Category Archives: Torah

To the (Jewish) Graduates

This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/15/19.

Wednesday night Becky and I watched with pride as our nephew Ezra graduated, with 27 fellow classmates, from Krieger Schechter Day School.  The ceremony included the singing of Hebrew songs, words of Torah, and as you might expect presentation of diplomas.  It concluded with Rabbi Josh Gruenberg of Chizuk Amuno blessing the 8th grade class using the words of the Birkat Cohenim, words that happen to appear in this week’s Torah portion – May God bless you and keep you – May Gods light shine in your life, may God grant you grace – May God’s countenance turns towards you, may God bless you with peace.

     Many of you know those words because we use them to conclude Shabbat and Yom Too services here at Beth El.  They are also frequently heard at weddings and baby namings and brises.  And it struck me as I heard them Wednesday night that it was a particularly Jewish way – especially since the words were spoken in both Hebrew and English – that it was a particularly Jewish way to conclude a graduation ceremony.

     And it got me thinking about what kind of message I might give if I was asked to address a class of graduates, all of whom were Jewish?  What follows is my address to the Jewish graduating class – wherever they may be – of 2019.

My dear graduates:

     I stand before you today as a representative of the Jewish community.  That idea – of Jewish community – might not mean all that much to you today.  You live in, in fact you have grown up in, a world where  – particularly for younger people – everyone is blending together, and many of the traditional distinctions between people and communities are being broken down.  I am not suggesting that is necessarily bad, but I am suggesting that it is OK to see differences in people, and to be proud of those differences, even to celebrate them.  There is a distinctive Jewish approach to family life, to communal responsibility, to education, to charity, to civil rights, and to many other things as well.  I hope in the years ahead you’ll embrace that distinctive Jewish approach and embrace it with pride.

     I want you to know today that we need you.  With an aging population and a low birth rate, youth is a precious commodity in Jewish life today.  We need your spirit and optimism, we need your energy and enthusiasm, we need your presence in our synagogues and federations and JCCs.  I know all the research!  I’ve read all the articles that describe your generation as a generation that doesn’t join formal institutions, that doesn’t buy in to traditional structures, that doesn’t sit on boards, that prefers to meet in a pub and not in a sanctuary.  But we also know (because studies have told us) that your Jewish identity is important to you, that you are proud to be Jewish.  We know that you are determined, in a new way, to make the world a better place because you are in it.  And we know that your time is precious and you want to live healthy and balanced lives.  

     And so what I also want you to know today is that you need us.  You need us to help you deepen and strengthen your Jewish identity.  You need us because at some point you are going to need a strong Jewish community.  You need us because without synagogues, and without federations, and without JCCs, the Jewish identity that you are proud of will not be able to continue to exist.  You need us.  And I hope you know that we are trying to meet you where you are.  We are creating coffee houses and meditation and yoga centers, we are hosting cooking and card playing work shops, we have book clubs and High Holy Day hiking workshops, we have rock and roll musicians playing in our sanctuaries, we have self help gurus speaking from our lecterns.  We have young leadership networking programs and wine tasting events.  And yes, if you really want to know, we will absolutely meet you in a pub.  Happily so.  We know you want to be better people, more moral and ethical and accepting and caring.  We know you want to engage in Tikkun Olam.  What I ask you to consider is this:  embracing your Judaism is a way of embracing your humanity, of growing in spirit.  It doesn’t have to be done in the way we did it – by sitting in services and going to Hebrew school.  But it has to be done, and we can help you do it, if you will let us and if you will guide us.

     I would be remiss if I didn’t say a word or two about Israel.  There is a growing gap between us regarding the Jewish homeland.  We often see Israel as threatened and the underdog, as a small country living in a dangerous and often hostile neighborhood.  We remember the wars in ’67 and ’73, we lived through those moments.  Some of us remember when there was no Israel, when Jews had no place to go during the Second World War when the Nazis were determined to destroy the Jewish people.  To you WW II is an almost mythic memory.  Your entire lives Israel has not been in a war, and you know that Israel’s army is the most powerful in the Middle East – by far.  You see Israel as strong and dominating, as technologically advanced but morally challenged by its ongoing struggle with the Palestinians.  And you see that in Jewish communal life today your views about Israel are often unwelcome and unwanted.

     We owe you a seat at that communal table.  Your voice needs to be a part of the Israel conversation, and if we have excluded you from that conversation it is our fault, and not yours.  And we need to do better.   So I hope in the years ahead you will join us as we wrestle with and find meaning in Israel, respecting our views and the history we bring to the table, but with a promise from us that we will do the same for you.  I truly believe that you can help us to understand Israel’s challenges moving forward.  But I also believe that we can help you to understand Israel’s history, and that together we can help one another help Israel to be a place of which we are all proud.

