Tag Archives: creation story

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/22/17

As a child of the 70s, like many boys of my generation, I was both fascinated and obsessed with the Planet of the Apes.  I am guessing you all have a sense of what I am talking about – the movie franchise about a planet where apes speak and have a culture and society, and humans are mute and treated like animals.  In the early 70s when the movies were on TV I watched them – you’ll excuse the expression – religiously.  In 1974, when it was decided there was going to be a weekly Planet of the Apes TV series, I was beyond ecstatic.  When it was cancelled after just one season, I was inconsolable.  I begged my father to let me stay up late one Saturday night to watch the Carol Burnett Show because Roddy McDowell, the star of the movies and my hero, was going to be on.  There was a time in my life when it was Planet of the Apes pretty much 24/7.  And yes, I’ve seen the new Planet of the Apes movies, although the newest one is still on my to do list.

Some of you may know that the entire Apes franchise was based on a novel published in French in 1963, called La Planete des Singes – Planet of the Monkeys, I think is the literal translation – written by Pierre Boulle.  I read his Planet of the Apes novel in one night, straight through, with a flashlight under the covers so my parents would not know how late I stayed up.

When I was a little boy I was drawn to the story because of the space travel and adventure, but like all great science fiction the book deals with contemporary issues and themes, and at its core its one central question:  what is it that makes us human?  Is it the trappings of humanity?  The clothes, the manners, the culture, the societal structures?  Or is it something deeper, something perhaps even God given?  Our intellect?  Our consciences?  Our creative ability?  And the book explores these questions by taking humans out of the traditional trappings, and putting apes into them.  So if a human is naked and running around in a jungle, and an ape is dressed in a suit and sitting in a cafe sipping coffee, which of them is actually ‘human’ and which is the ‘animal?’

One of the most provocative ways that the novel tries to explore this question is through the use of language, of speech.  In the Planet of the Apes movies the most shocking moments, the most dramatic, are the moments where a character who is not supposed to be able to speak suddenly does.  And that is because more than anything else we understand that speech separates us from animals.  We have fundamental drives and needs, we must eat, we get angry, we have sexual drives, when we are pushed far enough we will even kill – and in all of those ways, we are indistinguishable from the animals.  But the one thing we can do that animals cannot is use language to communicate complex ideas to one another.  Language – our ability to use words – enables us to transmit scientific discoveries, to problem solve, to philosophize – to talk about God, or justice, or dignity.  And as the Planet of the Apes seems to suggest – were we to lose our ability to speak, to communicate with one another through language, we would also lose our humanity.

Judaism has long had a sensitivity to the power and importance of words and language.  It is not in my mind a coincidence that in the Creation story in the beginning of Genesis God brings the world into being by speaking a series of words.  Each act of creation in that story is preceded by the phrase ויאמר קילוהים – And God said.  And God said ‘let there be light.’  And God said ‘let the waters gather together.’  And God said ‘let us make man in our image.’  This is why we say in the siddur ברוך שאמר והיה העולם – blessed is the One Who spoke, and the world came into being.  God’s revelation at Sinai is conveyed to Moses and the people through words – וידבר קלוהים את כל הדברים האלה לאמור – God spoke all of these words, saying – that is the introductory verse to the 10 Commandments, emphasizing speech – language – as the means of communication between God and Israel.  And in fact in Hebrew – what are the 10 Commandments called in Hebrew?  The Aseret HaDibrot, which is probably best translated as ‘the 10 utterances, the 10 words.’

And human speech in the Bible is supposed to echo God’s speech.  It is supposed to  be sacred, it is supposed to have real meaning and real power, it is supposed to convey truth.  Harold Kushner points out that in the Torah a word is not merely a sound.  It is actually something that is real, that has substance and power.  There are many examples of this in the Torah.  When Isaac mistakenly gives his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau, he cannot take it back – the words have been spoken, and they must stand.  The covenants that are made in the Torah – between people, and between God and people – are verbal agreements, but they are eternally binding.  This morning’s double Torah portion begins with a series laws that describe how vows worked in ancient Israelite culture.  And it is clear that when a vow is made it cannot be broken, that the words that have been spoken have a true force that cannot be revoked once they have been uttered.

In our world today this might seem like a strange idea.  We have grown accustomed to using words cheaply, and even worse we have become very accomplished at using words to twist the truth instead of to arrive at it.  It is one of the great ironies of modern life that in what we call the ‘age of communication’ we are less and less capable of communicating with one another.  We talk by one another, and not to one another.  In a world of texts, and tweets, and emails, our sensitivity to the nuance of language, to the power of language, has been diminished.

There was a time, not so long ago, when this was not the case.  When I meet with a family about a funeral, and they are telling me about their loved one who was a member of the generation that we now call the greatest, they will often say like:  ‘they  meant what they said, and they said what they meant.’  Or, ‘their word was their bond.’  Or, ‘if they said they were going to take care of it, it was as good as done.’

It was just a generation or two ago that words still retained their meaning and power, their sacred sense of being binding and true.  That is something that we should not only remember – it is something we should strive to return to, in our own lives, in our communities, in our public discourse.  What are the six words we say before we pray the amidah?  Adonai sefati tiftach, u’fi yagid tefilatecha – God, open my lips, that my mouth might declare your praise.  Before we pray, we ask God to help us make our language sacred.  Perhaps we should keep the same idea in mind whenever we speak, to whomever we are speaking, and whatever it might be we are saying –

2 Comments

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

Finding the Way to Sesame Street

In many ways I grew up in two neighborhoods at the same time.  On the one hand there was my real neighborhood, my parents’ home sitting at the corner of Leroy and Matthews Streets in Binghamton NY.  That neighborhood was typical for a small town in upstate NY in the 70s.  The homes were filled with white middle class folks, hard working and honest, patriotic, salt of the earth kind of people.  All of the children went to public school, and of course to get to class we walked the half of a mile or so there and back, even from the time we were in first grade.  As far as I remember my family was the only Jewish family on the block.  A diverse group we certainly were not.

