Chag Sameiach! Happy Shavuot!
In celebration of Shavuot, I would like to share this sermon that I first offered on Yom Kippur evening, September 25, 2012.
There comes a special moment at every B’nei Mitzvah we celebrate here at Temple Sinai, when I try to convey the majesty and the nobility of the Torah. More than any other text, I enjoy reciting the masterful poem of one of our great 20th century liturgists, Rabbi Jack Reimer:
“There are no words more challenging than
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”
No words so life-enhancing as ‘you shall rest!”
No cry more compelling than “let my people go”
And no summons more demanding than “justice, justice you shall pursue… These words have outlived monuments and empires. We want them to live through us, until the end of time. We owe it to our ancestors to keep Torah alive. We owe it to the world to keep Torah alive for these are messages which the world needs to hear.”
It’s not just the world that needs to hear the Torah’s teachings. We desperately need to hear them too.
All of us have personal woes. These days, who isn’t stressed about work, or money, or family issues? The words I hear most often are, “I’ve got a lot going on right now.” In times such as these, the Torah can give us the inspiration, the resilience, the perspective we need to transcend the stormy surface of our everyday lives. As life’s challenges crash over us, the wisdom of the Torah will keep us upright, physically and morally.
As Jews, we know the way into Torah is not just to read it, but to study it, closely, verse by verse. What is the key to unlock the Torah’s wisdom? The key is that we not only work the text. We engage with the verse. We enter into the deep, inner meaning of the verse. The key to unlock the Torah’s wisdom is that we open ourselves to the text.
We allow the text to work on us.
Come journey with me now to learn the deep inner meanings of three verses. Verses that speak to your life in ways you never imagined before:
Life’s challenges can surely wear us down. Sometimes we feel helpless. We begin to lose hope. We get burned out. What do we do? Eish tamid tukad al hamizbeach lo tichbeh. “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out. When challenges arise, you must nurture your eish tamid, your own flame. Take care of yourself, pace yourself, set a boundary. Yes, there are times when we feel completely exhausted, totally empty. But don’t panic! Never doubt that the flame is always there inside you. In difficult times, always remember to stay in touch with your strengths. Eish tamid tukad al hamizbeach lo tichbeh. “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.”
In the 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we have made many new year’s resolutions. We have done the noble work of teshuvah. We have apologized. We have admitted being wrong. We have acknowledged mistakes. We have worked hard to become a different person, a better person for the sake of our loved ones. But like all New Year’s resolutions how long will they last? Lo tesifun lashuv baderekh hazeh od. “You must not go back that way again.” Don’t go back to negative attitudes. Don’t go back to unhealthy habits. Do not go back to what you know is not good for you. Stay strong! Lo tesifun lashuv baderekh hazeh od. “You must not go back that way again.”
When we were children we were taught in religious school and at home that God is in heaven, God exists above us and outside us. Ever since, as adults, we look to experience God’s reality either, outside ourselves in a miraculous face to face conversation, or above ourselves in some supernatural event. As a result, many of us have been sorely disappointed. Many of us have never had such experiences. We don’t feel God’s presence in our lives anywhere. We conclude that God isn’t really there. We become agnostics and atheists. The cause of our disappointment is that we’ve been taught to try to find God in the hardest place, not the easiest. The reality of God’s existence is best known to us, not from outside ourselves, but from within ourselves. Lekhah amar libi. Bakshu fanai et panekhah Adonai avakeish. “On your behalf, my heart says, seek my presence. Your presence, Adonai, I do seek.”
Your heart is a gateway to God. Your heart has always been a gateway to God but no one ever told you. When you feel love that is God. When you feel compassion and empathy that’s God. When you feel your heart bursting to fight injustice, to fight some wrong, that’s God. When you feel the pangs of conscience stirring within you, that’s God. If you love, you know that God is real! Lekhah amar libi. Bakshu fanai et panekhah Adonai avakeish. “ On your behalf, my heart said, seek my presence. Your presence, Adonai, I do seek.”
One of my favorite professors at HUC (Hebrew Union College), the Rabbinic School of the Reform Movement was Dr. Stanley Gevirtz, may his memory be a blessing. Dr. Gevirtz was a very erudite scholar of bible. I loved going to his classes and listening to him speak. But it was at Monday and Thursday morning services at the college where he made a lasting impression on me. When we process with the Torah scroll, it is Jewish custom as the scroll passes by, to touch the scroll with your tallit or siddur, then kiss the tallit or siddur. Dr. Gevirtz did something different. Whenever the Torah scroll passed by him at services, Dr. Gevirtz bowed. He bowed to the Torah. Dr. Gevirtz taught me how to love and revere the Torah.
Make some time in your life to love and revere the Torah. Work the Torah text and allow the Torah text to work on you: to move you, to inspire you, to comfort you. Come to Sharing Shabbat or study on your own. Either way, I am here to assist you on your journey to unlocking the Torah’s wisdom for you.
When I am not on the bimah, but in the Congregation I do what my teacher, Dr. Gevirtz, taught me. I bow to the Torah. And you may have noticed that whenever I have the honor to hold a Torah scroll, I try to show my love and reverence for the Torah by holding the scroll as high on my shoulder as I possibly can. The funny thing about this is that when I look up at the Torah, I don’t feel small. I feel tall. Actually, I feel very tall.
I promise you this: if you study Torah you will soon feel very, very tall.