     There are so many other things we should talk about, a whole laundry list of ideas and challenges and opportunities that are just around the bend for you.  Your Judaism, I hope, will play a role in all of it.  I hope you’ll remember the history of our people, its challenges and its triumphs. My grandparents were immigrants, which means that your great grandparents, or great great grandparents were, and that is something we shouldn’t forget.  I know this probably seems like its a long way off for you, and its presumptuous, but I hope one day you’ll have children – we need more Jews in the world!  We have to talk about marriage, an institution that is under siege today, but a primary value in Jewish life.  We need to talk about Jewish literacy, which is on the wane.  I am sad to say we need to talk about anti-Semitism, which at one point I thought your generation might not have to deal with, but it looks like I was wrong.  The list goes on and on and on.

     But the rabbi should not.  A graduation speech shouldn’t be too long.  I know you are eager – not only for this ceremony to be over, but also to begin the next stage of your life, to get out there into the world and spread your wings, and hopefully fly.  As you do let me leave you with this – May God bless you and protect you.  May God’s light shine in your life, may God grand you grace.  May God’s countenance turn towards you, granting you light, life, and peace.  

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Creative Process

People often ask about how sermons are constructed, wondering where I find ideas of what to talk about, why I choose certain references, what my creative process is.  Here are a few thoughts about the sermon I gave this past Shabbat, posted yesterday, that might give a bit of insight into how a sermon comes together (at least for me).  You can read the sermon text here.

First off, the hardest thing in my experience is deciding on the topic.  It seems on the surface like there are a million and one things to talk about, and I suppose there are.  But not all of them seem like they make for good sermon material, not all of them sound interesting (to me), and not all of them are appropriate for pulpit preaching.  Sometimes it feels like finding that idea is comparable to searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.  You know it is in there somewhere, but it can be awfully hard to locate!

My ideas generally come from one of three places.  First, something from the weekly Torah portion.  It might be a verse, it might be a word, it might be something in the commentary.  But I often find my topic while flipping through the pages of the portion.  Secondly, I commonly find a sermon idea in something that happens in the course of the week.  A meeting I’ve attended, a conversation I’ve had, something I’ve seen, an interaction between two people at the bank.  So be careful, the rabbi is always watching! And the last source for me is the news.  An article I read in the paper, or something I hear on the radio.  That might not necessarily be a current event, but could be a reference to the anniversary of an important historical moment, or a strange factoid, or a story about another cultural custom.

Once I have my idea a process of free association begins to unfold.  Sometimes it is sort of organized, and I might jot a few notes down here or there, but mostly it happens in my head, and often when I am walking our dog around the neighborhood.  (interestingly I generally do that without my mobile phone)  How this works I honestly am not exactly sure.  I think it has something to do with just giving my mind the space to float a bit, to think about things not immediately connected to anything in particular.  But I suspect that sermon kernel is running in the my back of my head the entire time, like a kind of undercurrent.  And so my thoughts are constantly being pulled into the orbit of that sermon, a process that I think is more unconscious that conscious.

As best I can, I’ll try to walk you through that process in terms of this past Shabbat’s sermon.  First off, the initial idea.  I was looking through the portion, came to the end, and there in the Hebrew was the Masoretic note about the conclusion of the book of Leviticus, and how many verses are contained in the book.  I stared at that note for a moment, and I thought ‘endings!’  That might be a viable sermon topic, because after all, we seem to be interested in endings.

Then the free association process was off and running.  Game of Thrones had just ended. We were reading in synagogue the end of a book of Torah (Leviticus).  The last word of the book, when looked at with the last words of the other four books of the Torah is interesting.  That led me to thinking about famous last lines of novels, and I thought it might be fun to include a few and see if people in the congregation could identify them.  I went back to Game of Thrones and began to think of other famous endings of television shows.  The most famous of all (at least back in the day!) was the last episode of MASH, a show that was an important part of my growing up (here is a link to the last few minutes of that episode).  Many of the pieces of the puzzle were now on the table.  There were two questions – first, how should they be assembled?  And second, what is the point of all this?

Time to walk the dog!  And so, as our trusty pooch meandered through the neighborhood, the pieces of that ‘sermon puzzle’ began to take shape.  The order, what should come first, what next, what connected to what.  At the end of the half hour walk I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to put those pieces.  Then it was a matter of doing it, worrying a bit over transitions, weaving strands.

But there was a last piece nagging at me, which was that the Torah itself is a book that doesn’t have an ending.  Deuteronomy ends and the people are still outside of the land.  How might that connect to all of the other material about endings, about wrapping things up and concluding stories?

