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Kol Nidre 5780. October 8, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

I wish everyone a Tzom Kal – an easy fast

 

African story of the Sky Maiden: tribe notices that someone is stealing milk. Young man stays up all night to catch the thief. Just before dawn, beautiful woman comes down on beam of light, milks cows and goes back up to the sky. Next night man catches her. Promises no punishment if she marries him. She agrees and goes to sky to say goodbye to family. Returns with some possessions, including a mysterious box. Couple are married and move in together.

 

Later, while wife is out, Man finds mysterious box. Opens it and it is empty. Wife comes home and notices that box was opened. Man says, “It was empty” wife looks at him and says, “then we cannot be married anymore”. Man, “because I looked in your silly box?” Wife, “No, I thought you would eventually look in it, we can’t be married because you saw it as empty. It held a part of my home, a part of the sky. If you can’t see that part of me, then you don’t know me at all and so we cannot be married anymore.”

 

I first heard that story from Rabbi Harold Kushner years ago. He noticed at his local Book Sale, there were many copies of Jewish Bible. Many inscribed as Bar or Bat Mitzvah gifts. Families no longer wanted the Bible. They had looked inside and found that it was empty, so they gave it away. Bible contains a big piece of who we are as Jews and Human beings, but some Jews look at it and only see an empty box.

 

Are we so different? What do we see when we open the bible? Do we see silly children’s stories? Do we see stories that science long ago proved to be wrong? Do we see ancient stories that have no meaning to our modern world? Or do we see the timeless message from God addressed directly to each of us about the meaning of life?

 

What is this book we call Torah? Why does it linger on bookshelves long after other best - selling books are gone and forgotten? I am sure that at least some of us know some of the characters that can be found in modern literature: Some of us may have heard of Bilbo Baggins, or Hermione Granger, or Jean Luc Picard, or Katniss Everdeen, or Neo, or Princess Lea or Professor Moriarty, or even Peter Parker. But everyone here knows Abraham and Sarah, David and Deborah, Elijah and Jezebel. What makes these stories so enduring? Why do we study them even after we have read them hundreds of times?

 

What does God reveal to us in Torah? If the book represents what God wants us to know, how can we find God’s words in Torah so that it won’t seem like such an empty book anymore? The late Rabbi Neil Gillman, in his book , “Believing and Its Tensions”, writes, “I increasingly believe that when we say that God revealed the Torah we mean that this is the human attempt to understand God’s will through the act of human discovery, assigning the most active role possible to the human community.”

 

Torah is not a book that we read; it is a book that is experienced. It is not a book of stories and laws, but a book that reflects who we are and what we bring to the table when we are reading it. If the box seems empty, it is because we have not brought anything with us to reflect its light.

 

Christopher Columbus was not the first to sail west looking for a new route to the East Indies. Many captains had sailed west for a few days, looked around and said, “There is nothing here.” Columbus sailed on and found a new world. All we need to do to discover the new world of the Torah, is to “sail on” past the place where others say, “there is nothing there,” to discover entire worlds of learning and meaning that will open our hearts to this new world.

 

Rabbi Arthur Green, in his book, “Speaking Torah”, speaks directly to us as we study the Bible. He writes, “What is this book that you have just opened? Think of it as a self-help book in the most profound sense. It offers a way of reading the entire Torah as a guide to helping you find your way out of Egypt. … The teachings of Torah, from beginning to end, are read here as a path toward liberation, a way of uplifting your soul and allowing it to journey homeward, back to its Source in the Oneness of all Being.”

 

Unlike other literature, Torah leaves us changed for the better, with a deeper understanding of who we are and how we can all live better lives. How can we know what we are enslaved to if we have only known slavery? Torah teaches us what it means to be free. The Torah teaches us that sometimes, what we think is the correct path in life is not so easy after all. Science can teach us much about how the world is ordered but it can’t teach us how to order our lives. Maybe the world was not created in seven days, but we know that, as creations, the sun and moon should not be worshiped as gods.

