SERMON: Parashat Va’etchana, July 27, 2018
Our Torah portion this week includes the 10 Commandments and the Shema, but I want to start my talk tonight with the very opening of this portion: Moses says:
וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־יְהוָ֑ה בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר׃
I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying: “O Lord GOD, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal!
Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.”
אֶעְבְּרָה־נָּ֗א וְאֶרְאֶה֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן הָהָ֥ר הַטּ֛וֹב הַזֶּ֖ה וְהַלְּבָנֽוֹן׃
But the LORD was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The LORD said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!
Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.
To me, this is one of the most poignant moments in all of the Torah. It seems cruel. I mean, Moses didn’t want this job and refused it repeatedly, and then he had to deal with those stiffnecked Jews, and now, having stuck it out and getting at last to his goal, he is allowed to see it, to feel it, to taste it – but never to have the experience of stepping foot onto the promised land.
Of course it is heartbreaking, but I also think it expresses something about what it means to be human. At some level, we all stand on Nebo looking across the Jordan at the Promised land. We all know we will not live to enter the future, though we can glimpse it. We all know that we won’t complete everything we hoped to, and that it will be up to future generations to see our efforts come to fruition.
In our lives, we all feel a sense of alienation, even when we can’t quite put our finger on why. We just have a profound sense that there is something we can just glimpse, we can almost reach, but can’t quite hold, something we have become separated from, we have lost, and we aren’t quite complete without it. We know we left a garden and we can’t quite find our way back. We feel it.
Exile is part of being human and so Moses standing on that mountain is not so different than us. And what is it we today are looking across the valley for? Reaching out for?
I believe it is Love. Love and connection.
All of us have our own unique lives and experiences, things only we can truly know, and so at some level, we know we separate and alone. Yet, through the miracle of love, we take the radical risk of letting ourselves been seen and known as much as is humanly possible.
Romantic love: Sometimes that love is romantic love, partnership love. And tonight is Tu B’av, the 15th of the month of Av. It was a very obscure holiday in the Mishnah, one on which marriages were agreed to, and so it has become in modern Israel, the Jewish Valentines Day, and so for those of us that have such love in our lives, it is a good night to express that, to let yourself feel just how much that love matters to you. If you are with someone you love, tell them so. Right now.
Friendly love: But of course, that sort of love can create an exile all its own when it ends or goes wrong. But love, in the Jewish tradition, is not only, or even mostly romantic love. Love is what we feel for those around us, our friends, our chosen families, and so tonight is also a good time to let them know how much that love means. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What higher goal could there be for human beings?
Love of God: And it seems to me a powerful coincidence that tonight is also the week where the V’ahavta is in our Torah reading. “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.” Love of God is another way of healing the exile of being human. Of overcoming our sense of separateness, and balancing it with a cosmic sense of connection and love.
And love, it is not just a feeling, or an ache. In Hebrew, love is an action verb that must be shown through what we do. What we do matters more than how we feel.
The word ‘AHAVA” is based on an older two letter root, HAV, which means ‘to give.’ So in the Hebrew concept of love, love and giving are inseparable. We give to those we love, and we come to love those to whom we give. To love is at some level to give yourself, to let yourself be seen, to give the other person or people or God the gift of our own vulnerability. Isn’t that what Moses gives when he once again begs God to enter the land?
Modern secular life often is missing this dimension of deep connection, of intimacy. Sadly, modern synagogue life is also often missing that same dimension. We seem to want to have religion in our lives but we don’t want anyone to think we are really religious. Among secular New England liberals, it becomes almost like a defensive flinch to minimize one’s spiritual life.
It is my prayer that this congregation, this synagogue, can be a place where we come to try and heal the wound of exile through connecting with God, but also if we are brave enough and let ourselves, connecting more deeply with one another, of sharing not just how much we can do, but our fears, our vulnerabilities, and our Nebo’s. and by letting others see the divine that in each of us, helping ourselves see it too.
I’m hoping and praying that here at Sinai, we can start to risk creating the Promised Land of real community by sharing our stories, our struggles,- sharing our Nebo, whether it is through sharing our spiritual autobiographies, and making connections through building raised beds or a playground for our youth, singing together at services, laughing with our children, or from Shabbat dinners in one another’s homes.
Judaism, in a synagogue community, can be a place where we come to try and heal the wound of exile through connecting with God, but also, if we are brave enough and let ourselves, where we can connect more deeply with one another, and learn to see the divine that in each of us.
And it is my job to make sure we also connect to our tradition, learn about it, finding joy in it and discovering ways to breathe new life into it, into our community and into ourselves.
Ken Yehi Ratzon