Then it occurred to me that might be exactly the point.  The experiences of our lives, by and large, do not end in neat and tidy sentences, carefully constructed to perfectly conclude a moment.  Instead, our lives are more like the (lack of an) ending in the Torah. We are perpetually just on the cusp, just on the other side of that (Jordan) river, always looking towards that Promised Land but never quite arriving there.  We are always in a state of having one more river to cross.

Which is the name of the last track on Bob Weir’s solo album Blue Mountain, released in the fall of 2016.  I love that record.  In it Weir wrestles with his own mortality, with the passage of time, with the importance of taking that next step even in the face of daunting odds.  And that song gave me the last paragraph of my sermon text.  One more step, one more river to cross.

One last note – the title I gave the sermon when I posted it on my blog – At the End of All Things.  That line comes from Tolkien’s the Return of the King.  The hobbits Sam and Frodo lie exhausted, having finally completed their quest and destroyed the ring of power. It looks as if they are about to die, and Frodo says to Sam “I am glad you are here with me.  Here at the end of all things, Sam.”

So there you have it.  A bit of Torah.  A dash of Game of Thrones.  A nostalgic fondness for MASH.  A good dog walk on a beautiful afternoon.  Some Bob Weir for good measure. And a little Tolkien sprinkled in.  Mix it all up, type for a while, and you never know what you’ll come up with.

Sorry about the length of this post!  Anyone who read to the end, I owe you a scotch!

 

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At the End of All Things

This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/1/19 –

     A few moments ago before we put the Humashim away I asked you to look with me at the last verse – and specifically the last word – of the the book of Leviticus, as well as the single line underneath the verse, that summarized the number of verses in the entire book.  I would not expect anyone to remember the total number of verses – does anyone happen to?  859.  But maybe a few of you remember the last word in Leviticus, which is?  סיני, Sinai in the English, as in Mt. Sinai.

     It has long been noted by biblical scholars that the last words of each of the books of the Torah have been carefully and intentionally chosen.  Taken together they offer a five word summary of the Torah’s main narrative.  Here is how that works – the last word of Genesis?  מצריים – Egypt.  Of Exodus?  מסעיהם meaning ‘their journeys.’  Of Leviticus, as we just established, Sinai.  What about Numbers?  The last word of Numbers is יריחו – Jericho. And the last word of Deuteronomy, the very last word of the Torah?  ישראל – in English?  Israel.  

     Now think of the five words in order – Egypt – they went down to Egypt.  They left Egypt, and began their journeys.  They reached Sinai.  They prepared to cross into the land at Jericho.  And then, they became Israel.  So the authors and editors of the Torah text are very careful to make sure that they end each book in exactly the right way, choosing a specific word that is thematic and summarizes something about the book that it concludes, and also the general thrust of the Torah’s story.  You find a similar idea in the structure of the entire Hebrew Bible, again, the very last word of the Bible carefully and intentionally chosen – anyone happen to know what it is?  ויעל – and he went up, as in going up to the land – making aliyah.  

     Any writer worth his or her salt will tell you how important endings are.  Whether writing a long novel or a short essay, that last sentence and those last few words – and possibly even the very last word – can be agonizing to find and put together.  You probably won’t remember a sentence that is somewhere in the middle of a book or essay, even if it is beautifully written.  But a powerful last sentence can stay in your mind.  I’ll give you a couple of last sentences from novels and lets see if you can tell me what book they come from:

“After all, tomorrow is another day.” – Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.  It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”  A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens

“The scar had not pained Harry for 19 years.  All was well.”  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling

     Along these same lines I’ve been thinking recently that we’ve all become a little bit ‘ending obsessed.’  That mostly expresses itself in our approach to the endings of TV shows.  When a beloved show is coming to an end there are weeks and sometimes even months of speculation about what will happen, how the loose ends will be tied up, and whether the ending will be satisfactory to the loyal fan base.  And then once the last show is finally broadcast the debate begins!  Was it well done, or not so much?  Was it what was expected?  Did they answer all the questions that needed to be answered?  We’ve seen this happen over the last years with Mad Men, with the Sopranos, with Lost, going back a bit further with Seinfeld.  And of course we’ve just been through this a couple of weeks ago with the final episode of the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones.  Anyone follow the series to its bitter end?  Even if you didn’t watch it, it was hard to avoid it because of how intensively it was covered in the media.  Almost 20 million people tuned in to watch that last episode, which was an all time record for an HBO broadcast.   

     But that number pales in comparison with the most watched final television episode of all time – which was?  MASH, in 1983.  (Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen) 106 million people tuned in to watch that last episode, and Hawkeye Pierce’s final farewell hug with his buddy BJ Hunicutt.  At the time there were only 233 million people in the entire country – so a full %45 of Americans watched that last episode.  Not taped and watched later, not streamed, not DVRd, but watched – at the same time.  

