The Courage to Act – Chayei Sarah 5781

Last Shabbat, the Jewish world lost one of its great teachers, thinkers, and advocates, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain. Rabbi Sacks was an Orthodox Rabbi, a philosopher, theologian, and politician. He was one of the most recognized and respected Jewish thinkers in the world.

Rabbi Sacks served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. In 2005, he became a Knight Bachelor for “services to the community and inter-faith relations.” In 2009, he was granted the title Baron and given a life peerage with a seat in the House of Lords.

Rabbi Sacks emphasized the study of knowledge in all of its forms, both from within and outside of Judaism. He utilized the terms Chockmah and Torah to describe the pursuit. He wrote,

Chokhmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chokhmah is the universal language of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel. Chokhmah is what we attain by being in the image of God; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of God. Chokhmah is acquired by seeing and reasoning; Torah is received by listening and responding. Chokhmah tells us what is; Torah tells us what ought to be.

Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2009), p.221

In his drashot, Rabbi Sacks was as likely to cite Shakespeare as Rashi. He had a gifted ability to communicate the universal truths of human existence, drawing deeply on the wellsprings of Torah and Jewish teaching, 

He was committed to interfaith work, often appearing on British television as a commentator to wide audiences. “No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth,” he wrote in his book The Dignity of Difference. Rabbi Sacks was noted for his deeply held embrace of both particularism and universalism, although he backtracked after receiving criticism from Haredi Jews. He believed that Judaism had something to say, and had an important role to play, in fixing the problems of the world.

In my work as a Rabbi, people sometimes share articles or drashot with me that they read and find to be meaningful. I cannot think of another person whose teachings have been shared more than Rabbis Jonathan Sacks’. 

At his funeral this week, Gila Sacks delivered an emotional eulogy for her father. She said about him, “He taught us that the world is to be challenged, and that there is no such thing as an unsolveable problem.”

The best way to honor a great teacher is to share his teachings. So I turned to one of Rabbi Sacks’ drashot on this morning’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah

Over the course of three parashiyot, God blesses Abraham numerous times. The blessings essentially come down to two promises. One, Abraham will inherit the entire land of Canaan. And two, Abraham will be the father of a great nation, a nation that will be a blessing to the world.

In fact, each of these blessings occurs five separate times over the course of the previous two Torah portions.

As this morning’s reading begins, however, Abraham’s prospects are not looking good. Over the course of Chayei Sarah, Abraham takes important actions that are the first steps towards the fulfilment of God’s blessings.

The first to be addressed is land. Sarah dies, and Abraham must prepared for her funeral. The problem is that he is a foreigner in Canaan, with no land to his name. He turns to the Hittites, living in Hebron, with a proposal. Ger v’toshav ani imachem. “I am a resident alien among you, please let me purchase land to bury my wife.”

Abraham is in a difficult situation and he knows it. As a foreigner in a highly tribal society, it is nearly impossible for him to own land. The Hittites, who seem to respect Abraham, offer him the opportunity to bury his wife wherever he chooses.

Abraham knows what he wants, and he asks for Ephron to sell him the cave of Machpelah. Ephron offers to give Abraham the field with the cave so that he can bury Sarah. But gifts can be rescinded. So Abraham asks again to purchase the land at whatever price Ephron names. Ephron slyly tells him the cost, “A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver-what is that between you and me?”

Abraham pays the money, and the land becomes his. To emphasize the legally binding nature of the transaction, the Torah ends the story with a summary of the contract.

So Ephron’s land in Machpelah, near Mamre—the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field—passed to Abraham as his possession, in the presence of the Hittites, of all who entered the gate of his town.

Genesis 23:17-18

Notice the details – the land is described by location, along with the trees growing on it. Abraham is identified as the new owner. And the witnesses are specified. The deal is accomplished in public, before the entire town.

Then the story concludes with Abraham burying Sarah. By performing an action on the land, he takes formal possession of it.

The importance of this story cannot be overstated. This is the first fulfillment of God’s blessing of Abraham

The Torah turns to the next part of the blessing. Abraham knows that it can only be fulfilled through Isaac, but things do not seem to be moving forward on that front. At this point, Isaac is at least 37 years old. He is unmarried and still living at home. “Failure to launch,” would be an apt description.

So Abraham sends his servant to Aram-Naharaim, outside of the land of Canaan, to find a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s kinsmen.

As with the land negotiations, it is not easy. The servant, acting as Abraham’s proxy, embarks on the long journey, bringing ten camels laden with treasures.

