Posts Tagged ‘D’var Torah’

A New King Arose Who Did Not Know Joseph

This was sermon for Parshat Sheimot (Delivered via Zoom 12/24/21)

         In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemot, we read that “a new king arose who did not know Joseph.”  Because he did not know, learn or remember history – he lived in fear of a nation that meant him no harm.  Because he lived in fear – he resorted to violence and murder.  He enslaved a people – killed its male children, and led his nation down a path that gave rise to misery and heartbreak for both his people and ours.  

         Right at this moment that begins the epic tale of our people’s history, the Torah teaches us the importance of grounding ourselves in an understanding of our nation’s story – if we do not learn it, we will mistake ancient allies for enemies – brothers for adversaries.  But it’s not just about learning, but rather about knowing – deeply understanding.  It does not say a new king arose who had not heard of Joseph – but rather a new king arose who did not KNOW him.

         I have been studying and rereading Rabbi Naomi Levy’s, wonderful book, “Einstein and the Rabbi,” in preparation for teaching a class on it.  In the chapter, “Finding the Me Within Me,” she says, “There is something that your soul knows that you’ve forgotten.”  Actually I think there are universes that my soul knows that I’ve forgotten – bits of family and communal history contained within stories I didn’t listen to closely enough; burning-bush-sized reservoirs of soul knowledge that I didn’t stop to look at and thus do not see or know.  

But what do we do with this?  If we’ve forgotten something – it is gone.  Its knowledge no longer does us any good.    No – in order for it to benefit us – we must RE-Member it.  To dismember is to take something apart into its component pieces – we must do the opposite – we seek out the component pieces, search for them, study them, put back together our personal, family, and community histories and RE-member them in our minds.  We can then begin to figure out some of what our souls know, but had forgotten.

         The book of Exodus takes us annually on this journey – the creation of our peoplehood, and in the spiral of its yearly retelling we have the opportunity to REMEMBER what it meant to be slaves in Egypt, to be freed, to wander in the dessert of the unknown and ultimately to make it to Sinai (only to complain once there about how much better we had it before).  Our souls’ journey as Jews is to keep RE-membering.  To redraw our lives and our history again and again until it makes more and more sense to us.  Until we begin to see more than just our outlines in the story, but how we are living it still, and how it is continuing to bring meaning to our lives.

         How many burning bushes were in our path that we neglected to stop and gaze at and thus missed?  How many times were we enslaved to ideas or goals that no longer suit us?  How often were we floating aimlessly in a Nile of disengagement.  But this week’s parashah stands to remind our souls to cry out, “Let My People Go.”  Our personal, communal, and spiritual freedom is in front of us always.  We, unlike Pharoah, do remember Joseph.  We also remember Pharoah.  We remember slavery and we remember freedom.  We remember feeling slow of tongue and too afraid to speak – and we remember actions that spoke far louder than words could.  

         As we begin to reembark on our peoples’ foundational journey, I pray that we will connect to it in ways that help us to recall the things our souls have long forgotten.  I pray that it will lead us to better awareness, connection, and unity with our own souls and with the soul of our people.

Be A Giant

I have just returned from a wonderful four day cantorial conference in Atlanta, GA. The theme of the conference was social action. So many times over the course of the week people spoke about how helpless they felt in the face of so much horror happening in our country and in the world.

In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha, Moses sends spies to scout out the land before they would enter and conquer it. The spies are very impressed by the land and all that they see there. They return to the people and report that the people there were giants and that next to such giants, they would be perceived as nothing but grasshoppers, and thus they started to see themselves as such.

When facing an enormous challenge, it is easy to see ourselves small in the face of the enormity that lies ahead. And if we see only this, how can we move in any direction, let alone, one that would require the strength and power to overcome those perceived giants. So what was the fault of the spies? The spies imagined how they would be perceived and then put that vision onto themselves, giving it power. But this was all in their minds. Their smallness was in their own perception, but their fear made it real.

Once it was clear that they saw themselves thus, G-d could not allow them to proceed. A whole generation needed to pass before the children of Israel would be permitted to attempt to conquer the land. The children of Israel needed to move beyond their slave mentality, to see themselves as free and worthy, before they could accomplish what they needed to.

Today, we do not have time for this. We must overcome any feeling of being helpless right now, because that too is only in our minds. Our Torah teaches us to care for the widow, the stranger, and the orphan. Over and over again, the Torah stresses these essential values. Even in this very week’s Torah portion, we read, “You and the stranger shall be alike before the Eternal.” (Num 15:15) This isn’t about politics. This crosses the boundaries of democrat and republican. This is about human rights, and is something that we can all get behind regardless of our feelings about immigration politics. These are the values that our Torah teaches, and this is the time that we must be giants.

