My Dear Friends
It has been a custom in my family for over 60 years on the High Holydays to give a trilogy of sermons wrapped around a single theme. I am happy and honored to continue this tradition for these High and Holy Days in our new and renewed congregation, the Bleeker Street Synagogue. The theme this year to come is the Path Less travelled. It is taken from a Poem by Robert Frost that was one of my father’s (זצ”ל) favorites and is called “The Road Not Taken, ”
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
This poem speaks of our people, speaks to our people, our tribe. For we have certainly taken the path less travelled. It started with a warrior path unlike any other. The Path became one of tests and lessons. And it has led us to a place, a time of challenge that I call Modernity and Mashiah. And that dear friends forms the titles of my 3 sermons: The Warrior Path, Tests and Lessons, and Modernity and Moshiah.
Tonight I speak of ancestors wandering the Warrior Path. Tomorrow I will speak of the tests and lessons that have confronted, confounded and coaxed our people into the 21st century. And on Yom Kippur we will face the future, the balancing of ancient and modern, the confluence of tradition, mysticism and modernity, which I call Modernity and Mashiah.
Tonight we start with a journey, a journey that begins in southern Iraq, in the city of Ur over 4000 years ago. A family follows the long and winding road alongside of the Tigris Euphrates up into Syria to a place called Haran.
And then a member of that family has a vision.
Most modern folk don’t believe in visions, we have a healthy skepticism of them. But that is because we have a rather closed definition of what a vision is. Let me share a story to help illustrate. Many years ago I had the only Jewish congregation in a small town that claimed over 120 churches. Many of the Fundamentalist Christians would come to me seeking advice. They assumed that as a Rabbi, I was one step closer to their spiritual heritage and might have some arcane knowledge to share. One night, I was working late in my office when a fellow came to me. He told me that he had had a vision in which G told him to move to Oklahoma. He wanted my agreement and blessing and my understanding for his undertaking. I am a rational person and responded with a rational question: “How do you know that it was a vision from G and not the pepperoni pizza that you had for dinner.” Well the man was not dissuaded and moved to Oklahoma.
That would be the end of the story except that I had a chance to mention it to my Rebbe. I was proud of my somewhat glib answer and shared it in a moment of jocularity with my Rebbe. He looked at me very seriously but with a twinkle in his eye and said: “What makes you think that G does not speak through pepperoni pizzas?”
My friends, visions and messages from G come in all shapes and sizes . We need not worry about the veracity of a vision but rather its intention and its interpretation. Avram (for that was his name) had a vision and moved south to a land that would become for all times the spiritual homeland of his tribe. Not surprisingly, Avram made war on his neighbors, bought land from his neighbors, and fought side by side with his neighbors. We should not be disconcerted when we read in Torah that our people acted much like their neighbors, that is to be expected in every age, in every culture, in every region of the world. What should stand out, are the differences. The magic of Torah, our guide to who we were , who we are and who we will become is not how we were similar to our neighbors but how we were different from them, how we took the path less travelled. Torah, in this way, offers a unique window into the soul-path of the Jew, and when we find something that stands out, stands apart, stands up from the text we must grab it and examine it and take it to heart. Avram, makes mistakes, missteps, has misadventures like all of us.
But Avram did something that seems to be unique to that time and that place and unique to our people. He stood up to G for justice. We all know the story of Sdom V’Amora. But our translators have softened the tale for us. Torah anthropomorphizes the story into G standing around with Avram informing him of the impending doom about to befall the evil twin cities. What is Avram’s response? “חלילה לך” “G that would be a curse on you!” This is a first and I do not know of any other people who admonish their G quite like that. Quite a conundrum unless you know the secret rules to the game of Torah understanding, the first of which is that G knows what G is doing. G teaches us through the challenges that we face. G sometimes just wants us to stand up for justice no matter what. Again the lesson happens in the אקדה the story of the binding of Isaac. It was a custom of the people who inhabited Israel at that time to sacrifice their first born son. As children, this custom seemed to have held a deep fascination for my younger brother. But Rashi tells us that Avram misunderstood G’s intentions when G told him to take his son up on a mountain for a sacrifice. Avram should have realized that the invitation was to teach his son the ways of service, not offer him up as a grisly ala carte. Avram learns and grows.
His wife Sarai gives part of her name to him and he becomes Avraham “The Father of His People” and a tribe is born. They have a son named Yitzhak who we might call the peacemaker. Again a uniqueness jumps from the black fire on white fire that is Torah. Yitzhak digs a well and finds water, no small task in the Negev, the desert of Yisrael. But jealous neighbors, like neighborhood bullies decide that they own it. This occurs 5 more times and each time Yitzhak’s men are eager to fight. In each case Yitzhak demonstrates courage, perseverance, pacifism and faith in G. The 7th well puts an end to the bullying when the neighbors with their slow learning curve, realize that a person who can dig 7 wells and hit water each time is a person to have on their side. That 7th well still stands to this day and a city has been built up around it with a university and hospital that serves all people in the Negev, Jews and Christians, Muslims and Beduoin. The city is named is named after that well, באר שבע.
Yitzhak’s wife, Rivkah has a power to see beyond the physical reality of this realm. She sees deeper than her husband. When she first sees him, the aura that he wears but of which he is unaware strikes her so hard it knocks her off her camel. And this sight will do her well when her husband’s sight fails him.
