Saturday, August 29, 2009

What's So Good about Chilling? Sermon Aug. 29, 2009

There are many strategies you can use to harm someone. You can bomb them, blow up cars in front of their embassies, torture them, attack their night clubs and pizza parlors. Adolph Hitler thought he’d found the most efficient way to attack the Jews of Europe. Soviet Russia chose not to kill our bodies, only to prevent our Jewish souls from flowering.
There are many ways strategies you can use to harm someone.
This week’s parasha closes with a very well-known passage,a passage read on the Shabbat before Purim, a Shabbat named for the first word in the passage – Zakhor. Remember.
Zakhor et asher asa l’kha Amalek baderekh b’tzeyt’khem mimitzrayim, asher korkha baderekh vay’nazev b’kha kol-haneheshalim aharekha, v’ata ayef v’yagay’a, v’lo yarey elohim. Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt; how he surprised you on the road and cut down the weak and hungry at your rear, he who had not fear of God.
The Hasidic masters were intrigued by the Torah’s choice of words – asher korkha baderekh – rendered by JPS as how he surprised you on the way. They suggest that this unusual choice of Hebrew is meant to teach us something.
They suggest that the root of the word korkha is koof-reysh - "kar" - the Hebrew for cool or cold. Thus, what was Amalek’s strategy? He chilled us on the road.
Now, today, when we hear “Chill,” it’s an admonition not to get too excited about a situation, essentially, “Calm down!” This, whether the situation really deserves excitement or not. Someone is uncomfortable about someone else’s display of emotion.
In our context, say the Hasidim, the Torah is suggesting that we remember that Amalek succeeded in chilling us, in chilling our ardor for God on the way out of Egypt.
Is that really true? Can we give Amalek that kind of power, to ascribe to that people the blame for all the times of disbelief, of lack of faith in God’s ability to lead us safely to Eretz HaKodesh? I suppose that an argument could be made that this early, brutal attack was so discouraging that Israel took it with them across the desert, unable to move beyond the memory of an encounter with an cruel enemy so soon after liberation from slavery.
But I don’t think that is what the lesson is meant to teach. This is less an explication of Torah than an object lesson for us: chilling is something we must guard against. Chilling has dire consequences.
How can the Jewish people be defeated? Not by suicide bombers or concentration camps, or even the best efforts of the UN Security Council. We can be defeated if our commitment to God can be extinguished. We can be defeated if our passion for the search for God in our lives can be cooled. We as a people can be defeated, all the while that each Jew continues to live, if our Jewish souls are chilled.
In this rational age, when displays of emotion often make us uncomfortable, we are reminded that there are times when overt emotionality may be inappropriate. But in the world of the spirit, in the search for God and the effort to understand God’s role in our lives and our place in God, chilling is never appropriate. I remember once when I was a young girl, when my family and I had just moved to Los Angeles, we were looking for an apartment and hadn’t figured out the numbering system in Los Angeles streets. We were looking for the Jewish neighborhood and had somehow wandered really far afield, and found ourselves in the outer edges of the Black community. We passed a church that was really rocking – I didn’t know it at the time, because I was ignorant of Black worship, but this was a standard Sunday morning service, and we could hear the singing and the hand clapping from across the street. It was a sound I had never before heard coming from a house of worship – certainly not from a synagogue! My parents, I will confess, were nervous. It was, after all, 1958. I was curious. But I was 12 and not curious enough to ask permission to go across the street and peek in. My loss.
There is a certain fervor, a certain fire that comes with a soul’s linkage to God, and that fervor deserves to be felt, and to be expressed. Chilling is one sure way to cut that linkage, to cool the fervor. The Kotzker Rebbe asks why the book of Psalms feels the need to restate something already stated in Torah: There shall be no strange gods among you. Isn’t this unnecessary repetition? His response: not at all. Torah is speaking about gods of other nations. Here, in Psalms, we are not talking about idolatry, but rather the fear that God may become strange to us.
How can God become strange to us? How easy it has become for God to become strange to us! How uncomfortable do we feel when people speak of God speaking to them, of the notion of seeking what God wants of each of us, both ritually and ethically? How easy is it for us to seek God in a synagogue but not in the mountains or the desert or the faces of the sick and hungry?
The presence of God and the call of God are to be found everywhere. But if we remain cool, if we are chilled, we see only the world as it exists physically, without the Soul of the world that gives it life. I suppose it goes back to that unicorn book mark: God is everywhere, if you believe that by looking you will find God.
That brings me to another teaching of the Kotzker Rebbe. In another passage in our parasha, we are taught: You shall not see your neighbor’s donkey or ox fallen on the road and ignore it; you shall surely help him raise the animal. Rashi adds this astonishing explanation from the Talmud: If the owner steps away, sits down, and says, “It’s your mitzvah, knock yourself out,” essentially, you’re off the hook. Your obligation is to help the owner, not do all the work yourself.
While the text seems straightforward, the Kotzker expands the understanding of every term in the verse. For him, we are the owner, God is the one who comes to our aid, and our souls are the beasts of burden carrying our longing for God on its journey. And the upshot? If we have allowed our souls to become lazy, stop seeking, quiet the hunger within, not do our spiritual work, God isn’t going to intrude on our apathy. Like a loving parent of a grown child, who doesn’t barge into their child’s home without an invitation, God doesn’t go where God hasn’t been invited. One of the Kotzker’s most well-known statements is, “Where does God dwell? Where God is invited in.” If our souls have fallen under the load of pain and disappointment, God is ready to help, but we are also expected to do our own work. God may be able to do it all, but God will not do it all.
This may be as good a time as any to offer a blanket apology to you in advance for my davening experiences here on the bima. Although davening in a community is a mitzvah, helping provide a minyan, there are drawbacks. We have to “keep up.” We have to finish with everyone else, not lag behind. This need to keep up is tough on the new davener or those just beginning their Hebrew studies. It’s also tough on those who want to “get into” the davening, find meaning in a word or a phrase, or just allow the presence of God to surround them and to enjoy, revel in that moment. And so I beg your indulgence, for those times when you may be finished with the amidah and I may be lagging just a moment or two behind you. Finding myself in the presence of God and of my kahal – my community – I am lifted spiritually in a way that deserves attention. I could chill. I prefer not to.
As individuals, we may each live long and prosperous lives. But as a Jewish people, we will suffer a profound defeat if we allow ourselves to chill, if we allow the pressures of the rational world around us to restrict our emotional expressions of faith, or if we determine to be “cooler” as a reaction to other faith traditions who clearly have no problem with heating up their worship experience. The Psalmist exhorts us עבדו את ה בשמחה באו לפניו ברננה- serve God with joy, come before God in jubilation. May the year about to begin be a year in which we allow God in, ask God’s help in learning how to serve God with joy, to make our Jewish places of worship places that are alive with excitement, places our young people and our disconnected will choose to seek to be.

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