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Devarim: July 21, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg


ו ה אֱלֹהֵ-ינוּ דִּבֶּר אֵלֵינוּ בְּחֹרֵב לֵאמֹר רַב-לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת בָּהָר הַזֶּה.

The Lord our God spoke to us a Horeb, saying: “You have stayed long enough at this mountain.” (Devarim 1:6)


What is our story?

By most accounts, it’s bleak. We’ve become so isolated from one another that disconnection is killing us.  The dramatic rise of opioids, gun violence, and suicide are yet more evidence that our relationships of meaning are coming apart.


Searching for connection, … ironically, it is now corporate ad campaigns that remind us to be more human. It turns out that the things we've been taught to pursue—money, status, power, fame, and sex appeal—are not only unworthy of us, but driving us to hurt ourselves, oppress each other, and damage our world. In ever-larger numbers, we see the lie and its toxicity, as we reject insufficient and untrustworthy systems, and despair at a culture of isolation and injustice.

We’ve not ended up here for lack of trying. We’ve attempted to transform all our systems— financial, political, educational, medical—from both inside and out. Indeed, our lionizing of disruptive innovation and the social entrepreneur reflects a near-desperate hope to hack every social category we inherited. But our solutions aren’t working. It seems we’ve misunderstood the problem.


Where, then, do we turn?


There was that poem you read on the subway. The beers on the roof with friends after helping them move. The first time you held your sister’s baby. That feeling. I am here, we are here, we’re part of this ineffable something. There is another story. That story.

Why don’t we talk about that? Because we’re living in the crisis of in-between, where we don’t have communities, practices, or language to help us do that. We are tipping from one paradigm to the next, coming to understand the project of being human in new ways. In the meantime, it's not enough to turn to the old institutions and traditions that used to remind us of who we are and why. Like never before, we’re unbundling and remixing the elements that help us make meaning of our lives.

To explain: Unbundling is the process of separating elements of value from a single collection of offerings. Think of a local newspaper. Whereas fifty years ago it provided classifieds, personal ads, letters to the editor, a puzzle for your commute, and, of course, the actual news, today its competitors have surpassed it in each of these, making the daily paper all but obsolete. The newspaper has been unbundled, and end users mix together their own preferred set of services.

The same is true for meaning-making. Fifty years ago, most people in the United States relied on a single religious community to conduct spiritual practices, ritualize life moments, foster healing, connect to lineage, inspire morality, house transcendent experience, mark holidays, support family, serve the needy, work for justice, and—through art, song, text, and speech—tell and retell a common story to bind them together. Now, we might rely on the Insight Meditation Timer, mountain hikes, Afro-Flow Yoga, Instagram hashtags, Friday shabbatlucks, Beyoncé anthems, and protesting the Muslim Ban. But no common story.


As we’ve unbundled and remixed, we’ve also isolated and made insecure. If I write my gratitude journal alone and whisper a prayer in the shower, am I doing it right? Will I offend my friend with the text I send after her mother dies? With no collective place to share our deep sorrows and joys, they begin to feel illegitimate. And this is exactly what we have to relegitimize: binding ourselves together in our deepest experience of being human.

It’s time to turn to the Care of Souls.                           

 [Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, and Rev. Sue Phillips; Care of Souls; Harvard Divinity School Report, 2018;  available online]  

Think About It: 

  1. We often worry about our communities and country but when do we worry about the state of our souls?


  1. How would you know if there was a problem with your soul? What are the symptoms of a “sick soul”
  2. What are we talking about when we say that the soul of our community or society needs “care”? Is this one big soul or a collection of the souls of individuals? What must we do to fix the problem of our souls?



One day there came to Medziboz a troupe of acrobats who gave their performance in the streets of the town. They stretched a rope across the river and one of them walked along the rope to the opposite bank. From all sides the people came running to behold this ungodly marvel, and in the midst of the crowd of onlookers stood the Holy Baal Shem Tov himself. His disciples were greatly astonished and asked him the meaning of his presence there.
The Holy Baal Shem Tov answered them thus: “I went to see how a man might cross the chasm between two heights as this man did. And as I watched him I reflected that if humans would submit their soul to such discipline as that to which he submitted his body, what deep abysses might they not cross upon the tenuous cord of life!   
[The Hasidic Anthology, Louis Newman, Block Publishing Co. 1944, Page 450:4 also From S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk p. 98]


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, July 21, 2018.

Fri, May 24 2019 19 Iyyar 5779