The Main thing and the Details – Yom Kippur Sermon for String of Pearls Congregation 2021/5782

Kol Nidrei sermon 2021 / 5782 – Rabbi Maurice Harris

In the Talmud there’s a well-known story. It’s one of countless Talmudic stories about two great early rabbinic sages, Hillel and Shammai, who debated hundreds of legal, ethical, and spiritual questions. Hillel was known for his flexibility, compassion, and humanity. Shammai was an engineer and a rigid thinker, and he was known for his insistence on detail and his strictness. In the Talmud, the rabbis as a whole almost always side with Hillel, though Shammai’s views win out in debate from time to time. 

This parable, which you may have heard before, goes like this: Once there was a non-Jewish person who came before Shammai, and said to him: “Convert me to Judaism on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” 

Elsewhere, the Talmud has another passage, not as well-known, that teaches, in brief simplicity, this: “In essence, God desires the heart.” In the original Aramic, it’s expressed in three short words: rachmana liba ba’ey. The Compassionate One wants the heart. 

That passage became one of the guiding spiritual principles of a charismatic 18th century rabbi who lived near the Ukranian-Polish border. He became known by his nickname, the Baal Shem Tov, which in Hebrew means “the master of the good name,” and he moved thousands of people with his simple folktales that offered spiritual insight and a subtle critique of other factions within the Jewish community that focused all of their energy on Talmud study and its endless details. The Baal Shem Tov founded the Jewish religious movement known as Hasidism, which emphasized the importance of simplicity, sincerity, and earnest devotion over and above great knowledge of all the intricacies of the Talmud. One of the Baal Shem Tov’s most famous parables goes like this:

“One year, on the holiest and most solemn day in the Jewish calendar – Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) – a poor Jewish boy, an illiterate shepherd, entered the synagogue where he was praying. Now on Yom Kippur the entire Jewish community adhered to a detailed set of practices with great rigor – including fasting and offering an incredibly lengthy set of prescribed liturgical prayers and rituals. The poor illiterate boy was deeply moved by the service, but frustrated that he could not read the prayers. Spontaneously, he started to whistle. It was the one thing he knew he could do beautifully; he wanted to offer his whistling as a gift to God. The congregation was horrified at the desecration of their service. Some people yelled at the boy, and others wanted to throw him out. The Ba’al Shem Tov immediately stopped them. “Until now,” he said, “I could feel our prayers being blocked as they tried to reach the heavenly court. This young shepherd’s whistling was so pure, however, that it broke through the blockage and brought all of our prayers straight up to God.”  

 The Hillel/Shammai story and the Ba’al Shem Tov parable both seem to be saying: remember to keep the main thing the main thing. Don’t let the details – the many prescribed rules and procedures, the advanced precision and minutia – obscure the main intention, the big picture. 

Hillel and the Ba’al Shem Tov both became renowned for pushing back against the impulse many other rabbis tended to have to make Judaism ever more detailed and complicated. In the Mishnah, the earliest known collection of rabbinic writing, a famous passage instructs us to “make a fence around the Torah,” which was understood to mean that rabbis should create many rules designed to steer the masses far away from sin. If the Torah commands that we not work on Shabbat and that Shabbat starts at sundown, the rabbis built a fence by saying that people have to stop working X number of minutes before sundown. If the Torah says don’t do business on Shabbat, the rabbis build a fence by saying don’t even physically touch or handle any kind of money on Shabbat.

And in this manner, Judaism – in particular rabbinic Judaism – became famous for having many, many rules. Instead of 613 commandments, it was like the rabbis decided to add a zero onto the end of that number, just to make sure the core 613 were never at risk of being violated. Judaism didn’t only become famous for developing such a complex and detail-oreinted pattern of observance – it also became ridiculed and criticized for it. Some of that critique came from within Judaism – from sages like Hillel and the Ba’al Shem Tov, and quite a few others as well. Some of it came from our sibling religions, Christianity and Islam, both of which include scriptrual stories that describe Jews as being so obsessed with following endless details and ritual minutiae that they often end up missing the main idea that God was trying to impart to them. It’s not an unreasonable critique, and in fact it would be wrong to say that Judaism is a religion that only cares about the details of law and ritual practice. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible are the first to push back against going too far in that direction, including Isaiah, whose words we read on Yom Kippur. Several of the great prophets of our tradition warn against ritual without love, against piety without working for social justice, and they sometimes go so far as to say that God would prefer it if people would transgress the detailed practices if they would simply get the big picture mitzvot right – you know, the love your neighbor one and the don’t trample on the poor and the stranger one. 

