Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Belief Beyond Boredom: Shavuot 5774

Sermon delivered to the Temple Israel Confirmation Class of 5774
June 4, 2014/5774

Shavuot is about receiving the Torah at Sinai.  Confirmation is about receiving this tradition, symbolized by the Torah at Sinai.  (Are you with me so far?  Good.)  Sinai, in the Bible, is considered the most “interesting moment”— it captured the imagination of the entire community.  That’s what we always teach you, right?  

But for a moment, I’d like for us to focus not on the “interesting” Sinai, not on the “imaginative” Sinai.  Because, I suspect, it wasn’t all interesting, all the time, for all the people.  What about when Moses was up at the top of the Mount, overstaying his welcome with the big G? The Israelites, they were bored.  They were bored beyond belief— literally!  Which is why they built a golden calf.

So let’s play out the possibility that the real “story” of Sinai is one of overwhelming boredom, and then overcoming boredom.

Raise your hand if you've ever been bored in religious school.  Raise your hand if you’ve ever been bored reading the Bible.  Raise your hand if you've ever been bored in services.  On behalf of your clergy, I'd like to say: You're welcome.  

I recently read a book about boredom.  And let me tell you: nothing is more boring than reading a book about boredom. Except, perhaps, listening to a sermon about a book about boredom.  But on this morning, the morning of your Confirmation, your Sinai moment, if you will, I feel so utterly obliged to address the issue of boredom—and in so doing hopefully not bore you to death.

There’s a story told of a mother who one Saturday morning calls to her child, “C’mon, son, it’s time to go to synagogue!”
 The son calls back from his bedroom, “Aw, mom, I don’t wanna go. It’s so boring, nobody likes me, nobody ever listens to anything I have to say. Can’t I just stay home in bed?”
 The mother replies: “Absolutely not!  You have to go!”
 The son:  “Give me two good reasons, mom.”
 “Well for one thing,” says the mother, “you’re thirty three years old.  And for another, you’re the rabbi.”

For the first 14 years of my life, the Hebrew school classroom was the epicenter of boredom, the “holy of holies” for dullness, where we toiled in the Torah of tedium.  That’s why many people dropped out, and why many still do. 

This problem is actually widespread.  As the Jewish community learned recently from a PEW study released this year, disengagement and disconnection from institutional Jewish life—synagogues, JCCs, federations—is a huge problem.  The normal “sites” – the places that were fashioned to feel like Sinai, to capture the imagination of the Jewish people are, by and large, doing a lousy job at that.  In other words, our community is suffering from boredom. 

But boredom is nothing new to the story of Judaism.  We get it in the Bible from the very start.  The philosopher Immanuel Kant read boredom into the story of Adam and Eve.  He wrote:
“If Adam and Eve had remained in Paradise…. boredom would certainly have martyred them, as well as it does other men in similar positions.” 

The implication is clear: The whole exile from Eden serves the function of making life interesting!

And the Rabbis too understood the invasive, contaminating stench of boredom.  This is one reason why they created midrash.  Yes, I know, we told you midrash is designed to "fill gaps," to "solve textual problems." What we really meant to say was: they made midrash so that they wouldn't be so bored.  They made midrash so that we, you, would NOT be like the Israelites, so bored beyond belief that we get our spirituality elsewhere.

Take this midrash, which I promise you pertains directly to Shavuot, and to the statement that you are making by being present here at your Confirmation.

Here’s the context of the midrash: the Rabbis are reading the first line of the book of B'Midbar—the book of Numbers.  It begins, "Vay'daber Adonai El Moshe B'Midbar Sinai Leimor."  It's a weird beginning to a book.  Because usually it's "vay'daber Adonai el Moshe Leimor" - 70 times in fact, we see it that way.  But here's it's different—"And God spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai saying…."  So the Rabbis were confused: What do you mean, IN THE WILDERNESS OF SINAI, Torah was given?  Isn't that obvious?  Or could this suggest that Torah was given in a bunch of other places too?

The Midrash answers: “Why does it say "in the wilderness of Sinai?" Our Sages taught that the Torah was given in three ways: through fire, through water, and through wilderness.” 

And the Midrash goes further:
Why was the Torah given in these three ways? [What do these three things have in common?]  Just as these are free and open to everyone, so too are the words of the Torah free and open.

Think about that for a second: Torah is free and open.  The synagogue does not own this text.  Your rabbis don’t “own” this story any more than you do.  Your teachers, the great ones or the ones who bored you beyond belief, have no greater claim to this treasure than each and every one of you!

And in case you’re still bored having heard that, don’t worry, the Midrash isn’t done yet; it continues:
Why the Wilderness of Sinai? (it asks again).  Anyone who does not make oneself open, like a wilderness, cannot acquire wisdom and Torah.

This year we challenged you to become un-bored.  Throughout your Monday Night School experience, and I know personally in our Jewish Thought and Practice class, you were pushed- and you pushed each other – to open yourselves up to the possibility that Torah, that Jewish wisdom, that your obligations in this world, aren’t lofty and beyond your own story.  They are within you.  You have made yourselves “open like a wilderness.” And you discovered, in each of your own ways:

That Torah can be found in the fire of your anger and passion!
That Torah, wisdom, can be found in the water of your spiritual well, in the sea of your deepest thoughts,
That Torah can be discovered along the winding path of your own river.
That Torah can be found in your wilderness, when you’re lost or afraid….  Or, in the wilderness, when you discover who you really are.

Having once been bored, and now having escaped, you have each become so interesting and interested. 

And that gives us immense hope.  Because our community needs you now like never before.  Because Jewish boredom is different from other kinds of boredom. 

As Dr. Erica Brown writes in her book Spiritual Boredom, Jewish boredom is “unlike the boredom where we perceive that there is nothing to do in a generalized way.”  With Jewish boredom, more is at stake.  Because Judaism isn't a tradition of theories. It's a tradition of action and impact; of looking around, seeing hatred and injustice and doing something about it.  We can’t do that if we’re asleep. 

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go on a camping trip.  They set up their tent and, in time, fall asleep.  Some hours later, Holmes wakes up his faithful friend.  “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me ... what do you see?”  Watson opens his eyes, yawns, stretches, and then replies, “I see millions of stars.”  “And what does that tell you?” Holmes asks.  Watson ponders a moment.  “Astronomically speaking, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets.  Timewise, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three.  Theologically, it’s evident that God is allpowerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow!  Holmes, what does it tell you?”  Holmes is silent for a moment, and then speaks.  “Watson, you idiot, someone has stolen our tent!”

Karl Marx, who called religion “an opiate to the people,” or some kind of sleeping pill, got it so very wrong—our tradition isn’t a lullaby, it’s an alarm clock!  It’s a wake up call!  It’s a reminder that “someone has stolen our tent” – and it’s on us to do something about it, to make things better, to make things right, to ease suffering, to make your mark.
You are here for a purpose.  Today that purpose is confirmed.
And together you are powerful.

So if you were bored in 2nd, 3rd, 4th grade, maybe that’s “on us.”  But here’s the thing: now, if you’re bored: it’s on you.  Because now you know the important difference between lacking faith and just being bored.  You, Confirmation Class of 5774, embody the brilliant confluence of faith and doubt, of questions and discoveries—that confluence, so long as it propels us toward responsibility—is the crux of Reform Judaism.

And so your mission, if you choose to accept it—and by being here we take that as a “yes”—is to partner with us to move each other, to move our community, to move our people, from boredom beyond belief to belief beyond boredom. 

Ken y’hi ratson, May this be God’s will.