Tag Archives: faith

Idols Old and New

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 11/4/17

Three months from now, on Saturday February 3rd, I hope you’ll all be back for services.  That morning we’ll read from the Torah Parshat Yitro, which contains probably the best known text in the entire Bible, the Ten Commandments.  You may know that the 10 commandments are symbolically represented here in the Berman Rubin Sanctuary – where?  Right!  On top of the ark just behind me, with the carving of the two tablets, and you’ll notice, even if you can’t read Hebrew, that there are 5 lines on each tablet, and each line has two words – those are the first two words of each of the 10 commandments.  Lets go through them quickly – they are –

There is a wonderful George Carlin bit about the 10 commandments, one of my favorite comedy bits, and in 3 or 4 minutes he deconstructs the 10 commandments to show that at the end of the day they are really only one commandment, or maybe one and a half at best.  I would like to play that game just a bit this morning, and to argue that of the 10, the two most important are the first two commandments. Number one, which is understood as ‘believe in God!’  And the second – which is understood fundamentally as ‘don’t worship idols.’  Those two commandments are at the core of Jewish life, they are overarching principles, while the rest of the 10 attend to details.  And I would also argue that the first two commandments – believing in God and not worshipping idols – define Abraham’s life as the first Jew.

The believing in God part is easy to see, both in last week’s Torah portion and this week’s.  When God suddenly appears to Abraham last week, asking him to leave his native land, to give up everything that is familiar to him, Abraham does not say a single word.  Instead, with a straight forward sense of faith, with an iron cast belief that the God speaking to him is authentic, he simply packs his bags and he leaves.  And in the portion we read this morning Abraham shows a similar strength of faith and belief when God comes to him and tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Again, Abraham says not a single word.  God’s message comes to Abraham, and the text simply says וישכם אברהם בבוקר – Abraham rose up early in the morning and went about the business of fulfilling God’s command.  Now I don’t know about you, but my faith is not strong enough to listen to a command like that, even if it did come from God.  But Abraham’s faith is so strong that he never for a moment doubts that God will do what is right in the end.

But if Abraham’s belief in God is one of the defining qualities of his life, his rejection of idols seems to be almost, if not as, important.  Perhaps the most famous midrashic text of all time is about Abraham and the rejection of idols.  It is so well known many people believe it to be in the Torah itself.  It tells the story of a young Abraham, working in his father’s idol shop back in Ur.  And one day while his father is away, Abraham smashes all the idols with a hammer.  When his father returns, he yells at his son – what did you do?  Abraham’s answer to his father is tongue in cheek – “I didn’t do anything, the idols were fighting and they smashed each other!”  “That is not possible,” his father replied, “they are made of clay, they can’t move, they don’t think!”  And Abraham had his opening – “Well then, father,” he said, “why do you worship them?”

And that rejection of idols, that rejection of anything or any culture that is not monotheistic, becomes a second defining quality of Abraham’s life.  Abraham is called in the Torah העברי, which we commonly translate as ‘the Hebrew.’  But the root means ‘over there,’ or ‘the other side,’ so Abraham is the one who stands apart.  That is one of the ways I read the Binding of Isaac story.  When everyone else was sacrificing their children to their gods, Abraham stood apart, ultimately refusing to sacrifice his son to God.  When everyone else buried their family members in a common burial area, Abraham stood apart, purchasing a distinct plot of land for his family.  And as a boy, when he was growing up in a culture where everyone else worshiped idols, he stood apart, rejecting the idea of idol worship, and embracing the idea of a universal creator of all.

Over time the prohibition of idol worship became one of Judaism’s most important commandments and values.  There is an entire Talmudic tractate, Avodah Zarah, devoted to the dangers of idol worship.  Over and over again the great biblical prophets of our tradition warn against the worship of idols.  And of the 613 commandments, there are only three that a Jew must never violate, even to pain of death – and idol worship is one of them.  That intense, almost visceral, rejection of idolatry all began with Abraham, and it has continued to this very day in the lives of individual Jews and in Jewish communities through the ages.