Upon arrival, he meets Rebecca, and bestows lavish gifts of gold and silver jewelry upon her, her brother Laban, and her mother. As with the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, this is an expensive transaction. And he must deal with deception as well. When the servant indicates that he would like to return with Rebecca, her mother and brother try to delay. When the servant insists, they put the question to Rebecca herself, who agrees to leave immediately.

As before, external politeness hides distrust and greed. In the end, Abraham gets what he wants, but the price is dear.

Noteworthy in both of these stories is God’s absence. There are no conversations with angels, prophetic encounters, or appearances of mysterious wells. Neither Ephron nor Laban have scary dreams in the middle of the night warning them of what will happen if they do not give Abraham what he wants.

These are stories of struggle and persistence, of taking charge of one’s fate in a way that has permanent implications for the future.

At the beginning of Chayei Sarah, the prospects of God’s blessings to Abraham being fulfilled are bleak. By the end, events are set in motion. Rabbi Sacks writes that

“yes, Abraham will have a land. He will have countless children. But these things will not happen soon, or suddenly, or easily. Nor will they occur without human effort. To the contrary, only the most focused willpower and determination will bring them about. The divine promise is not what it first seemed: a statement that God will act. It is in fact a request, an invitation from God to Abraham and his children that they should act.”

“…Now, as then, the divine promise does not mean that we can leave the future to God…. Faith does not mean passivity.  It means the courage to act and never to be deterred. The future will happen, but it is we – inspired, empowered, given strength by the promise – who must bring it about.”  

Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation, pp. 126-127

I can think of no more important message for us.

I Believe with Perfect Faith in the Constancy of Gravity; or Why We Ignore Miracles – Shemot 5780

What is a miracle?  I’ll offer a simple definition: a miracle is a supernatural event performed by God.  In other words, when something happens that breaks the rules that we expect the world around us to obey, it is a miracle.

If I drop something—this book, for example—I expect that it will fall to the ground.  All of my past experience in life tells me that this will happen.  I would bet money on it.  In fact, I would stake my life on it.

Why?  Because I believe, with perfect faith, in the constancy of gravity.  

If, when I let go of the book, it floats in the air, or flies away, that would be a supernatural event.  It would violate the theory of gravity upon which I have risked my life.  That would be a miracle.

In this example, I have just introduced two words which we typically associate with religion rather than science: faith and miracle. Faith, or emunah, as understood in Jewish tradition, is not how it is typically depicted in the wider society.  When we use the word “faith” in English the focus is on the so-called believer. If I say, “Johnny believes in God,” most people would understand me to be saying something about Johnny and would probably make other assumptions about him.  This is not the Jewish idea of faith.

In the Torah, the term emunah does not refer to the believer, but rather to the object of that belief.  Emunah in God is better described as a sense of God’s constancy.  God can be relied upon to have consistent qualities.   When the Torah says in this morning’s reading vaya’amen ha’am—”And the people believed” (Ex. 4:31)—it is not saying that the Israelites think that God exists.  Rather, the Torah is stating that the Israelites have accepted that God is going to do what God said, namely, bring them out of Egypt.

Emunah in Judaism is the acceptance of the constancy of something, whether it be a quality of God, the reliability of another person, or the authenticity of a prophet.  That is why I feel comfortable saying that I have faith in the constancy of gravity.

If the book were to fly away, I would be faced with a dilemma.  Either my faith in the constancy of gravity would fall apart, or I would find some way to explain my flying book does not actually violate the laws of gravity.

Or maybe I would just pretend that it never happened.  Yeah.  That’s probably what I would do.

Moses encounters the first miracle of Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus.  It occurs after he has fled from Egypt.  He arrives in Midian, marries Tzipporah, and joins the household of her father, Yitro.  One day, Moses is out in the wilderness with his father-in-law’s sheep when he notices something unusual, something which seems to violate the laws of nature in which Moses, you, and I all believe.He sees a bush that is on fire without being consumed.  Moses immediately thinks to himself, “there is something wrong with this picture,” and he turns aside to investigate.

You or I would recognize immediately that a bush that burns without being consumed is a violation of the first law of thermodynamics.  It contradicts the principle of the conservation of energy.  Such a thing is not possible in this universe. That, by definition is a miracle.  It is the equivalent of this book floating when I let go.

What would encountering such a miracle lead a person to do?  Well, let’s look at Moses. The Burning Bush certainly gets his attention, “I’ve gotta check this out,” he tells himself.  He approaches, and God’s voice calls out, “Moses, Moses!”

“I’m right here.”

“Stay there.  Take off your shoes.”

I’m paraphrasing a little.  By the way, that’s what I tell my kids when they walk into the house.  

