A Sermon For May 27th 2022
Shabbat Shalom, friends.
I want to begin by saying that I spent some time this week thinking about whether there was anything to say. I wondered how many sermons it was possible to give after devastating massacres in classrooms. I considered whether it was a better idea to take a cue from our ancestors and spend the part of the service allocated for my sermon forsaking all words and allowing ourselves to keen and cry in lament.
This week, 19 children were killed. Two teachers were murdered.
Children who survived tell stories that sound like they are returning from war.
And, the tragedy continues, rippling out from the epicenter of a classroom.
There are no words that will make it right.
There are no words that should make it right.
Judaism teaches us that if we save one life it is as if we have saved the entire world, and that means that in the past two weeks alone, we have lost galaxies in Texas and in New York and all across this country.
On Wednesday, Rabbi Levine and I attended an educational program for interfaith clergy that focused on defining and addressing the impacts of communal trauma. This class was scheduled months ago, and it just so happened that on Wednesday, all of us- ministers, rabbis, priests, and leaders- walked into a program about trauma holding the trauma and the knowledge that the day before children had once again been massacred in their classrooms.
The presenter began by acknowledging what had happened in Texas. And then she said, “All of you are religious leaders, and I want to hear how your faith is helping you understand this moment?”
There was a beat of silence as we all thought, and then one minister answered in a way that really shook me.
In response to her question, “How is your faith helping you understand this moment?” He replied, “Well, I know it’s going to get better.”
I’m almost certain that I involtanarily whispered, “How do you know?”
The minister went on to say that even in the depths of his sorrow, anger, and pain, his faith was telling him that things will get better and that the future will be brighter.
There were a number of other Christian clergy members in the program who gave similar answers. Each of them explained that their faith offers them comfort even as they grieve because they know that this is just one moment and that the next would be better.
I didn’t offer any answer to the presenter’s question. I just sat and listened to my colleagues. I have complete respect for my colleagues’ beliefs and, if I’m being honest, a little bit of envy for their certainty.
After all the answers had been shared, I spent the next few minutes thinking about the fact that the presenter’s question had highlighted one of the core differences between the ways Judaism and Christianity understand the world.
Because my faith wasn’t and isn’t telling me that things WILL get better. My faith is telling me that things MIGHT get better and that the ONLY way to sway the future towards better instead of worse is through human action.
This week’s Torah portion is theologically difficult even when it’s read in an uneventful week. It opens by explaining that if the Israelites follow all of the commandments, then God will bless them with peaceful lives, filled with safety, power, stability, and resources.
Of course the Torah goes on to say that if the Israelites reject God’s commandments, that they would live lives defined by violence and pain, lives where they never feel safe and where even their survival is never guaranteed.
If you believe that the Torah is the word of God, dictated to Moses, then one of the most obvious interpretation of these verses is that the blessings and curses, the good and bad that we experience in our lives are God rewarding or punishing us for our success or failure in following God’s commandments.
And, as I said, this interpretation is a difficult and theologically problematic even during the most mundane of times. And mundane certainly is not an appropriate way to describe this week or if we’re being honest, this month, this year, or this decade so far.
But, I don’t believe that God dictated the Torah to Moses.
I believe that the Torah is a sacred collection of stories and ideas that thousands of generations of our people have protected, cherished, and passed down. I believe that these ancient stories are holy not because they are God’s word but because they contain our ancestors’ very best attempts to explain the way the world and humanity work.
And so, when I read this week’s Torah portion, I see an ancient society making the observation that when human beings care about one another, when they prioritize treating one another with respect and with decency, and when they go out of their way to protect the most vulnerable, then they are able to live lives that are safer, more peaceful, and more stable.
But just as importantly, our ancestors noticed that when people acted selfishly, when they prioritized the powerful, when they were biased and greedy, and when they believed that their needs were the only factors to be considered, then the world was filled with violence and pain.
Our ancestors knew thousands of years ago, that when we acted righteously, ethically, and compassionately, the world DID get better. They recorded this wisdom in the Torah and the verses of this week’s portion were meant to serve as a warning for future generations… so that we would not have to learn this lesson through tragedy. And yet, this is a warning that we have failed to heed over and over and over again.
Leviticus tells us exactly what the difference between a world filled with blessings and a world overrun with curses is. And even without the ancient wisdom we’ve inherited, the difference is painfully obvious if we only stop and look around.
We are the only difference between a world where people are safe and a world that is overrun with violence. We are the difference. It is our behavior, not God’s, that will decide if things do in fact get better.
I pray that we will choose to act. I pray that our faith motivates us to see that we have the ability to tip the scale one way or another. I pray that we will choose to build a world where children are able to play and laugh and learn and thrive.
I pray that tomorrow IS better. But, mostly I pray that we make it so.