Of course many things can be idols.  I would guess just about everyone in this room knows that Apple released a new state of the art iPhone yesterday.  And isn’t there something just a little bit idol worshippy about how people line up from 6 in the morning to get their hands on that object, about how they walk out of the stores with reverent expressions on their faces?  Here is David Brooks writing about modern idols in a column that appeared in this week’s NY Times:  “idolatry is seductive because in the first phase it seems to work. The first sip of that martini tastes great. At first a new smartphone seems to give you power and control. The status you get from a new burst of success seems really sensational. But then idols fail. What seemed to offer you more control begins to control you.”

Being honest, we all probably have our personal idols, objects or ideas that we worship to one degree or another in unhealthy ways.  It could be almost anything.  Food or alcohol or drugs.  Wealth and status and money.  Dare I suggest, the Ravens?  But there are times when communities also begin to worship idols.  In the Jewish tradition we have our very own example of that, in Exodus 32 and the story of the Golden Calf.

What are today’s communal idols?  One would be a culture that tells us success is defined by material possessions.  Another today would be political orthodoxy – worshipping at the feet of the political ideology of your chosen party, whether the right or the left.  Self interest might be a third – the growing trend to prioritize the needs of the individual over the needs of the community.  All of these things on the surface seem to offer you more control, but in the end, as Brooks pointed out, they end up controlling you.

So you see Abraham was a hero not only for his own time, he also is a hero for our time.  As we read about him in the Torah we are reminded of how important it is to identify the idols in our lives, whether communal or individual.  But we are also reminded that identifying these idols is not sufficient – they must also be confronted, and eventually destroyed.  It is when Abraham destroys the idols that surrounded him that he is finally free to begin his journey and live the rest of his life.  So it is for all of us as well – may we do that work in community, fellowship, and faith, with God’s help –

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, Bible, Jewish thought, politics, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

Turn, Turn, Turn…

In December of 1965 the folk/rock group the Byrds released their second album, entitled Turn, Turn, Turn!  The record’s title was taken from its first released single, with its memorable chorus “To every thing (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn,) and a time to every purpose under Heaven.”   The lyrics, originally penned by the great Pete Seeger in the late 50s, are loosely taken from the 3rd chapter of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.  On December 4th of ’65 the song hit number one, holding that spot for three straight weeks.

The turning image in the song reflects the mood of the biblical text.  The author of Ecclesiastes urgently feels the swift passage of time, and struggles in that powerful stream to gain his bearings.  Tradition teaches that the book was written by King Solomon in his old age as he attempted to come to terms with his own mortality.  The author speculates about life and its meaning, about the coming and going of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun.  Is it simply cyclical, he wonders, repeating again and again and again, or is there meaning to it, does it work in a particular direction, ultimately enabling us to reach some place we are destined to be?  If we are turning to whom are we turning, and for what purpose?

This is a time of year when Jews think a lot about turning, whether they even realize it or not.  The start of a new year always brings with it the sense of time’s passage.  But the idea of turning is also central to the process of teshuvah, a word we commonly translate as repentance.  The three lettered root of the word most often means to turn, or to return, to come back to something, someone, or some place you’ve been before.  This is what we all hope to do in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days.

A wise rabbi once observed that turning doesn’t require much effort.  It isn’t that you have to move a great distance – instead, you simply stop going in the direction you are going, and turn yourself so you are facing in a different direction.  Sometimes it is that slight reorientation that can make all the difference in the world.  Isn’t it true that life is often about the small things, the slight changes, often in attitude, that can make everything look different?

But there are two types of turning.  We can turn to, or we can turn from.  I sometimes think our initial instinct is to turn away.  When a challenge arises, when a relationship grows difficult, when we feel estranged from faith and God, turning away is often the easiest path.  We turn our backs, cast our eyes in a different direction, and in so doing shield ourselves from potential hurt and harm.  This kind of turning may feel safer, but ultimately it leaves us lonelier, more isolated, less connected.

Turning to is more difficult.  It often requires confrontation, either with ourselves, or others, or both.  It asks us to open ourselves up, to face what we might be inclined to look away from, to engage when we might feel like shutting the door.  But turning to has the potential to repair things that have gone wrong in our lives.  Turning to gives us the best chance of making changes we hope to make, of rekindling friendships, reinvigorating relationships, and reinventing ourselves.

