Saturday, February 27, 2010

Gifts from the Heart

Gifts of the Heart – Sermon for Parshat T’rumah
Rabbi Steve Weisman – February 19, 2010 – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

I start tonight with a dream I think I had last night. I was watching the Olympics late into the evening, after the Board meeting ended, and I am pretty sure an Australian woman won the women’s half-pipe event. I went to sleep imagining the tabloid headlines back home, “Torah Shines Bright, Wins Olympic Gold.” I then imagined the ultra-Orthodox community, seeing this headline on their way to a half-day of work, before preparing to welcome the Sabbath Bride, and the disappointment they all surely felt when they realized it was a SPORTS story!

There is actually some relevance to this daydreaming. The words which our Bat Mitzvah will read from the Sefer Torah tomorrow morning are among the most powerful we read, and also among the more puzzling. They, like my dreamt headline, could easily lead one astray. So, allow me to start with the puzzling elements, so we can find the power of these words.

First, there is the very idea that God would want or need us to bring gifts – for God. If ever the question needed to be asked – What do you get for the Power that has CREATED everything? Taken seriously, this question is far more poignant than the whimsical version based on the old “The one with the most toys when he dies, wins” bumper sticker. Does God NEED our gifts? Of course not!

So then why ask us to bring God gifts? In many ways, this request seems destined to suffer a response very similar to the legendary response of a college football coach years ago, when asked why his offense was so run oriented – “Because, there’s only three things that can happen when you pass the ball, and 2 of them are bad!” We risk the same fate, it seems, when asked to bring God gifts. Either we are going to be negligent and fail to bring gifts; or we are going to be sloppy in choosing what we bring appropriately; or, we will please God by bringing good gifts properly. And only one of those 3 possible outcomes is positive.

It seems clear that God wants us to bring gifts, not because God needs what we bring, but rather, because God needs us to remember from time to time that God exists. God’s wanting is, therefore, really for our benefit, not God’s. And, in truth, most of the other times we are asked to bring gifts, it is not directly to God, but by way of those who really DO need what we are offering them – through the act of tzedakkah and helping others.

But there is also something in the whole concept of sacrifice, a relatively forgotten concept in our modern world. When our ancient texts refer to our gifts as “offerings,” it is clear that the focus is on God’s receiving, more than our giving, which befits the role of this behavior in ancient days as our form of worshipping God. Just as our children and grandchildren often confuse the real gifts we give them – love and support -- with the tangible gifts they receive from us which represent that love and support, it is easy for us to lose sight of the fact that these offerings were not merely gifts for God’s gratification.

Because every offering was also a sacrifice for the person making the gift. We give up something of value when we give a gift to someone else. We no longer have the item we give, or the money we used to purchase it, for our own enjoyment. We have sacrificed it for someone else’s benefit or enjoyment. In truth, we rarely do this, except when we are compelled by others or circumstances to do so, unless we expect to get something of value back in return – whether that something is attention, or love, or other gifts.

And, in our modern world, I would dare to say, most of us pride ourselves on being smart enough to recognize a bad deal when we see one, and avoid it. In the same way, a sacrifice made in which what is given is seen to be far more valuable than what we hope to get back in return is a sacrifice likely not to be made at all.

But there is more. Because after God tells Moses to ask the people to bring the offerings, the gifts, of their hearts – namely, voluntarily – God then gives Moses a specific checklist of gifts to accept. And this list consists mostly of the good stuff! Are we to interpret this to mean that someone who can’t afford the good stuff is likely to have their free-will gift rejected by Moses on God’s behalf? I sure hope not, as this would go against everything I believe Judaism makes clear about the worth of individuals in the community having absolutely nothing to do with what they bring tangibly to the table.

So what then do we do with these verses? We likewise can’t easily see this as an example of God’s predetermination in our world – if we are meant to understand the list given to Moses as being merely a checklist of what God already knows people will bring, then how can we honestly describe these gifts as being “from the heart”?

It is hard to visualize the best answer in the text itself, but with a little application from our own lives, I think we can find a meaningful truth here. I ask you this question – what happens when someone brings US a gift – one that we don’t find nearly as aesthetically pleasing, or useful, or cute, or meaningful, as the giver obviously thought we would?

Do we immediately acknowledge our lack of appreciation? No – we find some way to keep a straight face and say something positive. Do we toss it in the garbage? Rarely! We are far more likely to put it away in a closet, or bury it in the basement. We MIGHT eventually regift it, or donate it to a white elephant or silent auction event – but not right away. And hopefully, not in a way in which the original giver is likely to find out, and be hurt by our actions.

