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Walking the Path of the Prophets (Rosh Hashanah Sermon)

09/21/2018 07:52:13 PM


Hannah Orden

Mah nishtana halailah hazeh?  Why is this night different from all other nights? Oops. Wrong holiday! And it’s not even night. Is the rabbi losing her marbles? Actually, I wanted to see if you are paying attention. Besides, it’s a great lead-in to my subject which is “walking the path of the prophets.”

In the preface to his book Path of the Prophets, Rabbi Barry Schwartz writes: “Why is this book different from all other books?” His answer is that at all other times we read books of political history, but at this time we read a book of prophetic history.”  He is playing on the four questions from the Passover Seder, of course.  Rabbi Schwartz then goes on to say: “The lens of prophetic history is not power, but justice.  The concern of prophetic history is not conquest, but compassion.  The focus of prophetic history is not feat, but faith.  The heroes of prophetic history are not kings or generals, but visionaries and dreamers. They are seekers of justice and exemplars of compassion.  They are often ordinary people who have moments of extraordinary courage and insight.  They are unexpected heroes.”

Rabbi Schwartz defines prophets as “people who are driven by a higher calling.”  Some of them are designated as prophets in the Bible; others are described as seers, visionaries, and men of God.  But Rabbi Schwartz also includes biblical figures who are “simply examples of the Bible’s highest ethical ideals.”

Both Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr. have been described as modern-day prophets, and by Rabbi Schwartz’s definition, they fit the description – people who are driven by a higher calling.  Certainly, both of these men were inspired by the biblical prophets.  Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the prophetic spirit as combining “a very deep love, a very powerful dissent, a painful rebuke and unwavering hope.”  He said that they are people who “dreamed great dreams of a world at peace.”

In a speech to the Synagogue Council of America, Dr. King said: “The Hebrew prophets belong to all peoples because their concepts of justice and equality have become ideals for all races and civilizations.”  He told the audience, “Today we particularly need the Hebrew prophets because they taught that to love God was to love justice; they taught that each human being has an inescapable obligation to denounce evil where he sees it. The Hebrew prophets are needed today,” he continued, “because decent people must be imbued with the courage to speak the truth, to realize that silence may temporarily preserve status or security, but to live with a lie is a gross affront to God. The Hebrew prophets are needed today because we need their flaming courage; we need the thunder of their fearless voices.”​​​​​Heschel and King were writing in the 1960’s but their words still ring true.  We need, not only the people designated as prophets in the bible, we need the inspiration of all people who are “driven by a higher calling,” people who are “examples of the Bible’s highest ideals.”

In his final interview in 1973, Rabbi Heschel was asked whether he himself was a prophet.  His response was: “Let us hope and pray that I am worthy of being a child of the prophets.”  Heschel echoed the Talmudic tradition that all of us have the potential to be b’nai nevi’im – children of the prophets.  Rabbinic scholar Shai Held believes that “the Torah wants us to know that it is not just prophets who must step forward; what is true of Abraham and Moses ought to be true of us as well.  Even the children of prophets…must argue for justice and plead for mercy.”

One of the truly great things about Judaism is that all of our “heroes” are flawed human beings.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that “No religious literature has held a higher view of humanity than the Torah that tells us we are each made b’tzelem Elohim in the image of God.  Yet none has been more honest about the failings of even the greatest human beings.”

The Bible’s heroes are ordinary people.  We know nothing about Abraham when God picks him out to be a blessing to all the people of the world.  Shiphrah and Puah are midwives in Egypt; Hannah is a barren woman who is mistaken for a drunk; Jonah is such a reluctant prophet he runs away.  Not only are these ordinary, flawed human beings, but they do not necessarily devote their entire lives to pursuing justice.  Often, they step forward at a crucial moment to speak and act on behalf of justice, compassion, peace, and hope, and then they disappear from the narrative. These stories convey a powerful message to all of us. The Bible teaches us that at any moment, the most ordinary person, in other words any one of us, can hear a prophetic call, and find the courage to speak and act.