We hear nothing more about the Burning Bush.  It turns out that the miracle was merely to get Moses’ attention.  The real message is that God has decided to free the Israelites from slavery, and Moses is the guy who is going to bring the message. At this point, what response should we expect?  Moses has seen a violation of the first law of thermodynamics.  God just spoke to him.  What should he say?   Something like, “At your service.  Just tell me what to do.” Instead, Moses offers a series of objections, beginning with “Who am I?”  Then, “Who are You?”  Followed by, “What if they don’t believe me?”

God, of course, has an answer to each one of Moses’ excuses. To establish Moses’ credibility with the Israelites, God offers him a few miracles to perform.

Miracle one.  “Take your staff. Throw it on the ground and it will turn it into a snake.  Then grab the snake by the tail and ‘poof!’  It will turn back into a staff.”

Miracle two.  “Put your hand inside your shirt.  When you pull it out, it will be covered with white snowy scales.  Now put it back inside your shirt.  When you pull it out again, your hand will be back to normal.”

Miracle three.  “Take some water from the Nile River.  Pour it on the ground and Voila!  Blood.  Gross.”

God assures Moses: “They’ll believe you after the first miracle.  But if not, they’ll certainly believe you after the second miracle.  But if not, the third miracle will surely do the trick.”

This is not super reassuring.  But to be certain that Moses is convinced, God has him actually perform the first two miracles, right there on the mountainside. At this point, would you be convinced?  Moses isn’t.  “I don’t talk good.  Please pick somebody else.”  Moses does not seem to be very impressed by these miracles.

What about the Israelites?  When Aaron and Moses go back to Egypt, they perform the miracles, as instructed.  The Israelites believe… for a little while.  As soon as Pharaoh increases the workload, their faith collapses and they turn on Moses and Aaron, cursing them.  And who can blame them, really. Moses then starts complaining to God, again. So much for miracles.

Why are these supernatural suspensions of the laws of the universe so ineffective?  Are Moses and the Israelites simply unfaithful and ungrateful?  Not at all.  They are human.

Maimonides, the great twelfth century rabbi, philosopher, and physician, offers an explanation as to why these miracles are so unconvincing.  (Yesodei Torah 8:1) Whoever bases his or her belief on miraculous signs, Maimonides suggests, will always retain some doubt in their heart.  Maybe it was just a trick performed through sorcery or witchcraft.  We will find some way to explain away the miracle to preserve our worldview.   Moses’ credibility is not established through miracles.  After all, the Egyptian court magicians are able to replicate these opening miracles, as well as the first few plagues.

Maimonides continues.  The only miracles that do instill some degree of faith in Moses’ leadership are those that come in response to some necessity.  The Sea of Reeds divides so that the Israelites can escape Egypt, and it crashes back together in order to sink the pursuing Egyptian chariots.  The manna is sent to prevent the Israelites’ starvation.  The rock gives forth water to satisfy their thirst.  The earth splits open to swallow Korach and his followers when they rebel. All of these miracles come in response to a crisis.  The greatest of the miracles in the wilderness, however, is the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.  The Israelites hear with their own ears and see with their own eyes the presence of God on the mountain, and witness the sound of God communicating with Moses face to face. It is not until that moment, says Maimonides, that the Israelites become fully committed to Moses.

Why then?  What is needed to make them believe?  Personal experience.  That is the point that Maimonides is making.  The mere witnessing of a supernatural event can only lead to a hollow faith.  True faith emerges only from lived experiences.  Trust in the wisdom and authenticity of another person only results when we have been through something together.

As I said before: I believe in the constancy of gravity.  I don’t really understand gravity, mind you.  But I have loads of experience with it.  And I trust the really smart people, those who do, in fact, understand something about gravity, when they insist that it is real.  I have so much faith in the constancy of gravity that I am willing to jump up in the air, believing with all of my heart that I am not going to go hurtling off into space.

Why do I trust the scientists who tell me that gravity is constant?  Because of education.  From a young age, I was taught that science is credible and important.  Like all of you, I learned about the scientific method in grade school, and went through my share of biology, chemistry, and physics classes. That training instilled in me a trust in scientific study and an appreciation of those who dedicate their lives to it.

Religious belief is a bit trickier.  As Jews, we are asked to accept the authenticity of Torah and the authority of those who interpret it.  Life has meaning and purpose, and the Jewish people have a role to play in the redemption of the world. None of these can be demonstrated by a scientific proof or empirical evidence.  I cannot prove to you that God exists, Moses lived, humans have souls, or even that there is such a thing as good and evil.  

