Sermon for Shabbat Hagadol (April 12, 2014): Faith In Words

April 13, 2014
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Sermon for Shabbat Hagadol (April 12, 2014): Faith In Words

Faith in Words

Sermon for Shabbat Hagadol (April 12th 2014)

Rabbi Ari Saks

Congregation Beth Mordecai

Once there was a king who ruled many kingdoms, yet no matter how much wealth he amassed, no matter how many people he helped, he never felt at peace. His mind raced in so many different directions he could never feel as if he was in the right place at the right time. When he was sad he wanted to be happy, and for some reason when he was happy, he wanted to be sad. Well, he thought, if my mind is never at peace then neither should my kingdom. So he set about making every part of his kingdom the opposite of what it should be – he designed his palace so that when it was sunny outside it looked like the dead of night inside, and when the moon came out at night the light from the palace made it look like the sun had risen hours before it was due. The king made people eat while standing up and walk while pacing backwards, and he demanded that his subjects greet one another by saying “goodbye.” The king made everyone in his kingdom feel like they could not decide if they were coming of if they were going, and that was just how the king wanted them to feel. So the king continued on this schizophrenic path for years and years, occasionally sending his emissaries out to discover new ways of becoming happy when you’re sad and sad when you’re happy. One day, one of his most trusted advisors returned after one of these very long journeys bearing a precious gift, a ring that he felt symbolized the back-and-forth-and-back-again nature of the king’s temperament. The king gazed at the ring, poring over every detail. “There is nothing special about this ring,” he remarked incredulously. “It’s not both black and white or big and small? It’s plain with only one color and one shape. How is this supposed to make me happy when I am sad or sad when I am happy?” “Turn it over, your Grace,” suggested the advisor. And on the back of the ring were three words that for the first time, made the king’s face became peaceful: גָם זֶה יַעֲבוֹר (gam zeh ya-avor) – This too shall pass. Because of these words, these simple words, the king knew how to experience happiness, sadness, or any other emotion one at a time at the right time; by realizing that at some point that emotion will go away and be replaced by a new one. All he needed was a few simple words to unpack the complexities in his mind. All he needed was a few simple words to feel at peace.

There are many events we experience, many emotions we feel, many problems we encounter that are difficult to understand. Yet according to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, what separates us from all other creatures on this earth is that we have been given the tools, through language and through words, to “communicate an idea from one person to another by the symbols, words, that [we] create” (Simple Words, 17). When we hit the right words, like the ones on the back of the king’s ring, all complexity withers away to reveal a basic simplicity that perfectly, and succinctly, describes what seems to be so indescribable. When President Abraham Lincoln was given the task to eulogize the slain soldiers of the great battle of Gettysburg, to give voice to the myriad of emotions accompanying a war between brothers, he needed only 278 words, two measly paragraphs to author one of the most famous speeches in history. It’s telling though that in the midst of his concise and poignant remarks that resonate through history, he says ironically:

“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here” (Gettysburg Address, November 18, 1863).

Ironic, because, as Rabbi David Wolpe comments in his book In Speech and In Silence “we don’t remember the names of the soldiers, we remember the eloquence of Lincoln” (paraphrase, xi-xii). It’s as if the words we speak have a power and a reach that we can hardly imagine as we utter them or type them. And as Jews, as a people founded on the sanctity of words not objects, on the meaning of inscriptions and not the grandeur of rings or palaces, we should be aware that our words carry a lot of weight.

Today is Shabbat Hagadol, The Great Sabbath that immediately precedes the holiday of Passover. It is a holiday which, in the words of Rabbi David Wolpe, “the Israelites rejected the inheritance of the monuments [of Egypt] for a culture of words” (In Speech and In Silence, 104). Our Torah, which according to tradition was given by God to the Israelites at Mount Sinai during their wandering in the desert, is the foundational text and artifact that built that culture of words, and as such is as much a holy vessel as it is a simple book of words. Think about it – we dress it in beautiful regalia, crown it with silver and gold, and parade it through our pews for each one of us to reach out, yearning to touch and kiss its magnificence. And when we return it to the table standing atop the bimah on high, we open it to reveal words that according to our midrash, were used by God to help create the world. We open it to reveal the vessels in which the past is brought into the present. We open it to help us feel happy when we should be happy, and sad when we are meant to be sad. We open it to reveal the clarity that comes from pure speech.

