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“Broken Tablets” Calvary Lenten Preaching Series Rabbi Micah D. Greenstein, Temple Israel February 26, 2008 Thank you again, dear friend and Rector Andy MacBeth, and to everyone at Calvary for your gracious hospitality yesterday and today. This is my eighth year in this preaching series, and if we continue this tradition in future years, I do have one small request: a cot! The food at the Waffle Shop is fantastic and the company at Calvary is even better, so I figure I might as well just sleep here in between sermons! On behalf of Temple Israel’s Sr. Vice-President Billy Orgel and so many other congregants, trustees and members of the Jewish community here today, thank you Calvary for modeling what it means to be a welcoming community of faith. A welcoming community of faith. Our city, nation and world need more broad-minded religious communities like this one than ever before. Religious communities where faith isn’t rigid or narrow-minded for one simple reason: God is bigger than that. As we grow through the years, our faith can deepen when we discover the reality of that bigger God within us and beyond us. Spiritual growth isn’t about arriving at some fixed point, as Brad Hirschfield writes in Faith Without Fanaticism: “Whenever you think you have reached the end, there’s always more up ahead. There is always more meaning and purpose than you could possibly imagine.” The Hebrew word for heaven, olam habah, is usually translated as “the world to come,” as if heaven is only some fixed place. But olam habah also translates as “the world that is coming – a moving, dynamic place we strive to bring closer to the world in which we live.” The eminent Catholic scholar and Jesus expert John Dominic Crossan goes so far as to suggest that we should stop worrying about heaven. “Heaven is fine,” Crossan says, “Heaven is in great shape! Earth is where all the problems are!” When you read through the Hebrew Bible we share, you begin to appreciate how Judaism is as much about the history of a people in this world as it is about faith in the next world. Judaism believes firmly in heaven, but we’re with Crossan on this one. Earth is what God has placed in our hands. And each of us must do the most that we can with the time that we have in this place where we are. Each of us is responsible for exhibiting the finest qualities of those who preceded us. For me, that means faith in the history and destiny of the Jewish people from generation to generation. I was reminded of this idea two nights ago when the Academy Awards showed flashbacks from previous Oscar winners. Exactly ten Academy Awards ago, two movies won Oscars – one most of you have seen – the other far fewer have seen, but together they represent two sides of the same coin. Each of these movies has much to say to each other and to us, about what it means to learn from our past. One of them teaches us how to keep faith by acting boldly, even and especially in the face of uncertainty. Both teach us how to learn from history in order to make our lives and this world better. The first movie virtually everyone has seen is “Titanic.” The other is “The Long Way Home,” which won the Oscar for best full-length documentary. “The Long Way Home,” narrated by Morgan Freeman, tells the story of concentration camp survivors who somehow made their way to Palestine between 1945-1948 and rebuilt their lives after losing everyone and everything in the Holocaust. The connection between the two movies is intriguing. “Titanic” tells the story of a ship everyone thought was indestructible, but was destroyed. “The Long Way Home” tells the story of a people who everyone thought was destroyed but turned out to be indestructible. Why did the Titanic sink? And why did the Jewish people survive when everyone would have predicted it would be the other way around? The Titanic sank because those who made it, as well as those who sailed it, were overconfident. They were convinced they had built something so marvelous, so magnificent, that it could never be destroyed. On the other hand, the Jewish people felt exactly the reverse. They felt that they were always on the brink of destruction. They felt they had been almost wiped off the face of the earth, and therefore, if they did not take the most desperate measures, they might never survive. In that light, I am reminded of the famous Jewish telegram which reads, “Worry now…details to follow.” Bookstores still overflow with stories about the Titanic. Vast numbers of people are fascinated with this catastrophic event. In one of the books on that subject, there is a remarkable picture of the ship itself on the day it set sail. Draped across its bow was a huge banner that proclaimed in large letters, “Even God can’t sink this ship.” That, in simplest language, is arrogance. Overconfidence. The Greeks called it “hubris.” We Jews call it “chutzpah!” The people who built the Titanic, and the people who sailed it, were so smug, so arrogant, so sure of the invincibility of what they had made, that they sailed straight into disaster. On the other hand, Jews, having learned for centuries how to sail through the storm waters of history carefully and cautiously, knew full well that at any given moment, a flood of hatred or anti- Semitism could sweep over them and wash them away. That lesson is what “The Long Journey Home” is all about. It’s the story of a people who had been counted out in 1945 – a broken people, the leftovers, the wounded and maimed, both physically and spiritually. They were the inmates of concentration camps, barely alive, who crawled onto rickety ships, filled them beyond capacity, sailed through the British blockade, whatever the cost, and made it to Palestine to join other Jewish survivors against all odds. When they got there, they had to begin life all over again. They rebuilt themselves even though everyone else thought they were finished. Theirs truly is one of the greatest stories of human heroism and resilience in all of history. The lesson of the Titanic is Psalm 146:3, “Al tivt’chu bin’divim, b’ven adam she-ayn lo t’shua” – “Do not put your trust in princes or in ordinary people, for they are only human.” The lesson of “The Long Way Home” is “Put your trust in ordinary people – for if they have courage and determination, they can accomplish the superhuman.” That distinction leads me to a story which is hard to believe but still true. There were once two Jewish brothers in America who were very famous. Their names were Nathan and Isidore Strauss. They were both multi-millionaires, and they were ranked among the greatest philanthropists and charity-givers of the century. The two of them, Nathan and Isidore, together with their wives, took a tour of Europe in 1912. They spared themselves no expense. They delighted in all the cultural sites – the museums, operas, theatres, and palaces. And then they got the idea of visiting Palestine for a while. So they hopped over from Europe to spend a few days in the Holy Land. As you can imagine, wherever they went, these men and their wives were given the most deluxe VIP treatment. They