      You know maybe it is just a human thing.  From biblical times down to this very day we love a good ending.  The last episode of the beloved show, the last movie in the series – see Avengers Endgame! – the last words of the great novel.  Or the last verses of a book of Torah when we stand and listen for the Chazak like we did this morning.  We like a narrative to come to a conclusion.  We like a quest to be fulfilled.  We like the characters to finish whatever their task is, and then to ride off into the sunset.  It was true in biblical times, and it is still true today.

     BUT – biblically there is one significant exception to that rule.  Which is that the Torah itself is a book without an ending.  It is an incomplete narrative, an unfulfilled quest.  Because what are the Israelites and Moses searching for in the Torah?  What are they looking for?  What is the quest that is at the core of the Torah’s narrative?  The land of Israel!  The Promised Land!  That has been the whole point from the very beginning.  Forget about Exodus, even going back to Genesis, Abraham is promised by God that one day his descendents would inherit the land – לזרעיך נתתי את הארץ הזאת – to your descendents I give this land! God says to Abraham in Genesis 15. 

     But when the Torah ends, and the last verses of Deuteronomy have been chanted, the Israelites are still not there.  They are outside the land, on the western bank of the Jordan river, looking over the river at the city of Jericho, and beyond Jericho to the hills that lead up to Jerusalem.  They can see the Promised Land, but they aren’t yet in it.  And that is where the Torah ends. 

     That simple fact has often been used to illustrate the point that is summarized with the following phrase – life should be about the journey, not the destination.  And there is some truth to that.  But I think also that the Torah’s ending – or probably better to say lack of an ending – is the tradition’s way of acknowledging that although novels may end with a beautifully crafted sentence and exactly the right words, the events of our lives rarely do.  You remember the old Yiddish saying – Man plans, and God – laughs.  Our lives are complicated, often messy, and in many cases out of our control.  Plans go awry.  The narrative strands of our lives don’t all neatly come together.  

     The Torah reminds us that sometimes it is enough just to reach the edge of the Jordan.  That means we are a step closer to the place we want to be.  But it also means there are many steps we have yet to take.  As we continue to take them – day by day, month by month, year by year – may we do so with family and friends, and with God’s guiding presence as a part of our lives.

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What You Can’t Buy

     Each year, year in and year out, just as we finish celebrating Purim and start getting ready for Passover, we are confronted in our annual Torah reading cycle with the Book of Leviticus.  Most people will tell you that Leviticus is the least accessible of the five books of Torah.  It is filled with ancient and arcane laws, most of them connected to the sacrificial cult operated by the Priests – the Kohanim – some 2500 years ago.  So much of Leviticus deals with priestly material that the talmudic sages actually referred to the book as Torat-Kohanim – which you could translate literally as the Torah for the Priests.  In other words, these are exclusive rules, made for an exclusive club, and the regular Jew doesn’t even need to read it.  So what is a poor rabbi to do with these Torah portions?

     And I thought I might think with you for a few minutes this morning about that very fact – that the Priestly group is exclusive, a closed club which one only becomes a member of through inheritance.  There is an old joke which probably doesn’t pack quite the punch that it used to, about a young man who makes an appointment with his rabbi.  On such and such a day at such and such a time the he shows up at the rabbi’s office.  When he has settled into a chair, the rabbi asks ‘how can I help you?’  

     ‘Well Rabbi,’ the young man replied.  ‘I’ve done well in my business, and I’ve come today to make you an offer.  I will donate 25K to the shul if you will make me a Kohen.’  The rabbi, a bit nonplussed, says ‘That is very generous, but I am sorry, I can’t make you into a Kohen.’  ‘OK, Rabbi,’ the young man says, ‘it is so important to me to be a Kohen that I am prepared to pay you 50K!’  Again the rabbi responds ‘I am truly sorry, but it is something that is out of my hands.  I cannot make you into a Kohen.’  The young man gets up in anger, and as he is walking out the door, the rabbi asks him:  ‘By the way, why is it so important to you to be a kohen?’  ‘Because,’ the young man replied, ‘my father was a Kohen, my grandfather was a Kohen, and I also want to be a Kohen.’  ‘Ah, I understand,’ said the rabbi.  ‘Lets talk about that 50K.’

     The punch line of course is that the young man was already a Kohen, because if his father was a Kohen, he is a Kohen.  It is automatic.  But the undercurrent of the joke is the idea that there are some things in life that you simply can’t buy.  You could have all the money in the world, and it won’t make you into a Kohen.  

