shavuot sermon

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I rarely post sermons-but I am proud of this one and it is a tribute to my late teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, z’l

SERMON SHAVUOT 5774

 

ON SHAVUOT WE MARK THE MOMENT WHEN GOD’S VOICE SPOKE AT MOUNT SINAI

THE SAGES IN THE MIDRASH TELL US THAT EACH PERSON WHO STOOD AT SINAI HEARD GOD’S VOICE DIFFERENTLY-

MIDRASH TANCHUMA STATES-

THE VOICE OF GOD AT MOUNT SINAI WAS UNDERSTOOD BY EVERYONE ONLY ACCORDING TO THEIR ABILITY TO UNDERSTAND-

THE OLD PEOPLE UNDERSTOOD IT ACCORDING TO THEIR ABILITY-

THE YOUNG PEOPLE UNDESTOOD IT ACCORDING TO THEIR ABILITY

 INFANTS UNDERSTOOD IT ACCORDING TO THEIR ABILITY

EVEN MOSES, SAYS THE MIDRASH , UNDESTOOD THE VOICE OF SINAI ACCORDING TO HIS ABILITY

THERE IS SOMETHING PROFOUNDLY BEAUTIFUL ABOUT THIS IDEA-

THAT THERE IS NOT ONE SINGLE WAY TO UNDERSTAND REVELATION; TO UNDERSTAND TORAH

THAT IN FACT THERE ARE AS MANY WAYS AS THERE ARE THOSE WILLING TO LISTEN TO THAT VOICE

NO ONE HAS A MONOPOLY ON THE TRUTH -AND THIS PARTIUCALRLY APPEALS TO US AS PROGRESSIVES AS JEWS OF A LIBERAL TRADITION WHERE ALONG WITH THE MEDIEVAL SCHOLAR IBN EZRA AND THE MDOERN TEACHER EUGENE BOROWITZ WE ASSERT THE RIGHT TO UNDERSTAND TORAH ACCORDING TO OUR INTELLECT

TO PARAPHRASE ONE OF THE FOUNDERS OF REFORM JUDAISM RABBI SAMUEL HOLDHIEM -RABBI AKIVA UNDESTOOD TORAH IN HIS WAY AND I UNDERSTAND IT IN MINE.

THAT THIS PRINCIPLE TAUGHT BY THE ANCIENTS THAT TORAH IS FILTERED THROUGH THE PRISM OF OUR LIVES AND EXPERIENCES AND UNDERSTANDINGS THAT TORAH IS FILTERED THROUGH THE PRISM OF OUR OWN approaches IS MOST GRATIFYING PARTICULARLY IN AN AGE WHERE WE ASSERT THAT WE ARE SOVEREIGN SELVES AND ARE ENTITLED TO A SPIRTIUAL LIFE THAT CONFORMS TO OUR VALUES

BUT WHAT IF THE FILTER THE PRISM THROUGH WHICH WE EXPERIENCE TORAH OR THE WORD OF GOD- WHAT IF THAT FILTER IS MADE OF EVIL-

WHAT IF THAT FILTER THAT PRISM IS ENGINEERED OUT OF THE SPUTTERING ENGINE OF OUR HATRED AND INTOLERANCE

WHAT IF THE VOICE OF GOD WE HEAR- THE SINAI WE ENCOUNTER IS FILTERED THROUGH THE SIEVE OF IGNORANCE, DECEIT, MISOGYNY, SUPERSTITION AND PREDJUDICE?

WE DON’T NEED TO GUESS TO IMAGINE, FOR THAT IS THE WORLD LIVE IN

IF WE LIVE IN A TIME WHEN THERE IS A GREAT YEARNING FOR MEANING A GREAT YEARNING FOR THE SPIRITUAL AND I BELIEVE THAT WE DO

WE ALSO LIVE IN A TIME WHEN PEOPLE CLAIMING TO REPRESENT THE VOICE OF GOD DO SO THROUGH A CLOAK OF IGNORANCE, HATRED, PREDJUDICE MISOGYNY INTOLERANCE AND RACISM

THE VOICE OF GOD HAS BEEN USED TO JUSTIFY THE MOST EXTREME HATREDS AND PREDJUCIDE-

HERE IN THE UNITED STATES

AGAINST GAY AND ELSBIAN AND TRANSGENDERED PEOPLE

AGAINST WOMEN

AGAINST PEOPLE WHOSE SKIN IS DARK

AGAINST WORKERS FIGHTING FOR A LIVING WAGE AND AGAINST THE POOR SIMPLY STRUGGLING TO MAKE IT THROUGH THE DAY

SOMEHOW THOSE WHO CONDMEN AND DISCRIMINATE DO SO SMUGLY EMPOWERED BY WHAT THEY BELIEVE IS GOD’S VOICE

ABROAD WE HAVE SEEN EXTREME CRUELTIES COMMITED IN THE NAME OF GOD’S VOICE-

FROM THE KDINAPPING OF YOUNG GIRLS and forced conversion TO IMPRISONMENT AND DEATH AND TORTURE AND KILLING

