Rabbi Raachel Jurovics
Text: Psalm 36:6-7
Thank you for the honor of sharing worship and holy word with you this morning, especially at a time of reflection on the gifts and prophetic leadership of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King, like his friend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, turned holy word into a mandate for social justice, and the hard work of social justice into worship, praying with their legs and voices as they marched and sang together.
Permit me to confess to a certain habitual confusion of the practical with the mystical. There is an old teaching that in the days when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, its physical size always accommodated the number of worshippers; no matter how large the pilgrimage crowd, no one would be left outside the walls—testimony to the infinite expandability of sacred space. By analogy, it is my conviction that every last dish, glass, and utensil from a single meal—whether for four or fourteen—should fit into a single dishwasher load.
Similarly, I hold to a stubborn insistence that everything in Scripture (yes, pretty much everyone’s Scripture), connects to all other holy text, just as it may be the case that everything in this universe manifests as an unimaginably complex ball of cosmic strings. So, when Nancy assured me that it was not necessary to refer to all the lectionary readings for the week, of course I ignored her and pulled in this week’s Torah portion as well. Abandon hope, all ye who have early lunch reservations!
Here’s where we’re beginning and ending this morning: at a high place of vision with the prophets Isaiah and Dr. King: “For the sake of Zion, I will not be silent,/For the sake of Jerusalem I will not be still,/Till her victory emerge resplendent/And her triumph like a flaming torch.” (62:1) We do not uplift here the practical, physical real-estate Jerusalem; rather, we stand in wonder before the mystic city binding heaven and earth, one of God’s places of invitation to us to recognize the divine intentionality of spiritual diversity.
If you arrive in Jerusalem from the south, and gaze at the city from Mt. Scopus, what you see is a glorious, golden entanglement of mosques, the Temple Mount, and churches—all tumbled together like the crowd of worshippers foreseen by Zechariah: “Adonai will be Sovereign over all the earth. On that day, Adonai will be one, and God’s Name will be one.” (14:9) This is not a vision of humankind gathering at the mountain uniformly as Jews, but rather an assertion that all who would gather there would understand their essential oneness rooted in the Unity of God. Viewing the holy mountain concentrates our attention on the whole of interpenetrated spiritual reality, and we cry out with Isaiah: “Meloh kol ha’aretz k’vodo, the divine glory fills the whole earth, all of creation.” (6:3)
From his mountaintop, Dr. King also saw that Scripture’s ethical mandate requires us to hold physical fact, historical suffering before us as we partner with God to manifest the highest spiritual redemption possible. The night before his death, Dr. King spoke in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN, and placed before us the simultaneous vision of the earthly and heavenly Jerusalem, inextricably linked by our service to God and God’s covenants to transform us through the gifts of freedom and mutual service:
“It’s all right to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ in all of its symbolism,” [he said]. “But ultimately, people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do. . .” [and, he added,] “we’ve got to see it through. . . . either we go up together, or we go down together.” (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” 4/3/1968)
Dr. King asks us to recognize who we are, how we are all integrated into God’s glorious ball of cosmic string. He asks us to orient ourselves intentionally within a divine reality that admits of no separation between our lives and the Life of All Being. He warns us against the idolatries of racism, war, poverty—the entire unholy array of –isms that fragment the beloved community. In this week’s Torah portion, Moses also confronts the Divinity behind fragmentation, the God who calls us into freedom and awareness, and then demands that our response to that awareness must be to worship nothing else—to grow beyond the most dangerous idolatry of all, the idolatry of serving anything less than God.
As Rabbi Arthur Green frames the command, “do not be led astray by venerating anything less than . . . the wholeness of being. . . . The temptations,” he notes, “range from the ‘sticks and stones’ as the Bible represents ‘idolatry’ to the much more sophisticated distortions and limitations of truth that constitute most of religion, even in our own day. All of them lead us to turn aside from the singular task of sacred awareness without limits.” (Radical Judaism, “Re-thinking God and Tradition,” selection from Chapter 3 for ORAITA Conference 2010)
In the Torah this week, Moses is commanded to enter into Pharaoh’s court to demand freedom for the Israelites. God tells him, “Bo el Paroh,” and here the verb bo is traditionally translated as “Go to Pharaoh.” Yet, ordinarily, that particular Hebrew verb, bo, translates as Acome, arrive, return, turn.
