Published Works:
Public Speaking:
Rabbi Charles David Isbell, Ph. D.
Copyright 2011 Rabbi Charles David Isbell, Ph. D.. All rights reserved.
The following sermons were preached at Temple Sinai in Lake Charles,
Louisiana, during the High Holy Days of 2009:

 Evening Rosh ha-Shanah     Morning Rosh ha-Shanah
       Shabbat Shuvah      Kol Nidrei      Yom Kippur Morning

Rosh ha-Shanah Evening
September 18, 2009

Last year we examined the concept of kingship in the world of the Bible and
I think most of us agreed that human kings are almost always bad news. That
being the case, we were able to discover why the rabbis decreed that on
Rosh ha-Shanah we should focus on the kingship of God. I think their
decision was correct. To serve God alone as King helps to sharpen our
vision, to clarify moral values that are eternal, and to teach us to invest our
lives in ways that have true and lasting meaning.

This evening I want to consider the counterpart to kingship, even the
kingship of God. You see, if there is a king, there must be subjects who
serve that king. And that is where you and I enter the picture. We are
commanded to be slaves of the divine King.

We are all familiar with the marvelous story of Passover, the time each year
when we celebrate the original divine act that freed us from slavery to an
evil human monarch. Since no one would argue that being a “slave” (the
Hebrew word is ‘eved) is an acceptable situation for a person created in the
image of God, Passover still resonates with us strongly, even more than
three thousand years after its inception. With God’s help, we left slavery
behind and marched into glorious freedom. But as a famous television
sportscaster is fond of saying: “Not so fast, my friend.”

You see, we did not actually leave slavery behind when we left Egypt, we
merely changed the identity of the master whose slaves we are expected to
be. Right in the Exodus narrative itself, Moses is given the title ‘eved
YHWH, “the slave of Adonai.” The great leader himself did not achieve some
form of absolute freedom which he could treat as he chose, but was given a
new Master, the Sovereign of all creation. Thereafter, the Scriptures
repeatedly enjoin all of us to “serve” the Lord (using the same Hebrew
root), clinching the idea that we too, just like Moses, are now slaves of
YHWH. I guess it would be difficult to drum up excitement about a holiday
described as “from slavery to slavery,” but that is precisely what Passover
actually was. We were liberated from slavery to the Pharaoh for the sole
purpose of becoming slaves to YHWH.

Of course, once again we encounter a biblical concept that is hard for
freedom-loving Americans to swallow. We are all rugged individuals, slaves
of no one. But wait. Most of us here this evening understand the concept of
trudging off to a job every morning, sometimes working for a company that
requires us to wear dreadful uniforms and uncomfortable shoes, just trying
to make a living. Yet statistics indicate that most of the profits produced by
workers goes into the pockets of the owners. On the other hand, those who
own their own businesses are typically the people who work the longest
hours, handle the complaints and problems, and face the monthly stack of
bills, payroll, interest payments, and mortgages, once again just trying to
make a living. Clearly, freedom is never absolute, and our society furnishes
numerous examples of short-sided people who ignore the rules of
responsibility only to experience catastrophe down the line.

Think of the Hollywood “stars” who are so enslaved to youth that they
undergo plastic surgery repeatedly, often becoming grotesque shadows of
their former beautiful selves. Think of those who sit in prison or live in fear
of discovery by law enforcement because they exercised absolute freedom
to flaunt the rules of society by cheating, lying, or stealing what they have
not earned. Think of others whose bodies are wrecked by over-indulgence
of various kinds, whose relationships are shattered by selfish infidelity,
whose reputations are lost in a cascade of broken promises and untruths.

No, freedom is not absolute. Bob Dylan was correct. “You’ve got to serve
somebody. It might be the devil or it might be the Lord, but you’ve got to
serve somebody.” So the issue is not some non-existent form of absolute
freedom to live only to please ourselves for the moment. True freedom
involves choosing the correct master.

Many years ago, I was asked to counsel a beautiful young teen who had
embarked on a lifestyle of drug addiction. With flashing eyes and a defiant
look, she informed me: “Nobody can tell me what to do.” I looked at the
young lady who refused to accept guidance from parents, teachers, or
clergy, and remember wondering how such an independent thinker could
allow foreign chemicals into her body that took away her freedom and
enslaved her to horrible physical and psychological addiction. It was not
long before she reached absolute bottom, stealing from her own family,
running with people whom she did not respect but who fed her habit, and
ultimately trying unsuccessfully to take her own life. Only when she became
desperate enough to accept guidance from others did she find her way back
to health and sobriety and begin to live a life of purpose and meaning.  

I believe that the kingship of God is the starting point for meaningful life. O,
I don’t mean the kind of grandfatherly deity we sometimes think of as God,
nor do I view God as some kind of cosmic monster who might crush us if we
fail to make correct choices. For me, “God” is that sum total of goodness in
the universe that helps us keep life in balance. Serving God rather than
ourselves implies that instead of seeking “happiness,” we find purpose by
investing in acts of kindness and moral strength. I firmly believe that the
only truly happy people are those who have found ways to become useful to
others, to society at large, to those who need a helping hand. This kind of
service to “God” is the only sure pathway to lives that count.

At the end of the day, each of us must choose the master we will serve. If we
serve only ourselves and our immediate personal gratification, our world
becomes tiny, constricted, and utterly lacking in purpose. But if we become
willing slaves of “godness,” our own lives will be enriched even as we
enrich those around us. As we begin this new year, each of us faces a
choice once again. One of our leaders said it this way long ago: “Choose
today whom you will serve” (Joshua 24.15). And he continued with the best
advice I know: “As for my family and me, we will serve the Lord.”

       Evening Rosh ha-Shanah     Morning Rosh ha-Shanah
       Shabbat Shuvah      Kol Nidrei      Yom Kippur Morning
Louisiana State University
Department of Religious Studies, 107 Coates Hall
Baton Rouge, LA 70803-3901