AND LEST WE AS JEWS FEEL TOO PROUD AND TOO SMUG AS WE OBSERVE CHRISTIAN INTOLERANCE AT HOME AND MUSLIM VIOLENCE ABROAD

IN ISRAEL THERE ARE PLENTY OF JEWS OF OUR CO-RELGIONISTS WHO JUSTIFY THEIR SEETHING HATRED OF WOMEN, OF GAYS.  OF MUSLIMS, OF ARABS, OF NON-Orthodox jews by CLAIMING THAT THE VOICE THAT THEY HEAR THE VOICE TO WHICH THEY RESPOND IN OBEDIENCE IS THE VOICE OF GOD THE VOICE HEARD AT SINAI

IT WAS MY TEACHER RABBI DAVID HARTMAN OF BLESSED MEMORY WHO DECADES AGO BEGAN TO INSIST THAT A JUDAISM WHICH WAS NOT LEAVENED BY COMPASSION, DEMOCRATIC VALUES AND A SEARCH FOR EQUALITY COULD BECOME CORRUPTED AND EVEN EVIL

MOREOVER, RABBI HARTMAN BELIEVED THAT THIS VIEW HAD ITS ROOTS IN THE TRADITON ITSELF,

IN A PASSAGE FROM THE TALMUD TRACTATE YOMA PAGE 69B  A PASSAGE THAT BECAME A FAVORITE OF RABBI HARTMAN’S THE SAGES DECLARE

”THAT GOD IS A GOD WHO INSISTS ON TRUTH, AND NO FALSEHOOD MAY BE ASCRIBED TO GOD”

Hakadosh baruch hu she- hu amiti hu

FOR RABBI HARTMAN, TO ASCRIBE TO GOD’S WILL  TO GODS VOICE TO ANYTING WHICH CAUSES HARM, DEGRADATION, CRUELTY OR SUFFERING TO ANOTHER HUMAN BEING IS TO ASCRIBE FALSEHOOD TO GOD-TO VIOLATE THE RABBINIC TEACHING THAT GOD INSISTS ON TRUTH

THIS IS WHY RABBI HARTMAN ENTITLED HIS FINAL BOOK-THE GOD WHO HATES LIES

-AND IN RABBI HARTMAN’S VIEW TRUTH MUST INCLUDE A RECOGNITION OF THE DIVINE DIGNITY  IN EVERY HUMAN BEING

AS RABBI HARTMAN PUTS IT -IN JUDAISM, LOVE FOR GOD MUST LEAD TO A LOVE FOR REAL PEOPLE AND SO JUDAISM TO BE AUTHENTIC MUST ALSO BE CONCERNED WITH EQUALITYY AND COMPASSION AND MORAL BEHAVIOR-

FOR DAVID HARTMAN, MORALITY AND TRUTH WAS THE ONLY PRISM THROUGH WHICH WE COULD FILTER GOD’S SINAI VOICE

UP UNTIL THE DAY OF HIS DEATH, RABBI HARTMAN WAS DENOUNCED AS A HERETIC FOR INSISTING THAT WE FILTER THE VOICE OF SINAI THOUGH THE PRISM OF COMPASSION, EQUALITY, LOVE AND UNDERSTANDING AND THAT IF ANYONE BEHAVES WITH CRUELTY, HATRED AND INTOLERANCE, IT IS NOT THE VOICE OF SINAI TO WHICH THEY ARE LISTENING, BUT THE PRISM OF THEIR OWN HATREDS-FOR GOD IS A GOD OF  TRUTH, AND HATRED , PREDJUDICE AND INTOLERANCE  ARE ANTITHETICAL TO  TRUTH

FOR TOO MANY IN OUR TIME, MUSLIM, CHRISTIAN AND YES EVEN JEW, RELIGION IS A LISCENCE TO HATE, TO DISCRMINATE,TO PERSECUTE, EVEN TO KILL

WE MUST COTNINUALLY REMIND THOSE PEOPLE, AND OURSELVES THAT THOSE WHO PREACH SUCH IDEAS DO NOT LISTEN TO THE AUTHENTIC VOICE OF SINAI, BUT THE DEMONIC COICE THAT INHABITS THE DARKEST RECESSES OF THEIR OWN TWISTED AND CORRUPTED SOULS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Witness

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One of the great Torah lessons was taught to me by David Hays, noted Broadway set designer and long-time collaborator with the late George Ballanchine of the New York City Ballet.

David is a regular and enthusiastic student of the Torah and he offered this thought many years ago during discussion of the portion Vayishlach

He noted that when Esau and Jacob reconcile in the field (which could easily have turned into a field of battle) one of the witnesses to this moment of fraternal forgiveness was young Joseph.  As David put it, “If I was designing the scene, the primary focus would be not on Jacob and Esau hugging, but on the reaction in the face of young Joseph.  It was clearly this moment which helped lead decades later to Joseph forgiving and reconciling with his own brothers in Egypt”.  David continued, “A good director would push us to observe not only the older brothers, but the effect that this moment had on the young man watching”.  

I have shared this insight for years, and always find that people experience the reunion of Jacob and Esau differently because of it.

