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 Parshat Lech-Lecha 5782        October 16,2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbinical School has many aspects to it. The Jewish Theological Seminary excels in the teaching of Bible, Talmud, Jewish Law and Jewish History. From time to time the students will put on a play (after all JTS is located on Broadway) and they do have a student life which puts on Hanukah and Purim celebrations. They tell me that once upon a time there was a basketball court in the basement of the classroom building but that space, long ago was turned into an auditorium.

But for a short time, just after I graduated, there was a small sports team at JTS. It was a marathon team, and they trained for local marathon races and, of course, the NYC marathon. They were all serious runners, lead by Rabbi and Professor of Philosophy, Gordon Tucker. But, as an example of a team that did not take themselves too seriously, they did not take on the name of some Judaic Mascot, rather they called their team, with their tongues fully in their cheeks, “Jews for Exegesis” and they took their motto from this weeks Haftara, Isaiah 40:31, “They shall run and not grow weary.”

Parshat Lech Lecha speaks to the feelings of disappointment of Abraham and Sarah, who follow God’s words to the letter, and yet, God seems to abandon them when it comes to having a child. God promised Abraham at the beginning of the parsha that Abraham would be famous, wealthy and the founder of a great nation. The first two promises have come true, Abraham and Sarah are fabulously wealthy and well known and well respected by all those who know them. But Abraham cries out after rescuing his nephew Lot from capture by a raiding army, “Who needs wealth and fame if it all will be inherited by my servant Eliezer seeing that we are still childless?” But the Parsha ends with a sense of hope, God renews the divine promise to Abraham and Sarah, changing their names from Avram and Sari to the names we know today. There will still be twists and turns in their lives, but the promise of a child is just a parsha away.

In some ways, the haftara for this week’s parsha, from Isaiah, paints a similar picture. For the first thirty-nine chapters, Isaiah is all gloom and doom. God will destroy the nation, the people will go into exile, the royal dynasty of King David will be overthrown. All is Lost!

But our haftara picks up at Chapter 40. Here Isaiah takes an entirely different turn. The back half of the book of Isaiah is all about hope and a return from Exile. It is such a sudden turn around that it makes some scholars wonder if the two parts of the book are written by the same person. The second Isaiah is far more optimistic than his predecessor.

Right from the beginning of the haftara, Isaiah notes that the people are disheartened. He says, Why do you say, O Jacob, why declare, O Israel, 'My way is hid from the Lord, my cause is ignored by my God?” We can hear the pain in the voices of the exiles as clearly as we hear Abraham’s complaint to God. What good is all that we might accomplish if we are still in exile?

But Isaiah then turns to these exiles and tells them that they are wrong. In verses 28-32, the Prophet opens their eyes to the miracle that is about to unfold. He writes, “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is God from of old, Creator of the earth from end to end. God never grows faint or weary; God’s wisdom cannot be fathomed. God gives strength to the weary, fresh vigor to the spent. Youths may grow faint and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but they who trust in the Lord shall renew their strength as eagles grow new plumes: they shall run and not grow weary, they shall march and not grow faint."

After all the years of exile, what does God have to say to the Jews who have returned from Babylonia? God tells them not to be discouraged, not to despair. Despair may be what humans normally do in the face of great difficulties, but God is with them, and they will be successful in setting up a new country in their old homeland. God will give them the strength they need to overcome all obstacles to make their dreams come true. Isaiah is teaching us that whatever might seem impossible, whether it is Abraham and Sarah having a child in their old age or the return of Israel to their homes and the rebuilding of the Temple, God will perform miracles on behalf of our people.

My friend in Jerusalem, Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein wrote this week in his blog in the Times of Israel, “God’s message, however, has eternal application. Despair and faithlessness are the human being’s worst enemies. They leave people and even nations without the ability to move forward, without the strength to resolve problems, incapacitated. God gives us the strength and the optimism to face life, to build and to accomplish provided that we link ourselves to God. The human condition leaves each of us as individuals and as a collective, challenges and things to overcome. Faith is the key to salvation. Those who link themselves with God "shall march on and not grow faint".

I find this message particularly important in our own day and age. If we listen to the news, we get endless predictions about all that will go wrong in our world. There are so many problems to be fixed. There is a climate crisis, changing temperatures on this planet that will bring us storms, floods, fire, and drought. It may already be too late to stop the disaster that is approaching. There is a pandemic that has divided our nation into believers and non-believers, over vaccinations, public masking, mandates, and public health orders. We either believe what science is telling us or we believe that it is all a conspiracy to take away our freedoms. The fights are getting nasty, moving from name calling to threats of violence.