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The Sum of All Fears shows how a movie with a ton of dumb stuff happening in it can also have profound moments

Tonight, for the first time, I watched the 2002 Morgan Freeman / Ben Affleck spy thriller movie, The Sum of All Fears, based on Tom Clancy’s 1991 novel of the same name. Not knowing anything about the plot, I was hoping to be swept up into a smart, twisty espionage movie with plausible crises, fast-paced action, suspense, and some strong characters with good chemistry between them.

But the movie blew up my suspension of disbelief in its opening scene, because the series of events it presented were, just frankly, impossible. It opens on an Israeli military air base on October 9, 1973, during the Yom Kippur War (or October War or Ramadan War depending on which side you supported). The Egyptian and Syrian forces have made strong gains after their surprise coordinated attack, and Israel decides to launch a fighter jet with a single tactical nuke on board. The pilot’s mission is to stay airborne and wait for orders. If the Israeli ground troops were to start to be completely overrun, the order will be given to him to nuke some enemy target.

As these kinds of movies go, so far so good. I’m pretty sure that in real life no Israeli plane actually took off with a nuke on board. It’s possible Clancy was using artistic license to expand on news reports that then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir did elevate the nuclear alert level, but I’ve yet to read any news stories of an Israeli fighter jet zipping around in Syrian or Egyptian airspace with a nuke in its belly. But for a fictional story, I can work with an alternative possible history imagining what might have happened if something important had gone differently than it did in reality.

Story premise: Israel misplaces a nuke in its own backyard but decides to do nothing to find it for 30 years. Whoops.

But the opening scene went off the rails in the first few minutes. You see, the brave Israeli fighter jet pilot – presumably the best pilot in one of the world’s most highly regarded air forces – is flying low over desert terrain that looks a lot like the Sinai, and he does something no pilot would never do. He has a photo of his wife and child perched on the instrument panel. He hits a bit of turbulence, and the photo falls from where he can see it into a hard to reach space near the floor of the cockpit. So what does this world class fighter pilot, who is flying low to the ground to avoid radar and is carrying a live nuke, decide to do? He starts reaching down with one hand and stretching uncomfortably to try to grab the fallen photo, and when he frustratingly can’t get a grip on it, he stops looking out the front windshield, and leans down awkwardly to try to find the photo. When he sits back up straight again, he screams because – forehead slap – he’s about to crash into a hill. Which he does. The plane, the bomb, and the pilot all get hurled into the sand. The pilot is dead and the plane smashed to bits. The nuke is dented here and there but remains intact, unexploded, and half-buried in the desert sand.

Next the screen tells us it’s 29 years later., and we see two Arab men who apparently make some money by looking for discarded military equipment and ordinance from previous wars, collecting a bunch of it, and then selling it to different black market buyers who find some of it useful. They stumble upon the buried Israeli nuke. They don’t know it’s a nuke – but it’s clearly a bomb of some sort. They dig it up, get it on their truck, and end up selling it to some European creep who turns out to be part of a neo-Nazi plot that seeks to acquire a nuke and other WMDs.

So that’s the opening premise. The Israelis secretly put a pilot in the air with a tactical nuke as a last ditch deterrent in case the war on the ground looked like it was about to turn into a total collapse for Israel. Is that much a plausible premise? I mean, okay, why not, you gotta be willing to suspend some disbelief and not get hung up on questions like whether sending up a plane that could crash, be shot down, or even be captured with a single nuke in its hold would be the way that an Israeli head of state would go about making the threat of a nuclear strike known to their enemies.

But we’re supposed to believe the plane crashes because the pilot pulled an Albert Brooks move from Defending Your Life? No way.

And then what happens? The Israeli army has now lost a nuke, somewhere in the desert, possibly still in Israeli controlled territory, or possibly Egyptian or Syrian territory. So what do the Israelis do? They leave it, lost somewhere in the sand. They don’t go get it. They just shrug and go, “welp, heh heh, sorry to all of our allies – especially you, America – but we kind of lost one of our nukes in the desert and we can’t think of any way to organize a mission to retrieve it. Oh, and just to clarify, we aren’t saying we have nuclear weapons. But if we do have them, well, we have them minus one that we are supposed to have. Which we’re not going to bother to try to find and get back. Shalom.”

This is the Israelis, mind you. Not exactly the Keystone Cops of military action. The army that busted into Entebbe airport in Uganda in order to rescue Israeli hostages. They are supposed to be, like, “Yeah, we can’t go looking in a stretch of barely populated desert nearby for a missing nuke.”

