Sermon for Shabbat Hagadol, Cantor Showcase, Memorial for Cantor David Levine z”l 2013: From Transformation to Redemption — Stepping into the Red Sea and Beyond

March 23, 2013
By bethmordecai
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Sermon for Shabbat Hagadol, Cantor Showcase, Memorial for Cantor David Levine z”l 2013: From Transformation to Redemption — Stepping into the Red Sea and Beyond

From Transformation to Redemption: Stepping into the Red Sea and Beyond

(Shabbat Hagadol, March 23, 2013)* 

Rabbi Ari Saks

Congregation Beth Mordecai

Perth Amboy, NJ

On a cold, blustery afternoon in mid-town Manhattan I sat down with Cantor David Levine, zikhrono livrakhah, may his memory be for a blessing, to discuss the upcoming High Holiday season. I was impressed with his breadth of knowledge on hazzanut, the art of cantorial music, and I was excited by his willingness to try new ideas to make the service more engaging and meaningful. Yet the most inspiring moment of my time with our beloved hazzan was when I picked up my phone to record why he loves the High Holidays. In a video, which can be found on our Facebook page and already has more than 40 hits, Cantor Levine says that when it comes to the High Holidays: 

“It is the melodies, nusach, pieces,  tefillos which comes first before everything shows you exactly the direction you have to go if you’re going to move people; that it’s going to be something special, really special.”

As Rabbi Zalma so eloquently explained, for nearly a decade Cantor Levine graced our community with his enchanting voice and his beautiful melodies. Yet the essence of all that Cantor Levine tried to do for our community is encapsulated in this one little sound bite said on the blustery streets of New York: he tried to move people, to make their experience in our community special. And though I only had the pleasure of spending one set of High Holidays together with Cantor Levine, it is one I will never forget for the way that it moved me…and isn’t that why, for all intents and purposes, we are here today? To be moved? Isn’t that the reason why we step into a room as grand as our sanctuary, listening to a spectacular voice break through the gates of heavens so that our communal and individual voices can be heard? While some part of us may be here because we feel that we should be here – out of obligation or tradition – isn’t there a larger part of us that is here because we want to moved, because we desire something greater, because we wish to be transformed?

Yom Leyabasha nehefkhu mitzulim – A day of land was transformed from the depths of the sea. These words, from the beginning of the beautiful Passover piece sung by Cantor Jayne at the end of the Amidah for the morning service, epitomize the feeling of transformation. The Israelites are standing at the foot of the Red Sea, awash in the hopelessness of confronting a watery grave in front of them while fearful of the beating drums and banging hooves of their tormenters behind them. And at that very moment, the sea is transformed; no longer wet and deadly, it is now dry and passable. And so the Israelites carefully and anxiously cross the dry land, amazed and scared at the prospect of walking on what was just recently water.

Entering into that moment of transformation, whether stepping into a sea or being moved in services, is a scary proposition. It means opening one’s self to a new possibility of wonder and of excitement where the future, the result of our transformation, is unknown. And if we are really honest with ourselves, I wonder…do we really want to be transformed? How much more comfortable would it be to simply come to shul, maybe hear some nice tunes, perhaps hear an interesting word of Torah, but then leave this awesome house of worship without being awed? I wonder if we really want to be transformed because if we are really honest with ourselves, we would realize that, like the Israelites, we have to step out of our comfort zone and into the Red Sea of our spiritual lives wondering whether the water will engulf us or the Egyptians will capture us. Taking that step could be confusing and alarming because with that step into the unknown, we can no longer hold onto the safe expectations of what we do know.

Yet despite all of that anxiety, despite all of that fear of the unknown…shirahhadasha shib’hu geulim… the Israelites made it to the other side of the sea and sang a new song. Despite all of the discomfort of opening themselves to something new and remarkable, the Israelites not only experienced a moment of transformation, they were g’ulim…they were beginning a process of physical and spiritual redemption.

