The Snakeboy of Chelm- A Story For First Friday, March 1, 2019

Adapted from the folktale “The Snake Son” as told by Peninnah Schram in Jewish Stories One Generation Tells another.

Today is the first of March. This is a month that is known for 2 things. St. Patrick’s Day and March Madness. When I say March Madness, I not only mean the basketball tournament. I am also talking about the Madness of celebrating the holiday of Purim. All month is a time for silliness and celebrating being Jewish. So tonight, during our Shabbat service, we are going to hear a story that honors all things March. St. Patrick’s day is about a man who chased snakes out of Ireland. And Purim is about madness and frivolity. So we will hear a silly story that involves a snake, and strangely enough, lots of Jewish celebrations. Before we begin, let us sing together how good it is to be here on this Shabbat as friends.

Hinei Ma tov is on page 120.

1.

Once, long ago, in the town of Chelm, which is sort of the Jewish Lake Woebegone. It is where all the women are kind, the men are well-meaning, and the children are slightly above average. There lived a couple named Avram and Sarah. They were fairly well to do, especially by Chelm standards. While many Chelmites were lucky to have even one cow, they had three. They lived in a nice house, with two wood-burning fireplaces. They even had a staircase. Of course, the house only had one level, they had a staircase just because they liked the look of it. Life was good for Avram and Sarah, one might say it was almost perfect. I say “almost,” because despite having everything they could ever need, the one thing that eluded them was becoming a family. They wanted more than anything to have a child. They consulted with experts all over the world. They were given all sorts of potions, and medicines, and prayers to say, but year after year, they had no success. Then one day, she went to visit a wise rabbi who lived just outside of town. He gave her some advice, saying if she were to follow it, within a year, she and Avram would welcome a son.

I will tell you what that advice was, in a moment. For now we turn to page 146 and we rise for the call to worship.

 

2.

Having visited the wise rabbi… actually I should say this wise rabbi, wise by Chelm standards… Having visited this rabbi, wise by Chelm standards, Sarah rushed home to tell her husband Avram the good news. She said, “All we have to do is give tzedakah to the local food pantry, to make a donation to the town Yeshiva, and to offer a gift to the synagogue.”

“But we already do that.” Avram said, cutting her off.

“And… there’s one more thing.”

Avram listened intently as she continued.

“On the first Friday of the month, we have to host a large Shabbat dinner for all of Chelm. We must invite the rich and the poor.”

“Is that it?’ Avram said, and you could tell he was writing the shopping list in his head.

“Well there was one thing. The rabbi said, “You must place any stranger who comes to your house at the head table.”

Happily, Avram announced, “Done and done” as he darted out the door to start the shopping.

So the first Friday rolled around, and all of Chelm descended on the home of Avram and Sarah. With this crowd, the large house suddenly seemed smaller. The staircase served as a seating area. And in preparation for the feast, while once they owned three cows, now they had two. But everyone agreed the brisket was delicious! All was going according to plan until…

I will tell you about that until… in a bit. First we sing a prayer that speaks about love, and how God models unconditional love for us by giving us commandments to show unconditional love for each other and all of humanit. Ahavat Olam is on page 150.

 

3.

Everyone was having a fine time at dinner. Every guest got their own personal challah. They had great food. They drank great wine… well better than average wine, by Chelm standards that is. And they were having a fine time until a stranger knocked on the door. Avram greeted the man, an older gentleman with a long white beard, some ragged clothes, and wobbly cane. Avram invited him in and showed him to the side room where the poor people and beggars were seated.

“Sir if you don’t mind,” said the new guest, “I would like to sit at the head table.”

Avram heard the request and scoffed. “I have invited everyone and spared no expense, but I cannot put you, dressed like this, a beggar as you are, at the head of the table with the upper crust of chelm. The food is just as good in there, so no worries.”

Sarah had seen Avram talking to the older man and came over to assist. The guest looked at Sarah and said, “Ma’am, you have forgotten what the rabbi told you. To seat the stranger at the head table.”

Avram and Sarah’s chins dropped open at the same moment, fearful they had ruined their chance at being a family.

The old man took pity on them. “You shall still have a child.” The relief did not last long. “But the son born to you will be a snake.”

Sure enough, 9 months later, Avram and Sarah had a bouncing baby boa. Well it wasn’t exactly a boa, but it was definitely a large snake living in their house.

Alas, this was their child, and they were determined to love it and care for it. And you will hear more about that in a moment.

First let us keep our thoughts on the way, with the comfort of family Avram and Sarah’s minds were put at ease. And we sing a prayer for protection and comfort. Hashkiveinu is on page 160.

 

4.

Avram and Sarah called their son Nachshon. They had built a special little box for him and hung a sun lamp over it to keep him warm during the nights. He was loyal, kind, dedicated, and patient. Shockingly much more Hufflepuff than Slytherin… for those who get that reference. This was no ordinary snake. He was gentle, never harming anyone, except for the occasional rodent he would snack on.

When Nachshon turned 13, he became bar-mitzvah and a local tailor fitted him with a special suit, a small tallit, and even some tefillin that instead of wrapping on his arm, would be wrapped around his serpentine body. He was a nice Jewish boy in every way except he had no arms and legs, he slithered on his belly, and he had a forked tongue. But he loved his mom and dad, and he loved studying Judaism, thinking that one day he might even become a rabbi. All things being equal, he would be a fine catch for a lucky Jewish maiden. But things were not equal. As the years passed, and the time came for Nachson to marry, the matchmaker had a terrible time finding him a shidduch, a wedding match. Even by Chelm standards, he was a difficult match to make. Wanting very badly to find a match for her beloved son, Avrom went to see the old rabbi outside of town.

And I will tell you about that… right now.

The rabbi assured him, “God provides an answer to every problem.”

Avram had his doubts.

“What you must do,” instructed the rabbi, “is go to a distant town, and there seek out the poorest family and spend a whole Shabbat in their home. There, you will find a good match for your son.”

And so Avram travelled three days to a town he had never seen. He sought out the poorest man he could find and asked if he could spend Shabbat with his family.

The poor man’s name was Yankel. He thought it a strange request, but he knew you never turn a stranger away from Shabbat. And if he was asking him, little Yankel for help, this man must be desperate. So Yankel invited him to the house. Much to Yankel’s surprise, his guest insisted on purchasing all of the food, and even bought a bouquet of flowers for his wife. Avram wanted to make sure he did this the right way.

As they sat down to dinner, Avram noticed that three plates were brought into the dining room. And five were carried into a connecting room that he could not see into. He asked about those five plates, but Yankel did not want to answer. But Avram inisisted on knowing, and I will tell you his answer in a moment.

First, we consider how Avram had to rise to the occasion to right a wrong, and so we too rise in prayer thinking about the ways we can correct all the wrongs we find in the world.

We rise for Tefillah on page 164.

 

5.

“The five dishes,” Yankel explained, “are for my five daughters. They are too ashamed of the rags they have for clothes. They refuse to be seen by a guest.”

Well Avram was determined to change all that. After Shabbat, he went out and bought beautiful dresses for the five daughters whom he then met. He asked if any of the daughters would be willing to marry his son. One, Rifkeh, who was old enough to marry, raised her hand.

“I will.” She was anxious to leaver her father’s home and start a new life. This was music to Avram’s ears. The rabbi had been right. This was just what his son needed. So Rifkeh went with Avram back to Chelm, where she was instantly the most beautiful woman in the city. She was indeed gorgeous, especially by Chelm standards. And the wedding plans got under way.

Days passed, and as the wedding day approached, she wondered when she might finally meet this beau of hers. She wondered if he would be handsome. If he would be smart, gentle, and kind. She started to doubt this promise of marriage was real, or if Avram was just some sort of snake oil salesman. What she did not expect was that at the very moment she had that thought, a snake would enter her bedroom. Strangely, she was not afraid. She did note even react. It all seemed kind of normal, which it was, at least by Chelm standards.  Nachshon introduced himself. “We are not supposed to see each other before the chuppah, but I wanted to reassure you it will all be okay. You see, my parents were once unkind to a poor man, and I became a snake. But now they have learned to be more thoughtful, and you have agreed not to judge me, and now I can assume my true form as a young man. I do not know what I will look like, but rest assured, if you still agree to marry me, I will no longer be a snake.”

Rifkah agreed, and was filled with love for the Nachshon and his honesty.

They were married, with a ring sliding with no dread over Nachshon’s head, over his head, and heck, oh heck it went over his neck, and they fiddled and fiddled  with it until it was over his middle, over his middle, where it fit snugly. After the Sheva berachot, and the second cup of wine, Nachshon instantly transformed into a handsome young man. Tall and rugged, especially by Chelm standards. It was just in time to break the glass, which was the first thing he did with his newly discovered feet.

Rifkeh and Nachshon went on to become great Torah scholars together, and they lived happily ever after. At least, happily by Chelm standards.

With hearts full of gratitude, Nachshon and Rifkah, and Avram and Sarah all celebrated. And so now we too offer this prayer of thanks on the top of page 177.

 

6.

Now this was a silly story, but at its heart is a lesson. This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayakhel is about gathering all of the people to learn about Shababt. And when it says “all the people,” it means ALL THE PEOPLE. So even when Avram and Sarah invited the poor into their home, by belittling them, they made them feel less than invited. Their second chance came when they learned to treat all people with dignity, and to hope in return that others would look upon them and their son with kindness. When all of those things finally happened, then we had a happy ending. If only it were that easy. But this story wants us to know, treat everyone, no matter who, rich, poor, pretty, or snake-like as they truly deserve to be treated, as betzelem Elohim. Made in the image of God. And if you are not doing it now, it is never too late to change. We are all deserve dignity, respect, and love. These are things we all can offer with great success. Success, especially by Chelm standards.

And in this story we learned about the healing power of redemption. We turn now to a prayer of healing as we think about people in our lives in need of refuah shleimah.

Mi shebeirach is page 371.

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Remembering Al Vorspan: Derash for Ki Tisa and the radiant light of truth

In 1964, in the midst of the Civil Rights Struggle. Martin Luther King invited 16 Reform rabbis to join him in the protests taking place in St. Augustine, FL. Along with these rabbis there was Albert Vorspan. They were arrested for holding an integrated prayer service outside a segregated resataurant, and for sitting with black patrons at the counter of another. As the story goes, the incarcerated rabbis used this experience as fodder to prepare sermons for the coming Friday. Vorspan rattled the bars and shouted for the jailer.

“You are violating my civil rights,” he said.

“Oh yeah?” asked the jailer. “How?”

“You have me cooped up in here with a bunch of rabbis who are working on their sermons. This is police brutality.”1

He was definitely unique.

This past Yom Kippur, in my sermon, I talked about my excitement in discovering a book in the discards fo our Mizpah library. It was written by the great Al Vorspan. He was a past Executive Vice-President for the Union For Reform Judaism and a giant in the world of social justice. He was instrumental in shaping Reform Judaism’s commitment to important causes and devoted his life to inspiring others to make Judaism rise above ritual and become a call to action. Last Sunday, Al Vorspan succumbed to cancer at the age of 95. While the Jewish community worldwide mourns this great leader, we find solace knowing the fruits of his work endure and the lessons he taught us, like Torah, are as relevant today as ever. Whether you met him personally or not, his impact is felt in every single Reform synagogue around the world, and every positive advancement in justice over the last 60 years has his mark on it. He inspired through his work with the pen, through the spoken word, and by his sheer relentless pursuit of Tikkun Olam. He led with passion, wisdom, and with joy.

As the story about the jail cell in St. Augustine shows, he managed to maintain his sense of humor. Even in the tensest moments, in the midst of the fight for social change, even when he had been temporarily stripped of his freedoms. His joy shone through in his refusal to be silent in the face of extreme challenges. Humor is by its nature, subversive, and so his laughter in that jail cell was a form of protest, a refusal to let injustice win.  And from that very jail cell, after the laughter, there emerged another protest, this one with a serious tone. Along with Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, Vorspan called out to the Jewish community “to take part in the struggle and not fall prey to silence, which they called, ‘The unpardonable sin of our time.’”2 In that Florida police station, humor and strength enabled Al Vorspan to radiate wisdom and to challenge our notions of what it means to be good Jews and good citizens of the world.

This kind of light is discussed in our Torah portion this week, Ki Tissa. Moses famously has destroyed the first set of tablets that God had given him. And so he goes back up to the mountain to receive a second set. As he descends from the mountain, the Torah tells us that skin of his face was radiant, with horns of light coming from his head. And yes, this is why our Moses statue downstairs has horns. It is a bad translation. Apparently, nobody told that to Michelangelo. It is tough to translate from Hebrew to Italian. Just like kugel is not lasagna, horns of light should not have been horns on the head. In fact, the commentator Rashbam declares that anyone who things Moses actually had horns is a fool. But, alas, it is a lovely statue, a conversation piece for sure. The more important question about the horns of light is not the substance of them, which ought to be obvious, but rather what they signify. A 13th century commentator, Hizkuni points out that Moses’s radiance is unique to receiving the second set of tablets. The difference between the two episodes is that the first set was given openly in the sight of all the people, but this second set was inscribed in private. Therefore, when Moses descended with the second set of tablets, God made his face glow as proof that the tablets were genuine and divinely given. A light such as this is a light of truth. Even a veil over Moses’s face could not fully contain the light. The light is the wisdom of Torah and the direction it provides in our interactions with the world. For Moses, after the nation sinned with the Golden Calf, and he sinned with his anger in smashing the tablets, truly needed this light. There was brokenness in the community, and yet, they were still given the gift of light which allowed them to fix it. Thus, the Torah is eternally optimistic, setting forth for us the notion that objects may shatter, but humanity is never so broken that it cannot be repaired…. If we apply our values.

Al Vorspan shared this optimism. He believed wholeheartedly that “all the dreadful problems of our time are capable of solution” and that Jewish values have a particular role to play in making social change. Such hope brought him joy in dark times, allowing him always to have a sense of humor, and which always fueled his sense of purpose. He believed, in his words, that “Judaism [was] a high calling,… an ever-new mandate to take the world in our hands, as co-partners with God, and beat it into better shape on the anvil of life.” This, he felt was the purpose of Torah, to shed light where there is darkness, and to make sure light spreads beyond any and all obstruction.

In order to make this light be seen, he called upon each generation to pass along the traditions of Judaism. In his 1968 book, Jewish Values and Social Crisis4, he described this sharing an ethical will with the next generation. He wrote:

“…[it] is not economic wealth, but moral and spiritual treasure which I can pass on to my children as did my ancestors through 112 generations, stretching back to the mists of Sinai.”

He chose a fascinating image to make his point. “Each of us,” he wrote, “is but a puff of smoke in eternity.” In days of old, a puff of smoke was our service to God. Our ancestors in the Temple would send clouds of smoke with reaiach nichoach, pleasing aromas, toward the sky. For Vorspan in the 20th and 21st centuries, the puff of smoke we make in our lives is the way we serve God through our service to all humanity. And though smoke evaporates, and our lives are finite, the smoke we create must continue. This is why the Torah is so exacting in the way it commands sacrifice, so that later generations can make the same pleasing puff of smoke even 2000 years later, making sure that the sacrifices of the past are never forgotten. So too can we in our age be exacting in the ethical legacies we leave for our children so they too can pursue lives of love and justice as has been the Jewish mandate since the days of Moses.

Vorspan demonstrated this belief in a column he wrote for Jewish Currents Magazine in November 2017. He confessed as much as he was involved in the times and the changing social movements, he was never truly “of the times.” He marched with the hippies, but was not hip. He and his wife only smoked pot once, he said, and they nearly fell off a mountain. He never fully took to the computer age, believing that LOL meant “lots of love.”  And in this age when socially aware people are called “woke,” he would have dismissed this compliment. Even though he was one of the earliest woke people, and a countless numbers of Jews became woke because of him, he said, “at his age he was “grateful [merely to] wake and [go for] a walk.”3

His lingo and behaviors were not “of the times.” They were bigger than that. They were eternal values that helped him shape his own time. And with meticulous execution, he continued patterns he was equally proud to inherit and committed to making endure for generations to come.

He described those patterns like this:

“To be a Jew is to say no when men murmur yes to wrong-doing. To be a Jew is to feel, in the depths of your heart, the pain of your fellow man. To be a Jew is to be discontented with the status quo and unafraid to shake it…. To be a Jew is to get your hands bruised in the arena of action because cloistered virtue is un-Jewish, and Jewish belief is tested by deed… To be a Jew is to be intoxicated with a dream of social justice.”

He wrote these words, and he lived these words. And through his life, he radiated a magnificent light for 95 years.  Through his work, his service created a puff of smoke with a pleasing aroma that it is now up to us to replicate.

Yehi zichrono livracha,

May the memory of Albert Vorspan be for an eternal blessing that brings us ever closer to a world perfected with health, happiness, and justice for all.

 

 

 

1 https://religionnews.com/2019/02/17/al-vorspan/

2 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/19/obituaries/albert-vorspan-dead.html

3 http://archive.jewishcurrents.org/the-last-resort-woke-and-sleep/

4 Vorspan, Albert. Jewish Values and Social Crisis: A Casebook for Social Action. Union of American Hebrew Congregations. 1968.

 

 

Beat Your Swords Into Symphonies – Sermon for Parashat Terumah, February 8, 2019

The Torah teaches this week that we must “transform the most negative instincts into creative instincts.” And no, the Torah does not say this directly. Who said it, I will tell you in a minute. Still these words reflect a value we learn from the Torah. It prescribes a sort of moral alchemy, confronting evil head on and turning it into good. This value was perhaps the inspiration for a bizarre experiment.

