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”

A Purim D’var from some years back

D’var Torah – Purim 5751 / March 18, 2011

Rabbi Maurice Harris

Shabbat shalom.  Tonight I’d like to focus on Purim, since it comes but once a year and arrives tomorrow night.  Edith Deen writes, “Like many of the great characters in history, Esther makes her first appearance as one of the humblest of figures, an orphan Jewess.”[1]  Deen is right.  Esther – also known by her Hebrew name, Hadassah – is introduced to us as an adopted child.  The scroll of Esther states at its outset that her parents had died, and that she was raised by her cousin, the pious and virtuous Mordechai.

As many of you know, Esther is not alone in the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible – as an adopted child who goes on to become a hero.  The same holds true for Moses, who was adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the Egyptian court.  Like Esther, Moses also redeems his people from catastrophe.

Joseph, of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame in the Book of Genesis, comes to mind as well.  Although he lived to be a teenager under his father’s roof, his mother died when he was young and, when his jealous brothers sold him to slave-traders and told their father that he was dead, Joseph became an orphan of sorts.  Bereft of his birth family, the sheltered and pampered youth goes on to save the day.

So what is it with orphans in the Bible, or for that matter, in the great stories of mythology and even Hollywood fame?  We humans, the world over, seem to love a good story about a child overcoming this form of adversity only to rise to greatness.  The Torah is emphatically clear that wronging the orphan is a sure way to invite God’s wrath.  In Exodus chapter 22, God tells us: You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn…  And the prophet, Hosea, says about God:  In you the orphan finds mercy.

I’ve been teaching a unit in my 7th grade religious school class on the many ways the Jewish people have conceived of God over the centuries.  One of the things that stands out when you look at how our biblical ancestors described God’s attributes is that God cares especially for the poor and the most vulnerable.  God feels a special closeness to orphans, it seems.  Psalm 68 includes a verse with some striking language about orphans.  God is called avi yitomim, the father of all orphans.  Maybe this explains the intensity of the warning God gives against harming orphans in Exodus 22.

Continue reading “A Purim D’var from some years back”