Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Awe and Love of God

One of the reasons I usually teach you — with dialogue, discussion, the opportunity to challenge and give point and counterpoint — is that respect your intelligence. You are thinking people. You question what you are told. You ask if it is true, if it is worth believing. I know that I can’t get away with speaking religious platitudes. When I say things to you, I think about the exceptions which you will bring up and also the objections.

But tonight it is fitting for me to attempt to bring you a good word. This is one of those occasions where it is worth me taking on the challenge of preaching to you, to try and bring a D’var Tov. To do that, I know with an audience of thinkers, I have to draw on great sources and trust that the great traditions and texts will be persuasive. I will need to interpret a few scriptures well. I will need to bring great thoughts from people who came before me to bear on the topics we will consider tonight. And so, I will draw on deep tradition, some of what I consider to be among the best of Jewish and Christian thought on our two-fold topic for this year at Rosh HaShanah.

The Days of Awe come upon us as modern people with busy lives. Every year the Days of Awe demand of us that we see a greater vision of God than before, be more honest about our own condition, and come to a place of true repentance. This is not an easy task.

I know how busy life is, especially for families in these modern times with the many needs of our children. I see how hard it is for people near and dear to me to set aside time for daily, disciplined reading and prayer. I see that weekly Sabbaths and annual holy days are hard to set aside in a world where business and the ever-present need to acquire money for survival makes holy times stressful. The incessant need to work crowds out the life we want to live.

But I am grateful when we can gather for some holy times and really think about what is important. Erev Rosh HaShanah has brought us together. The King is watching. It is his holy day. And we have things to think about. In the midst of this crowded, modern life, God gives us many themes to reflect on in the Torah and other writings. Every minute we set aside to think about these themes draws us nearer to peace and breakthrough.

Our themes tonight will be Yirat Hashem and Ahavat Hashem, the Awe of God and the Love of God. I do not mean that God is in awe of us and I am not referring to his love for us. I mean our Awe in contemplating God and our Love which we discover growing in our hearts toward him.

Our key text is Deuteronomy 10:12:

And now, Israel, what does Hashem ask of you, but to be in awe of Hashem your God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him and to serve Hashem your God with all your heart and being.

Of these requirements, I see being in Awe of God and filled with the Love of God as the over-arching principles. Moses is summing up the way of Torah for the second generation of the Exodus. This text is in a key place. It is a good expansion of the V’Ahavta which says, You shall love Hashem your God with all your heart. Moses fills out this requirement with more specifics. The Love of Hashem is also informed by Awe of Hashem.

First, let me address an issue which may already have occurred to you. I keep translating Yirat Hashem as Awe of God instead of Fear of God. Most of us are more used to the expression “the fear of God.”

I am drawing my translation from Abraham Joshua Heschel. He discusses the meaning of Yirat Hashem and gives reasons to regard the key quality as Awe and not simple Fear. In God in Search of Man, Heschel says:

There is the man who fears the Lord lest he be punished in his body, family, or in his possessions. Another man fears the Lord because he is afraid of punishment in the life to come. Both types are considered inferior in Jewish tradition. Job, who said, ‘Though he slay me yet I will trust him,’ was not motivated in his piety by fear but rather by awe, by the realization of the grandeur of his eternal love.

Fear is the anticipation and expectation of evil or pain . . . Awe, on the other hand, is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery . . . Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it. This is why awe is compatible with both love and joy.

Apply Heschel’s words to the many uses of Yirat Hashem in the Bible. I believe you will see that in most contexts the reference is to an inspiring Awe and not a repulsing fear.

And equally, before we get into some more specifics of our twin themes tonight, we should define Ahavat Hashem, the Love of God. Biblically defined, the love we are to have for God consumes all of our being. This has been the subject of passionate writing from Jewish and Christian thinkers. It is not enough to merely have a feeling of warmth in the heart for God. This is only a beginning, an early sign of a growing love. It is not enough to have an intellectual conviction that God is true. This is also an early sign of faith and love, but not what is talked about when we say Ahavat Hashem. Neither is it enough to resolve to live according to God’s dictates. This too is only a beginning.

