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.