My latest thoughts on the Jewish festival of Shavuot, as presented in the Jewish Exponent: https://www.jewishexponent.com/consider-how-revelation-happens/. Please visit the link, or click on the image above, to head over there and read it. Would love to hear your comments too!
Category: Sermons / Divrei Torah
5 easy steps to writing a good d’var Torah
My little 7 and a half minute video that presents an easy strategy for writing a d’var Torah!
“What kind of a resurrection is this?” Video presentation
This is a presentation I offered based on part of my 2019 book, The Forgotten Sage: Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah and the Birth of Judaism as We Know It. It starts with a translation (or to be more accurate, a translation that I’ve modified and enhanced a bit for clarity) of a well-known story in the Babylonian Talmud describing the final days of Jerusalem before the Roman invasion in 70 CE.
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.Continue reading “The Main thing and the Details – Yom Kippur Sermon for String of Pearls Congregation 2021/5782”
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.’”Exodus 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”
In God’s Image; Working for Justice
A short invocation I gave on November 8, 2020, in Norristown, PA at the invitation of People 1st PA and other progressive organizations.
My name is Rabbi Maurice Harris, I live in Montgomery County, and I’m honored to start us off with a few words. I’ve been asked to speak for a few minutes and to offer a prayer. In my tradition learning is itself a kind of prayer, so I’d like to share some of my recent learning with you, and close with the kind of prayer that can be summed up in two words: “Help us.”
First, the learning part. You’ve probably heard before that all of the major monotheistic religions teach that every human being is created in God’s image. The first place we find this idea in the Hebrew Bible is in the very first chapter of Genesis. There we read:
And God said, “Let us make the human being in our image, patterned after our design. And God created humankind in God’s image; in the image of the Divine, God created the first human; male and female, God created them.”
Some of you might be asking, “Wait, what about the Adam and Eve in the garden story?” That story is in the Bible too, but there are two accounts of the creation in the Bible, and the one that speaks to this moment, and to the work of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, is the one I’ve just quoted from. The one in which the first human created by God has no specific gender, is the ancestor of all humans to come, and is created in God’s image. All people – you, me, our neighbors, our ancestors, our allies and our oppressors – all of us bear the seal and imprint of the Creative Consciousness at the heart of Reality.Continue reading “In God’s Image; Working for Justice”
“Trust, Release, Ask” – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781 / 2020 Sermon
Rabbi Maurice Harris
String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation
Shana Tova. It’s an honor to be with the String of Pearls community this year for the High Holidays. Though we are connecting online and not in person, we are connected by many invisible lines extending across distance and time.
Tonight I’d like to talk a little bit about coping. Coping with fear, with uncertainty, with loss, and with the stresses of living in some of the hardest times we’ve shared as a society. I’d like to offer up an exercise, especially for when the craziness of life feels like it’s just too hard. It’s a practice that I call “Trust, Release, Ask.”
Trust. A lot of what goes on in the world of religion attempts to instill fear in people. Fear that God is going to judge them and punish them. Fear that people will be hurt or tortured, if not in this life, than in an afterlife. We don’t have as much of this kind of thinking and teaching in modern Judaism as in some other religions, but we have our versions of it. The everyday world we live in also gives us plenty of opportunities to be fearful – I don’t think I need to list out what the past months have brought all of us in terms of shock, anxiety, disillusionment, outrage, and despair. It’s been rough.
It was already rough for so many people who tend to get overlooked or diminished in this world, no doubt, and at the same time there’s no question that the past year has been intense in its particular combination of terrible things. Our fears are understandable, and yet at the same time, our tradition teaches that fear is not a foundation to build a life upon. We ultimately have to decide whether we want to fear the Universe we are a part of, or whether we want to try our best to trust it – trust that whatever suffering may come and go as part of life and death, that the Universe holds us and that we belong to it.
What I wish all of us would do, whether as part of our religious teachings or our general social values – is to help children from the youngest age develop a deep, abiding sense of inner trust that they are part of something greater – something creative, wonderful, and alive. That they are part of the Life of the Universe itself, which many of us call God – and that even though this life includes joy and pain, birth and death, it is something eternal and good that they are a part of that they can fully and entirely trust with all their being. Imagine if you had been told this every day of your life from the moment you could first understand the words, and others around you over and over again reinforced the message that you are part of something greater, the mysterious force of Life itself, and that you are loved and held by that power in a way that will never end.Continue reading ““Trust, Release, Ask” – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781 / 2020 Sermon”
Revolutionary Love – a talk for Yom Kippur 5781 / 2020
I shared this talk with String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation on September 27, 2020.
