Erev Rosh Hashana 5776 Sermon

My words from Sunday night.

I would like to read for you from one of the most spiritual passages in the Torah. It comes from Parshat Masei. Numbers 33:

These were the marches of the Israelites, who started out from the land of Egypt….Moses recorded the starting points…Their marches, by starting points, were as follows; They set out from Ramses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the month…and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. They set out from Ethan and turned about toward Pi-hahiroth, which faces Baal-zephon, and they encamped before Midgol. They set out from Pene-hahiroth and passed through the sea….They set out from Mithkah and encamped at Hashmonah. They set out from Hashomonah and encamped at Moseroth…They set out, well, I could go on [show the paper], but I think you get the point.

The people make 12 stops from Rameses to Sinai, 21 stops from Sinai to Kadesh, and 9 stops from Kadesh to Moab: 42 stops in all Israelites made. In the Middle Ages, R. Abraham Saba writes: “The reporting of these marches seems extraneous…  There is nothing in the Torah that seems to be as superfluous as [the recording of] these marches.” Why such mind-numbing detail? The Torah, after all, is generally economical in its language.

Our Rishonim, the primary medieval commentators explain this in various ways. To Rashi, this was a symbol of God’s kindness, since 22 of the marches are either in the first or last year of the wandering, so the Israelites only had to move 20 times in 38 years. Rambam and Ramban see the listing of these places as ensuring that future generations would understand how great the miracle was that God kept the Israelites alive in the wilderness. Regardless, it must have been most stressful. After all, how do you feel when you don’t know where you’re going?

The reason I introduced this passage as spiritual is because the interpretation of this passage that I love comes from a contemporary Rabbi, Shai Held, who teaches: The text serves to remind us that even seemingly inconsequential stops on our journey can be powerful opportunities for serving God. As the people are cast on a journey over which they have no control, there is the opportunity to make their stops holy, to generate divine sparks.

And this brings me to a text that I have been marinating in for awhile. It comes from the man we know as the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. The Rav would have been a great Rabbi to discuss on Ruth Shapiro’s Shabbat. His view of the world saw people oscillating between 2 poles. On the one hand, we possess power, ability, and creativity; on the other hand, we are helpless creatures, suspended over the abyss.

This year, that abyss has seemed to gape. Iran. Settler violence in the West Bank. Murder in Paris. Death to the Jews marches in Europe. A refugee crisis of unfathomable proportions. Strife between the religious and non-religious in Israel. The ever-present threat of rockets pointed at our Jewish homeland. BDS. Many losses in our own congregation. People not listening to each other when they disagree passionately. The intensification of the OTHER.

I want to look at the other side of our oscillation. In the Shiva books, there is a beautiful responsive reading. It paraphrases so closely the Rav, as it enunciates God’s gifts to us: The power to create, the will to perfect, the ability to dream, the capacity to love. Even in a world where so much is out of our hands, we have great abilities.

The Israelites of the Torah took a journey that God laid out for them, and within that journey, with all its unknowns laid the abyss. But what they did when they got to each place, the holiness that they lived their lives by- that defined them. When they got to the Land of Israel, they had the power in their hands to create a just society.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a lovely drash this week, in which he channels Maimonides: “None of us, as individuals, can end global warming, bring peace to the Middle East, or bring justice and compassion to the international arena. But we can, quietly, develop the strengths of character that will make a difference not only to our own lives but to those around us.”

We don’t have much say in Iran policy, but we can debate and discuss with respect. We frequently can’t control how others demonize Israel (after all, not a lot of credit for treating the Hamas leaders’ families), but we can help educate young farmers; we can take care of those who are the most vulnerable members of society.

I had the privilege this year of travelling with 2 CBJ groups to Israel. That meant that I got to make 2 visits to the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training (AICAT) and Aleh Negev. AICAT and Aleh Negev are two projects of the JNF that we as a congregation have been, or will be intimately involved in. And both of these incredibly special places drove home the two poles of the Rav- that which we can control and that which we can’t.

Both are vibrant examples that we have the power to create, the will to perfect, the ability to dream, the capacity to love.

Many of us were born into privileged circumstances. We are not subsistence farmers. A roof over our heads; three meals a day; clothing; space in which to live. Visiting AICAT reminds that most of the world lives differently. 1200 students from Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Indonesia study agriculture and business. Ethiopian young women study to create their own businesses to empower women in Ethiopia. Here’s our group with some Vietnamese students, and let me relate a Vietnamese girl’s story.

And of course, Aleh Negev, which you’ve heard so much about. When we visited in March, a little girl named Liane darted past me and climbed up a play structure. As she is fairly hard to forget, I remembered that I had seen her the previous June, and she had not yet been walking. When we went again this past June, we met Liane again, and you can see her here with Isabella. Liane was born at 24 weeks, and has lived at Aleh Negev her entire life. The staff expects that she will follow her roommate, Rachma, home soon and will be on the road to a more mainstream life. Liane and Rachma are Bedouin children.

The power to create, the will to perfect, the ability to dream, the capacity to love. No tribalism, no judgment, No labeling as OTHER. People with unique needs who had no control over their conditions cared for. That is Aleh Negev.

And that is AICAT. In April, the abyss appeared. The devastating earthquake that hit Nepal destroyed the homes of all 160 students studying at AICAT, and took the lives of relatives and friends. AICAT became their home, and JNF gave support to each of their families. In the middle of the desert, just like the Israelites of the Torah, in previously inconsequential places, and in the midst of the abyss, we can use our power to create, will to perfect, ability to dream, and capacity to love. Shana Tova.