Saturday, February 4, 2012

“Celebrating as One” – February 3, 2012

(This was presented at Temple Beth-El Las Cruces, NM as the sermonette at "A Night with Judaism," a service to which congregants invited friends. relatives and neighbors and which was open to the community) 

Some of us are preparing to watch the sporting event of sporting events, the Super Bowl, on Sunday.  There are those of us who will really watch the game, those who will watch the gems of advertising in the breaks between each set of downs, and others who will revel at this year's musical performer, Madonna.  Reports are that she will sing her song “Holiday” and possibly “Ray of Light,” a song inspired by her interest in Jewish mysticism.  Still others will go to Super bowl parties primarily to be with friends or family.  As a Kansas City Chiefs fan, I haven't been rooting for my own team in the Super Bowl since 1970.  Still, watching that Chiefs 23-7 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV with my dad and his brothers Harry and Jacob at their place - they had the color TV - is a great personal and family memory. 
    In our annual cycle of Torah readings, the passages assigned to this week and next week combine to be the Super Bowl of portions.  Instead of Madonna singing, we get Moses and Miriam.  Instead of the Patriots and Giants, we get the Israelites and the Egyptians.  Instead of two great coaches, we have God directing Moses this week and Moses' father-in-law next week offering advice about delegating.  Instead of razzle dazzle plays, incredible catches, astounding runs and amazing defense, even quarterback sacks, we have the parting of the Sea as the centerpiece of the first of these portions and, next week, there is thunder, lightning and an overwhelming divine voice presenting to Moses and the Israelites the great trophy of ethical teaching, the two tablets of the Ten Commandments.
       But there was no Sinai experience without first crossing the sea, the section that we are about to read.  We likely know the story well. The Israelites were by the Red Sea or, some say, the Sea of Reeds.  The Egyptian were pursuing them and closing in.  Moses raised his staff, but the sea wouldn't part until the people actually started to walk into the sea to prove that they had faith that the waters would part so they could cross on the sea bed.  The wind swirled up, the waters split, and the Israelites crossed to the other side where they were safe.  They turned and watched the Egyptians enter the sea, only to have the wind stop and the waters fell back to their normal state, catching the soldiers of Pharaoh in the depths of the sea.  The Israelites were astonished, and both Moses and Miriam began to sing.   Miriam and the women took up their timbrels and sang to God in gratitude for this great saving act, expressing their feelings very freely.  One commentary explains that Moses had to think for a moment about how to respond to this miraculous event.  He let a song rise from the depths of his emotions as well, but not only because of what he saw with his eyes.  He realized that the people had shown a glimpse of their internal spirit of optimism by entering the sea.  The passage before the song says that the people believed in God.  The song at the sea, for Moses or Miriam, wasn't just exultation.  It was a song of affirmation that moving from slavery to freedom was possible, inspired by a God who loves freedom and justice.
    The celebratory Song at the Sea, SHIRAT HAYAM, took note of the deaths of the Egyptians, but we are taught not to rejoice in their demise.  The rabbis of our tradition imagined that angels in heaven were shouting for joy as the waters fell onto the Egyptian army and the Israelites were saved and free.  God gave the angels a quick rebuke, saying, "My children – that is, the Egyptian soldiers-  have died, and you sing praises?"   From this one explanation or midrash,  we learn that it’s best that we not derive joy out of the defeat of our enemy or someone we don't like.  This is a lesson we can put into practice in the realms of sports, politics, and in our relationships throughout our lives.
    As we listen to the song at the sea, with some of the verses chanted with a special melody, may it represent for us a thoughtful and heartfelt exprssion of gratitude for our freedom.  It is that freedom that allows us to root for whomever we want on Sunday and then, like the players, to shake hands at the end and return to being one people moving from life on the field to life in our world that can give us so many gifts every day, including friendship, understanding, healthy competition, true liberty, and, finally, peace.   So may it be - let us say amen. 

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