Saturday, September 30, 2017

“Finding our Way Back” – Sermon – Yom Kippur Morning – September 30, 2017

     The rabbi was about ready to get that last High Holy Day sermon underway.   He had experienced a meaningful Rosh Hashanah with his congregation.  His Yom Kippur evening sermon was done.   After a couple of community meetings which had reminded him of the challenges of finding common ground and engendering good values, he welcomed an opportunity to focus on the principles embodied in the Torah and Haftarah readings for Yom Kippur.   Every year, these portions challenge us to recognize that the teachings of our heritage are near and dear to us so that we can easily observe them.  We hear the words of Isaiah, who proclaimed that prayer and ritual mean very little if they don’t lead us to care for our fellow human beings and attend to their needs.  We tell the story of Jonah to remember that every person should have an opportunity to find their way back to goodness if they have, for some reason, gone astray.  
     The rabbi tried very hard not to think about politics.  It didn’t work.  His mind wandered to certain expressions by national and international leaders that included unbridled ridicule and statements intended to isolate certain citizens. The rabbi had thought that leaders are supposed to lower the temperature of potential conflicts that could go nuclear.   He didn’t see that happening.  
     The rabbi thought back to these words, once spoken by a former president at the national prayer breakfast:  “At times, it seems like we're unable to listen to one another; to have at once a serious and civil debate. And this erosion of civility in the public square sows division and distrust among our citizens. It poisons the well of public opinion. It leaves each side little room to negotiate with the other. It makes politics an all-or-nothing sport, where one side is either always right or always wrong when, in reality, neither side has a monopoly on truth. And then we lose sight of the children without food and the people without shelter and the families without health care. Empowered by faith, consistently, prayerfully, we need to find our way back to civility….progress doesn't come when we demonize opponents. It's not born in righteous spite. Progress comes when we open our hearts, when we extend our hands, when we recognize our common humanity. Progress comes when we look into the eyes of another and see the face of God. That we might do so -- that we will do so all the time, not just some of the time -- is my fervent prayer for our nation and the world.”
   The rabbi knew that times had changed since then.   He needed time to think.    So he decided to get out of town just a short distance.  He drove to one of his favorite spots that overlooks his city, near the majestic mountains that tower over his beautiful locale.  He got out of his car and gazed at the length and breadth of the town. But he hadn’t rested well on the previous nights.  He sat down at a nearby picnic table.  It was all too easy to close his eyes and….
   The next thing he knew, he was standing on a higher mountain, looking across a great valley to another range of hills. In between, there was a river going to the north, and, to the south was an unusual looking sea. He thought a moment and said to himself, “Wait, I know exactly where I am. Where are the other rabbis on my trip?” He was imagining himself in Jordan, on a tour of the Middle East in January of 1996 with 54 of his colleagues. He saw some of them milling about at first…and then they disappeared.”  He was alone…or was he?
 There was another man nearby, with a long white beard and an impressive white robe, just looking out over the expansive landscape before them.
    The rabbi knew that he was standing on Mt. Nebo, the famous overlook of the Jordan Valley from where Moses was allowed to look across to the Land of Canaan, the Promised Land, a place where the Israelite leader was not allowed to enter.  That privilege was given to Joshua.
   The rabbi knew that, on his visit in 1996, he had been able to stand in that spot because two leaders had found their way back from a continued state of war to a measure of peace. King Hussein of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin completed a process of turning their two nations from mutual hostility to clandestine cooperation in the 1970s and 1980s to the beginnings of a civil dialogue and, finally, to peace in 1994.
   The rabbi’s thoughts were interrupted when he felt a tug on his coat.  The man with the white beard had approached him to make some connection.
  “Amazing view, isn’t it?” he asked.
    The rabbi was startled at first, but then he regained his composure and said, , “I can’t believe I am seeing this view – it is incredible, and it’s only possible because these two nations made peace. The hills on both sides are like mirror images of each other. The road up to Amman looks a lot like the road going up to Jerusalem, winding around the hills near the cities and towns. You feel like you are doing a real ALIYAH – going higher and higher – literally.”
