Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Shemot 5772: Seeking Transcendent Moments

Did you notice the new rack sitting in the front lobby, opposite the office window?  If you were here during the day this week, you might have seen it displaying children’s books.  We have not officially “rolled out” the program yet, but the books are courtesy of a program called PJ Library, which will soon be providing Jewish books free of cost to children of this community who are 8 years old and younger.  I am sure that you will hear more about it very soon.

But the more interesting thing at the moment about that rack is its placement, just opposite the office window, where Susan (who usually sits at the reception window during the day) can keep an eye on it.  Why?  Because we are all pretty sure that, if nobody’s watching the rack, the books will climb down and walk out the front door, perhaps assisted by members of this community.  That is to say, they will be stolen.  

On what basis would we make such an assumption?  Well, it seems that theft is not an uncommon problem in this building.  I am not going to go into details, but children’s books and other items around the building have been stolen.  That’s right - in a place where people come, at least in theory, to get a taste of qedushah, of holiness, some valuable items need to be carefully guarded.  (It might be worth it to point out that we offer unlimited quantites of contact with God for free.)

As a naive, trusting soul, I never would have expected that.  Then again, I am also continually surprised when I see cars blast through the stop sign in front of my house, or people who throw trash on the ground in public places, or other acts that seem to me selfish.

And let’s face it - we live in a world of plenty.  Americans have lots of stuff.  We have so much stuff that many of us actually rent storage space outside of our homes to keep it.  We have to have stuff, because our economy depends on our buying more of it.  Not to have lots of stuff is un-American. (Perhaps some of you are familiar with George Carlin’s routine on stuff, which I of course cannot repeat in this space.)

Ironic that in such an environment, there are those who simply cannot resist a “free” item.  Now, there are many possible reasons why people steal, and among them may be genuine poverty or the thrill of getting away with it.  Not all theft is equal.  But on some fundamental level, theft, like disobeying traffic laws, like selling houses to people who can’t afford them or derivative securities to those who don’t understand them, or even like cheating on tests, all of these are acts of selfishness.  Whether conscious of it or not, the thief makes a statement that goes as follows: I and my desires are more important than those of whoever owns this item.  In order for theft to happen, the owner must be depersonalized, unconnected.

Of course, in some ways, putting oneself before others is necessary to our survival.  The sage Hillel says so in Pirqei Avot (1:14): Im ein ani li, mi li?  If I am not for myself, who am I?  But I’m talking about the kind of worldview that places the self above all others, the kind that Hillel goes on to chastise: Ukhshe-ani le-atzmi, mah ani?  And if I am only for myself, what am I?  And in this sense there is no question that we are living in a very selfish age.  What can we do about it?

Put that thought on hold for a moment; we’ll come back to it.

* * *

Let’s turn our attention to the Torah.  From a narrative perspective, the Torah really only contains three parts: before Egypt (i.e. the book of Genesis), the Exodus story through the giving of the Torah, and then everything after, which is kind of a mish-mash of lots of different types of material.

But the middle narrative, the one about Egypt and the Israelites’ exit, up to and including the episode at Mt. Sinai, is the shortest and perhaps most intense tale of the book, and arguably the most central to Judaism and Jewish theology.  

The Exodus story, as I noted two weeks ago in our Torah discussion about whether or not Joseph was a success, is the pre-eminent national myth that pervades Jewish life.  (And here I use “myth” in the positive sense - not a story that is untrue, but a folkloric tale that helps a community make sense of its experience.)  We refer to Exodus constantly in liturgy, on holidays, in sermons, in calls to social action, and on and on.

Leaving Egypt, the departure of the Israelite slaves, the children and grandchildren of slaves, is the second most important moment of the Torah, eclipsed only by the episode at Mt. Sinai.  These are the moments that define us as a people.  (One popular take on Sinai has it that all Jewish souls were there.  That is, indeed, a statement of transcendence.)