Yet, for anyone who has struggled to speak or to write, words can be like a temptress, seducing us with the possibility of clarity only to frustrate us with the inability to figure out exactly what we want to say. It is relatively easy to speak or to write as many words as we like, but we struggle often to find the right words, the precise words we need to get our point across, and so we talk, and talk, and talk hoping to get to the point but never truly reaching it, sensing like the king that whatever we are saying or feeling in that moment is not what we truly feel. Perhaps that is why we have so many words to recite during the High Holidays. To consider the nature of our lives and to evaluate our relationship with God is not an easy endeavor, and it may take over three hours to try to find the right words that express what we truly feel. And even then, we may not find the right words because for the clarity of every גָם זֶה יַעֲבוֹר, of every phrase that brings us fulfillment and peace, there is the frustration and circularity of a 15 minute speech on a topic that goes in one ear and out the other. (Hopefully you’re not listening to one right now!).

So how do we deal with the fact that words are so necessary and so beautiful, but can also be so frustrating and so challenging? Perhaps we can look for an answer in the haggadah which we will be using in a couple of days for the Passover Seder. After all, the haggadah is full of words, ancient words that have withstood the test of time and thus may provide some insight to the meaning of words. In this regard, there is one line that particularly sticks out:

רַבָּן גַמְלִיאֶל הָיָה אוֹמֵר: כָּל שֶׁלֹא אֹמֵר שְׁלֹשָה דְבָרִים אֵלוּ בַּפֶּסַח לֹא יָצָא יְדֵי חוֹבָתוֹ, וְאֵלוּ הֵן: פֶּסַח, מָצָה, וּמָרוֹר

Rabban Gamliel used to say: Whoever does not make mention of these three words on Passover has not fulfilled his duty. And these are they: The pesah, the matzah, and the maror (Haggadah, section: Maggid).

The notion that three words must be mentioned or one does not fulfill his or her obligation for Passover speaks to the importance of words – by reciting words you perform the ritual of Passover. Two of those words – matzah and maror (bitter herbs) – are ones most easily associated with the holiday. Everyone knows about matzah and everyone knows about maror. But the first word, pesah, despite being the Hebrew namesake for the holiday, is more unknown. Indeed it refers to the specific sacrifice offered on the holiday of Passover in the times of the Temple. As Rabban Gamliel goes on to say:

פֶּסַח שֶׁהָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ אוֹכְלִים בִּזְמַן שְׁבֵּית הַמִּקְדַשׁ קַיָּם

The pesah which our ancestors would eat when the Temple stood (Haggadah, section: Maggid)

When you think about it, isn’t it interesting that included in the words that must be recited for us to fulfill the mitzvah of celebrating Passover today we must utter a word referring to a sacrifice, a practice, that no longer exists? Isn’t it interesting that after the destruction of the Temple we invoke the word for the Passover sacrifice even though the words of prayer were viewed as a replacement for sacrifices? Isn’t it interesting that according to Rabban Gamliel the reason to include the pesah sacrifice – that “although the Temple has been destroyed and the sacrifices can no longer be offered, Jews should continue to eat the same foods due to their symbolic/historic meaning” (Schechter Haggadah, 236) – that that same reasoning could easily be applied to why we still recite ancient prayers? In other words, it seems that the mention of the pesah offering in the haggadah indicates a particular connection between words and sacrifices that may help us learn an important lesson about the nature of words. As such, I want to turn to a teaching from Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, the chief rabbi of Prague in the 18th Century, who spoke about sacrifices in his sermon on this day, Shabbat Hagadol, in 1782:

“Sacrifices are the sign of faith because there is no reason behind them – “nothing is as remote from human reason as the sacrifices…therefore there is no rational explanation of the sacrifices at all. They are based entirely on faith” (Jewish Preaching 1200-1800, 367).

