Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, July 16, 2016
Rabbi Michael Friedland
The Talmud tells a story of the son of the sage Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who became deathly ill. “Once, Joseph, son of Yehoshua ben Levi, fell ill and was thought to have died. Then he suddenly regained consciousness. It was as if he returned from some far away place. As he regained consciousness, his father said to him: "What did you see?" Joseph said: "I saw an Olam Hafuch (a world turned upside down). What is above was below and what is below was above…." His father said to him: "My son, You have seen an Olam Brurah (a clear world), you have seen the world clearly….' [Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 50a]
Many commentators understand Joseph’s vision to have been a glimpse of the World to Come, where those who have suffered in this life will be honored in the world to come and vice versa. But it is also possible to read his vision as a clearer, unmuddied realization of this world. The world we live in is the Olam Hafukh, the upside down world, where, despite the guidance of Torah and God’s gift of discernment, we human beings exploit and abuse and destroy each other and our planet for temporal and selfish motives. That is what Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was telling his son – now you see the Olam Hazeh, this terrestrial and mortal world for what it truly is.
And it seems as if the last two weeks we have been living in an Olam Hafukh. Policemen, whose function in society is to protect and serve, gunning down two men neither of whom were engaged in dangerous activities, who followed the instructions of the police dutifully and were killed anyway. Five policemen, doing their duty to serve and protect, protecting protestors who were protesting police!, shot in cold blood by a former soldier who used his training to defend the United States in order to kill law enforcement officials. And yesterday news of yet another mass murder in France, dozens murdered while celebrating that society’s liberation from tyranny by a follower of a hateful ideology whose goal is to reinstate a tyrannical theology. And after years of making significant progress in overcoming our nation’s embarrassing past of slavery, discrimination and prejudice, a leading presidential candidate has made prejudice and singling out certain ethnic groups for attack the hallmark of his campaign.
We thought we were past this.
Last week I spoke of how each of us is responsible to be like our patriarch Aaron, to stand in the breach, to stand as he did in the midst of a plague, between life and death and be a force for healing. This week, the timing is sadly prescient, I am joining with neighborhood pastors, three of us white, three of us black, to begin a conversation about what we can do together to address issues of concern in our East Central neighborhood. This meeting has long been in the works, it was actually prompted by the murders a year ago at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC, when Susan Blum through a colleague at Notre Dame helped me reach out to Pastor Rick Jackson. So it took awhile but I guess there’s never a bad time in America for black and white communities to reach out to one another. You never have to worry that you came too late to that party! It is a small thing – we are looking to get pastors of different churches in our immediate neighborhood to meet, get to know each other and, we hope, work together on issues facing our neighborhood – the schools, crime, beautification, and the like. You have to start somewhere. We hope that this act of coming together will be significant when it seems that so much of America is coming apart.
In our tradition this is an attempt to live up to Aaron’s legacy. For our tradition tells us that Aaron’s main quality was “bakesh shalom v’rodfeyhu”, to seek peace and pursue it. And midrashim suggest to what extent Aaron would live up to this – it was not enough to be gentle with people, he would seek ways to bring quarreling parties together.
Thus it is not surprising that in the morning’s Torah portion in which Aaron dies, our Sages noted a distinct difference between the way the people of Israel mourned his loss and the loss of Moses, the greatest of prophets.