In May of 1973, the ground shook in Rio Blanco, Colorado. It was not an earthquake. It shook from the explosion of three 33-kiloton nuclear bombs. It was an experiment done to increase natural gas production. Apparently, nuclear bombs make the ground “more permeable.” More permeable, now that’s an understatement. In a shocking turn of events, please hear this with sarcasm, the gas they produced contained measurable amounts of radioactivity. So the experiment ended. This was only one in a series of projects aimed at finding constructive uses for nuclear explosives. With biblical inspiration, it was called the Plowshare project. You know how Isaiah said, “beat swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks, and apparently, nuclear warheads into big drills.” Most of the plowshare projects aimed at moving large amounts of earth. They considered the process for creating new harbors on the shorelines, or to clear way for a second Panama Canal. They also considered, in the irony of ironies, about making a deep crater for the disposal of nuclear waste.

What could possibly go wrong?

We do have to applaud the government and scientist for at least asking the question: How would we turn nuclear warheads into tools of mass construction? Some ideas may just be a bridge too far. The idea of swords into plowshares works best on a smaller scale. It has the most potential, widespread impact when targeted at smaller weapons of individuals. This aspiration was behind the statement of Pedro Reyes, an artist from Mexico City who spoke the words with which I started my sermon. It was he who said, “The purpose of art is to come up with ways to transform… negative instincts into creative instincts.”

And to this end, he started the program, “Palas Por Pistolas, Shovels for Guns.” In a voluntary program, he took guns that people donated, melted them down, and recycled them into shovels for planting. In the end he transformed 1,527 guns into exactly that many shovels. But Reyes did not stop there. When he learned of a cache of guns confiscated by Federal Police, he dreamed up another project. He broke them down and turned them into musical instruments. Rifle guitars, gun barrel xylophones, and other inventions that could all be used to make music. With a team of composers and engineers, he created an automated orchestra that produced a rhythmic and strikingly beautiful melody. Reyes believes it is a triumph of technology, which is only good or bad based on how it is used. Even something as wicked as a murder weapon, in the right hands can, achieve a higher end. A sword can be a plowshare, or as Reyes says, “A gun which represents our instinct of killing each other… [can turn] into music which is the most sophisticated form of communication on the planet.”

Long before Pedro Reyes, and long before there were nuclear warheads, the Torah started pointing us to this idea of stifling our destructive instincts. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, we learn this from a surprising omission. In providing instructions for building the portable tabernacle in the desert they use gold, silver, and copper. But there is no iron. The absence stands out. Iron is strong and versatile. They had it at their disposal. Its omission makes us think. The commentator Rashi explains iron is closely associated with making swords and other weapons. Iron is therefore viewed as profane. And when building something sacred like the holy altar, one must not bring it into contact with something as profane as iron. We therefore not only look upon tools of destruction with disdain, but we approach the very material from which they are made with abundant caution.

I want to add, if an innocuous material like iron can be destructive, so too can an innocuous material like the parchment of Torah. In this warning not to allow the holy to be shaped by something profane, we can also understand that a teaching of Torah misunderstood, or in the wrong hands can also lead to great harm. During the Civil War many Southern Jews hid behind verses of Torah as permission to hold slaves. In modern times, lives continue to be destroyed by those who read one verse of Leviticus about same sex relationships while ignoring the rest of the Torah. And all too often, permissions for war are based on uninformed readings of Torah. Even that which should be inherently holy, like a Torah scroll, can in the wrong hands, be like an iron sword. So much more a reason to be warned against letting the sacred touch the profane.

Now, this warning in our Torah portion is limited to building the Tabernacle. Our challenge is to determine how far out does the warning radiate? The capacity for destruction does not change as we move from holy spaces to ordinary. So the Torah is forcing us to acknowledge, in any space, that, with parchment or iron, we have the capacity to destroy.

Rashi makes this extension for us by making it a condemnation of all violence. He says, “since it is forbidden to raise a weapon against inanimate objects, like the altar, whose purpose is to serve God, then so much the moreso is it forbidden to wield a weapon one against a human whose purpose is to serve God.”

In the building of the tabernacle, the Torah helps to stifle our basest instincts. Outside of the Tabernacle, we are left to our own devices. With remembrances of this Torah portion, we can ask ourselves honestly: When looking upon iron, will we see a tool or a weapon? Will we wield it as a sword or a plowshare? When we read a passage of Torah, will we wield it to bring suffering or to extend life? Will we honor our traditions call to live by commandments and not to die by them? The choices may seem easy. Unfortunately, some for some items, the negative instinct is harder to overcome.

It takes a special person to look at pistol and see in it the potential for a shovel, or a machine gun and see it as a violin. It takes a special person to see an ancient scroll and extract its beauty while disregarding the flaws. It demands a certain willingness to learn to let our better selves overcome bible passages that appeal to people’s negative instincts.

In any case, we can learn from the metals which we use to build the Tabernacle, and from artists like Pedro Reyes, how to turn negative instincts into creative ones. Or basically, how we will beat our swords into symphonies.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

*** Link to a video about Pedro Reyes’s work https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwQp16D-TqQ

 

 

Eyes That See: The Corrective Vision of Modern Prophet Abraham Joshua Heschel

Sermon delivered January 27, 2019 as the guest speaker at First Christian Church in Chattanooga, TN as part of their series, “Eyes that See,” based on the book American Prophets, by Albert J. Raboteau.

 

I am here to talk about Abraham Joshua Heschel. He was the kind of rabbi all rabbis wish they could be. And I’ll get to him, I promise. To understand Heschel, first I am going to talk about optometrists.

I have terrible anxiety about going to the eye doctor. First, I hate that pressure test where they blast air into your eye. I love how they always say, “Just relax.” You only hear those words before a tooth gets pulled or a bandage gets ripped from your skin, or when they are going to shoot a gale force wind into your eyeball.

Beyond that blast of air, I also hate that giant mask thing with all the interchangeable lenses. They flip different choices. Which is better, “one or two?” And your answer is going to determine how well you see for the next two years. That is a lot of pressure. When I was younger, I agonized over the decision before settling on “two.” The doctor actually said, “No. It should be one.” And it got worse from there. My older brother teased me, saying I was the only person who could fail an eye test.

