Monday, July 22, 2013

Sermon at St. Matthew's Number 2

I was invited back to St Matthew's on Sunday were I stoke on Genesis 18.  It was fun and I do enjoy these interactions with other faiths that share text.  I hope that you will enjoy this.  While this isn't exactly what I is the theme.  DVDs of both talks are available at St. Matthews if you are interested in them.

Good morning. I am glad to return here this week and hope last week’s exploration was fun.  Today we talk on a narrative that takes us into the connection between God and Abraham and Sarah.   Before we get into it I want to talk a little bit about commandments, in Hebrew mitzvot.  We all know of the 10 etched in stone at Sinai and in fact we read about that yesterday in synagogues around the world, but does anyone know how many commandments were found by the Rabbis in the Torah?  Guesses?   613…so where are the located?  We find them right here.   In the 2nd century, as the Rabbis were writing down the Oral law, they found 613 commandments.   Now since we are Jews, not everyone agrees to which are the 613 and which a subsections of a bigger commandments, but like wizards, infinite are the arguments of Rabbis.  But right in this little piece of text we find 3 examples of behavior that lend themselves to ways to live and be a better person.
The opening line begins with God visiting Abraham…Abraham was sitting in the heat of the day recovering from circumcision that took place in the last chapter of the Torah.  God’s visit, which is unusual as it is the first time God, simply appears.  Like a friend.  We glean from this the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick.  Visiting the sick is included in the category of Gemilut Hasadim, "the giving of loving kindness", but is singled out by the rabbis as something special. It is said that one visits the sick they help move the person toward recovery.  Visiting the sick is an act one does out of the kindness of their heart and cannot be remunerated for it, even indirectly.  It is an act of Godliness in the world, as we mimic the actions of God in the story.

However the story quickly changes and Abraham sees 3 men (or angels) walking toward his tent.  We will learn later that two of these angels will move on to Sodom where they will visit with Lot.  They do not appear divine at all but simply travelers, this is important as we see Abraham’s actions.   At that moment the recovering Abraham springs into action.  He RUNS to them, he HASTENS into the tent to tell Sarah to make cakes, then RAN to his servant to fetch a nice calf who himself HASTENS prepare it.  Then he waits on them under the tree.  Remember too that he does this for strangers when he was just chatting with God on his stoop.    This act of kindness to strangers again leads us to another commandment hakhnasat orchim (literally the “bringing in of strangers”).  Hakhnasat orchim, another of the acts of loving kindness is important and we call this hospitality.  Abraham and Sarah, it is said, were masters of this practice, so much so that Jewish legend teaches us their tent opened in every direction to welcome all from wherever they came from.  Hospitality becomes important to the Jewish people later when they become the strangers in a strange land.  It is funny, at this meal that is prepared, Abraham serves the angels curds and milk (cottage cheese) and meat of the calf.  Today many  will quickly see this is a non-Kosher meal by today’s standards.  While this appears to us to be a big breach, it is easily explained by Torah commentators.   However it does give us a chance to point to the fact that more people know about the separation of milk and meat which comes from a twice repeated line of Torah than the complexity of our obligation to do hakhnasat orchim which is explicitly mentioned 36 times in the Torah.  It is interesting that often we can forget where the emphasis in the Torah was as to what we should be doing.  But clearly Abraham and Sarah, though both had problems, are good role models for us as God was in the first verse.  Though not perfect, neither are we, and that makes it easier for us to see it is possible to reach out to the stranger or do great things for the sake of heaven. 
The last couple of lines we read today have something completely different.  You see the angels had a task with Abraham,   to tell him that he and Sarah would have a child.  Sarah overhears the conversation. She “laughs to herself, saying, ‘Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?’”  The term ednah is translated as enjoyment but that is the PG version.  It really has a more adult connotation and means abundant moisture.  The Torah is clear the Sarah was past the age of child birth so the slam on Abraham from Sarah was unnecessary and one might say petty.  But think about, they were very very old and married very young.  You know people who have been married a long time that dig at their spouses, often as a relief of some hidden tension, but truly from love.  But what happens next is the real lesson.    In the very next verse, God reports her laughter to Abraham. But he tells Abraham that when Sarah laughed, she said: ‘Shall l in truth bear a child, old as I am?’”  God leaves out the part about what Sarah said about Abraham.  A lie of omission?  Maybe.  The Rabbis clearly notice this.  God, sparing hurt feelings of Abraham, leaves out the part of the story that would be hurtful to him.  In doing so, God models behavior that we might want to emulate. The commentators have taken from this an important value that trumps many others.  It is called  Shalom Bayit or peace in the home.   In the Babylonian Talmud the discussion of this leads those to say one might tell an untruth for the sake of peace.  This is not to say that we don’t value the truth, in fact it is quite important and mentioned several times in the tradition. In the next few lines after God’s omission even Sarah is rebuked for lying about laughing.   But what is more important is the fact that the Torah is a book of heart, of feeling.      

