Make Peace Last– Sermon for Parashat Ki Tetze, Sep 14, 2019

I heard a story about the late, great comic actor Tim Conway(Conan O’Brien interview with Bob Newhart, Tim Conway stories begin about 26:15 mark). It turns out his father was quite a character. One time, the family drove from Ohio to visit Tim’s older sister in New York. When they got there, they could not find a parking space, so Conway’s dad turned the car around and drove back to Ohio. Conway’s dad also considered himself to be quite a handyman. One of his home projects was installing a new doorbell, but something went awry with the wiring. The doorbell chimed all of the time, except when someone pressed the button. When the house fell silent, that was when his dad would say, “I’ll get it!” One can only imagine how such a childhood shaped the mind of a budding comedian.

This doorbell story made immediately brought to mind two important Shabbat ideas. The first comes from a teaching that tells of a fan approaching a great pianist. He asks, “How do you play the notes so well?” The pianist answers, “Anyone can play the notes, but the pause between the notes, that is where the art resides.” The lesson continues, “great art inspires great living. One of Judaism’s contributions to the art of living is Shabbat, the pause between the notes.” Shabbat is a break from the noise of the workaday week, and furthermore, an opportunity to hear something arriving at our door, a chance to shout, “I’ll get it… which leads to the second Shabbat idea, a metaphorical image more than anything.

We envision Shabbat as a bride about to enter our sanctuary. When the calm of Shabbat approaches, not only must we be aware of her arrival, but we also are supposed to open the door to let her in. At the end of the Shabbat Song lecha dodi, the congregation collectively rises and says, “Bo-ee challa, bo-ee challah. Enter o bride. Please enter.” This teaches us three important lessons. First, just as we anticipate Shabbat, we also must anticipate that there will be a break from the noise in our world. We should see it as an incredible gift and celebrate it. Second, we learn that the break will only be short lived unless we run to the door to greet it, invite it in, and do what we can to make it stay for a while. Third, the unfortunate thing we have to be aware of is that, just as Shabbat ends, the moments of peace will come to an end, but unlike Shabbat, we can work to make them last indefinitely.

This third lesson comes from this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze. It says, when you go out to war against your enemy. It seems like so much of the Torah is about war, especially in Deuteronomy as the Israelites are getting ready for the wars in the book of Joshua. War it would seem is an ever-present theme. Maimonides even included the laws of war as a section of his legal writing, Mishneh Torah. So, the art of war, as much as we hate to admit it, is a significant part of Torah learning. However, our Torah portion, which speaks of war, is actually, upon closer inspection, trying to promote peace.  The parasha says, “after God has delivered the enemy into your hands.” So, the Torah is talking about what happens after the war. The following instructions are about how to live in peace time, the pause between wars.

Now I will be honest, I really do not like what comes next. The Torah begins explaining how to treat prisoners of war, including how to make a captured woman your wife. It sounds kind of caveman-ish. “When you see a beautiful woman you desire and would take her for a wife.” Thank goodness for the midrash. The midrash in Deuteronomy Rabba actually tells us this is not the right thing to do. In fact, it tells us we are commanded to trim her hair and cut her nails, basically do things that will make her less attractive to your eyes so you won’t want to do a detestable thing. There is so much about this that is wrong for the 21st century, but if we read on in the midrash, we can appreciate where it is going. It is going to tell us, if you ignore the instruction here and keep her anyway, against her will, another sin will come your way. Here it says, you will have a wayward and defiant son. So, the lesson is one sin will beget another sin. Conversely, the midrash offers, “a mitzvah draws another mitzvah in its train.” They actually compound 1, 2, 3 mitzvahs or more may follow.

At the end of the day, the Torah portion, through the lens of midrash is telling us to make the most of the time between wars, and to do everything in our power to make that peace last as long as possible. If this were only about war, it would not be interesting. War is a symbol for noise and chaos in our lives. And peace stands for the moments of quiet, the pause between wars. Therefore, what we can take away from this passage of Torah is that we must take advantage of those moments when the noise stops, and then we must strive to make those times last as long as we can.

Shabbat is a good, though imperfect example for this. You get roughly 24 hours that are chalk-full of mitzvot. Theoretically, they compound our enjoyment. But eventually the sun will set on Saturday, and we re-enter the ordinary days of the week. Our Torah portion, however, wants us to imagine a sun that never sets on the Sabbath, to imagine, a time during which we compound our mitzvot to keep the sun shining brightly on our world, and when we maintain peace that cannot be threatened by terrible noise.