The Talmud teaches that there is a short way that is long, and a long way that is short.  Too often in life we choose the short way and never reach the place we hope to reach.  Choosing the long way can make the journey more difficult, more time consuming, more challenging, but in the end can give us the best chance of arriving at our intended destinies/destinations.

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, Rosh Hashanah, Uncategorized

Born to Run, Born to Rabbi

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 12/3/16 –

I find myself thinking very much about children and parents this week, in part because of Gideon’s bar mitzvah, in part because Becky and I picked our son Josh up after his three months abroad, and in part because I just finished reading Bruce Springsteen’s new autobiography, very appropriately entitled – take a guess – Born to Run!  The book has everything you’d expect from an autobiography of one the greatest rock stars of all time, from the purchasing of Springsteen’s first guitar, to paying his dues  playing in the bars, to hitting it big and forming the E Street Band. These are all the standard tropes of rock and roll narratives, but Springsteen, as he does with his music, plays them better than just about anyone I’ve ever seen.

What surprised me about the book – what I did not expect – was how focused the 500 or so pages are on one central relationship in Bruce Springsteen’s life – his relationship with his father.  Springsteen’s mother is a supportive presence in his childhood, warm and loving and in her own way proud of her son.  But his father was an entirely different kind of person.  Born in 1920, he served in the European theater during the Second World War.  He came back to the States to his home town and went to work in the factories.  He was an old school guy – a blue collar laborer, never went to college, emotionally closed and unable to express himself, a guy who hated his job but would never miss a day of work, a guy who stopped at the bar on the way home to have a few beers – every night.  And would have a few more when he got home, sitting in the kitchen of the family’s small house, often in the dark, waiting for Springsteen to come home.

In a series of vignettes that take place at that kitchen table, Springsteen describes some of the clashes and conversations, many of theme heated, that he had with his father over the years.  Slowly but surely the two men grew in starkly different directions, the factory worker father who valued traditional definitions of manhood and work  watched his son grow long hair and spend hours in his room playing the guitar.  The son who valued freedom and music and expression watched his father grow angrier and angrier, and more and more hostile and withdraw into a shell he used to keep others out his life.

At the end of this long trail of encounters between father and son there is one final, poignant scene that Springsteen brings to life in the book.  The 18 year old comes home, brings his parents into that kitchen, and tells them that he is leaving school, that he will not look for a regular job, and that he is going to dedicate his life to rock and roll.  To put it mildly, the conversation did not go well.  Within a year Springsteen’s parents had moved to California, and Springsteen remained behind, dirt poor, all of 19 years old, playing the clubs and bars of the Jersey shore.  He had no idea at the time that he was, as Jon Landau would later famously write, the future of rock and roll.

I imagine many of us have had conversations like that with our parents at one time or another.  Hopefully not as hostile, not as angry and bitter, but difficult, hard, conversations where we have to tell our parents that our intention is to set out on our own path, to leave behind in one way or another the life that they’ve lived, and maybe expected us to live as well.   My conversation like that with my father happened 25 years ago this month, on a cold December night in Binghamton NY, 1991.  Becky and I had gone to visit my parents to spend a few days catching up.  I had made a decision – a significant decision – about the direction of my life which my mom and dad did not know about, and I was determined to tell them during the time we were there.  One night after dinner my dad and I went into the den, and as I sat on the couch he settled into his beloved leather chair and was about to turn on the TV.  And it was at that moment – again, 25 years ago this month – that for the very first time my father found out I intended to go to rabbinical school.

Now you may remember the old joke about the first Jew elected president, and on inauguration day her mother stands proudly watching the swearing in ceremony.  And one of the dignitaries leans over to the mother and says ‘you must be so proud, the first woman AND the first Jew to be president!’  And the mother leans back and says ‘her brother’s a doctor.’  Well my dad IS a doctor – and I think in the back of his mind he always wanted his oldest son to go to medical school.  And I can tell you in the back of his mind he never had the idea that his oldest son might go to rabbinical school.  He was more than surprised.  He challenged me – ‘what about this?’, he asked.  ‘How are you going to pay for it?  You don’t know Hebrew!’  he pointed out to me.  And he mustered every argument to convince me that maybe this was a crazy idea I had gotten into my head, and that I shouldn’t go.  In the end, to his credit, he said ‘if you are sure go and give it your best shot’ – and I did.

