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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Rejoicing in the Commandments

Pr. 22, Yr. A
Exodus 20:1-20; Psalm 19
The Rev. Betsy Hooper-Rosebrook

      Friday night, Roberta Goodman and I went to Temple Kol Ami's Kol Nidre service for the start of Yom Kippur, at the invitation of Lisa Sylvester, who, in addition to being our music director, serves as the High Holy Days music director for the synagogue. At one point in our worship, a number of members of the congregation were invited forward to reverently hold the Torah scrolls while a long prayer was sung, primarily by the cantor. These scrolls are large, and beautifully covered in rich fabrics, some with lovely embroidery, some adorned with intricately worked silver plates; I have to assume they are also fairly heavy. Although I didn’t understand the Hebrew words, I was overwhelmed by the looks of joy and love on the faces of those entrusted with holding the scrolls, by the notes of longing and faithfulness in the cantor’s voice, by the yearning in both the music and expression of the cellist accompanying the prayer. These scrolls, and by association the ancient words on them, represented not a burden but an honor, an intimate connection to Adonai, the creator and ruler of the vastness of all creation who also bends down to draw near to every human being.
      In that moment, I was powerfully reminded that the commandments I so often reduce to a list that has all the thrill of a section of civil code are in fact the expression of God’s deep and abiding love for us and God’s desire for us to remain in this covenant as an intimate, dynamic, reciprocal relationship. These are not first of all a list of rules, some sort of deified cattle prod to keep us within the boundaries of civilized behavior..which is how a lot of us look at them. These are the result of engagement between no less than Almighty God and humans. Campaigns to post the 10 Commandments in courthouses and classrooms abound, but those miss the whole point: it's not that abiding by them creates people who will be good--and therefore somehow worthy of that relationship or poster children for the benefits of faith--but rather that the true value of the commandments is they reflect the covenantal bonds of an established relationship, a relationship in which our actions mirror those of the God who loves us.
      Listen to this from the psalm: "The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; * the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes." This isn't based in fear or intimidation, but in hope and delight with the expectation of blessing. I think that overall, that's an attitude that is a breath of fresh air in our culture. God's words--in these commandments and in the whole story we've been hearing for many weeks, from Abraham to Moses--God's words to the people of Israel release them from captivity and death, and lead them into life and freedom...and they can do the same for us.
      We don't have to be prisoners to our calendars and technology that keeps us going 24/7; we have permission to take time for sabbath rest and renewal, to reconnect with the One who refreshes us. We can invite each other to let go of distorted cravings for the coolest car or biggest bank account or greatest travel destination; we're called instead to focus our attention on the constancy of the One who truly sustains us. We can offer up that which distorts meaning and falsely fills our voids; we have an invitation to draw near to the One who loves us most faithfully. I'm not suggesting that this is all easy, just that it's probably a more deeply satisfying, joyous way to live. Being in relationship with God is worth the effort!

Let us pray:
"With an eternal love You have loved the house of Israel Your people. You have taught us Torah and mitzvot, statutes that have ruled our lives since ancient days, judgments that form our sentences today. Lying down and rising up, Adonay our God, we shall strive to make your laws the substance of our speech, to exult forever in each word of Torah we can learn, in each commanded deed we can fulfill. By meditating on them we shall find the purpose of our days; by acting on them we shall learn how to lengthen life. In darkness and in light, may these words of Your love ever be upon our lips. Whatever our merit in our own eyes, may we never be deprived of your love. Help us to reciprocate Your love, Adonay, through our praise."
On Wings of Awe: A Fully Transliterated Machzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur , p. 255, revised edition, edited by Rabbi Richard Levy, Ktav Publishing.

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