Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Look at the World in the New Year Thru the Eyes of Torah

This past Friday night's sermon was more of a magnum opus than a mere preaching. As some of the side notes suggest, rather than taking on the usual intro the Torah portion, read the text, preach model, this Torah service acted as a single item, with intro and sermon intertwined amongst multiple aliyot to the Torah, which were presented in different modalities. As the text indicates, this allowed a couple of seemingly unrelated "sermonettes" to be offered on different sections of the text, and then, in the end, to have all the material come together to reinforce powerfully a single message. What follows is the spoken text, including the breaks where the Torah text was read...

Vayechi – (Chazak)
Tying Up Loose Ends, Celebrating Life With Joy and Blessing
An Experimental Torah Reading and Explication
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD – January 6, 2012

Tonight, I want to shake things up a little. After all, it is the start of a new year, what better time to try some changes out. But more than that, I want us to embrace one of the many powerful teachings from the Mishnah that even we, as Reform Jews, should and do take to heart. Rabbi Eliezer taught, in B’rachot 4:4 – If a man makes his prayers a fixed task, it is not (genuine) prayer. If we let our worship become too familiar, too stale, we lose its energy, its vibrancy. It ceases to be joyful – so why should we do it?! We need to maintain comfort… but every now and then, we also need to shake things up, if for no other reason than to keep ourselves honest, and, as we shall see, to allow ourselves to be joyful.

So tonight, I want to try out a new model for Torah reading – ironically, with a Torah portion with which we have experimented before. And the model is based on the classic tale from Eastern Europe of Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague and the Golem. Rabbi Loew, a 17th century scholar and religious leader, originally created the Golem, a mud man, as a helper and a guard. According to legend, Rabbi Loew animated the Golem by inscribing the Hebrew word “emet” on its forehead. When secular authorities attempted to destroy the Jewish community, the Golem became their defender, and staved off the anti-Semitic attacks. Eventually, Rabbi Loew was convinced by the authorities that there was no further need for the Golem, in return for which, as a sign of goodwill, he de-animated the Golem, by erasing the silent aleph from its forehead, leaving the word “met” – which means death.

A powerful story, and one which lives on still – some see it as the basis for Shelley’s Frankenstein. Others, including some Nazi occultists, searched for the body of the Golem during World War II, in vain (think Indiana Jones!). But a story whose wisdom lives on as well. In a commentary to the classic story, the power of the word emet – usually translated as “truth,” a pretty good animating key itself – was explained by pointing out that the word is made up of the first letter of the aleph-bet, the middle letter, and the last letter.

It is THAT wisdom that animates tonight’s experiment for me. Rather than a long introduction of the portion, a reading from the sefer Torah, and a long sermon after that, I want to combine the reading and the explaining. And, since I want to read from the beginning, middle, AND end of the portion tonight, for different reasons, it seemed like a good night to try this. If nothing else, we are giving ourselves an excuse to call extra participants to the Torah, and an opportunity to hear different pieces of Torah presented in different ways – each of which is always, by itself, a good thing!

And so, to begin… our portion is Vayechi… the last portion of Genesis, the conclusion to the Joseph saga. When we are finished, as is the tradition, we will join together and say “Chazak, chazak v’nitchazeik,” the words by which we acknowledge the completion of another book of Torah for another year. But this is more than mere formula, more than mere mantra. These are words with an actual, albeit difficult to translate, meaning. They acknowledge that we are blessed to be the recipients of words of Torah, of Divine Instruction, which bring meaning and understanding into our lives. But they also acknowledge that we strengthen ourselves and each other when we come together, as congregation and extended family, to the Torah, and make a place for these Divine Instructions in our lives. And they further acknowledge that we need to leave a little behind, and return a bit to the Torah, so that next year, and 100 years from now, those who come to these words will equally find strength in them.

In that tripartite understanding of the meaning of these three repetitive sounding words, we also have a synopsis of what this portion, Vayechi, is about. Taken as a whole, it is about endings. We begin with Jacob making plans for his own end, and getting everything in order for the future. And we end with Joseph’s death in Egypt, leading to the transition to Moses and the Exodus story.

And in the process, we not only learn powerful lessons about what matters in the big picture, or at least what should, but we also get a framework for looking at ourselves and evaluating what matters.

And so we begin, at the beginning. Genesis 47:28 - 31. And we call…

Traditional Torah chanting. Fitting for the message of these verses, as we value the beauty of Jewish tradition. Jacob is looking death square in the eyes. He sees that he is not where he needs to be. He is in diaspora, not safely at home. So he calls upon Joseph, his beloved son, the one he entrusted years ago with checking on his brothers’ well-being, the one who had risen in position to ruling over all of Egypt, with Pharaoh, and the one who was responsible for Jacob being in Egypt in the first place.

