I’ve heard it said that every person’s life is worth a novel. (Actually, there’s a book by that name!) So maybe everyone also has at least one sermon in him or her.
A Homiletic Interlude
May 5, 2012
D’var Torah—A Word of Torah
(as slightly revised for the blog)
This week’s Parashah (Torah portion) is Kedoshim, part of the Holiness Code and in the middle of the Torah. You could say, though, that we are in the middle of Kedoshim, because all around us in this chapel (bordering the top of the wall) are the commandments from Leviticus Chapter 19:
Love your neighbor as yourself.
You shall not steal.
Do not profit by the blood of your neighbor.
You shall not render an unfair decision.
Do not go about as a talebearer.
You shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field.
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge.
Do not turn to idols.
You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.
You shall each revere your mother and your father.
You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.
And then we come to, “You shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”
What is that doing here? In English, here in America, in the 21st century, it may not sound so good to us. It takes us aback. It conjures up an authoritarian, even violent image, as in: “I’ll put the fear of God into you!”
A year ago, I got into a Facebook discussion (which won’t surprise anybody who knows me) with a friend of a friend. He said he’d never heard anyone but conservative Protestants use the term “fear of God” in an approving sense. He said that, in his view, “although love is not incompatible with discipline, (he) would not support a deity that needed to be feared more than loved, or that encouraged such thinking in her worshippers.” This person identified himself as Unitarian, but he had a Jewish-sounding name; you never know. I had mixed feelings—frustration—to think that maybe he had left Judaism because he thought of God in negative terms.
That was last year, and, as it happened, the very next week in Torah study, there it was—Leviticus 25:17, “Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I the Lord am your God.”
Because I had already been bothered by my earlier Facebook discussion, I went on a little treasure hunt through the footnotes of the Jewish Study Bible. Now, the footnotes of the Jewish Study Bible are like having a rabbi right with you whenever you need one, and it cuts down a little bit, at least, on excessive emailing of theological questions to our rabbis. In this case, the footnote took me right to the “fear your God” verse in our chapter today (Leviticus 19:14). And what it said was that this phrase, “fear your God,” was used when no one is watching and when there is really no policeman around—no enforceable legal sanction.
The fear of God, then, means conscience. It is the spark of God that gets inside us and lights our way.
Many times footnotes in the Jewish Study Bible will say, “Meaning of Hebrew uncertain,” or they will offer multiple translations of a term. About “fear of God,” though, there is no such ambiguity. These scholars say flat out that “fear of God” means “conscience.”
We see this phrase, “fear of God,” all through the Torah. Rabbi Berg told me last Fall I’d have no trouble finding examples of it, and he was right. For example, in the first chapter of Exodus, the midwives didn’t kill the first-born of the Hebrews when Pharaoh said to—because they feared God. Because of that they were able to stand up to “fear of Pharaoh.” Later in Chapter 17, as the Hebrews journeyed through the wilderness, Amalek attacked the stragglers, picking on the weak—because he had no fear of God.
In Chapter 20, at Sinai, when the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid of God, but Moses told them, “Be not afraid, for God has come only in order to give you an experience of Him, and in order that the fear of Him may ever be with you, so that you do not go astray.” Listen to that! Don’t be afraid, because God wants the fear of God to stay with you! How paradoxical, when heard in English! You can see that “fear of God” has come to be something other than “being afraid”—an idiomatic expression meaning “conscience.” As in—inner compass.
And here I thought, too, of miners’ hats with lights, or the headbands runners wear to light their way at night.
In Rabbi Baylinson’s lunch-and-learn last fall on biblical women (“Harlots or Heroines?”), Abraham let Abimelech think Sarah was his sister, because he thought, “There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife!” In Rabbi Reeves’ evening class (“A Jewish Look Into the Christian New Testament”), we encountered Psalm 22—and the instruction, “You who fear the Lord, praise Him! All you offspring of Jacob, honor him! Be in dread of Him, all you offspring of Israel!"
Speaking of the New Testament, the same expression, “fear of God,” can be found there, as well (e.g., Acts 10:35), and the meaning is the same.
That meaning is: have something stronger than our earthly fears; have a conscience and do what’s right.
“Fear of God,” yirat Adonai, is not limited to what not to do, but also includes what to do. Do what is right. Stand up. Speak out. When God asks, “Where are you,” answer saying, Hineni, “Here I am.”
Translation is interpretation, and when yirat Adonai, “fear of God,” was translated, it became easy to forget what it meant; fear and reverence are both part of the original package, and, furthermore, in the Torah, yirat Adonai is not clearly distinguished from “love of God” (Rabbi Louis Jacobs, according to Rabbi Mark B. Greenspan, Torah Table Talk—Sacred Words; Yirah—Does God Make Us Tremble? 2009).
So, how does this yirat Adonai—“fear of God”—conscience—get into us? When we are out in the work-a-day world all week our minds are programmed by commerce and finance and fashion and competition. Evolution has made our minds programmable—interactive with our environment—not only by intentional elements like advertising; but also by incidental and random elements. Without our minds being interactive, we could not survive. But as a result of that programming, we become more individualistic, hard-working, persistent, independent—and also less caring, more focused on ourselves—selfish. And we are always being programmed, one way or another—nothing we can do about that. What we do have is a say in how we get programmed—how we get our yirat Adonai. So we come in here, on Shabbat, to experience our tradition, which is so very mindful of how we are programmed. Instead of the business of everyday, here we talk about God and surround ourselves with—the Holiness Code. We read Torah and study it, and we pray. And we surround ourselves with other people doing the same thing, which magnifies and intensifies the impact. And we permeate ourselves in it and talk it until we have multiple vectors of God coming from each of us to the other. So much so that God doesn’t stay here only in this building or when we are together. We help keep the spark shining.
Like finally learning to think in another language, I knew I was reprogrammed--when I started to hear the spring birds singing, Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, (“Holy, Holy, Holy”). The whole world is full of God’s presence.