The truth is, even if we are acting out of avoidance rather than respect, we do our best to be thankful for the gift, and appreciate the thought that we know was behind it – even when we can’t for the life of us figure out what that thought might have been! And, whenever possible, we DO try to find an appropriate use or appropriate receiver – so that the gift itself is both used and valued.

So why not read that same reality into our text here. The list which God provided to Moses was a list of those items that would be needed for the building of the Tabernacle and its accessories – those items that should be immediately received and appreciated and used. Any other gifts, given freely, would also be accepted, and an appropriate usage would be found separate from the building project that was about to begin.

And suddenly, a seemingly contradictory set of statements makes sense to us, when we compare it to a reality that we have all experienced. If only ALL of Torah was so easily understood and applied in our day!

Which brings us to the last, and perhaps deepest of the puzzles. After the list of gifts, God commands Moses: V’asu li miqdash, v’shachanti b’tokham. The first clause is pretty straightforward – “Make for Me a sacred place…” We can even get creative, and infer from the list of accepted gifts that we should understand it as “With these gifts that you have collected for Me, fashion them to make for Me a sacred place…”

But that second clause, those last 2 words. And really, it is the last word we get to dive into. V’shachanti here is fairly clearly “…so that I may dwell….” The unanswered question becomes “Where?” And as an answer to that question, the single word b’tokham may be interpreted in three VERY different ways.

Most literally, the word means “in their midst.” In context, the meaning may very well be, especially if we are correct in how to understand the list God gave to Moses of what to accept, “among these items that have been given as gifts for Me.” This would place God in the position of saying: Let Me luxuriate surrounded by the tokens of My people’s affection for Me. This would certainly be an understandably desirable outcome, at least from a human perspective, even if it is somewhat problematic from a theological one.

The most frequent translation of b’tokham is “among them,” with the “them” referring not to the gifts, but to the Children of Israel. “Build Me a holy place, so I might have an address in their neighborhood, so I can be physically close to them, and bring them near to Me,” God is saying here. There is much to be appreciated in this interpretation – particularly in that the sacrificial gifts of the people are immediately turned back into a building which brings obvious value with it for the donors, and for the whole community.

But the word can also be translated as “within them.” As in, inside of each of us. Individually. In which case, we ought to be moved to ask – If we recognize, as we should, that God lives inside each of us as individuals, why do we need to build God a place among us -- especially with the best of our free-will gifts? However, the truth is that this assumption of our recognition represents a huge “if.”

And with this question, we get even further from the physical, and more towards the metaphysical. But, I think, by taking ALL THREE possible understandings together, we actually answer the seemingly contradictory question! God is really saying to us: By building an ostentatious building in your midst for Me, I can have an appropriate address at which you can seek Me, so that I can help you to recognize that I really have lived inside each of you all along.

At which point, each of us will hopefully realize that the gifts we give to God are not really for God, but for us, collectively. That each individual gift given by an “I” helps to make our community and our world, the collective “us,” stronger spiritually, by drawing all of us nearer my God to Thee. And if it takes having a physical location at which we collectively seek God’s presence to remind us of this deeper truth, then this building never risks becoming an example of idolatry, because it draws us nearer to the worship and the truth of our God and what God wants from us!

Pretty powerful stuff indeed – and all from the first 8 verses of the weekly portion. Imagine what other wisdom remains for us to find in the rest of this week’s text!? Oh that’s right – we don’t have to imagine. Because Aly will be sharing HER message tomorrow – and it is very different, but equally powerful! This portion really DOES provide a pretty good foundation for all of us to build upon in our own lives! KYR

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Great Event for a VERY Necessary Cause

One of the advantages of the blogosphere is that it provides the occasional opportunity for shameless self-promotion :)

My readers know me from every facet of my life -- congregants and current friends know a Rabbi who works with kids and camping, is active in the larger community promoting mutual understanding and respect, who works with the junior choir, and occasionally leads services with guitar strapped on.

Those who know me from camp -- whether the earlier years or now as a faculty member -- know the guy who can still hold his own on the ballfield, and occasionally picks up the guitar for fun. Those who know me from long ago, even if you saw me on the ballfield or were there for those first tentative guitar strums, probably still have difficulty imagining either of those as still being an integral part of my life all these years later. And the ones who never saw that side of me, all the moreso :)

I have come a long way from those early days -- when anything that got me positive attention was a miracle, when being in the spotlight was something to be avoided. I have come even further from those over-reactive middle days, when it might have appeared that every move I made was designed to bring attention to myself.

As I approach the big 5-0, I am in a very comfortable place -- I do what I do today because it is right and needs to be done. Those who get it, and support and applaud me for what I do, are appreciated -- you DO keep me going -- but are not necessary for me to do these things. And if people are less than kind, I let that roll off as well.

This is where I stop talking about myself -- and push this Sunday's big concert! Because even though I am in it, this is SOO not about me!

