Parashat Beshallach 5776
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parashat Beshallach 5776

Lottery tickets and life

How many of you bought a Powerball ticket last week?

I know 1.5 billion dollars is nothing to sneeze at.

And we saw big lines around those places where tickets were being sold…it seems that just about everyone bought a lottery ticket. And so many people were engaged in the conversation: “What if?” What if I won the lottery? What would I do? How would my life change?

My daughter Gabrielle and her husband Seth were visiting last week. I asked them if they bought a ticket. My son-in-law said something that gave me reason to pause. He said: “I didn’t buy a ticket. I don’t want my life to change so dramatically. I don’t know what I would do with it.” Seth is a creative artist, he writes and produces for NPR and creates for his own projects. And I imagined that if he won $1.5 billion, his creativity would change; dramatically. And Gabrielle asked: what would be the motivation to finish her degree. (Obviously as a parent I felt good at that moment.” Because, at the end of the day there are more important values.


So, the rabbi in me, connects this world, and always connects my world to the parshah.


Today is an important reading. It is parshat Beshallach. And Beshallach contains the song of the sea. Az Yashir Moshe U’venei Yisrael

Then Moses and the people Israel sand this song to God.


Why the song? Because we had experienced God’s salvation. The miracles and wonders that we witnessed in Egypt continue. And God’s saving power is realized!  And so we break into song!  We won the lottery!


Experience described in the narrative, and although I say that “tongue in cheek” maybe we should about this in a different way.  Because what happens after the miracle? What happens after the wondrous experience?


But what we see in the forefront are a people who are not satisfied. And so immediately after this experience, the [people are complaining. The water is bitter! The food was better in Egypt they had a schedule that was certain! And now they experienced insecurity. We might say the insecurity of freedom.


God provides miracle in the narrative and the job of the people is to witness, to benefit and to believe.


And I thought…maybe this is the problem. Because what we receive which we haven’t worked for….we take for granted, we cannot appreciate, we cannot value.


I read an interview with the highly touted and beloved CNN newsman Anderson Cooper. You know him right? Many of you also know his mother; Gloria Vanderbilt. Gloria Vanderbilt fortune is estimated to be worth about 200 million but Anderson won’t be seeing a dime of it.


Though his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, inherited a fortune before making her own millions, Cooper will not receive an inheritance. “My mom’s made clear to me that there’s no trust fund. There’s none of that,”  “[And] I don’t believe in inheriting money


Cooper, 46, said that inherited money is an “initiative sucker” and a “curse.” Because of that, he’s grateful that his mother always gave him an incentive to work.


“Who’s inherited a lot of money that has gone on to do things in their own life?” he asked. “From the time I was growing up, if I felt that there was some pot of gold waiting for me, I don’t know that I would’ve been so motivated.”

Calling his mother “the coolest person I know,” Cooper also praised her for instilling within him a great work ethic. And, he said, should he become a father one day, he’d likely follow in her footsteps.


“I would want them to start working early on and start to have a sense of responsibility,” he said. “If maybe I felt like they had a good sense of responsibility, maybe I would try to leave some money. I don’t know.”


An interesting story…and the message is clear. At the end of the day, we appreciate what we work for and, before that time, the need to work creates initiative, encourages aspiration and gives us value.


This week is Tu B’Shvat. Do you remember that early Tu B’Shvat song you learned? Zum Gally Gally…

Do you remember the words?

Hechalutz lemaan avodah…avodah lemaan hechalutz


Our pioneering spirit is because of the work and our work creates the pioneer! It was ingenuity and hard work that created Israel.  Avodah!  It’s also the word used for worship…And maybe there’s a lesson in that.  To pray may seem natural and easy, but it too is a discipline and it takes work.


Today, I have met a number of men who made their father’s millionaires.  It’s best described as a guy I knew in Ohio who said to me:

You know my son Moishe…because of him I’m worth a million dollars! Sounds good huh? But before I retired and gave him the business, I was worth 10 million dollars!


True story!

Moishe (a sermon name) grew up privileged. He has it all. And he worked, sort of, in his Dad’s business. And he had the best of everything! Huge home, expensive cars…you know the story. For his daughter’s 16th birthday, she woke up to find a BMW in the driveway!


