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