Parsha Bamidbar 5777
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parsha Bamidbar 5777

Shabbat Shalom

On a weekday morning when a person puts on his or her teffilin, they say the following words as they wind their teffilin around their finger:

I will betroth you to me forever

I will betroth you with righteousness and justice

I will betroth you with goodness and with mercy

I will betroth you with faithfulness

And you shall be my God.

These are really profound and beautiful words recited daily. And they are recited as an expression of faithfulness to God.

The words come from a prophet that knows unfaithfulness. Hosea, who lived in the 8th century he was married to a woman described as a prostitute. Hosea, did not do what most men would do when he learned of his wife’s infidelity. He didn’t leave her; he didn’t force her away. Rather with patience he waited for her to return. And through the behavior he showed his love…He continued to show his love. It’s considered a metaphor for God’s faithful love for his people.

Faithfulness is a profound theme in our tradition. Throughout the Bible we see God testing the faithfulness of our forefathers, our people. Ultimately, the suffering of Job is seen as the test of the believer. Satan appears to God and says, see that fellow Job? The one you think is so good, such a faithful man? Let’s see how faithful he is! Test him…And then horrific events befall Job…including great financial and much worse, disease and the death of his children…And Job? He remains faithful to his relationship with God.

And we learn something about faithfulness. It is not found in reward and punishment. It has to do with the capacity to remain present and remain deeply committed to the relationship even when love may wane, even when times are troubled…

In our world we consistently see relationships tested. Not just between a couple, but between groups of people, nations…faithfulness demands that we remain committed even when the problems seem large and unsurmountable.

I counsel couples. I have seen couples destroyed by infidelity. And I also have seen the couple like Hosea and Gomer…the mistake was made, a terrible mistake. Once in a while the hurt partner does not leave. Once in a while the faithfulness of the honest partner can be so large that the relationship can be rebuilt…and often where there was a break it becomes even stronger.

Today, we began the Book of Bamidbar. It is the book of the wilderness. And it is the formative period for our people as they wandered in the wilderness.

And the wilderness experience was a profoundly painful one. We see that times the wilderness swallowed up people. The wilderness was a place of such great uncertainty. Where would water come from? Where would food come from? How would we protect ourselves?

In some ways we might see that the wilderness was the place of God’s test of our faithfulness. In other ways, I believe it was the test of God’s faithfulness.

And what we learn is that in faithfulness…there is love.

You know in our tradition love is not seen as “feeling” not an emotion. Rather love is a response. God loved us…and so he gave us the Torah; he gave us Torah and mitzvot, chukim and mishpatim

And our love for god is measured by our faithfulness… not a faithfulness in ….an “I believe moment” no it’s a faithfulness in I will do moment… this is how I behave, this is what I do…and this is what I won’t do.

Perhaps early on in our history it was contained in our people’s willingness to move away from idolatrous practices…but it became something more. It became measured in our willingness to live a life dedicated to Torah in the confines of a community that seeks proper behavior justice and righteousness…

Faithfulness is the truest measure of love. As I learned from the scholarly psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm.

It is a love that is responsive to another’s needs.

It is a love that is responsible for another.

It is a love which is caring.

It is a love which implies intimacy and knowledge…

There in the Midbar, we found God and the people responsive, responsible, caring and knowing each other.

And so, this brings me to the Book of Ruth.

You know that we read one of the Megillot from the Ketuvim, the writings in the Bible on each festival. Tuesday night is Shavuot on that holiday and we are reading the story of Ruth.

I’ve been thinking about Ruth and why we read it on this holiday. It’s not a random choice. There’s a lot in the simple story and it teaches us a few things…I hope you know the story…

Ruth is married to one of Naomi’s sons. They leave Israel because of a famine. And Naomi’s husband and two sons die. Naomi encourages the two daughters-in-laws to leave and return. But Ruth won’t. Ruth says…Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people. Where you die, I will die.

And she stays with her mother-in-law. It is a profound expression of faithfulness…in the relationship and in the its future.

Later on we learn that there is a relative named Boaz. And he protects a vulnerable woman. Following the laws of leket, he makes sure she has what to harvest and what to eat.

And, in a place where women were so abused he protects her.

Ultimately he marries her.

Boaz is a model of faithfulness.

It is faithfulness to a family, to a Torah, and to God.

This woman Ruth, born a Moabite which was from a tribe not to be included amongst the Jewish people, we learn becomes the first convert, the progenitor of King David and perhaps one day the Messiah. And this is a Divine repayment for faithfulness.

Emunah… It is faithfulness in a relationship, measured in behavior, faithfulness to a law, faithfulness to goodness and God. Perhaps this is the quality most severely missing in this world…we friend and defriend, we shop for synagogues and institutions that we befriend or remain faithful to as long as our needs are met… Even things like brand loyalty, we learn, have lost the fidelity of people…

In our big story, what we are to see is that faith does not begin with God…it begins with us… in the story of our lives it is about each one of us and our willingness to live lives of fidelity to friends and to our communities, faithfulness to a covenant, a brit that demands loyalty to a people and its rituals and calendar and behaviors, and of course, importantly to God, we do it through our learning… and our commitment to compassion and goodness.

As we approach Shavuot… Let us think about the meaning of our connections and our loyalties to those people and institutions which truly matter.

Shabbat Shalom