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”

D’var Torah – Nitzavim-Vayelekh (5770/2010)

D’var Torah – Nitzavim/Vayelech 5770

Rabbi Maurice Harris – Temple Beth Israel – Eugene, OR

Shabbat shalom to everyone on this, the last Shabbat before the Jewish New Year of 5771 begins. I hope to see all of you this Wednesday night, Thursday morning, Thursday night and Friday morning for Rosh Hashanah services, and then again Friday night and Saturday morning for Shabbat Shuvah services. It’s a lot of davenning, a lot of togetherness, and I pledge to bring my breath mints if you will too.

In our annual journey through the Torah, we’ve gotten very close to the end of the scroll. This week we’ve arrived at the double Torah portion known as Nitzavim/Vayelech. It begins with well-known words, spoken by Moses to the Israelites: atem nitzavim kool-chem ha-yom leefnay adonay. One translation reads: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal One your God.”

It’s a moment in which Moses tells the Hebrews that they are about to enter into a covenant with God and in the fullest sense, become a nation bonded with God. There are several moments of covenant between God and Israel in Torah, and this one stands prominently alongside the pact made between God and the people earlier in the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Now, the Israelites are poised to enter the Promised Land in just a matter of days or weeks, though, sadly, Moses won’t be making that journey with them. But for now, Moses informs them that they are about to ratify, once again, their sacred agreement, their eternal pact with God, as they get ready to transform from a wandering tribe of Hebrews to a nation within a land.

Moses goes on to remind the Israelites that if they keep the covenant they will create a just and prosperous society, and enjoy peace with their neighbors. If they violate the covenant, however, there will be sad and painful consequences. Ultimately, the land will spit them out, and they will find themselves in exile. Their beloved promised land will fall into ruin and destruction on such a scale that neighboring nations will pity them.

We read these words with dramatic irony. As readers we know that not one but two bitter and catastrophic exiles await the Israelites in the centuries after Moses’s life. After warning the Israelites that exile will be the cost of breaking the covenant, Moses tries to offer them hope should they ever find themselves in exile in the future. Here’s some of what he says:

When all these things happen to you [meaning when you do inevitably violate this covenant and find yourselves exiled from your land] … should you take [all that I’ve said] to heart amidst the various nations to which the Eternal your God has banished you, and should you then return to the Eternal your God, and you and your children heed God’s command with all your heart and spiritthen the Eternal your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in motherly-love. God will bring you together again from all the peoples where the Eternal your God has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the sky, from there the Eternal your God will gather you, from there God will fetch you. And the Eternal your God will bring you to the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it; and God will make you more numerous than your ancestors were.

If we stop and look at this passage closely, we start to see how extraordinary it is. Here is Moses, giving his final speeches to a people he knows is deeply flawed, yet full of promise.

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D’var Torah: Shoftim (with guest appearance by the Alan Parsons Project!)

Note: As I begin and continue to build this blog, part of what I aim to do is create a bit of a personal archive. So I’ve been posting sermons I gave in years past, and I thought I’d look ahead to next Shabbat and post one I gave a few years back for parashat Shoftim (the Torah weekly reading known as “Shoftim” in Hebrew).

This week’s Torah portion is the 48th of the 54 parashiyot that make up the Torah. The end of the great story is in sight! Moses continues his farewell speeches to the Israelites as they prepare themselves for entry into the Promised Land.

shoftim verse

Judges and officers you shall make for yourself in all your gates, which the HOLY ONE your God gives you, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with judgments of righteousness.

These are the opening words of the portion, and the Hebrew word shoftim – meaning ‘judges’ or ‘magistrates’ – makes up its main theme. Moses instructs the people, giving them guidelines for courts of law. Social ethics are laid out for people with political, religious, and economic power in society – monarchs, prophets, priests, and judges themselves. Impartiality and objectivity are mandated for judges, and bribes are strictly forbidden.

Continue reading “D’var Torah: Shoftim (with guest appearance by the Alan Parsons Project!)”