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Love Softens Fear
Kol Nidrei Sermon 2012
Rabbi David Levinsky
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Have you ever been afraid?
Maybe you had to do something that you've never done before? Jump from an airplane with a
parachute on your back? Speak in front of hundreds of people?
Maybe you've stared into the eyes of someone that you love, knowing that they are dying, scared of
what life will be like without them?
Maybe you are afraid of telling your partner that something they did hurt you? Are you building
up resentment and anger instead of telling your partner the truth?
Have you ever been afraid?
As we enter Yom Kippur, fear is a part of repentance. We all know that during the past year we
have made mistakes. We have spent the past week examining our souls. We have tried our best to
improve our important relationships. The stakes are high. We will be judged, whether by God, our
loved ones or ourselves. If we take it seriously, Yom Kippur is no small matter. If we take it
seriously, Yom Kippur is pretty scary.
Over and over, the Torah and the rabbis teach us that fear, whether fear of actions on earth or fear
of repercussions in heaven, is a part of life. Fear of heaven, fear of God is a requirement for the
religious Jew. As it says in the Book of Deuteronomy, "And now Israel, what does your God
require of you? To fear your God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve your God
with all your heart and with all of your soul (Deuteronomy 10:12)."
Fear is something that we cannot avoid. It's part of life. At the same time, there is something that
we can do to make it better, to make it easier to experience. The passage from the Torah that I just
read tells us that fear is necessary; but it also tells us that love is necessary.
Love softens fear.
When we are afraid of doing something ... when we are standing at the open door of an airplane
waiting to jump ... we can love and trust ourselves and it will soften the fear.
When we are afraid of the unknown ... when we are facing the loss of a loved one ...we can
shower them with all of the love in our hearts.
When we afraid of the consequences of our actions ... we can love and trust the God who holds
our souls in her palms.
Love softens fear.
It's Friday night in Northern California. The sun settles behind the mountains shining a deep
orange glow through the sanctuary windows. I politely draw away from a conversation and scan
the room for the Bar Mitzvah boy. He's talking with a relative in a cocktail dress, as he tries to
avoid kisses on both cheeks. Unable to save him from the lipstick on his face, I lead him up to the
bimah. Tonight he gets to sit with the rabbi.
The boy's name is Alex. He's the son of Russian emigres and his relatives fill the room, dressed to
the nines and chattering to each other in Russian and English. Alex is a bright kid with a
charmingly clumsy sense of humor. His bar mitzvah project was a video presentation of the
collection at the Judah Magnes Museum in Berkeley, a local Jewish museum.
I'll never forget his introduction to the museum's Jewish music exhibit. As he showed the
assembled congregation at Friday night services the video, he asked "Who likes music?" The
entire congregation raised their hands much to his befuddlement. Very cute.
We sit down. I turn towards him and notice that he hasn't unbuttoned his jacket before taking his
seat. His tie isn't straight. He looks like the perfect picture of the nervous bar mitzvah boy. I
help him with his tie, teach him about unbuttoning his jacket and ask him whether he is scared.
He tells me, "Rabbi, I'm scared every day."
That's a strong statement. I'll talk to his parents about it later. For now, I try to comfort him. I tell
him that the kids who aren't scared are the ones who make the most mistakes. If we ignore our
fear, it comes back at us in surprising and often unpleasant ways. I tell him that I know that he's
prepared. I tell him that if he does make a mistake, the odds are that no one will notice. I tell him
that I am there to help him.
I cannot make his fear go away. I can open up my heart and show him love. I can try to teach
him how to love and trust himself.
Take a moment and think about what it feels like to try something new or something challenging.
How do you feel when you arrive alone at a party? How do you feel when you make a big
presentation in front of a potential client? How did you feel as a kid standing with your toes off
of the edge of the high dive deciding whether to jump or walk back down the stairs?
My Bar Mitzvah boy was scared. He also felt the love of his family. He also felt the trust of his
rabbi. This love and trust softened his fear. It didn't erase it. It softened it. We can't make the
difficult parts of life go away. We can make them better by caring for ourselves and surrounding
ourselves with people that give us tenderness and love.
Love softens fear.