But we are not asked to merely believe blindly.  The Jewish notion of emunah does not rely on miracles or proofs.  It does not ask for leaps of faith.  Emunah is developed over a lifetime and is built upon experience and community; on trust in each other and our shared experiences; on our common history and on the lessons passed down from parents to children.

Faith, Tzedakah, and Hope – Lech L’kha 5775

We take Abraham’s faith for granted.  He has been described as the Lonely Man of Faith.  Jewish tradition sees him as the paradigm for loving God.  Although it disturbs us, the story of the Binding of Isaac is seen as a story of Abraham’s selflessness, his willingness to go all the way in serving God.

But is it helpful for us to hold up such a “perfect” model of faith.  I’m not sure there are many people who can see themselves as truly following Abraham’s example.

On the other hand, maybe Abraham wasn’t the perfect man of faith that he is often presented as.  Perhaps Abraham had his moments of doubts as well.

This morning’s Torah portion, Lekh L’kha, opens with Abram (his name has not yet been changed to Abraham) as a seventy five year old man.  God promises him that he will be a great nation, and will inherit the Promised Land.  Abram obeys, and soon arrives in the unnamed land to which God leads him.  Things are going well at first, but then discord breaks out in the household.  Abram’s only living relative, his nephew Lot, is also a successful shepherd.  Their respective herdsman cannot seem to cooperate when it comes to pasturing the flocks, and so the two branches of the family are forced to split apart.  Abram is magnanimous about it, offering his nephew the first choice about where to settle, but the end result is that Abram is separated from his only family member in a foreign land.  He must be lonely.

Soon afterwards. Abram finds himself in a famine.  So he uproots his household and heads down to Egypt, where food is available.  There, he feels compelled to lie about Sarai his wife, passing her off as his sister rather than his wife.  Apparently, he feels that it would be better for Pharaoh to bring her into the palace under the assumption that she is available rather than risk being killed as competition.

These are not the actions of a secure individual.

Nevertheless, the subterfuge works, and Abram prospers greatly in Egypt.  We do not know about Sarai’s experience in the palace, however.  When God strikes the Egyptians with a plague, the Abram’s deception is revealed.  Needless to say, Pharaoh is not impressed, and Abram is expelled from Egypt.  Back to Canaan he goes.

Meanwhile, war breaks out between several cities in the Jordan valley and an alliance of foreign kings.  In the fighting, Lot is taken captive by the invading armies.  Abram marshalls his household and rides off to the rescue.  After restoring his nephew to safety, Abram once again returns to Canaan.

At this point, how might we imagine that Abram is feeling about his life?  He has left everything – his homeland, his culture, his family, his father and brothers, to follow a voice that leads him to the West with unspecified promises of land and progeny.  By now, Abram has put forth great effort.  While he may be wealthy, he is still a nomad, and he is still childless.  While Abram has been totally silent until now, I would think that he must be feeling his mortality.  “What have I done with my life?” he must be thinking.  “What is my legacy?  What do I leave behind me in the world.”

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, God appears to Abram for the second time in a vision.  “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.”  (Genesis 15:1)

That’s it?!

It seems to rub salt in the wound.  All of Abram’s doubts and fears bubble to the surface, and he finally expresses the frustration and disappointment that has been growing in his heart.

“O Lord God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless, and the one in charge of my household is Dammesek Eliezer!”  He then continues, “Since You have granted me no offspring, my steward will be my heir.”  (Genesis 15:2-3)

In the ancient world, if a couple was childless, their estate could be inherited by a loyal servant.  (Nahum Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, p. 113)  This is the only time in the Tanakh that Abram’s head servant is mentioned by his name, Eliezer.  It suggests that Abram’s statement is not rhetorical.  He truly is resigned to the fact that he and Sarai will not be having any children.  What then is to become of God’s promise that he will be a great nation?

God responds by reassuring Abram.  “That one shall not be your heir,” God responds, “but your very own issue shall be your heir.”  (Genesis 15:4)  Then God brings Abram outside and instructs him to look up.  “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… so shall your offspring be.”  (Genesis 15:5)

Would that reassure you?

It did reassure Abram.  “And because he put his trust in the Lord, He (God) reckoned it to his (Abram’s) merit.”  וְהֶאֱמִן בַּה’ וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה  (Genesis 15:6)

Rabbi Jacob Mann Rakovski, who passed away in 2012 and served for more than 50 years as the Rabbi at Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem, comments on the final word of this phrase, tzedakah.  (Iturei Torah, vol. 1, p. 105)  What does the Torah mean when it describes Abram continuing trust, or faith, emunah, in God to be tzedakah?

Rakovski says that by having faith at such a seemingly hopeless moment, Abram offers a tremendous gift to the world.  That gift is the ability to live a life with purpose and meaning, which is only possible through faith.

When a person lives without faith, Rakovski says, that person’s life has no meaning.  When such a person experience difficulties, he or she is inclined to ask, “what good is my life?  Why bother?”

Abram saved the world by demonstrating that there is, indeed, something for which to live, and thus, life is immeasurably precious.  That is why the Torah uses the word tzedakah to describe what Abram did.  His gift is a kind of tzedakah.

Abram may be unique in his ability to maintain faith in God’s promise that he will have children when he has not managed to do for the first 80-plus years of his life.  But the lesson to us is important.

Think about a time when you were disappointed.  When the things you hoped for did not come to be.  Perhaps it was a college program you were hoping to get into, a dream job that you could not get, a romance that did not develop the way you were hoping, not being able to have the family that you imagined.

To be human is to face disappointment.  Our challenge is to keep going when things do not turn out as we are hoping.  And that is where faith comes in.  I found it interesting that Rakovski does not actually specify faith in God, although I imagine that he probably implied it.

But I’ll suggest that when we have faith in something, whatever that something is, we are far better suited to deal with life’s challenges when they come our way, and we experience life’s blessings as far more momentous and meaningful when they happen.

In 2004, the This I Believe project was founded.  It was actually the resurrection of a radio program hosted by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950’s in which famous, and not-so-famous people were asked to speak about the guiding principles by which they lived.

At this point, more than 125,000 people have submitted essays about the values that guide their daily lives and give them a sense of meaning.

For several years, This I Believe essays would be read on NPR, and I had a chance to hear some of them during my commutes to Rabbinical School.  There was one essay in particular that stuck with me.  I would like to share it.  It is by Harold Taw, an attorney from Seattle and the son of Burmese immigrants.  He comes from a totally different tradition than that of the monotheistic religions, and yet the thing in which he believes, gives his life meaning and purpose.

I could say that I believe in America because it rewarded my family’s hard work to overcome poverty. I could say that I believe in holding on to rituals and traditions, because they helped us flourish in a new country. But these concepts are more concretely expressed this way: I believe in feeding monkeys on my birthday, something I’ve done without fail for 35 years.

When I was born, a blind Buddhist monk living alone in the Burmese jungle predicted that my birth would bring great prosperity to the family. To ensure this prosperity, I was to feed monkeys on my birthday. While this sounds superstitious, the practice makes karmic sense. On a day normally given over to narcissism, I must consider my family and give nourishment to another living creature.

The monk never meant for the ritual to be a burden. In the Burmese jungle, monkeys are as common as pigeons. He probably had to shoo them away from his sticky rice and mangoes. It was only in America that feeding monkeys meant violating the rules. As a kid, I thought that was cool. I learned English through watching bad television shows, and I felt like Caine from “Kung Fu,” except I was a chosen warrior sent to defend my family. Dad and I would go to the zoo early in the morning, just the two of us. When the coast was clear, I would throw my contraband peanuts to the monkeys.

I never had to explain myself until my 18th birthday. It was the first year I didn’t go with my father. I went with my friends and arrived 10 minutes after the zoo gates closed. `Please,’ I beseeched the zookeeper, `I feed monkeys for my family, not for me. Can’t you make an exception?’ `Go find a pet store,’ she said. If only it were so easy. That time I got lucky. I found out that a high school classmate trained the monkeys for the movie “Out of Africa,” so he allowed me to feed his monkey.

I’ve had other close calls. Once a man with a pet monkey suspected that my story was a ploy and that I was an animal rights activist out to liberate his monkey. Another time a zoo told me that outsiders could not feed their monkeys without violating the zookeepers’ collective bargaining agreement. In a pet store once, I managed to feed a marmoset being kept in a bird cage. Another time I was asked to wear a biohazard suit to feed a laboratory monkey.

It’s rarely easy, and yet somehow I’ve found a way to feed a monkey every year since I was born. Our family has prospered in America. I believe that I’ve ensured this prosperity by observing our family ritual and feeding monkeys on my birthday. Do I believe that literally? Maybe. But I have faith in our family, and I believe in honoring that faith in any way I can.

What do you believe in?  Maybe it’s feeding monkeys.  Or maybe it has something to do with serving humanity, or supporting the Jewish community, or following Jewish law and tradition, or raising a family.  When we can articulate the values and beliefs that inspire us to live lives of immeasurable meaning.  What gives your life meaning?  What gives you strength when things are not going well?  What inspires you to get out of bed each morning and face a new day?