 

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

The Donkey Whisperer

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Most people who recall the Torah portion of Balak remember best the episode of the donkey that speaks in human language. Generations of Sunday school students have giggled over the story of the “talking ass” found in the Bible. (Mostly in order to be able to say “talking ass” in Sunday school and not get in trouble).

The basic story is this-King Balak of Moab fears the Israelites, and so he hires a magician named Bilaam who is known for laying on pretty effective curses on one’s enemies, for money, of course. Bilaam is hired to curse the Israelites and journeys to Moab (during the journey is the episode of the talking ass) but when he opens his mouth to curse, instead he ends up blessing the Israelites, much to the frustration of his client, who fires him.

There are many beautiful teachings that the Sages discovered in this comical story. At one point, King Balak brings Bilaam to the mountain top where, in the words of the Torah, he will be able to “see a portion of the people”. The Hasidic Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk comments-Such is life. Each of us is only an individual- a “portion” of a people. Yet, if we can combine, when we combine, we can create an extraordinary community- a place of holiness and tzedakah.

May this be so.

In the blink of an eye

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Last summer, Rabbi Nechemia Polen shared an insight with me into the Torah portion of Hukkat that I had never seen before.  He pointed out that at the beginning of the portion, the people have just learned that they are to wander in the wilderness for forty years.  In the course of one verse, from Numbers 19:22-Numbers 20:1 those forty years have now passed.  Rabbi Polen said, “This is life itself.  Life passes us by in literally the blink of an eye, or, as the Torah expresses it, in the course of one verse”.  It does indeed.  Treasure the moment; learn to live in appreciation of every day.  In the course of one verse, forty years can pass by.

Shabbat shalom

After the Death…Holiness

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In the Jewish tradition, the Five Books of the Torah are read sequentially during the course of the year, divided into sections called parshiot, or “portions”. Every week, synagogues the world over read the same portion of the Torah and this shared scripture reading helps unify the Jewish people.

This week, we are reading a so-called “double portion” entitled Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.” There are certain times of the year when two portions are read in tandem, and this week is one of those occasions.

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim is a double portion that comprises several chapters of the Book of Leviticus. Translated into English, it reads “After the Death” and “Holiness”. “After the Death refers to the sudden and horrific demise of the sons of Aaron in a ball of flame after they approach God’s altar in an inappropriate manner. “Holiness” refers to a section of Leviticus which commands the Israelites to live in a holy and ethical manner.

This order of the Torah portions takes on new significance this week. We watched in horror as smoke and flame erupted on the streets of Boston, bringing death in its wake. Yet immediately followed holiness, as hundreds ran towards the smoke and debris. Immediately followed holiness, as exhausted runners ran on to donate blood. Immediately followed holiness, as doctors and nurses on the scene saved countless lives.

After death…holiness.

To contribute to assist victims, the City of Boston has set up the OneFundBoston.org.

On the meaning of sacrifice

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It is ironic that we begin the description of the sacrificial offerings made in the ancient Tabernacle precisely as we mark the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War.  It is clear from even a cursory reading of the Torah that every person, every Israelite citizen, was expected to participate in the rituals related to sacrifice.  Depending on means, people could offer expensive bulls, or handfuls of flour, but no one was exempt from the sacrifice.

Many years ago the great Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik was asked by a young man who was preparing to go to Vietnam what section of the Torah he should read in preparation for war.  Rabbi Soloveitchik replied “The section dealing with sacrifice.”

Jump forward forty years and we find that the bloody and costly Iraq War demanded little sacrifice from most of us.  Only 1.5 percent of the American population participated in the war.  Many became rich through government contracts and other forms of profit derived directly from the decision to go to war in Iraq.  Few Americans were touched personally by the sacrifice, loss, and injuries endured by the statistically few families who provided the war fighters in this conflict.

I will not debate the morality of the decision to go to war in Iraq in this space.  However, the fact that the sacrifices were made by so few, and that the war was so incidental to the lives of so many others , was immoral indeed.

The Destructive Ones Among Us

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“And verily so it came to pass, as the Nation careened towards a fiscal crisis, that Congress simply packed up and left to go home and fundraise”.-book of our Congress, chapter 11

The last few days demonstrates once again why Congress is held in such contempt by the American people.  Rather than deal with the difficult and knotty problems that continue to plague our country, most members of Congress choose to continue the destructive path of putting their political self-interest above the needs of the American people.  Far-right Republicans in particular would rather obstruct the duly elected President and refuse to negotiate or compromise than attempt to keep the ship of state sailing in a forward course, which would, of course, help the ordinary working people they pretend to represent.

In the Torah portion of this week, Ki Tissa, Moses in his righteous rage smashes the tablets upon gazing at the Golden Calf.  Many of the sages and commentators however do not applaud this, but condemn the great Moses for his actions.  One Hasidic commentator notes that Moses broke the tablets without knowing that God would give him an opportunity to create a second set.  He writes “Unfortunately, the destructive ones among us are willing to smash the first set of tablets without any consideration for the fact that there may not be a second set.  All they are capable of is being destructive.”  Well said, rabbi-welcome to the Congress of the United States.