You know the Torah also has a moment like that, a pivotal moment in the relationship between a father and a son.  We read about it in this morning’s portion, one of the Bible’s best known stories, when Jacob, dressed like his brother Esau, enters his father Isaac’s room, intending to trick Isaac into bestowing upon him the first born’s blessing.  I’ve always wondered what it was that was going through Jacob’s mind at that moment.  He knows already that his father doesn’t like who he is, doesn’t approve of his character and his interests, because Isaac has made it clear that Esau is the favorite son.  And maybe part of what Jacob was doing was simply trying to win the approval of his father. So he leaves his true identity at the door, and for a few moments, as he pretends he is Esau, he feels what it is like to be the favorite son.  Maybe the blessing wasn’t Jacob’s goal after all.  Maybe he just – for a little while – wanted to feel his father’s approval and love.

And maybe it would have been different if Jacob had walked into that room as himself.  Would it have been more difficult?  Absolutely – a much harder conversation.  But at least then he would have been true to himself.  And who knows, maybe Isaac would have responded to that, for the first time having a sense of who his younger son truly was.  It is a two way street that moment.  If the child can be honest, and true to him or herself, he’ll set out on his own path, and whether right or wrong, whether it succeeds or fails, she’ll know it is her path, her choice, and her life.

And isn’t the true trick of parenting knowing that a moment comes when we have to let go.  We may not understand, we may not agree, we may not even think its right.  Hopefully we’ve done our best, we’ve given them the tools they need to be the best they can be.  But we have to always remember that being the best they can be doesn’t have to mean being the best we can be.

Maybe that is why Jacob leaves, right after that conversation with his father.  He realizes he’ll never be able to be himself if he stays home, under his father’s roof.  So he walks away, into an unknown future, I am sure entirely terrified of what lies ahead.  But his head is held high, there is a purpose to his step, and he walks on a path that he knows is his own.  May all our children walk on that path when their own time comes – whether they are born to run, or born to rabbi –

2 Comments

Filed under Beth El Congregation, clergy, liminal moments, music, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

Caine’ Hara!

Here a text version of my sermon from day two of Rosh Hashanah 5777

It has become a kind of tradition here over the years, begun by Rabbi Loeb, to spend a few moments at some point on Rosh HaShanah contemplating a story with a nice moral to it that comes from the baseball world.  But although I am not a superstitious person – in general – as Becky will tell you about sports I am very superstitious, and given the fact that the Orioles are playing tonight, and my Mets are playing tomorrow night I don’t want to jinx anybody, I don’t want to tempt fate, I don’t want to take chances, so I am leaving the baseball out of it this year, and instead I’ll bring you a different kind of story, one that goes back even further than the Cubs world championship drought, for those who keep track of such things (108 years!)  But as the old saying goes ‘before I speak I’d just like to say a few words,’ and so it is today.  Before our story, another quick tale.

This one is about an older Jewish gentleman who has to appear and testify in court.  He wakes up that morning, puts on his coat and tie, arrives, and when the time comes settles into the witness stand.  The Judge says ‘Mr. Greenberg, will you please state you name and age for the court record.’  ‘Your Honor,’ he replies, ‘my name is Ben Greenberg, and I am 83 years old, caine’ hara.’  The Judge is a little nonplussed, and he says ‘Mr. Greenberg, please re-state your age for the court – just your age.’  ‘Your Honor, I’m 83 caine’ hara.’  The lawyer can see that the Judge is a getting upset, and he says ‘Your Honor, may I give it a try?’  ‘Be my guest,’ the Judge said.  The lawyer steps forward, and says, ‘Mr. Greenberg, how old are you caine’ hara?’  Mr. Greenberg immediately responds ’83!’

Now if 83 deserves a caine’ hara – which it certainly does – what does 113 deserve?  I am sure you have heard of Yisrael Kristol, the Israeli man who a few weeks ago became the oldest human being in the world.  Just two days ago in the Jewish calendar, on erev RH – he celebrated his 113th birthday.   One hundred years ago, when he was 13 and should have had his bar mitzvah, the events of the first world war, the first! got in the way, and so along with his family, he’s decided to have a formal bar mitzvah ceremony now, in his 113th year.  Caine’ Hara indeed!

