Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, May 27, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
It’s a pleasure when you get to hear an inspiring story on the radio. Robert Siegel who is retiring from “All Things Considered” on NPR has been reviewing some of the stories he has done in the past. Recently he visited with a person he met some 20 years ago who had been a drug dealer in his youth and decided to get out after going to the 17th friend’s funeral in a year. He participated in a program that helped rehabilitate young men by giving them basic jobs skills. He started in waste management. What impressed Siegel with this young man was unlike the others in the program, he had very specific dreams and goals. Twenty years later he reconnected and found that he had worked his way up to become a supervisor and had even created a number of entrepeneurial businesses. In assessing his life, the man said that the key was being able to imagine very clearly what his dreams would look like when they were actualized. Siegel concludes that having an imagination of what can be is essential to overcoming obstacles and challenges.
Imagination is essential to fulfilling our ideals, goals, and hopes. Animals are what they are. Mammals don’t aspire to fly, fish don’t imagine protecting all their spawn from predators. Our ideals and aspirations separate us from animals.
Of course some ideals are more noble than others. I had a friend who aspired to be a millionaire by the time he was 30. And he succeeded in that goal. However he was still the insufferable egotist who never listened to what you had to say. He was the same at 30 as he was at 16, just with more money. A suite mate of mine in college was the guy we teased as the bleeding heart liberal. He was involved with every human rights cause. He too succeeded in his dreams, becoming a lawyer who worked for the US Institute for Peace and spent months at a time helping war torn countries learn to become societies that prized the rule of law. It was frustrating work but many of the countries he worked in have functioning governments today. Achieving one’s ideals is important. But some ideals are more noble than others.
Judaism has always sought the highest ideals: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’, ‘Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt’, treat the land and your animals with utmost respect. We Jews prize ourselves for our noble ideals which continued to develop under the rabbinic leadership in ancient and medieval times and we are proud that our values and ideals influenced other religions and cultures.
And I think that is what is causing so much contemporary malaise and vitriol in our nation today.
It is not just the lack of professionalism of the current administration. Late night comics have had a field day comparing the accusations that Candidate Trump made against President Obama and Hillary Clinton and President Trump who has been guilty of the very same claims. It isn’t that - it’s the smallness of vision and the narrow idealism of what the current leaders in Washington have expressed through their actions over 4 months – taking healthcare away from people in order to fund tax breaks to the very wealthy; aligning our foreign policy with autocrats and dictators who have no respect for human rights in order to defeat ISIS which has no respect for human rights or human life. Is the enemy of my enemy my friend our highest aspiration for engaging the world?
Noble ideals make us human. It extends out ability to empathize when we can acknowledge that those who are different from us are actually a lot like us. It broadens our ability to love. Noble ideals and moral grandeur makes life worth living by giving us assurance, encouragement and hope that the world can be a better place – not only for ourselves and our descendants but for all others.
We will celebrate Shavuot this week. Shavuot celebrates the Jewish commitment to noble ideals. Shavuot celebrates the Revelation of God at Sinai which informs us that God and humans can relate and interact. The opening of the revelation is God’s expectation that we are memlechet kohanim – a kingdom of Priests - and a Goy Kadosh, a holy nation. What does that mean? The kohanim’s role was ultimately to serve both God and humans. We fulfill that role as Jews when we see our role as individuals and as a people who would serve others and serve to fashion the world in God’s image. A Holy people acts with compassion and concern for the world around them, striving to remove the harmful intentions of evil elements of the world.
It is fascinating that the Torah and the revelation occur in the midbar, desert and that the book we began reading this Shabbat is Bemidbar – literally “In the Desert” which transfers its focus from the Tabernacle, the emphasis in Leviticus, to life in the desert. This book, the book of ‘In the Desert’ or ‘In the Wilderness’ always comes before the Shavuot holiday. They are connected.
On the one hand the desert experience is a failure. They could have concluded their desert journey in a couple of months but instead due to grumblings, deceit, betrayal of ideals, the trek became a 40 year death march – “In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop…until the last of your carcasses is down in the wilderness… n this very wilderness they shall dieto the last person. (Numbers 14:29, 32, 35). The wilderness became a place of emptiness and void.
And yet the word midbar carries within it the word davar – to speak . To speak , to use language and to communicate is to imagine, to create ideals in the mind which can be actualized.
Even in the midst of the midbar a time when Israel persistently failed to live up to its highest and noblest ideals – such as faith and trust in God, trust in the goodness of God’s vision for the world, respect for their fellow Jews let alone respect for other humans – the ideals were there all along. The ideals remained even in the face of betrayal to God, burrowing deep in our DNA, to flower forth in future generations.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
So wrote T S Eliot in ‘The Wasteland’. The midbar is a wasteland – a heap of broken images where the sun beats – broken hopes and ideals for the generation of the desert. But because they carried with them the experience of revelation and the knowledge of Torah and the Ten Commandments, the broken heap of imagination and noble ideals would never truly be lost. The generation of the Exodus might die out but not their holy aspirations.
As long as the noble aspirations remain noble aspirations, as long as we can be ashamed at not fulfilling our highest ideals, there is hope. May we remind ourselves of the s spiritual majesty as we welcome Shavuot this week.