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Vayeilech 5783               October 1, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     There was a fire and brimstone preacher who one day stood up before his congregation and shouted, “Everyone who is in this congregation is going to die!” There was a gasp from the congregation except for one man, in the front row, who got a big smile on his face. The preacher was stunned, he said, “Perhaps you don’t understand me, I said every person in this congregation is going to die!” The man in the front row grinned even wider. The preacher became really angry, “When I say everyone in this congregation is going to die, why do you think this is so funny?” The man with the wide smile simply said, “I’m not a member of this congregation!”

     In this week’s Parsha, Moses is told that the time of his death is near. Moses, the man who wrestled the Torah from the hands of the angels. Moses, the man who talked to God as if they were friends. Moses who fearlessly spoke to Pharoah to let the People of Israel go. Moses, the man who stood between an angry God and the People and brought back divine forgiveness. Moses is about to die. Just like anyone else.

     So, in our Parsha, Moses does what any other mortal human being would do when facing an imminent death; Moses puts his affairs in order. The first thing he does is to insure there will be a proper succession, a peaceful transition of power. Joshua has been the heir apparent for some time, now Moses, who is increasingly unable to perform his leadership duties, turns all those duties over to Joshua. Joshua will not be like Prince Charles and have to wait until Moses dies. Moses will invest Joshua with the responsibilities of leadership and hands Joshua the reigns of power with just one piece of advice, “Hazak V’ematz – Be strong and resolute for you will lead the people into the land.” The Rabbis of the Midrash explain exactly what Moses has in mind. They teach, “Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “be strong and resolute … He said to Joshua, “This people that I am giving you – they are like young children, just infants. Do not be too strict with them about their actions, for even their master, God, has not been strict with them about their deeds…”

     Joshua is commanded to be as gentle with the People of Israel as God is with them. In the end, the people are just human beings. They all have good days and bad days. They mean well but sometimes get confused. They get caught up in the moment and do things they usually understand are wrong. They are like children; they are still learning how to make good choices.

     This is one of the reasons that today, we don’t see too many fire and brimstone preachers. Calling out every sin, pointing out every person’s failures, jumping all over every mistake a person makes does not make anyone more determined to become an angel or a saint. What is more likely to happen is that a person so badgered will decide what difference does it make what I do. If I am going to hell anyway, why bother to do the right thing at all?

     I would also be glad not to be a member of THAT congregation.

     My friend and teacher, the late Rabbi Reuven Hammer tells a story of when he moved to Jerusalem, he would attend the only synagogue that existed in his new neighborhood. Rabbi Hammer recalled, “The local rabbi delivered learned sermons – but they all had the same message: this is what you have been doing wrong and are not permitted to do. Weekly, there was always something new to add to the list of stringencies. Finally, one week, his subject was the well-known teaching “All Israel has a place in the world to come! (from Massechet Sanhedrin). That sounded promising. The only trouble was, he then went on to list all the exceptions to that rule – and by the time he finished excluding people, there did not seem to be very many people left to populate that world. At this point my wife, friends and I left and started another synagogue where we would not have to be admonished week after week but could instead feel the love and compassion the Sages ascribed Moses in his final words to Joshua”

     A couple of weeks ago, in Parshat Ki Tavo, we read a long list of curses that would follow anyone who might disobey God’s Torah. It was a long and lurid list of catastrophes designed to make every member of the congregation gasp in horror. But that chapter is only a small part of the larger Torah. The Torah is full of blessings and rewards for listening to what God has to say to us. If we learn anything from the Torah and from the blessing that Moses gives to Joshua, we learn that kindness goes a long way in helping the people find their way in the world.

     Certainly, during the time of Hillel and Shammai, those who were looking for a strict opinion on Jewish Law would turn to Shammai. Most of the people, however, looked to the teachings of Hillel who treated all people with kindness and who never lost his temper. When asked, which opinion should Jewish Law follow? The answer was that both were proper approaches to the law, but we follow Hillel because he taught his students to be kind, to teach the opinions of others before they gave their own opinions.