I will leave you with the prayer that I wrote as part of the service that I led for the cantors this past Tuesday morning:

From cowardice, I will burst forth with courage

“Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar m’od v’ha-ikar lo l’fached klal”

“The whole world is a very narrow bridge,

And the most important thing is not to be afraid.”

My voice will sing out my strength and my joy

And through melody – the inspiration for deliverance.

From laziness, I will sing now with energy.

“Lo alecha ham’lachah ligmor v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimena.”

“It is not up to you to complete the work,

But neither are you free to desist from it.”

No. I will sing.

Sing loud and strong,

And the energy of my song, of praise will move me,

Can move you

Can move us all to move mountains together.

There will be no arrogance in this song

“V’anochi afar va’efer.”

“For I am nothing but dust and ashes.”

And yet through breath and song, the dust stirs the air,

changes its essence

Brings forth ruach from nothingness.

G-d of truth, let the truth of this song ring out.

Breathe Your ruach into our souls,

Inspiring us to partner with you in tikkun olam

So that we may declare: “Kol Han’shamah T’haleil Yah!”

“Let every soul sing praise to You!”

Lech L’cha

G-d said to Avram, “Lech L’cha.” “Go forth. Go from your country, your kindred, your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” And from this moment, Avram’s journey truly begins. “Lech l’cha,” G-d says, a phrase that could be literally translated as “go to yourself.” Avram was 75 years old at the start of this journey – no spring chicken. But he was not too old to begin to find himself, become a father to two sons, become a father to an entire people. All of this happened well past the age when most people have decided what to do with their lives (and before you tell me that age means something different in the Torah, which it does, the Torah does not view Avram as a young man in this story.) Avram literally had a calling. It’s a rare thing, how many people do you know who can honestly say that their life’s path is a calling?

I officiated at a funeral this afternoon. After the ceremony was over, I had a discussion with the apprentice funeral director. I asked her what made her go into this line of work. I expected her to tell me that it was a family business, but instead, with a fire in her eyes, she described this as a calling that she had felt from a young age, but had ignored. She studied to be a speech therapist instead. But this is what she really wanted to do.

When we are children, everyone asks, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” But very few children actually follow these plans. If I had, I would be a rare-hybrid “teacher-doggie.” By the time we graduate college, we are supposed to know. We are supposed to now be grown-ups. It’s amazing how many adults I talk to who tell me that they are just kids trapped in big-people bodies. As adults we are supposed to stop thinking about what we want to be, what we can be. We become defined by our career. I am a doctor. I am a lawyer. I am a cantor. We all know that these things do not need to limit us.

At 75 Avram begins his journey to himself. In the process, he becomes transformed. He becomes a person who is willing to bargain with G-d over the fate of Sodom and Gemorrah. His identity evolves and changes. At the age of 90, a piece of G-d’s name gets appended to his own and he becomes Avraham. All it took was a moment of opening his mind to the possibilities.

G-d’s name yud-hey-vav-hey is unpronounceable because it is breath and being. It is a word made up of the only Hebrew consonants that are also vowels. It is also the verb to be in the past, present, and future tenses with a masculine future prefix and a feminine past suffix – The verb to be in masculine and feminine, present, past and future. The hey in G-d’s name makes an “h” sound, the sound of breath. It is this hey that gets added to Avram’s name – a small touch of the breath of G-d, a little wind at his back to move him forward into this new self – this new way to BE.

Sometimes I think that we forget that life is about continually becoming. The moment we stop dreaming about what we want to be when we grow up, we limit what our journey can be. So, this Shabbat, I invite you to reopen your child-like heart and dream. Your journey is just beginning. Who do you want to be?

My Guest Post

I was invited to do a guest post for the URJ’s 10 Minutes of Torah liturgy series. You can read my post here:
Psalm 116 Guest Post
Enjoy!

Making Holy Space and Space for the Holy

The following is the D’var Torah that I delivered Erev Shabbat:


 

“G-d spoke to Moses saying: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breast piece. And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah, G-d lays forth a plan for creating a holy space – a portable sanctuary to be carried through the wilderness. G-d begins by asking for gifts. If the whole of creation belongs to G-d, why does G-d need gifts from us?

