Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, August 12, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
We Jews are liturgical packrats. We like to hold on to lots of prayers and over time they become included in our siddur and it is hard to remove them. Like the prayers that begin with Yekum Purkan after the Torah is read. They are prayers on behalf of the scholars in the Jewish community, originally blessing the leaders of the Babylonian Jewish academies, and on behalf of the synagogue community. Well the time comes when the world’s religions decide that for the sake of world harmony they need to join together to create one world religion. In order to do so everyone has to give up something distinctive to reach this universalist vision. The Catholics say, OK, for the sake of the world we are willing to give up the idea of the trinity – Just one God, no son or Holy Ghost. The audience nods their heads. All acknowledge how difficult that change would be. The Muslims step us and say, Ok, well we will give up the belief that Mohammed was the last and greatest prophet. Again all are impressed with the commitment to world harmony. Then they turn to the Jewish representative. He thinks and says: OK we’ll give up the second Yekum Purkan after the Torah reading.
As many of our congregation have pleaded, does the service really have to be this long? Can’t we cut some things out? Usually my answer is like the Jewish representative to the World Faith initiative – Ok the second Yekum Purkan in the Torah service. (which our prayer book does!) People are frustrated with a prayerbook that sometimes seems like it was put together as layers on a geological formation, but the truth is that the siddur as a whole is truly an intricate, well constructed edifice in which each component leads to the next.
One example is the Shema where the Sages tell us the order of the three paragraphs is essential. The first paragraph proclaims the Oneness of God and that God is the exclusive focus of our devotion. Paragraph two develops the idea of the importance of mitzvot. And the last paragraph speaks of one mitzvah, the tzitzit which remind us to do all the other mitzvot as well as the paradigmatic moment of redemption, God’s role in the Exodus from Egypt.
But what do we do with a prayer when we no longer believe in its theological underpinnings? Do we jettison it, do we change it, do we change ourselves- the prayer is correct my theology is skewed? The second paragraph of the Shema, V'haya Im Shamoa ( If then you obey the commandments) found in this morning’s Torah reading besides emphasizing the role of mitzvot in Judaism, teaches a conventional theology accepted by the Bible and our Rabbinic ancestors but troubling for many moderns. The claim of the paragraph is that if we obey God's commandments, God will "grant the rain for your land in season...You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil...and thus you shall eat your fill.” And if we don't obey, God "will shut up the sky so that there will be no rain an d the ground will not yield its produce ; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you".
This view assumes that God controls all of history and nature, which together form an integrated panorama. Therefore God could and would use the natural processes to reward or punish human beings for their behavior.
But many of us find these views difficult to swallow at best, repugnant at worst. Based on our scientific knowledge of the atmosphere we have difficulty believing that the presence or absence of rain indicates Divine favor. The rabbis were also sensitive to this and spoke of the world pursuing its natural coarse. They illustrated : A man steals a bag of wheatand then sowed it, by right it should refuse to grow - but the world pursues its own curse. Nature seems totally oblivious to good and evil. Biology is not morality. That is, if a natural disaster hits or someone gets sick we do not look for the cause in the city’s or person's behavior.
Holding such a view as one’s theology is fine. But the question for the worshipper is when you have to pray a prayer that promotes a religious theology that you do not accept what do you do?
Thenotion of reward and punishment was so dubious to early American Reform Jews that they removed this paragraph from their prayer books. The Reconstructionist movement also dropped it from their prayer books. Mordecai Kaplan their founder and editor of the prayerbook, stated that he could not believe that “the process of meteorology is dependent on man's moral behavior". Clearly for these movements theological integrity was more important then tradition. They could not pray what they did not believe.
But lo and behold in the 1989 edition of the Reconstructionist prayer book the second paragraph of the Shema is back in!. What happened to effect its return? Did the Reconstructionist get frum? No but times change and today there is a new ecological consciousness. We are aware of the relationship between our deeds and the fate of the earth and its resources. It was no longer theologically unthinkable to believe that if we continued to abuse our earth, in effect to disobey God's commandments which demand that we as guests on this planet take care of our Host's earth, rain will not fall in its proper season, or the rain that comes will be polluted. Ecology is now a moral issue and this passage acquired new relevance.
Just as modern interpreters of Shakespeare do not erase his words because they come out of a social and cultural milieu different from ours but rather place them into different contexts and draw out new insights by changing the historical period of the drama or the ethnic make up of the characters, so too we can find inexhaustible meaning in the rabbis’ arrangement of how we should speak to God.
For our ancestors living in the land of Israel rain was a great need and a prominent symbol of human dependency on God. A theology that suggests that God responds to human action seeks a God that is just and concerned. This God is not the God of the deists who believed God created the world and lets it run according to its own laws. He is not the capricious god of Shakespeare’s King Lear: As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.
This does not mean that we can readily defend God’s justice in the light of experience. But it is an idea we cannot live without. For human life to have meaning our actions must count and that is what this paragraph teaches us.
Another expression of our God and our tradition of what a powerful God means is located in the second blessing of the Amidah. In the Gevurot blessing, which means power, we acknowledge that God is the most powerful force in the Universe that is why we come to God to make petition. But the examples offered as God’s power are not blowing enemies to smithereens or crushing those who disobey. The examples are upholding the fallen and healing the sick, freeing the captive and bringing life to that which is lifeless. This concept is also found in this week’s Torah portion: For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. — You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
This is a lesson we need not only learn but also promote and teach to our leaders. True power is not bombast, its not cruelty and intimidation. Real power is the power that heals and integrates the outcast and weak.
Every day our liturgy provides us with lessons about what the basic beliefs our tradition wishes to instill within us. Even when it seems that the message is no longer in keeping with the times, the wisdom of our sages perseveres and informs us that even if today these words may not make sense to ustomorrow they might. The test of religious truths is that they withstand the vicissitudes of history. Our tradition wants us to become more sensitive, empathic and kind individuals. Our daily prayers assist us in that direction.