But then there was my other neighborhood, a place I visited pretty much once a day, everyday, beginning in 1969, at least up until 1973 or so.  Many of you have also been to that neighborhood, or traveled there with your children or grandchildren.  It is located in a place that was probably intended to be New York City, on a street named Sesame St, and all kinds of colorful characters lived there.  There was Kermit the Frog, the soft spoken and existentially challenged talking frog, often musing philosophically about life’s difficulties.  There was Big Bird, the 8 foot tall bright yellow canary like creature, enthusiastic about life and gregarious in a naive way.  Of course Ernie and Bert,  the Odd Couple-like roommates, one orange and one sort of mustard colored (that was Bert!).  And then you had my favorite muppet, Oscar the Grouch – after all, what could be cooler than living in a garbage can?!

But in a way what was most amazing about Sesame Street was the diversity of the human characters on the show.  You remember kindly Mr. Hooper, Big Bird’s friend, who ran a sort of corner grocery store.  There was a Hispanic family, Maria and Luis, and their daughter Gaby.  There were black characters, white characters, Asian characters and handicapped characters, old and young, every type of person you could meet on a New York street, and in any one skit from the show you might see any or all of them interacting with one of the colorful muppets.

The Sesame Street neighborhood was very different than my actual neighborhood, but I had a sense from watching the show that there was actually a big world out there with all kinds of people in it – I just felt I had not yet had the opportunity to meet them.  Little did I know at the time that I would end up as an adult living in a neighborhood much more like the one I watched on TV growing up than the one I actually lived in.  Becky and I live in a development out in Owings Mills, with probably 40 or 50 homes.  About half of the homes have African American families living in them.  Maybe one quarter of the homes are Jewish.  There are some interfaith families.  There are Indian families and Asian families.  And even plain old Caucasian families.  It is the kind of neighborhood that feels very familiar if you grew up watching Sesame St.

And I’ve been thinking lately about how lucky I feel to live in such a diverse neighborhood.  When you work full time and professionally in the Jewish community you can sometimes loose track of the fact that not every place is like Pikesville.  You spend so much of your time with Jews, so much time thinking about Judaism and Jewish issues, so much emotional energy worrying about the Jewish community and Israel, that you actually need a reminder every once in a while that it truly is a big world out there, that there really are all kinds of folks in the world.  And by the way that God cares just as much about them as God cares about me and my family, or any neighborhood in Pikesville or down the Park Heights corridor.

There is a well known debate recorded in the midrashic literature between two great rabbis, Ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva.  Their disagreement centers on one question:  what is the most important verse in the Torah, the one verse that sums it all up? Were I to ask you that question, my guess would be that many of you would cite what we commonly call the golden rule verse, the principle expressed in Leviticus 19, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’  After all, that seems to pretty much capture it, and if you follow that one verse at the end of the day you’ll probably be following many of the other laws in the Torah.  And that in fact is the verse Rabbi Akiva chooses – love your neighbor as yourself, says Rabbi Akiva, is the Torah’s most important verse.

But the other rabbi, Ben Azzai, disagrees.  He cites a verse from this morning’s Torah portion, a verse far less familiar than the golden rule verse, and on the surface a seemingly strange verse to choose as the Torah’s greatest.  It is the very first verse in the 5th chapter of Genesis, and reads like this:  זה ספר תולדות אדם – this is the record of the line of Adam.  And what follows is a genealogical list that goes on for 31 verses, one of the classic biblical passages that people often make fun of – this one begat this one who begat that one – I think you get the idea.

At first glance Ben Azzai’s choice seems puzzling.  How could a verse that says ‘this is the record of the line of Adam’ trump the great golden rule of the Bible, ‘love your neighbor as yourself?’  But if you think about it for a minute or two, Ben Azzai has a point – יש לו על מה לסמוך – he has a leg to stand on.  Because ‘this is the record of the line of Adam’ is based on a fundamental principle – all people come from the same place, in fact, according to the Torah, all people come from the very same person, or persons.  And if that is indeed the truth, then there is no one person better than any other.

I doubt very much whether the creators of Sesame Street were familiar with that midrashic discussion between Ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva, but I have a feeling they would have liked it.  Back in 1969 when Sesame Street came on the air for the very first time ideas like diversity, and ethnic and racial tension, and the struggles of the inner city were just as much a part of the conversation as they are today.  No question that is one of the reasons why the show depicted a neighborhood where there are all kinds of people from all kinds of places and backgrounds, but where everyone treated everyone else with respect, and where everyone was understood as being on the same level as everyone else.

You will probably remember the Sesame St theme song.  I am not going to sing it for you, but the lyrics of the first verse are as follows –

“Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away – On my way to where the air is sweet – can you tell me how to get – how to get Sesame Street?”

It is a simple lyric, and a song for children, but we all remember it.  Maybe one of the reasons is because the question at its core is this:  how do we get to a place where all people are respected and treated equally, regardless of race, religion, ethnic background, color, or age?  Sesame Street began to ask that question all the way back in 1969, and we haven’t figured out the answer yet.  But we have to keep looking, and we also have to remember that the search for that place continues every single day –

Leave a comment

Filed under America, Beth El Congregation, Bible, civil rights, community, neighborhoods, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized