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Home From the Rabbi Sermons Sermon for Shabbat Vayishlach - 11/19/10
Sermon for Shabbat Vayishlach - 11/19/10 PDF Print E-mail

November 19, 2010

Last week, the portion of the Torah that we read was called Vayeitzei. It began
with Jacob leaving Beersheva in flight, fearing the revenge of his brother, Esau, and
traveling northward toward Haran. Along the way, he camps out and dreams of a ladder,
with angels going up and down its rungs. When he awakens, he says (28: 16-17): "Surely
the Lord is in this place, but I did not know it.. ..How full of awe is this place! This is
none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven."

We can imagine how unnerved and overwhelmed Jacob must have been by his
unusual experience. Even if this had only been a dream, a dream occasioned by
indigestion and a significant case of guilty conscience, it was real to Jacob. The reality of
the vision awed him and began a process in which his life started to change and mature.

Over time, Jews no longer camped out in the wilderness and sought the presence
of God in night-time dreams. When the Temple was erected in Jerusalem, the Bible tells
us that this was the place that God elected to proclaim His most holy name; it was now
the home of the deity. And when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, it was
elsewhere that Jews laid down their souls and probed their hearts and minds to come into
the presence of the Eternal. In their homes and in their synagogues, they opened
themselves to the experience of the holy. Many of their gathering places they named Beit
El, the House of God; that was the name of this congregation until just five years ago. It
is still a significant denominator of what this place of holiness is all about.

I want to remind you, this evening, of a few of the characteristics of this place, of
this synagogue, that are special and sacred.

This place is, first and foremost, a place of acceptance. When people come into
its doors, it matters not whether they are rich or poor, famous men and women or
ordinary citizens, possessed of titles before their names and degrees appended to their
appellations, dressed fit to kill or clad in daytime street attire. In this building and in this
Sanctuary, every person is equal. Each of us is created, so our tradition afEms, b'tzelem
Elohim, in the image of God. Each of us shares in full measure the holiness that
emanates from the essence of the Holy One of Israel.

There is a particularly malignant concept that sometimes echoes through some
parts of the congregation. &'Allm embers of the community are equal," we are told, "but
some are more equal than others - because they contribute significantly more to the
upkeep of the congregation than others." It would be foolish for any of us to denigrate
someone because he or she or they were able and willing to support the synagogue in a
particularly generous fashion. But, if you were ever led to think that the canard of
favoritism based on wealth is true, I hope you looked in the kitchen last Saturday evening
or Sunday morning and noted that people of every age, every gender and, especially, of
every economic level were pitchg in with their hands and their hearts to make Food
Fest a big success. The holder of the knife may have been wealthy or not, but in the
presence of the corned beef sandwich and on a team with other congregants, this person
was simply a member of a group working for the common welfare of all.

Congregation Beth Israel is a place where every human being is treasured for the
simple fact of his or her humanness. That alone ought to make this a sacred space; there
are few other locations in a community where that same value is practiced so carefully as
in our synagogue. But there are other aspects of what we stand for that also add to the
holiness of this place. When I stand on the pulpit, as I do right now, and look out to the
people who have come into our holy space, I realize that each of you comes with a
particular set of concerns. Some of you are joyous and elated; good things have
happened in your lives during the last week, and you have come here, in part, to celebrate
with fjriends and to thank God for the positive features of life. Others of you are simply
tired; it is a good place to rest.

I once preached a sermon on the story of Abraham taking Isaac up to Mount
Moriah to sacrifice him according to God's command. They carried three things with
them: fire, a knife and some wood. I suggested that these three items represent three
kinds of congregants at services. The fue is a metaphor for the person who comes, so to
speak, "on fire" to change the world through social action. The knife, we might think, is
an image that calls to mind the person who has come to fence with the rabbi over the
intellectual content of the sermon. But the wood. What could it represent? I told that
congregation that it reminded me that some congregants come like the proverbial bump
on the log, to rest, perhaps to sleep, certainly to find a time when the cares of the world
can be lifted gently off their shoulders and their minds and their hearts.

And some people come to services with heavy spirits, with sadness and grief and
problems that oppress their souls. For them, too, this needs to be a place where the
weights that lie upon them can be eased and where the challenges that otherwise might
seem insurmountable can be made bearable. For a synagogue to be a therapeutic place
where mental and physical woes, where spiritual problems and the cares of life can
alleviated - this is indeed a holy mission and one for which this place and the people who
come here are ideally suited.

If you look at the prayer book, you will see a third function of holiness that we
play in the synagogue. That is the function of conscience. It is within these walls that we
continue to remind each other of the moral and ethical values that form the core of our
Jewish sensibility. What we stand for is written large in the words of the siddur;
particularly this evening, we read and prayed about justice and love, about peace and
redeeming a world that suffers from grievous and terrible ills. We spoke of a time,
perhaps in the distant future, when the world will be put right and when the divine
oneness of which we sing will in reality become a fact.

To nurture the conscience of a people, to hope to stimulate a congregation to walk
in the paths of holiness, that is one of the core functions of a synagogue - it is one of the
things we strive to do.

Let me add but one more task, a function connected to the development of a moral
and ethical sensibility. Our tradition teaches us to change the world. We call this tikkun
olarn, repairing a broken world. But you and I know that the task of changing the entire
world is too vast, far beyond even our most exalted and sacred dreams. The rabbinic
tradition tells us "tafasta myruba, lo tafasta." If you try to grasp at too much, you end up
with nothing in your grasp. Though our ambition is for a messianic future, our reality
tells us that it would be impossible for us to achieve it all at once. Does that mean that
we should abandon the quest? Hardly!

Instead of changing the entire world, our goal is to create a mini-messianic
universe, to demonstrate within these walls what it might be like if the ideal future were
in fact to arrive. A synagogue in Hebrew is called Kahal Kadosh, a sacred, a holy
congregation. It is to create a model of the ultimate ideal society that ought to be our
own ultimate goal. That is a difficult enough task, but it is a holy and a sacred mission
that we have adopted as our own.

To become holy in deed as well as in principle is a difficult ambition. Yet it is
precisely to that end that we exist. We know we are human and that we are finite in both
vision and ability, limited in what we can achieve and what we can dream. Yet dream we
do and strive for holiness. It is to that sacred task that this congregation exists, and it is to
that holy mission that each of us is called. As we gather each Shabbat, we invite
ourselves and each other over and over again to recommit ourselves to that purpose. To
become a holy congregation filled with sacred people is the root of a sacred calling for
our lives.



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