were shown the holy sites. They were driven to the Jewish schools and artist colonies. After a week, Isidore Strauss and his wife said, “Nathan, this is lovely, but enough already. How many camels, schools, and slums can you see? If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. It’s time for us to go.” Nathan and his wife however, refused to leave. To them, the sight of the Holy Land and the sight of so many people living in such desperate poverty haunted and hounded them. They could not pull themselves away. The two brothers argued heatedly. Finally, Isidore said to his brother, “Fine, Nathan, you stay here if you insist, but we’re going back to America.” With those words, they separated. Nathan stayed in Palestine, and while there, he donated money for the creation of an entire city, a lovely city on the shore of the Mediterranean just north of Tel Aviv. Since Nathan was the chief benefactor, the city fathers named the city after him. His Hebrew name Natan means “gift,” so they called the city “Netanya - Gift of God.” And what about brother Isidore? Isidore went back to Europe and arrived just in time to make his travel connection. On April 10, 1912, he and his wife succeeded in booking passage on a gigantic ship sailing out of Southampton on its maiden voyage, a ship which was called the Titanic. Five days later, Isidore Strauss and his wife sank with 1500 other passengers and crewmen. Isidore Strauss died on the Titanic. And Nathan Strauss missed the boat. Or did he? Unlike his brother, Nathan believed he had a rendezvous with history. For the rest of his life, Nathan lived with a haunting awareness that he almost died. He believed he had been spared for a reason, so he gave enormously of his wealth, time, and energy to accomplish as much good as his life would permit. The “Titanic” and “The Long Way Home” teach an important lesson. If you live with smugness and certainty and overconfidence, you end up with disaster. But if you live with awareness and conviction and determination – if you live with the knowledge that life is tough and dangerous and full of brokenness – if you live with the knowledge that keeping faith means acting boldly, even and especially in the face of uncertainty – then a better ending may be in store. The Strauss brothers are connected to “The Long Way Home.” Think of all those broken people, survivors, who somehow swam ashore off the coast of Nathan’s city, Netanya and defied the British forces who were hunting them down to deport them back to the concentration camps in Europe. Who could have predicted in those days that these broken refugees would not only rebuild their lives in the land of Israel, but build an entire nation in less than three years? Who could have dreamed that they would create the finest medical care between Europe and the Far East? Who could have envisioned that these survivors would generate the most highly developed hi-tech industry east or west of Silicon Valley? Who would have believed any of these wonders? But that’s exactly what they did. The Titanic sunk to the bottom of the ocean, while emaciated Jewish survivors on wobbly boats, some which could barely float, had the faith to act boldly and eventually found their way to freedom not at the bottom of the ocean but in the Promised Land. When you hear this story and study the history, how can you not believe not only in the miracle of the Jewish people but in the miracle of the human spirit? When you internalize the sacrifices made by your ancestors, whatever your family tree may be, as a person of faith you feel summoned to carry on what so many previous generations fought for, struggled for, and too often, died for. Yesterday, I spoke about what’s above the ark in every synagogue – the eternal light of faith. On my final day here, I want to tell you what’s actually in the ark, including what cannot be seen by the human eye but can be appreciated by every human heart. Back to the movies: Remember that unforgettable scene in Mel Brooks’ History of the World when Moses says to the people, juggling three sets of tablets, “We have 15… Woops…10 Commandments!” Moses, you will recall, smashed the tablets after seeing the Golden Calf the people had built in his absence. Then Moses reconciles God and the Jewish people, goes back up the mountain, and brings down a fresh new set of tablets. The new tablets were carried in a portable tabernacle, now symbolized by the ark on the pulpit of every synagogue sanctuary. But what happened to the broken pieces of the original 10 commandments? Sotheby’s and Christie’s would have made a fortune selling those fragments! Check your bibles and you will note that the broken tablets are never mentioned again. Where did they go?! The rabbis of the Talmud thought further about it and said, "Luchot v'shivrei haluchot munachin baAron...the whole tablets and the broken tablets were both kept in the ark alongside each other.” For the ark, they taught, actually represents every person’s soul, for everyone carries with them broken pieces along with the whole parts of their lives. “The broken pieces are part of who we are. They go where we go.” The broken pieces may be living when someone very close to you has died. The broken pieces may be loss and setbacks, divorce, cancer, phobias, fears, addictions, traumas, surviving physical or sexual abuse – all of these are in someone’s ark alongside their whole selves. And the difference between people who can go on and those who can’t is the difference in the ability to keep each in its place. The broken pieces remain with us, in their place beside the whole tablets as we journey through life, but they do not have to overpower or overshadow the existence of the whole ones. Each has its place. Luchot v'shivrei haluchot munachin baAron, the tablets and the broken tablets rest side by side in each one of us." The key is not to let the broken pieces of our lives overtake the potential for wholeness inside each of us. That the survivors in “The Long Way Home” found a way to wholeness again means that wholeness is possible for all of us, no matter what we’ve been through, no matter what our past has been, and no matter how difficult or challenging the broken pieces we carry inside of us are. That phrase,“The Long Way Home,” suggests that it’s not always the neatest or the nicest road to travel, but the final outcome, even if it’s a long way home, is far brighter than the fate of a sinking ship. Ultimate strength, my friends, is not something physical or material. Ultimate strength is really about spiritual endurance, sheer determination, and the power of the human spirit. Whoever doubts that truth is a stranger to history. Whoever knows it and applies it is a living witness for faith. I close with words of faith, from the Book of Numbers, the best blessing our people knows: Y’varechecha… May the Lord bless each of you and watch over you Ya’er… May God’s countenance shine upon you and be gracious to you Yisa … May you feel God’s presence with you and may that presence bring you shalom – wholeness, completeness, and peace. Amen.
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