Sunday, February 28th --
3 PM at the Bowie Center for the Performing Arts
"Bowie Cares: heart 2 heart 4 Haiti"

Featuring local talent including -- The Crayfish, Long Time Coming, Plan 9, Shir Joy, the Dave Bass Group, Retro Deluxe, Owen Adams, Brea Wimbush, Mark Arcusa, and more.

Proceeds go to help Haitian Relief, especially to Handicap International, co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize for Peace, who were already working in Haiti before the earthquakes hit. They not only provide prostheses and rehab for amputees, but teach them how to make what they need for themselves using local materials. Our goal is to get every penny possible to Haiti, and into the hands of those who can help -- no one involved in this event is taking a penny for themselves!

And, both before and following the concert, a number of local restaurants are kicking in proceeds toward the cause. These include -- TJ Elliot's, Old Town Bowie Grille, and Cetrone's, who will be making a contribution for every delivery all weekend, AND encouraging their customers to contribute as well.

We did something similar 5 years ago to help the tsunami victims. It was fun, and great entertainment for a great cause. And, we raised almost $8000! Honestly -- this time, the entertainment and organization are even better, and with your help we can make an even BIGGER impact on the lives of Haitians who have very little reason or opportunity for hope and enjoyment right now.

Ticket prices are $15 for adults, $5 for kids 11 and under, and $10 for students and active military who can show ID, as well as seniors. We COULD have charged more -- after all, the cause is good! But in this tough economy, we were striving for an event that was family-friendly -- both in what we put on the stage, and in allowing families to all enjoy together -- including a meal out before or after! And the entertainment is among the best Bowie has to offer, and represents a wide variety of styles, and the diversity that is our community.

For those of you close enough to join us, I hope you will come for a great afternoon of music. And, for those of you far enough away to be unable to attend in person, if the cause strikes you as it does me as being worthwhile, all contributions are welcome and tax deductible to the limit the law allows -- just contact me and I'll give you the details.

And if enough of you out-of-towners DO contribute to the cause, I promise to try and get some bootleg footage posted from the concert, so you can see what you missed! So come on -- you can't pass up the chance to see me possibly look silly -- can you? Not for a good cause!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Big Lie -- In Action

I was browsing on the Temple's Facebook page a little while ago, and saw this entry. I repeat the posting as I copied it from the screen (although, without the photo and the catchy "Ha'aretz" logo, I recognize that it isn't really as exciting!)because I find it important information of which we should all be aware:

"Israeli soldier killed by Palestinian officer in West Bank knife attack - Haaretz - Israel News
Israeli soldier killed by Palestinian officer in West Bank knife attack -News and commentary relating to events in Israel, the occupied territories, and the world, along with an archive of past issues...."

I thought to myself: "I bet THIS doesn't make the news this evening!" Since, of course, the national news will likely be pre-empted by breathless local reportage of the snowstorm, even though all of Thursday's closings will be old news by then. But then, again, a story like this RARELY makes the national news in our country, anyway!

I am teaching our 9th graders about Israel in religious school this year. They are good kids, a bright class. Yet it is AMAZING not only what they do not know on the subject of Israel, but how markedly different their view of the whole Israel/Palestinian issue is because of that lack of both knowledge and experience.

My parents lived through the time when there WAS no State of Israel. They lived through the Nazi Holocaust of WWII, the revelation of the deaths and depravity. Their parents (since my parents were tweens and teenagers when this happened, and so were themselves somewhat lacking in the depth of appreciation of the moment) cried for joy at the UN Partition vote of 1947 that paved the way for the creation of the modern State of Israel, and saw it as a miracle, a phoenix rising from the ashes of the crematoria (and remember, they were remarkably assimilated Jews, with only a small family link to the death camps -- think how those with deeper personal losses, or deeper spiritual and religious attachment must have felt!).

I, myself, was a child when the linkage between the modern State of Israel and the Holocaust was replaced by the ecstatic joy of the massive victory of the 6 Day War in 1967. It wasn't until later that I fully realized the significance of hearing my first joke from Johnny Carson's monologue (it poked fun at the Egyptian Army for being run through by the Israelis). But at roughly the same time I was becoming aware of my Jewish identity, and learning to express it positively at Camp Harlam as a camper, it suddenly was COOL to be a Jew -- because of Israel's victory. Television commercials encouraged Americans to visit Israel -- we all learned "Bashanah Haba'ah" as the theme of those commercials. Israel, and by extention, Jews and Judaism, were "cool."

No longer was Israel seen as a state born of an attempt to rid the world of Jews. Granted, it took a massive military victory to make Israel appear "cool" to western sensibilities, and we somehow allowed ourselves not to be concerned by that truth. But cool Israel was, and we Jewish kids got to go along for the ride!

