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

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