Yisrael Kristol’s story is a remarkable one, a tale of survival and resilience, of strength of spirit in the face of tragedy and loss, and of the ultimate triumph of goodness and hope and faith.  He was born in Poland in 1903 and grew up in the traditional Jewish world of Eastern Europe, studying in heder as a boy, and living an observant Jewish life.  As a young man he married and had children, but as the prime of his life arrived, the Nazis conquered Poland and laid plans for their Final Solution.  When they established the Lodz ghetto, the Kristol family along with thousands of other Jews was moved there and in those harsh conditions their children died. When the ghetto was being liquidated, Yisrael and his wife were transported to Auschwitz, where she died but he somehow survived.

After the war ended he spent time in a DP camp, remarried, and then in 1950, Yisrael and his 2nd wife made aliyah to the then 2 year old State of Israel.  They settled in Haifa, where Yisrael worked as a confectioner and baker and where he and his wife recreated a traditionally observant family. They were blessed with a son and a daughter, and in time, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  Throughout his many decades and to this very day, Yisrael has maintained his religious observance, davening every day with tallit and tefillin, keeping Shabbat, celebrating the holy days of our sacred tradition, and over the last couple of days, with Jews all around the world, he has welcomed a new year and thanked God for another year of life.

 

It’s hard not to see in Yisrael Kristol’s story a reflection of many a Jewish story, the narrative of our people with its ups and downs, its tragic moments and its unexpected triumphs, its sadnesses and its celebrations.  If we are anything we are survivors as a people and as individuals, and certainly the beginning of a new year reminds us of that, in the most intimate of ways.

And if Yisrael Kristol were sitting here with us at Beth El Congregation today instead of his shul in Haifa, we might be itching to ask him the question everyone would love to ask a 113 year old man and which he’s been asked over and over and over again. “What is the secret to long life, how is it that you’ve managed to live all these long years?”  His response has been a mixture of humility and faith, “I don’t know the secret,” he has said. “I believe that everything is determined from above and we shall never know the reasons why.  All that is left for us to do is to keep working as hard as we can, and to rebuild what is lost.”

Those words may not keep anyone alive a moment longer than their destiny will grant them but it certainly seems to me to be a fitting message as we welcome a new year in unsettled times. It’s not easy to look at the world in which we live today without pessimism, distrust, and cynicism.  With constant war, wanton destruction of human life, refugees, terrorism, with the cheating, lying, and stealing we see too often in the business world, with the presidential campaign, and the lies and misrepresentations of the candidates and the influence of big money.  It is not a pretty world out there.  But think about this for a second – Yisrael Kristol knew a far uglier world and his message to us is not of despair but of hard work and faith.  So that our lives can make a difference.  So that we neither withdraw nor abandon hope but instead work and rebuild, and find hope anew.

 

Why, I wonder, would the oldest person in the entire world and his family decide to celebrate such an auspicious event by doing something Jewish?  Yisrael Kristol could have gone on TV, he could have made money with a ghost written memoir or by selling the movie rights to his story. He could have gone out for dinner. (whatever Tio Pepes is in Haifa!)  But instead he decided that standing before the Torah in his small family shul to chant with gratitude “asher bachar banu mikol haamim venatan lanu et torato,” “who has chosen us among all peoples by granting us the Torah,” and “vechayay olam nata betocheynu,” “Who has planted within us eternal life,” was his most precious and meaningful act of celebration of such a rare gift.

So it seems to me as we come together to begin a new year that Yisrael Kristol has a few questions for us.  Are we prepared to continue the work in which we’ve been engaged with our loved ones, with our community, with our country, with the world? Do we have the hope and the resilience – and the courage –  to rebuild that which has fallen down in our lives, to strengthen and rekindle our relationships?  To look at ourselves in the mirror and see both the reality of what is and the potential of what could be?  Can we find the faith to enrich our hopes for a better world? Can we say shehecheyanu “thank you God for granting us life, preserving us, and helping us reach this day and all the tomorrows we will yet be granted” with hearts filled with gratitude and longing for the work ahead of us? Certainly Yisrael Kristol would say “Yes.”  Can we?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks the former chief rabbi of Great Britain used the following image to help us think about these sacred days: “Our life is the single greatest work of art we will ever make. Occasionally we need to step back from our life, like an artist stepping back from his or her canvas, seeing what needs changing for the painting to be complete.” So let us together step back during these next ten days, let us look at our lives, let us work and let us rebuild, let us brighten the colors, touch up the worn spots, fill in the missing pieces, so that the year ahead may be filled with blessings, with hope, and with peace – for us, for our families, for our friends, for all people –

Caine’ hara!