     I’ve been thinking about that joke over the last couple of weeks since the news broke about the college admissions scandal.  I am sure you have followed the story, it has been hard to miss.  A man named William Rick Singer was running a college ‘consulting’ business, a business that has become fairly common these days, where a family hires a consultant to manage their child’s college admissions process.  What Singer did that – I hope – most college admissions consultants don’t do – is bribe college admissions officials and college coaches, basically just paying them to admit students that would otherwise not have qualified.  He also ran more elaborate schemes, to include changing SAT test scores, sometimes sending someone else to take the SAT test, and even photoshopping the faces of some of his clients onto the bodies of athletes.  

     Mr. Singer didn’t have trouble finding clients, and he was by all reports doing quite a business.  At this point more than 50 people have been arrested in connection with his schemes, a number of them prominent and wealthy actors who, like the young man who walked into the rabbi’s office, were willing to pay pretty much whatever it took to get what they wanted, in this case, their child into a particular college.  

     It is perhaps a sign of the times that we think we can acquire status by paying for it.  After all there is some truth to that in our culture today.  A fancier and more expensive car has a certain amount of status attached to it.  So does a big fancy house in the neighborhood.  So does a country club membership.  And these are all things that are for sale, it is just a matter of having enough money to pay for them.  But what Mr. Singer and his clients clearly lost track of – what they forgot – is something that it might be good for all of us to reflect on and to remember – which is that somethings just are not for sale.

     We’ve known this for a while now.  There have been a number of research studies completed in the last few years that demonstrate that happiness is not directly correlated to the amount of money that you have.  The four wealthiest nations in the world are the US, China, Japan, and Germany.  None of them rank in the top 10 in happiness ratings.  When you look at the annual rankings of happiest countries, you find the Nordic states at the top of the list – the most recent ranking is Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland.  None of them are wealthy countries.  Individuals in those countries live in small homes, drive small cars, and compared to Americans own very little in terms of material goods.  What those countries have in common is – One – they are progressive, particularly socially progressive.  Second thing – the social service infrastructure in those countries is strong.  Also, and probably most importantly, they all foster a much stronger sense of community for their citizens.  People in those countries feel cared for and supported.

     It works the same way for individuals.  Research shows that happiness – or maybe a better way to say it is satisfaction with your life – comes from a variety of sources.  One is the quality of your relationships.  Another is your sense of having a place, of belonging to something that is greater than you – as an example, people who are connected to their synagogue, church, or mosque report a higher level of satisfaction with their lives.  Another ingredient is giving back – people who feel they are giving something back to their community, giving to others who need help, feel happier, more fulfilled, and more grateful.  Isn’t that interesting – when you give something back, you feel grateful.

     And none of those things are for sale.  It is true that you can pay to belong to a synagogue, but you can’t buy a feeling of connection to it – that only comes from being involved.  You certainly can’t buy relationships – I’ve known – and I am sure you have too – many families who have plenty of money, but can’t figure out how to get along with each other.  There are some things in life – and I would argue they are the most important things – that you cannot buy.  Instead, they require hard work, honest effort, integrity, generosity, self awareness, and self sacrifice, among other things.

     Judaism has known this for a long time.  To get back to the priestly class for a moment, you can’t pay to be a member – you’ve either inherited it from your father, or you haven’t.  There is that famous mishnaic statement, symbolized by the four crowns you see on the outside of the wall behind me.  There is the crown of Torah, earned through many years of study.  The crown of the Priesthood, that can only be inherited.  There is a crown of royalty that only comes to a few.  But the larger crown at the top is the כתר שם טוב – the crown of a good name.  That crown you cannot inherit, you certainly cannot buy it – it can only be earned.  Imagine what the world would be like if more people in it were working to earn that crown?

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Wonder of Wonders

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/19/19 –

     For many of us of a certain age reading this morning’s Torah portion brings to mind the following image.  Charlton Heston stands on a precipice overlooking the churning waters of a vast sea.  With long white hair and a dense white beard he wears a flowing orange robe with black stripes.  In his hand he carries?  A wooden staff!  And he is surrounded by Israelites.  The camera then shifts, and you see the Pharaoh – played by?  Yul Brenner.  He sits atop his chariot with a stern expression, regal, decked out in Egyptian garb, surrounded by the Egyptian army.  

     Charlton Heston yells out to the Israelites ‘The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us,’ and then turns to face the sea, raising his staff towards the heavens.  And then a miracle happens – the waters of the sea begin to part, forming a path on dry land right through the middle of water, and the Israelites run forward, down the embankment in front of them, striding out onto the seabed, gigantic walls of water on either side of them.  