Who are these biblical figures and how can we be inspired by them?  What can they teach us?  For our Lifelong Learning series this year, I have chosen to study eight people from Path of the Prophets.  I chose them because the qualities they embody seem particularly needed as we seek to break down the barriers that divide us. Each month we will address one of the following topics: kindness, humility, compassion, equality, forgiveness, healing, justice, peace, and hope.  For those of you who are here tomorrow, we will have a chance to explore and discuss these qualities in ourselves as we spend some time on cheshbon hanefesh – examining our souls.

Rabbi Schwartz has divided his book into three sections based on the famous quote from the Prophet Micah: “What does God require of us: only this – to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”  He chose this framework because he believes that these three qualities: justice, compassion, and faith epitomize the prophetic spirit.

Over the course of the year, we will learn from eight of these “prophets,” but today I want to share the story of one person from each section as we seek to be inspired by our ordinary heroes and learn to walk the path of the prophets.  The first of our ordinary heroes from the Bible is Tirzah.  Does anyone recognize her name?  I have to admit when I saw the titles of the chapters, the only name I didn’t recognize was Tirzah.  It turns out she is the youngest of the five daughters of Zelophechad.  Please don’t feel bad if you have no idea what I am talking about.  As I said, these are ordinary people, not necessarily the most well-known names in the Bible. The daughters of Zelophechad are descendants of Joseph.  Their father has died in the wilderness and left no sons.  As the Promised Land is being divided up, there is no portion for them because they are women.  They are not leaders; we know nothing about them.  Yet, they step forward and speak to Moses, the high priest Eleazar, and all the leaders of the tribes.  All of the people with power in their society are men. Yet, these women step forward to plead their case.  It is a moment, as Dr. King describes, of “flaming courage.”

Moses takes their case to God, who responds: “The plea of Zelophechad’s daughters is just.”  Not only that, but God decrees a law for all time: “If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughters.”  This moment of courage not only brings justice for these women, but causes God to create a new law that, within the parameters of a patriarchal society, gives women some protection.  This act of speaking truth to power sets us on a path of equality.  It is a long path.  “Equality,” Rabbi Schwartz reminds us, “is hard won by ever expanding the circle of inclusion.”  We see this process of hard-won expansion in our nation and in Judaism. The equal rights in the Declaration of Independence have slowly expanded to include women and people of color, who first gained the right to vote and then began to run for office, claiming a seat at the table. In Judaism, women, gay men, lesbians, and transgender people have been ordained as rabbis within the liberal strands of Judaism.  The path to equality and full inclusion of women and LGBTQ folks has often been slow and torturous.  At Social Justice Shabbat in June, I acknowledged that even at my progressive rabbinical school, I sometimes felt that women’s voices were not valued as much as the opinions of men. Change does not happen overnight.  Yet, over and over, ordinary people have stepped forward to speak, to march, to protest, to petition, and demand a seat at the table.

This long path to equality begins with Tirza and her sisters – ordinary heroes who exhibit “flaming courage,” and I think it is fair to say that there is a long, but direct line between these ancient women and the courageous women who have spoken out about experiences of sexual harassment and assault in the past year.  For all of these women, the prophetic moment means speaking out for justice and equality, demanding recognition of the value of every human being.

There are many ways to be an example of the Bible’s highest ethical ideals.   From the section on "love mercy," I chose the biblical character Joseph. Joseph as you may remember, was not always a hero. As his father's favorite, he alienated his older brothers, parading his coat of many colors and boasting of dreams when he saw his whole family bowed down to him. Most of you probably know the story. Joseph's brothers hate him and sell him into slavery in Egypt, where he is imprisoned, but eventually rises to power. Joseph’s prophetic moment comes when there is a famine throughout the land and his brothers come to Egypt searching for food. Joseph recognizes his brothers though they don't recognize him. He easily could have acted out of vengeance, refusing to help them, but Rabbi Schwartz writes: "Joseph is a hero, a child of prophets, because he embodies the value of forgiveness. This is the first explicit instance of repentance and forgiveness in the Torah. When his brother Judah express remorse, Joseph is able to hear it and accept it."

As we enter the Days of Awe, the ten days of repentance when we are supposed to ask for and give forgiveness to people in our lives before we ask for God's forgiveness, there are lessons we can learn from Joseph. Joseph, like all of us, is a flawed human being, and forgiveness does not come easily to him. First, he tests his brothers to see if they have changed. Even when he does decide to reveal his identity and help his family, his first words to his brothers are: "I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt." He has not forgotten what they have done, and he is not going to let them forget it either.

