SERMON FOR PARASHAT VAYECHI January 14, 2017
As I begin my remarks this morning, I want to pay tribute both to Dr. Martin Luther King on the weekend of the holiday dedicated to his memory and to our teacher Doctor Abraham Joshua Heschel whose yahrzeit will be observed tomorrow evening. These two remarkable men, who worked together for freedom for all, taught us that the role of religion and religious institutions is to stand up for the values and ethical principles that are at the core of our religious faiths and to recognize that when faced with critical issues and critical times, it is, to use Dr. Heschel’s words, no time for neutrality.
May their memory be for a blessing.
As we enter the third week of January, we stand at a moment of transition.
We celebrated in a season past, a new beginning with hopes and dreams, full of confidence and a glorious new era for the world.
Since that time, we have seen great strides and experienced disappointment.
And, now we enter into the unknown.
As we experience this transition, from the reading of the book of Genesis to the reading of the book of Exodus, we leave behind the hope embodied in the creation story. We say goodbye to names and faces we have come to know, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, Joseph, all human beings whose stories although far from perfect have, in the end, established the values and priorities for our people.
I would like to share with you this morning two midrashim, two commentaries, to mark this transition, one concerning the end of the book of Beraysheet and one concerning the beginning of the book of Shmot.
According to a beautiful legend from Devarim Rabbah, Jacob, Israel, lay dying and called his sons around him. He said to them: “I fear you may be disloyal to the covenant that I and my grandfather, Abraham established”. His sons respond in unision: “Shema Yisrael”, Listen Israel, Ado-nai Elohaynu Ado-nai Echad, The Lord our God, the Lord is One.
Jacob responds: Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto L’olam Va’ed. Blessed be God’s Glorious kingdom forever.
And, he closes his eyes for the last time assured of his sons’ loyalty, confident of the future.
And the book and story of Genesis ends.
The second Midrash is one which is often found in the Hagaddah, to be read at the Seder.
The Midrash teaches that while the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, they did not change their names, they did not change their language andthey did not engage in speech or in activities which were unbecoming.
They remained firm to their values. And so they were redeemed.
Both of these texts stress the importance of remaining loyal to our deepest principles and our greatest values as Jews and as human beings.
That is what keeps a people alive, especially at times of great changes.
In our nation, we too stand at a time of transition.
Eight years ago, on this Shabbat, I stood on this bima and expressed hope for where we were headed as a nation. It was all so new. We hardly knew Barack Obama, soon to be our nation’s leader. There were so many uncertainties. But, there was hope, glorious hope.
Looking back on the past 8 years, I believe there have been, as there were in the book of Genesis, great successes, and there have been disappointments as well. It hasn’t been perfect in any way shape or form.
Not every presidential decision was the correct one. Not every challenge was met properly or adequately by President Obama and his administration.
But, the one thing that has been clear is that our nation’s leader was determined to uphold certain values that I believe are the values our nation should embody: inclusion, respect for all people, thoughtful, careful consideration of the responsibilities of government and the governmental process, the search for peace through diplomacy and the list goes on.
President Obama was not by any measure an unqualified success as president. But, our values stood firm and he conducted the office with grace, maturity and served as a role model for our young people. And if anyone doubts this, watch the video of the ceremony in President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a man I have admired for many, many years, Vice President Joseph Biden. The values and the ideals expressed by President Obama during that ceremony will echo in our minds for many years. He lived out those ideals and values during his presidency and that is so critical.
As we enter this new book in the life of our nation, I am so deeply concerned because I am afraid that our president elect will not reflect the values of who we are as a nation: respect, compassion, equality, justice.
I know some of you are more confident in this way regarding the incoming administration and our president-elect than I.
I respect that. I mean that sincerely. If I have learned one thing in the past few months, it is that none of us have all the answers and we need to talk with each other respectfully.
But, I look ahead with more uncertainty than I have ever felt before as we approach a new administration. There are just too many warning signs that these values are not the foundation of President elect Trump and do not embody his vision for our nation and we all have seen those warning signs over the past two years. As a congregant said the other day in my office when we speaking about the prospect of the administration: “This isn’t the way I was raised”. Those words resonated with me deeply.
I hope I am proven wrong about the future. And I promise you I will admit it if that is the case.
But, this is no time for neutrality. It must be said.
It is an awesome responsibility to be a leader. I only hope and pray that President Elect Trump understands how every American, and especially our children, are going to watch his every statement and decision and learn from them. I certainly hope that he is successful in creating jobs for those for who have been passed over by the recent recovery, in defeating ISIS and lessening the threat of terror and in tinkering with health care reform so that more are served and no one loses the coverage they have gained, and if he does accomplish any of these, kol hakavod, I will congratulate him. But, if he continues to act and speak the way he has, if parents have to continue to say to their children each and every day: “we didn’t raise you this way”, then his presidency will be a failure and will constitute a threat to the very fabric of our nation.
I know from many of you that you have these same fears So what do we do?
What remains for us to do is what Jacob’s children did: swear allegiance to the values and principles that we know are critical to us as Americans and stand together and raise our voices to make sure those principles guide us and our leaders,: that our speech and actions are honorable, that we don’t change our language and we stay true to our name.
I am going to ask you to please stand as I read a second prayer for our country; this one from the new Conservative prayer book, Lev Shalem. Please listen to it carefully and consider it a fervent prayer for the future of our nation.
(The prayer can be found in Lev Shalem)