To this day, I agonize about getting it right. You see, I am incredibly nearsighted. I know too well the importance of corrective lenses. And so when Pastor Gilvin invited me to come talk on the topic “Eyes that see,” the first thing I thought of was my glasses. Then I thought about the topic through the lens of the prophets.The prophet must do more than have eyes that see. Merely to see injustice is not enough. The prophet’s mission is to correct injustice. To do that, the prophet must inspire. Not only must he have eyes that see, but also the power to make others see better. Therefore, prophesy is not just vision– but corrective vision. A prophet is an optometrist, giving glasses to a nearsighted world, bringing into focus our role in creation. We are God’s partners in completing the task, making right what is wrong. Making fair what is not.

The world really needs a good prophet, or at least a visit to the optometrist. Our scriptural reading for today from the book Nehemiah established a great model for modern prophecy. Ezra himself was a priest, not a prophet. But he recognized injustice and led others to the same conclusion. He held up the law before the eyes of all the people, and then the leaders worked hard to help them understand the text. And according to Rashi, the great Jewish bible commentator of the middle ages, their teaching was an act of doing. Words led to deeds. The people are instructed to provide food for those who have nothing prepared. We understand this to mean the poor who cannot provide for themselves. And thus, through peaceful means, Ezra convinces the people to change their ways. He makes them see what he saw, and to join him in doing what needed to be done.

Ezra helps us make the transition from the prophets of the Bible who had direct links to god, and the inspired prophecy we still need today. As much as ever, we need to people to help us see the ills in our world and to point us toward paths to correct them. Fortunately, in modern times, Abraham Joshua Heschel provided a definition of prophesy that kept us linked to its benefits. In his 1962 book “The Prophets,” he wrote, “Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world.”

To the average person, these things go unnoticed, and worse uncorrected. But some are, as Heschel said, “endowed with prophetic sight, [and] everyone else appears blind.” To this end, he was among the brave clergy who early on spoke out against the war in Vietnam. He was also an early admirer of Martin Luther King. During his life, even some of his rabbinic colleagues asked him to stay silent on political issues, but he simply could not. His core theology included shared pathos between man and God. He spoke hard truths that being human meant not being “immune to other people’s suffering,” no matter who they were. He called out, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” He foresaw that the survival of humanity depended on our response to the “blood of the innocent.”

Heschel fulfilled what he defined as the purpose for prophecy, “to expose us to a ceaseless shattering of indifference.” He brought attention to a war he believed to be unjust, and to racial segregation which he saw as immoral. Years later, even those who had opposed him, or who had been indifferent, recognized how right his vision had been.

But that is only part of the Heschel story as a modern prophet. Vision is not enough. The prophet must have eyes that see, and also legs that do. Vision must be followed by action. Heschel taught us that a “prophet is a person, not a microphone. He is endowed with the power of a word, but also with temperament, concern, character, and individuality.” The spirit of prophecy is the courage to make change. And a prophet can be anyone who is dissatisfied with the world and guides others to fix it.

There is one phrase that encapsulates everything that Heschel taught, and this is the reason why every single rabbi wants to be like him. Heschel wrote this important phrase after marching, arm in arm, with Martin Luther King in Selma. He knew the risks. He knew he would be confronted by every sort of ugliness, be called every possible name. He knew the history of violence experienced during past marches. But the calling was greater than the fear. In his memoirs, he wrote “[he] felt a sense of holiness in what [he] was doing.” Therefore he said these words, perhaps the most truly prophetic words ever spoken since the writing of the Bible. “I felt my legs were praying.”

In six words, the ideas of God, Vision, Action, Freedom, Justice, and Humanity were all brought together by a simple description of a simple action that had a tremendous impact. With legs that pray Heschel challenged us all to be prophets ourselves. We too must have eyes that see, with vision that makes others see. We must also have legs that do with actions that inspire others to do the same.

And so when we leave here today, we can all ask ourselves, what will we see? Will it be the silent suffering of mental illness? Which causes will we have the courage to champion? Will it be fairness and inclusion for people of all genders? Which policies will we have the strength to protest? Will it be ongoing efforts to suppress minority votes? Which marches will we have the stamina to attend? Will it be for sensible gun laws? For which people will we have the compassion to support? Will it be the immigrants who are constantly being demonized? How will we fulfill the legacy of our prophets, of Ezra, and of Heschel? We can be pretty sure which side of the arguments they would be on. So, how will we pursue the work that remains undone?

I conclude with a prayer: May we all see like the prophets, and may we all be like optometrists improving the vision of our fellow man, so that we all may join together, linking arms, marching in the prayer that changes the world.

Amen.

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Overcoming Helpaphobia: Sermon for Parashat Yitro 1-25-19

It can be hard to ask for help. When we do, there is a social contract that develops between the asker and the helper. One has to be willing to help, and the other has to be clear with the request.

For example,

Some time ago, in a Temple not unlike this one, the rabbi goes to the parking lot after services. He sees Mrs. Mendelsohn hunched over staring at the ground and pacing. She goes back and forth. The rabbi calls out to her, “What on Earth are you doing Mrs. Mendelsohn?” Without even looking up, she tells the rabbi not to worry. She couldn’t possibly bother him. Mrs. Mendelsohn, who is getting up in years continues to pace, her head pointed down. Clearly something is wrong. The rabbi knows he can’t leave Mrs. Mendelsohn alone in the parking lot, on Shabbat. He approaches her again, “Dear Mrs. Mendelsohn, what is bothering you?” Whatever it is, let me help you. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that,” she says. “You have a family, you are busy, you need to get home. I’ll be okay.” But the rabbi knows, he would not be much of a person, let alone a rabbi if he just leaves her there in the parking lot. So, he insists. “Please, whatever it is, you must let me help you.”

“Fine,” she says. “The ring from my late husband Saul fell off my finger.”

The rabbi immediately dropped to his knees, in his suit, crawling on the ground inspecting every of the pavement. But to no avail. The told Mrs. Mendelsohn how sorry he was that he couldn’t find it. “Are you sure you lost it here?” he asked.

She said, “Actually it fell off over by the bushes.”

The rabbi was stunned, “Then why are you looking over here?”