So often when people think of the commandments in the Torah they think of the legalism of Judaism.  They think of what it the correct thing to do.  With 613 commandments and the subsequent offshoots of each, just living one’s life must be difficult.  One can live their lives in constant worry of doing something wrong.  “Did I chose the right blessing for what I just ate?”  “Did I make sure I said the prayer at the right time?” “Did I honor my parents enough?”  Oddly, we can see ourselves being hamstrung by the overwhelming nature of Halacha, or Jewish law.  But Halacha means the Way.  It is a path, a direction.  The Torah is our guide.  While legalism has always been part of the Jewish tradition so has the commentary or the Oral Law, the explanation of what it means to live within the guidelines of Torah.  You see that played out in the scripture narrative.  Throughout history the Jewish people have struggled with the language and law of Torah.  But in the end the Bible is a book that should be used not to make us less human, but to express our humanity.  Every one of our Biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs are flawed.  Abraham, while father of great nations, brought both of his sons to near death.  Sarah, was mean to Hagar and Ishmael and even here laughs at her husband’s age and lies.  Even the great Moses stuttered and failed God at Miribah and Miriam made fun of Moses’ wife because she was not of their tribe.  But what we learn from them is not to be perfect but to be human.  In three very short sections composing less than 15 verses of text we learn the importance of visiting the sick, hospitality, and of keeping peace in the family, gleaned from the ancient text by writers throughout the centuries.  That is what is meant by the importance of the law.  While the letter of the law is instructive, the spirit and the heart of the law are more important.  It is what makes us remember more about feeding a hungry stranger and less about how long to wait between eating curds and milk and the fatted calf.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013


I am giving a D'var Torah at Camp Livingston on Saturday and here is what I have written for the occasion.  Knowing my speaking style any resemblance to what I will actually say is probably coincidental.  