But what we missed, in retrospect, was significant -- so much so, that we and Israel are paying for it still. And it was far greater an issue of gaining our cool by military means, at the same time our country was rebelling against American soldiers being in Viet Nam! In the great victory of the 6-Day War, Israel lost her cachet as the "underdog," the "little country that could in the face of all odds," even, dare I suggest, as "victim" (although, assuredly, she continues to be victimized to this day!). Which meant, that it was only a matter of time before some other group picked up the mantle and ran with it, thereby earning the West's concern.

In the great victory of the 6 Day War, Israel also inherited, and underestimated the severity of, a massive refugee "problem." All those Arab refugees from the 1948 War of Independence, (some of whom, we must admit, were chased from their homes by the fledgling army of the newborn State of Israel, but most of whom left at the request of the attacking Arab armies, who wanted them out of the way so they could "push Israel into the sea" and promised to return to them even more than they left behind), rather than being assimilated into the surrounding Arab countries over that 20 year period, had, in fact, been kept in refugee camps by their Arab brothers. Their brothers and sisters treated them like dirt, and kept them as political pawns. And they built most of those refugee camps just across their borders with Israel.

So in taking land felt to be desperately needed for Israel's defense, in a defensive, if pre-emptive, war against a very real threat from her neighbors, one which brought great credit to the country in world eyes, Israel inherited what came to be known as "the Palestinian refugees." Some Israeli leaders, even in 1967, saw the political and demographic time bomb, and recommended immediate return of most of the land taken, and the refugees that lived there. But their view was not accepted as Israeli policy, at which point the Palestinian refugees became the centerpiece of the new propaganda war of victimization.

No one makes a better underdog than homeless refugees. And who was in control of the camps now? Israel. Didn't matter that someone else created and promulgated those camps against all common sense and decency. Since possession is the majority of the law, Israel was now perceived to be the oppressive bad guy, and the Palestinians were the new lovable victims.

Long before the US was thrust into the "War on Terror" on 9/11, the Israelis have lived under the constant terror of Palestinian terrorists, an outgrowth of the farming of the desperation of life in those refugee camps. Yet still Israel is seen as the aggressor, and the Palestinians as victims. Wave after wave of rockets can be fired by Palestinians from Gaza, onto apartments in Israeli towns inside the "green line" (and therefore, unquestionably on Israeli soil), and the world says nothing. But let the Israeli government act in legitimate defense of her citizens to stop those rockets, and she is labelled as a militant and unprovoked aggressor, an army attacking innocent civilians.

This is the "news" our current teens live with on a regular basis. I cry that they get no ability to be "cool" through a natural connection to the Jewish state like I did. I fear that imbalance in what they learn through the media will make them far less likely to be strong supporters of Israel as adults than were their parents and grandparents. Which is why, as hard as I push for Jewish summer camping, I push even harder for our young people to have a first-hand Israel experience for themselves!

And if that was the end of the post on my Facebook page, it would be a sad enough reverie that it inspired. But these were the first 2 posts in response to it, which also appeared exactly as reproduced here, on my page:

"Magued Hanna likes this.

Safwan Zaza -- Hmmm is this going to be an excuse for a massive death campaign that'll erase half of the West Bank's Palestinian population similar to the one we witnessed in Gaza recently? No seriously it's a great excuse :)) ... My condolences to his family and loved ones, he was just doing his job."

And suddenly, we are reminded even more that this is not merely a philosophical concern, but a very real one. Under what other circumstances would anyone feel comfortable clicking the "like" button in response to a soldier being killed? That is an outrage on everyone's sensibilities regarding the value of HUMAN life!

And then, to read the historically WRONG and totally cynical second response, knowing that IT is far too likely to be the tone of the day in our global society, is enough to make a caring person cry out in despair.

Don't get me wrong -- the Israeli government is not always right in what they choose to do, in my eyes. I am educated enough to know that not every Palestinian is a terrorist, and a caring enough person to cry when innocent Palestinians are killed and injured, and lose their homes, just as I am when the same things happen to Israelis, or anyone else. I believe that peace -- in the form of a 2-state solution that requires mutual recognition, respect, and cooperation -- is the only viable long-term solution.

But, with each passing day, it becomes harder to explain why this is, except to those who already "get it." Victimization and the "Big Lie" are much easier than doing your homework, visiting the area, and drawing your own, sometimes difficult, conclusions, and therefore the vast majority will merely accept them.

In the end, we have no one to blame but ourselves!

Something Serious to take our minds OFF the snow

If you are not already a follower of URJ's blog, I highly recommend you become one. This is the SECOND of my own blogs in which I share with you something I have read there.

