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Pesach 7    April 22, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Hag Sameach.

     The man sitting next to me, upon discovering that I was a rabbi, wanted to know if I were like the rabbis in Crown Heights who believed that God would protect them from COVID. I replied, “I do believe that God protects us from COVID, that is why God gave us the knowledge and the intelligence to create the vaccines.”

     What exactly do we expect from God? It is a tricky question. It is a question that most people do not bother to ask. For so many people in this world, the only purpose of God is to give us the stuff that we want. It the movie “Bruce Almighty” God gets tired of Bruce telling God that God is not doing a respectable job. So, God gives Bruce a turn at being God. In an effort to please everyone who is making a request, Bruce decides to let everyone who is praying to win the lottery, to win the lottery. And they all win. But the rules of the lottery say that they all have to share the prize, so every winner got a little less than a dollar in winnings. Needless to say, that does not please anyone.

     I had a professor in Rabbinical School who would remind us that God is not Santa Clause. God does not determine who is naughty or nice and God does not bring gifts to all the good people who ask. God also does not say “No” to some of the people who ask. That would make God unreliable, and our prayers would be worthless.

     The Torah here is not much help in answering this question either. The Israelites are standing at the shore of the sea and the Egyptian army is in hot pursuit. There is nowhere to run. Moses prays and an east wind begins to blow, and the water is pushed back opening a path of dry land so Israel might escape. When the Egyptians try to use this path, the wind stops and the water returns to the sea and in one moment, the Egyptian army is gone. Now that is the definition of a miracle. God delivers on our needs exactly when we need it. The Israelites rejoice in this miracle from God, at least for a day. The very next day, they go back to complaining. That is always the problem with divine miracles, it is always about “OK God, but what have you done for me lately?”

     The rabbis of the Talmud were unhappy with this story. It is clear what God has done, but what did Israel do to deserve this miracle? There had to be a significant act of faith for God to deliver on time. They tell the story of Aaron’s brother-in-law, Nahshon ben Aminadab who had so much faith in God that he walked into the sea before God parted it. He knew that God would not let him drown. It was only when he was up to his nose in the water that the sea parted and Nahshon and all the people were saved.

     The Book of Joshua, which we read on the second day of Pesach, talks about the first Pesach that was observed after crossing into the Promised Land. The people eat from the produce of the land of Israel, and the next day, the manna stops. For forty years manna had sustained the people; now they can grow their own food. The miracle of food in the desert ends and a new chapter in the life of the people can begin.

     My friend and colleague, Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, notes that this marks a change in the way that God and the People of Israel will relate to each other. For forty years God has sustained the people. The people were dependent on God. Now that they are in the land, the relationship will be one of partnership. God and the people will work together to provide for the needs of the community.

     This is the essence of the Hamotzi prayer. Before we eat bread, we thank God for bringing bread from out of the earth. But we know that bread does not grow out of the earth. Wheat grows from the ground and we human beings must harvest it, grind it, mix it, and bake it into bread. Bread is the example of our partnership with God. God provides the material to make bread, but we have to put it all together ourselves.

     It is true that our ancestors had a different relationship with God. The redemption of our people from Egyptian bondage was just a first step in the redemption of all of humanity. If God does all the work all the time, then what is the purpose of creating human beings? God is establishing a different relationship; God is requesting a partnership between humans and the divine.

      As parents we know that part of our role in raising children is not to keep them dependent on us, but to teach them to be self-reliant. It starts with learning to walk. We stand close by the child and hold out our arms to catch them if they should fall. But as they take the first steps, we quickly take a step backwards, to encourage them to keep walking. Teaching children is not doing everything for them; it means teaching them to do things for themselves. We know that this process is not easy. We have to watch them fall from time to time. We have to dry tears when they scrape their knee or when they burn a finger by touching something too hot. We hold their hands as they learn to cross the street. And we wish we could hold their hands as they learn to drive. Sometimes we have to let them fail so they can learn to figure out problems for themselves. Sometimes all we can do is hold them when they cry.

     It is a comparable situation with God. God shows us the way to justice and mercy. God has explained to us that what God requires of us is to love justice, be merciful and to walk humbly with God. All of Jewish law is designed to teach us what is the proper way to live our lives. All we have to do is to follow the lessons we have learned through Torah. The problem, or course, is that we have to not only learn the Mitzvot, but we need to understand them as well. We have to apply them to new situations and new experiences. We have to learn about Torah and mitzvot so when we need to break out on our own, we will know what God wants us to do. God cannot tell us everything; some things we need to discover on our own.

     After feeding and protecting our ancestors in the wilderness for 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt, when they finally arrive at the place promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the manna stops. God has fulfilled the divine part of this remarkable story. Now the people have to do their part. They will need to plant and harvest, prepare, and bake for themselves if they want to have food to eat. God does not give them food every day; God shows the Israelites how to feed themselves. By the time of the Talmud, the rabbis cannot even imagine not being in a partnership with God. For God to save us at the Sea of Reeds someone would have to show their faith in order to call up the miracle.

     There is a story about a Jew named Marvin who prays every day that God should let him win the lottery. Marvin promises giving a portion of the winnings to God, to charity, to the poor if only God would let him win the lottery. He prays fervently each and every day. Finally, Marvin hears a voice from God saying, “Marvin, go buy a ticket!” No matter what we want from God, we have to ask ourselves what we are prepared to do as our part to make good things happen.

     Yet, collaborating with God is not a quid pro quo situation. God has already done more on our behalf than we can ever thank God for, so, we have an ongoing duty to do all we can, in God’s name, for those who rely on God to get them through the day. We are called upon to be God’s partner when food must be distributed to the hungry. We are called upon to be God’s partner when there is grief that needs to be consoled. We are called to be God’s partner when sharing a little kindness with someone we do not know. Each time we do a mitzvah, something to help another person even in just a small way, we are bringing more compassion into the world and making God’s world a little better than it was before.

     It is not proper to sit and wait for God to cure us from disease, from trials or from disaster. Only after we have done all we can do to save ourselves; can we turn to God to help us in our time of need. If we can do our part, we can rely on God to do God’s part. God gives us the kind of mind that can solve many problems. As God’s partner, we need to use our mind to find our way to solve some of the most difficult problems of this world. From COVID cures to environmental challenges, together with our partner, together with God, we can find a solution. It is not the Jewish way just to sit back and wait for God to do everything for us.

     All too often, we look at the world and we see so many people who are just in this world for themselves. They are laser focused on “getting ahead” no matter what the cost may be for someone else. Such people only see the world from their own point of view and to worry about someone else is just a sign of weakness; caring about others will only hold them back from their goals.

     The rabbis of the Talmud, however, got it right. The greatest miracle in recorded history, the one we commemorate on this seventh day of Pesach, the crossing of the sea; it could never have happened if Nahshon, in an act of bravery and faith, did not step into the water knowing that the God who had redeemed the people from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, would redeem him and thus redeem all the people. He was prepared to end his own life to ensure that others would be saved. It is this partnership between humanity and God that has rescued us from every trouble. Together with God we can bring about the final redemption, where all people will act together and bring about, with God’s help, a time of peace.

     May God always help us find our way to such a better world as we say… Amen and Hag Sameach.

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783