Boker Tov and Shabbat Shalom.  Thank you for letting me be here today with you all on this (lovely) Shabbat.  It is always a joy to get out of the city to celebrate and it is a reminder to me that our Biblical ancestors encountered God not in cities but in the quiet of mountains and deserts.   That is why I feel nature gives added holiness any moment. It is one of many things I love about Jewish camping and visiting camps, which I don’t do nearly enough.  Jewish camps saturate our youth with a sense of wonder about Judaism not found in even the best Religious School settings.  Jewish camping takes you out of your element and helps you discover new things about yourself, your faith, and your people.  I am glad you all are taking advantage of this wonderful opportunity.  
I want to thank Stacy Beyer for sharing the bemah with me this morning.  Stacy adds holiness as well to our services with her music and passion.  Music makes our words more memorable and lifts them up.  To use a music metaphor today’s portion has some of Judaism’s greatest hits. We will talk about that in a minute but first let’s go back several weeks in our Torah to a time when our people were still in Mitzraim (Egypt).  Imagine standing at the foot of Ya’akov’s (Jacob’s) deathbed with his grandchildren around him.  This is a pivotal point in our history.  You see Ya’akov (also known as Israel) had taken his family into a foreign land with strange gods and practices.  As he lay dying he felt the spirit of God that had been with the people since the time of Abraham and Sarah leaving him.  He grew worried that the people will forget their God and the God of their ancestors and be seduced by the gods of their new home.  The grandchildren noticed his discomfort and in a moment of understanding said to him, “Listen Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One”.  To which Ya’akov replied in relief, “Blessed be the name and the glory of God’s reign forever”.   Sound familiar?  What is it?  The Sh’ma… a foundational statement of our people—A statement we recite several times a day.  It is our calling card, our own little signature.  Many Jewish people, who never went to camp, Day or Synagogue schools, or even services, know the Sh’ma.  It is recognized and unites Jews across languages, cultures and continents.  And it is a piece of the Torah that everyone here can chant and it is in today’s portion, along with another wonderful section you all know.
In our story, Ya’akov knew the people were entering a new time in their history and he would no longer be there with them in today’s portion,  Moshe faces the same challenge.   We open with Moshe pleading with God to let him take the people into the land of Israel and God emphatically telling him “no” with certain finality. He must die before the people cross.  So what does Moshe do?   He begins a farewell address that is a repetition of much of the story of the trek through the wilderness. The English name of this book from the Greek is Deuteronomy, which can mean the second telling.  Moshe repeats much of what the people had already learned, like those test review classes you are all so fond of at school.  He knows and tells the people that at times the Jewish people will in fact succumb to idol worshiping when they encounter other peoples.  But through it all God will help them return to the right path.  This story of failure and recovery is linked to the fact that the people, despite what they will encounter, will remember their God and God will remember them.  That is the reason for the repetition and today we read again the 10 Commandments given at Sinai.  So the two foundational documents of Judaism are all wrapped here as Moshe sees his time is nearly over. 
Now when modern Americans think of foundational documents of our country, what comes to mind?   The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  The Sh’ma and the 10 commandments, and by extension the entire Torah, are our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.  The American Declaration was statement of ideals, giving up old ways of thinking that included a monarchy who ruled without much say from those ruled.  It was radical.  Just a few weeks ago we celebrated it with its own holiday.  The Constitution, created a parameter for our new-found freedom.  As we were no longer governed by the will of a single king we had to define the rights and responsibility of the people and the government.  The Sh’ma and Torah operate the same way. 
The Sh’ma was a radical statement for its time.  It declared there were not many gods, tangible gods, different gods for everything.    It was the statement of one God, universal and complete.  It was a statement of breaking away from the status quo as the Declaration of Independence was a statement of breaking away from the old ways of Europe.  Starting with the 10 commandments we created a Constitution for living rules that define justice and compassion for each other, for the stranger and for virtually everything.  It teaches us how to live as a community and how to live with others.  Those timeless rules guide us today; we follow along a path that was first struck in those last days in the wilderness.  We do not have Moshe but we have words that have kept the Jewish people for millennia.
But like the Constitution, the Torah does not only belong to the people who developed it or those who received it at Sinai.  It belongs to us and to you.  Much has changed since the time of Moshe in Judaism and like much has changed in our country since the 18th century.   The Torah is the gift you receive as a member of our people and you accept when you become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, you become an owner, adding your own voice to the meaning.  It is not something to bow to as much as it is something to learn from, argue with and find meaning in.  Each generation adds something special to our understanding and we take what we get from the past and prepare it for when we give it to the future.
We are told that most of those people who left Egypt as slaves died in the wilderness.  Those who entered Eretz Yisrael were a new generation, full of the energy and hope to develop their new land free of the direct memory of slavery in Egypt and equipped with the Torah to help create a lasting civilization that endures today. 
It endures in you, young Jews who come together at places like this to understand the meaning of Judaism for you—Jews with unprecedented freedom in the world, some freedoms not even experienced by your own parents.  Young Jews find themselves in every aspect of your communal life:  there are Jewish captains of football teams, and cheerleading squads, Jewish valedictorians and presidents of Key Clubs and National Honor Societies.  The choices you have are vast and some may draw you away from Jewish life and synagogue.   No longer must you rely only on Jewish organizations for social activities as it was for so many in the past.  In each generation our place in the world changes, today we have the Land of Israel, western democracies embrace diversity of religion and culture and the world is smaller than ever before because of travel and the technology that defines your generation.   
Today, as we stand together on this Shabbat, you are like the people in the wilderness, poised to enter the new land and you are here learning about what came before you to help you find your path.  How will you define Judaism for the coming age?  I don’t know, but what I believe, as Ya’akov, as Moshe, and as our parents did when in the past is that you will always remember the words that define us.   “Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai, Elohenu, Adonai Echad” and I have confidence that “Baruch Shem Kavod Malkuto L’olam Va’ed” will echo far into the future.    Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Tisha B'av a Day to act not simply remember.