As individuals and as a congregation, we have not yet given ourselves the opportunity to discuss last month's events at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, during which, a "liberal" (read -- "non-Orthodox") Jewish woman was arrested for daring to put on a tallit during a women's minyan for Rosh Chodesh (a women's text study and worship service in connection with the celebration of the New Moon -- which has become a "women's holiday" in Jewish tradition for obviuous reasons not worth delving into here)), and the group itself was harrassed and broken up for defying the decorum of that sacred place that has become the Western Wall.

Part of the reason we have not yet entered into this discussion is traceable both to issues of weather and opportunity. But an even deeper truth is that this is a very long and complex issue -- when Loren and I were in Israel for our honeymoon, Women of the Wall already had a long history of attempting to pray as liberal Jewish women with more than just token spirituality, and was even then in the headlines for their efforts, and the seemingly draconian response to them by Israeli police and officials.

However, this issue goes to the core of SEVERAL key issues of our own Jewish identity, both uniquely as American Reform Jews (whether we support Israel, or Women of the Wall, or both, or neither), and collectively as part of "K'lal Yisrael" -- the totality of the Jewish people -- including those who too often seek to read us out, and with whom, let's be honest, we generally try to avoid being linked. We NEED to discuss this issue, both as a litmus test for who we are as American Reform Jews who support and love the State of Israel, and in order to try to become of the solution.

I am HONORED to share with you, from the URJ Blog, the thoughts on this subject of Rabbi Marc Rosenstein. I had the privilege of studying with Marc when I was in 9th grade (before he was ordained as a Rabbi) and Confirmation class (we were his first students as a Rabbi, and he was our congregation's first assistant Rabbi -- just to give you an idea, Rabbi David Ellenson, now the Rosh Yeshivah (President) of HUC-JIR, our seminary, was our second!), and after our return from our Confirmation trip to Israel, which he led. He was a great teacher then, even as a student and brand new Rabbi. He has since made aliyah, has lived in Israel with his family for over 25years, and has made a name for himself as a Jewish Educator and thinker.

His thoughts on the issue are hardly "inside the box" on this subject, which, if anything, makes them more important to consider. Even if you come to this issue late, and only through this blog, I hope it will be influential on you, and encourage you to learn more and think more about the issues raised by Women of the Wall and by Rabbi Rosenstein's piece.

You can find his blog by cutting and pasting this url into your web browser:

And I truly hope THIS entry engenders some thoughtful debate and discussion, here, and on the URJ site.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Death of a Salesman's Reputation?

I am always amazed at both what the professionals find newsworthy, and how others view the world. And of course, how we react to news that doesn't quite fit inside our "comfort zone."

The phone calls started last Saturday, but apparently the story was already on-line earlier. "Rabbi, have you seen the cover story in the magazine? It is about Rabbi Youlus!"

I could not imagine what would have made my friend Menachem a front-page story, again, until the question was followed with the ominous statement "It raises some interesting questions."

By the time Loren sent me the link on Monday (we don't get the Sunday Post at home!), and I had a chance to read it, I was already prepared for what I would read. Anyone who has met Rabbi Youlus, and heard his Indiana-Jones-like stories of harrowing Torah rescues, has probably had at least one moment when they allowed themselves to think in response "Oh, come on, did it really go down that way?"

Any other response requires a certain amount of checking one's willingness to question at the front door. I don't say this out of disrespect to my friend in any way. Just because I sometimes wonder how all these things could have happened to one man the way he describes them doesn't mean I have any less respect for him -- it just indicates how incredible (look up the dictionary definition to get the full sense of what I am saying here!) his stories truly are.

But I am conditioned to thinking that way. My father was, until last week, a salesman for all my life. I love my dad. I love his stories. Sometimes, they were equally incredible. It is, I always suspected, part of the life and the technique of the salesman.

The problem is that my friend Rabbi Youlus is not just a salesman -- he is, first and foremost, by training and title, a Rabbi. And even though one of my congregants in Fredericksburg recognized years ago, and quite accurately, that I was every bit my father's son when it came to selling Judaism, we plain and simply do not want to see our Rabbis as salesmen.

And the other problem is, now that the media has started to check out some of his stories, and they aren't holding up too well to the scrutiny, that the area of stories he dabbles in has an equally sacred and protected cachet as does his title -- they are of the Holocaust. And if one of us can play fast and loose with the details, it makes it easier for the Holocaust deniers of this world to do the same, AND to deflect attention from their own efforts by comparing themselves to what "we Jews" say ourselves.

Bottom line -- I do not know what the truth is here, and most of us may never know for sure. I am grateful that none of the details that are now coming under scrutiny are in any way related to Aaron's Torah. I continue to be grateful for the energy and excitement that Rabbi Youlus brought to our current 8th graders and their families, and to our entire congregation who gave themselves the chance to learn with him, and I see no reason for that to change. I grieve for a friend who is going thru a tough patch of public scrutiny, and pray he comes through it okay.