          The scene in the movie is fairly accurate in terms of what is described in this morning’s Torah reading.  Moses and the Israelites are trapped between the sea and the Egyptian army.  Pharaoh does lead the Egyptians, and they begin to draw close.  Moses does actually say the phrase that Charlton Heston cries out in the film – ה׳ ילחם לכם – God will do battle for you!  And according to the Torah text the waters do split, and the Israelites escape from the Egyptians, passing through a dry path in the middle of the sea, the sea that later will close over the Egyptian army.   

     But there is one crucial detail that is in the Torah that is not in the movie – maybe the most important detail in the entire story.  It is God’s response to Moses when Moses asks for God’s help.  And I think you can’t fully understand the miracle at the sea – and maybe you can’t fully understand the way Judaism approaches miracles in general – without taking into account that response from God in this morning’s Torah reading.  Here is what God says to Moses, immediately after Moses calls for help:  מה תצעק אלי – דבר אל בני ישראל ויסעו – “Why are you crying out to Me?!  Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to go forward.”    

     God does not say ‘don’t worry Moses, I’ll take care of it.’  God does not, by the way, just simply strike the Egyptians directly, which we must imagine God could have done, and which, when you think about it, would have been much easier.  Instead, God tells Moses to tell the people to go forward into the waters – and this is before  – before! – the waters have started to part.  In a classic rabbinic commentary on this Torah text there is a description of the moment – the Israelites are terrified, the Egyptians are coming, Moses has asked for God’s help, God has told Moses to get the people to do something.  No one moves.  And then one Israelite steps forward into the water.  Nothing happens.  Then the water is up to his knees, then up to his waist, then up to his neck.  And then finally, just at the moment when he is not going to be able to breath anymore, the waters begin to part.

     Its a very Jewish story.  You can ask God for whatever you want.  But hedge your bets.  Don’t sit around and wait for God to do it.  Get started yourself.  Walk forward.  Wade into the water, whatever your water might be.  And keep going, even when the water is up to your waist, or your chest.  And maybe something will happen that will change your life.

     The truth is big miracles are rare.  There are only a couple of them described in the entire Bible.  I would even argue that Judaism, by and large, is not that interested in big miracles.  But it is important in Judaism to recognize small miracles.  And the tradition tries to remind us that we are surrounded by those small miracles every single day.  There is a wonderful line in the Modim paragraph that is part of the amidah prayer, where we say מודים אנחנו לך ‘we thank you God – ועל ניסך שבכל יום עימנו – for the miracles that are part of our lives every day.’  

     Many of you remember the wonderful scene in Fiddler on the Roof just after Motel the tailor asks Tevye for permission to marry Tzeitel.  When permission is granted Motel breaks into song, one of the best known Broadway songs of all time – what is it?  Miracle of Miracles!  The lyrics refer to some of the Bible’s great miracles – Daniel surviving the lion’s den – the parting of the sea, from this morning’s portion – and anyone remember the other?  I think David defeating Goliath.  But then the last lines of the song – “But of all God’s miracles large and small, the most miraculous one of all, is the one I thought could never be – God has given you to me.”

     These are the human miracles, the miracles of daily life that we all too often take for granted.  Did you get out of bed this morning?  Since you are here I am imagining the answer to the question is yes.  If you’ve ever spent time in a hospital bed, unable to get up under your own power, you know that getting out of bed can feel like a miracle.  If you’ve seen a baby born, or welcomed a new life into your lives, into your family, you know how miraculous that can be.  If you found the courage and strength you needed to face a dark and difficult moment of your life, if a phone call happened to come from a friend just at the right moment, you know that too can feel like a miracle.  

     It is a miraculous thing to have your health, to share your life with a family, to have children and grandchildren.  It is a miraculous thing to show up for a friend in need, or to get up and face a new day.  These moments don’t require the parting of a sea.  Instead they come about through human courage, and strength, and love, and faith.  May we all find those qualities in ourselves, and those moments in our lives, over and over again, every single day.  

Here is a video clip of the classic scene with Charlton Heston as Moses – 

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Earthrise

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat (12/22/18):

     Some of you will remember that it was fifty years ago this weekend when the Apollo 8 space mission was making its way towards the moon.  The flight launched on December 21st 1968 – fifty years ago yesterday – and lasted for 6 days.  It was manned by three astronauts – Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and Frank Borman – and was the second manned Apollo flight and the first to actually reach the moon’s orbit.  After circling the moon 10 times on December 24th and 25th, the astronauts set a course for Earth, and returned home on December 27, splashing down in the northern Pacific Ocean.

     The spirit of the mission, what it meant to Americans, and to people everywhere, was captured in a spectacular photograph taken by Bill Anders that would come to be known as Earthrise.  The photo shows a fragile and delicate – and also indescribably beautiful – blue and white sphere, half shrouded in darkness, and set in the deep blackness of infinite space, hovering in the distance over the stark white surface of the moon.  No one knew it at the time, but that photograph would become one of the most iconic images in the history of human kind.  

