Ask Not What God Can Do For You: Shabbat Message by Rabbi Dan Levin

Shabbat Message by Rabbi Dan Levin graphic for Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

We just completed the celebration of the High Holy Days – and on both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we talk a lot about God as a monarch.  Our prayers constantly refer to God as Malkeinu – our Ruler.

Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky – known as the Slonimer Rebbe – teaches that Rosh HaShanah is like a coronation, when we annually reaffirm God as our Ruler.

But for many of us, that metaphor rubs us the wrong way.  We don’t like to think of God as a Ruler who demands our obedience and loyalty.  As modern Americans, we have a hard-wired aversion to monarchs.  Modernity taught us to believe that it’s the job of our leaders to serve us, the people, and not the other way around.

We prefer to think of God as an adviser to guide us in our lives, or even more often, as a servant who will bend the world to our desires.

How often do we call out to God when we need something?  When a loved one is ill, we call out to God for healing.  When we’re in trouble, we call out to God for help.  When we’re confused, we call out to God for guidance.  When we’re weak, we call out to God for strength.

And we get angry when it seems like God doesn’t deliver.  “How could God have allowed this to happen to me?  I prayed to God and nothing changed!  God let me down – I’m done.”

But the festival of Sukkot asks us to think a little differently.  Sukkot asks us to consider not what the Creator should do for us, but what we should do for Creation.

On Sukkot we fashion a Lulav – gathering together branches of palm, myrtle, willow, and the Etrog, and wave them in all directions to remind us of how God’s love and presence are everywhere, and to offer gratitude for the miracles and blessings that constantly surround us.

A famous midrash explains that “the four species” represent four different kinds of people.  The dates from the palm tree have a strong taste, but the palm branch itself has no odor – representing those who have deep learning but a weak spirit.  The myrtle has a strong fragrance, but no taste – representing those with a strong spirit, but are short in learning.  The willow weeps, with neither fragrance or taste – representing those with neither learning or spirit.  But the Etrog has strong scent and taste – representing those who are rich in both learning and spirit.

The Slonimer Rebbe suggests that there are also four different ways we relate to people.  Like the Etrog, there are some people that we just really like in every way.  Like the palm and the myrtle, there are some people we like in some ways but not others.  And like the willow, there are some people for whom we feel no affection at all.

But Sukkot asks us to take all four together, and to realize it is our responsibility to live in service to all humanity – whether we like them or not.  The Torah tells us that we must love our neighbors, who are like us.  And we must love the stranger, who is not like us – that even when our enemies need help, it is our obligation to render assistance.

And similarly, it is not God’s responsibility to serve us, but our responsibility to serve God.  It is our responsibility to elevate the world to God’s level, not the other way around.

There are times, like the Etrog, when we feel completely fired up to make a difference.  There are other times, like the palm and the myrtle, when are partly, but not fully inspired.  And there are times, like the willow, when we feel no inspiration at all.

The festival of Sukkot reminds us that a life of service is truly a life of joy.  Waving the Lulav and Etrog reminds us that no matter how we’re feeling on a particular day, that we must reach out with our whole being to serve every variety of person, no matter where they live or how different they are from us.

And when the Festival ends and we take down our Sukkot, It is our daily duty to commit ourselves to the pursuit of holiness, to serve the eternal values that radiate from God’s presence in every moment of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dan Levin
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”


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