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Inside Outside

This a text version of my sermon from first day Sukkot 5777 –

If you’ll permit me for a few minutes this morning I would like to go back with you to Yom Kippur afternoon, and our reading of the Book of Jonah.  Jonah is one of our strangest biblical books.  The simple fact that it contains an extended passage where the prophet prays to God while in the belly of a great fish in and of itself makes the book unusual.  Then you add to that the fact that Jonah is a failed prophet – because after all the message he delivers to the people of Nineveh does not come true.  And then there is the story of the plant that grows and then dies in a single day at the end of the book, a story no one fully understands.  But in my mind the strangest feature of Jonah is the way it deals with gentiles, with non Jews.

That is a feature of the book that is often over looked.  The mission God asks Jonah to undertake is to travel a great distance to preach to people who are not Jewish.  Nineveh is a city of gentiles, people who are outside of the covenant between God and Israel, people who probably are pagan in terms of their religious views.  Jonah is the only prophet in the Bible who is given this kind of mission.  This may be one explanation as to why Jonah tries to flee from his assignment.  Perhaps he feels that God’s word should only be proclaimed to Jews.  But God clearly does not feel this way, in fact God is so invested in Jonah carrying out his mission that God chases him down, creates a storm while he is at sea so the sailors will have to throw him overboard, provides a fish to swallow him up.  God wants the message to get to Nineveh whether Jonah does or not.

And on top of that, the book of Jonah in general portrays gentiles in a very positive light.  In fact I would argue the gentiles in the book come off looking much better than the prophet himself.  Jonah seems selfish, self absorbed, even a bit petulant.  In technical terms he is a major qvetch.  Throughout the book, Jonah seems to want to get away from God as quickly as he possibly can.  But the gentiles in the book are open to God’s word.  As soon as the people of Nineveh hear that they’ve sinned, they immediately repent and begin to pray to God.  Instantaneously.  From the king on his throne to the commoner.  These people may not be Jewish, but the book sees them as God-fearing people.

And then you have the sailors.  Remember at the beginning of the book, when God first asks Jonah to go, and Jonah tries to run away.  He books passage on a ship, and takes to sea, but there is a terrible storm.  You might remember that Jonah sleeps soundly in the hold of the ship, but while he sleeps, the sailors begin to pray.  Then when they finally realize the storm is because of Jonah, and Jonah even tells them they should throw him overboard, they do everything in their power to save him.  When they finally realize they have no choice but to throw Jonah into the sea they again pray to God, asking for forgiveness, and offering sacrifices to God.

The Book of Jonah is not alone in its positive portrayal of gentiles in the Hebrew Bible.  Remember Moses’ father in law, Jethro?  Jethro is a Medianite, in fact the Torah tells us he is a priest of Median, and he is seen as a wise figure, clearly loved by Moses, and also a person who helps to set up the Israelite governance structure.  You also have Pharaoh’s daughter, who saves Moses in the first place and by doing so ensures the survival and freedom of the Jewish people.  And in Genesis 14 you have King Melchizedek who is friendly to Abraham, blesses him, and offers praise to God.

Judaism has always understood that there are two covenants that God makes with humanity.  One is the covenant with Abraham, and later with Moses and the Israelites, a particular covenant with particular responsibilities that exists between God and the Jewish people.  But there is a more universal covenant that God makes with all people, in the rabbinic tradition called the Noahide covenant.  This shows that God cares about all people, not only the Jewish people, and that God is in relationship with all people.  We do have a special relationship with God, but we do not have God all to ourselves.

That is actually a major theme of the Sukkoth festival.  The Talmud teaches that it is during Sukkoth that God judges the world for water, in other words will their be enough rain for the crops to grow properly, enough water in the year to nourish and sustain people.  Not just Jewish people – all people.  And the sacrifices that were offered in ancient times during this festival were intended to extend God’s blessing to the entire world.  In the course of the holiday 70 bulls were sacrificed, the number 70 symbolically representing the nations of the world.  And tradition understands that these 70 bulls will protect the nations of the world from suffering, enable them to seek atonement for their sins, and help them to create a world of peace.  So in a way Sukkoth is as much about the non-Jewish world as it is about the Jewish world.

I think that message challenges us in two ways.  First of all, it reminds those of us who spend a lot of our time with Jews and in the Jewish community that there is a big world out there, and that God is concerned about the larger world and the people in it just as God is concerned about the Jewish world and Jews.  That may be a particularly important message coming out of the High Holy Days when the Jewish community is almost entirely inwardly focused.  It may also be one of the reasons why on this holiday we are asked to leave our synagogues, even to leave our homes, and to dwell in the Sukkah.  It is outside, in the world, visible, and you can’t hide from the world in a Sukkah, and the world can’t hide from you.

But it also challenges us to examine our own belief, and to reaffirm our dedication to the ancient covenant between God and Israel.  After all, are we going to let our covenantal relationship with God fade away while the non Jews of the world cling more tightly to their covenant?   I would argue that a Jewish identity based only on ethnicity – bagels and locks, national pride, even Israel and remembering the Holocaust – that that kind of ethnic identity will not ultimately be sufficient to maintain a sense of Jewish continuity.  Religious faith is a necessary component if we want to keep Jewish life vital and meaningful.

And that is one of the other things that is wonderful about Sukkoth.  We don’t shake the lulav and etrog because it makes sense!  This is not something that can be explained rationally.  It is instead an expression of faith, both in God, and in the ancient covenant between God and Israel.  May both of those faiths grow stronger in the new year, in our own lives, and in the life of the Jewish people.

