Sermon Shabbat Vayeira 5780
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
When we closely study the Torah, especially Genesis, Breisheet, the earliest record of our first ancestors, we discover that God made a series of promises to Abraham. In the early covenants established in last week’s Torah portion of Lech Lecha and this week’s portion of Veyeira, God pledges to bring Abraham to a land flowing with milk and honey, erets zavat chalav ud’vash, to give him and his descendants the place then known as Canaan as an eternal, everlasting inheritance for all time. In subsequent Torah portions that covenant will be reaffirmed with each of the subsequent patriarchs, Isaac and especially Jacob, and in Exodus it will again be established as a berit, a promise to land and success, with Moses and his generation of Israelites.
There is no word in these covenants of rockets being fired from Gaza and landing in this Promised Land, by the way, nor are the borders specified in the Torah very precise. In fact, the Biblical description of the land that will someday be known as Israel range widely. In one place, the boundaries of the Hebrews’ nation ranges from the Nile River to the Euphrates, which encompasses most of the Middle East; in another place, the land promised to Abraham’s descendants is not much more than a couple of hilltops near Jerusalem. And for those literalists who believe that every inch of the Biblical Land of Israel should be modern Israel today because we have a God-given right to it, we must note that the would require that modern Israel trade nearly its entire coastal region for the barren hills of Judea and Samaria, exchanging Tel Aviv, Herzliyah, Caesarea and Haifa, where 70% of Israelis actually live, for a bunch of rocky, barren, wind-swept West Bank mountains.
In any case, whatever the exact, adjusted boundaries eventually prove to be, it’s in these Torah portions that the Jewish claim to Israel is established. And it’s notable that there is not attempt in the Torah to say that the lands are uninhabited. While the various Canaanite tribes that filled the territory of today’s State Israel in Abraham and Sarah’s days, the Girgashites, Perrizites, Hivites, Hittites, and Jebusites, are not in any way related to today’s Palestinians, they clearly pre-date the Hebrews in living in the Holy Land. And according to the tradition, it was God’s right to give us that land, provided we continue to fulfill our covenantal relationship responsibilities to God.
Which brings me to a lesser-known and rarely quoted phrase that is also central to these narratives in Genesis. God tells Abraham this repeatedly, and reiterates it to Jacob: v’nivrchu v’cha uvizarecha kol mishpechot ha’adamah—through you and your descendants will all the families of the world be blessed. That is, a large part of the Divine promise given to us in the Torah is that we, as a people, will bring goodness and blessing to the whole world. In a way, this may be the more important promise: lots of different peoples in this world have a homeland, but how many can say that they have the responsibility to bring blessing to the whole world?
What does this mean, exactly? What precisely is the blessing that our people has conveyed to this entire planet? Is it the belief in monotheism, the oneness of God, the concept that if you have only one deity you therefore can have only one source for morality, one locus for truth and meaning?
About 20 years ago Tom Cahill wrote a book called, “The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels.” Cahill, best known for his book about the Irish saving civilization, explored the sources of western civilization, and its beginning in the story of Abraham and the embrace of the belief in one God, a truly radical concept that changed everything. Well, it didn’t change it immediately, of course. After all, when Abraham came along absolutely no one believed that there was only one God. And today, if you survey the various beliefs of many religions and those who believe in none of them, you will find that the majority of the world still doesn’t believe in one and only one God. But eventually, over time, the concept of one God began to transform the way many people thought about the world and our place in it.
Is the great blessing of Judaism and Jews perhaps something beyond the Shema, the oneness of God? Is it our deep commitment to constantly trying to learn more, to extend the boundaries of knowledge and education? Is it our insistence on feeling a kinship with the downtrodden, the forgotten members of society, our ways of actualizing tikun olam? Is it the Jewish commitment to trying to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy people,” the goal of living to a higher standard, as that old hot dog commercial asserted about Hebrew National?
Or is it some combination of all of these, plus much more?
It is my very sincere conviction that Judaism, properly experienced, is an incredible way to enhance life, that it adds deep meaning, spirituality, intellectual stimulation, ethics and great joy to each of our lives. It is always fascinating to me how many of us American Jews don’t realize how great our own religious tradition is, and how much beauty and excellence it adds to what can otherwise be rather pedestrian existence.
Part of the pleasure of serving as a congregational rabbi is that I have the opportunity to explore pretty much anything and everything about our religion and culture in a sermon every seven days, and somehow, having done this for many years, there is always something new and fascinating to discover. That’s partly because we Jews have been around for 3800 years or so, and have lived and had active Jewish communities in essentially every country on the planet at one time or another. That diversity is a wonderful strength that is expressed in Jewish prayer, thought, music, food, art, clothing—and even in temperament. And I love exploring the incredible range of Jewish life across the world, visiting different Jewish communities, learning and sharing their music and customs. In the incredible variety of experience is a great richness indeed.
There are also many fascinating and not so well-known aspects of Judaism to investigate, many different areas of spiritual and intellectual excellence to explore. Our new Mussar Study Group is providing—perhaps forcing—me to take the opportunity to learn and grow in a unique field of character and ethical development. Even covering familiar ground in a new way, such as our Exodus Project course is doing weekly now, is surprisingly inspiring and exciting. The highly intelligent and sophisticated class members take us in unexpected and valuable directions with their curiosity, broad knowledge and sharp observations.
I must also note that the remarkable range of experience that the huge storehouse of Jewish life makes available to us is balanced by powerful, shared common elements of identity and character. For we Jews, no matter how divergent our backgrounds, share many values: a deep dedication to family, reverence for the importance of education and learning, a profound connection to the Land of Israel, a vital commitment to the greater notion of klal Yisrael, the great, shared peoplehood of all Jews everywhere. We are deeply committed to the greatest of Jewish ideals, the concept of justice, preserving it, seeking to see it in action in our world; we give tzedakah, the charity that goes towards righting the wrongs we see, and we work to help the downtrodden and the needy in our civilization. Nearly all of us relate in very special ways to the wonderful, varied and fabulous Jewish holidays, and almost all of us celebrate a Seder or light Hanukkah menorahs or come to hear the shofar on Rosh HaShanah.
And even when we celebrate the Sabbath to different degrees and in different ways, we retain an understanding of the meaning, beauty and purpose of this extraordinary Jewish invention, the day of rest and sanctity, of family, food and song.
I am often asked to describe just what Judaism—last week, a documentary filmmaker asked me that question on camera. You know, it’s not simple to explain what Judaism is, or why it unifies us through all of our amazing diversity. But it is a combination of these things, really, that connect us and help us fulfill that great Jewish goal of seeking to perfect the world under God’s rule—and this is a world that clearly needs some fixing, no?
It is perhaps not a surprise that I cannot truly imagine Jews choosing to live life outside the realm of a supremely accessible religious tradition that inspires us to seek so many great ideals, and does so by insisting that we create practical means to make those ideals real in our own lives every day.
Now, of course, I am a rabbi and therefore somewhat biased towards appreciating the wonders of Judaism, and living out those ideals in my own life, and encouraging everyone to do so in his or her own life as well. But in an America in which there are so many incredible ways to experience high-quality Jewish prayer, study, social action, music, food and humor, among many other possibilities, I would say that it’s incumbent upon every American Jew to take advantage of the amazing things that are offered—at our own synagogue, Congregation Beit Simcha, of course, but also throughout our community, and in every active Jewish community we visit.
In 2019, Judaism offers hope, energy, beauty and meaning, as well as creativity, idealism and joy. Isn’t that a great blessing, for us and the world?