Unconditional Love

Sermon given on Yom Kippu 5757, September 23, 1996, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Most kids truly believe that their parents frequently say things for only one reason: to embarrass their children. Right?

The most blatant example of my own father’s tendency to humiliate me in public happened just last year. It was the night before Toni’s and my wedding. There we were, standing up in front of about 200 people, and my father is singing to me, a thirty-two year old man, “I love you, a bushel and a peck . . .” Now that was embarrassing.

Of course, I would have been totally humiliated if he had done that when I was fourteen. At thirty-two, I was touched. I also wasn’t surprised. All my life, I have known, through their words and even more importantly through their actions, that my parents love me.

Nevertheless, I do remember a few occasions from my younger years when I temporarily felt unloved. My parents must have been punishing me, though I can’t imagine what I could have done. I remember looking accusingly at my parents and declaring, “You don’t even love me!” Each time, they calmly responded: “We may not like you very much right now, but we will always love you.”

This was a clear expression of unconditional love. Unconditional love is a powerful theme of Yom Kippur, and it is the subject of my sermon today, for unconditional love is an essential force in each of our lives. We all need this kind of love, not only in our families, but throughout our communities, and, ultimately, in our relationship with God.

A few months ago, I had an experience related to unconditional love and support for our Jewish community. A member of our congregation called me with a question about a sermon I had given on a night when she had not been in Temple. She asked me if it was true that I had urged Temple members not to support the capital campaign for our new Jewish Community Campus. I assured her that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Toni and I had already committed quite a bit of time to that very same campaign, and had even signed a financial pledge to it.

The truth was that I had given a sermon entitled, “The Pros and Cons of Jewish Day School Education.” In that sermon, among other things, I had spoken about our community’s Jonathan Netanyahu Academy, a fine Jewish Day School. Along with my praise, I had argued that the School was in need of several changes in order to make it more acceptable to Reform Jews.

I gave that sermon with an underlying assumption that I failed to communicate clearly. My basic support for the Jonathan Netanyahu Academy is unconditional. Despite my disagreements with some of its past policies, I have welcomed its students to the Temple, gone to the school to make presentations, and publicly supported its fundraiser each year. I certainly would not withdraw support from our entire Jewish community, and from the vitally needed Jewish Community Campus, simply because one of its entities had practices that troubled me. To paraphrase the words that my parents often spoke to me: I may not have liked some things about the J.N.A. very much, but I will always support it and our Jewish community.

I would venture to say that I am not the only person in this room today who has had disagreements with this or that agency in our Jewish community from time to time. I have even heard that a few people don’t always agree with the way the Temple does things. If you are such a person, please express those concerns. May your experiences be as positive as mine have been since I gave my sermon about the J.N.A.

Let us not threaten to resign or to withhold financial support. The goals of our Temple and Jewish community organizations are dear to all of us. Our bonds with our fellow Jews are everlasting. When we disagree, let us share our concerns openly and honestly, and directly with the person or organization involved, and only then publicly, if necessary. And let us always do so with the understanding that we are eternally bound, to our fellow Jews and to our community, in bonds of unconditional love.

The ultimate exemplar of that everlasting bond is God. The human understanding of God has changed across the centuries, and many tragedies have stricken us. And yet, Jewish people have always strived to maintain faith in God’s unconditional love.

The most eloquent preacher of God’s unconditional love was the prophet Second Isaiah. He had witnessed the calamity that had befallen his people, our people, in 586 B.C.E. Solomon’s great Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. All the leaders, all the scholars, all the great men and women of Israel had been exiled to Babylon. There they sat and wept, the Scripture tells us, thinking only of Zion, the holy mountain that they had lost.

Very likely, these exiled leaders of Israel feared that they had lost much more than their Temple. Our Israelite ancestors must have felt deserted by their God. Moreover, without a Temple in which to offer their sacrifices, they must have assumed that God’s worship would end forever.

Their prophet, Second Isaiah, told them otherwise. Yes, God had been angry with them. The Temple had been destroyed as a punishment for their sins. And yet, God’s connection to our people is eternal. Let us hear these words of the prophet, speaking in the name of God: “‘In a moment of flooding anger I hid my face from you, but now, with love unending, I take you back in mercy,'” so says your Redeemer, the Lord.” God might not have liked our people very much at that moment, but God will always love us.