When Aaron dies in this morning’s portion, the Torah indicates that “All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.” In distinction to this when Moses dies, the text tells us simply that the “the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for thirty days.” Not ALL. This reading suggests that there was a greater outpouring of grief and affection after Aaron’s death. The Sages explained the difference: “ Moses rendered judgment strictly but Aaron never rebuked the people harshly. [Avot D’Rabbi Natan 12]
This approach had its affect on policy. For after his death, as the people draw ever closer to the promised land they come upon an enemy, the Amorites. Israel sends messengers to work out a peaceful passage through Amorite territory. A midrash explains why this was significant. Using the same verse from Psalms that described Aaron’s character, this midrash states: ‘Seek peace and pursue it’ – The Torah does not insist that we actually go in pursuit of commandments. Rather you have statements such as Deut. 22:6 ‘If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.’ Or Deut. 24:20 ‘When you knock down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.’ Deut 23:25 ‘When you enter another man’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you want, until you are full, but you must not put any in your vessel.’ In each of these situations, you are to observe the mitzvah, but you need not go in pursuit of such a situation. Except in the case of peace, then ‘seek peace’ means ‘seek it where you are’, and ‘pursue peace’ means ‘and pursue peace elsewhere’. This is what Israel did. For God had given them permission – Deut. 2:24 ‘See, I give into your power Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land. Begin the occupation: engage him in battle.’ – nevertheless Israel pursued peace by sending messengers to request peaceful transfer.” [Tanhuma Hukat 51, Numbers Rabbah 19:27]
Cynics might suggest that this approach was a sham since in the end Israel does battle with the aggressive Amorites and wipes them out. But that’s missing the larger point. Whatever narrative the Torah is telling, the Sages wanted to interpret that text in a specific direction. Our Sages wanted their people to absorb the message that even at moments of heightened strife and confrontation, the Jewish approach is to reach out in order to create bridges, to strive for peace, to love more.
And that brings us to our celebration this morning. We are honored to have so many with us this morning to celebrate Tali and AJ’s upcoming wedding. Tali has grown up in this congregation, truly loved, supported and encouraged by this community. And we are grateful to share our joy with all of you. There are many joys to being a parent. The Yiddish word nachas captures that spirit. Whereas the word means tranquility in the Bible, in Yiddish is the added meaning of pride, joy, satisfaction. And there is no joy, no pride like seeing one’s child grow into a person worthy of respect. And second to that is seeing one’s child meet and partner with a person worthy of respect. That is why Lizzie and I are truly shepping nachas to have AJ join our family and to see AJ and Tali together.
I am a big proponent of marriage. Not in the sense of Groucho Marx, who when proposing to both Mrs. Rittenhouse and Mrs. Whitehead in Animal Crackers is questioned, “But isn’t that bigamy”, responded, “Yes, that’s big of me, that’s big of all of us. Let’s be big for a change”. I love marriage because it forces the individual to transcend him or herself. Human beings are basically ego-driven self-preservationists. Which is necessary most of the time. We need to focus on our physical and spiritual needs if we are to survive in this Olam Hafukh. But marriage is a welcome motivation to extend our humanity beyond our limited selfish needs. In a marriage, to succeed one must transcend the self so that the other, the partner becomes the object of attention and concern. The other’s needs, the other’s fears, the other’s aspirations, the other’s joys all become part of your constellation of interests and emotions. And this is what true love is. Not some ephemeral feeling, a desire spurred by pheromones to respond in a particular way. True love means acting on a sense of responsibility and obligation towards an Other.
And if we can learn that skill, learn to transcend our self and care about our partner, than we can grow that aptitude and learn to love and care for more people. So like Aaron we not only seek but also pursue concern and care for others.
That’s why we love weddings so much. It is the hope that in this Olam Hafukh, the upside down world, the possibility of the Ideal world that exists in Olam Haba, the world to come, can be realized here and now. A world where exploitation and abuse and hatefulness, can be subjugated to concern for the other, kindness, compassion and love.
It is the symbolism of the shattering of the glass at the end of the wedding. It seems strange to shout Mazal tov when the groom crushes the glass under foot. For the glass originally was meant to remind the guests that even at a joyous moment the world was still broken, the glass represented the destruction of the Temple. But to me, that shattering suggests something powerful and noble. Despite the brokenness of the world, despite the Olam Hafukh that we live in, a bride and groom who join together and pledge not only to love each other but that their love will reverberate and shake the world around them – creating new life, creating new avenues of compassion and care in the world – this is the beginning of redemption. Breaking the glass is an expression of courage, acknowledging that the world is broken but not conceding that it must be that way. The Huppah is our aspiration that the world can turn right side up through the love and concern of just two people. That is our prayer for Tali and AJ’s new life together, and that is prayer for all of us. May it be so.