As we grow older, we face a different set of fears. If we live long enough, and well enough, we
lose people that we love. Some marriages collapse in a heap of legal claims and personal
recriminations. Some friendships fade away. Our parents grow older, get sick and leave us a
little more alone in the world. These are the brutal and frightening facts of life.
I'm standing in a congregant's apartment. In the center of the room sits a hospital bed. It's a
deathbed. That's what the doctors tell us. The room is filled with his family. They're looking at
photographs that one of the children digitized and turned into a slide show. It's showing on the
television and everyone reminisces about the scenes in the pictures—vacations spent together, the
beginnings of a business, a marriage before there were kids, little kids that now stand with grey
hair in the room.
/ hold his hand and tell him that he's one of the good ones.
When I leave, I pass a doorman who simply nods. He doesn't have to say anything. We both
know that we will not see the man upstairs again.
What could possibly bring hope to the horrible reality of losing our loved ones? In the
moment, we feel like we are walking shell shocked through a damaged world. The loss, grief and
sadness saturate our very being.
In time, something new emerges out of this difficult part of life. We experience new things. We
meet new people. We do new things. New love enters our life, whether it is a love of books, the
love of a friend or a new lover.
This new love never replaces our feelings for our father, our sister our wife. We feel an eternal
love for-them. Yet something new stands next to it—a new love that can conquer our fear of
moving forward without them. This is the power of love.
The ancient rabbis knew that love is much more powerful than fear. A rabbinic sage tells us that
we should "act out of love, for the Torah distinguishes between one who acts out of love and one
who acts out of fear. One who acts out of love receives double the reward (Sifre Deuteronomy,
Finkelstein, 54)." Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar teaches that "Greater is he who acts from love than
he who acts from fear (BT Sotah 31a)." We cannot escape fear, but love is stronger.
Love softens fear.
At other times, fear freezes us. We fear the world, other people and the repercussions of our
actions. We ask ourselves "What will she think of me if I tell her the truth?" We ask ourselves
"Will he still love me if he knows that about me?" Our fear keeps us from living authentic lives.
Our fear stops us from having true and meaningful relationships. Love can thaw the freeze.
A few years ago, I was counseling a couple as a part of their preparation for marriage. The groom
was Jewish and grew up with a strong connection to Judaism. His father had died at a young age
and his mother was a big part of his life. His partner was a religious Christian. They decided to
raise their children Jewish.
The problems in their relationship were not religious. The groom's mother was the real issue. From
the beginning, she interfered in their relationship. Now that it was time to plan the wedding, the
meddling was becoming more pronounced. It was difficult for the bride. This was her wedding and
her mother-in-law kept planning things behind her back.
The groom was not helping matters. He was not standing up to his mother. He was afraid that he
would hurt her feelings. As a result, he hurt his fiance's feelings. She was angry towards her
mother-in-law and towards her fiance. The groom's fear of confronting his mother was damaging
his relationship with his future wife.
According to the rabbinic tradition, we are obligated to confront someone who is doing wrong.
This commandment even overrides the commandment to "honor one's father and mother." (BT
Bava Metzia 31a) The groom needed to talk to his mother kindly about her interference. He had a
responsibility to overcome his fear of his mother and offer his love to his fiance.
Another great sage, John Lennon, knew this when he said that "There are two basic motivating
forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to
all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love
ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully
open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better
world rest in the ... open-hearted vision of people who embrace life."
Love softens fear.
Here we stand with love in our hearts. The gates of prayer are open to us for twenty four hours
and we open our souls to God. We felt the fear of trying new things and overcame it with love
and trust. We felt afraid of loss. We softened that fear by creating new love in our life. We felt the
fear of hesitation. We held back our true selves in our most important relationships. We overcame
that fear by understanding that love also includes confrontation.
We face the consequences of our misdeeds. We know that there is only one way to make them
right in the world. We do our best to make amends with the people that we hurt. We know we sit
in this sanctuary bringing the remnants of our transgressions before God.
Will God hear our voice? Will God take the first step? Or do we have to overcome our fear and
take that step alone? Will we listen to our doubts? Or will we embrace the hope and that redeems
us? Will we simmer in the stew of hesitancy or transcend it with love? The choice is ours.
Love softens fear.
Love softens fear.
Love softens fear.
©2012 Rabbi David Levinsky, Chicago Sinai Congregation All Rights Reserved
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