Next comes some Hollywood laziness. Because we are told that the two Arab scavengers who found the nuke live in the Golan. Take a look at the landscape of where the Israeli fighter pilot crashes his jet, and where the wreckage of the plane has come to rest:

This is the Golan Heights? It looks like the Sinai desert. Seriously, I’m waiting for some modern day cinematic Moses to walk into the scene of the wreckage and take a close up look at the burning mush that is this shark-jumping movie premise. I’m half-expecting Mark Watney to amble along in his EVA suit. Just in case you’re not familiar with what the Golan looks like, here’s a pic from the Lonely Planet guide to visiting the Golan:

Also, and pay close attention here, if the Israelis lost one of their nukes in 1973 in the Golan, then that means they lost it in territory they controlled and then annexed a few years later. They wouldn’t even need to do a Mission Impossible style nuke retrieval in hostile enemy territory commando op. They would just need to look around for it while they were actively building new Israeli neighborhoods and communities in the Golan.

Continue reading “The Sum of All Fears shows how a movie with a ton of dumb stuff happening in it can also have profound moments”

Fearing the change that has already happened

A piece I wrote in 2011 – wondering if it still holds up to the scrutiny of hindsight given the last decade’s events.

Recently I saw Romney on TV warning that Obama is on a mission to change America into a country that we hardly recognize, and that this election represents our last chance to stop him before we lose “the America we know.” Echoing this message of cultural paranoia, last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC provided a platform for the most extreme versions of this thought, including panelists associated with white nationalist and anti-immigrant groups. The GOP’s core campaign message so far appears to be “Obama is dangerous because he isn’t really one of us.” 

In the first couple years of Obama’s presidency, the right promoted this message in the form of “birtherism” and the “he’s a Muslim” claim. Now they’re pushing it in the form of the “he’s a European socialist” canard. In the space of three years, right wing paranoia has moved the geographic location of Obama’s Otherness from Kenya, where he wasn’t born, to Mecca, towards which he doesn’t pray, to Western Europe, whose fully socialized medicine he didn’t promote. Republicans are going to need a GPS navigation system to keep the American people up to date on the geography of their fictional portrayals of Obama. 

The truth, however, is not that Obama is trying to change America into a country we won’t recognize, but rather that the GOP’s leaders don’t recognize the country that America has already become. America has already changed into, and will continue to become, an ever-more-diverse nation of many cultures, religions, and ideas. Before anybody knew who Barack Obama was, this change had already taken root. Obama is an American with mixed racial heritage and family ties to Kansas, Hawaii, Kenya, and Indonesia. He also has Muslim, Christian, and even Jewish relatives. He is a walking American melting pot who could only have become president long after the death of Jim Crow America. What the fearful right doesn’t see is that Obama is an awful lot like most people in this country – mixed heritage, ties to different strands of the weave of this nation, and a values system that has tolerance and respect for all these different cultural elements. 

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Abraham, Isaac, and Bob

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 – Sermon 2021 / 5782 – String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation (Princeton, NJ)

Rabbi Maurice Harris                           

Shana Tova to one and all. I’d like to talk about midrash this morning. Midrash and Bob Dylan. And then invite us to have a chance to break into small groups for a bit of discussion. I’m not sure where the inspiration for this came from, so I hope you’ll indulge me and see what we discover together. 

First, a word about midrash. I know many of us are already familiar with what midrash is, but because we are all bringing different kinds of knowledge to this moment, let me start with a definition. 

Midrash, and I’m quoting someone here, “…can be described as a form of storytelling that explores ethics and values in biblical texts.” Midrash adds to, expands upon, or even challenges the plain meaning of the biblical texts it works with. It is a method and a form of biblical interpretation that is open to multiple interpretations of biblical texts. In many ways it is creative and almost free form, yet it does follow certain rules and traditions. There is no one set of books called “The Midrash” – midrash is a disorganized collection of writings scattered across many different anthologies.

Midrashim – the plural of the word in Hebrew – often take the form of stories elaborating on incidents in the Bible, to derive a principle of Jewish law or provide a moral lesson. The ancient rabbis would create midrashim in response to something puzzling, interesting, disturbing, or confusing in a biblical text. Any number of bumps or oddities in the Hebrew of a biblical passage could trigger the sages to develop a midrash – an explanation or fanciful story that would provide an explanation for the unusual or perplexing feature in the text.

The tradition of developing midrash took hold in early rabbinic communities up and down the land of Ancient Israel during the time when the Second Temple – the one that the Romans destroyed about 2000 years ago – still stood in Jerusalem. After the Roman destruction and the beginning of the great exile of the Jews, midrash became one of the ancient rabbis’ primary tools for reinterpreting the Bible to make it speak to their time and situation. 