Second Isaiah’s message of hope, his promise of God’s everlasting love, did sustain the Israelites through their exile. They changed their ways. They worshiped God, even in Babylon. And when they were able to return to Jerusalem, they rebuilt their Temple. Only because of Isaiah’s message did the worship of God continue. Only because of faith in God’s unconditional love did Judaism survive.

Isaiah was speaking to our ancestors as a whole people. He told them of God’s enduring devotion to the entire family of Israel. But what of each of us, all by ourselves? Every person among us has his own troubles, her own pain, his own doubt. When we are all alone, facing individual trials, we need to feel that God loves us then, too. God does love us, each and every one of us. That is the message of Yom Kippur.

Our prayers today remind us that we are all sinners. She has been disloyal to her spouse. He has abused alcohol. She has cheated on her taxes. He has treated an employee like dirt. She has neglected a sick and elderly parent. He has not made enough time for his child. Yom Kippur teaches us, though, that God does not hate us for these sins. True, our actions have distanced us from our God. And yet, the prayers of this day remind us that we can change our ways. We can bridge the distance that our actions have placed between us and God. God might not have approved of what we did. God may not even like us very much right now. But God is ready and waiting to have us close once again. God has always loved us. God will always love each and every one of us, unconditionally.

That is the promise of Yom Kippur, and we can take it even further. Mindful of God’s love, we can love ourselves; we can be confident that we are worthy of the love of others. For he who was disloyal to his spouse was also loving and kind to his aged mother. Hopefully, too, he can make amends with his wife this year. He is, despite his sins, a good person, a person whom God loves, a man deserving of his own love and the love of others. She who abused alcohol also made every effort to lavish loving attention on her child. Hopefully, too, she can honestly confront her addiction this year. She is, with all her flaws, a good person, a person whom God loves, a woman deserving of her own love and the love of others. And he who cheated on his taxes was at the same time kind to his employees. Perhaps, too, he can clear both his tax records and his conscience this year. He is, failings and all, a good person, a person whom God loves, a man deserving of his own love and the love of others.

I know, sadly, that many people are not able to feel so loved. I feel blessed to experience God’s unconditional love myself. I am privileged to be here a witness, providing testimony of my faith to you today. I am grateful to our ancient scribes and rabbis for giving me the words to describe God’s love as I experience it. And yet, to be honest, my ability to feel God’s love does not come from my study of Torah, or from my knowledge of other Jewish texts. It comes from being loved, unconditionally, by my own parents.

Throughout these High Holy Days, we address God as Avinu Malkeinu. As we know, the first of those names of God, Avinu, means, “Our father,” or, more broadly, “Our parent.” We human beings can only feel loved by a God who is like a parent if we have been loved by a parent who is or was like God, loving us unconditionally, even when we failed.

That embarrassing song my father sang to me in front of all those people last year, and, more importantly, the way that he and my mother sang it to me when I was a child, has been my key to experiencing God’s eternal devotion. Their gift to me is one that each and every one of us is empowered to give to one another. Offering unconditional love to the people around us, we can give each other a taste of the very love of God.

May this be our prayer today:

Avinu, at times, we become angry at the community to which we are so deeply connected. May we express concerns out of love, never pretending to waver in our unconditional support for our brothers and sisters.

Avinu, there are individuals in each of our lives who are often difficult to love — a rebellious child, a withdrawn spouse, a demanding parent, a difficult life-long friend. Even as we necessarily display displeasure in their actions, may we show them boundless love.

Avinu, all of us have times of feeling alone and unloved. Particularly when our own actions are not beyond reproach, we fear that the whole world is against us. Help us to experience the presence of loved ones and friends who will not abandon us, even when we fail them.

Avinu, too rare are the moments when we feel Your presence near to us. Too often, our actions distance us from You. On this Yom Kippur, inspire each of us to engage in one act of repentance. May we reach out to You, confident that You are always and forever reaching toward us. Though You may have reason not to like us from time to time, help us to understand that You will always love us. May we know You, God, as Avinu, our very own loving parent.

Amen.

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