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Shemot 5782    December 25, 2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     Long ago, I stopped asking people why they do not come to shul on Shabbat. Most of the time I embarrassed someone, and they would make up some excuse as to why they were not interested in praying. I am happy that all of you come to shul to pray and to learn a bit and value this enough to join us here every Shabbat. There are many reasons to be in shul and I suspect that each of us has our own combination of reasons why we like to be here. All of us, however, understand the sanctity of this place.

     Those that don’t understand the nature of the synagogue, often, they tell me, “I don’t need to come to synagogue. I can pray by myself. I prefer to go out into nature and feel the grandeur of nature and pray surrounded by God’s creation. I know that they are right; they could feel the presence of God out in nature, except they do not go out into nature to pray. We often are not interested in God when we hike a trail; we tend to be more interested in the exercise, the pretty views and showing the pictures we take to our friends.

     There is a lot to discuss in the Torah reading for today. Pharoah’s racism, the compassion of Moses, the revelation at the burning bush and the initial disaster that comes from Moses’s first attempt to free the Israelite slaves. But I want to address something from the haftara today. Taken from the book of Isaiah, we see the prophet at his oratory best.

     Speaking out against the Northern tribes, Isaiah calls them out as drunken fools. They gather together not to pray or learn; they gather to eat and drink. They do not seem to care about God, only about the open bar. They are having too much fun to worry about what God wants from them and how they might serve God. In chapter 28:8 Isaiah calls out these priests and others who are so drunk all the time that they cannot ever really stand in judgment, they are unable to do their jobs. Isaiah says, “All their tables are covered with vomit and filth so that no space is left.” In other words, they are in so much of a drunken stupor that nothing of any value can be found at their table.

     These priests are not interested in prayer. They are supposed to be eating holy sacrifices from the alter, but they desecrate the very food they are commanded to eat. What should be sacred is defiled by their drunken excesses. God cannot share their food. There is no room for God at the table.

     The Rabbis of the Talmud actually play with the wording of this verse, when it says, “there is no space (Makom) at their table.” In the Talmud, the word, “Makom” is a word that is associated with God. It is one of the many names for God. The verse thus actually does say that there is no God at there table. Sacrifices are supposed to be a meal shared with God, but these intoxicated priests, desecrate the sanctity of the meal. God cannot eat with them.

      “The Mishnah transformed this verse into a different kind of critique. In Pirke Avot, the ethical lessons of the sages, it is written: Rabbi Shimon said: “Three who eat at a table and do not speak words of Torah there, it is as though they had eaten sacrifices of the dead, as it is said: 'For all tables are filled with vomit and filth, when God is absent (b'li Makom).” Rabbi Shimon uses the verse from our Torah to make his point. We no longer eat the meat of sacrifices. We are all not priests and we do not serve sacred meat anymore, but when we use our meals as a venue for gossip; when we use mealtime to denigrate others, or to spread lies, our table is not any different than those referred to by the prophet Isaiah. Our meal becomes empty of meaning and God cannot join us.

     On the other hand, when we use our time at the table to speak words of Torah. When we gather with friends and talk about how we can make our world better, how we can help someone in need, how the words of prayer help us become better people, we lift up the most ordinary meal, and make it special, sacred; we make it holy. This is what we should aspire to when we eat. If we open our meal with a blessing, Hamotzi, and end it with the prayer, Birkat HaMazon, we have gone a long way to lifting our meal beyond just another lunch or dinner. Even the simplest meal, if we speak holy words, can become entirely holy.

     My friend, Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein of Jerusalem, in his commentary on this Haftara writes: Jewish ritual and the study of Torah became a primary avenue of religious experience not just for the elite but for all Jews. This democratization of religious life serves as the background for Rabbi Shimon's teaching. Consequently, when Jews join in a meal and introduce words of Torah at the meal, the meal itself becomes a means of worship of God and a place of Divine revelation. The journey from abomination to revelation is as simple as that – a journey from self-indulgence to sacrifice and inspiration.”

    I want to expand on Rabbi Silverstein and extend his observation to every aspect of our lives. Take a look around the news at any given moment and we find people drunk with self-indulgence. Forget for a moment that the purpose of commercials on the radio and on television and the ads in a magazine or newspaper or in the margins of social media are created to pique our self-indulgence. Don’t we all deserve a vacation? Don’t we really want a newer or better car? Don’t we all want to look younger; dress better and even smell better?

     Our society goes beyond what we can sell in the marketplace. Talk shows are filled with people who have authored books that they want us to buy, so we can understand the reasons they think like they do, why they have done what they did or why someone else is a liar and a charlatan. Scholars are told they must “publish or perish”; that is they are only as good as the last book or article they have written. No wonder that sometimes a scholar has to hide where they got their information or who is sponsoring their research since it might taint the work they have done.

     Famous actors and sports figures also are only as important as their appearances in the media. If they are well known, they can command lots of money from sponsors for selling their wares. The more people who watch a movie ensure that the next time the actor appears, they will be paid much more. Even the news has to break news about the latest disaster because that is how they get the ratings and thus can command more money from their networks.

     The world is not a stage for all our self-indulgencies. We eat to survive but we must also be thankful for the food we have to eat. We are kind to others, sometimes beyond what is expected, and we just thank God we were there to help. We see beautiful scenery and landscapes and we say a blessing for the wonders that God has created in this world. I do not know if you are aware of the fact that when we see an important person who has done important things, there is a blessing to recite that God has brought these kinds of people into the world.

     When we do something important, we should not brag about what we have done, but we should thank God that we had the strength, wisdom, and ability to complete the task. We do not help a neighbor to rake her leaves, shovel his walk or drive them to an appointment because we want to be paid, but because God wants us to love our neighbors like ourselves.

     Rabbi Shimon is right for meals and for all of life; we can raise up what we serve at our table ,and what we “serve up” in life, by bringing God back into all we do. It is not all self-serving actions if we bring words of Torah, if we bring the presence of God into all we do and take the ordinary and make it sacred. It is not just a matter of the words we say, but if we mean them when we say them as words of blessing, as words of prayer.

     Rabbi Miriam Klotz tells this story: “Several years ago a yoga teacher guided us students through a physically and mentally challenging sequence of yoga postures. Amidst the uncomfortable stretch pulling my body in unfamiliar directions, and the sweat pouring down my body, I heard my teacher say, “We practice holding the pose through discomfort on the mat, so we can learn to stay present in the midst of discomfort in our lives off the mat.”

     We come here to pray, to see the words used by centuries of Jews as they confronted their world so we can better understand how we can pray when we confront our world. Here we discover the vocabulary to help us refine how we want to live in this world. Here we come to understand how God language is not just another empty phrase, because when we bring God into the conversation, we really mean it; because we have taken the time out of our lives to become familiar with what is beyond the secular, we have become familiar with what is holy. And we wish to bring that holiness into every aspect of life.

     All it takes to transform a moment is to speak words of Torah. To remember to thank God, to remember that life can be more than just what we see and hear. Life can be filled with meaning if we fill it with meaning. It can be filled with joy if we fill it with joy, Life can be sacred if we fill it with sacred words.

     Our world needs to hear the echo of the prophet Isaiah. We are the ones who can magnify his words. When we bring HaMakom, God, into all we do, we raise up even the worst of this world and bring holiness to our table.

     May God help us see the sacred possibilities of life through our time here together and may our time in synagogue, prepare us for our life outside as we say….

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784