   The man with the long white beard said, “I never had the chance to see Jerusalem from the ground – only from above. Heavenly Jerusalem – Y’rushala-yim shel ma’alah – is one of my favorite places to visit. It’s a lot quieter than the Jerusalem you know.”
    The rabbi was puzzled, “So why haven’t you been to Jerusalem like I have?” The mystery man lamented, “I wasn’t allowed to see what you have seen.  My assistant and successor was, though. His name was…..”
   The rabbi interrupted, “Joshua? I had a feeling. Then I am speaking with…Moses?”
  “How did you know?” asked the stranger who was no longer a mystery.
   The rabbi’s uncertainty turned to excitement. “You look a lot like you do in the movies – even Prince of Egypt –wow, how did they know?  I seem to have these unexpected encounters just when I need them. So, Moses--by the way, you look great for 120 - what did you learn about shifting conflict towards civility and peace during all those years of leading the Israelites in the wilderness? I know what it’s like to lead a congregation – there are always challenges along the way.”
    Moses looked at the rabbi, “Sounds like we have a lot in common. I will answer your questions.   So you were amazed at being able to stand here, were you? Don’t think I haven’t kept up a little with history over the last 3200 years! I was glad to see my descendants and some of their neighbors start to figure out how to make peace by identifying their common goals, trying to discover a way to build up their countries without the threat of war, and being willing to share all kinds of knowledge and resources because it would bring them mutual benefit. And it couldn’t have happened unless they toned down the rhetoric at some level and stopped talking about how much they hated each other.  I know they may not be doing all of that now as much as they had before.  Hopefully, they will be able to continue to engage in honest and civil conversations about what it would take to make peace not only among leaders, but also among the people. I have seen where it has worked, and, also, where it hasn’t.  Hatred and demonization of ideological opponents persist even within each of these two countries and in neighboring nations. It may take a long time to bring complete healing and peace, but I believe it will happen someday.”
    The rabbi wondered, “Moses, I had the impression that you felt that you hadn’t been treated well as a leader, and I wonder how you felt about not being able to cross into the land where your people would settle.”
Moses said, “Well, I was disappointed, but I realized that our struggles along our journey had put me in a difficult position. At first, I felt I had to directly battle with the pessimists and naysayers who kept on shouting, ‘Why did you take us out into the wilderness where we have nothing? Lead us back to Egypt!’ Even when I reminded them that they were slaves in Egypt who suffered from oppression and cruelty, some of them didn’t want to remember that part of the experience. Freedom is a gift, but keeping it requires taking responsibility and maintaining cooperation. I felt so much better when I had judges and priests who helped me lead. And when the Israelites turned time and again to focusing on the uncertainty of their new life, I would still plead to God on their behalf. I was committed to keeping them secure and together as a community, because it was all important to me to sustain their newfound liberty. It took almost everything out of me. By the time I gave my farewell speech – which you may know as a book called Deuteronomy – I had put everything into perspective. I accepted that Joshua would ‘take it from here.’ I reminded the people of all that had happened to them, and outlined rules that they needed to live by: Don’t gossip, don’t stand by when someone is being harassed or bullied, offer criticism as gently as possible, and, in your words and actions, love your neighbor as yourself.   Maybe you know those rules?”
The rabbi was excited to hear these teachings directly from Moses.  “Yes, I know all of those rules, and we still teach them, discuss what they mean and try to apply them to our lives now. And you should know, Moses, how much your story as the leader who liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt has been at the foundation of the story of my country, the United States of America.   George Washington, the first president of my country, was seen as an American Moses. Several of the founders of our nation, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were asked to create a seal for the newly formed United States – and their proposal depicted you, Moses, leading the Israelites across the sea. Harriet Tubman, who fought against slavery in our nation, called herself the ‘Moses of her people.’ Abraham Lincoln, a president who paved the way for slaves to become free, saw himself as taking up your role as a liberator. On the night before he died, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke as if he was you, standing here at Mt. Nebo.  A man named Bruce Feiler wrote a book about all these references to you, calling you America’s prophet. That is in addition to you being so significant to the great religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as Moshe Rabeinu, Moses our teacher; Moses the Lawgiver and Liberator, and Nabi Musa, Moses the prophet revered by Muslims. Your legacy is revered the world over. How does that make you feel?”