Bernard of Clairvaux, a Christian mystic of the 12th century, described Love of God as a ladder we ascend in this life and the life to come. It is a never ending climb upward to heights beyond imagining. We end up recognizing that all loves are ultimately a love for God, since all things, including ourselves, come from him. Seeking to describe the upward climb of love, Bernard says in one of his Homilies on Song of Songs:

Leaping in desire beyond that love of love with which love in action is satisfied to the divine love to which it is a stepping stone, you will be wholly on fire with that fulness of what you have received by the Spirit and you will taste God, nat as he really is, for that is impossible to any creature, but certainly to the limit of what you are capable. Then you will love yourself as you are, since you will know that there is nothing to love in you except insofar as you are his. He is all your reason for loving, and you pour your love out upon him.

When Bernard speaks of the “love of love,” he means that some people are simply in love with the idea of love. They love the quality, not realizing where it comes from or what it means. When he speaks of the “love in action,” her refers to the problem of busyness. We are so busy doing for those we love, we do not understand the love we claim to have and find its source. Love in action is busy and is good, but not good enough. Unexamined love is lacking. We are walking lower roads when there are heights to scale.

Let’s return to our key verse and dissect it a bit more. Then we will more clearly define Awe of God and Love of God. And then we will see how it all comes together to bring us to great heights during these Days of Awe.

And now, Israel, what does Hashem ask of you, but to be in awe of Hashem your God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him and to serve Hashem your God with all your heart and being. The Ramchal (that is Rabbi Hayyim Luzzatto, author of Mesillat Yesharim) says:

To fear God is to be moved by a sense of awe, like that which one experiences in the presence of a great and awe-inspiring king. In every move that one makes, one ought to feel abased before the greatness of God . . .

To walk in his ways includes everything that makes for uprightness and for the improvement of character. This is what our sages meant when they said, “As he is merciful and gracious, so be thou merciful and gracious” (Shab. 133b). What they wish to point out is that all of a man’s habits and actions should be regulated in accordance with the standard of uprightness and morality . . .

To love God is to be imbued with the love of God so that we are impelled, of our own accord, to give him pleasure, so to speak, the same as a child sometimes feels moved to give pleasure to his father and mother . . .

To be whole-hearted is to serve God with pure motive, that is, for the sake of worship itself, and without any ulterior aim . . . that excludes both hesitancy and mechanical observance.

What the Ramchal is saying is this: if we properly understand the greatness of God, we will be in awe of him, which will cause us to greatly desire doing what pleases him, and we will do it purely out of worship because his greatness is what we want to be close to. Therefore the whole commandment of Deuteronomy is based on our seeing a vision of the greatness of God and being impelled by that vision. It is no wonder that Moses, who taught these words, was the greatest mystic of all. He saw more of the Emanations of God’s Glory than any in his time and yet he asked to see more. The more we see of God, the more we know of the beauty of his being, the higher we ascend in contemplating his form and manifestations, the more we will be in Awe and the more we will be in Love.

What are the ways to grow near to his Presence? Abraham Joshua Heschel gives three answers, which I think are found in various forms in numerous Christian teachers as well. We grow near to his Presence by seeking him in Scripture. We grow near his Presence by seeking him in the Universe, which is his handiwork reflecting his glory. And we grow near his Presence by seeking him in Holy Deeds, which means righting wrongs and redeeming evils we see all around us with things like a sandwich, a hug, or an open door.

So, it seems to me, that the Awe of God is the beginning of knowledge, as Proverbs and Psalms tell us. And it seems to me that Awe of God leads to the Love of God. So we ought to ask first, what leads to the Awe of God?

Heschel talks about one path to the Awe of God. He says it comes through sensing the Sublime. The Sublime is that which we see and are unable to convey. The universe is filled with the Sublime. Many ignore it or explain it away. Heschel says rather that the Sublime is a clue that we are able to surpass ourselves. That which is greater than us is always there for us to see. I shouldn’t have to tell you where to look for the Sublime. It’s in people, the stars, animals, trees, water, and everywhere.

This morning I saw, on a walk at a park near my house, a deer, a squirrel, a rabbit, and a cardinal all together in one place, each one alone and yet the four of them together. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything to you, but I wondered, why these four animals, all together, each one solitary, right here at the very beginning of the trail? I was struck by the beauty of each creature and the greater beauty of them together in an unusual grouping.

Last year at Sukkot, in the mountains, many of us were awe-struck by the stars. People got out their iPhones and used applications that help you identity constellations. Our amateur astronomy and star-gazing was a memorable experience. We were struck by the immensity of space and what this must say about God who is above it. Heschel says:

The sublime is not simply there. It is not a thing, a quality, but rather a happening, an act of God, a marvel. Thus even a mountain is not regarded as a thing. What seems to be a stone is a drama; what seems to be natural is wondrous. There are no sublime facts; there are only divine acts.