So, if Moishe did that with his Dad’s fortunes, imagine what the daughter will do when she inherits after a life time of privilege.


There’s potentially something corrosive to character and certainly work ethics when we get it all for free.


So what is the value of hard work?

What did it mean for your life? Just about everything!

The fulfillment of completing a task; grows a sense of confidence.

And, the work is not merely about personal gain; rather it’s also about contribution.


A regular here, a member and a friend David Sommer died this week. When David was 16 years old his family was destitute. He received a loan which he knew he had to work to make work …He went to a bank officer and on the way saw a beggar in the street. Dave had a quarter in his pocket. He gave it away.  He received the loan…and he grew up to eventually own over five thousand Rite Aid stores! And along the way, he made his kids work, he gave charitably to help kids without…He valued his work…and he worked for a purpose!  When I asked his family before the funeral: What did he value?  They said family.


In the Torah we learn that “Six days we should do our work and on the seventh we should rest.” And we take the verse and consider the importance of Shabbat. Perhaps we don’t think enough about the other part of the commandment. Six days we should work…be productive – engage meaningfully.


I look around at this very successful synagogue. And I know that we are in the right place. Our demographics are good. But I can personally attest to the fact that we have some leaders here and a staff that works very hard! Hard work has created this.


Even in the Garden of Eden where things were perfect we were commanded to work the garden and tend it.


And when we were expelled from that place of perfection, the curse was not that we were to sweat from the work. Rather, the sweat was a sign of the dignity that comes from hard work.


And this is why we reject a system that values aristocracy over meritocracy…Achievement is meaningful when we labor.


Even retirement gives proof to this. For the one who can continue to be productive, in community, gardens, or even intellectual work….is the one who finds fulfillment.


Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist once said…I learned the value of hard work by working hard.


I’ll share a personal story. My Dad was an electrician who worked really hard. He’d come home at the end of the day and be really tired from physical work. After I turned sixteen he got me a summer job on a big construction site. The first day on the job I had to carry bundles of 10 foot conduit from the place they were unloaded up a hill to be delivered at the building. The rains had made it impossible for the trucks to travel. I got home that night, walked in to the door, took off my muddy boots and fell asleep on the floor until the next morning. Perhaps that was an “ah ha” moment where I learned that I wanted to work, but maybe not labor!


So let me explain the motivation to speak about this, this Shabbat…and it has to do with the miraculous parting of the sea.


The miracle couldn’t be until this one man, Nachshon ben Aminadav was willing to take the jump. His faithfulness and his desire to take the lead allowed the miracle to be realized – then the sea parted.  And then the people had to march, they had to go through the sea, with faith.


I present this idea that because the miracles are performed for them, they never fully become participants or live with a sense of gratitude for what they received; and that is the reason that God makes them journey the long way, forty years of wandering in the wilderness and with it, plenty of struggle. That became their preparation to battle in order to settle the Land.


So the question is there a way out of the conundrum that we work hard for ourselves and future generations…but by doing so, we may put them at a disadvantage…


I think so…and I think it is through the lens of one who can feel appreciation and understand grace.


So, those who receive from previous generations they did nothing to achieve can, in fact, parlay that into meaningful living. When we look honestly at what we receive and how we receive it. Because we know that even the hardest worker receives his reward because of the blessings of good health and perhaps the willing support of bosses and family and friends. At the end of the day, we all must know that we are dependent on forces beyond ourselves.

And for this we must feel gratitude…And learn how to express that.  And we must respond to that gratitude with humility and with a sense of obligation. The obligation that states: As my father planted for me, so I plant for future generations.


And so in this world of iPhones and iPads and instant gratification, and overwhelming material blessing experienced by many amongst us…the lessons of gratitude, including the responsibility for others, family and community and the obligation of the obligation to give, to give back….THAT IS THE RESPONSE…


We need to value hard work and hard workers.

And we should never protect our children from the challenge of working with passion for a goal or an achievement.

And so with our work comes a reward.

And with the reward comes obligation.

Azi V’zimrat Yah vayehi Li l’shuah

Our strength, willingness to do, to act…and the song of God and his beneficence is our salvation.


So, in conclusion, I do hope we win the Powerball…but I also hope that we can handle our blessings with a great sense of appreciation and responsibility for each other and future generations!!!


Shabbat Shalom