   Moses thought a moment and said, “I am overwhelmed, and extremely humbled.  I am not sure I deserve such an honor.  But I appreciate being remembered, and I hope that my story and the tale of my people’s journey to freedom is a uniting force in the world.”
    The rabbi lamented, “I wish I could say it is. Sometimes people fight over who really speaks for you. One group or another says that they have the only correct interpretation about what your teachings represent. I would have hoped that the universal appeal of your story would bring people together. Is that even possible in a world where civility is so hard to come by?”
   Moses was assertive in his response, “There was a good reason they called me Moses the teacher. So listen now, rabbi, to what I believe. You know where it says at the end of the book of Deuteronomy that all of the people were standing together in front of me? That was quite a scene – with people of all ages and all walks of life assembled, listening to what I had to say. I told them that God’s teachings were in their mouths and their hearts, and that they should choose life and goodness.  One way to choose life and goodness is to choose and use words carefully, and to listen to your heart and what it guides you to do. Love your neighbor as yourself really means putting yourself in the place of the other person, imagining that, when you speak, you are the other person listening to you. Think about that –see how that feels to you before you speak. You know in your heart what it means to choose life.  I am sure that you have a sense about what it means to do right and good for others and for yourself.   Civility breaks down when we stop using words that can be encouraging and healing.  Without civility, peace is a distant dream.   You know that you couldn’t have ever stood in this place without someone having let go of hatred and realizing that civil conversation and peace were well within their reach if they could only commit to listening to each other and recognizing their common goals.”
    The rabbi was awed by what he heard. “So we don’t have to be stuck with polarization, disrespect and hatred?”
“As long as you think about those words, rabbi – UVACHARTA V’CHAYIM, Choose Life.”
   “And rabbi, there is one more thing.  One of my worst mistakes that kept me from entering that land across the way was when God had told me to speak to a rock to get water for my people, who were extremely thirsty.   They were shouting their complaints to the point where my brother Aaron and I just couldn’t stand it anymore.   So I snapped back in a fit of anger, “Hear now, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”  And then I struck the rock and water did come out, but I was wrong. Totally.  My first mistake was not following, to the letter, the instruction that God gave me to merely tell the rock to give water but, instead, striking the rock with my staff.  My second mistake was saying that my brother and I would get water from the rock, when we knew that everything we were able to do for the people came from God.  And my third mistake was that I called the people rebels.   Now maybe they were engaged in a sort of rebellion at that moment, but I didn’t have to call them names.  Afterwards, I felt like a bully, even though I could have justified my anger by saying that their cries pushed me beyond the limits of my patience.  A leader should not marginalize his own people like that. Keep that in mind, rabbi, because you never know when someone may believe that name-calling is actually productive and acceptable.  It’s not.  Trust me.”
“Moses, thank you, again, for being my teacher. Your message is very timely for me.  So where will you go now?”
    The rabbi looked away from Moses and out at the view for a quick second, and then turned around.
    He was standing alone, looking across the Jordan Valley towards Israel and then…..
    The rabbi woke up, sitting still at the picnic table.  He stood up and saw again the impressive local landscape that he had come to enjoy for a few minutes. The rabbi thought, “If people could only realize that it is possible to reflect, in our words and actions, the beauty of the world, our lives would be so much better.    As the natural world seems to foster cooperation among animals, plants, and the land to fashion a vista that can take our breath away, so can our approach to life do the same if we act based on unity, respect, and goodness.” 
    The rabbi stood in silence, and in the breeze, he began to hear a familiar tune with its words echoing inside of him….Hinei Mah Tov U-Mah Naim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad – how good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together. Any place where people are gathered, he thought, they don’t all need to agree, but they can find ways to commit themselves to engendering civility and harmony as they move forward towards whatever promised land is spread out before their eyes and ready for their arrival.
  And so we pray: may our journeys in the year to come bring us all life and good, blessing and peace.

Source:  National Prayer Breakfast Talk – President Barack Obama, February 4, 2010.

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