Holiness Begins With Change


Holiness Begins with Change
Sermon: December 27, 2013
Parashat Vaera
Rabbi Mark H. Levin, DHL

Listen to the podcast of this sermon.

There’s a reason the Torah is also called The Five Books of Moses, even though Moses is not even mentioned in the first of the books: Moses is the preeminent figure in Jewish history. If God redeems the Jewish people, Moses is God’s agent.

But Moses lived a long life, not all of it either exciting or even extraordinary. Certainly at the beginning, being born and adopted in the midst of persecution and the murder by drowning of boy babies, the danger of the moment created great anxiety and a spellbinding story. The trajectory for Moses’ life was set by that transition of birth and adoption. But then, 40 years followed of which we know nothing. During those years assumedly Moses lived the daily life of the son of Pharaoh in the lap of luxury. But then there came a change.

Perhaps Moses could no longer suffer watching the inhumanity foisted upon his people. Perhaps his sense of justice overcame his station in life. For whatever reason, Moses slew the Egyptian taskmaster and fled for his life into the wilderness. Here again, a great change story, as Moses completely alters everything about his daily expectations. No longer the child of riches and power, he becomes a lowly shepherd, and for 40 years, according to tradition, lives quietly and without complaint, herding his sheep at the foot of the Mount of God, Mt. Sinai. But without this change, Moses never could have achieved holiness.

Again, we know nearly nothing of the intervening years’ events. Moses married into a priestly, Midianite family, and assumedly was introduced to the God of the mountain by his wife’s father, Jethro. And that’s about all we know, until again another 40 years pass. Moses confronts God in the burning bush, and once again he dramatically changes his life. But the burning bush proves nothing without Moses’ actions after.

Now, of course, Moses assumes the prophetic role of redeemer. He even leaves behind his wife and family in order to bring God’s people out of Egypt. Once again we know a great amount about the change, and almost nothing of the events of the next 40 years of leading the people in the wilderness.

What conclusions might we discover from this week’s Torah portion, and indeed, the entire story of the Five Books of Moses?

We discover holiness embedded in moments of change, followed by long years of the new normal as the holiness in change develops and grows.

Most of our lives, things are headed in a definite direction, like a car headed down a superhighway for a set destination. It’s what Woody Allen meant when he said that 90% of living is just showing up. Sometimes such long stretches, like driving across Kansas on I-70, are actually boring in retrospect, because we always know what’s coming. There are no highs, no lows, and no surprises. Time, the greatest commodity, slides away like a ribbon of highway in the rear view mirror. Indeed, we sometimes even forget where we have been.

But there are moments of change filled with excitement, filled with possibility, and often underscored with the dread of change. Moses left Egypt to face the barren wilderness. I always remember that scene in the movie The Ten Commandments when Charlton Heston struggles to cross the Sinai on foot, and arrives half dead and bedraggled at Zippora’s well. Dread must have overcome him facing that barren parched stretch of Sinai’s strewn desert. Yet, despite the very human dread of change and the prospect of a desert, Moses did not look back. He plunged into the future to discover the as yet unknown holy moments that would take him to greater unimagined heights. Not only would Moses find invigorating challenge, but he would be offered choices to build freedom and encounters with God for himself and his people. At the moment of crisis, he had no way to know this. He just had to have faith in 3 things:
His background and training, his decision making ability, and the God who would lead him forward.

Our Rabbis say, Maaseh avot siman l’banim: the actions of the ancestors are a sign for their descendants.

Congregation Beth Torah is reaching an inflection point, a moment to grow forward and meet a challenge, or choose to moan and return to Egypt. Do we have the training, the ability, and the God who will lead us into future holiness?

I am proud of the dynamic Beth Torah we have built. We are truly a community of believers, building a holy community. It’s not perfect. We don’t respond to one another perfectly every single time. But you know what: strangers visit our worship, and members of other Jewish congregations, and tell me without being solicited, “This is a very special place. I am not sure what it is. It seems so human and warm. I instantly felt welcomed here, as soon as I came through the doors.”

People tell me all of the time, “Rabbi, you have built a wonderful place.” They are wrong. And they are wrong for this reason: I didn’t build it, I just get the credit. I set out to build it for sure. I thought it would be my obligation and responsibility to build it. But I soon found out building a community is an impossible dream. Every person in this community decides every single time he or she comes through those doors, or even when he or she makes the decision to attend worship, “I want to be a part of that community.” The Board makes decisions that determine our direction. Volunteers construct programs. But most important: the atmosphere of Beth Torah, that which makes us the community we are, is all of us together. If any one of us is not here, we feel the difference in some small way. And to prove the point: think of how wonderful our 25th anniversary celebration was with a full sanctuary of people who just came to celebrate Shabbat together. No special program at the worship. Just Beth Torah members celebrating Shabbat together. That is Beth Torah. Not a rabbi; not a music director; not an Executive Director, not an educator. Together we are the community we need.

We truly have engaging worship here. There are worship leaders, that’s for sure. This congregation has had a series of music leaders: David Harris, Gene Naron, Rabbi Steve Burnstein, Amy Pierron, Cantor Barbara Finn, and for the last decade, Linda Sweenie. And after July 1st there will still be somewhat different worship leaders. I’ll be here sometimes. Rabbi Reice and the new interim Rabbi, Rabbi Shapiro, whom you will adore, will be here most of the time. And Linda Sweenie will go on to another pulpit as the much beloved Cantor Finn did before her. But the community of warm and welcoming Jewish souls will remain the same because that is YOU. The community will still support one another because you support one another. God is shaking things up as God shook up Moses because he needed to learn something in order to fulfill God’s mission for him in life. The community will still sit together, visit with one another, and share our lives. We are not here to listen. We come to pray and be a community to celebrate our lives together. That community is the reason and justification for our existence. There will be beautiful and meaningful worship, I assure you. But community is the essence, and you make all of the difference.

We have the background: together we have built an historic community over 25 years.
We have the ability: to reach out to one another, to demonstrate concern for one another as, to offer a warm and welcoming atmosphere with great worship.

And what about the God who leads us forward? Is God with us? Well, here’s what I believe. As God shook up Moses’ life at birth; 40 years later on leaving Pharaoh’s house opposing injustice; and 40 years after that to return to liberate his people, so God shakes up our lives to compel us to examine who we are really, to get off the highway, and redirect our lives toward God. We don’t yet know the lesson in this change. But I do know this: I am not this community. Linda Sweenie’s music is not this community. Jack Feldman is not this community. You and your connections to one another: these are Beth Torah. Your worship; your attendance; your participation: that is Beth Torah. Beth Torah took one year and replaced me. We love Linda Sweenie and now we will replace her. But God is present in our lives right here and right now telling us: you make this community happen; you be this community; you pave the road into the future. It is for the holiness of this moment that we have built these 25 years, to actually BE the community we claim to be. Together we have the background; together we have the skills; and God is with us as God has been with you these 25 years. Now together let us make this holy community happen.

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