Let me offer an example. In the Book of Genesis, chapter 13, we find this passage in which God says to Abraham: 

“Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust (!) of the earth; only if a person could count all the dust of the earth could they actually count the number of your future descendants. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

Genesis 13:14-17

In the aftermath of the great Roman destruction, the surviving rabbis were struck by something curious in this text. They wondered why God tells Abraham that God will make his offspring like the dust of the earth, when God could have used a different metaphor that might be a little less, well, dusty and, well, dirt-like. In fact, two chapters later in Genesis 15:5, God repeats the promise to Abraham of uncountably large numbers of descendants, but in that text God says to Abraham, ““Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!” Why not just stick with stars – why also dust? This question led to the development of the following midrash

Why in the Torah does God say to Abraham, I WILL MAKE YOUR OFFSPRING LIKE THE DUST OF THE EARTH? Why dust?… Here is what God was trying to say to Abraham: just as the dust of the earth extends from one end of the earth to the other, so too your children will be scattered from one end of the world to the other. … And as dust is made to be trampled on, so your children too will be made for kingdoms to trample on. Also, as dust wears vessels of metal away, but itself endures forever, so with the people Israel: all the idolatrous nations shall disappear, but the Jewish people will endure.

Genesis Rabbah 41.9

What a poignant glimpse this midrash offers us – not so much of what the actual meaning of the verse in Genesis is – but of how a newly scattered and exiled people saw their own predicament woven into the words of the Torah itself. And that brings me to the main idea I’d like to explore with you: that midrash is often a mirror, a mirror that allows us to look at an ancient bit of the Bible, bring in our imagination and our literary creativity, and discover something of our own situation refracted through the prism of the original text. 

Continue reading “Abraham, Isaac, and Bob”

Surrender, Chutzpah, and Being in It Together

Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2021 / 5782 for String of Pearls – Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation (Princeton, NJ)

By Rabbi Maurice Harris

Shana Tovah to everyone. 

One of the most wondrous names of God in the Torah is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. This is the divine name that means, “I Am Who I Am.” You may remember the scene when God introduces Godself by this name. It’s from Moses’s encounter at the Burning Bush, that scraggly thornbush on the slopes of Mount Sinai that Moses approached because it strangely appeared to be on fire, but not burning up. That’s where God first spoke to Moses. And where God told Moses to go to Egypt and tell the Hebrews that the God of their ancestors has sent him to be the instrument of their liberation. Here’s how the scene plays out from there in the text:

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh – I am who I am.’ This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am’ has sent me to you.’” 

Genesis 3:14

Can you imagine being Moses in that moment? First off, you might be thinking “this is a profound, mind-blowing experience. This must really be the Living God and Creator because It just told me that Its name is all-encompassing, inscrutable, fluid, beautiful, immense, abstract, and intimate all at the same time.” But if you were Moses you might also be thinking, “Hang on a moment. How am I not going to be run out of town on a rail by the Hebrews if I show up – a runaway fugitive from justice in Egypt and a former member of the royal family now claiming to be Jewish – and I tell them their God has sent me back to Egypt to liberate them, and then – when they ask for God’s name – I tell them it’s something like the riddle of existence, and that they should trust me?” 

Moses’s predicament is even worse than that, because grammatically it’s not clear whether what God tells Moses is that God’s name is “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” In Biblical Hebrew, the verb tense is unclear – it could be present or future. (If you want to get really nerdy about it, it can also be causative – “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.” If you open up a typical English translation of the Bible – Jewish or Christian – there’s a good chance you’ll see a little footnote tagged to this phrase, which will take you to an editor’s note that states some of the other possible translations. 

I think there’s a lesson here about both God’s nature and ours, one that’s connected to this time of year in the Jewish calendar – this time of self-reflection, of personal moral accounting, of seeking forgiveness and of working to try to become better versions of ourselves in the coming year. God reveals a crucial aspect of Godself to Moses with this famous declaration – and it’s a really intimate thing God shares. God says “I am who I am” and “I will be who I will be” in the same breath. Both are simultaneously true. And both leave us with a lot of questions. When God says “I am who I am,” does God mean to say that God also doesn’t fully understand Godself, but on some level simply accepts who God is? When God says “I will be who I will be,” does that mean God doesn’t know what God’s future being will be like – is God becoming at all times and developing in ways that the God of the moment can’t predict?

Continue reading “Surrender, Chutzpah, and Being in It Together”