     The great irony in that moment is that in one of the greatest accomplishments of human history, manned space flight, with all of its technology, human ingenuity, its illustration of our ability to master the world around us – in the midst of all of that human greatness and achievement, we rediscovered our sense of how ultimately small we really are.  To see the Earth from that distance and perspective is to immediately understand that we live on just one tiny planet orbiting an ordinary star in a medium sized galaxy in an incredibly vast universe.  

     Fifty years ago that Earthrise photograph created what I call a ‘Grand Canyon’ moment for millions and millions of people.  That is the moment when you stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon, looking out over its vastness, and you suddenly realize – or maybe it is better to say you feel – that you are an infinitesimal part of a world, and a universe, that is vast beyond imagining.  It is what people feel when they enter some of the great European medieval churches, with their towering ceilings, or walk through a redwood forest, the enormous and ancient trees rising and rising into the distance of the sky.  This is the feeling captured by the Psalmist in Psalm 8:  “When I see your Heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You set in place, what am I that You, God, are mindful of me; a mere human being, yet you take note of my life.” (my own translation with a bit of paraphrasing)  It is precisely the greatness and beauty of God’s world and the infinite vastness of God’s universe that reminds us of our mortality and our limits and also, I would argue, of our humanity.

     The Book of Genesis that we finished reading this morning, for the most part, does not work on that grand scale that the Psalmist was writing about.  Instead, Genesis tells stories of intimacy and immediacy, of husbands and wives and parents and children, often during critical moments of their lives.  It describes Abraham and Sarah in the bedroom, talking about the fate of Hagar.  Or the private conversation between Jacob and his mother Rebecca about how to deceive Isaac.  We read in Genesis about Abraham and Isaac, alone, just father and son, walking to the top of Mount Moriah, and the few words that they share in that journey.  This morning’s portion, the last in Genesis, is also filled with intimate moments.  Jacob in his old age blesses his grandsons Efraim and Menasheh, drawing them close, kissing them, hugging them, placing his hands on their heads and tousling their hair, whispering over them a blessing.  And later in the portion we are flies on the wall of the bedroom where Jacob is dying, surrounded by his sons, as he gives each of them a last message that he hopes they will carry with them after he is gone.  

     These are human moments that we all can recognize from our own lives, moments of touching and talking, of whispered hopes and private expressions of fear and doubt.  Next week when we begin reading the Book of Exodus the Torah will leave those intimate moments behind, but in Genesis they are the primary focus as we learn about the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs.  

     There is of course one glaring exception to that sense of intimacy that Genesis focuses on, and that is?  The creation story, told in the first two chapters.  There God works on a cosmic scale, bringing the universe into being out of chaos, dividing up the waters and the lands, establishing the Heavens, putting into the sky the sun, the moon, and the stars.  I’ve always believed that the Torah begins that way because it wants us to understand that the God we are in relationship with, the God Who called to Abraham and Sarah, the God we prayed to this morning, the God we thanked for two long and loving marriages, the God we asked to heal our loved ones – that God is the Creator of all things.  And one of the great mysteries that Judaism explores is the idea that that cosmic, universal Creator can somehow be in relationship with us as small as we are, and can take note of and care about our lives.

      Fifty years ago on that Apollo 8 mission NASA arranged for the three astronauts to make a live broadcast to earth on that December 24th evening, a night observed in the Christian community as Christmas Eve.  When the crew asked what they should do for that broadcast they were told ‘just anything you feel is appropriate.’  One of the Astronauts brought a Bible, and in the course of the broadcast, as they crew circled the moon, with that spectacular view of earth captured in the photograph that would be called ‘Earthrise’, the crew took turns reading the first 10 verses of the Book of Genesis. 

     The last verse they read – they 10th – is as follows:  ויקרא אלוקים ליבשה ארץ ולמקוה המים קרא ימים וירא אלוקים כי טוב – And God called the dry land – Earth – and the gathering of waters, God called seas.  And God saw that this was good.

So it was.  So it is.  So may it always be.earthrise

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Imperfections (Superman vs. Spiderman)

     There is a traditional debate about the very first verse of this morning’s Torah portion, and at the heart of the debate is the question of the quality of Noah’s character.  The verse tells us נח איש תמים היה בדורותיו – Noah was righteous man, in his generation.  That can be interpreted in two ways – he was righteous – even in a generation where no one else was!  Or you could understand that to mean ‘in his generation he was righteous!’ – but in another generation, maybe not so much!

