Monthly Archives: June 2016

The Responsibility that Lies Before Us

I delivered this sermon at Beth Israel Congregation on June 18, 2016, Parashat Naso.

 

Chapter 7 of Bemidbar is the longest chapter in the entire Torah.

It goes on and on and on.

And, to add to that, it is so repetitive. Twelve of the Paragraphs present in detail the gifts brought by each of the tribal chieftains for the dedication of the tabernacle. These lengthy paragraphs are exactly the same except for the name of the chieftain and the tribe.

The chapter is so long and very quickly, we realize that we’ve heard these words already.

It is a challenge to listen to.

You wouldn’t think Torah commentators would have anything to say of interest about this repetitive portion. But, in fact, they do.

Let me share with you two commentaries.

First, from a commentary called otzar hamachshavah, a treasury of thoughts on the Torah from the Hasidic masters, we read the following thought: why is it that the Torah repeats these sacrificial gifts over and over again in all their detail even though they are all the same? After all, says the commentary, and rightly so, we believe that the Torah contains not even a superfluous, unnecessary letter. So, why would the Torah waste 11 paragraphs in such detail when it could have recorded the first gift and then just said the other chieftains brought the same gifts?

Dayenu, it would have been enough.

The commentary’s interesting answer to that question is that each of the chieftains was not looking at what was brought before them in order to know what to bring. Rather, each one brought what their heart told them to bring. Each was a personal gift that just looked the same but really was different because of the spiritual motivation each one felt. And that each was called: “the sacrifice of Nachshon” or “the sacrifice of Nitanel” supports that point. Each one really was a personal gift even though it was the same as the one before and that is why the Torah repeats each one.

Then we have another commentary from the 18th century rabbi Pinchas of Koretz. He notes that the entire list of sacrifices begins with the word Vayihee. “And it came to pass”. As in: “And it came to pass that the first one to bring a sacrifice was Nachshon ben Aminadav”

Rabbi Pinchas notes that there is an ancient rabbinic tradition that the word vayihee at the beginning of a section of the Tanach always means “trouble is coming” as in Vayihee biyamay Ahasveraus. And it came to pass in the days of Ahasveraus, the beginning of the story of the near annihilation of the Jews of Shushan at the hands of Haman.

So, asks Rabbi Pinchas, what is the trouble that is anticipated in this chapter of gifts to the sanctuary?

He says, the trouble is that Nachshon, the first one to make an offering didn’t really feel he was ready to be the first. “Mee Anee u’mah anee”, he says according to legend: “Who am I and what am I that I merit this responsibility”?

But Moses says: “God has chosen you”. We can picture Moses saying: “Your humility will help you. But, you must do your job.”

I had an idea to teach some Torah lishmah, some “Torah for its own sake this morning. There is a verse that is very moving to me regarding the importance and significance of studying Torah but that will have to wait for another year. We can’t just teach Torah for its own sake this morning. We have to learn something to help us through this horribly difficult time.

And so, on this first Shabbat after the terrible attack in Orlando, let us learn from each of these commentaries.

First, and permit me to take a positive commentary and use it to describe a horribly negative situation, we can use the commentary about the repetitive nature of this section to remind ourselves of a critical fact about the violent attacks we have seen all too often in our country.

They may seem the same. But they are not. Even if they appear similar, they are not.

Any attempt to lump all such attacks together is misleading, futile and wrong.

We need to accept the fact that there is no simple answer to stopping attacks that are really different, one from the next. First of all, the targets differ.

This time it was the LGBT community which was the target, a community which, despite significant and positive legal advances in recent years still suffers from bigotry and threats of violence. I only hope and pray that members of the LGBT community know that this and many synagogues and other house of worship are places not just of inclusion but places of safety and sanctuary for you. We recognize the threats and stand by you and with you.

But, on this very weekend last year, it was an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina which was targeted.

No group, it seems, is safe.

And the profiles of the perpetrators differ as well.

Yes, we need to confront the danger that supporters of ISIS or other extremist groups present. That danger is real and significant. But as these attacks are carried out by perpetrators with different horrific agendas, we can’t assume that responding to this particular threat  will end violence.