Odd, no? According to the usual understanding of the verb, Moses is coming, not going. What might this shift in interpretation suggest? One possibility rests in earlier biblical narrative, when Abraham and Sarah’s relationship with God modeled for us an apparently outward movement, away from a polytheistic past and into a new understanding of One God. In Moses’ case, under the circumstances of his call to relationship with the Holy One, especially the call to foster a new relationship between Adonai and the Israelites, the movement now involves drawing near, rather than pulling away.
Moses faced formidable challenges, not least among them the Israelites’ unfamiliarity with their God after 400 years of slavery. When God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, Moses responds immediately with the Aheneni, the Ahere I am, that is the hallmark of spiritual responsiveness. Still, he knows that not everyone is so open. Exodus 3:13-14 reads: “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ what shall I say to them? And God said to Moses, ‘Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,’ the God of Potential, the same God served by your ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, that God has sent me to you. And, that God has sent me to you with a new name, a new basis for relationship and mutual knowing.”
In this Torah portion, Divinity reveals itself in the letters yud-heh-vav-heh, a deeper, richer, non-local, eternal and inexpressible Name, a Name of Absolute and Ineffable Beingness in all its forms—an untranslatable permutation of the Hebrew verb “to be.” Unfortunately, the downtrodden people were not yet ready to hear it, to understand it, “their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6:9)
For this reason, Moses came in, he did not go. The journey to relationship now required an inward motion, a drawing near to the God who was reaching out so dramatically to the people as yud-heh-vav-heh and Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, as Being and Potential.
The Presence into which Moses was coming, into which he was bringing the soon-to-be-freed Israelites, was the Divine Presence, into the awareness of renewed relationship and changed interactions, the awareness of a break with the historical past and a leap into a future of redemption, revelation, eternal covenant. In our day, after the many destructions of our shared human history, and especially in the deep shadow of the Holocaust, God is telling all of us to go to the Pharaoh of our own hearts, hearts hardened by millennia of physical and spiritual suffering, by millennia of aggressively asserting a constricted theology with room for only limited paths to the One, paths marked with the murderous signposts of human insecurity, doubt, and fear of the other.
And, among the many religions that have emerged on our planet, Judaism and Christianity have a particular call to repair our ancient patterns of mutual disdain, of spiritual and physical violence. The Holocaust, the Shoah, is a shared wound, and if we do not turn ourselves wholeheartedly to claiming it as a moment of divine revelation, as a cosmic demand for transformative healing, now in our day, then I assure you that future will not forgive us for knowing what we have done. The future will not forgive us for knowing what we have done.
When the Second Temple was about to fall into Roman hands, some of Rabbi Yochanan ben-Zakkai’s students smuggled him out of the city in a coffin, which they opened at the feet of the besieging general, Vespasian. The rabbi arose from the coffin, greeted Vespasian as emperor-to-be (something every Roman general longed to hear), and asked for a small gift in return for the prediction. Jerusalem lost, the biblical forms of Israelite worship at an end, ben-Zakkai asked permission to open a school in the little coastal village of Yavneh, and that school assured the evolution of the Israelites into the Jews, the continuity of the Sinai Covenant into our own day.
We live now in a Yavneh moment, in which Christianity must come to recognize the eternal authenticity of God’s covenant with the Jews and Jews must learn to honor the deeply aspirational nature of the Christian story, of the covenant embodied in that one child who will make all the difference. Tolerance is not enough: we must find ways to recognize the truth in our respective paths and to create a spiritual climate of such deep respect for one another’s true connection to the Only One of Being that we are distracted by nothing else in our combined effort to redeem God’s world.
All of this week’s lectionary passages point to this revelation: that the worship of triumphalism and supersessionism must pass. Attending the wedding at Cana, we witness not only a domestic drama of the holy family—Mary remarking on a catering problem to her son, who seems at first to reject the need as something to which he must respond—followed by Jesus choosing to intervene so as to demonstrate that with God present, there is enough for all. In Corinthians, we learn that “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” (12:4-6)
Which returns us to the place of vision from which we began our shared journey of outreach and in-reach to the Limitless One, whence we see with Isaiah, Dr. King, and the prophets of all ages that, in the words of Psalm 36, “God’s faithfulness reaches to heaven, God’s steadfastness to the sky; God’s beneficence is like the high mountains; God’s justice like the great deep; man and beast—adam u’v’hemah, all forms of being—You deliver, O Lord.” (6) In response to this great gift, we can no longer defer, no longer turn away. Our only authentic choice as Christians and Jews is to serve as equal partners the one source of salvation for all life. Ken y’hi ratzon, so may it be God’s will.