1 Comment

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

The Difficult and Daunting Search for God

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/2/16 –

The young man who came to see me was disappointed with God.  He had always been a good person, doing his best to make the right choices and do the right things, to include dutifully coming to shul over the years when his family expected him to be there.  But some things had gone wrong in his life.  It hadn’t worked out as he had wanted or planned.  There was a career misstep here, and a failed relationship there.  A close friend had been sick and suffered.  He had always been told that God cared and that God took care of us – watched out for us, rewarded our good behavior and punished our bad.  But from what he saw, from what he had experienced, it didn’t work that way.  So he made a decision.  He would never set foot in a shul again.  After all, if God didn’t do what God had promised, why should he bother?  Why should he come to a service where God’s name was invoked, where God’s essence was praised?

This was painful to his family.  Judaism was important to them, synagogue life was important to them, the rhythms of the Jewish year, the holidays, the family dinners, were part and parcel of their lives.  But he would have none of it.  The system, as he understood it, had been proven false.  His heart had become hardened to the traditions and history of our people.

I knew that part of this was my fault.  Not in the sense of something I did wrong, but rather because of the system I represent.  He had gone to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, studied Hebrew and holidays and Jewish history.  And somewhere along the line he had learned about God.  This is what he had learned:  God is somewhere up there in the sky, looking down on us.  God watches us, our day to day lives.  When we ask something of God, God hears our request, and when our request isn’t answered, God has decided not to answer it.  When something goes wrong, when we don’t get what we hope for, when we fail or get sick or suffer a loss, God has allowed the thing that hurts us to happen to us.  That is to say, God could have prevented it, but chose not to.  In essence, he had learned that God is a micromanager, deciding on a case by case basis that some will have success while others will fail, that some will have lives of goodness while others will suffer, that on a given day one person will be in a car accident while another person will be spared.

These ideas are of course not new, and the young man is not the first person to understand God in this way, nor to be disappointed in this God.  The Talmud tells the story of Elisha ben Abuya, one of the great sages of his day, a rising star in the talmudic academy.  But living in Roman times he sees terrible things.  He sees Jews being persecuted.  He sees great sages who are humiliated in front of Roman soldiers.  And one day, says the Talmud, he sees a young boy trying to get eggs from a bird’s nest, high in a tree.  And the boy knows the Torah commands that the mother bird should be sent away before the eggs are taken.  But in trying to get the mother to leave her nest the boy loses his balance and falls to the ground and is killed.  And Elisha ben Abuya, one of the great sages of his time, and perhaps of all time, loses his faith.  How could God let something like this happen?, he thinks.

The young man who came to my office did not know about Elisha ben Abuya, had never heard of him I am sure, but he suffered from the same malady and he subscribed to the same theology.  And he had the same question: how could God let something like this happen?

Being a crafty old rabbi, this was not the first time this question had crossed my desk, this was not the first person to sit in the chair across from me with feelings of anger and disappointment about God, and I knew two things – one, there are answers to that question.  And two, none of the answers is fully satisfactory.  So we talked for a while, and I gave him some of those standard answers, and he paused to think seriously about one or two of them, but I don’t think I’ll be seeing him in shul anytime soon.  The misconceptions he holds about how God works are too deeply ingrained for him to let them go, at least now.  But I thought, as he walked out of my office, if we talk about these things more often and more openly, it might help someone else, who is struggling in the same way, to find a different path, and to feel more comfortable walking into a sanctuary carrying doubts about God.

There is an odd passage in this morning’s Torah portion, the first in the book of Exodus.   The Israelites have been enslaved in Egypt.  They are suffering, and the Torah tells us that they cried out to God, a cry for help, for release from suffering and slavery, and that the cry rose up to God.  And then the Torah tells us that God heard their cry, and that God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  And then the Torah says this:  וירא ה׳ את בני ישראל וידע ה׳ – Elohim saw the Israelites, and Elohim – God – knew.

