SERMON FOR PARASHAT KI TISSA 2019
SIGNS OF OUR FAITH
When my friends in Ann Arbor heard I was coming to Arizona in late February, many commented that I must have planned it so I could be here for the beginning of baseball spring training. That they would say this surprised me a bit because my friends should have known that I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in baseball spring training… in Arizona, that is. My team, the World Champion Boston Red Sox, has spring training in Fort Myers, Florida and, to quote Yehuda HaLevi, in an absolutely irreverent way, when it comes to this weekend regarding baseball libi b’mizrach v’ani bisof ma’arav“ “my heart is in the east and I am in the furthest reaches of the west”.
I mention this because, as you will probably hear on more than one occasion in our study session later and you might even hear it in the remnants of my accent, I am a proud Bostonian and proud New Englander and the fact that I have lived in the Midwest for over 30 years doesn’t change that.
But, I also mention it because I want to take you for a moment to a particular spot in New England that I hope many of you have visited. It is my starting point today for a discussion on one verse, in fact one word, in today’s parasha.
One of the most iconic symbols of New England was found in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. There, on the edge of a mountain cliff, nature had carved the unmistakable image of the face of a man staring resolutely over the valley below. The Old Man of the Mountain was the symbol of the state and a popular destination of pilgrimage for families like ours who drove the three or four hours to visit the Old Man once every summer.
Sadly, in 2003, the Old Man disappeared. The stones which had made up the profile fell off the mountain due to erosion and the passage of time. It was such a sad event that it inspired me to write a Yom Kippur sermon on loss and memory, a sermon which I treasure to this day.
But, today, I mention it because I want to share some beautiful words written by American statesman and author Daniel Webster about the Old Man that curiously are echoed in a particularly meaningful traditional commentary on Ki Tissa. Daniel Webster wrote, in words which are not inclusive by today’s appropriate standards but I will share them as he wrote them:
“Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe, jewelers a monster watch and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the mountains of New Hampshire, God almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men”.
Now, let’s move from New Hampshire to 19thcentury Belarus and the famous Torah commentator and ethicist Israel Meir Kagan, better known as the Chofetz Chaim. I doubt very much that he read Daniel Webster’s words but he might as well have. Writing about the observance of Shabbat, he wrote (and this is my translation): The Shabbat is a symbol and a visible sign that the Torah dwells in the heart of the person who observes it. A sign hanging on a house makes known the business or craft of the person who lives there. As long as the sign is on the house, even if the person is away, we know the person is still performing the craft. When the sign is taken down, it shows that the person is no longer living or working there. Similarly, he writes, as long as we keep observing Shabbat, the sign of being a serious and committed Jew is present in our homes.
If he hadn’t read Daniel Webster’s words, what prompted the Chofetz Chaim to talk about signs and symbols hanging outside a home relating to Shabbat? He is reacting to the fact that in two places in our parsha, one of them the paragraph we recognize as the Veshamru, Shabbat is referred to as an “ot”, a sign, between ourselves and God of the deep relationship that we have and observance of Shabbat is a visible and tangible symbol that we take that covenantal relationship seriously. There are other mitzvot that are referred to as “ot” the tefillin, and brit milah for example but the words are expanded in the veshamru paragraph: baynee uvayn binai yisrael ot hee l’olam,it is an eternal sign between me, says God, and the people of Israel.
I am going to take issue with the commentary of the Chofetz Hayim in one particular way but before I do, let me say that I think he is absolutely correct in one very important way. Shabbat isa sign, a sign that we are willing to compromise one of the most precious commodities we have as 21stcentury human beings- time- and dedicate it to observance of our ancient tradition. It is a sign that we are willing to let other aspects of our lives wait- that they aren’t of that utmost importance that they can’t be postponed or missed altogether. Whatever one’s relationship with Shabbat is: whether you observe Shabbat fully according to halacha or make some smaller compromise, having a family or personal custom of making Friday night special or coming to shul on Shabbat morning, or in any way making a sacrifice to observe even part of Shabbat, it makes a critical statement in the face of a world which seemingly can’t wait for anything or anyone, a reality which, in the internet and instant communication age has had such a deep and often negative impact on our lives and our relationships. Shabbat tells the world: we can wait.
