Parshat Mattot 5777
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parshat Mattot 5777

Shabbat Shalom…

Tobi and I arrived back in Boca late Sunday evening. I came here for minyan Monday morning and was pleasantly surprised to see probably 30 people there. Julie asked me to serve as the shaliach tzibbur, and as I lead the minyan in prayer and song I felt so gratified to be here.

At a time when so many non-orthodox synagogues are struggling for people, even on Shabbat, we sustain this wonderful minyan daily. And it’s beautiful because there is great participation and a warmth, and I know that helps define us as a community.

And, I also feel that as we need to create new forms of expression and ways of attachment for the next generation, a shul is not a shul unless there is a minyan for mourners to come and say kaddish. We do that responsibly.
I know that often we need to be away from home, to appreciate home. I often say, or think that, when people complain about an aspect of B’nai Torah. Check out another congregation and then see what we have. And I say that with as much humility as I can, but also with great pride in what we, together, have accomplished.

So, I’m back now… we have celebrated a birth of Aya, and seen our kids and some of our brothers and sisters… and we have been to Jerusalem. Ahhhh. That beautiful city of Yerushalayim.

And, I know, and you know that Jerusalem and Israel have great struggles. And we feel them very deeply as Conservative Jews right now. I believe Rabbi Englander spoke about some of the issues of the Kotel controversy and the issues of conversion and the legitimacy of our rabbis, of your rabbis.

I was engaged at the Shalom Hartman Institute in study and conversation about Israel… 1917, the year of the Balfour declaration, 1947, the year of the partition plan, and 1967, the year of the six-day war and the beginning of a radical transformation in psyches of the Jewish people and the citizens of the State of Israel. And we will have time this year to study some of these moments and their implications on us, on Israelis and on the Palestinian people.

As an aside… back to you. The scholars at Hartman who have been here all comment on how special this community is…

But another aside is that in spite of the multitude of political and social issues it is so wonderful to be in Jerusalem, to walk its streets, to experience its wonderful energy, listen to its music ad of course, eat its food… There’s something about it that feels like a state of denial. The region is collapsing and under fire, so many are suffering and in Israel democracy is under threat, there is a demographic time bomb… Israel… she’s building and singing, and there is joy in the streets. It is amazing…

Over the next few weeks and months and years we will be talking and studying about many of these issues.
Not this morning!

I’d like to look at the Torah.

One of the things I have been thinking about in this crazy world of ours is how important it is to remain anchored. And with the troubling behaviors and ugliness in politics and on the news, we become threatened in a certain way; Not just by the larger forces, what’s happening to our country and our world, but also what they begin to do to us. I’ve read about the increased bullying that pervades schools, I see the nastiness on the internet and the challenge to open and meaningful and respectful dialogue. And so we must remain committed to the values that guide our tradition, we must defend the rights of free speech, we must, we are defenders of freedom and democracy. And it starts here.

I remember a story once told by Elie Wiesel of a man who seemed crazy and was constantly yelling on a corner in the village something about the goodness of man… and when he was calmed down and asked why he was yelling this he said; “to remind myself.”

So let’s turn to the Torah.
A few weeks ago, Parshat Hukkat, we read in the Torah, in the narratives about the people’s wanderings in the wilderness the people were desperate. They demanded water. Moses was commanded to speak to the rock to get water to flow. But Moses was frustrated with the burden of leadership, the challenges facing the people and their incessant complaining. So what does he do? He strikes the rock. And the result of this lack of faith was that he was punished. His expression of anger lead to the prohibition of him entering the promised land.

But… consider this. Earlier in the Torah in Parshat B’Shallach after the crossing of the Red Sea the people faced a similar challenge. No water. And Moses was told to strike the rock. And he did. And water flowed.

So it presents a question. Why did the very act that brought water the first time, cause Moses to meet with such stern rebuke?

The rabbis don’t answer the question. But I have come up with something. And it has to do with the evolution of our people and understanding and human behavior.