There are fights over fixing the problems that have become endemic in our society. There are infrastructure repairs that need to be made before there will be a catastrophic failure. There is racial inequality that has plagued our society since its inception. There is a growing wealth gap where the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. There are arguments about what should be included in a social safety net in order to support those who face poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, lack of health care and care for the elderly. And then we fight over how we can pay for all of this with or without increasing taxes. Need I mention that we have politicians who can’t ever agree on what a fair and honest election should look like.

The media tells us that we can’t be happy unless we buy a new electric car with all the latest gadgets that can travel over every kind of road or terrain, invest in gold, use the internet to track our finances, buy expensive workout equipment, and drink the right brand of scotch whiskey or beer.

Things have become so bad that we don’t even want to listen to the news anymore. There is too much to deal with; we can’t keep track of it all. There is no way we will find our way out of this mess. Everyone has his or her version of the truth so we can’t even tell right from wrong, truth from fiction. Just leave us alone. We don’t want to deal with it. Why bother trying to fix these problems? There is no hope. There is only despair. Why bother trying to fix anything since the country, the continent and the planet are dying anyway? Just tell me who can fix all of this, and I will vote for him or her. Just leave us alone!

Well, that is what sells the news these days. Gloom and doom. That is what fires up a political base, fear, and despair. And that is what will lead us to Authoritarianism. When we stop caring for everything and let an autocrat tell us that he or she can fix it all but only if we give them the full power to change everything. “I can fix it, Trust me!”

Let me be as clear as Isaiah, the power to fix all of our problems lies in our own hands. The Bible tells us, history tells us, and our common sense tells us that if we can work together, not in separate tribes or political factions, but together, we can really fix all the problems we face. There is no reason to despair, there are no gloom and doom scenarios unless we choose to create them. We are Jews and we have a long history of changing the world. Abraham and Sarah overcame the obstacles that they faced and changed western civilization. Our people brought the concept of justice and fairness to the world. Jews created the foundation for a just and honorable society. Judaism brought the world the power of Truth.

We are also Americans. We know better. We have seen what dictators can do to countries that fall for this “leave it all to me and I will bring you to a better world.” It is true, under a dictatorship, the trains always run on time (or else!) Democracy is by nature, messy and uneven. Or as Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.”

As Americans we know that this country was built by those who did not give up. Americans tamed the wilderness and built cities with their bare hands. We fought wars in impossible places and were victorious; and we infused this world with the idea that a just society is not just a dream, but it can be a reality, if everyone is prepared to work for it.

I don’t listen to Gloom and Doom anymore in the news. I am interested in those who have a real plan to make things better; a plan that involves all of us, not just some of us, that includes all people not just the people in their own tribe. One that will help us learn to trust each other and not be so suspicious. It will take hard work and resolve to fix this country and this planet.

And it will also take faith.

Pirke Avot, the book of advice from our Sages reminds us, “Rabbi Tarfon taught, “the day is short, the task it great, the workers indolent, the reward is bountiful, and the Master is insistent. … You are not obligated to finish the task, but neither are you free to neglect it … Your Employer can be relied upon to reward you for your labors. Know, however, that the reward of the righteous is in a future time.” Or as Rabbi Silverstein says, “Those who link themselves to God, “will have strength and will not grow weary.”

What we are facing is not a sprint. It is a marathon. It is not some easy challenge that will all be resolved over the course of an hour TV show or in a three-hour movie. We will not be finished by the end of the day, no matter how early we start. To create the society that we dream of, will take hard work. It will be messy, there will be false starts and time when it seems all we can do is to start over again. It could even take several generations. This country has come a long way in almost 250 years. We have come from the ideal that “all men are created equal” to all men and women are created equal; to all races of humanity are created equal; to all those of different sexual orientations are created equal; and we are working still on all people of different economic classes are created equal. Being a human being is always a work in progress. This was true during the time of Abraham and Sarah. This was true during the time of the prophet Isaiah. This was true during the life of Theodore Herzl, who said, “Im tirzu ain zo Aggada” - If you want it, it will not be just a dream.” And it is still true in our times. Together we have the power to change everything for the better. Everything we do; reducing our carbon footprint, caring for our fellow human beings, working for truth and justice for all, speaking up for those who have no voice, providing food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless, and researching the issues before we cast our votes, all of it can make a big difference if we do it all with our family, friends, neighbors, and fellow workers. With faith in God, “we can run and not grow weary, we can march and not grow faint.”

Together, with God, we can do anything. All we need to do is to make a start. A better tomorrow will soon be right around the corner. We know what we want for our world, now let us all go and work for it.

May God help us find our way forward no matter what we may have to face, and may God help us to clean up all the messes of this world so we can create a renewed country and a renewed society. May we never fear the future but face it with strength, determination, and faith as we say …..

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, December 11 2023 28 Kislev 5784