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Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, Bible, continiuty, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

A Member of the Tribe

here a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/21

     We live in an age of acronyms, and with the new technologies of communication that we are constantly using – email, twitter, FB, texting –  the abbreviations seem to be growing exponentially day by day.  As my children will tell you I am no expert on these matters, and so I am treading a bit into uncharted waters, but I would like to see where you are with these things, so I am going to give you a little quiz.  If you know what the following acronyms mean, raise your hand – and we will work our way up in degree of difficulty – 

     LOL – how many know it?  What does it mean?  TBH?  TBT (throwback Thursday on FB)?  OMG?  (a good one for rabbis to know).  OTD?  And here is a last one for you – MOT – member of the tribe.

     That last acronym, MOT, member of the tribe, I heard from a long time member who was asking me about whether someone was Jewish or not – “is that person,” he said to me, “an MOT?”  This was a few years ago, and when I told him I had no idea what he was talking about, he patiently explained to me the meaning of the term – is the person a member of the tribe – in other words, is the person Jewish or not.

     On the surface it is a little silly sounding, but underneath the surface it is a very interesting way of asking the question.  You are not asking is the person an MOF – member of the faith.  You are using the world tribe, which automatically carries a connotation of ethnicity – that there is not just a religious Jewish identity, there is also an ethnic, tribal Jewish identity, a sense of being connected by family, not only by faith.    

     This sense of Jewish identity comes to us naturally, and it is ancient.  After all, in the Torah, our oldest document, we read about the Shivtei Yisrael, the 12  – tribes – of Israel.  And tribal identity is a central biblical theme.  It is a major question in the Torah as to which tribe gets which territory in ancient Israel, and in fact the territories are named after the tribes.  In the book of Judges, after the Israelites have entered the land, it is clear that tribal identity is much stronger than national identity – the tribes fight with one another, they vie for power, there is constant tension, alliances are formed.  And it is also clear that in biblical times a person was much more connected to their tribal identity, and much more loyal to their tribe, then they were to the Jewish people as a whole.

     Over time that changed, and the national identity became the primary one.  One of the most important moments in that transition is described in this morning’s haftara, from the book of First Samuel.  The first verse of the text sets the stage – the prophet Samuel invites the people up to Gilgal, and there, he says, ונחדש שם המלוכה – we will establish a monarchy.  A king to rule over not a single tribe, but all the tribes together.  And part of the king’s job is to create a sense of national unity and to deemphasize tribal identity.  King David advances this agenda by creating a national capitol, Jerusalem, and centralizing power there, and then his son Solomon furthers that process by constructing what would become THE national symbol, the Temple, one of the wonders of the ancient world.  The Temple belonged to all of the tribes equally, and it allowed for the celebration of national holy days like Pesah or Shavuot.

     But tribal identity still remained a part of Jewish life.  That is why even today people can strongly identify as Jews without doing anything religiously Jewish.  That is why the connection between Jews in the diaspora and the land of Israel and Israelis is so strong – that isn’t about religion!  Most Israelis are secular, and the truth is most diaspora Jews are secular as well!  It is about a tribal sense of connection, of being part of one ethnic identity, one large family.  That is also why I get so many emails from people that celebrate things like the number of Jews who have won Nobel Prizes.  As far as I know Episcopalians and Catholics don’t send emails to each other about how many members of their respective faith traditions have won Nobel Prizes.  But Jews take such pride in the accomplishments of other Jews, and in the same way feel ashamed when a fellow Jews does something terrible – I am sure we all remember the name Bernie Madoff.  And we’ve all done this – you hear about someone in the news who has done something horrible and the first thing you think is ‘oy I hope that person is not Jewish!’  Even today, 3000 years after the people asked for a king, Jewish tribal identity stays strong.

     In fact, I would argue it is growing even stronger.  If the much talked about Pew Study from last year about Jewish identity showed anything, it showed that Jews are more likely today to identify tribally as Jewish rather than religiously.  In fact religious behaviors were at the very bottom of the list in virtually every statistical category in the study – while tribal factors, like shared culture, remembering the Holocaust – and Jewish humor – were towards the top.

     My colleague Rabbi Sid Schwarz from Washington has argued that more and more Jews are dividing up into two categories – there are tribal Jews and covenantal Jews.  Tribal Jews focus on Israel, they go to the AIPAC convention, they may have strong ties to the Federation, they eat bagels and lox, they know what is happening in the Jewish community, they give to Jewish causes, they watch Seinfeld and old reruns of Woody Allen movies, they feel great pride when a Jew wins a Nobel Prize.  But religion is by and large unimportant to them.  They may come for HHD services in the fall, they probably light a menorah during Hanukah and go to a Passover seder, but for the most part they live entirely secular lives.

     Covenantal Jews are exactly the opposite.  They focus on religious life, their Judaism is centered more around a synagogue than it is the Federation or AIPAC, they are personally observant, regular shul attenders, feel a sense of being commanded religiously, perhaps observe Shabbat and keep kosher.  Their concern is more with the covenant between God and Israel than it is with the connection between them and their fellow Jews.

     Of course the truth is in real life people don’t break down into easily identifiable categories.  Much more commonly people are some mix of the above, a certain percentage of their Jewish energy and identity is played out tribally, another percentage plays out covenantally.  What does seem to be true is that the percentages are changing – the importance of tribal identity is clearly growing rapidly, while the sense of covenantal identity is diminishing.  What we have to be careful of is focusing so much on one that we forget about the other.  In some ways it is precisely the interplay between the two that makes Jewish life unique – we are both a faith tradition and an ethnic identity.  That is a dynamic that no acronym can capture – instead it must be lived every day, in all of its complexity – and any person who lives Jewish life that way will without question be an MOT – a full fledged member of the tribe – 

 

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