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”

D’var Torah – Chukat/Balak

Chukat-Balak D’var Torah 5769 / July 3, 2009

Rabbi Maurice Harris

This week we’ve come to a double Torah portion, pairing Chukat and Balak, two of the portions that bring us to the final chapters of the Israelites’ forty year saga of journeying through the wilderness.  

The parasha opens with a famously intriguing description of a ritual of purification involving the ashes of a red heifer.  The priests are to take an unblemished red cow and burn it along with cedar wood, hyssop and crimson stuff. The ashes are then gathered up and used to create sacred waters which are sprinkled on individuals who have come in contact with the dead to ritually cleanse them.  

Until now, the book of the Torah we are in – the Book of Numbers – has told us stories that have taken place during the first two years of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt.  But now the narrative takes a sudden 38 year jump forward. The generation that witnessed the 10 plagues, that left Egypt, that miraculously crossed the Sea of Reeds on dry land, and that experienced the thundering presence of God at Mount Sinai has died now in the wilderness.  With the exception of just a few elders like Moses, his brother Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, a new generation born in the wilderness has now taken the previous generation’s place. With this 38 year jump, our Torah portion presents us with, in fact, a new nation of Israelites with a new mission.  The previous generation’s mission was escape from slavery and the receiving and incorporating of the laws that God provided the nation at Mount Sinai. This generation’s mission will be to maintain those laws and traditions, and to enter and establish themselves in the Promised Land. So our story presents us with a new generation still led by the previous generation’s elders.

But that changes quickly.  Quickly we learn about the death of Miriam as the people are encamped at Kadesh.  Following her death, Moses and Aaron are faced with a crisis. Here’s how the passage reads in translation: Continue reading “D’var Torah – Chukat/Balak”

Aretha Franklin will save America

Maybe our republic is finished. But America also produced Aretha Franklin.

Aretha Franklin can’t be erased from the story of America.

Neither can Gwendolyn Brooks.

James Baldwin, John Lewis, and Harvey Milk can’t be retracted from America’s story.

Neither can Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, and Emma Lazarus.

Cesar Chavez cannot be removed. Neither can Jackie Robinson.

Bob Dylan, Rosa Parks, and Eleanor Roosevelt can’t be excised from the American story.

Lincoln, FDR, and Obama are part of the permanent furniture.

Dr. King is America, and so is Bayard Rustin.
Same goes for Mark Twain.

The Abolitionists can’t be expunged from the historical record.

Harriet Tubman can’t be either.

Jane Addams and Eugene Debs, Margaret Sanger and Saul Alinsky: American to the core.

A. Philip Randolph and Rachel Carson, Thurgood Marshall and Ella Baker,

Dolores Huerta and Abraham Joshua Heschel: red, white and blue forever.

Townes Van Zandt, Woody Guthrie, R.E.M., and Bruce Springsteen are part of this nation.

Harper Lee and Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Warren and Sister Helen Prejean, Sojourner Truth and Freddy Mercury, Paul Robeson and Alice Paul – from sea to shining sea.

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I just gotta remember this in these frightening days … help me, Higher Power, help me to remember this.