 

When we realize that we are not the first people to read this book and have questions, then we are ready to ask about how others see these texts in the glare of modern life. What makes Torah all the more intriguing is, that no matter how much we think we know Torah and the wisdom that grows out of it, Torah will always show us not only a different path than the one we know well, but often it is a much better path that we can travel on through the many storms of life. When we confront death, we may want to hide from other people and deny any role for God in our lives, but Jewish law teaches that this is exactly the moment when we need to be surrounded by friends and family and it is the time to acknowledge that we will need God to be close by if we want to move on with our lives.

 

There are people who think that every word of Torah must direct their life. If Abraham got up early in the morning, then we should wake up early in the morning. If Moses took off his shoes at the burning bush, then we need to remove our shoes when we pray to God; and, we must be meticulous about how we tie them when we put them back on. This may work for some people who need that kind of direction in their lives, but it does not work for me in my life. If we take every word of Torah and every word spoken about Torah and decide that they are the voice of God and can never be changed, then the Torah will become a straight-jacket that does not allow us to even move a little around the modern world in which we live. Torah instead, is found in the give and take between God and humanity as we try and understand just what it is that God wants from us. As Rabbi Gillman says, we human beings have the responsibility to hear God’s words and then try to understand what these words mean in our lives. It is in the dialogue between the human and the divine that makes Torah so enduring.

 

There are several examples of this I can cite. The ancient Rabbis declared that the entire Torah can be summed up by the one verse in Leviticus to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Now that is a line that resonates in our world today with what the writer,
Arthur C. Brooks, calls our “Culture of Contempt”. In his book “Love Your Enemies, he writes, “We don’t have an anger problem in American Politics. We have a contempt problem… I sometimes collaborate on writing projects with the Dalai Lama. Recently, I was thinking about this contempt problem, and I said, “Your Holiness, what do I do when I feel contempt?” He said, “Practice warm-heartedness.” My point is simple: love and warm-heartedness might not change every heart and mind, but they are always worth trying, and they will always make YOU better off.” What would happen if we treated others the way we love ourselves? Long before Arthur Brooks and the Dalai Lama, Leviticus showed us the way out of our culture of contempt.

 

We see why the Rabbis made this one verse the summation of all the Torah has to offer. The Rabbis didn’t want to command a feeling, but to have us practice love as a verb. The purpose of the commandments that are between one human being and another is to promote love between all people, those we work with, those we meet on the street and yes, even our pesky neighbor next door. By treating each other to love, we can bring about the end of the culture of contempt that we see all around us. Arthur Brooks reminds us that love is a verb, it is something that we can do. And if we practice love the verb, we will find that feelings of love will follow our actions.

 

 

The Prophet Micha teaches in his book of the Bible, that the Torah can be summed up by understanding what God wants from us. In the Book of Micha, it is written, “You have been told O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, to love mercy and to walk modestly with your God.” For the prophet, Justice and Mercy, making life fairer is critical in living a Godly life. For all too many religious people, religion is something to throw in the face of others; to let everyone know that they are more “observant” than everyone else. But we must never lose sight of humility

 

Rabbi Jeffery Salkin, in his book, “The Gods are Broken writes, “We have our work cut out for us; to be careful about what we worship, for truly what we worship is what we become.” The words of Torah can sometimes help us and sometimes they are not much help at all. Just because there are some things in the Torah that we don’t like, does not mean that there is nothing for us. In many ways, how other people see us depends on what verses from the bible we take into our lives, and which verses we leave behind. At different moments in our lives we may come to understand those rejected verses in a new way that will bring a new and different meaning into our lives.

 

The Talmud in Hagigah tries to help us understand the complicated nature of how Torah should guide our lives. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah notes that there are Sages who sit in assembly and study the Torah. Some of them prohibiting and some permitting the same thing; some declaring things unfit and some declaring the same things fit. But if a person might say that “How then can I learn Torah? It all seems so confusing” Rabbi Elazar reminds us that they all come from one shepherd. Different sages may interpret the law differently in different circumstances. Everyone who reads Torah, Rabbi and lay person alike, all see something different in the text. By studying the different interpretations, we get a richer and fuller understanding of what God desires for us. If we follow only one person, we may be led astray, but if we study all the different sages, we can find God for ourselves in the words of Torah. It takes time and it takes humility.