And regarding Awe of God as the way to faith, he says:

Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith . . . In Judaism, Yirat Hashem, the Awe of God . . . is almost equivalent to the word “religion.” In biblical language the religious man is not called a “believer,” as he is, for example, in Islam . . . but Yarei Hashem, a God-fearer.

So, during these Days of Awe, we see how we can increase our repentance and growth. What we need to grow near to the Presence and be changed by it. Augustine, another great Christian mystic and thinker, said, Grant what you command and command what you will. God has commanded, as Moses tells us, that we completely be in Awe of him, Love him, and serve him will our whole heart. It is a tall order. But what Augustine is telling us is that the secret to it all is drawing near to the Presence, having a vision of his greatness. If we, like Moses, see the Glory as closely as we can, we will be overwhelmed and Awe and Love will flow naturally. Nearness to God grants the very power to do what God commands.

And as Heschel tells us, we grow near to God in Scripture, in contemplating the Sublime in the universe, and in Holy Deeds of love done purely and without ulterior motive.

Now, I will add one more to Heschel’s list, one which we can perfectly understand the reasons he did not add this source of understanding Ahavat Hashem. What I would add to Scripture, the Sublime, and Holy Deeds, is Messiah. We approach the Presence by understanding Scripture, the Sublime in Creation, and by doing Holy Deeds, but we now can add to that the supreme demonstration of God’s love for us. As we contemplate this love of God for us demonstrated in Messiah, we draw even nearer to the Presence. The writer of Hebrews said, In these last days, God has spoken to us by a Son.

The Jewish Episcopalian, Paul Philip Levertoff, says in his Love and the Messianic Age:

Christ’s love is not only an example . . . it is the power which awakens love . . . The visible presentation of this love is the death of Christ; “He died for all that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him.” . . . The love of God [for us] is concentrated in the Messiah, his Son, and only through him he [God] loves the world . . . The Son is the organ of God’s love, and the intensity of this love is shown by the gift: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” The reason for the Father’s love fot the world is the world’s danger of perishing from want of “light” and “life”; in other words, of true knowledge of and communion with him.

And speaking of the greatness of God and of mysteries beyond our searching out, Yeshua said of the love between himself and the Father: My Father, who have them to me, it is my will that they be with me where I will be, so that they may behold the glory that you gave me, for you loved me before the foundations of the world.

During these Day of Awe, then, let’s be busy contemplating the Awe of God and the Love of God. Let’s approach the Presence through Scripture, the Sublime, Holy Deeds, and Messiah. Let’s realize something. God’s paradise is on a high mountain top, a plateau of exceeding splendor. But we walk the lower roads and only rarely do we ascend higher up the mountain. Let’s not let the theme of repentance fool us into thinking these Days of Awe are mostly about what lies behind. They are about what lies above. We are not simply repenting from the past but repenting toward the future.

It is like that scene in The Mission, the 1986 film about Jesuit priests in South America in the 1800’s. Robert DeNiro plays a slave trader who is imprisoned and comes to faith in the Jesus the Jesuits are teaching him about. He decides to follow them to the village where they are establishing a mission. He wants to redeem his life.

But he insists on doing penance. He ties up his armor and weapons from his days of slave trading and drags them behind him. As they ascend the mountain, his character is unable at a certain point to continue. He struggles against the weight of his past. But he finally can go no more.

Then one of the native peoples, the same people he had captured slaves from, approaches him with a sword. This former enemy doesn’t attack the slave trader. He cuts the rope of penance and sends the armor crashing down the mountain. The slave trader is free. And now he ascends the mountain. These Days of Awe, let’s climb, leaving behind all encumbrances and increasing in Awe and Love of God.

This entry was posted in Holidays, Judaism, Judeo-Christian, Love, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Mussar, Mysticism. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Awe and Love of God

  1. louise says:

    A good word/sermon is worth listening to or reading. Thanks, Derek, for this D’var Tov. L’shanah tovah to you and your family.

  2. Allison says:

    I read this sermon during my preparations for observing Rosh Hashanah tonight…it did a lot to help put me in the right frame of mind. Thank you, Derek. A sweet new year to you.

    Also, I had never heard of that Robert Deniro movie you mentioned at the end…it sounds very powerful.

  3. Yahnatan says:

    Great sermon, Derek.

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