Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Lech Lecha 5779 – October 20, 2018

Shabbat Shalom.

Not long ago I was going through some old personal files. I found the newspaper article written in 1982 about my arrival at my first congregation. Not only do I remember it, but I also remember the interview with the reporter back then. After all, it was probably the first time in my life I was interviewed. I was nervous. I had no idea what they were going to ask and had no training for this.

But, before I share the question, and my answer, I’d like to jump ahead to the second time a reporter called me. Because from that interview I learned more!

That was a few weeks later, after the outbreak of Israel’s first war on its Northern border and the incursion into Lebanon. You may remember that it was the beginning of Hezbollah’s influence in Southern Lebanon and there was regular bombardment of Israeli towns and kibbutzim up north. Israel was determined to end the terror and there was an incursion into Lebanon. At the time I was the only Jewish professional in that small town in northeastern Ohio. The reporter called and asked me what I thought about what Israel was doing! I said that it was an act of self-defense, which is a legitimate reason and a moral reason to go to war. It was a just war.

The following day the headline in the second section of the newspaper read: LOCAL RABBI SUPPORTS WAR!

I was so taken aback! I don’t “support war,” although I do understand that history at times confronts us with justifiable wars. But I learned an important lesson about how we interview and the potential to take ideas out of context.

The first interview was different. It was to welcome me. The reporter asked: What do you see as your main purpose in being a rabbi? And then I said something like this:

I believe we are the inheritors of a very ancient and rich tradition. Its source is the Torah. It continues in our literature throughout the centuries. My job is to make it meaningful and relevant to a contemporary public.

I’ve been working on that ever since.


If you were here, you may remember that a few weeks ago I spoke about the misogyny evoked by the earliest chapters of Genesis and how these early texts were used as part of patrimonial traditions to keep women oppressed or suppressed. Yet we found that upon a closer and deeper reading we can find a way to see in these very texts calls for liberation and freedom. Although the ancients probably did not see this, the beauty of an interpretive tradition is that more and more can be uncovered as we learn more, see farther and understand more deeply.

This week we find a new chapter – literally and figuratively. This new chapter – Lech Lecha – became inspirational to me in its first words as I considered our world: the deep concerns we have – that we should have –  and yes, even fears that we carry. At times there is a tendency to fall into despair.  I wonder about the possibility of creating something new and allowing life to move forward in a different way.

There is the Chassidic tale of the man who was lost in the forest. After moments of panic, he ran into someone else and asked how he can get out: “Please sir I am lost.” And the second man responds, “I too am lost. Perhaps we can find our way together.”

It’s one of the beautiful parts of being a member of a community that shares values: Respect, Peace, Love. We share a belief that we partner in trying to create a better future. Together we can build something better.

I know and you know that we are not going in the right direction. I have a sense that the parshah we read today speaks to the same reality of the world of thousands of years before us. It was a world that wasn’t going in the right direction.  It needed a type of transformation and found it in a revolution in thought, spirit and values. And it was a revolution that changed the course of humanity. Amazingly, it remains alive today in us.

Here’s the context:

Last week we finished the second parshah of Genesis and read about this famous Tower of Babel. What did we learn about those towers which, by the way, are known to have actually existed? There is archaeological evidence of Babylonian era ziggurats in what is now contemporary Iraq.

And here’s what we know from that ancient civilization. It was based on materialism and wealth. The acquisition of wealth and the centralization of power were evidenced by the building of great towers.  They were a central concern of dominant leaders. The stories from that time tell tales of the denigration of the workers and individual lives.  Bricks, the hottest thing in technological advancement in its day, replaced the importance of humanity.

That was the world from which Abraham emerged.

It was a world in which a human being had ultimate power. It was a world where children were sacrificed. It was a world of dominance and submission. A world without a spirit but based on military and monetary power.

Perhaps it seemed that the individual could do nothing to change those conditions. That was the ways things were. Unless there was some cataclysmic event, nothing could change.

Think about this. In the narrative we have inherited, one man was told not to lead a rebellion but to get out! Remove himself from that land. Remove himself from his birthplace. Remove himself from his father’s house. GO! LECH! LECHA! Get out, out of there and begin something new, something different.

The world needed a change of direction:  different thought … different values.

So who was this Avram, later to become Avraham? There is something to be learned in that question because there is much we don’t know, very little that is mentioned.

Why? Why isn’t the father of our people a warrior or a charismatic person?

Perhaps the question itself informs. I can think of at least two answers that help us.  First of all, perhaps he was any man, any person.  The very fact that he wasn’t a powerful man but an average man … the very fact that he could change the course of history is a lesson. Change is in the hands of each one of us.

You make a difference. Even if you are not from the great tower builders, you can have an impact. Each one of us can be the change or part of the change that we need.

So Avram comes from this world of power and dominance and receives a call. And the call says:

You have to leave the assumptions of truth and realize that there is another truth. It’s not all about wealth and building. Nobody has absolute power. Absolute power is in the greatness of the Creator of the Universe. Every individual is a part of that one universe.

