Homecoming Sermon: “I am a Beth Mordecai Jew” – Responding to the Command to Be Jewish

March 18, 2014
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Homecoming Sermon: “I am a Beth Mordecai Jew” – Responding to the Command to Be Jewish

Rabbi Ari Saks

*Sermon for Shabbat Zahor/Parashat Tzav – March 15, 2016

Beth Mordecai Homecoming Weekend 

In 2002, Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl was brutally murdered by militants in Pakistan. In addition to the sadness and pain felt in hearing the first reports of his murder, there was also a hint of hope, a taste of truth because with his last three words Daniel Pearl spoke a prideful and confident claim that resonates through eternity: I am Jewish.

In the years since his death this confident claim of Jewish identity, of saying proudly I am Jewish, has unified the Jewish people to the point that, despite our many and vast differences, 94% of us in America say that we are proud to be Jewish according to the latest poll. How we define what Judaism is remains a matter of much conversation and dialogue – I mean how could it not be when for every two Jews you get three opinions? – but the very fact that there is such pride has to mean that there is something pulling at us, something that not only claims, but commands us to be Jewish.

In 2004, Daniel Pearl’s parents published a book in honor of their son’s memory. “I am Jewish,” is a collection of stories from Jews – religious, secular, famous, obscure, young, old, accomplished, ordinary….all kinds of Jews! It’s a collection of their stories on what it means to be Jewish. Yet amidst the Pullitzer Prize winners, statesmen and women, entrepreneurs, and rabbis, it was the entry from 14 year Felicia Lilien (who is now in her early 20s) that got my attention. In her short, but provocative statement about what it means for her to be Jewish she writes:

“Being Jewish is not keeping kosher, it’s not going to services every week, and it’s not reading from the Torah daily. Judaism is a decision only you can make. There’s no right or wrong way to be Jewish because no one can tell you how to connect with God. I am a giver, I am a receiver, I am a believer, I am strong, I am proud, and most important, I am Jewish.” (121)

I wonder, how many of us sitting here in this room would offer a statement like Felicia’s? How many of us would start a description of our Jewishness by listing the things that we’re not – we’re not religious, we don’t keep kosher, we don’t read Hebrew, we don’t eat lox (God forbid!), yet at the end of the statement we say without reservation, without qualification, and with all seriousness that the most important thing for us is that we’re Jewish?! There is something particularly Jewish, particularly hutzpadic that allows us to claim our Jewishness so proudly when we reject much of the content that makes up Judaism. It’s as if there is some force, something in the Jewish air we breathe, that commands us to be Jewish even when we don’t do Jewish.

Vay’daber Hashem el Moshe Lemor – Tzav et aharon v’et banav

And God spoke to Moses saying – Command Aaron and his sons (Lev 6:1)

I believe that this simple sentence taken from the first verse of today’s Torah portion speaks volumes about what it means to be a Jew. Perhaps because of its brevity, or perhaps because of the way it rolls off the tongue, but there is something striking about the word “Tzav” which means “command” as it appears in this sentence. There is a power to it that seems to arrest your attention. Rashi, the great 12th century sage from France, teaches us that the word “Tzav” is “l’shon ziruz miyad ul’dorot” – it is the language of urgency for both the immediate present and lasting into the future, as if to say that this moment of “being commanded” will be so powerful, so urgent like the scream of a little baby, that we have no choice but to always follow the command.

It stands to reason then that if the act of being commanded is an urgent one , then the content of that command must be critical for both the present and the future. So what is the content of this command in the Torah? “Zot Torat Ha-Olah” – it is the ritual of the burnt offering. Well, I hate to break it to you, God. but no Jews make burnt offerings today. Nada. Zilch. Even the most religious Jews, the ones who desperately would want to sacrifice are not actually doing it anymore. Sorry God, it looks like this command isn’t as urgent as it once was. 

But then again, perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps that’s what 14 year old Felicia was talking about. The content of the command, whether it’s to bring a goat to the altar or a bar mitzvah boy to the Torah, is relatively irrelevant. What matters most is that arresting command of “Tzav,” that impressive, and all encompassing command to be Jewish no matter what doing Jewish looks like.

I believe though that that’s only half the story. Our command to be Jewish may not contain specific content, but neither is it devoid of any content because in order to truly be commanded, in order to state with that unequivocal pride that most importantly I am Jewish, we must respond to that command.

Alan Dershowitz, the famed constitutional lawyer and defender of Israel, appeared  in Daniel Pearl’s book a few pages before Felicia. He states in his entry:

“For those of us who have chosen to remain Jewish – in whatever way we have defined that choice – a special responsibility accrues. We have chosen to remain part of a wonderful civilization – an ever changing yet enduring civilization” (I am Jewish, 117).

Dershowitz uses the word chosen here, not in the sense that we are this people chosen by an outside force, but in the sense that each of us individually chooses to be a part of this people. In other words we respond to the command to be Jewish by choosing to accept that command. And when we make that choice, according to Dershowitz, a special responsibility accrues.

Nowhere is that special responsibility more on display than in the story of Purim, which we will be reading partially tonight and in full tomorrow. When Mordecai hears that out of a sense self preservation Esther will not enter into the king’s inner court to plead on behalf of the Jews who are slated for annihilation, he gives her the guilt trip of all Jewish guilt trips:

“Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish” (Esther 4:13-14).

Talk about a special responsibility! Having to go to the king to save your entire people from destruction….that’s not harder than keeping kosher or going to shul. Piece of cake! In all seriousness though, Mordecai is reminding Esther of her responsibility as a Jew in this moment. It might not be fair, it might not be easy, but it is what is commanded of her in that moment as he says “And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis” (Esther 4:14).

Now, none of us are Esther or Mordecai or Alan Dershowitz or even Felicia Lilien, but I’d like to believe that when it comes to our Jewishness, if we dig deep we can discover one or two or even three moments when we felt a moment of “Tzav,” a sense of being commanded by a force greater than ourselves. That doesn’t mean we we have also felt a need to be religious, though that’s a possible response. It simply means we feel that arresting command to be Jewish. And I also want to believe by the fact that each of us are here in this sacred space on this sacred weekend of our Homecoming, that one of those moments of being commanded occurred here at Beth Mordecai.

I remember coming into the sanctuary on the night the Board of Trustees decided to officially accept me as the rabbi of the synagogue just looking at the space around me. I don’t have to describe it, I know all of you can see it, can feel it, can sense it – the overpowering, arresting, spiritual energy that oozes from every inch of this hallowed sanctuary. It was at that moment that I believe I felt a sense of being commanded to serve God by serving Beth Mordecai. What that service looks like seemingly changes everyday, much like the ritual of Jewish worship has changed from offerings of animal sacrifices to offerings of personal prayer. Yet the responsibility of serving is always there for me and for each one of us who feels a sense of Tzav while sitting here today. So let us engage, with heaps of hope and tons of truth, in the journey of figuring out what that responsibility looks like, as we not only proudly proclaim “I am Jewish” but “I am a Beth Mordecai Jew.” 

*Note: The sermon for “Shabbat Zahor/Parashat Tzav – March 15, 2016” was delivered extemporaneously off of notes. This copy was the written draft used to create those notes. As such, the actual delivery of the sermon did not match word for word with this written draft.


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