And like others, I will hold up judgment on facts not yet in evidence. I will ask and invite others to read and draw their own conclusions -- based in both respect for the man and his office, and equal respect for the love of truth and sacred memory that is integral within our Jewish tradition. But I will be a lot more circumspect now before I recommend him to others, and that is a shame!

Here is the link to the Washington Post Sunday Magazine cover story from January 31:

And here is the link to the Washington Jewish Week follow up this week

(for whatever reason, it doesn't seem to like these long urls -- just cut and paste 'em into your browser)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sermon for Shabbat Shirah

Here is my sermon from last Shabbat -- those who were present heard the "Song of the Sea" so beautifully chanted, and much discussion followed:

Sadly -- the Song Remains the Same
Sermon for Shabbat Shirah -- January 29, 2010
Rabbi Steve Weisman -- Temple Solel, Bowie MD

I want to begin with a very large thank you, to my friend, and one of our newer congregants, Ronda Wanderman Young, for volunteering to chant Shirat Hayam – the “Song of the Sea” – this evening, and in the process, taking a “regular” Shabbat evening and making it into something special. I hope that in the process of doing so, she has shown us, because I know she has reminded me, just what a little added effort on a special occasion can do to lift our worship from the ho-hum into the truly unique and spiritual realm that we should always be striving to reach. Thank you, Ronda, for reminding me why I used to go out of my way to make this a special Shabbat, and why I, and we, need to start doing so again!

This Torah portion is remarkable in many ways, even before we hear it chanted to its unique melody, however. The saga of our ancestors’ Exodus from Egypt, one of the essential moments in both the history and the religious identity of the Jewish people, still to this day, comes to its rousing conclusion on this Shabbat, first in “real-time” prose, and then, in review, in the victory song sung by both the men AND the women. We begin our reading on this Shabbat still anxiously fleeing for our lives, our escape anything but assured. Yet, by its end, not only have we successfully escaped to freedom, but we have immediately become established as a unique nation, already under attack by other wanderers as we move tentatively on our first free steps as a people.

When the Rabbis had to replace the sacrifices of the Temple cult as our form of worship, following the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, they developed the concept of prayer as worship. One of the central themes that they established, for which we are to thank God in that worship, is Divine Redemption, symbolized in the liturgy with words from this Song of the Sea. We sing those words each Shabbat evening, as we did tonight – Mi Chamochah ba’elim, Adonai!

When the guild of sofrim -- scribal artists -- were beginning to write sifrei Torah, they recognized the uniqueness and significance of this poem, this song. As we saw during hagbah, when the Torah was lifted and displayed after the reading, this poem stands out, physically and VERY obviously, on the scroll, with its overlapping tri-column layout.

When the Rabbis of old were establishing an annual reading cycle from Torah, and then appending those prophetic writings that they felt completed the message they wanted us to get out of the Torah reading for each Shabbat (we call those added readings haftarah), even they wanted to stress the significance of the song. They chose the text from Judges, Chapter 5, a similar victory poem attributed to the Judge Deborah, as the haftarah for this Shabbat. It is the combination of songs, Shirat Hayam and Shirat D’vorah, that gives to this Shabbat the name “Shabbat Shirah.”

But it does not end there! Because the story of our victory at the Sea of Reeds, and our escape to freedom is bookended in the tradition by two remarkable Midrashim, two powerful stories told by the Rabbis to teach the ethical lessons of our tradition. These midrashim frequently use Biblical characters about whom we know little or nothing, or fill in gaps in the stories of the lives of better known Biblical characters. Think of everything you know about Abraham as a child, or the story of baby Moses and how he became speech impaired – all midrash.

On the Egyptian side of the water, as our safe passage was seemingly in peril with the approach of the Egyptian chariots, we have the marvelous story of Nachshon ben Aminadav, whose role within the community was fairly significant, but about whose deeds we know virtually nothing from the Biblical text. In Numbers, he is listed as a representative of his tribe, Judah, a fairly high honor. Elsewhere, we are told that his family was significant enough that Moses’ brother, Aaron, was married to Nachshon’s sister. He also ends up in the geneology of King David found at the end of the Book of Ruth. In our story, instead of crying out in despair as the Egyptians approached, or waiting for Moses or God to act on behalf of the people and himself, with total faith in God, he plunged forward into the water himself. According to the midrash, it was exactly at the moment that he risked being swept under the water that God had Moses stretch out his rod over the waters to part the Sea. The midrashic message is clear. Action, based in faith in God, can move not mountains, but can part seas! It is even better than the cries of God’s chosen leader.