I revive this speech I gave at an interfaith service to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9-11 and link it to the tragedy of 9-11 with doing community and interfaith service as a response.  The theme was enormity and abundance.  I post this today because of the link to Tisha B’Av and that while this speech was about hunger how much more so the power of race is causing the unfettered hate that was so much a part of the destruction of the Temple that we commemorate today.   As I hear people say horrible things about young black men, about white people and majority culture, about the very justice system that we live under that provides not only security but morality I weep for our nation.  We can decide who we want to be.  This is about us.  The speech below is about hunger, but it could easily be about race relations and violence.   Thanks to Rabbi Lori Koffman for her Torah that drew the connection of 9-11 and Tisha B'av. 

Good afternoon, earlier we heard the sound of the Shofar, the Ram’s horn, blasting and calling us to attention.   Since ancient times the shofar was used to call people to act and to listen.  But it was also a tool of war, directing armies and in one famous story from our Bible the sounds of the shofar knocked down the walls of Jericho.  This imagery of collapsing walls has taken on more personal meaning in the last 10 years and that is one thing that brings us here today.  But today the shofar is not an instrument of destruction but one of hope.  Blown as we begin our new year in just a few days, the Shofar is a reminder that we have a responsibility to the world we live in.  It wakes us up from the day-to-day comfort and reminds us that we have a responsibility to each other.  
10 years ago on 9-11 terrorists used the planes as missiles and killed 3000 people.  But in those moments after the attacks people rose to the occasion and showed their ability to focus on the community they were part of, even if they were taking their community for granted earlier that morning.  Ordinary citizens helped carry less able people out of the burning towers risking their own safety for the safety of others, civilian workers crawled back into the fire to pull co-workers out of the Pentagon, and a handful of passengers knew their deaths were certain as they rushed the cockpit on one plane to save unknown people on the ground.  One story of a stock trader who longed to be a fire fighter, athletic and able to escape, decided to stay and clear floors, try to reach people above the impact zone in Tower One, and gave his life with bravery.  He, like so many, could have simply run, but saw this as his duty, his responsibility to the community.  He reached deep into himself, knowing the task was enormous he didn’t shy away. 
These people, and many like them, saw the tragedy as a call to action, like the shofar it was a blast to our comfort and asked us to reach deeper.   Today 10 years later the echoes of the tragedy are still with us, it calls us to build a better place in our own community. It challenges us to seek out neighbors and find common ground to work together and add to the abundance of resources we all share.  While America has 9-11, the Jewish people have long had 11-9, a day of mourning, Tisha b’Av.  On the 9th day of the 11th month of the Hebrew calendar many tragedies were visited upon the Jewish people, tradition tells us that it was on this date that the Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem and after it was rebuilt, it was this date that once again and for the second time the Temple was sacked.  It is said that the second Temple’s destruction was due to unwarranted hate.  The kind of hate that often leads to attacks on others, the kind of hate that allows 19 men to value the death of strangers over their own lives.   It is that too we combat today, as we seek to share the voices of prayer from a variety of traditions, all different, all with value and all sharing a common goal of working to create peace, justice and security in our lives. 
The building we are in is not ablaze but it reminds us of a raging fire we do face, not one of jet fuel but one of hunger.  100s of our neighbors will go to sleep hungry tonight, but because of you and the Interfaith Hunger Initiative and Gleaners, many more will not.  Today you can honor those souls who gave their lives to save others by adding your energy and resources to the abundance that is our community.  The 9-11 attacks help us remember we are all linked as a nation.  We can acknowledge it is easier to ignore others, I know tonight I will eat and be satisfied, but I cannot truly enjoy my abundance when others are suffering.  The task is enormous, but when we set aside our differences, and rally around the work of saving our neighbors I believe we can continue to make a difference.  My tradition teaches that we don’t have to complete the task, but we must try.  Join me in the effort for I cannot turn away.   Let us pray today to our own source of strength and together our voices, our actions, and our efforts reach out and turn the tragedy of 9-11 into a touchstone for that which makes us a great community.  
We can learn from words of the poet  Jack Reimer:
We cannot merely pray to God to end starvation,
 For we already have the resources with which to feed the entire world.  
If only we use them wisely….
Therefore we pray instead for strength, determination, and will power,
 To do instead of merely pray.  
To become instead of merely to wish that our world may be safe, 
and our lives may be blessed.