 

 

Thus, it is the flexibility of Torah that makes it work in countries and cultures that are far away in time and space from the slopes of Mt. Sinai. If love is what the Torah is all about, the essence of Torah exists not on paper or on a scroll, but it lives in our hearts and minds as we discuss its living words.

 

The Rabbis insist that as we read Torah, we must look to God and imitate God’s actions. After all, if we are created in the image of God, if we are created by God, we must therefore act like God. God sets an example for us in the words of Torah and we need to see them as our call to action. This is not as impossible as it seems. The Talmud, in Tractate Sotah reads: Rabbi Hama said in the name of Rabbi Hanina. “The Torah teaches us to “Follow Adonai your God” Is it possible for a mortal to follow God’s presence.? The verse means to teach us that we should follow the attributes of the Holy One. As God clothes the naked, you should clothe the naked. The Holy One visited the sick; You should visit the sick. The Holy One comforted those who mourned; You should comfort those who mourn.”

 

We can’t part the sea or bring manna for everyone to eat, but we can see God’s actions as acts of love to us human beings and at least be as loving to each other as God has been to us. Tradition tells us that we should say 100 blessings a day in thanks for all the good that God does for us. We should therefore try to do as close to 100 acts of kindness each day as our way of imitating God. The Torah is teaching us to care for each other.

 

 

We come to shul to pray but that is not the only reason to visit the synagogue. This is the only place in our community where we can find a seat at the table to study Torah. One of the designations of a synagogue is a Bet Sefer, a school where all can study. Synagogues are not just places for children to learn or just for Bar/Bat Mitzvah lessons; Our mission as a synagogue includes being a place of lifelong Jewish learning. That is why the leader of a synagogue is called a rabbi; the word means someone who is a master teacher. And here we learn the important lessons that make life worth living.

 

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner compares Torah to a mirror. What we find in the text, reflects back on us. When we look in a mirror, we say one of two things: “Looking good!” or “Oy!” We should have the same reaction when we look in the mirror of Torah, to see ourselves as God sees us. What then should we say when we look in the Torah and read; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and might”? What should we say when we read, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep in holy”? What do we see when we read in the Torah, “You shall be holy for the Lord your God is holy”? Will it be “looking good” or will it be “oy!”?

 

Make this year 5780, be the year that we look closely at the legacy, the treasure, that is our heritage. Let us learn that the box, the book, that we hold in our hands is NOT empty at all but it contains a piece of the sky, a piece of God that is right in our laps, waiting for us to open the cover and see the part of ourselves that Torah contains. We have seminars, classes and lectures right here, in this building, all through the year. We teach Torah and prayer; we share books that we have read, and we discuss important questions. Here we look at the topics of discussion from history to see how they are still important today.

 

 May we use this year to learn about what has inspired Jews for thousands of years to stay close to their faith and consider what it means to live a Jewish life. May we find in the year ahead not just knowledge about Judaism, but may we find the wisdom that envelopes each and every word of Torah. Torah is meant to be studied and discussed not just one day or one year, but for a lifetime. Now is the time to find the piece of the sky that is part of who we are before we and our children are divorced from it forever. Set an example to children by signing up for a seminar here at the synagogue. Find a Torah commentary (or ask the Rabbi to suggest one) and read a section of it every week. Find a book and read it with a friend and discuss together what it means in your life, and if you get stuck – then ask the Rabbi for help. Open the box/the book/and see for yourself that it is not empty, that it contains a special gift just for you, if you take the time and make the effort to claim it.

 

We are starting this evening the longest day of prayer. We are determined that, beginning today, the coming year will be better than the last year. We can be sure of this if we take the time to do some learning in the year ahead. Let this be the year we begin our own lifelong learning program so we can discover the values that are important to us. Let this be the year we see past the emptiness in life to find the hand of God that is all around us.

 

Torah is much more than silly children’s stories. It is the roadmap for living. And all along the road there are sites to see and people to experience. Look again at the words of Torah, turn them over and over and see the many facets of the words until they shine like the facets of a diamond. May we find in God’s Torah the treasure that we were meant to own. May we find God in every word we study.                                                       As we say …. Amen and Gemar Tov.

 

Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on October 8, 2019

Wed, April 8 2020 14 Nisan 5780