Friday, December 27, 2013

Vaera 5774: The Gates of Resolution Are Always Open

 Drash delivered at Temple Israel of Boston on December 27, 2013

I’ve been privileged now for the fourth year in a row to have this particular sermon slot- the last word, as it were, in the secular year of 2013.  A colleague of mine recently wished me a “Happy Secular New Year,” a reminder that saying, “Happy New Year” without any subtle tip-of-the-hat to the complexity of living with two calendars wouldn’t quite cut it.  Because we in the Jewish community love to clarify, to modify, to add nuance—especially regarding matters of secular culture.

In fact, it’s not only religious culture that ritualizes our lives; secular culture too is infused with meaningful ritual, whether we recognize it or not.  On the 4th of July we mark the value of Independence, of self-determination and freedom. And of course New Years Eve is one of the more prevalent moments, an occasion which in our dominant culture prompts many of us to pause, often to gather with friends or family, and engage in important rituals like…. staring at a shiny ball on television (wondering: is it going to do anything else other than…descend, or is that it?). 

One of the more important aspects of the Secular New Years,  and an aspect that I’d argue Judaism endorses, is an occasion for resolutions.

The concept of the New Years Resolution is totally Jewish, we just do it at different moments.  And not only Rosh Hashanah, but also throughout the whole 10 Days of Awe. 
And not only throughout the 10 Days of Awe but on our 3 Festivals—Sukkot, when we RESOLVE to be grateful; Passover when we RESOLVE to love Freedom and pursue Justice for those who still suffer under the oppressive whip of modern day Pharaohs; And Shavuot, when we RESOLVE to devote ourselves to learning and living out our Torah. 

We are steeped in a tradition drunk on beginnings, on resolutions, and New Years Eve in our secular culture is a welcome reminder that – in the words of the midrashist, “the gates of teshuva, of resolution, are always open” (Devarim Rabbah). 

And yet, as we recognize the prevalent message in secular space that calls out: “resolve to do this, resolve to do that,” we find ourselves this week reading about a Prophet who struggles mightily with his own RESOLVE. 

Moses does not lead with resolutions and affirmations of his own capability; he begins his mission with extraordinary insecurity, self-doubt, and flat-out refusal of his own potential.

The Rabbis used to sit around & tell stories imagining Moses sitting in the room with them: how he’d react if were learning in their own classroom.  Well, we ourselves might imagine Moses at a New Year’s party. 

Everyone goes around – one person says, “I’m resolving to work out more—I’m gonna run 5 times a week!” Another person chimes in, “I’m gonna actually leave work by 5:30 every single day, no excuses!”  Another resolution, “I’m gonna join the coalition to raise the minimum wage, devoting my evenings after work to join meetings and fight the good fight!” 

Moses hears this and says, “well, I’d like to work out but I’ve got bad sciatica, I need to use this staff.  I wish I could leave at 5:30, but God’s hours are really tough, I don’t know I should probably sit by my desk on this mountain.  And I would do the whole social justice thing, but my voice hurts, I’m pretty slow at the whole communication thing.”

Moses’ early life is marked by refusal to do great stuff.  God commissions him, and he finds reason after reason to say “no.”

We first read of God’s resolution for Moses last week, in chapter 3:
And the Eternal said (to Moses), "I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings.  I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of the land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey....  The cry of the Israelites has reached Me... Come, therefore, and I shall send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt."

There it is, Moses, your New Year’s resolution, in a letter from God, sealed with a kiss.  And Moses reacts with no less than 5 refusals—last week and this week in Parashat Vaera:

At first: “Moses replied to God, "(Mi anochi) Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" And God said, "I will be with you...."

Moses continues refusing: (3:13) Moses said to God, "When I come to the Israelites... [what should I tell them your name is?]....

 (4:1) Moses said to God, "What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say ‘God didn’t appear to you'?"

And here’s his most significant refusal, followed by God’s most pertinent response: 
(4:10) But Moses said to the Eternal, "Please, O my lord, I have never been good with words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue." 

And the Eternal said to him, "Who makes them dumb or deaf, seeing or blind?  Is it not I the Eternal?  Now go and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say." 

What an amazing answer by God to a refusal of a resolution—I made you this way, God says.  I know who you are—I know who you can become.  This is your resolution. 

Then of course Moses says: “Please, make someone else your agent."

So what does Moses, this remarkably insecure character, offer us for Tuesday evening, if all he has to say is “I can’t”—5 times, in fact.

In fact, Moses’ refusal to accept God’s resolution for him has everything to do with the practice of making resolutions for ourselves. 
God, a Being connected to the world-as-it-should-be is pitching a resolution to Moses based on who he SHOULD be.  Moses entrenched in the world-as-it-is sees himself- and all his flaws- and in the face of this extraordinary resolution says, “no.”

But the story of Moses as it unfolds is about a human being who spends his entire life trying to bridge that gap.  The gap between who he is, between what he is given, and who he can become.

We are studying a character who develops, who grows, who balances faith with sacred doubt, and has he grows he becomes more wise, more accomplished, more resolved, and MORE … HIMSELF.  Moses is a character who, in the fullest sense, BECOMES himself.

A famous Hasidic tale tells of Reb Zusya, lying on his death bed; he was very upset and crying, tears streaming down his face.
His students asked with great concern, “Reb Zusya, why are you upset? Why are you crying? Are you afraid when you die you will be asked why you were not more like Moses?”
Reb Zusya replied, “I am not afraid that the Holy One will ask me ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?’ Rather, I fear that the Holy One will say, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’”

Moses took what God gave him, and became Moses.  He wasn’t given a great name (he was named by an Egyptian).  He wasn’t given great speech abilities; he wasn’t given immense self-confidence.  He became … who he was meant to be. 

As we all make our resolutions, whether next week or next year, may they guide us to become- not like Moses, not like Zusya- but more like who we’re meant to become.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Secular New Year.


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