On the other side of the water, our safe escape assured, the Midrash comes into play again, teaching an equally powerful lesson. The angels, another staple of midrashic literature, are watching the Children of Israel celebrate their freedom, as first the men, led by Moses and Aaron, and then the women, led by Miriam, sing and dance their thanks to God. Caught up in the moment, the angels, too, begin to sing and dance, only to be immediately stopped cold by God. God answers their confusion at the Divine response by pointing out a) the angels had not personally been saved, and so had far less reason to celebrate, especially since b) as God’s messengers, and more personally removed, they should have been far more aware that, in order to bring about this salvation, God needed to destroy many Egyptians and horses, which are also, and equally, a part of the Divine Creation!

As much as I love the Nachshon story, I am very aware of the razor thin line between emulating Nachshon’s worthiness by faithful action taken into one’s own hand, and crossing the line, thinking we are acting faithfully, but causing harm to others inappropriately – exactly the point being warned against by the second story! Which is why, whenever possibly, I like to teach the 2 stories together, to help point out the potential flaw in following Nachshon’s example, and the need for us to be ever vigilant to the effect of our own words and actions.

And suddenly, a great Torah text, expanded upon by multiple layers of our tradition, becomes more than just pretty on the parchment page, more than beautiful to the ear when chanted, more than joyous in our celebration. It becomes a centerpiece for how we ethically approach our dealings with others, ESPECIALLY when we believe ourselves to be acting faithfully as God wishes us to do. And as much as I want to celebrate the beauty of the text itself on this Shabbat Shirah, this other message is being thrust into the forefront of public discussion on this Shabbat as well. I offer three examples:

In the first example, we had the State of the Union Address on Wednesday evening. In a little over an hour, we were reminded of what a gifted orator and rhetoretician Barack Obama is. We were also reminded that our elected representatives ARE capable of acting appropriately, and giving the office of the Presidency the honor it is due on State occasions. But we were also reminded just how deep the political divide is between Democratic and Republican politicians, who otherwise seemed incapable of rising together when their politics were involved, and who were ALL taken sharply to task by the President for not getting legislation done. And was there a more poignant moment than Obama announcing that he would call for the end of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” as military policy, as directly before him in starched dress uniforms the Joint Chiefs of Staff sat equally rigid in non-response?

On one side of the political aisle, we have the Democratic Nachshon wannabes, seemingly incapable of taking that first step into the difficult waters of helping to solve our nation’s ills effectively. On the other side, all too often, we have the Republican Nachshons, many absolutely sure they march with God, plunging into the water to save the day, only to end up like the angels at the end – singing a victory song for defeating what they are convinced is “bad” legislation, yet bringing our country no closer to salvation from our ills! They ALL have a lot of work to do to live up to the lessons and examples of our Midrashim!

Then, there is the Israeli response to the tragedy in Haiti, and more specifically, the Palestinian response to Israel for it, being picked up and echoed across the globe, including in some frightening ways here at home! Israel IMMEDIATELY mobilized to help, and sent two specific sets of resources and personnel – those trained to search through rubble for survivors and bodies, and those trained to respond medically to this unique type of physical trauma. Sadly, Israel is among the best in the world in BOTH of these areas because of too much practice in response to terror attacks.

The first stories of Israel’s role in Haiti came via the Internet, spread primarily at first from Jew to Jew, all of us also too sadly conditioned by past events so that we expected that if we didn’t tell the story on Israel’s behalf, no one else would. But, lo and behold, the mainstream media started to report the Israeli role as well, at first quite appropriately positively, considering how much good the Israeli involvement was making possible.

But, we knew it couldn’t last. And sure enough, pretty soon came the Palestinian backlash – first questioning Israel’s motives in getting involved in the first place, then making the apples-and-armadillos comparison between Israel’s willingness to help poor Haitians while they try to starve and isolate poor Palestinians (their claims, certainly NOT mine!). The idea that Israel ONLY got involved to deflect attention from her own behaviors at home against Gaza is beyond cynical and insulting. It is an outright lie, born of propaganda and a need to win, totally, at any cost, indicative of the general approach of the Palestinian power structure to dealing with Israel. And even more outrageous, it DENIES the twin truths that fueled Israel’s response – that the government WAS acting out of the best RELIGIOUS beliefs of our tradition, to offer help to others, irrespective of who they are; and that the reason Israel was in the position to be SO helpful is as a direct result of the actions taken by that same Palestinian political structure AGAINST Israel, in direct CONTRADICTION to their own religious teachings.

In other words, the Palestinians may have plunged into the waters as strong as Nachshon, but they did so, as usual, without the needed connection to God’s word – as taught in their own religious tradition. They may be singing a song loudly on the other side, but their song is even more divorced from both context and reality than the angels’ song was. And therefore, it is up to the real Nachshons and angels, the people of the world who are moved by faith to act appropriately and within proper context, to stand up and speak truth to these lies.