Shabbat has followed our people for millennia and we have held onto it with joy and commitment. One more baseball reference, I promise the last one: baseball pitcher Jim Bouton once wrote: “You spend half your life holding on to a baseball and then you find out it was the other way around all along”. Well, he must have listened to the thinker Ahad Ha’am who said: “More than Israel has kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept Israel.” It has kept us distinct. It has kept us returning to our origins, once a week and Shabbat has kept us recognizing the potential for sanctity, patience and a slower pace in an increasingly rushed world.
And so, we stand firm on this beautiful overlook reached by our weekly pilgrimage. We stand resolutely holding this ancient, yet renewed tradition as the world passes by.
But, there are limitations to this idyllic picture of Shabbat and I believe that the statement of the Chofetz Chaim, as beautiful and meaningful as it may be, is a bit dangerous or at least lacking in one sense. While it is true in so many ways that a commitment to Shabbat is a sign of a sincere and committed Jew, we must be careful.
As important as ritual is, we need to train ourselves to look far beyond ritual traditions as the evidence of our commitment to Judaism. As important as they are, as essential as they are, we need to look beyond Shabbat, beyond brit milah, beyond tefillin, beyond kashrut. We need to look elsewhere as well: to the ethical and moral traditions of our faith for they must be every bit the reflection of our seriousness about being a Jew as the observance of any ritual commandments. They must be an “ot” as well.
We may not want to put a flag out on our front porch to advertise our ethical behavior but, as individuals, and as a people, adherence to our human values of seeking justice and peace and mutual respect among human beings which are rooted deeply in our tradition must also be every bit the “ot”, the clearly visible sign of a well led Jewish life. Without these, the rest lose all meaning.
Shabbat is only important if it inspires us to prepare for the other 6 days of the week to fulfill our responsibilities to community and to the world.
And, that raises one other aspect of this discussion. The paragraph of veshamru indicates that the Shabbat is a sign between God and the people of Israel. The truth is that Shabbat represents a “private” celebration between the Jewish people and God. This isn’t to say that only Jews are welcome in shul or that we reject the idea of sharing the day with those outside the Jewish community. It means that the concept of Shabbat as a commandment, as a mitzvah, as an “ot”, a sign of the covenant, only applies to Jews.
But, when we turn to the issue of ethics and values and make reflection of those values a sign of our seriousness about our faith, we can more easily join hands with those of other faiths as equals to work for the betterment of the world. Shabbat unites the Jewish people and that is crucial. But ethical behavior is a way to reach out our hands to others and unite with all to improve the world.
All of Judaism is a balance. We need ritual and we need ethical behavior. We need our moments as a people and we need to be part of the story of a world in search of repair.
Shabbat is a great place to start and an essential part of a Jewish life. But, neither it, nor the other ritual aspects of our tradition, can exist in a vacuum- are the be all and end all Shabbat must inspire us to move forward in our lives observing the ethical traditions as keenly as we observe the ritual traditions. The Torah speaks of returning lost objects, helping animals in distress, honoring our parents as it teaches about observing Shabbat and the holidays. The Torah intertwines and them so must we.
Let me conclude then by paraphrasing and giving a bit of a Rashi to Daniel Webster’s words: There in the mountains of New Hampshire, God almighty hangs out a sign to show that there God makes resolute human beings of strength.
Shabbat allows us to hang out a sign saying that here we have a Jewish home.
That is important to be sure.
But, we must hold just as dear, just as important, the elements of our tradition which declare to the world: here, in our homes, here in our communities, here in our lives, God almighty has created a human being and each of us is responding to that creation by resolutely acting like a mentsch.