The Tzror Hamor, a Hassidic commentator, says that there are two special Shabbatot of the year that speak of the value of g’ulah, the value of redemption.  The first is today, Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Passover. Today is aremez ligulat haguf, a day that touches on Israel’s physical redemption from the bondage of slavery of Egypt. Physical redemption is the experience of freedom in which our physical selves – our bodies – are no longer bound to a taskmaster. Yet, our physical freedom does not guarantee that our minds and spirits are not shackled by disconcerting and troubled thoughts and feelings. That is why we need a second special Shabbat, Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. According to the Tzror Hamor, this Shabbat is aremez ligulat hanefesh, a day that touches on Israel’s spiritual redemption. Once our physical selves are freed on Passover, once we feel safe, secure, and in control of our own bodies, then we are capable of achieving something more, something greater…the redemption of our spirit during the High Holidays.

The process of redemption starting on Passover and ending on the High Holidays, is explained by the Tzror Hamor through the following midrash: 

 לפי חטאתם ורוע הכנתם ממצרים וממעשה העגל, לא נגאלו גאולה אמיתית עד יום הכפורים (צרור המור, פרשת כי תשא, ד”ה אך את שבתותי תשמורו)

L’fi hatatam v’roa hekhantem mimitzrayim um’ma-aseh ha-egel, lo nig’lu g’ulah amitit ad Yom HaKippurim (Tzror Hamor, Parashat Ki Tissa, dibbur hamatkhil Akh et Shabtotai Tishmoru) 

And it was because of the sins and the evil they accumulated from Egypt and the sin of the Golden calf, the Israelites weren’t able to be fully redeemed until Yom Kippur (Tzror Hamor Commentary on Parashat Ki Tissa. Opening Words: “If only you observe my Shabbatot”). 

Worshipping the golden calf was not a mistake; it was a sign that though the Israelites were transformed from slaves into a free people by crossing the red sea, they were not ready to be redeemed. Though they were becoming something new – a new people – they were not ready to fully accept it. What starts in Egypt as a physical redemption from slavery does not conclude until it becomes a spiritual redemption on Yom Kippur from the inner slavery of their minds and their spirits. That process takes time. What Cantor Levine described as the desire to “move us,” is that initial moment when we feel a spiritual power that is greater than us. We can sense the beginning of a transformation. Yet for that experience of transformation to fulfill its purpose and lead us to redemption, we must accept that transformative moment as obligating ourselves to invest the time and the effort – to engage in the process – of becoming redeemed. And perhaps that’s what scares us, that when we open ourselves to experiencing the wonder of life anew, as if for the first time, we know we have no choice but to respond with our energy and our enthusiasm, and we wonder…can we do it? Can we afford to go down this path that began with a moment of transformation towards the final goal of redemption?

I cannot answer that question for you. Each one of us has to decide for ourselves whether or not we feel ready to experience a transformative moment and walk into the sea towards the end goal of redemption. All I can say is that if we decide to take that step, we will do so together as a community. We will be there to help each other experience all the wonder and magic of a Jewish life that is more purposeful than just following a tradition.

Soon the cantor will sing a beautiful rendition of the High Holiday prayer entitledMareh Kohen in which the Jewish people proclaimed their joy at seeing the High Priest emerge pure and unscathed from the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. It is a text that evokes the joy and exuberance of seeing the High Priest radiate with the countenance of God; it is a piece symbolizing the movement from physical redemption to spiritual redemption; it is a moment in which we can feel the possibility of being transformed. Let us be open to experiencing that moment of transformation, let us be willing to step into the sea together to see where our path takes us, let us be willing to be moved like the great Cantor David Levine,zikhrono livrakhah, may his memory be for a blessing, did for us for so many years. 

*Note: The sermon for “Shabbat Hagadol March 23, 2013” was delivered extemporaneously off of notes. This copy was the written draft used to create the notes. As such, the actual delivery of the sermon did not match word for word with this written draft.

Category : Passover Rabbi Sermons Shabbat
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