Right after Egypt, the people knew only force and physical power. The plagues and the parting of the sea were the way God manifested Himself.

But along the way in this relationship, God makes himself known through the word. God’s revelation was not in a miracle, rather it was in the Commandments that Moses received. Revelation comes through Torah. It comes via language. We finished a book of Torah today. What did we say? Chazak V’nitchazek – Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen each other! Other cultures show strength with swords or guns, for us it’s the word, The Torah.

We are a people of the Book, a people of the word. And the second time, demanding water, Moses was told not to strike but to speak the rock. (Understand this as metaphor… please) And so Moses’ power, now was to be seen in his word, in dibur speaking.

How does the Torah Begin… “Let there be light” that’s how the created world begins in our story. With the spoken word. In Genesis, it is the word of God.

What’s the ultimate moment of holiness on our calendar… on Yom Kippur with the pronunciation of a name… God’s name by the Kohein in the Kiddush.

You know in Meah Shearim the young chasidim together with the old chasidim, don’t use Hebrew as a vernacular, for them Hebrew is Lashon Kodesh. A holy language. It’s the language of Torah; learning, study, understanding. I used to feel upset about this. Perhaps it was my own Zionist leanings… but now I see something beautiful in it. Because it implies that there are distinctions in language. There is kodesh and chol, in our language. Now we live in a world where just about anything is said anywhere… and what has that brought us to. There was a time when there was private and public language. I think that’s really important.

If you daven during the week you know that the very first brachah after the kedushah is about knowledge. And the word, is our source of knowledge.

The Amidah begins asking God to help us open our lips so that we speak words of praise… the holist of all prayers, Ha tefillah begins with a request to speak words of praise.
You know what words of praise mean to you… To speak words of praise is to bring comfort and hope and restoration in relatively holiness, to do a tikkun in our relationships, it is to express love.

And at the end of the Amidah… and it closes with:
Elohai n’tzor l’shoni meirah
God, keep my tongue from evil, my lips from lies…

Oh, there’s so much in this.
In an age where leaders lie… these words come to remind us, that’s not acceptable. That’s not how we are to be in this world.

At a time where presidents and prime ministers make empty promises… we have a counter force here.
A tradition that states…

The Parshah began this week:
Lo yacheil d’varo k’chol hayotzei mipiv yaaseh
A man shall not break his pledge.
He must carry out all that has crossed his lips.

Kol asher asra al nafsha yakum aleha
Every vow a woman makes shall be binding.

And if you looked closely at the beginning of this parshah you’ll notice the language of kol nidre; perhaps the holiest moment of the year.

And at that moment we will beg that God forgive us of any vow we might take and not fulfill.

You know its common amongst some Jews to say, if they are intending to do something: “Bli Neder.” It means, without an oath. Because to promise with words and not fulfill your promise is sinful.

I teach this because in the age of lies, in the age of the tweet, in the age where deeper conversation and meaningful dialogue is being lost… I want us to be different. I want to be different. I know we are different. I want to read and write and talk… I want to hear words of comfort and I want to hear and speak words of praise and words of love. I want respect for the questions and reflections of honesty and truth.
There’s no fake news here. No manipulation with language.
No, this is where the word is holy…

I’d like you to listen to the words of Amos Oz and Fania Oz Sulzberger, in their work: Jews and Words…

Jewish continuity has always hinged on uttered and written words, on an expanding maze of interpretations, debates and disagreements… our conversations are two or three generations in the making.

Ours is not a bloodline.
But a text line.
Abraham and Sarah
Rabban Yochanan ben Gamliel and the Glickl of Hamln
And the Jewish writers of today all belong to the same family tree.

We are not about stones or chromosomes. We are about words.

And so, as I return, after weeks of study and conversations, texts and literature and searching for truth, in a place which reflects the holiness of our people…
I know what we are too and what we will preserve here… through our words, our study, our engagement, our values… is a life devoted to meaning and integrity.

Well, I’ve spoken enough… And we will continue to hear from each other. Of that, I am sure.

Shabbat Shalom