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Sukkot Chol ha-Moed 5783                October 12, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach

     George M. Cohen, in the movie, Yankee Doodle, penned a song that became a staple for World War I. It was called, “Over There” and it let the world know that America had entered the war. It went like this:

Over there, over there
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming
The Yanks are coming
The drums rum tumming everywhere

So, prepare, say a prayer
Send the word, send the word to beware
We'll be over, we're coming over
And we won't come back till it's over, over there

     The fact of the matter in World War I was that Europe had fought to a standstill. For years they had fought back and forth over the same land. Both sides were depleted and exhausted. Now, after years of fighting that was going nowhere, America had decided to join the war in Europe. Our entry into the war tipped the balance of the war in favor of France and England and injected new energy and new manpower into the fighting. It was only a matter of time until Germany surrendered.

     I mention this historical note because the song announced that the “Yanks are coming.” Just the mention of that fact turned the course of that war. When all seemed lost, it was just knowing that America was coming that changed the course and outcome of that war.

     In our Parsha, Moses finds himself in a similar predicament. God had announced that for Israel, there should be no other Gods. God would not tolerate the worship of anything else. The first thing Israel did was build a golden calf and began to worship it. God abruptly ended God’s discussions with Moses about the Torah and sent Moses away. Moses was furious with the people who had worshiped this idol (and with his brother who had fashioned it). The golden calf was reduced to dust and the people punished, some even killed. Now Moses had to go back to God and plead for forgiveness. He had no idea how it would be possible to assuage God’s anger. “Show me your face” Moses asks, and God says that this would be impossible. The only thing Moses could know was to see what the world would be like after God passes by. Protected by a wall of stone, Moses hears God passing and hears the attributes of God that we today know so well. “Adonai, Adonai, God who is Merciful and Compassionate, Patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.” Each of these attributes became a name for God. Since we can’t define God and since God does not have a single name, we can name God after God’s attributes. God is merciful, God is compassionate, God is forgiving, God is Patient, God is Love and Faithfulness, God Forgives Iniquity, Transgression and Sin, and even when God punishes those who sin, the punishment does not last forever.

     Moses hears these attributes. Moses hears these definitions of God’s actions in the world and immediately knows what to do. Moses appeals to God to be kind and merciful and forgive the sins of the people, and God, true to God’s nature, forgives even this extraordinary sin of idolatry.

     This is the power of a name. It is more than just a word; it is a definition of who we are. We can just say a name and know that this person is funny. That person is kind. This person is understanding and that person over there is a scoundrel. Just like in our Torah reading, our name implies our attributes. We are known for what we do in this world.

     In the margin of the page where the Aleynu appears is a poem by Rivka Miriam. It is translated from the original Hebrew, but it speaks to the power of names.

It is called: I Spread Out God’s Names in Front of Me

I spread out God’s names in front of me on the floor of my chilly room.

The name by which I called him when his spirit breathed in me.

And the name by which I called him when I was a young girl.

The name by which I called him when I was given to a man

And the name when I was permitted to all.

The name by which I called him when my parents were a roof over me.

And the name when I had no ceiling.

The name by which I called him so that I would fear him.

And the name by which I called him so that I would not be afraid.

The name by which I called him so that he would remember me.

And the name by which I called him so that he would refrain from remembering.

In the heat of day, I will prostrate myself on the floor of my chilly room.

     It is said that there are 100 names for God. I suspect that that number is a severe undercount. Jews have a habit of creating a new name for God depending on the circumstance. Like in the poem, we name our God according to our needs. On Yom Kippur we name God as Forgiving. On Sukkot, we are grateful for the abundance of the harvest. We name God on this holiday as Sustainer. On Hanukah, God is called, the Deliverer. On Pesach God is the Redeemer. But no matter what the name, it is all the same God.

      There are times when our names for God are not so nice. When times are hard, we name God as Hidden. In times of distress, we sometimes name God as the Avenger until we see our way out and then God is the Savior. When we are scared, we name God the Powerful, until we see the reason for our fear and then God is called “Awesome.” Depending on our mood, we give God a name, but it is still the same God.

     The different names for God may not change God, but each name calls up, in each of us, a certain reaction. Our life is out of balance and by choosing the needed name of God, we can find our way back to a life in balance. We use so many names for God when we pray in order to make sure that our life never gets too far out of alignment. But no matter how our moods may swing, it is God who brings us back to where we belong.

     There is a story of a non-believer who befriended a Hasidic rabbi during the Holocaust. One day the camp was marched out into the forest. There they found a large pit dug in the earth. The Nazi commandant told them that they would each have to jump across the pit. Those who made it would live, those who didn’t, well, rat-a-tat-tat. The emaciated Jews began to attempt to jump the pit. The non-believer said to the Rabbi, “Why bother with jumping. Just fall into the pit and get this nightmare over with. But the Rabbi said, “We must obey the will of God. If God commands that pits be dug and we must jump, we jump and if, God forbid we fail, then we fail.” and when their turn came, the Rabbi said, “We Jump!” and they closed their eyes and jumped and by some miracle, they both made it to the other side. The non-believer was filled with awe that God had saved them. Now he had his reason to believe in God. The Rabbi turned to his friend and said, “I made that jump by holding on in faith to the merit of our ancestors. What did you do to make it across?”  His friend replied, “I was holding on to you.”

     It is good to know that God can go by whatever name we need in the moment, but the lesson is can we make the same claim about ourselves? On this Shabbat, as we read Kohelet and affirm that all is dust, there is nothing new under the sun, that all we do amounts to nothing, we don’t give in to such pessimism; we hold on to our faith in God. But can we say that others can have faith in us? Are we the kind of friend that others can hold on to the help leap past the pits in life? What names will we be called in the moment? Will we be called Hope? will we be called Kind? Will we be called, “Friend”?

     We are not known by the house we live in or the car we drive. We are not known by the size of a bank account or the success of our investments. We are known by our relationships with others. Did we show up when others were missing. Did we run forward while others ran away? Did we encourage when others only saw failure? Some of the highest compliments I have heard at a graveside service were: She was always kind to everyone. He never said a bad word about anyone. She was always there for those in need. He stopped to help before someone could even ask.

     Our parents gave us the name that we use every day. And there is always the name that we call ourselves in our moments of self-reflection. But the greatest name is the one we earn every day by our actions to our family, friends and to strangers. My father’s funeral was the same day as one of the biggest philanthropists in our city. There were many people at the funeral of this great man and there was a large obituary in the newspaper that spoke of all the wonderful things he had done. He had earned every expression of gratitude they made. My father, on the other hand, was buried with just our family and his friends from his synagogue. And yet, to those of us at that graveside, he was just as great as the philanthropist. Others may not have known my father, but his heart was just as big, and he spread kindness wherever he went. His obituary may not have been very long, but when I last visited his grave, there were stones there from friends who have never forgotten him.

      What names do we want others to call us. Those names are in our own hands to create. There is a public service announcement on television that does not ask us to be “One of a Kind” instead it asks us to be “One of THE Kind.” As autumn turns into winter, there will be many in need of basic supplies. Can we be counted on to provide the necessary basic kindness to get them through the cold? It is not what kind of a person will we be, but HOW kind of a person will we be?

     God is abounding in love and faithfulness. Why should we be any less? May God be with us as we live our lives as God would want us to live, by bringing God’s kindness into this world. As we say …

Amen, Shabbat Shalom, and Hag Sameach

Mon, February 26 2024 17 Adar I 5784