There are two things about the passage that strike me, one implied, and the other an unanswered question.  First what is implied – if the Torah tells us that God remembered, it means that at some point God forgot.  God forgot about the Israelites.  God forgot they were in Egypt, that they were slaves, seemingly, that they even existed.  I think this is the Torah’s way of telling us that there will be times in our lives when we will not feel God’s presence.  When we will look for God, call out to God, ask for God’s help, and there will not be a response.  Eventually, God did remember.  But for a long time – ימים רבים the Torah says – for a long, long time, God forgot.

And the second thing that strikes me about the passage – the unanswered question – is this:  what did God know?  If you look at the translation of that verse in your Humash, you’ll see it says “and God took notice of them,” but the Hebrew simply says וידע ה׳ – Elohim knew.  God knew what?  And I think the answer to that question is the very next word in the Torah, a word that you all know – Moshe.  Moses.  God knew that a human being had arrived on the scene who would through his own efforts and actions begin the process of freeing the Israelites.  God wasn’t going to do it.  What changed wasn’t that God was now paying attention to the Israelites when God hadn’t been paying attention before – what changed was that the right person had come.  And because of that God knew that soon the Israelites would be free.

Despite what the young man who came to my office had learned growing up, the tradition often teaches us that God is not a micromanager.  God is not looking at the lives of individuals and deciding that certain prayers will be answered while others will be rejected, that certain hopes will be fulfilled while others will be dashed, that this person will suffer while this other person will be saved.  That is not a God I have seen or known in the course of my life, or through my experience.  But I have known a God who blesses a Moses with the strength, courage, wisdom, and hope to lead a people to freedom.  And I have known a God who gives us as individuals the strength, courage, and hope we need to live our lives, to get up and face another day, to be there for people that we love, and to live with faith.  I tried in my office to introduce the young man to that God that I have known.  I hope that one day they’ll meet.  But my prayer today is that the young man should not stop looking – may he find meaning in his search and each of us in ours –

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, clergy, grief, Jewish thought, loss, prayer, preaching, predestination, sermon, synagogue, Torah, Uncategorized

Moses’ Crisis of Faith

Here a text of yesterday’s (6/28) Shabbat sermon:

  One of the things I love most about the Bible is that the characters we meet when we read the sacred stories of our people are all deeply flawed.  I understand that this might seem like a strange thing to say, and maybe in an ideal world we could open our scriptures and find only examples of the very best people, with strong faith and commitment, filled with admirable qualities that we can aspire to.  But instead the opposite is true in the Hebrew Bible.  From the get go we know we are in a bit of trouble when Adam and Eve betray each other, Eve convincing Adam to eat of the fruit and he later quickly blaming her before God for what has happened.  It gets even worse with Cain and Abel, the first brothers whose relationship ends in murder.  

     One would hope that Noah, who is after all called by the Torah ‘tamim’ – meaning perfect – could correct the dark picture of humanity that the text paints, but he has his own troubles with his sons, which I won’t go into right now but you can read later at your discretion – check Genesis 9 for the sordid details.  Then we might like to think that introducing the first Jewish family would help to straighten things out, but the intimate portrait of Abraham and Sarah, of Hagar and Ishamel and Isaac, is a text book illustration of a dysfunctional family.  At least we can say about Abraham that he had faith in God, something that seems to have stayed with him until the very end of his days.

     But if there is a great hero of the Bible, it must be the towering figure of Moses, prophet and lawgiver, leader of the people, giver of the Torah, the man who spoke face to face – panim el panim, says the Torah – to God.   We might hope that at least Moses, Moshe Rabeinu – Moses our teacher, as he is called – will provide for us the example of what a person should be and how a person should live.  And in fact I would argue that he does, just not in the way we might hope, or at least not in the way we might expect.

     First of all, Moses is also flawed, and deeply so.  On a personal level he seems to have his fair share of trouble, struggling in relationship with his sons, with his brother Aaron and sister Miriam, and with his wife Zipporah.  But he also is flawed in his leadership, at times proving too angry for the task, at others too exasperated, and at others just simply overwhelmed.  Certainly not all of the blame should be placed on his shoulders.  After all, he has been thrust into this role after repeatedly telling God he wanted nothing to do with it – who can forget his plaintive plea in Exodus 3 – Please God, שלח נא ביד תשלח – send someone else, anyone else!  And yet God insists and the responsibility falls on his shoulders, and he clearly struggles with it.  As Shakespeare wrote in Henry the Fourth part 2 – Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.  