In our non-Shabbat lives, we hear time and again stories from people who discover the joy of helping out someone in need. Teachers can often trace a time when they connected with one student and chose to devote their lives to doing that as much as possible. Medical workers find reward in saving lives, and they work daily to keep doing the same. People who volunteer to feed the hungry or house the homeless often get hooked on the good feeling they get from improving lives. Doing good in our world can be addictive. Doing one mitzvah can lead to another and another. And the good we can do is infinite. We may not be able to keep the sun from setting, but through the good we do, the longer we can maintain moments of peace as we hold back the noise.

The Torah wants us to be addicted to doing good. It also wants us to be a bit like Tim Conway’s dad, knowing that when the noise stops, that is our opportunity. That is the time when shout, “I’ll get it.” And then by performing mitzvah after mitzvah, we can keep the noise away, and can make peace last.

 

 

 

 

 

Back to School Shabbat – Sep 7, 2019. What is in your backpack?

(This derash for Back to School Shabbat will make references to the handout which can be viewed with the link below.)

Back to School Shabbat Handout

For Back to School night, I brought along my backpack. I wonder, if I were going back to school, what would I need to pack it with? 

What would you put in your backpack to make school the best experience it can be?

Those are all wonderful and important things. The answers I have come up with are in this passage in the book The Courage To Teach by Parker J. Palmer.

The Courage to Teach, “The Heart of a Teacher,” Parker J. Palmer

The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts…. As good teachers weave the fabric that joins them with students and subjects, the heart is the loom on which the threads are tight. Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart…. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that the teacher and students and subjects can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.

Those words beautifully summarize the three most important things that make true learning great. Good students. Good subject matter. And Good teachers. They do not exist independently. They go together, being woven into a beautiful cloth. As a learner, a teacher, a parent, those are the things I will want to put into my backpack as we all go back to school together. Of course, the bag is too small to really contain all of these things, but during our service tonight, we will find a way to make them all fit.

Just how wii that happen? I’ll tell you in a moment.

First, let us welcome Shabbat as we sing Lecha Dodi on page 138.

 

The first thing I will put in my backpack is honey, and I will tell you why. It has something to do with the calculus cheer you see in your handout. Some of you know that I cannot hear the word calculus without thinking of my teacher Mr. Runyan and how he made us chant this before quizzes and exams. If you don’t know what calculus is, just know that it is really hard math.

Say this with me.

Shawnee Mission East Calculus Cheer (Apologies to MIT)

E to the u, du dx, e to the x, dx;

Secant, cosine, tangent, sine, 3.14159;

Integral, radical, mu, dv;

Calculus forever, S.M.E.!

I discovered later in life that Mr. Runyan borrowed this from MIT, changing the end to my high school letters. But that’s not the important thing here. What was important was that he made learning calculus, of all things, exciting and fun. That is adding honey to our learning. Love it or hate it, calculus helps us to understand the world, and adding enjoyment to a hard topic helps us to learn it more easily.

This concept has roots in Jewish tradition. For centuries, we have literally and figuratively added honey to our learning. And we will talk more about that in a moment.

First let us rise together for the call to worship which is in our service handout, # 4.

 

That learning should be sweet is more than just an ideal. Judaism has made it a multi sensory experience. Consider this description from a 12th century book about Jewish education. It is reading #7 in our handout.

12th century custom for bringing a child to school for the first time

It is the custom of our ancestors that they bring children to learn [for the first time] on Shavuot since the Torah was given then…At sunrise on Shavuot, they bring the children, in keeping with the verse “as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning” (Exodus 19:16). And one covers the children with a cloak from their house to the synagogue or to the rabbi’s house, in keeping with the verse “and they stood underneath the mountain.” And they put him on the lap of the rabbi who teaches them… And the rabbi puts a little honey on the slate and the child licks the honey from the letters with his tongue. And then they bring the honey cake upon which is inscribed “The Lord God gave me a skilled tongue to know…” (Isaiah 50: 4-5), and the rabbi reads every word of these verses and the child repeats after him. And then they bring a peeled hard-boiled egg upon which is written “Mortal, feed your stomach and fill your belly with this scroll… and I ate it and it tasted as sweet as honey to me” (Ezekiel 3:3). And the rabbi reads every word and the child repeats after him. And they feed the child the cake and the egg, for they open the mind…

— Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, Sefer Harokeach

Honey represents the things we need to learn. Honey is a symbol for life, for bounty, and of course it is symbolically and in reality a sign of sweetness. Judaism teaches us that learning should be sweet. Even the most difficult of subjects should be sweet. Here at Mizpah, with our friends at B’nai Zion, we work to make Jewish learning sweet. We call our school Machanooga. This is not your grandparents’ Sunday school. Machaneh is camp, and Nooga is the place we love. And so we begin every Sunday with this bit of honey. Especially kids and machanooga teachers, feel free to join me with reading #8.