The answer is two-fold, and we can understand it by looking at the items requested. The first is that these are all objects of value and difficult to find. Blue, purple and crimson yarns are rare and expensive. The metals and skins would have been heavy to transport and hard to get. And… dolphin skins? In the desert? Really?

Finding, gathering, and then donating rare and valuable items is a hardship. G-d is asking people of means to give a real piece of themselves to the building of this Tabernacle. This is an investment, and when we finance a project, we often devote ourselves to it emotionally as well. This is the first layer.

You will notice that G-d doesn’t ask people to bring a gold lamp, a silver breast piece, or a blue mantle. The items that G-d requests are all raw materials out of which these can be fashioned. G-d then spends the rest of the parshah describing what the artists should create. This brings us to the next layer of G-d’s request – the emotional and artistic investment. Those who have been blessed with artistic skill will now give of themselves to fashion this house of G-d out of the raw materials brought by those of means. The people will literally “make” a sanctuary for G-d – devoting their time, energy, and creativity to the project. G-d said, “Make me a sanctuary that I may dwell there.” It is the act of making that allows God to live among the people.

The Hebrew word here “asu” means both make and do. It is the same word used in the prayer, Oseh Shalom. We must Do in order to Make. Peace isn’t something that simply descends upon the people from on high. We ask G-d to be active in making peace and then we do the same. In the building of the sanctuary we are involved participants in the creation of holy space which G-d then echoes by dwelling there.

This brings us to the next important question that this passage raises. If G-d is indeed everywhere, why does G-d need a dwelling place? Doesn’t G-d live among us wherever we are? I view most of the Torah as telling the story of the psychological and spiritual development of a people. The exodus story for me represents the adolescence of the Jewish nation. Having escaped from slavery, as a mixed multitude, we were not yet unified and had a very childlike understanding of G-d. We needed a G-d that we could see, so we built an idol, the golden calf. From this, G-d saw that we needed to be brought into a mature faith gradually. G-d gave us many signs and wonders, but as a people we were used to visual reminders of G-d’s presence. If we could not actually see God, at least we needed a concrete place to go to find G-d. We were not ready to find G-d in the beauty and wonder of nature because we had a tendency to rush into idolatry. At this stage of our spiritual development, we had to have a House for G-d. By having us build the dwelling (as we had actually made the idol), G-d allowed us to invest ourselves in its art and its design, but this time it was toward a place, a space for worship – as opposed to an object of worship. While we built the external structure for worship, we would also be building a spiritual connection to that place – making room for G-d both within our own souls and beyond.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his famous book, “The Sabbath,” talked about the fact that one of the problems with Temples and Tabernacles is that they can always be (and ultimately have always been) destroyed. The one thing that no person or ruler can take away from us is time. Shabbat, Heschel writes, is a permanent sanctuary in time. When observant people talk about Shabbat, they often talk about “making Shabbat.” Although Shabbat comes every week whether we observe it or not, it cannot be a sanctuary for us unless we “make” it so.

Over the past several weeks, I have had many conversations with students about what it means to observe Shabbat. Traditionally speaking there are 39 categories of “work” that you cannot do. These categories are, interestingly enough, derived from the activities necessary for building the portable sanctuary, the mishkan, in the wilderness. So, in order to build a sanctuary in time, we must stop building a sanctuary in space. Another way to look at the Shabbat commandment is that G-d did the work of creation of the world in seven days and then rested. Echoing G-d, we too, must stop creating in the world in order to create a sacred space in time.

What does that mean for us today, as Reform Jews? How do we create sacred places during the week and sacred spaces on Shabbat? Heschel wrote, “The meaning of Shabbat is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of the things in space; on Shabbat we try to become attuned to the holiness of time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of Creation to the mystery of Creation, from the world of Creation to the creation of the world.” How will we achieve that goal?

In Parshat Terumah, G-d asks us to bring gifts, raw materials, to create a dwelling place for G-d. In bringing their financial and artistic gifts to the endeavor, the Jewish people bring their souls to the creation of a sanctuary. Having worked toward creating that sacred space, we are asked to mimic G-d’s actions and rest from the work of creation. We are asked to make Shabbat a complete and joyful day, a day different from our six days of work.

So Parshat Terumah offers us the chance to reflect upon what we will create this week and to consider how to make that creation holy. And in having created, we also turn our thoughts to making our rest separate and holy, too, a true “sanctuary in time.”


So my readers here is my question to you:

How do we, as modern Reform Jews, create that sanctuary?

What do you do on Shabbat to make it holy?  What do you refrain from doing?