Yitzhak’s second son is a quite mamma’s boy. Quiet, clean, a good cook, stays around the house. He seems studious. His brother by comparison is a man’s man, a hunter, sometimes a bully. He is brusque, brash and brave. But he is not much of a thinker of any depth and Rivkah sees no good aura around him. Rivkah too has a vision, a message from G and makes sure that Yaakov, the follower son, is to be the leader. And it is a good choice for we are all named for him. His chosen name, the name he wins in battle, in bravery with wisdom is Yisrael. And we are the children of Israel. Yisrael is the tribe builder, 13 sons twelve ancient and one modern tribe descend from this man, his two wives and his two assistant wives. And here the Amazing story of our ancestors ends and the story of our tribe begins.
For Yosef , the son of Yaakov leads us into Egypt, where we prosper as a warrior tribe. We were probably a mercenary army for the Egyptians when we became עצום ורב, powerful and with the beginnings of wisdom. But our power caused jealousy and fear and we were enslaved and belittled. The disparaging term that they used to degrade us was probably a variant of Hapiru which means ‘those who cross over.’ Hapiru transliterates as Hebrews. We were the Hebrews, the ones who crossed over, the foreigners not to be trusted.
After centuries of oppression and harsh treatment we escaped to the purity of the wilderness. We toughened our hides under the hot sun of Sinai and we opened our souls becoming a loose federation of twelve tribes on the spirit path. That path less travelled led back to our homeland and it led up to a higher level of soul consciousness, not as individuals but in tribal sensibilities. We lighted the Menorah of the mind and felt the radiance of the sun in our soul. But we never forgot that we were עברים, the ones who cross over, the stranger. Like others before us, we fought wars across the Sinai, sacrificed animals, and set up a code of law for the tribe. And yet again there are differences that light up our text and our time. Our sacrifices were not to appease angry and hungry gods, they were sacred Bar B Ques, the soulful gatherings of the tribes. They were representations and symbolic actions for our benefit. In Psalms (50: 10-13) the song is sung of sacrifices as an expression of faith not fear, of a loving connection not a luring conjecture.
Our prophets teach us the truth of animal sacrifice. “What need do I have of all your sacrifices?” says G in Isaiah . G follows that statement with the admonishment to defend the poor, the homeless, the needy for Justice is what is required of us (Isaiah 1:11-13). Torah, our sacred guide cries out: “Justice Justice, you shall pursue!” (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) Throughout TaNaCh, our Bible, G states clearly that our path, the path less travelled is to become אור לגוים a light to the nations. We set for ourselves unique laws and light the lamp of equality always set to the refrain: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt!” We were to treat the stranger as equals with the home born. For we knew what it meant to be a stranger in a strange land.
Wandering gave us a sense of wonder, Sinai toughened the skin and sensitized the soul. We became warriors again and our pilot light kindled the flame of faith and fairness. Yes, we fought Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Canaanites, Amorites, Moabites and every other ‘ites’ that stood between us and G’s promise of the land of Israel. That is to be expected of a people in that place and that time. What is less expected is to hear the words that enlighten our text and our lives. “I am the HaShem your G who brought you out of Egypt out of the house of bondage” invariably preceding the challenge to take special care of the widow and orphan, the needy and the stranger in our midst.
Imbuing and imbedding such ideals is not an overnight activity. 40 years, which just means a very long time, passes before the lessons are hammered out on the anvil of the Sinai desert floor.
And then we came over Jordan. The עברים, the Hebrews, the ones who cross over crossed over Jordan from East to West and came home. We built from the 12 tribes of Jacob, the nation of Israel. In that nation building we created the 8th wonder of the physical world, the Temple of Solomon and the first wonder of the ancient world an ethical code of equality. It is a code that is the basis for the religions of Christianity and Islam and can be found in the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. It was and is a song of salvation and it ends with the refrain; “Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt!” The key word here is remember, for the word Ivrim, that condescending term for outsider, also carries with it the consciousness of our past. The word ‘Ivri’ comes from ‘Over’ which means ‘coming out of the past.’ We, the Ivrim are the ones who crossed over Jordan remembering our past. Re-membering, as my belovedest , my partner and friend has been trying to teach me, is bringing something in so deeply that it is part and parcel of who we are. It comes naturally because it is so deeply held in our soul memory.
And so our life in our Sacred Homeland followed a course similar to the other nations. We conquered and were conquered. Just like the other nations who rose and fell with the tide of fate. But our path less travelled stands out from the text, stands apart from the rest. We do not fade into the night of exile and assimilation. When Nebuchadnetzer and then Titus destroy our 2 Temples, one in 586 BCE and the other in 70 CE, we carry that sacred sanctuary in our hearts. We adopt and adapt and survive and thrive even in the dark night of expulsion . Temple sacrifice no longer possible morphs into synagogue service. שחרית, מנחה, מעריב punctuate our days and enlightens our nights. But what never changes is our unique faith in our One G, source of love, source of life source of mystery. Our warrior path survives exile and return, war and wandering. For though we are tossed on the winds of fate we carry the G field in our souls and we carry our corpus of conduct and spirit wisdom in our hands and in our hearts. We physically survive and spiritually thrive not because of our numbers, but because of our indomitable faith in G and the transcendent teachings of our Torah.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and we —
we took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.