     But it is in precisely this way that Moses teaches some of his best lessons.  Perhaps ill suited, and without question uncomfortable in his role, challenged by it, never the less he soldiers on.  Sometimes he fails, and quite spectacularly – I’ll get to that in a moment.  But other times he succeeds, triumphs, achieving in ways he himself never thought possible.  It is Moses who destroys Pharaoh, Moses who walks at the head of the people when they finally are freed from Egypt, and it is Moses who raises his staff over the waters of the sea, drying a pathway for the Israelites to freedom.

     But there are many failures along the way, and I would argue that Moses’ failures are more interesting than his successes, and also tell us more about the man, who he was and what he experienced.  Becky asked me recently why every movie has to have a tragic moment, why every novel, really every narrative, has to bring the protagonist to the very brink of defeat and despair.  And I think the simple answer is if not, the story just isn’t interesting.  There is not a reality show that depicts a totally normal family, the parents off to work in the morning, the children doing well in school and completely adjusted, everyone getting along, no illness, no unhappiness, no tears or trauma.  Why doesn’t that show exist?  Because no one would watch it!!  It is in failure, in crises, in times of trouble and challenge that we really learn about a family – or an individual, for that matter.  And in this way too Moses was a teacher.

     In this morning’s Torah portion, Chukat, we read about one of his failures, arguably his greatest.  It is the strange episode of the striking of the rock.  The people are complaining, as they tend to do throughout the book of Numbers.  In this case, what do they want?  Water!  And in all fairness to Moses, they taunt and torment him with their repeated requests and complaints, telling him they would be better off dead than being with him in the wilderness, and even worse, telling him they had it better in Egypt, under Pharaoh, as slaves, then they do with Moses.  Moses is boiling over with anger, and he calls out “listen you rebels, will we get water for you out of this rock?”  And then he strikes the rock, twice, with his staff, and water pours out so the Israelites can drink.

     This doesn’t seem like a failure at first.  After all, the people wanted water, God told Moses to get the water from the rock, and he did.  Win win win – everyone gets what they want – for God and Moses a few minutes of quiet, for the people, water to quench their thirst.  But something went wrong, and God is not happy.  “You didn’t trust me Moses.  You didn’t uphold My sanctity and you didn’t have faith in Me.  Because of this you will not enter the Promised Land.”

     It is clear that in God’s eyes Moses failed.  What the commentators disagree about is precisely what the nature of that failure was.  I found more than 20 different explanations of what it was Moses did wrong.  He hit the rock when God only said to speak to it.  He hit it twice, when he should only have hit it once.  He lost his temper and lost patience with the people at a crucial moment.  And the list goes on and on.  But this morning I would like to focus on one specific explanation that revolves around one phrase in the Torah in God’s criticism of Moses and Aaron – לא האמנתם בי – in your Humash if you read the English translation of that phrase you would see “you did not trust Me.”  But that is not what it really means – it comes from the Hebrew word אמונה – which means faith or belief.  So what God really says to Moses is ‘you did not believe in Me.’  In other words, during a crucial moment, and in front of the people no less, Moses lost his faith in God.  

     And even in this Moses teaches.  I suppose some people might be disturbed by the idea that Moses lost his faith, but I find it oddly comforting.  After all, if it happened to Moses, it could happen to anybody!  And that is precisely the point.  Real faith is hard fought, not easily come by.  It waxes and wanes, it comes and goes, it can be clear as a bell and then foggier than a London street.  And it is nice to know as it is for me – and I suspect for many of you – so it was for Moses.  

     Eventually his faith returned.  I don’t know exactly how, or when.  Chances are it happened in fits and starts, slowly over time.   But isn’t it a striking thing that the man who could not find his faith in a moment of crisis will later stand before the people and proclaim שמע ישראל! Here o Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord Alone!  It is a good think to know that despite that doubts – and in a strange way maybe even because of them – we can still live committed Jewish lives, part of a sacred community, engaged in an ancient covenant, and under the eyes of the Living God.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized