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More Than Words: A Sermon for D’varim 5775

July 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Here’s a joke:

It was the middle of Shabbat morning services, and the rabbi noticed that old Irv Cohen was asleep in the third row. So he elbowed the Temple President and said, “Cohen is asleep again. Go wake him up!”

The President answered: “That’s not fair.”

So the rabbi replied, “What do you mean? Go wake him up!”

To which the president answered again, “That’s not fair.”

Now the rabbi was frustrated: “This is a synagogue, not a bedroom. Cohen can’t sleep through my sermon. Go wake him up!”

And the president answered simply: “That’s not fair. YOU put him to sleep. YOU wake him up.”


The joke about rabbis seems to be that they talk a little too much. This week’s Torah portion proves that Moses was truly the first rabbi, in that he was capable of talking for extended periods of time.

Here’s what I mean: After 40 years of wandering, our people are now standing, ready to cross over the Jordan river into the Promised Land. But Moses knows something very important. He knows that he is not going with them. As you may remember, Moses was punished by God that he cannot enter the Promised Land. He has the opportunity to stand up on a mountaintop and see the land. But he’s not going to accompany the people there, and he’s not going to be there to help them set up their new society.

So Moses takes it upon himself to give them some advice. Lots of advice. A whole book’s worth of advice, in fact, that we call the book of Deuteronomy. This last book of the Torah will consist of several speeches given by Moses – in which he’ll recount past events, go back over the places they’ve been, and give laws and advice for the people as they set up their new society in the land of Israel.

In Hebrew, we call this book D’varim, which means “Words.” Because it starts by saying, “Eleh had’varim – these are the words that Moses spoke.”

The irony of Moses giving 3 long speeches is that he is not really a public speaker. Back in Exodus, when God first came to Moses to lead the Jewish people, Moses said– Lo ish d’varim anochi – “I am not a man of words.”

But now, our man of few words has become a man of many words.

But there’s another layer here. And for that, we need to know that the word d’varim doesn’t only mean “words.” It also means “deeds” or “actions.”

And while Moses may not have been a man of words, he was most definitely a man of deeds. Here is a leader who devoted his entire life and every bit of his energy to his people. He went to Pharaoh. He parted the red sea. He climbed Sinai and brought back the Torah. He led the people through the Wilderness. And now they all lend him their ears because they know after 40 years that he is the real deal.

Moses is an example for us as Jews because he values D’varim – he values both words and deeds.

As Jews, we are people of words. The the name that was given to us in the medieval Islamic world was Am HaSefer – people of the book. We are people of the book because we find meaning by delving into ancient texts – by reading what our ancestors had to say hundreds and thousands of years ago, and challenging ourselves to find relevance in those texts for our own lives.

But we’re not only people of words. We are also people of actions. The basic unit of Jewish life is not words, and it’s not really beliefs either. It is mitzvot – commandments. The Jewish things that we do define the Jewish lives that we live.

There is a passage in the mishnah, that has made its way into the daily morning service, that begins:

Elu d’varim she’ein lahem shiur – These are the d’varim (the actions or deeds) whose worth cannot be measured. And it goes on to list them:

  • Honouring your father and mother
  • Engaging in acts of compassion
  • Study Torah
  • Welcoming the stranger
  • Visiting the sick
  • Celebrating with the wedding couple
  • Burying the dead
  • And making peace

These are, in many ways, the most basic acts of Jewish communal life – celebration, mourning, study and prayer, and building relationships. When we live our lives in these ways, then we are building strong community, we are there for each other, and we can work deepen our own sense of self worth, and our own connection with God. Those are tasks that never end, which is why the passage refers to them as d’varim she’ein lahem shiur – actions with unlimited worth.

So maybe that’s what Moses means to say to us as he stands on the shore of the Jordan river. That the words we speak, and the ways that we relate to one another and to God really matter. That we have the power to effect goodness in each other’s lives and in the world, by being concerted and thoughtful about how we live our lives.

That’s an extraordinary power and an extraordinary responsibility that Judaism places on us. But it’s also an extraordinary privilege – to be a source of goodness and blessing to those around us.

On this Shabbat, may we recognize that responsibility and may we embrace that privilege.
May we recognize that our d’varim – our words and our actions – really do matter in the world.
Shabbat Shalom.

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Combating Extremism: A Sermon for Pinchas 5775

July 12, 2015 Leave a comment

Here is a video podcast of the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat on religious extremism.

The Courage to Reconcile – A Sermon for Vayigash 5774 (A Tribute to Nelson Mandela)

December 9, 2013 Leave a comment

He is a symbol of hope. Born as a son of a tribal head, he was imprisoned and left to languish. But through the sheer force of hope, through charisma and intelligence and shrewd political manoeuvring, he rose to prominence, he saved his people, and he transformed a nation.

It may not be who you think. This week’s Torah portion tells the story of the reconciliation of Joseph and his family. After being sold into slavery, after sitting in prison, after using his own skills to ultimately become second in command over all Egypt, Joseph meets up again with the brothers who wronged him so long ago. But this time, he is the one in charge.

We know the story. He plays some mind games with them; accuses Benjamin of stealing a royal goblet. But ultimately, he reveals himself tearfully to them in a scene that is unlike anything else in the Torah.

Joseph is an extraordinary character – not only for his brilliance, for his powers of persuasion, but also for his ability to grow and change and accept others. This is the same Joseph who we met 2 weeks ago as an arrogant shepherd boy. The same Joseph who lorded over his brothers, and tattled on them, and must have hated them after what they did to him. And he finds it in himself to forgive them, for the sake of his family and his future.

And even more extraordinary, he is not the only one that does that. The parashah begins not with Joseph, but with his brother Judah.  It says וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה – Judah approached Joseph (who he didn’t know was Joseph) to plead for his brother Benjamin. He says:

“Please, my lord…. ‘The boy [Benjamin] cannot leave his father. One [of his sons] is gone from [him]… when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die….Therefore, please let [me] remain as a slave instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers” (Genesis 44:18-34).

Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the UK, writes that “Judah – more than anyone else in the Torah – changes. The man we see all these years later is not what he was then. Then he was prepared to see his brother sold into slavery. Now he is prepared to suffer that fate himself rather than see Benjamin held as a slave.” (Quoted from chabad.org.)

So the reunion of Jacob’s family is made possible because both Joseph and Judah have grown. Both Joseph and Judah are willing to compromise, to put aside anger and personal hurt in order to achieve reconciliation.

It’s a rare combination: the vision to see a better world; the stubborn refusal to let go of dreams and hopes for a better life; and the humility, the pragmatic willingness to work with others to see those dreams to fruition. It’s a rare combination that we see perhaps only once in a generation: Joseph; Abraham Lincoln; Winston Churchill; Mahatma Ghandi; Nelson Mandela.

Born as a son of a tribal head, he was imprisoned and left to languish. But through the sheer force of hope, through charisma and intelligence and shrewd political manoeuvring, he rose to prominence, he saved his people, and he transformed a nation.

The Globe and Mail wrote yesterday morning that “It is hard to imagine that anyone alive today would be more widely mourned than Nelson Mandela.”

He is mourned, of course, for the role he played in transforming South Africa.

And he is mourned for the enormous skill with which he manoeuvred not only a transition in government, not only an implementing of rights and freedoms for all citizens, but also a reconciliation between neighbours who had previously seen themselves as enemies.

A member of our congregation told me that growing up white in South Africa, “you weren’t always cognizant of the struggle of the other.” It was Mandela who brought that struggle to the fore, because he was willing to be imprisoned to change it, and because he was so committed to a nonviolent, that non-polarizing transition – both during the years of struggle and once he was actually in power. Mandela was once asked about prosecuting the power brokers of the apartheid regime, and he replied, “Prosecution? I’m not interested in prosecution. I’m interested in building a nation.”

This is a theme of his career and of his life. Just as Joseph had to leave behind his anger, his resentment toward his brothers in order to build a future, so did Nelson Mandela teach us, in his own words, “that resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

He spoke often about the choice to abandon anger and work for reconciliation. He said famously:

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

And, we might add to that statement, South Africa might still be imprisoned by hatred, racism, and divisiveness.

Most of us never have to fight against oppression. Most of us never go to jail for 27 years for standing up for our own rights and freedoms. But we can learn from someone who did that there is little to be gained by harbouring old grudges and seeking revenge for old wrongs; and there much to be gained by working together – even with those that we don’t agree with. That’s what we hope for Israel and the Palestinians. It is what we hope for ourselves and our own families. It’s what we can learn from Joseph and Judah and from Nelson Mandela, zichrono livracha – may his memory be for a blessing.

Amen.