Forgiving is hard, and Joseph's story shows us that it is "often not an all or nothing proposition." But we also see that Joseph has nothing to gain by holding onto his anger and punishing his brothers. In forgiving them, he is reunited with his family.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks beautifully sums up the lessons we can learn from Joseph: "Forgiveness liberates us from the past. Forgiveness breaks the irreversibility of reaction and revenge. It is the undoing of what has been done. Humanity changed the day Joseph forgave his brothers. When we forgive and are worthy of being forgiven, we are no longer prisoners of our past.”

The title of the last section of Rabbi Schwartz's book is "to walk humbly." To exemplify this, I chose the biblical character Hannah who embodies the path of prayer. In the vein of ordinary heroes, Hannah is simply the wife of a man named Elkanah. We know nothing about these people except that Hannah has no children. Hannah’s prophetic moment is that she prays. This might not seem like a big deal to us, but in the Hebrew Bible people worship God by offering sacrifices. We rarely see anyone pray. In the story, the priest Eli doesn't even recognize prayer. He thinks Hannah is drunk and mumbling to herself.

After the second Temple is destroyed, prayer takes the place of sacrifice. The rabbis of the Talmud state: "What is the service of the heart? It is prayer."  But prayer in the Bible is so unusual that, astonishingly, the Rabbis use Hannah's prayer, the prayer of a woman, as a model for how people should pray.

Hannah's prophetic moment is the plea of a broken heart. God responds to Hannah's plea, and she gives birth to a son, Samuel. Samuel will be recognized and written into our history as a prophet. Two books of the Hebrew Bible are named after him, and he is one of my favorite characters from the Bible. But it is his mother, the ordinary hero, from whom perhaps we have the most to learn.

On High Holidays, we spend long days in prayer. For some of us this is the only time we pray. And Hannah points the way for us. She believes in the power of prayer. She believes prayer has the power to transform the one who prays and the One who hears our prayers. At a time when everyone else believes that the way to connect with God is by sacrificing animals, Hannah shows us another way – to pour out our hearts. Our liturgy on High Holidays suggests that repentance, prayer, and charity can temper God’s decree of who will live and who will die. I'm not sure how many of us believe in a theology where God issues degrees, or that our prayers can sway the divine will, but I do think many of us yearn to be connected to something greater than ourselves, to a source of life and goodness, that can fill us when we feel empty.

Heschel wrote: "Prayer invites God’s presence to suffuse our spirit. Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will."

In her pain, Hannah feels cut off from the source of life, and her response brings something new into the world: She prays.  She prays for a child, but then she vows to give that child away to serve God if her prayers are answered. This always seemed strange to me. Why would she pray for what she yearns for most, only to give it away?  But I think this suggests that what she is really praying for is connection. Even before she becomes pregnant and her prayers are “answered,” the act of prayer soothes her pain, eases her despair, strengthens her hope.

Rabbi Schwarz ends the chapter on Hannah with the words: "The path of prayer responds to our most basic emotional and spiritual needs: the mind yearning for understanding, the heart yearning for healing, and the soul yearning for Transcendence."

Each of the people in this book, people who could be described as ordinary heroes, full of flaws, often without any particular power, show us ways to walk in the path of the prophets. Rabbi Schwartz writes that: “The prophetic spirit lives on in those who protest the unjust, embrace the compassionate, seek the spirit, study our heritage, and walk in faith.  It lives on in those who, as Heschel said, express ‘a very deep love, a very powerful dissent, a painful rebuke, with unwavering hope.’” When we protest injustice, act with compassion, and walk in faith, we carry on the prophetic spirit that infuses Jewish tradition.

As we enter a new year, I hope we can hear the call of many kinds of prophets, those in the Bible and those in the world today, who are driven by a higher calling. We do not need to be perfect; we do not need to devote every waking moment to being "examples of our highest ideals," but perhaps we can be aware that as imperfect and flawed as we are, as prone as we are to making mistakes over and over, that we always have the possibility of stepping into a prophetic moment. We always have the possibility of speaking and acting in such a way that we can have a positive impact on those around us.

In Rabbi Schwartz's words: "No one is beyond hearing the prophetic call...It can come at any time to any person."

Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780