Maimonides teaches the midrash that asks how Abraham learned what he learned. It speaks about a young man lying in the field and looking above at the heavens. He sees the stars, the planets and the moon above and he realizes how small we are. It’s a moment of humility. It is a moment of realization. No one can be all powerful over others. It is all interrelated.

The worship of buildings, the worship of material possession, will need to be contained. A new order is realized. It is one, in the words of the Torah, that will be built on tzedek and mishpat. There will have to be righteousness and charitable lives … just and fair for all humanity.

Something else appeared to me as I read the text. As I read this parshah I also began the reading of Yuval Noah Harari’s newest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

Avram was going to begin a world that showed concern for the future. For his children and children’s children and generations to come. It was not about him and his acquisitions and his comforts. Far from it. He had to leave his father’s house. He had to take a giant leap that implies a willingness to change because he cared about future generations.

And, I think, about us. I think about what we learn from the environmental disruptions and how we respond and what we are going to do. Harari wrote we are thinking about the wrong things. We have leaders that attempt to create fear and hatred of others, but the real dangers to our future and to our children’s future are being ignored.

As I mentioned last week, an international commission made up of the world’s greatest environmental scientists told us that parts of our earth inhabited today by hundreds of thousands of people will be gone in twenty to thirty years. That threatens us all. That will lead to huge population shifts and immigration issues far beyond anything that we are seeing today. And we know the poorest people are the most vulnerable. We need to look no further than the Panhandle as it recovers from Hurricane Michael.

We have a leader who told us this week that he has an uncle that was a scientist so he “knows a thing or two about science. Some say yes and some say no.” He is wrong and we should all express our outrage. Because our future is at stake.

A senator from our state was asked: “What we will he tell his grandchildren that he did to preserve the environment?” He said:” I worked to preserve the beaches and I saved jobs!” And I say you are wrong, mister senator. You are contributing to the destruction of further generations.

The call to Avraham was a call for the future. It was a call about the essential value of human life. It was a call about the sacred dimension of the natural world.

And so, in addition to these statements of the past week, I add another. When a leader is confronted with the brutal torture, dismemberment, and decapitation of an honest journalist he responds: “There are too many jobs at risk”.

In that statement, morality is about transaction. Morality becomes monetized and the world will go to hell.

So here we are, descendants of that first Hebrew, Ivri, the one from the other side. What do we do with that call?

We said something about power. The rabbis ask who is powerful, and they speak about those who control their passions. Certainly, there should not be one without the other. Our power was found in the dignity of the culture and the people we created.  It was a culture and a nation that was developed to be rooted in conversation and language, learning and respect.

This then points to the second great set of challenges that we are missing according to Yuval Harari, related to the impact of technology on the transmission of information. The changing of thought processes without our awareness; the influence on attitudes and ideologies of fake news or Russian meddling. All of a sudden our democracy is gone.

Add to that, according to Harari, there is next to no conversation about the true challenge of technology and robotics to jobs.  It is Amazon, the auto industry and even the food industry. And you know what? It’s not about coal miners losing their jobs because of liberal policy.

There’s something else happening because of technology and we’re not informed. And we better be, because it is impacting everything – the way we communicate, the nature of communities, the ability to function in this world.

This week as I left my home I drove by a school bus stop for high school kids and there were eight ten of them. I was stopped at a red light so I had a chance to take a hard look.  What I realized was that every one of them was immersed in their cell phones. No two kids were talking to each other. The impact of technology is phenomenal and changing us so quickly, and we are not paying enough attention. To what? To the fact that we are human and we’re going to lose our souls, our spirits, our ability to communicate.

Back to Abraham. He received the call. He went out not to change the evil people he left, but to create something new.  I think that is where a religious community – a spiritual community – has to invest its time and its energy and its passions.

We know some of these problems. We’re not going to change the Babylonians, the materialists, the selfish ones. What we have to do is understand how we can work to make the changes we want to see.

Last week in my comments I challenged everyone to step it up with their own environmental responsibilities and get involved with groups that are working to create the change. This week I realize we need to emphasize that we also need to turn inward a bit. Find the deeper spiritual aspect of our being, and connect with godliness and goodness as the most important aspect of our lives.

The great historian and thinker, Harari, believes the world must become meditators. I know what he means. We need to find those places of greater kindness. We need to find peace and be conduits of peace. We need to realize that money and gain, that technology and invention are secondary to that which is holy, to that which is Divine.

And so this community must reflect this in our works. We need greater participation in it. Through prayer and our TLC program, and our openness and welcoming gestures to everyone and to all. The communication and conversation in our studies reposition every participant – even if it’s a few inches – in their sense of what is really important.

One person, Avraham with his family, left his previous assumptions and his background and he changed the world. The world needs a paradigm shift as to how we think about others, our natural world, and our future.

Religion is not about being what was. Our tradition needs to take the inherited values, live them, and model something new. That is why I am part of a movement that is trying to create a new religious narrative, building on the best of what we inherited.

We are called upon to Go, to leave our land, our birthplace and the homes of our fathers. I don’t think it’s about arrival in one place and staying static. It is about getting up and going and continuing a journey as time moves on, presents new challenges, and allows us to create better solutions. Not just Abraham, you and I receive the call. We’ve got to evolve and move forward.

Shabbat Shalom