So what happens instead in response? The usual sympathizers around the globe, ignoring the truth, pick up the Palestinian nonsense, and continue to spread it, until it risks becoming real not through accuracy but through repetition. And then, a group of Democratic congressmen, fearing their MIGHT be something to the claims, calls for an investigation into Israel’s actions in Gaza – even though every independent accounting of facts shows that, despite the military blockade placed on Gaza to protect Israeli citizens, Israel IS allowing humanitarian and life-sustaining supplies into Gaza at even higher rates than before, while almost NOTHING is coming through Egypt or from other Arab sources. So who is really to blame here?!

And finally, there is the event that OUGHT to be completely ignored, but assuredly will not be. And by NOT ignoring it, our country will be further polarized along another of our fragile fault lines, further risking a split when American needs now, more than ever, to be pulling together towards each other.

I speak about the upcoming Super Bowl advertisement that will feature University of Florida quarterback (with no visible future in the NFL) Tim Tebow, paid for by the anti-abortion forces in our country. These are the same people who, unable to convince through rational discourse almost half the Catholics surveyed in America of the correctness of the Church’s religious stand against abortion, have joined with the extreme Evagelical right-wing of Protestantism, and resorted to, among other strategies: assaulting the senses of the general community and offending the memory of the dead by placing mock cemeteries in front of Churches; organizing mobs to harass women trying to obtain legal health services in an effort to prey on their weakness at an incredibly difficult moment in their lives, in order to get them to change their minds about terminating their pregnancies, without bothering to check if there might be a medical context that justifies the behavior of the women they harass; who have taught their youth group members to go out and Crazy Glue themselves to those brave souls who respond to their mobs by volunteering as escorts, in an effort to help the innocent women seeking legal medical services; and riling up mobs of the faithful to the point that some of them have killed innocent medical practitioners – all in the name of their God, yet against the teachings of their Lord and Savior who taught “Hate the sin, but love the sinner,” and to “turn the other cheek,” to quote just two of THEIR religious texts. Thank God that, at least today, a lonely Catholic voice denounced the actions of a murderer in the American heartland, convicted earlier today of murdering a so-called “abortion doctor.”

(But before we get too hopeful, today’s news ALSO included word that the same network, in a clear deviation from prior year’s behavior for accepting the Tebow ad, used that same long-standing rationale of precedent to refuse an ad for a gay on-line dating service that features two men, kissing each other!)

In their own words, these folks have declared Holy War over the abortion issue, this is how correct they believe themselves to be, in the ultimate proof that, taken to its extreme, even well-meant action based in faith can become so bastardized to the zeal for a cause that it blinds the faithful. How much difference is there, really, between Nachshon and those followers of Rev. Jones in Guyana 30 years ago who willingly drank the Kool-Aid? Not nearly as much as we would otherwise wish to believe!

And let us be clear here friends – not all Palestinians, not all Arabs, not all Catholics, not all right wing Protestants think or behave in the ways I have challenged this evening. Let us not be guilty of allowing our righteous indignation at their failures to blind us to our continuing responsibility for right behavior, even in response to those who are already blinded and no longer able to act appropriately. For if we do not, we sink to their level in the mud at the bottom of the river we seek to cross to intellectual freedom, the schisms become canyons, allowing the waters to come back over us and drown us, and all hope of moving forward together in freedom is lost.

Which is why I will fight for the right to air the anti-abortion ad, and applaud the networks for finally ending their dangerous practice of pre-censoring advertisements based on the content of the message, even if not yet universally. I will also encourage all of us to watch it, because those words, alone, can only cause damage to the national fiber if we allow them to divide us. I will not call for a boycott of the game (no matter how little interest I have in its outcome), or the network, or the other advertisers, in no small part because I do not wish to march in lock step with those who might. I will hope that Tebow is acting, as he has demonstrated many times in the past, appropriately out of strongly held religious beliefs, for the purpose of encouraging dialogue and understanding between us, like I believe a proper Nachshon would today. In fact, maybe it takes someone with the doubtful professional future of a Tim Tebow to do this – would a sure fire first round pick risk millions in endorsement money taking a controversial stand? I doubt it!

Then it will be up to the rest of us, on both sides of this way-too-complex issue, to strive to remove the emotion from the discussion, to put away the rhetoric and song-and-dance incitement, to recognize the complex context and reality around this issue – all the things the angels failed to do and therefore drew God’s displeasure at their actions.

This is a tall order. But on a night so filled with beauty and powerful messages coming from our tradition as this one is, if we cannot aim high tonight, when will we ever be able to do so? KYR