He puts the responsibility on Joseph to make sure that when he dies, Joseph will take him and bury him in the familial burial cave at Machpelah, back home. Joseph, loving and responsible son, promises. But that is not enough, and Jacob makes him swear a vow, in the same traditional manner that Abraham made his servant swear not to take Isaac from the land when finding him a proper life partner.

Ironically, it was Jacob who, when his most beloved wife, Rachel, died in childbirth on the journey home, FAILED to do exactly this for her, and buried her instead along the road where she died. Maybe the guilt from this is the motivation that leads him to insist that Joseph take an oath.

For us, tonight, I compare this to a litmus test for whether we are what we think we are. This was Jacob’s way of making sure that what he thought he had taught and stressed in his life would be respected in his death, and remain as his legacy. For us, are we really that welcoming community that is safe and available and open to all… truly, in the words of Micah, a “people’s house.” Are we doing all that we can to welcome the stranger, the newcomer, and make them one of us? Is our welcoming embrace as strong for those who may be a little different from us in any one of a number of ways – skin color, approach to Judaism, marital status, religion, age, physical condition, personal gender or sexual identity, financial status, and so many more – as it is for those who we know immediately are “just like us”?

I watched two remarkable videos go viral on You Tube this week. The first was the story, spoken in notes on index cards, rather than with her voice, of a young Jewish teenage girl, who had just “come out” to 200 of her peers at a NFTY Winter Kallah that she was gay. She found unconditional love and support at a regional Reform Jewish youth event that, in her own words, she has yet to find with her own parents (although I have to suspect that if they did not already know, they may have seen her video by now!).

The second video, in exactly the same medium of index cards, and starting with exactly the same language as the first, was no less remarkable. It was a response to the first video, from the young woman who had been this girl’s “big sister” at this event, who honestly admitted that before the event, she usually felt uncomfortable around gay women. When her “little” came out, however, she felt nothing but pride, and the same unconditional love for her, and made the second video to ask others to help her create a world where all of those like her little would feel loved and valued.

Friends, on this night of checking ourselves through the prism of Torah, theses two videos filled me with a strength and a pride that I do not often get to feel. Our young people get it – we do not need to make them swear an oath to keep our values alive. In fact, they have much to teach us about how we put our values into actions. Chazak, indeed. May they continue to have and show that strength, and share it with us!

For our second aliyah, beginning at Genesis 48:13 (and continuing thru verse 20), we call…

Our more familiar “read and translate” model here. Again, befitting a portion in which the clear message of the text is making sure that proper understanding is transmitted. Jacob having taken care of the details of his own burial, now seeks to make sure his worldly possessions and values are preserved after his death. He begins by having Joseph bring his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to be blessed, and adopted by Jacob, their grandfather, so he can pass the double portion of his inheritance to Joseph by giving a portion to each of them. Knowing his father is old and frail, Joseph brings the boys before his father, and positions them so Jacob can easily place his right hand on Manasseh, the first born.

But Jacob deliberately crosses his arms, to place his right hand on the younger, Ephraim, where it stays throughout the blessing. Only AFTER Jacob completes the blessing, does the text tell us that Joseph tries to correct his father. Jacob, in turn, makes clear that he knew what he was doing, and makes clear to Joseph that for eternity, all Jewish sons shall be blessed through Ephraim and Manasseh – the very same blessing we still use to this day to bless our sons on Shabbat and other Jewish holidays!

Powerful messages for us here as well. Many of us participated live in Shabbat worship at the Biennial. Many others participated on Shabbat evening by coming here, and praying along as the service was streamed live and projected on our walls in this sanctuary. Still others participated over the computer in their own homes. Many have commented to me already about how powerful and meaningful they found the worship. I am happy to hear it, but like Jacob, who had to be glad to hear Joseph vow to bury him back home, we know that there is still more we must do.

What was it that made the experience so powerful and meaningful? Each of us may have a different answer to that question. For me, it was the sound of so many voices, joining together in word and melody, reaching out for God and towards each other. It was the ru’ach, the spirit of the melodies, as much as the words (maybe even moreso). It was the willingness of people to respond to that ru’ach not only with their voices, but with their whole selves, as many, at several moments, got up to dance spontaneously around the room while praying.

