Lincoln's Worlds and Ours: Yitro 5773
Sermon delivered at Temple Israel of Boston
February 1, 2013 / 21 Shevat 5773
This week our rabbinic team at TI attended a clergy caucus of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. About 30 religious leaders from GBIO’s 56 institutions gathered at Roxbury Presbyterian Church for the purpose of getting to know each other, of learning, of exploring common ground. We studied the paradigm that's so central to our practice of community organizing: the tension between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-it-should-be.
We all live in this tension, especially clergy who at least strive to hold a mastery over religious traditions that embody various articulations of the world as it should be while also staying connected community, present-tense reality.
We studied how this paradigm plays out in the movie Lincoln. President Lincoln understood it as well as anyone, in least according to Dorothy Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, as well as Spielberg’s production of Lincoln, which focuses on but a few pages from Goodwin’s book.
In the world as it is, Lincoln knew that slavery was an abomination, completely immoral. “If slavery is not wrong,” he once wrote, “nothing is wrong.”
But in the world as it is—as the book and movie deeply explore—Lincoln knew that the Emancipation Proclamation was the best he could do at a given moment. The Emancipation Proclamation, of which of course this year marks the 150th anniversary, was a deeply problematic statement:
· It did not free all the slaves—it didn’t apply to the so-called border states—Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, Missouri, and West Virginia.
· In order to emancipate slaves, of legal necessity, the Proclamation assumed the slaves’ status not as free human beings but as war contraband, or seized property.
· Lincoln wasn’t even sure that the Proclamation was constitutional.
· And of the greatest political significance: it was an Executive Order only valid during war time. As soon as the war ended, the Proclamation could be deemed void, and with it the freedom that it extended to some African Americans.
Therefore, Lincoln, aware of the world-as-it-should-be but so deeply grounded in-the-world-as-it-is, decides that the passage of a constitutional Amendment freeing slaves is more urgent than ending the bloodiest war in our nation's history. He chooses to obfuscate whether the possibility exists for peace negotiations with the South, until such time as he gets the Amendment done—arguably extending the Civil War, causing more deaths in the immediate future. He offers governmental positions to secure votes for the Amendment; even cash bribes are given out—to get the job done in the world-as-it-is.
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Our Torah portion this week, Parashat Yitro, also presents us with the tension between the world-as-it-should-be and the world-as-it-is. In the Torah up to this point, throughout Genesis and Exodus, we have seen this paradigm playing out in the lives of our biblical characters. All of our patriarchs and matriarchs live messy lives interspersed with divine encounter: Noah who walked with God rejected humanity; Hagar rejected by Sarah and Abraham meets God in her wanderings, and she even names God; Jacob deceives his family but in the wilderness finds God's presence that guides him; the list goes on and on. These biblical heroes are not situated by our text in the world-as-it-should-be; they were plunked down squarely in the awkward space in-between.
But it's not until Parashat Yitro that we first encounter God's revelation to the entire people of Israel: We hear the Decalogue, the 10 Commandments. The world-as-it-should-be, obedient to God, honorable to each other. All of this, presented clearly to Moses on the top of a mountain.
But ironically, for the people down below, Revelation is less revealing.
Nevertheless, Tractate Shabbat (146a) of the Babylonian Talmud interprets this moment as so utterly central to the meaning of Judaism that it teaches that the soul of every single Jew, past, present, and future was there, at the foot of Sinai, beholding…whatever it was that the Israelites beheld.
And what did they actually behold? Exodus 19:16: “Vay’hi vayom hashlishi vihyot haboker vay’hi kolot uvrakim v’anan kabeid al hahar—On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning , and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud horn, and all the people who were in the camp trembled.”
A few verses later: “v’har Sinai ashan kulo—Mt. Sinai was all in smoke….the Eternal said to Moses, “Go down, warn the people not to break through to the Eternal, to gaze, lest many of them die.”
What kind of Revelation of God’s Law is this? The world as it should be, which you are now being gathered to witness, is actually… private showing, like an interview you’re invited to experience, but only via podcast days later; or a magnificent rendering of the national anthem, which you later find out was pre-recorded.
Tradition urges us believe that Sinai was vivid and user-friendly, but the biblical texts gives us very little to work with. We don’t get a specific locale of the Mount itself, we don’t even get a Holy Day or a festival focused on Revelation at Sinai.
Ah, you might say, sure we do: Shavuot, the Festival 7 weeks after Passover. But in fact it wasn’t until the Rabbis came along more than a millennium later that the Festival of Shavuot has anything to do with Revelation at Sinai. In the Bible, Revelation is not a clear, vivid, God encounter; it’s not a big answer to the burning questions that the Israelites have grappled with throughout their journey out of Egypt. It’s not an answer at all: it’s a question. It’s a cloud. And yet, somehow, it’s nevertheless an ultimate awakening—what Maurice Samuel in his book The Ten Commandments calls, “a flash of awareness [which] became an everlasting fixation.”
It’s a moment of liminality, neither down here in the world-as-it-is, nor up there, in the world-as-it-should be, but in-between and wide awake.
And from our reading year after year, we know where this story is headed: the tension is just beginning. The gap between the world on the top of the mountain and the world down below will grow wide. We know that Moses is going to spend too much time up there, in the-world-as-it-should-be; that Aaron is going to be immersed exclusively down below, in-the-world-as-it-is. And we can hear the calf approach….
* * *
Each of us, in our lives, lives in this tension. We don’t need to spend 12 bucks for Spielberg to teach us about living between the ideal and the real.
Ideally, everyone should have healthcare. In reality, the only way we could get there in that moment in 2006 in Massachusetts—to save lives—was by striking an imperfect deal that mandated coverage, and that businesses provide it—as if businesses should have business making decisions about our health coverage.
Ideally, our children should all be educated, and all parents should be able to spend as much time with their kids as the want. Really, we live in a tough economy, with underfunded schools, and fewer and fewer of us are able to afford spending maximal time raising our kids.
Ideally, our tradition's pretty clear on the need for everyone to pay his or her fair share toward the welfare of our citizens, toward those suffering. Really, our community has a variety of views around the best way to legislate a fair, responsible revenue structure. And by the way, on Monday, at 7pm, everyone’s invited to a house meeting here, on this very subject—exploring responsible revenue plans for our Commonwealth.
What we learn from Parashat Yitro, what we learn from our greatest leaders, the Lincolns, the Kings, is that it's a sacred task to work to bridge the gap.
The Talmud teaches, “lo alecha hamlacha lignor, it’s not your responsibility to get the job done, v’lo atah ben horim l’hivatel mimena—but you’re not free to exempt yourself from trying.” (San 4:1)
This is our task: to bridge the gap. That’s what our Torah means when we read - this very week - in Parashat Yitro:
"Atem tihiyu li mamlechet kohanim v'goy qadosh—
And you shall be for me –
mamlechet kohanim – a kingdom of priests –
v'goy qadosh - and a nation that is holy.