She said, “Ach, you want me to look over there where the light is terrible?”

It is a silly story, but there is much to unpack. Mrs. Mendelsohn was embarrassed about losing her ring and did not want to admit she had limitations. She failed to understand that some people genuinely want to assist out of benevolence. It does not have to be a rabbi. It could be a cantor. Or it could be any one of us, any single person with a caring heart. More often than not, a person’s desire to help is truly benevolent, and furthermore free from judgment. It is something we can only learn when we allow for help, as Mrs. Mendelsohn finally did.

Then she had a hard difficulty instructing the rabbi about her needs, letting him search in the wrong place. She just could not bring herself to give in completely.

Let’s face it. People just don’t like to admit they need help.

The great hero of the Torah, Moses, was no different. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro, Moses behaves very much like Mrs. Mendelsohn. His father in law Jethro comes to meet him in the wilderness. Following the Exodus from Egypt and the events at the Sea, he sings the praises for God and then observes what Moses is doing. What he sees is a man overwhelmed by responsibility. Moses spends all day attending to the concerns and disputes of the people. He listens and makes judgments meanwhile handling all the other responsibilities of leadership. He tells his son-in-law, “the task is too heavy for you. You cannot do it alone.”

To Jethro, it is plain to see that Moses needs help but does not know how to ask.

Social psychologist Heidi Grant believes this human tendency not to ask for help is hard wired into our evolutionary DNA. It comes from our need to be social creatures, to be accepted, to be seen as capable and useful, and thereby not to be rejected. So, asking for help can trigger “psychological responses akin to pain.” Our stomachs tighten. Our muscles tense. Our heads ache. This is all supposed to protect us from being vulnerable to loss of social standing.

Dr. Grant points out “[It is] No wonder… that we avoid asking for help like the plague…. The plague might seem less dangerous in comparison.”

So, we clam up. And say nothing. The Rashbam, points out that the Torah uses the same language to describe Moses’s stress as is used to describe the builders of the Tower of Babel. The translation says worn out, but what it really means is paralyzed by fear to the point of being rendered speechless

The Catch 22 is, without help, you might not succeed in a task or you may not fulfill a need, and that too can inflict our social standing. So, it’s usually better to get help than to flail and fail. The commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra writes about Moses that, without help, he is like a leaf, removed from its tree as it withers and falls to the ground.

The good news is, the negative outcomes are rare. In fact, a study determined that, when asking for help, positive outcomes are two times more likely than people expect. As leaves, we can count on our community to be a tree that nurtures us and helps us to thrive.

In the Torah, Jethro, is such a tree, an unsung hero of the Jewish people. For if not for him, Moses may have caved under the weight of responsibility. He overcomes his fears and allows Jethro to devise an efficient leadership plan. Not only do the people thrive under this plan, but it makes Moses an even better leader than before. It is an example of how, although we think of getting help as a weakness, it is actually a strength. As a leaf, connected to Jethro, Moses flourishes.

Fortunately, Jethro knew just what to do. As I said at the outset, help is a social contract between asker and helper. The helper must pay attention to the needs and respond accordingly. In the story of Mrs. Mendelsohn’s ring, the rabbi made the wrong assumptions. In his eagerness to show how menschy he was, he never actually asked where to look. He just dove to the ground.

To truly be one who helps, it demands that we respond with more than kindness. We must also be sincere, detailed and thorough as well. The follow through is even more important than the offer. It ensures we will genuinely provide for our fellow man in time of need. And the more we do for others, the more we diminish the stigma of asking.

Every single one of us has times in our lives when we need help. We must know, especially in sacred communities such as ours, that it is a strength to turn to our neighbor and ask them to make us even stronger. We also must be willing to step up for our neighbors in their time of need, to be attentive and caring, sensitive and kind, so that they will be glad they turned to us for help. Even better if we are like Jethro, who saw Moses so burdened that he could not even articulate his needs and stepped forward to see him through.

So, when Federal Workers go without pay, we step up. When our friends get hurt or fall ill, we come to their aid. When someone in our community loses a job or falls on hard times, we say, we are there to comfort them and aid in their time of need. The list goes on and on.

Let us conclude with this prayer:

May we all, as members of this congregation, and as citizens of our city, state, and country, in these difficult times for so many in their work and in their personal lives, establish an environment where we are strong enough to ask for help, and where we are also wise enough to give it.

A Nation Stuck in Twilight – A Derash on Parashat Bo

*** When I wrote and delivered this sermon last Friday, January 12, I had no idea one of our members would be inspired to begin collecting and distributing funds to federal workers who are not receiving paychecks. Following the leadership of Dr. Frank Miller, who investigated the proper legal methods to distribute needed resources to federal employees, Mizpah has raised nearly $3,000 for airport workers, given in the form of gift cards. Now other faith organizations in Chattanooga and in other cities around the country have followed our lead.***

It is strange that the most dangerous time of day to drive is at twilight. The sky is getting dark enough that it is harder to see, and it is still light enough, that headlights have little effect. Then there is also when you happen to be heading west, into the setting sun which can be blinding. Twilight, that mysterious stretch of time between light and dark, is the time when it is hardest to see. It is no wonder that twilight is a time prone to superstition, with all sorts of magic and witchcraft associated with it. It is a time of day that defies logic. It is a time of day that his hard to understand.

There is a Jewish folktale about the origin of twilight. It begins with the arrival of light and dark on the first day of creation. These two opposites clash like jealous brothers, a precursor to perhaps to Cain and Abel. The quarrel between light and dark is about which should dominate the sky. They push back and forth against each other, each making their case before God who, like a good parent, eventually allows them to settle it on their own.  In the end, they are at a stalemate. With no compromise, light remains in the day, and dark remains at night, and in that space where they clashed, where light and dark left a residue of their skirmish, we are left with a visual no-man’s land called twilight.

In an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David cynically identified this kind of result as a compromise. As he says, “A good compromise is when both parties are dissatisfied.” I am not sure that is really what I want to believe or teach about good compromise, but it definitely describes what happens when two sides dig in their heels to the point where, no matter what, the end result will be unsatisfactory, not just to the two parties, but to everyone who is affected by the outcome.