There is, however, one as the Talmud would call it: “tzad hashaveh”, one aspect which links each of these tragic actions and that is, of course, the relatively easy availability of horrendous weapons of mass slaughter.

And, that brings us to the second commentary.

Our hearts are broken. Our pain is so great. We may wonder whether we are truly capable of doing what needs to be done to address this horrible plague in our society.

But, this is our job. We can not let fear get in the way. We can not let our pain paralyze us. We need to pray. We need to speak out. Most importantly, we need to act. And congress must act. And act now to address the access to weapons of mass slaughter in this nation.

This is not the time to be overly humble and to question whether we can make the changes that are necessary. We must.

Yet, some humility is necessary. We must not resort to generalizations and stereotypes, using bellicose words of hatred or suspicion. We need calm, reasoned, united, determined actions to seek sensible ways to prevent such tragedies and protect our citizens.

The problem is huge. The stakes are the highest they could be. Our responsibility is enormous.

Each and every one of us, in our own way, must do our part by raising our voices

And, even as we mourn the victims and pledge ourselves to action, we must do something else as well. We must embrace life, with concern but not fear. We need to show, as we discussed last Saturday evening at our tikkun leil Shavuot, gratitude for the blessings we have in this beautiful world. We need to teach our children who hear of these attacks that life is still a blessing and the world can be a place of beauty and joy.

In the words of a song which we will sing in a few moments, the world may be a narrow bridge but the essential part of life is that we not be afraid.

Let us do our work.

For the chapter before us is too long and we must stop allowing it to repeat itself on and on.

Please rise for a memorial prayer for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and for all who victims of violence.

 

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In Memory of A Giant

I delivered this sermon at Beth Israel Congregation Ann Arbor  Shabbat morning, June 11, 2016

 

IN MEMORY OF A GIANT

 

In today’s haftarah, Hosea prophesies that the day will come, says God, when you will call me ishi and no longer call me ba’ali. The words ish and ba’al both are words that can mean “husband”. But there is a significant difference in the words.

Ba’al, in addition to being the name of the Canaanite God, can be construed to mean “owner” while ish, meaning man, seems to reflect a more loving, perhaps a bit more equal relationship between a married couple.

God, in essence, is saying that I want you to call me by a name which does not imply idolatry but a direct, loving, monogamous, so to speak, relationship with one God.

It also seems to reflect, especially when viewed in retrospect through a contemporary lens, a relationship based more on love than on awe and fear, a relationship in which both parties can prosper and grow.

So God says: “this is what I want you to call me”. And, the implication is: “you will respect me by calling me as I wish to be called”.

L’havdeel, to make the separation between talking about God and talking about human beings, we often say the same thing to the world. This is how I want to be called. At one point or another in our lives, we say: “this is how I want to be called”. Names may be changed for any number of reasons, one nickname may surface over another and wee tell the world what we want to be called and it is an act of respect for others to address one as he or she wishes to be named.

It is no small thing and we were reminded of that this past week as we remembered a larger than life American hero.

Muhammad Ali was not perfect and certainly some of the things he said could certainly be disagreed with. But what Muhammad Ali did positively for our nation and our world, with his truly unique combination of strength and gentleness will never be forgotten.

Throughout his public life, Muhammad Ali made a great difference in our world. He raised issues that had to be addressed and this man who was, as some claim, the most recognizable individual on the planet influenced our world in real, tangible and significantly positive ways and he deserves the memorial accolades he has been receiving.

It occurred to me as I considered Ali this past week that while I would never call him a “prophet”, he lived a life that reflected in so many ways the prophetic tradition.

First, there was that voice, the cadence, with the spontaneous poetry. We don’t know what Hosea or Jeremiah or Eziekiel sounded like but their voices must have been something special. With so much technology around us, we have in many ways lost the appreciation for the human voice. But, Muhammad Ali, when his body allowed him to, spoke with clarity, a musical quality, a humorous, captivating voice that made you pay attention. Agree or disagree, charmed or angered, you listened to what he had to say.