Good Yontiff. For those of you who joined us for Rosh Hashanah, welcome back. And for those just joining us for the first time, it’s good to be connected with you tonight.
Tonight I’d like to talk about what Valerie Kaur calls “Revolutionary Love.” If you haven’t had the chance to read or listen to Valerie Kaur, you are in for a wonderful discovery should you decide to look her up. She is a civil rights lawyer, filmmaker, and is the founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, which I’ll say more about in a moment. She is also a Sikh-American – a member of the Sikh religion. If you’ve ridden a subway or gone to the grocery store and seen people wearing cloth turbans, there’s a good chance they are Sikhs.
Sikhism is a 500 year old religion that was founded in the Punjab region of what is now part of India and Pakistan. Its founder, Guru Nanak, was a witness to terrible violence between Hindus and Muslims, and he founded a new monothesitic religion based on core beliefs that are similar to those of many of the world’s religions and prophets. Sikhism teaches that all are equal before God – a teaching that we emphasize in Judaism through our practice of burying our dead in a simple cloth shroud in a modest coffin. Sikhism also stresses the obligation to treat everyone equally, to be generous with all in need, and to be brave and stand up to defend those who are being oppressed.
It’s that last part that may distinguish Sikhism a bit from the other monotheistic religions. What I mean by that is this: all of the monotheistic religions share the same core values. We know this. One God. Do unto others. Justice, justice shall you pursue. But there are different insights, emphases, and commitments that jump out from different religions, in the same way that all doughnuts are made of dough and taste good, but they have different fillings and icings that distinguish one kind from another. I know: did the rabbi really just make a food analogy when we have only just begun fasting? And did he mention doughnuts, no less?
Guilty as charged. I ask for your forgiveness.Continue reading “Revolutionary Love – a talk for Yom Kippur 5781 / 2020”
Yom Hashoah 2020 / 5780
Primo Levi wrote: “Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea.”
So much of what he described characterizes our time, here in the US, and in so many other parts of the world. It’s in the macho strutting of Bolsonaro in Brazil, the craven racism of Netanyahu and his allies, the smirk Putin wears, the raging tantrums of Trump, the successful con-artistry of Nigel Farage, the entitled murderous manipulations of MBS. Here we are.
Thankfully, there are a zillion people refusing to consent to these authoritarian delusions. Levi also wrote of his time in Auschwitz, “…We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last — the power to refuse our consent.” There are, all over this country and throughout the world, all kinds of people who are repeatedly refusing their consent. I put my faith in them, and in my own determination to be counted among them.
I see a connection to a very different text – a biblical text from Psalm 146:
אַשְׁרֵ֗י שֶׁ֤אֵ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֣ב בְּעֶזְר֑וֹ שִׂ֝בְר֗וֹ עַל־ה’ אֱלֹהָֽיו׃
Happy is the person who has the God of Jacob for help, whose hope is in the ETERNAL ONE,
עֹשֶׂ֤ה שָׁ֘מַ֤יִם וָאָ֗רֶץ אֶת־הַיָּ֥ם וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֑ם הַשֹּׁמֵ֖ר אֱמֶ֣ת לְעוֹלָֽם׃
maker of heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them; who safeguards truth throughout all times and places;
עֹשֶׂ֤ה מִשְׁפָּ֨ט לָעֲשׁוּקִ֗ים נֹתֵ֣ן לֶ֭חֶם לָרְעֵבִ֑ים ה’ מַתִּ֥יר אֲסוּרִֽים׃
who makes justice for those who are oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The ALMIGHTY sets prisoners free;
ה’ פֹּ֘קֵ֤חַ עִוְרִ֗ים ה’ זֹקֵ֣ף כְּפוּפִ֑ים ה’ אֹהֵ֥ב צַדִּיקִֽים׃
The ALL-SEEING ONE restores sight to the blind; the SOURCE OF LIFE makes those who are bent stand straight; the TRUE JUDGE loves the righteous;
ה’ שֹׁ֘מֵ֤ר אֶת־גֵּרִ֗ים יָת֣וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֣ה יְעוֹדֵ֑ד וְדֶ֖רֶךְ רְשָׁעִ֣ים יְעַוֵּֽת׃
The SOUL OF THE UNIVERSE watches over the stranger; God gives courage to the orphan and widow, but makes the path of the wicked go crooked.
May the power we hold, to refuse our consent to authoritarian rule, and to continue to seek fairness, justice, peace, and empathy, be nourished by the Source of Life and the True Judge. May we strengthen one another’s hands in this effort. May the memory of the 6 million Jews and the millions of other peoples and groups who were murdered by the wicked Nazis and their supporters be a blessing and an inspiration for all of us to continue working for a world redeemed.