We encounter this sort of “compromise” in the Torah portion this week, parashat Bo. It is just after the ninth plague. Egypt has emerged from three days of complete darkness, and Pharaoh makes a concession to Moses: “Go worship your God,” he says. “Take your people and your children, but leave the animals behind.” Moses finds this unacceptable. For one, we know this is not complete freedom, only permission to worship. But Moses sees something more, something sinister in what Pharaoh says, for he knows worship, at least at this time, means offerings of livestock. No livestock. No worship. So Moses makes a counter offer.

He demands not only the Israelites take their livestock, but they will also take livestock from the Pharaoh. You can imagine how the Pharaoh felt about this. It was a non-starter. They would be at an impasse. The Torah does give us some rationale for Moses’s brazen demand. He says, “We do not know yet what God will demand from us. We will only know when we get there.” According to the commentary of Rashi, Moses is genuinely concerned that God will want backpay for all of the sacrifices they did not make while they were slaves. He thinks God may actually ask for more livestock than they have. He wants to avoid that at all costs. So he makes the big ask. Pharaoh’s heart gets hardened, and in the residue of their conflict, the tenth plague comes. An innocent generation of first born Egyptians is wiped out.

Last week, in Torah study, we talked about the way God wants to set up Pharaoh all along, plotting each of the 10 plagues as a demonstration of strength, turning Egypt into a straw man, as a warning for all who might choose to mess with the people of Israel. Many of our commentaries support this idea. However, our tradition also commands us to recognize the suffering of others, even our enemies. We are taught to regret the tragic loss of life. On some level, that means we share the responsibility for what happens, and we might ask ourselves, “Could the collateral damage, the deaths of the firstborn Egyptians, have been avoided?”

Based on what Rashi says, that Moses was worried they would not have enough livestock with which to worship, we catch a clue that the death may have been avoidable. In the Talmud, we find a teaching that would have eased Moses’s worry. It says, “According to the camel is the burden.” In other words, based on one’s strength or capacity to give is the request that will be made. That means God would only ask for offerings according to the people’s capacity. No more. This idea will be advanced when manna is given as food. Manna will have a magical property. However little or much one eats, he will be satisfied. So God will not request of the Israelites to endure any more hunger than they can handle. And Moses really should have anticipated that. He did not have to push for Egyptians’ livestock too. And in the end, there was a stalemate. Like with story about light and dark, a disaster was left behind. It was a time of twilight when no one could see clearly, when no one was truly happy.

Nothing good can come out of a stalemate. There is collateral damage all around. When the compromise leaves everyone miserable and without hope for moving forward, it feels like we are trapped in twilight. In the legend of light and dark, each one could have settled for the even split of 12 hours per day for each one. However, in the push for that 13th hour or more, they fell into a trap, and took the whole world with them.

I don’t want to be too political, but yes, I am thinking about “The shutdown.” You all know where I stand. But when it comes to stalemate or compromise, it is usually best to accept the even split, or the closest thing to it, rather than push for the extra thing. People are hurting in our world. It is now and it is real, 800,000 furloughed or workers unpaid for their time. This goes against a fundamental belief in Judaism that you do not hold a worker’s wages from them, and worse, it is an avoidable crisis. Like Moses wanting more livestock than he actually needed, we are bogged down discussing an extra thing, and everyone’s hearts have been hardened by it. A small fraction of the national budget, one line item, has occupied a large piece of our collective national mind. It is getting in the way of easing the suffering of our neighbors. It would be best to remove that thing, the border wall, from the conversation, and let the balance of our lives return, at least for a while. We will have a chance to see what may seem so urgent to many is not actually so, and we have time to figure this out. One thing is for sure, the answer to this cannot be one side unilaterally overtaking the other. It can end a stalemate, but with no balance, we are all left in darkness.

For now, we are stuck in twilight. We can emerge. We must emerge. It will only happen when forces quit pushing against each other, threatening to overtake one another, and begin to compromise in a way that leaves everyone satisfied.

Haninah and the Raven – First Friday Story Service for Parashat Va-eira

Adapted from “Kindness Returned” as told by Peninah Schram in Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another

Part 1

In the Torah portion this week, Vaeira, the Israelites doubt Moses’ message that God is going to free them. They forgot however, that God remembers kindesses to the thousandth generation. And their ancestors had racked up a lot of kindness. It was time for God to remember them. Which reminds me of a story…

Long ago, there was a wicked king ruling over Israel. If you asked him the time of day, he would shout at you to “get your own sun dial.” And then one his guards would throw you to the ground. If you told him he should smile more. He would tell you “You should breathe less.” And then he would have you bound in the stocks. And OH! He had no sense of humor either. One day the crown tumbled off the king’s head and got dented. He asked his adviser where he could get a crown fixed. And the adviser said, “Try a dentist.” Like you, the king did not laugh at this joke, and before the adviser could apologize, he was thrown into prison. The king was wicked, cruel, humorless, and unforgiving.

Well his advisers, the ones not in prison held a meeting. They decided the king was mean because he had no one to share his throne. He needed a queen. Yes! A queen would make him a better person. They had to convince him to get married… but how. First they needed to tell the king of their plan.

So they drew straws, and one very unlucky adviser, a Jew named Hanina, drew the short straw. It would be his Hanina’s job to convince the king to get married. He worked up his nerve and walked very timidly toward the king. And then….

I will tell you what happened in a bit.

 

Part 2

Hanina, was standing before the king, and he imagined a life in a dirty prison, or being thrown into the river with snakes, or [Gulp] worse. He managed to say, “O King, your majesty, so wonderful and wise. Your greatness should live on after you.”

The king nodded his agreement.

“Well sir, if you were to die, after a long life mind you. You should live to 120. But when you die sir, you will have no heir to take the throne … you could be forgotten.”

The king’s face grew red. And he started to tremble. Hanina fell to the floor, curling up in a ball as he awaited his punishment. But, turns out this was a convincing argument. The king wanted his legacy to last forever. Imagining a world without his name remembered sent him into a panic. That was why he trembled. Hanina was safe, at least for the moment.

