Here is a text version of my sermon from 7/14/18 –
I would like to tell you a tale this morning of two rabbinical students, who entered the rabbinical program at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the same year. They had never met before, and came from very different backgrounds, but they quickly became friends, sharing a number of common interests, among them the Grateful Dead and good beer. Before long they were not only friends, but also they were a hevruta, they were study partners.
In the traditional world of Jewish text study your hevruta becomes your closest companion. You spend an inordinate amount of time with your study partner tackling difficult texts, and the dynamic of the relationship is supposed to be one of prodding and pushing the other, of challenging the other’s interpretation of a given text, of using your partner to test ideas and to explore concepts. To do this you must trust the other person, because you must also make yourself vulnerable. That is to say you must at times be willing to acknowledge the limits of your own intellectual ability, you must also be willing to admit sometimes before someone else that you don’t know the answer, something that generally rabbis don’t like to admit.
Over time, the relationship – the hevruta – either works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, it breaks apart. But if it does work, the study partners become very close, through the shared time, the intellectual exploration, and coming to know one another in a deep way. And so it was for me – I imagine you’ve already guessed I am one of the students in this story – and my hevruta, my rabbinical school study partner. In fact depending on whether you ask me, Becky, or my study partner, our son Josh is named for my rabbinical school hevruta.
But as it has to happen in all the great tales, there was a parting of the ways. This did not happen because we fell out of favor. It did not happen because we grew distant from one another – in fact we are close to this very day. It happened because at some point during our third year of rabbinical school my study partner Josh decided to make aliyah, to move to Israel and become an Israeli citizen, and Becky and I decided to return home, to the States. Josh ultimately left rabbinical school and pursued an academic career, while I continued on the rabbinic track, and am now twenty one years into my pulpit career.
Now that I’ve taught you the term hevruta – which means? study partner! – I want to teach you another term – bar plugta. Your bar plugta is the person with whom you often disagree, and it is not uncommon that your hevruta is at times your bar plugta – that your study partner is often the intellectual thorn in your argument, or in the way you understand something about the world. And so it was with me and with Josh about Israel. He made aliyah from a deep belief that there is only one place on the earth that a Jew can fully live as a Jew, and that there is only one place on the earth where the Jewish people can fully realize their destiny – and that place is? the land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael.
But I returned from Israel to the States with a deep belief that my Jewish life would be most meaningfully lived here in the Diaspora, and what is more, that a healthy and vibrant diasporic Jewish community is important for the Jewish people, and for the land of Israel itself. And what is curious is that now 23 years after Josh decided to stay in Israel and Becky and I came back to the States, I think we are both right. In other words, there is something to be said for Josh’s position – more and more the destiny of the Jewish people as a nation is being played out in the land of Israel, and those of us who live in the Diaspora are in many ways observers of that great saga. Not that we don’t love Israel, not that we don’t follow events there closely, not that we don’ travel there and send our children and grandchildren there – we do all of that. But what we do not do is live there.
On the other hand, as the years have gone by, I have been more and more convinced of the need for a healthy Jewish community outside the land of Israel. You may have noticed an odd narrative that appears in this morning’s double Torah portion Matot -Ma’aseh. It is curious because for forty years now the Israelites have wandered in the wilderness with one goal in mind – which is? To make it to the promised land. And now here they are, just on the other edge of the Jordan River, just about to cross over into that land. And suddenly – as if out of nowhere – the leaders of two tribes – Gad and Reuben – come forward to ask Moses a question. “Would it be OK,” they ask Moses, “if we don’t go into the land. Would it be OK if we just stay here, on the east side of the river, outside the land that God has promised, and make our lives? It is a good land,” they say, “So would you mind terribly if we don’t go into the land?” Moses at first is not pleased with the request, but in the end, after some negotiation, he permits it. And in that moment Moses establishes what for all intents and purposes is the very first diaspora Jewish community.
Why did Moses agree to do that? He had worked his entire life to get the Israelites into the land, and just when that goal was about to be realized he backed off, at least for two of the tribes. Why?
To answer that question I would like to point your attention to a fanciful midrashic text that imagines that before Moses died God showed him the entire future of the Jewish people. And if we set aside reason for a moment and take that textual idea to its logical conclusion, then Moses knew what a crucial role the Diaspora would play in Jewish life and Jewish history.
Moses knew, for example, that for 2000 years Jews would not have a homeland, and would need to figure out how to maintain their faith and their identity when those things were not tied to a specific place. He knew that Jews would need the intellectual give and take of the larger world around them. He knew, for example, that what would make Maimonides great one day would not be his knowledge of Jewish texts, that what would set Maimonides apart would be his knowledge of Greek philosophy and secular sciences. Moses knew that one day there would be an Einstein, and that what would make Einstein Einstein would be his Jewish propensity to ask questions set against a secular scientific method that came from the non-Jewish world. He knew what Judaism would give to the world, and he also knew what Judaism would need from the world.
Perhaps Moses also knew that Israel would need both a hevruta and a bar plugta. A study partner to support her, to be close to her, but also to push and prod her, to sometimes challenge her, even to respectfully disagree with her. To live a Jewish life outside of the land, and so to see things through a Jewish lens but from a totally different perspective. He knew that at times the Diaspora community would carry the Jewish torch, while at other times it would burn most brightly and beautifully in the land of Israel itself. That one community would strengthen and support the other, and that the ethical and moral vision of Judaism could be lived in the land, but taken to many other lands. So may it continue to be for many generations to come.