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”

Measuring Good: Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight (originally published online in eJewish Philanthropy)

This article originally appeared in E-Jewish Philanthropy here.

Screenshot 2019-04-22 at 21.21.11

I’ll start with a story: in the 1970s, while working as a night shift security guard, Bill James developed an alternative set of stats for baseball called Sabermetrics – an unorthodox analytical model worthy of Nate Silver. For many years, James’ ideas were only known to a tiny group of extreme baseball junkies. The story of how Sabermetrics was finally embraced by a major league team’s general manager, Billy Beane, is wonderfully told in Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and the 2011 movie it inspired.

Beane’s dilemma was that the team he was responsible for building, the Oakland A’s, didn’t have the money to compete for the free agents who were the best players. Beane was a Bill James fan with a small budget and nothing to lose. He concluded that if James’ stats were actually better at predicting success than the traditionally used stats, then maybe he could build a winning team by acquiring overlooked players that traditional scouts would miss – players whose Sabermetric stats were cream of the crop. He did, and the A’s went on to become the winningest team in baseball for a good stretch of years.

Finally, there’s Theo Epstein, who’s in the sports headlines these days. He’s the Sabermetrics whiz kid who applied James’ model to the Boston Red Sox, finally ending their long championship drought. He’s spent the last five years doing the same with the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs.

So what’s spiritual about all this? I promise, we’ll get there, but stay with me a bit longer.

Continue reading “Measuring Good: Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight (originally published online in eJewish Philanthropy)”

Parashat Nitzavim – the Teshuvah tie-in in the text

There are several echoes of the High Holy Days in this Torah portion that is one of the last ones we read before the Jewish New Year arrives. This is the season of teshuvah, which is built from the Hebrew root “shuv.”

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Rabbi Alan Lew of blessed memory

The late Rabbi Alan Lew, z’l, in his book This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, points out that in one passage of this week’s Torah portion, words with the Hebrew root “shuv” appear 7 times, providing a parallel text that urges us over and over, shuv, shuv, shuv. Return, return, return to the goodness inside, to the source of your spirit, to the part of you that represents the best within you – it’s there, inside, waiting for you to return to it. Here’s the passage in Hebrew and with English translation, with each instance of the word shuv / return highlighted.

Deuteronomy 30: 1 – 10                           Parashat Nitzavim

א  וְהָיָה כִי-יָבֹאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה, אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי, לְפָנֶיךָ; וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ, אֶל-לְבָבֶךָ, בְּכָל-הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר הִדִּיחֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ שָׁמָּה. 1 And it shall come to pass, when all these things have come upon you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, and they you will take them [ha-shev-ota] to heart, among the nations to whom the Eternal your God has driven you,
ב  וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקֹלוֹ, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ, הַיּוֹם:  אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ. 2 and you will return [v’shav-ta] to the Eternal and listen to God’s voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your being,
ג  וְשָׁב יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-שְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה. 3 then the Eternal your God will return [v’shav] you from your captivity, and have compassion on you and turn [v’shav] and gather you in from all the nations where you have been scattered.
ד  אִם-יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ, בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם–מִשָּׁם, יְקַבֶּצְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם, יִקָּחֶךָ. 4 If you be thrust-away to the ends of the heavens, from there the Eternal your God will collect you, from there God will take you
ה  וֶהֱבִיאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר-יָרְשׁוּ אֲבֹתֶיךָ–וִירִשְׁתָּהּ; וְהֵיטִבְךָ וְהִרְבְּךָ, מֵאֲבֹתֶיךָ. 5 and the Eternal your God will bring you to the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it.   God will do well by you and make you many-more than your ancestors.
ו  וּמָל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ, וְאֶת-לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ:  לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ–לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ. 6 And God will circumcise the foreskin of your heart and the heart of your offspring, to love the Eternal with all your heart and with all your being, in order that you may live.
ז  וְנָתַן יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֵת כָּל-הָאָלוֹת הָאֵלֶּה, עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ וְעַל-שֹׂנְאֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר רְדָפוּךָ. 7 And the Eternal your God will place all those threats upon your enemies and on those that hate you, that pursue you,
ח  וְאַתָּה תָשׁוּב, וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקוֹל יְהוָה; וְעָשִׂיתָ, אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ, הַיּוֹם. 8 But you, if you return [ta-shuv] and listen to the voice of the Eternal and observe all God’s commandments that I command you today,
ט  וְהוֹתִירְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶךָ, בִּפְרִי בִטְנְךָ וּבִפְרִי בְהֶמְתְּךָ וּבִפְרִי אַדְמָתְךָ–לְטֹבָה:  כִּי יָשׁוּב יְהוָה, לָשׂוּשׂ עָלֶיךָ לְטוֹב, כַּאֲשֶׁר-שָׂשׂ, עַל-אֲבֹתֶיךָ. 9 then the Eternal your God will make you excel in all the doings of your hands, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your animals, and in the fruit of your soil, for well-being, indeed, the Eternal will return [ya-shuv] to delighting in you, for well-being, as God delighted in your ancestors –
י  כִּי תִשְׁמַע, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹר מִצְו‍ֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו, הַכְּתוּבָה בְּסֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה:  כִּי תָשׁוּב אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ.  {ס} 10 if you listen to the voice of the Eternal your God, by keeping God’s commandments and God’s laws – what is written in this document of instruction – if you return [ta-shuv] to the Eternal your God with all your heart and with all your being.

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!)”