown us how we can work together and have enough food for everyone.


We still have work to do to make this world a safer and better place for all human beings and for all the other creatures as well. But we don’t have to act out of our fears. If we are true to the values of justice, kindness, humility and God, then we have all the resources we need to make this world a world where we can be proud of who we are and our place within it. Where we can sit, every one of us under our vine and fig trees and no one will make us afraid.


Just keep singing, ““H’ Li v’lo irah – God is with me, I have no fear.” And life will always turn out better.  May God always be with us to cancel our fears as we say ….                               Amen and Hag Sameach


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on September 30, 2019.

Mon, July 15 2024 9 Tammuz 5784