But more important than his voice was what he used his voice for. Ali demanded that he be treated as more than just an athlete for the enjoyment of people who watched him fight. He demanded respect as a man. He demanded that he be called as he wished to be called, and while his brashness and his bluntness ruffled more than a few feathers at first, people began to understand that what he was trying to do not only for himself but also for all African Americans and for all people was to remind everyone that they must build pride and self-respect for themselves as a human being.

No doubt he caused discomfort when he associated himself with the Nation of Islam but as time moved along, he distanced himself from that organization and aligned himself with more mainstream Islam. And, in later years, he took very strong stands for mutual respect between religious faiths and spoke out strongly against radical Islamic terror while further learning about and dedicating himself to his faith. It seemed that His smile, his warmth, his love of his fellow human being came out of this faith.

This past week, it seemed that everyone in the world had a personal Muhammad Ali story. I don’t. But, the stories that I read were so touching especially the absolutely exquisite essay written by Rosie Schaap, daughter of sports journalist Dick Schaap in the New York Times this past week. If you haven’t read it, please make it a point to do so.

Still, Ali will be most noted for what he was willing to give for what he believed.

His stance against the Vietnam War and his refusal to be drafted cost him the championship he had earned and more than 3 years of boxing in his prime and cost him so much more than any money could represent. But, he stood firm. While his words were so difficult for many Americans to hear at the time people began to understand and perhaps that understanding more than anything else brought an end to that horrible war. He said:

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?

 

I can never feel what an African American man or woman feels today let alone what they felt in the 1960s but we all can and must hear in that statement the pain, the frustration, the prophetic like voice calling out for change. And, while people listened and the situation for African Americans in this country has no doubt improved since the 1960s, the pain is still there and the words still need to be heard as equality still has not been achieved.

We need to address, as clergy in Ann Arbor have done recently, the issues that people of color face with law enforcement and mass incarceration. This situation has to change. It is wrong and it is denying so many young people especially a chance at a life of equality.

And, we need to repudiate in the strongest terms statements that reflect racism. And, here I must particularly include those made by the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Generalizations and bigoted statements against those of a particular ethnic background, race or religion have no place in our political discourse.

Despite his horrible illness, Ali was a man of hope, standing up against hatred. He shared these simple words in 1996: Muslims, Christians and Jews all serve the same God. “We just serve him in different ways. Anyone who believes in One God should also believe that all people are part of one family. God created us all. And all people have to work to get along.”

Muhammed Ali gave up so much to stand for what he believed and to use his fame to demand change. With that he joined the company of those precious few in our world who use their convictions as the guide for their actions to seek justice and truth.

 

No he wasn’t perfect. None of us are. But, what an example of a person warning, in the great prophetic tradition, that his nation and the world had to hold a mirror before themselves and ask themselves who they were and who they wanted to be.

While his physical voice had been stilled to a great extent for many years, he continued to smile and continued to be heard. And, we must allow it to speak much more loudly and clearly than some other voices we hear today.

I won’t conclude with Muhammad Ali’s famous statement about a butterfly and a bee but with the words of Pirke Avot which say something very similar: “Be strong like a lion to do the will of our father in heaven” and “Greet every person with a pleasant expression”. What a great lesson: let us always seek to combine strength and gentleness.

 

 

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In Memory of a Giant

As so many, I was deeply saddened this morning to hear the news of the death of Muhammad Ali. While I have not ever really been a boxing fan, I have always been a Muhammad Ali fan. I remember so clearly as a kid watching Ali’s fights on TV (often during “Wide World of Sports” time with Howard Cosell behind the microphone) and marveling at his moves and his strength.

But, Muhammad Ali was more than just a boxer of course. He was a man of courage who challenged our nation to recognize and respect African Americans for more than just athletic ability. He stood tall for what he believed in and never wavered in his convictions.

His eloquence, his sense of humor,  his wisdom and his passionate dedication to peace, civil rights and understanding among people are what remains in our minds as we mourn his death.

We occasionally use the term “larger than life” to refer to individuals. Sometimes it is deserved, sometimes it is an exaggeration. In Muhammad Ali’s case, it is no exaggeration. He was a giant. He will be missed but his memory will always be for a blessing as we recall the joy of watching him box and the respect that he earned inside and more importantly, outside of the ring.

May his family be comforted at this time of loss.

 

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