Don’t Blame “Not Me” – Why the Oil Spill is Our Fault

June 19, 2010 1 comment

(A sermon on Chukkat)

I love the Sunday comics. My wife laughs at me every week because as soon as the newspaper arrives, the first thing I do is open up to the comics. One comic, which is actually not among my favorites – is Family Circus. It tells about the daily life of a family with young children. And although it’s not a particularly funny comic strip, there is one motif that I think is brilliant. It’s the “Not Me” motif. Here’s how it works: Something has gone wrong. Maybe a lamp is broken, or a mess has been made. And when the parents ask who is responsible, all of the kids answer, “Not me!” And in the background, a shadowy figure called “Not Me” is seen escaping from the room.

I couldn’t stop thinking about “Not Me” as I read this week’s Torah portion. In Chukkat, our people are in the midst of the desert, doing what they do best – complaining. In Numbers 20, it says that after the death of Miriam:

The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron.  3 The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the LORD!  Why have you brought the LORD’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?  Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!”

We all know what happens next – God tells Moses to speak to a rock and water would come out. But Moses – so angry with the people – instead hits the rock twice. And he is condemned to die before entering the Promised Land.

So I couldn’t help but ask, who’s really at fault here? Moses is right to be angry – he’s led the people through the desert for 40 years, given them food and water and shelter. And the minute something goes wrong, they all pull out the “Not Me” motif. “It’s your fault, Moses! You get us some water. How dare you lead us into this desert.”  It’s probably the most self-centered, infantile response that the people could possibly have had in the situation.

It’s easy to condemn that bunch of slaves who couldn’t stop complaining about water, until you compare the way we tend behave around a certain other liquid that we can’t live without.  At this moment, there are between 40 and 90 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Balls of tar are washing up on beaches from Florida to Louisiana, and the precious wetlands of my home state are being changed – probably forever – by oil. 

And people are angry. Around the country, we are demanding answers. We’re angry at the government – Why weren’t the regulations tighter? We’re angry at the President – Why didn’t he respond more quickly? We’re angry at the Oil Executives – Why didn’t their safeguards prevent this and why can’t they seem to figure out how to stop it 2 months later?  But there is one group that we don’t seem to be angry at, and that’s ourselves.

I recently say a political cartoon in the Observer. It showed a man ranting and raving about the oil spill – ranting about the wetlands, about Obama, about BP and the executives. And then it zoomed out, and you saw that while he was ranting, the man was filling up his SUV with gas. No matter how angry we are about the oil in our gulf, most of us have not changed the way we live. We’re trying to pull the “Not Me” motif.

Ranting and raving and boycotting may make us feel better, but it won’t solve the problem of what to do about the oil companies. As Sharon Begley wrote in Newsweek last week:

They’re drilling because of America’s—and the world’s—insatiable lust for oil. The U.S. consumes 800 million gallons of petroleum per week….  The only way to make this the last oil spill in the gulf is to make oil obsolete.

And she adds, only somewhat facetiously…

Shall we all hop on our bicycles, charge our plug-in hybrids with wind-generated electricity, swap out the heating oil or natural gas warming our homes for geothermal wells and passive solar?

Blogger Stephen Markley writes similarly:

We can’t go careening from “Drill, Baby, Drill!” to “No More Blood for Oil!” and expect anything to improve unless we take a hard look at our own behavior.

“Not Me” isn’t going to do us any good here. We will need policy changes; we will need cultural changes; we will need lifestyle changes. We will need for each of us to look at our own lives and consider the changes we might be able to make. Can we carpool? Can we raise our thermostats? Can we consider hybrid or electric for our next cars? Can we grow gardens and cut down on the fuel used in transporting vegetables across the world? Can we produce less waste and buy fewer things? Can we turn off our idling computers, unplug our phone chargers, and wean ourselves off of plastic water bottles and grocery bags? There are little things we can do to change the way we live and cut down on the Petroleum that we use.

This isn’t only our problem to fix, of course. We need help from from policymakers and corporate executives. But we have to at least send the message that we’re willing to do our part. Otherwise, we’re just complaining in the desert.

A Jew once came to his rabbi in tears, and said:  “I’ve tried to repair the world but the world is still broken.” The rabbi said to the man: “Before you can change the world, you have to start with yourself. And after you’ve repaired yourself, repair your community. And after your community, repair your nation. And then, you will have begun to repair the world.”

It’s a long journey toward repairing the world. Much longer than 40 years in the desert; much longer than any one generation can handle on its own. But let’s see if we can’t begin that journey together now.

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G-dcasting the Torah

March 12, 2010 1 comment

Check out this very cool visual D’var Torah from http://www.G-dCast.com. Each week they post a similar commentary on the parasha, written and narrated by leading thinkers from across the Jewish spectrum. Shabbat Shalom!

Parshat Vayakhel from G-dcast.com

More Torah cartoons at www.g-dcast.com

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