As opposed to sacrifices, words are more often associated with reason than with irrationality, perhaps because our philosophical and scientific discourse uses so many words, or perhaps because in our day to day lives we tend to speak “common sense.” Yet, if the haggadah teaches us that there is a connection between sacrifices and words and if we are open to applying this teaching by Rabbi Landau to the nature of words, then perhaps what we are meant to learn is that our words should be seen more like sacrifices, as a sign of faith.

One of my colleagues while working at the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, Reverend Nicole Diroff, once told me that she understands God’s presence to be that moment when you are sitting with a group of teens or adults discussing an important topic and you get the sense that people are listening to and understanding each other. In other words, the efficacy of our words – the moments when the king reads גָם זֶה יַעֲבוֹר (gam zeh ya-avor) on the back of his ring and finds peace in its message – is not based on the reasonableness of an argument or the clarity of a statement, but rather, to quote Landau, it is based entirely on faith. When during the High Holidays, as well as in a few moments, the cantor sings the הִנְנִי (hin’ni) prayer asking God to hear her prayers on behalf of the community, she opens herself to the possibility of her words becoming pleasant and accepted offerings to God, like the sacrifices of old, while knowing that it is only God who will make the final judgment as to whether or not they are acceptable.

What’s more, the connection between sacrifices and words as signs of faith also reminds us just how precious they both are. While it seems that we have this endless resource of words at our fingertips, according to both scientific and religious sources, we have a limitation on how many words we can use in a day or in a lifetime, just like there must have been a limit to how many animal sacrifices a person could afford to give the Temple. How amazing is it then when despite the limitations of our words and of our resources we can achieve success, like the king’s advisor who journeyed to no end to find a ring that says גָם זֶה יַעֲבוֹר (gam zeh ya-avor)? Or to take a more modern example related to the current holiday of Passover, how about Operation Exodus, the program run by Jewish Federation in the early 90s to airlift over 700,000 Jews from Russia and Ethiopia to Israel and America? How amazing is it that New York Federation alone raised over $177 million for the project when the original goal was only $75 million? Just imagine the words necessary to mobilize the sheer amount of energy and money needed to activate thousands of donors and volunteers. How amazing is it that despite our human limitations, we can use words and make sacrifices of our time, energy and money, which seem to go beyond our capacity.

Over the past couple of years we have grown a lot as a community. We have sacrificed more time and energy into building a meaningful, haimische, and welcoming Jewish Home for the Soul. Yet as we’ve grown and done more things together, it seems that our capacity hasn’t grown with it. Too often it seems we talk and talk trying to get to the point but never actually reaching it. Too often it seems we make sacrifices without really knowing the final goal of those sacrifices. Too often it seems we, and I include myself in this, are like the king, our collective mind racing in so many different directions without ever finding some sort of peace or focus. It seems to me that we need our own   גָם זֶה יַעֲבוֹר (gam zeh ya-avor), we need the specific words that will help reassure us that we are headed in the right direction, that our sacrifices are worth it, that when we come together we know why each of us are here; we need the words that will rally us to believe that we can do more than what it seems we’re capable of.  

Yet, we must also realize that while we try to reason out and parse those perfect words, part of the process is out of our control. That as we talk and listen to one another to find those right words to lead us to even greater heights, to give us a collective sense of mission, to enable us to find peace, we must have faith that the right words will find us, and when they do we will understand them.

הֶיֶה נָא מַצְלִיחַ דַרְכִּי אשֶׁר אֲנִי הוֹלֵךְ לַעֲמוֹד וּלְבָקֵשׁ רַחֲמִים עָלַי וְעַל שׁוֹלְחַי.

Please God, as I stand here before you and before the congregation, I ask for your kindness and grace to make our words clear so that they can give us a sense of peace. 

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