     The same thing happened just a generation later with another two great sages, Rabbi Ishmael, and Rabbi Akiva. Again, it was the kind and compassionate Akiva whose opinion are cited more often. Rabbi Ishmael was not wrong; he just could not teach a compassionate law.

     This is the most important teaching that Moses has to give to Joshua. The people are like children, they need your love more than they need your punishment. They need to know that you care about them more than they need strict adherence to the law.

     We now stand in the middle of a difficult season. Rosh Hashana has remined us that time is passing by. We are all not getting any younger and we all need to be getting smarter. Wisdom can only come with age if we actually go out and learn from the wise. Next week is Yom Kippur where there are some who say that this holiday is really an enactment of our own death. At this moment when we can turn our lives in any direction we want, what direction will we choose.

     On Rosh Hashana, a woman with two children sat down in the front row. The children listened for a while and then turned to each other to play a game where they would try to slap each other’s hands. Their mother was mortified and looked at me on the bima to see how much trouble she was in. She could not see me smiling at her children, I had my mask on, so I gave her a thumbs up. Let the children play. Let them think of a shul as a place where one could be happy. They were too young to know the importance of the prayers in the Machzor. I would rather they be in shul and not paying very much attention than to not come to shul at all. And their mother relaxed and was able to pay attention to her own prayers. I can only hope that she will feel welcome to bring her children back.

     I saw an article this week called, “Returning To My Childhood Synagogue Was Not What I Expected.” The author, Jamie Herndon, had spent much of her childhood being miserable in her Conservative synagogue. When she had children of her own, she took them to a Reform synagogue preschool. But she was not happy about her children not learning Hebrew and not learning about tefillin and she did not recognize the melodies of the prayers. She knew she wanted to attend a Conservative congregation, the one she grew up in, but she had hated it so much she had to swallow hard when her son said he wanted to attend live services there. In the shul that was so stiff when she was a child, she and her son have found a new home. She writes,No synagogue is perfect, and snobbery still exists here. But, so far, we have been embraced by fellow, regularly attending congregants. At our former shul preschool, my son would often say “hi” to both kids and their parents and be ignored. Now, most people recognize my son from services and say “hi” to him! Returning here has allowed my son to blossom and thrive, but it’s also helped me. It has rekindled my spirituality – I’m taking classes at the shul; creating my own reading lists about aspects of Judaism, the Torah, and the holidays; and thinking more about prayer and what it means. In addition, as a single mother, socializing and meeting adults can be hard. I’ve found friends here, and a support system and community that I don’t think I even realized we needed. 

     This year, for me, teshuvah isn’t merely an abstract, spiritual concept; it’s a very concrete and tangible one, one I am still exploring and getting used to. May it continue to be sweet. 

     In the end, Shabbat Shuva is not about how we act as a community. It begins with how we want to see ourselves. Will we be Hillel or Shammai? Rabbi Akiva or Rabbi Ishmael? This is the season, this is the week, this is the day that we can make the change. Do we want to make the change that will make a difference to our friends and family? Do we also want to make changes that will affect the greater world around us; The people we sit with in shul, the strangers we meet on the street, do we want to change the way we even react to the grumpy people of the world?

     The lesson of Shabbat Shuva is that the changes we want to make do not happen all at once. We only dedicate ourselves to making the change. We commit ourselves to improvement day by day into the new year. We open ourselves to new possibilities, we swallow hard as we face new or old challenges, we give ourselves permission to try something new and let life guide us to where we want to be. It could take a couple of weeks. It could take a couple of months. It could take a couple of years. We only need to remember “Hazak V’Ematz” to be strong and resolute, brave, and kind, and only then, can we let the New Year take us where we want to go.

     May God help us become the kind of people we can be proud of, as we say…

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Fri, March 24 2023 2 Nisan 5783