Friday, July 5, 2013


This week’s Torah portion is a double and full of some seriously troubling text.  Matot and Masei starts with sexism and ends with a role back slightly of the women’s rights gains of the daughters of Zelophehad last week.  In between is genocide of the Midianites.  This is brutal and somewhat unbecoming of a text that is supposed to be about love.  There is little we can do to whisk these stories away and we shouldn’t.  Ignoring them in our tradition is not the answer.   We can confront them, argue with them, and challenge the text.  The text is ours to struggle with and many times that struggle is difficult.  But being difficult should not make us get give up.  There are many ways to approach text. 
Ancient commentators through the middle ages tried to be apologetic about this passage calling it God's revenge on Midian creating an image of the Midianites as so fully depraved that any punishment is worthy of them.   This was the result of trying to justify a divine document as they saw the Torah with the real human feeling that the actions described in this text was wrong.  It was difficult or impossible to challenge the text without being seen as challenging God.  So if you can make the enemy so horrible they almost lose their humanity it is easier to justify the deaths of these people.   This is an often repeated way to feel good about a horror we do or are done in our name.  Hitler was a master of this but even today we can see how some in our culture talk about Muslims around the world. 
After the development of liberal Judaism, (Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist) Torah was not seen as a literal text.  Modern commentary challenges the text, especially this kind of text.  While some choose to ignore these terrible words others choose to confront them.  In the last two centuries we find Jewish commentators seeking to understand the brutality not finding excuses for killing evil people, but context of the time.  Rabbi Richard Hirsch, a leader in the Reconstructionist Jewish movement writes:

The war against the Midianites is, on one level, one more account of brutality and suffering, one more chapter in the unending book of human warfare. If found recorded on an unearthed tablet in a far-flung corner of the Middle East, it would perhaps be of no more than passing interest.

But it wasn’t found that way.  It sits in the book we pick up each week in shul, the scroll we venerate as our consecrated story of our people.  It is part of who we are.  But we cannot forget that at the time it was written the words make sense.  Destroying an enemy was a common practice.  A horrible common practice, but common.  But if nothing else, this story shows us the importance of not focusing on a small part of the Torah to build our vision of how to live, but to try to glean what the Torah is saying in its entirety.  Later in the Torah there are rules that Moses and the Israelites would violate in this story.   Rules the govern actions about war, captives, and women.  This is just one incident that must be seen for what it is, an angry delivery of hate on a people for revenge.  But we can't just let that be the entirety of the story.  If we hope to use the Torah today as a way to understand our place on earth, a way of creating a just society we must talk about it in terms of Moses being wrong and in fact God being wrong.
It is stories like this in the texts of ours and other faith traditions that lead to murdering of abortion doctors, flying planes into buildings, and shooting up the Tomb of the patriarchs. We cannot let all religion be defined by zealots.  Zealotry embraces the ugly side of a religion or text because it will justify anything for the faith.  We must, as my Rabbi Dennis Sasso said, have passion but not zealotry.  Zealotry allows for things that we would normally avoid, passion is tempered by love of faith and our tradition has respect for humanity.
We can’t ignore the text however because as we do we do not give our young people a chance to respond when this kind of material is thrown up at them.
Rabbi Hirsh continuing his view of this troubling part of our sacred text:

But the story of the war against Midian is recorded in the Torah, and "all its paths are peace". We who affirm the centrality of Torah to Jewish life, and who seek in Torah guidance and insight, must struggle with those parts of Torah that we cannot accept, and which we do not endorse.

I read Torah every day. I argue with the text, I struggle with what the words say. More people should do that.   So often we see anti-religious people and anti-Semites throw these texts around as examples of how horrible religion or specifically Jews are suggesting this is what defines us.  If we don’t talk about these disturbing passages we fail to give our children the tools to talk about them when someone confronts them with these phrases.  This is part of the history we shouldn’t ignore. There is lots of disturbing things in our text.   Be it this story, the ending of the Book of Esther or the ritual at Passover when we open the door for Elijah and say, “Pour out your wrath…” these things should be made available to discuss.  Because if we do not we are not only white washing who we are, we are setting up our children to fall prey to bigots, cults and conversion.  It is hard, but so many important things are difficult.  We don’t have to embrace the stories or become an apologist of old but we can struggle with the text and see how our people have grown.  There is far more about love than hate in our tradition.  Embrace the love, discuss the hate and walk in the world with justice.