8. Machanooga Cheer (Apologies to our ancestors)

Kol Ha-Olam Kulo

Gesher tzar me-od

Ray-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do

Machanooga, let’s go.

Main thing is have no fear.

Future is drawing near.

Ha-shem hu adir.

Let the world hear.

Machanooga, machanooga, machanooga, machanooga, CHOO CHOO!

Let us continue together with a prayer for protection. On this back to school shabbat we know that knowledge is the beginning of protecting ourselves. We have knowledge of God’s nearness. We have knowledge of our own responsibility. And we have knowledge of our duties to care for ourselves and our communities. And so we pray together at the top of page 161.

 

The second thing I am going to put in my backpack is an apple. An apple is for the teacher. Teachers make everything possible. If we are fortunate in life, we will have at least one teacher who has a profound impact on our lives. If we are truly blessed we will have many. But all it takes is one.

Chirstin Gilmer was a 6th grader in Yuma, Arizona. Her teacher Judith Toensing wrote a special message on Gilmer’s report card.

“It has been a joy to have you in class. Keep up the good work! Invite me to your Harvard graduation.”

That 6th grade year had been a pivotal one for Gilmer, and Toensing had been the right teacher at the right time.

Gilmer said Toensing was the first with first person who alerted her to the plight of people living with HIV and AIDS. That sparked in her a passion for the study of infectious diseases. This guided her to her undergraduate degree then a master’s from Columbia, and ultimately a doctorate in public health from Harvard.

Twenty-three years after finishing the sixth grade, Gilmer returned to Yuma, marched into Ms. Toensing’s classroom and presented her with an invitation to her Harvard graduation. 

It is hard to say precisely what their connection was, but  Gilmer says anytime she had doubts, anxiety, or struggled with the injustices she saw in the world, she remembered what Ms. Toensing had written on her report card. Through her guidance, support, and words of motivation, Ms. Toensing will have untold impact on the world as her student follows her passions to learn and to teach and to heal. It is the power of a teacher that teachers often do not even realize they have. 

They definitely deserve and apple. Actually every teacher deserves an orchard.

And there is still something more to go into my backpack, but I will tell you what that is in a minute.

First, let us give thanks for the teaching that gets passed through the generations as we rise for Tefillah on page 164.

 

The last thing I am going to put into my backpack is a large pitcher. For you Braves fans, I am not talking about Dallas Keuchel. I am talking about a large pitcher, an empty container that needs to be filled. Jewish tradition tells us that learning is never complete. Our goal should be to fill it to the brim and the let us become so full of knowledge that it pours over the sides. Even when we think we can take no more, that’s when we should try the hardest.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves

Big pitcher, Dallas Keuchel

I am going to share with you a story about Jewish learning. But I will do that in a moment. First let us consider some statements from our sages about what makes a good student. This is #9 in our handout.

Collected thoughts from Jewish tradition about being a student (don’t read the parentheses aloud)

  • “A wise person is a student who makes their teacher wiser.” (Chaggigah 14a)
  • “We are wise only while in search of wisdom; when we imagine we have attained it, we are fools.” (Solomon Ibn Gabriel)
  • “A student should not be embarrassed if a fellow student has understood something after the first or second time and she has not grasped it even after several attempts. If she is embarrassed because of this, it will turn out that s/he will come and go from the house of study without learning anything at all. (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 246:11)
  • “For our teachers and their students, and the students of the students, we ask for peace and lovingkindness, and let us say, Amen (Debbie Friedman, interpretation of Kaddish d’Rabbanan, printed in Mishkan Tefillah, p. 209)

Let us sing together Shalom Rav on 178.

 

And so as my backpack has been packed, with honey for study, with apples for our teachers, and vessels for our students to fill, I share with you this folktale that brings it all together.

A Jew is on a ship filled with merchants. They are showing off their merchandise and ask the Jew, “What do you have?” He taps his head and says, “Everything I own is in here.” They laugh and call him a fool. Then a storm hits. The ship sinks, and everyone must swim to shore with nothing but the clothes he is wearing. They reach a city, but the merchants have nothing to sell. They have to beg in the street. A few days later, they see the Jew, well dressed and well fed. He drops some money in their begging cups, and they say to him, “We had so much merchandise, but now we have nothing. You had nothing, but now you have so much. How can it be?” He taps his head and says, “I told you that everything I own is in here. I have studied all my life, and I have knowledge. I am working as a teacher.” The merchants nod their heads, and all agree, “Knowledge is the best merchandise.”

Our back packs are packed. May they never be too full, or too heavy to carry. May their contents always enrich us, and may the gifts they give us multiply this year and every year, so that when we celebrate back to school, we celebrate all that we have been given, and everything we will one day receive.

Let us all thank our teachers, our parents, and of course our students for the tapestry they weave and that makes it all possible.

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