The Haggadah never mentions the role that Moses plays in the journey from slavery to freedom. The Haggadah is God’s story. The story of how God remembered the promise God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. How God saw the oppression and cruelty of the Egyptians. How God had compassion on the Israelite slaves and so with a mighty hand liberated the slaves and taught them, through the 40 years in the desert how to live their lives as free women and men.
While the story is full of background on the liberation; God Remembers, God has pity, God has compassion; it never really tells us why. Why does God do these things for the Israelite people? Why does God care if they, or anyone else, are slaves or not? When we look at the world from the point of view of Divine Time, we realize that kingdoms rise and fall; over time the highest mountains erode into deep valleys. Great Civilizations rise and fall over the centuries. Why does God feel the need to interrupt history with this story of plagues and the parting of the sea?
On one side of this story is the Book of Genesis. It provides the critical background on who these Israelites are and why God cares about them. God creates the world with human beings. But these human beings are cruel and violent. God does not want violence in the world so God destroys humanity in a great flood. God starts the human endeavor over again with the righteous Noah and his family. But one of Noah’s children turns out to be cruel to his father and humanity; over time the generations become just as violent and immoral as they were before the flood.
So, the book of Berayshit tells us that God takes a longer view of how to fix the world. God selects Abraham for reasons that the book leaves unstated. Over time we see that Abraham is kind and caring and compassionate, all the things that God wants all human beings to emulate. This entire story of slavery, redemption, Torah and Promised Land is about how God, who is beyond space and time, who has an infinite amount of time at God’s disposal, sets the world up to develop, on its own. Through the kindness in the descendants of Abraham and through the Torah that God reveals to them, humanity can live the kind of life that God desires from humanity.
This week, our Torah portion speaks of another reason that God works so hard to make human life more caring and compassionate. Humanity, after all is created in the image of God. But what is that image? Moses asks about seeing the face of God but God claims that “no man shall see me and live.” Instead, God begins a second revelation. The first revelation was about law, it was about how humanity is supposed to live. This second revelation is about the essence of what God is.
The revelation of God’s self identifies God as compassionate and gracious; kind and faithful; God stands for Justice but is also slow to anger and forgiving of sin, iniquity and transgressions. Having revealed these attributes to Moses, then God removes the divine hand that has prevented Moses from seeing the face of God, and in that moment, Moses sees the “back” of God, or as one of my teachers described it, Moses saw the world through the eyes of God. Our text today tries to let us see that world as well; not the world as it appears to us, but the world as God wants it to become.
Why does God free slaves and bring them to Mt. Sinai? Because God who is compassionate and kind is trying to shape humanity to be compassionate and kind as well. God is looking for a humanity that stands for justice but God also rules with a sense of forgiveness and kindness. When we see the world through God’s eyes, we see a world that is steeped in laws that are fair, but with judges who are compassionate. We see people who are forgiving of children, family and friends. We see a world where instead of suspicion and distrust, we have compassion and kindness to others.
These are the words that not only describe God but describe what religion wants from us. With this in mind, we can understand how Hillel the Elder could say that “What is hateful to you, don’t do to anyone else.” If we don’t want to be slaves, we should not be enslaving others. If we do not want to be the victims of oppression, then we must make sure that we do not oppress others. If we expect compassion from others, we should be the first to be compassionate to others. If we want to be forgiven, we must be ready to forgive others.
We hear about people who call themselves “progressives,” who don’t seem to have anything nice to say about religion. They point to the many wars that were fought between religions and against those who did not share the same religion. These people understand the story of religion as one of kindness only to those who are initiated into one faith or another, and they see that all kinds of injustice were perpetrated against those who did not agree. They see the pain and hurt caused by those who claimed that God was on their side. Like the late John Lennon, they imagine a world without hatred, warfare and religion. To these people, that would truly be a better world.