     The truth is there is evidence for both sides of the argument.  He was clearly righteous.  God chose Noah from among all the other people on earth to warn him about the flood.  He listens to God’s commands, he builds the ark, he guides his family and the animals into a post-diluvian world, a world after the destruction of the flood.  All righteous behaviors, all proof of the quality of Noah’s character.  

     But Noah also had some problematic moments.  He is the patriarch of a family that seems to have some serious issues.  He drinks to the extent that it has a serious and negative impact on his life.  And perhaps most troubling of all, Noah never warns other people about what is about to happen.  Nor does he challenge God in terms of God’s plans to destroy the earth.  We are waiting for Noah’s Abraham moment – the moment when he says to God “I don’t agree with this, it is wrong!”  Or “Are you telling me no one else on the earth is worth saving?  Save someone else, too!”  But that moment never arrives.  

     Knowing what you know now about Noah, both the good and the bad, the pluses and the minuses, lets take a quick vote.  You will have two choices, please only vote once.  Your choices will be that Noah was purely righteous, regardless of his generation, or that he was a flawed person, and was only considered righteous because everyone else in his generation was worse.  OK – how many of you would say Noah was purely righteous?  And how many of you would say Noah was fairly flawed, and only righteous when compared with others who were worse?

     Now let me ask another question – of those two Noahs, which do you prefer?

     I have to say the I actually prefer the flawed Noah, and in fact I think it is the flawed Noah who is more in line with the general way that biblical characters are presented.  If you think about any other biblical character – from Moses to Abraham to Sarah to King David and on and on, any other major character, you don’t have to look too far to find significant flaws.  Moses struggles with anger issues, let alone the fact that he kills another man in his youth.  Abraham is unaware of the dynamics in his own home that are tearing his family apart.  Sarah is jealous and hostile towards Hagar.  David is manipulative, steals another man’s wife, and ultimately arranges for that man to be killed.  These characters are not only flawed, not only imperfect, but deeply so.  And Noah is right in line with all of them.

     But let me tell why I actually prefer that.  And to do that I would like to shift genres for a moment, and talk about comic books.  (Just another from of literature!)  I grew up reading and collecting comic books, and I always preferred Marvel comics to DC comics.  DC was the line with? –  Superman and Batman and the Flash and Wonder Woman.  And Marvel had? –  the X-Men and Spiderman and the Fantastic 4 and the Avengers.  The symbol of DC comics was Superman.  Superman was perfect – תמים היה בדורותיו – perfect in his generation and every generation.  He was impervious to harm, he had strength beyond measure, he could fly through the air, he had x-ray vision.  

     But the symbol of Marvel comics was Spiderman.  Spiderman was stronger than the average person, and faster, but he was by no means impervious.  He didn’t have X-ray vision, he couldn’t fly – he had to use those web cartridges taped to his wrists, which would occasionally run out.  Superman was noble, moral, ethical, never had a doubt as to why he was doing what he was doing, never had a doubt about anything. 
Spiderman was filled with doubts.  Doubts about whether he should even use his powers.  He worried, he failed, he dropped out of school, and then struggled to hold on to a job, and he couldn’t keep a girlfriend.

     And as a kid I looked at Superman, and I couldn’t relate one bit.  Perfect, I think, is boring.  But also perfect is not me.  But Spiderman, with his doubts and his struggles, with his failures and foibles, that was the kind of hero to whom I could relate.  I knew I would never climb walls, or swing from webs on skyscrapers.  But I also knew I would fail, there would be moments when it wouldn’t work out, I knew my character needed work.  Spiderman was my guy!  

     And that is why I liked the flawed Noah.  That is why it has always made sense to me that the Bible’s heroes are mistake prone and emotional, that they struggle with jealousy and anger, that they sometimes  – maybe even often – don’t treat one another well, that they repeatedly fail to understand what God wants of them and to follow God’s commands.  If I opened up the Torah and every character was perfect, completely moral and ethical, righteous and just, kind and wise – go through you list – I would say who are these people?  They are not my people, and they are not like me.  But when I see them struggle and fail, when I read about Moses’ self-doubt, or Abraham’s insensitivty, or Noah’s selfishness – I say boy, that looks awfully familiar.  And when I see myself in the text and in those characters I  can not only relate to them, I can also learn from them.

     So in Moses’ spiritual growth I can see hope for myself and a path to follow.  In Abraham’s deep faith I can find inspiration.  And through Noah’s story I can understand in a deeper way what it means to face the difficult challenges of life with determination and courage.  

     That is why we’ve been reading these stories for some three thousand years.  May we come to them again and again, in this new year and every year, seeing in their heroes our own lives and struggles and flaws, and also the potential we all have to grow in soul, and to live with courage and faith.

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