Va-etchanan & The Harp – 5778
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Va-etchanan & The Harp – 5778

Shabbat Shalom.

We have a beautiful harp in our living room. It stands tall and is regal. Tobi, my wife and your rebetzin, plays the harp. It is the most beautiful of instruments. When you see and hear a harp play, you can understand why ancient literature depicted it as the instrument of angels.

But when watching the relationship between the harp and the musician one realizes that that it never had just begun when she sat down in the beginning. It obviously, like any instrument, has taken time; hours and hours, days and months, and years of work.

To make beautiful music one needs time. Time to practice. Time to repeat the scales and the drills that make one feel at home — at one with the instrument. It takes practice to know the strings and find the touch, movement, and rhythm that allow it to play as the musician projects.

Once the harpist reaches some level of comfort and facility, the music flows. It is beautiful. It feels as if it releases the soul and the spirit and creates a sense of liberating freedom.

If you ever began to play an instrument, you know it can be really frustrating. It is always very frustrating. We have a sense of how we want things to sound. We have an expectation of how we want to feel, but it simply doesn’t happen. It takes hours, days, years of practice.

And then at some point down the road we can feel free. Something happens in the relationship. Perhaps we fall in love with the instrument. Perhaps we fall in love with the music.

I want to talk about this week’s parshah, Va-etchanan, and about commitment, freedom and love. Perhaps it is disingenuous of me to begin by talking about the harp and the musician. Let me speak about basketball.

I loved the game when I grew up. After school there were two places that I could be found: at synagogue in Hebrew school and the youth group, or on the basketball court. A story for another time, but I really wanted to play in the NBA. I simply wasn’t good enough. I once read an article by Bill Russell, the great Celtic. He wrote about his love of the game. He spoke about how five people working at the same goal at the same time, creating a bond that felt spiritual. When it went well, there was nothing like the Celtic fast break! He couched the language in words that were connected to love of the game and the team, the freedom that came from the movement when all were synchronized, and the deep commitment that was brought toward the goal.

I believe, and you have heard me say this before, that the first two most important values in Judaism are life and then freedom. I have mentioned that I believe that is why the Torah begins with Creation and the Revelation at Sinai begins with God telling the people that He was the one who brought them to be free.

The narratives and laws continually reflect the notion that life is holy and needs to be protected; and, that we are responsible for the protection and thus the freedom of the most vulnerable.

Freedom is not a simple concept. Freedom has different dimensions. The great British Jewish philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, wrote about these freedoms. He described “freedom from” and “freedom for.” Freedom from is the more primitive aspect of freedom. We don’t have to do what we don’t want to do. We can do whatever we wish; it is a liberating freedom. The bonds or shackles of the demands of another are shaken. But freedom for is more complex. As example, we were given freedom from Egypt in order to arrive at Sinai for the reception of the Torah.

So the musician is free to play the harp. The basketball player is free to play the game, but the freedom of these is not realized until the musician or the athlete makes a deep commitment of time, practice and desire — and then finds the liberating aspect of their craft or talent. More than that, they then experience the liberation or the freedom that comes from the experience of a deep love.

And now we come to Va-etchanan. Here we see the depth of the relationship between God and the people as mitigated through the words and the warnings of Moses. We read and learn of the call to follow the chukim, the mishpatim, and the mitzvot of God. Each of these takes a deep commitment of time and a willingness to perform the mitzvot of God, the laws of the Torah, the practices of our people.

Is this freedom? It is. It is the freedom we realize through the commitment, through the practice, through the time spent.

And what grows from this? If done well, I believe it can be the liberating spirit and feeling of love!

Older people here may remember the book written in the fifties entitled “The Art of Loving” by Erich Fromm. I remember seeing it on a bibliography when I was in high school and being so excited. Ahhhhh … this was what I was looking for! But the “Art of Loving” by Erich Fromm was a philosophical and psychological treatise on love.

He wrote, “There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.”

Fromm makes a case for love as a skill to be honed the way artists apprentice themselves to the work on the way to mastery, demanding of its practitioner both knowledge and effort.

Most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving — of one’s capacity to love. Hence the problem to them is how to be loved, how to be lovable. There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet which fails so regularly, as love.

Slowly, Fromm defines love as caring, responsiveness, responsibility, giving and trust. Love is not what comes to you. It is what you give.

The first step to take is to become aware that love is an art, just as living is an art. If we want to learn how to love we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art — say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering. What are the necessary steps in learning any art? The process of learning an art can be divided conveniently into two parts: one, the mastery of the theory; the other, the mastery of the practice.

And so, Va-etchanan reminds us of all the words of Torah. It tells us we have to learn them. We have to learn them and then understand them. We have to walk with them, and make their demands a part of our lives.

And then what happens? We find they give us freedom. We learn that god loved us and that is why He offers the relationship with us.

And we learn: Vahafta et adonoi ehlohecha. That we are to love God by: keeping the words on our heats; teaching them to our children; talking about them whenever and wherever; writing them on the doorposts of our homes and the gates of our cities.

To play the harp well — to really love it and find freedom in it — we need to work on it, spend time with it … yes, practice.

It’s true about the games we play. It’s true about our work. It’s true about our relationships of love. And it’s true about our Torah and our tradition … our lives as Jews.

So we learn and teach, observe and do. We practice. We observe. We connect.

And in it we can find freedom and love: two ideas we all crave.

Shabbat Shalom.