And even as I say this, I know that there are likely to be some of us in this room tonight for whom each of those items felt strange or out of place. To be sure, a big part of any such feelings of discomfort was assuredly a lack of familiarity with such behavior, a sense that it was different from what we expected, or needed, or are accustomed to seeing. But a sense of propriety can also explain the reticence of some to dancing during worship, every bit as much as a new melody for the Hashkiveinu can be off-putting to those hearing it for the first time, every bit as much as the wall of sound created by 5000 worshippers might not resonate so positively for someone used to worshipping in a group of 35 – 50 souls, particularly after a long, loud, difficult week.

But here is my bottom line, and it is another of the lines coming out of Biennial and playing out in my e-mail, and in the postings on-line of my colleagues across the country. We need to make ourselves comfortable reclaiming joy, and insisting on finding joy in our worship experiences. Yes, we all come into the sanctuary, in the words of the prayer, with different needs. But the truth is, the vast majority do not come into the sanctuary at all! And they do not because they find it dreary, they find it unattainable, they find it unappealing. So why make the effort?

While there are many good answers to these concerns that we could give them on an academic and theoretical level, because their hearts are not engaged, our words will fall on deaf ears. If we learn anything from the lessons of the Hasidic masters, up to and including the amazing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z”l in our own day, let it be the value of prayer experience that is first and foremost joyous! Let us embrace the desire to participate, in the words of V’Ahavta, with all our hearts, our souls AND our might. Like Joseph responding to Jacob crossing his arms, let us find the value in something different – in finding joy for ourselves, and allowing those around us to find it as well – that might lead more of us to greater appreciation and involvement in the prayer life of our community. In that way, like Jacob’s blessing, we will truly be passing a blessing onto the generations that will follow us, and bring peace to our own souls! This, too, will be a source of chazak – now and in the future.

Third aliyah… Genesis 50:22 thru the end, after which we will join in “chazak.” We call…

The end, but not really. A point of transition, of changing books and direction. Presented in a new form, one that combines the best elements of the other two presentation models – and does so in a way that should be comfortable and familiar, because we have heard this English chanted here before!

Joseph grows old, and is blessed. His time nears to die, and like his father before him, he asks that his kin remember to treat his body with honor and respect. Unlike his own ability to leave and come back to bury his father, he has no guarantee that his family will be treated with the same respect, so he does not demand of them, as his father did of him, instant burial back home. Instead, he promises them that God will take note of them, and eventually allow them to return home, and asks them, at that time, to take care to bury him at home. A new model for a new time. The portion even ends with him being embalmed and placed in a sarcophagus in Egypt – about as non-traditional as we can get!

Not to beat a dead horse here, or repeat last week’s message, but I see here a POWERFUL affirmation of who we are and seek to be as Reform Jews. Those who find value in Torah, and Jewish law, and tradition, but not by following blindly the letter of the law, at the expense of losing its intent, not by ignoring the reality that we live in a larger world that changes often, and can also provide value and meaning for our lives.

Those who are not afraid to embrace new ideas, and different ways, to achieve the same desired ends, particularly when we can anchor those innovations in the tradition we have received from those who came before us. Joseph waited until his father completed the blessing to correct his crossed arms, out of respect. But he also saw that his reality was not the same as his father’s. He valued what Jacob valued, since he learned from his father. But his circumstances required a different response to reach the same end. He was willing to risk, trusting his family, his fellow Jews, and in God, that his end would be met appropriately, eventually. In the words of Pirkei Avot, “We are not required to complete the task; neither are we free to walk away from it.”

The foundation triangle of Judaism, from the time of Jacob and Joseph to today, has been defined by belief in God, embrace of Torah, and connection to the children of Israel. Even today, when some Jews question God, it is still the Jewish God we question. When we ignore Jewish law in our daily life, we know those laws still exist and are Jewish. But when we disconnect from our fellow Jews, we do not still have a safety net of connection in this way. The haredim who see us as treif, and we who see their actions harming Torah and not upholding it, are just one example of the difference at this corner of the triangle.

On this night when we have experimented with form, in the end, we have come around in the most traditional of ways, to a place where not only the words of Torah, but also their unorthodox presentation, have reinforced both the message of the text itself, anda w the message we take from it into our own lives. If the first two parts of Torah tonight can serve as chazak for us, then our goal should be to be able to say at the end of this experiment, “V’nitchazeik.” In the reflexive – where we provide for ourselves, or in partnership, for our partners.

May our Jewishness continue to reinforce all three corners of the triangle – bringing us closer to God, closer to the teachings of our Torah, and especially, closer to each other. May we find the solution to the Jewish familial lament “Why do we only get together for funerals – for better things next time.” May the choices we make as innovative modern Jews be based in the traditions we have received from our ancestors, strengthening rather than changing our Judaism. In that way, at the end of the day, we can honestly say, for ourselves and all Israel, “v’nitchazeik!” KYR

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