It should not surprise you to know there are people in this country who take an opposite view of religion. These people think that those who disagree with them about religion are “godless”. These people think that Religion can save the world from those who want no divine reigns on life. These religious advocates see religion as the blueprint for a better world, one in which their own ideas of religion are important and those who hold opposing views should be destroyed. Not surprisingly, many in this camp of the faithful believe that religion is more important than science and if there is any disagreement between science and religion, they follow only what religion tells them to do.
Given this state of affairs, is it any wonder that human beings have been fighting over religion as they fight over everything else in the world? This is the result of seeing the world through human eyes and not through God’s eyes. It is both people, the anti-religious and the super religious who are conjuring up a religion that is steeped in the very traits that the Torah is trying to suppress. Human religions are about power, violence, greed, bigotry and vanity. When any religion or secular movement becomes about “We are right and everyone else is wrong” then we have created a movement that can only can see the world through their own eyes.
Judaism is not immune from this kind of leadership either. Our faith also has leaders who insist that they are the only ones who are doing Judaism right. They want to set the Jewish rules for all Jews and have the power to determine who is in and who is out, who is worshipping the right way and who is doing everything wrong.
Judaism did not start out this way. The Rabbis of the Talmud tried to give every Rabbi, no matter their political or philosophical position, a place at the table. They voted on what the religion would be but they recorded the votes of the minority as well just in case there should be a situation where the minority concerns are shown to be true. Rabbis in different geographical places sometimes disagreed, so it was decided that each Rabbi could develop the law to fit the particular community in which they lived. Outside Rabbis who came to visit, had to follow the rules of the community in which they were visiting. How could outsiders understand the reasons for decisions unless they made themselves part of the community?
But just because some people have taken up extreme positions, does not mean that we are denied a vision of the world from God’s point of view. When we are not quick to judge someone until we understand why they are doing what they are doing, then we have taken the divine view of others. When we see someone making a mistake and then we don’t drive them from the community, make them feel embarrassed or punish them severely; If we make them feel a part of the community, despite their mistake, if we quietly show them the place where they went wrong, if we can help them do things better the next time; then we understand the way that God sees the world.
With God’s vision, we know that we need to be with our family for Pesach, and not hold angry or useless grudges. We know that what is important on Pesach is to help those who are still enslaved to find their way to freedom. Pesach is not just about eating the correct amount of Matza or drinking the proper number of cubic centimeters when we drink each of the four cups of wine. It is more important to have guests at the seder than to have Shemura Matzah.
Forgiveness does not mean that those who do things that are wrong escape without consequences for their actions. More often than not the actions themselves have consequences that are the direct result of what was done wrong in the first place. But God’s vision for the world does not mean a person who does wrong is condemned for life. Forgiveness is always possible. Teshuva, repentance, is always possible and everyone deserves a second chance to get things right.
Prayer is not about saying every word that is written in a siddur. The Siddur is a guide to help us find our own words when we are opening our hearts to God. When we speak from our hearts instead of from a book, we are able to draw close to the divine. There is no magical incantation that Moses has to recite in our Parsha when he desires to know God. He only makes the simple request to understand God better and the request of Moses is granted. When we are able to make our requests from God to be about making our world better for everyone then we too will find God receptive to our call.
No matter how many times Israel provokes God, God always forgives them. The Patriarchs of the Torah are certainly not perfect saints, but God loves them anyway and fulfills their requests. Can we claim to follow our religion if we can’t be as kind and forgiving as God? We may never get our lives perfect but clearly God gives us credit when we do the best we can.
To see the world through God’s eyes is to see a world that has the potential to be far better than it is today. To see the world through God’s eyes is to work hard each day to make that better world possible. To see the world through God’s eyes is to never give up on the good that can be. After all, if God can redeem our people from slavery, then together we can even change the world for good.
May we see clearly God’s vision for a world of joy, health, happiness and peace. And may we each day do all that we can, to make that vision real, as we say… Amen and Shabbat Shalom
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, April 15, 2017.