Really, it was not even God who was the first to declare us a people, but rather Pharaoh.  Not the good Pharaoh that appointed Joseph the viceroy of Egypt, but the the bad Pharaoh, the one who “did not know Joseph,” who enslaved the Israelites.  As we read this morning at the beginning of Parashat Shemot:

(Ex. 1: 9-10)
Hineh am benei yisrael, rav ve-atzum mimenu; hava nithakkemah lo pen yirbeh.

“Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us.  Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase...” (Etz Hayyim, p. 318-319)

Even in the mouth of the Egyptian despot, this is a transcendent moment in the Torah narrative.  The 70 people, members of a family who went down to Egypt at the behest of Joseph and the earlier, good Pharaoh, have now become a nation, an “am.”  

This acknowledgement marks the beginning of Israel, the people, the point of transition from mishpahah to am.  The Israelites needed to crystallize as a nation before God could give them the Torah, before they could enter the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, before they could think of themselves as a connected to each other.

Transcendent moments, however, are not limited to the Torah.  I am sure that we can all think of them - times that connected us - to other Jews, for sure, but also to other Americans as a nation, or to our families, or schools, or workplaces, or the modern State of Israel, or to ourselves as sovereign individuals, or God.

The tragedy of 9-11 is probably the most powerful example in recent memory.  For my parents’ generation, the killing of JFK in 1963 was a transcendent moment.  Those of us in the room who remember the Six-Day War, when nobody was sure whether or not Israel would survive, and yet triumphed, might think of that as a transcendent moment.  You get the picture.

The events that connect us to each other, help to make us feel like a part of something greater than ourselves.  They are, I think, the exact opposite of what we do for so much of our waking existence - that is, make our own choices, think independently, and go about our lives as distinct creatures.  Every now and then, we need to be literally shaken and reminded that we are a part of a larger subset of humanity.

We as modern Jews need more transcendent moments.  Young and old, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Haredi, Reconstructionist, secular, in Israel or the diaspora, Ashkenazic, Sephardic, the Jewish world is fragmented.  We need shared experiences that bring us all together.

Given events of late here and in Israel, one might think that different corners of the Jewish world have little in common.  We have such a talent for cutting each other down, such formidable zeal for denying legitimacy or respect for this group or that group.  

And therein lies one problem that we all face.  If we have no shared moments of transcendence as a people, no experiences to bring us all together, then how can we possibly feel connected as a group moving forward?  How will we prevent the global forces of modernity from continuing to strip from us our personal interdependence?  How will we ensure that our children’s children feel connected to each other as Jews?

And this, of course, brings me back to the beginning: if members of a synagogue community do not feel connected to each other, what will prevent them from stealing children’s books in the lobby?  Hanging a sign in the lobby that says, “Lo tignov,” do not steal (Ex. 20:13), probably will not work.

OK, so there will never be another Exodus.  And we may have to give up on the rest of the Jewish world, the ones who do not belong to Temple Israel.  But we can create transcendent moments here.  And sometimes we do.

Some of us have shared a moment when families come together for Shabbat Hamishpahah on Saturday evening, hold candles aloft and sing a Hasidic niggun as we bid goodbye to Shabbat.  Some of us share a moment when we strain forward in hunger and exhaustion at the end of Yom Kippur to hear the shofar blown.  Some of us share a moment when we gather food and clothes to deliver late on Saturday night for Midnight Run.  Some of us might point to a lifecycle event: birth, berit milah, Bar Mitzvah, wedding.  Some of us might even point to the moment in the Musaf service on Shabbat morning when we embrace others with our tallitot during birkat kohanim.  

Let’s face it: connecting a community of over 900 families is next to impossible, especially when we live in such a selfish age.  But we are going to continue to try, and the more that we reach members of this community in smaller contexts, the better chance that we have to reach deeper into the larger group, to foster the sort of transcendence that makes us all feel that we are part of something greater.

Prayer, singing, eating, learning, studying the Torah (Talmud Torah keneged kulam!) together all work to connect each of us to the other, even if we do not know each other.  Until we can bring everybody along on our journey with us, Susan will still have to keep an eye on the PJ Library book rack.  But let’s hope for and work together for a day when she can turn her back and know that it will be OK, because we will have transcended selfishness.  Now that’s a vision for the future!
Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 1/14/2011.)

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