An audio recording of this sermon is available here.

Tonight I want to talk about fear.

Yom Kippur can be a fearful day. We are afraid of being hungry. We are afraid of being thirsty. How many of us are already counting the hours until we can eat?

We can be very afraid on this day.

What if we’re hungry? What if we’re thirsty? What if after all those words, after all that singing, after all the rabbi’s exhortations to do teshuva–what if, after all that, I feel nothing? What if God doesn’t answer me? What if God doesn’t exist? What if all of this is a load of hooey?

It’s a terrifying thought. It inspires fear in our hearts.

And the roots of this day prompt us to think about fear.

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us a god who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.'”

Moses is on Mount Sinai. He has been gone for nearly 40 days. And finally they can’t take it anymore: “We don’t know what has happened to him,” the Israelites say. Lo yadanu meh haya lo. We don’t know. Not knowing is the root of their fear. They are plagued by doubts: What if he doesn’t come back? What if he fell off the mountain? What if God killed him? What will we do?

And so, to ease their not knowing, they make themselves a pacifier: they build the golden calf.

This is the greatest sin in the Torah. It prompts Moses to seek God’s forgiveness, which establishes the model of teshuva for us here today. That sin, building the Golden Calf, is rooted in fear. The fear of losing control. The fear of not knowing.

The second great sin in Jewish history occurs some months later. Moses sends spies to scout out the land of Canaan. And while two of them, Caleb and Joshua, told the people, “We can take the land! All we have to do is be sure of ourselves!” the other ten spies inspired fear in the hearts of the people of Israel:

They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw giants there… We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

The spies are afraid. They are afraid of the giants they saw. They are afraid of the land–a land that devours its inhabitants. And their fear extends so far that they even imagine how they must have looked in the eyes of the Canaanites: “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” They couldn’t have known this, of course. But their fear was so thorough, their lack of courage so profound, that they projected onto the inhabitants of the land all of their fears: their fear of smallness, their fear powerlessness, their fear of insignificance.

Once again, Moses rises to the occasion–imploring God not to abandon the people, and achieving God’s forgiveness. This too becomes a model for Yom Kippur, included in our selichot.

Yom Kippur can be a fearful day. Yom Kippur can be filled with dread and terror. We can wallow in our doubts. We can be mired in our uncertainties. We can be paralyzed with fright.

But Yom Kippur is not a day of fear. That’s Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is a day of trembling, a day of awe, a day of fear.

Hayom harat olam, hayom yaamid bamishpat kol yetzurei olamim: This is the birthday of the world, we said ten days ago. On that day all of creation stood in judgment. On that day. On Rosh Hashanah. The feeling of pachad, of fear, is the sentiment of Rosh Hashanah. On Rosh Hashanah we tremble before the divine judge, not knowing what will come, not knowing what the year will bring, and throwing ourselves at the mercy of the court. On Rosh Hashanah we are uncertain. On Rosh Hashanah we don’t know. On Rosh Hashanah we are afraid.

But Yom Kippur is a different day. The great twentieth century Hasidic work the Sefas Emes, quoting Tana d’vei Eliyahu, says that Yom Kippur is me’ein olam haba: a taste of the world to come. Tzrichin l’vatel kol hayamim el zeh hayom, u’learev otam k’dei sheyiyeh l’chulam yenikah mizeh hayom: We must fold all other days into this day, into Yom Kippur, says the Sefas Emes, so that all other days nurse, all other days take their milk, from this day, from Yom Kippur. On this day, says the Sefas Emes, God’s light shines upon us so radiantly that it illuminates the other 364 days of the year. On this day, says the Sefas Emes, we go back to our our shorashim, to our roots, to those roots that remain hidden during all other days. V’lachen yesh lismoach b’vo zeh yom hakadosh: And therefore, he says, we should celebrate when this holy day comes!

Yom Kippur is not a day of fear. This is a day to be without fear. Today is a day when we know exactly who we are, and what is our shlichut baolam, our mission in the world. Hayom t’amtzeinu: Today is the day to renew our courage. Today is the day to be confident in what we know to be true.

Today is the day to listen to the message of the haftarah, from the book of Isaiah:

6 This is the kind of fasting I have chosen:
To loosen the chains of wickedness, and undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke.
7 to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.

We can make a shallow fast. We can make an empty, perfunctory fast. We can spend the day checking our watches, and consoling each other, “It will be over soon.” We can try to just get through the day. We can try to just get through life. But that is a fast of fear, not a fast of courage. That is a life of fear, not a life of courage. That is not a true Yom Kippur, it is not a true Jewish life. That is falling short of what we are capable of.

The point of fasting today is to be courageous. The point of fasting today is to be generous, to be big, to be open–to be all the things that, in our smallness, in our fear, we close ourselves off from being the other days of the year.

The point of not eating and drinking today is to live without concern, to live without fear, to live with confidence, to live with faith–for this day, and for all the days of the year.

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here I am.

We live in fearful times. We live in an age of uncertainty. We live without confidence in our leaders. We live without faith in our institutions. For many of us, hope is a hard feeling to summon. Fear, anger, and despair are in ready supply.

And that makes this a hard Yom Kippur.

It is hard to be optimistic when our government seems not to work, when so many are feeling economic hardship, and when we lack an ethic of shared sacrifice.

It is hard to feel full-hearted when the prospects for peace in eretz Yisrael, when the possibility of two states for two peoples, appears so remote.

It is hard to have hope when we don’t know that we can pay for college, when we don’t know if we’ll have a job when we graduate, when we don’t know for sure that the education we’re getting is really preparing us for the life we will live.

But it was hard to see a future when the people made the Golden Calf. It was heretical to imagine a life after the Israelites listened to the spies. The people gave up on God, and God gave up on the people.

But Moses didn’t give up.

שוב מחרון אפך הנחם על הרעה לעמך

Turn from your anger, Moses said to God. Do teshuva. Don’t let fear dictate your actions. Don’t lose hope. Give them another chance.

And in both stories, God did.

Moses is our model of courage. Moses is our model of leadership. Moses is our model of faithfulness and commitment and eternal hope. Moses is the inspiration for us today.

And that is the message of Yom Kippur. That is why Yom Kippur is a day of simcha. Because Yom Kippur is the day when we proclaim that our lives are not rooted in fear. Yom Kippur is the day when we remind God, and we remind ourselves, of what we can be. Yom Kippur is a day when we all strive to be Moshe–Moshe, who didn’t eat or drink for 40 days. Moshe, who held firm in his belief.

Yom Kippur is the day of our highest hopes and our deepest courage, the day when we are everything we can be.

May this Yom Kippur be a day of finding our courage. On this Yom Kippur, let us commit to living with less fear and more hope in the coming year. Let our fast be the fast of Moshe, a fast of courage, a fast of hope, a fast of generosity, a fast of redemption (geulah).

Gemar chatima tova.

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