This is the sermon I delivered at Beth Israel Congregation on May 30, 2015
SERMON FOR PARASHAT NASO 2015
Rabbi Robert Dobrusin
This morning, I want to take you on a journey that is going to end with perhaps the most critical lesson we can learn from Jewish theology.
I do want to warn you in advance that there are two potential roadblocks on this journey. The first is a rather brief but detailed discussion on Hebrew grammar. Please don’t be discouraged by that part of the journey.
And, please do not be discouraged by another aspect of my sermon. I am going to base my thought on a commentary which presents a significantly anthropomorphic view of God which some might find difficult. Even if this doesn’t appeal to you, bear with me, the final point is worth it.
There are probably quite a number of people in this synagogue today, and in fact synagogues around the world, who took a look at the words of the Maftir reading which we read earlier and decided it just wasn’t worth thinking about very deeply. I would assume that at first glance today’s Maftir reading struck most people as, frankly, boring and of little serious import.
The reading consists of the final accounting of the gifts each tribe brought to the dedication of the Tabernacle in the desert. The previous twelve sections of the parasha described in 12 long paragraphs the gift presented by each tribe. Each of the 12 paragraphs was – with the exception of the name of the tribe and its chieftain- exactly the same. By the way, we will read them all next year when we read the third section of the triennial cycle so get ready for big excitement.
Now, the maftir concludes the reading by recording the total of the gifts presented. Of course, this is 12 times each individual gift.
I agree it is not very exciting.
But, then something happens in the reading which I think is fascinating when read closely and read with the commentaries. In chapter 7, verse 89, we read: “When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the voice midabayr ailav addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Pact between the two cherubim. Vayidabayr ailav, thus, He spoke to him.
After the accounting of the gifts, Moses goes into the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting, to speak with God as had been the plan. The tent of Meeting, the tabernacle, was designed to be a focus for the people as they sought to be assured of God’s presence and was to be the place in which Moses could speak with God as only he could.
I am interested in the English phrase: “he could hear the voice addressing him”. If you translate it this way, the entire paragraph makes sense and concludes with: thus He, referring to God, spoke to him, referring to Moses.
But, there is something unusual in the Hebrew text. Those of you who are familiar with Hebrew will appreciate this right away but I want everyone to understand it. Often certain Hebrew letters will contain a dot in the middle called a dagesh. This dagesh serves several purposes. First, it can change the pronunciation of a letter, so the letter vet with a dagesh becomes a bet: a “b” sound becomes a “v” sound.
Secondly, the dagesh can, in essence, double the letter to indicate intensity so, for example in Hebrew, the word shavar without a dagesh means “he broke” while shebayr with the dagesh in the letter means “he shattered” and the word is actually pronounced: shebbayr with the two “b” sounds ending and beginning the first and second syllables.
But, sometimes a dagesh serves a different purpose: to indicate that a letter which is part of a grammatical structure has been omitted in a word. Often this is done in order to make the word easier to pronounce. A dagesh is inserted into an existing letter rather than inserting the grammatically required letter.
Now, if you look at the verse I quoted before, you will see that the word midabayr, which is the word translated as “addressing him”, has a dagesh in the letter daled. We would not expect to find it there.
Some actually have argued that it is a scribal error as if someone had been eating a cookie over a scroll with the text and a crumb fell just in the right place. A scribe then mistook it for a dagesh.
But, most reject that explanation and say that it is indicating that a letter has been omitted and that this is actually a complex Hebrew grammatical structure called the hitpael which is the “reflexive” form. Just like in French when we would say je m’apelle, inserting the m to make it: “I call myself”, in the Hebrew the letter tav is added before the root of the verb to make it reflexive. But, here instead of adding the tav which might have made the word difficult to pronounce, a dagesh is added where we wouldn’t expect it.
Many commentators say that the reflexive here is meant to indicate that Moses really didn’t hear God directly but rather God was talking indirectly to Moses. But Rashi, the greatest Torah commentator of them all offers a different explanation:
Rashi says k’mo mitdabayr, it is the reflexive and kvodo shel maalah lomar kayn midabayr bayno livayn atzmo u moshe shomaya mayalav. He says that God was really talking to the Divine Self and that Moses heard God doing this.
Moses comes in expecting to talk to God and finds God talking to Himself or Herself, whichever you prefer. We don’t know what God was saying but it doesn’t matter at this moment. What matters is that Moses walks in on God and God is talking to Himself.
Now, let me ask you: what would you do if you walked in on your boss in her office and found her talking to herself? This is not just theoretical. I’m sure it or something like it has happened to you. It has certainly happened in our office many times as I often talk to myself- only when preparing a class or a sermon, I assure you.
So what would you do in that circumstance? Maybe you would turn around and walk out. Or, maybe you would clear your throat quietly to signal your presence and hope that it wasn’t embarrassing.
But, if we read the text of the Torah in a different way, we can surmise that Moses did something different. Listen: ‘When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with God, he heard the voice middabayr, talking to Himself, vayidabayr aylav and he spoke to Him. I propose reading that last phrase as implying that instead of meaning that God spoke to Moses, it means that Moses spoke to God.
Moses walks into the tabernacle, into God’s office, hears God talking to the Divine self and speaks to God.
And, what does he say?
I imagine that he said this: “Ribono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, you do not have to talk to yourself. You can talk to me. Whatever your dreams, your hopes, let me in on them and I’ll pass them along to your people and we will help to make them come true”. Moses concludes by saying to God; “You may be One but you are not alone”.
As the critical lesson taken from this fanciful scene, I would propose to you that God, in fact, took Moses’ advice. God stopped talking to Himself and started talking to us.
We do not hear God’s words as Moses did but we do hear God speaking to us through our highest ideals and aspirations. When we listen to that voice and respond, we become, as our tradition commands us to be, partners with God in achieving the Divine plan for a world of perfection.
This is our responsibility. We fulfill it when each of us, of whatever religious faith does what Moses did: leave our sanctuaries and live by the highest ideals and aspirations that have been revealed to us.
In that way, we prove that God has someone else to talk to and that someone listens.