The King rose from his throne and declared, “I have decided to find a queen. I shall soon be married.”

At that very moment, a bird, a raven to be exact, flew into the royal hall and placed a long strand of golden hair in the king’s hand.

The king said, “Aha! This is a sign. I shall marry the woman from whom this golden hair was taken.” He looked to Hanina and handed him the hair.

“And you dear sir,” he added, “will have 30 days to find her.”

“And if I don’t?” Hanina asked. Knowing he did not want to hear the answer.

The king just laughed.

And we will hear what happened next in a moment.

 

Part 3

So Hanina kissed his family goodbye. In one hand he held the golden hair for dear life. In his other hand, he carried a sack. Inside the sack were three loaves of bread, a little bit of medicine, and 12 silver coins. He had barely travelled half a day when a raven, the very same one who had delivered the hair, landed on Hanina’s shoulder. It was cawing and making a terrible racket.

“Whatever is the matter with you?” Hanina asked.

Much to his surprise, the bird answered him. “I have not eaten for three days. I thought I had found some flax, but it turned out to be a hair. So I spat it into the hand of some shlub.”

Hanina was startled for lots of reasons. “That was no shlub. That was the king of Israel. That hair belongs to his future queen. I am supposed to find her. You don’t know where it came from? Do you?”

The raven said, “No” but did point him in the general direction from which he came.

Hanina thanked the raven and offered him one of his loaves of bread.

The bird quickly gobbled it up, and told Hanina. “It is true what they say about you, that you are honest and kind. For this reason, God has blessed you with the ability to understand animals. May God continue to bless you, protect you from all danger. And may God make you successful in your quest.” And the raven flew away.

Hanina walked in the direction of the raven had pointed. He had covered several miles when a giant dog leaped into the path, snarling, and growling, and I will tell you more in just a bit.

 

Part 4

Hanina trembled before this giant dog. It hand giant claws and even bigger teeth, and it seemed angry. Remembering his blessing, Hanina tried to speak to the dog.

“Why are you so angry, my dear dog?”

“I’m not angry,” The dog answered. “I have a gash down my side from running into a thorn bush. I am in such pain I haven’t eaten in six days.”

“Six days!” Hanina gasped and pulled the medicine from his bag. He rubbed it on the dog’s wound. The pain was gone, and Haninah offered him his second loaf of bread.”

The dog gobbled it up, and said, like the raven before him, “May God Bless you, and protect you from all danger, and may God make you successful in your quest.”

And so Hanina continued on his way until he reached a river where he met a fisherman. And I will tell you about that….. right now.

Hanina helped the fisherman pull his net ashore. At their feet lay a bundle of fresh caught salmon. The fisherman thanked Hanina and asked what could he do to repay him.

“All I ask is that you sell me the largest of these fish for twelve silver coins.” The fisherman agreed, and Hanina gave the the fisherman the coins from his bag.

Hanina then tossed the fish back into the river. Before it swam away, the fish came to the surface and called out, “May God bless you, and protect you from all danger, and may God make you successful in your quest.

Again, Hanina continued on his way until he reached the wall of a fortified city. The sun began to set and Hanina sat down and fell asleep against the city wall. He woke up in a jail cell… And I will tell you more about that in a bit.

 

Part 5

Hanina had been arrested. During the night, the city’s guards had carried him into the prison leaving him only with his one loaf of bread and the golden hair.  Famished, he ate the bread and waited. One of the guards came and told him, “You have been charged with illegal trespassing. Now I shall take you to the queen for sentencing.”

Hanina was guided into the queen’s court. He was worried, but he knew it could not be any worse than what awaited him back in Israel if he failed on his mission. The worry went away suddenly when he noticed, underneath the queen’s crown was the longest, silkiest, most beautiful golden head of hair he had ever seen (and this was in the days before conditioner!). He ran up to her and compared the one he brought with him with the ones in her head. They were a perfect match.

“This is fate.” He cried out. “God has answered my prayers.”

Hanina fell to the floor and groveled at the queen’s feet. He explained his mission, and he begged her to come back to Israel.

Agreeing that this was more than coincidence that her hair had been carried away by the wind, found by a raven, given to a king, and then returned to her by a Jew who could talk to animals, she thought to herself, “I should really by a Powerball ticket.” But what she said was, I will go on two conditions.

And you will hear about those conditions in a moment.

 

Part 6

The queen told Hanina her conditions. “My two conditions before I go with you to Israel are these. First, take two bottles and fill them with water from two different oceans.”

Hanina was deflated. It was about to get worse.

“And second,” the queen continued, some years ago, “I lost a very valuable ring. Find it for me, and I shall go with you.”

Hanina left the queen’s palace, certain of his doom. But then he saw a familiar face. The raven landed on his shoulder, and Hanina told him about the queen’s requests.

“No worries, dear friend. Consider it done.”

The raven grabbed two bottles from Hanina and carried them away in his beak. He flew to one ocean, and filled the bottle. He flew across land to another ocean and filled the second bottle. On the way back to Hanina, he stopped at the river and told the fish Hanina had met about the ring. The fish dove deep into the water and called to the rest of the fish for help. Before long, the ring was found in the river bed and brought to the surface to the raven. The raven returned to Hanina, and before it could say anything, it was swallowed by a wild boar. Then out of nowhere, the giant dog ran out of the forest and pounced on the boar who dropped the raven and ran away.

Hanina realized, all his kindesses had been returned to him, and at a time of his greatest need.  He had indeed been blessed and protected and he had been successful on his journey.

The queen with the golden hair came to Israel, and just as the advisers had predicted, the king turned kind, establishing just and fair courts. To oversee of the courts, the king appointed someone who was always honest, kind and worthy of blessings. He appointed none other than Hanina.

The lesson of the story is this: We never know when kindnesses might be repaid, so we spread them far and wide like Hanina did, as if repayment does not matter. And if we spread them out to as many people or animals as we can, we may just find that the kindness returns to us. As it was for God and Israelite slaves in the Torah, it may be when we need it the most.