Rosh haShanah sermon: The King and the Lighthouse

Rosh haShanah Sermon 2011, Sinai Synagogue Leeds
Esther Hugenholtz

The King and the Lighthouse

Once upon a time, there was a traveller.

He travelled from place to place, wearing his cloak and staff thin, dust clinging to his sandals. He had been sent out on a mission he did not yet fully comprehend but he knew it was for good.

Curiosity drove him. A precocious child, he asked his elders daring questions. ‘Why do we worship the moon, sun and stars? Did not Someone else create them?’ He wanted to search out Who that Presence was, the Prime Mover, the radical Ground of Being.

He wanted no more of his father Terach’s idolatrous ways. Unimpressed by the clay figures he had smashed in his father’s shop, he packed his meagre belongings and set out westwards in search of the one God.
A beautiful young woman caught his eye. Intelligent and strong, she too, had a deep moral understanding of the world. Not before long, Sarai pledged to marry him.

For years, they had been travelling. They pitched camp in Charan and remained there. They welcomed many people under the shadow of the wings of the Divine Presence. Our hero came to be known as a righteous man, a just leader, a kind husband.

Settling, however, was not that great transformative journey he yearned for. So, he flung his cloak about his shoulders, held fast his staff and bound the sandals upon his feet.

One day, he was traversing the desert expanse between Ur and Canaan. It was exceedingly hot and the sun beat the sand into shimmering discs of light. The landscape trembled and wavered before him when he noticed the flicker of flames. Surely it must be a mirage.
Drawing closer, he saw what had caught his eye. It was no mirage but a gleaming tower of many turrets, constructed from fine white sandstone, like cast gold and silver. To his dismay, he saw that the slender structure was crumbling and blackened as hungry orange flames licked at it. What was the purpose of this tower, he wondered, and why was it alight? Did it not have an owner?

In answer to his questions, he saw a figure move in front of the window in the top floor. He gasped with horror as he rushed towards the burning structure in an effort to save the person trapped in its bowels. The heat of the flames drove him back as he saw the man lean from the window.
‘I am the owner of the burning tower, the ‘ba’al birah doleket!’ he exclaimed, ‘I am the King of Kings but you must rescue me!’.

Unflinching, Abraham knew at once what he needed to do. This was the purpose of all his sojourning.

* * *

This story is three part fairytale, Torah narrative and Midrash - but wholly mysterious. What are we supposed to make of the solitary trekker, moving ‘memakom le’makom’? And even more pressing is the question of the ‘ba’al birah’ caught in the burning palace. Midrash Bereshit Rabba, the source and inspiration for this narrative doesn’t relinquish simple answers.

Our Midrash is based on Parashat Lech Lecha, chapter 12 of Genesis, where the Eternal enjoins Abraham to ‘lech lecha me’artzecha umimolad’t’cha umibeit avicha el ha’aretz asher ar’echa’ – to ‘go forth from your land and your birthplace and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you’ (Gen. 21:1). The Midrash states:
‘...This may be compared to a man who was travelling from place to place when he saw a building in flames. Is it possible that the building lacks a person to look after it? He wondered. The owner of the building looked out and said, ‘I am the owner of the building.’ Similarly, because Abraham our father said, ‘Is it conceivable that the world is without a Guide?’ the Holy One Blessed be He, looked out and said to him, ‘I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the Universe’’ (Midrash Bereshit Rabbi 39:1, Soncino translation).
Our text cuts straight to an existential core. Gone is the classical High Holy Day image of God as Melech, King, all-powerful upon His seat of judgment. Here, God is portrayed as a vulnerable monarch, trapped in His grand but failing tower. Not only is God engulved by flames but He cannot make His presence known in the world.

This is a direct inversion of the High Holy Day image of the Divine manifesting Himself as the crown to our prayers, accompanied by the blast of the shofar. It is this image that we celebrate in our Machzor, in the Unetaneh Tokef, the Great Aleinu, in Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot.

But it is not only the portrayal of God that is inversed. It is also the role of Abraham. During Rosh haShanah, we read the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac. The tradition portrays Abraham as a man of deep faith who was willing to sacrifice his own son. But was he? Many of us are horrified by the Akeidah.

What kind of a God would demand such a gruesome offering?
And what kind of a man would succumb to such blind zealotry?
And so, our Midrash offers us unique insights both in the nature of God and Abraham.

It is not easy to imagine God trapped in the fires of His own world. But it is an honest and a consoling one.

Each day we are witnesses to great acts of cruelty and deep existential crises. The roaring fires of hunger, war, conflict, economic collapse and environmental degradation rage viciously.
Also the smaller – though not less personally significant – flames of loss, pain and hatred burn our individual lives down to cold ashes.
And yet, it seems, God does nothing. He too, is trapped by the fierce logic of His own natural law.

But can we worship such a God? Yes - I think we can and I think we must!
It is this God who desperately but tenderly reaches out to us, Who remains morally relevant in a broken world. For this God, Abraham is not a muted, zealous slave, glinting blade hovering over a beloved child. For this God, Abraham is a hero, an equal partner in the great project of Redemption.

Likewise, for this Abraham, God is not a tyrant, a caricature penned from the imaginings of the New Atheists. This is not the God that Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens deride and dismiss. This is a loving and complex God, Who makes Himself known through the ‘chesed’, lovingkindness of Abraham.

It is through Abraham that God must be made visible. Abraham carries the torch of ethical monotheism. Of justice, of championing the cause of the innocent as he had done in Sodom and Gomorrah. This Abraham dares challenge both God and man to be better versions of ourselves.

Let us reach out to quench the fires of our world and the fires in ourselves. We should be as our father Abraham. Be brave. Go out into the world while at the same time going into ourselves as the words ‘lech lecha’ tell us. Let us carry forth the torch of a humane, compassionate and passionate faith, a hope for humanity, a deeply intimate covenant with a God we can both challenge and love, just as we challenge and love ourselves.
Then the burning tower can become a lighthouse, bright across the shimmering plain, for all the world to see.

Shana tovah, chatimah tovah.

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