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 In response to Charlottesville and Barcelona, "We are God’s partners in repairing the world."

08/19/2017 10:46:21 AM

Aug19

Shabbat shalom,

What a week! Charlottesville last weekend, Barcelona on Thursday… How do we respond to all of this?

There is a story that Rabbi Akiva, the leader of his generation, was once summoned by the Roman governor, Rufus. The governor asked him, why do you Jews circumcise your males? Is God’s creation not perfect?

Rabbi Akiva showed the governor, in one hand flax, in the other a garment. He asked, ‘which is better, the flax or the finished garment?’ The governor had to admit the garment was better.

He then showed him wheat and a loaf of bread, ‘which is better, the raw wheat or the baked bread?’ The governor acknowledged: ‘The bread’.

Rabbi Akiva then said, ‘God has given us this world to live in, but it is not perfect. It is still incomplete. And it is up to us to partner with God to bring it to completion.’

Rabbi Akiva was teaching the governor the Jewish understanding of our reality in this world. There is still a lot of work to be done in the world. There are raw materials, flax, wheat, that need to be turned into finished products. There is poverty to be overcome, the rise of old evils that we thoughts had long ago left us to battle, new evils as well.

Rabbi Akiva was teaching us that to be Jewish means to walk in this broken world - in everlasting partnership with God – until it is engraved into our very being - that we are here to help bring the world to completion.

After a week like this, we understand more clearly - what that work is. The ability of humanity to conjure up hate. The indifference to those in need.

As it says in the shema prayer, our task is to give our meod - our resources, our might, all that we possess to heal God's world.

And as Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers teaches us:

It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.

Lo aleicha hamelacha ligmor, ve lot ata ben chorin livatel mimena.

The author of the verse in Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tarfon, chose his words carefully, ‘neither are you free to desist from it’. The word for free, ben chorin, is the same we use on Passover, bnai chorin. Avadim hayinu, we used to be slaves ve’ata, but now we are bnai chorin, we are free.

But not completely free.

We are not free to desist from our task.

We do not have to complete it. We most likely will not. It is a never-ending task.

But we cannot give up on it either.

We must face the powers that wish to destroy love and compassion.

And on this Shabbat morning, as we celebrate our partnership to better the world together with the Israeli organization Israaid, we are trying to do our part to face the destruction, the suffering, the backbreaking poverty and conditions under which much of the world still lives.

We must strive to shepherd the word to completion. Aid those who are drowning, wherever it may be, in Lesbos, in Charlottesville, or here in Chicago.

 Not only because it is the right thing to do. As Rabbi Akiva teaches us. But because it is who we really are, an ancient ot - symbol - of our covenant with God. We are partners with Hashem Tzevaot , the Lord of Hosts, in taking the wheat, the world that was given to us, with all of its issues, new and old, and turning it into bread: tolerance, understanding, sister and brotherhood, peace, truth, depth. To feed the poor, to give garments to clothe the naked. Comfort the bereaved. To muster love to drown out the hate.

For some, our partnership with the Creator in bettering the world is expressed by devoting our professional lives to the needy of our planet. The aid workers, the social workers. The people who work for non-profits, like my brother Navonel who spoke to us this morning about his work with IsraAID.

For others, it is to give of our means to benefit others, to buy the supplies to help fund the missions, to send help and encouragement to those in the field. To write about our support for the cause that is burning in our hearts.

Still for others, it is literally fighting on the front lines against ideas, forces, and even people. To march and speak up, remind others of our human rights and responsibilities against those who seek to destroy our ideals and beliefs.

To be strong and valiant.

Still others are there to inspire, to gift others with the blessings of peace, to pick up the pieces, to bring love and healing where there is hatred and distrust. To be forces of compassion.

The story of Rabbi Akiva teaches us that it is not the Jewish way to sit back and ignore what is happening around us. We must be up and doing. We must raise thunder and shake the ground until justice is done.

It is a value that runs through all of our history.

Adam was charged with caring for the planet, God’s garden.

Abraham and Moses were commanded to be partners with the Divine. To work to bring God's compassion and justice into the world, even if it meant arguing with our own Creator.

We walk in the world in partnership.

It is the definition of holiness in our tradition, as God clothes the naked so do we. As God fights for the downtrodden, so do we.

What does it mean to be God’s partners?

1) It means that our mission is high and lofty. We can take comfort in that.

2) That there is infinite power at our disposal, if we know how to wield it.

3) That, as Rabbi Tarfon says, it is work that never ends. We must not desist from our mission, but it is also not our responsibility to complete it.

There are times in our lives when our work as God's partners is in the background, when our partnership is in raising our children, in taking care of ourselves.

And there are times when the mission is front and center. When we are given opportunities to take it to the fore, and we need to gird our loins and give our all to the task.

To see a disaster stricken area, and use the power of love and material resources to heal it.

To march in outrage against evil.

Our partnership with Hashem Tzevaot fils us with a much greater power than our own. It empowers us and strengthens us to be more than ourselves.

I remember seeing pictures of my brother in the worst disaster situations. He looked more alive and vital than at any other time.

That is why, amidst it all, we need to remain ever aware of whom we are working for and whom we are serving. But we also need to remind ourselves to take care of our own needs, our health and our psychological well-being, so that we can be ever more effective instruments in this holy task. 

In a beautiful Mishnah, the sages teach us about this partnership. They tell us, do not think of what happens before death or after death. Do not contemplate what is above or below.

Our task is to be focused on turning the wheat into bread.

Not that we do not know how to be expansive - the Kabbalah dares to reach beyond the advice of the Mishnah to contemplate what is before and after this life, to explore the worlds above and below our own.

But a crucial part of our God given mission is to work to transform this world.

To make this world and our earthly life divine and holy, to be loving and compassionate, to take the very physical matter of this world and infuse it with holiness and divine partnership.

When the house is burning next to us, we do not walk by.

I often speak about how in Israel, you can witness some of the worst bickering and arguments between individuals but if someone were to get injured in the street, everyone and anyone would stop to help them.

We aim to be the opposite of how the rabbis depicted the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorah.

In Sodom, the cities destroyed by God at the time of Abraham, the Midrash imagines that the people would give coins to the poor and weary travelers but not open their shops for them to buy food, or their homes for them to stay in them. They would charge them to enter their very cities.

They would give them beds that were a little too short.

Their sins were indifference and cruelty.

Our partnership is to battle indifference and hate.

The Roman governor cannot understand Jews and their strange customs because the Romans believed that the world is meant to be lived in and enjoyed! According to a Greek Roman legend, the Gods made the world so that we could enjoy its fruits and its pleasures. They asked nothing more of us - that was the whole purpose of life. Anyone who has read the novel ‘As a Driven Leaf’ will know about the depth and ferocity of this ancient debate.

We too believe life is to be enjoyed, but we do not forget our holy task.

We must battle indifference. Inside ourselves and in the world outside of us.

This world is not perfect and we are not perfect.

We each need to be perfected and made whole.

It is why the best known word in Judaism is shalom – hello, goodbye, peace –literally ‘wholeness’.

We are all about wholeness.

And that quest for wholeness at times keeps us up at night. On the shores of Lesbos, in the streets of Charlottesville, on the Ramblas of Barcelona. Because ‘It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.’

We celebrate our victories and sound our trumpet and keep on doing what we can. Walking hand in hand with Hashem Tzevaot, the Lord of Hosts.

On weeks such as this, we understand the term Lord of Hosts, Lord of the legions. We too are legions. Legions of love and truth, honesty and caring, compassion and peace.

We do not pause until the whole world is filled with His glory.

Let us conclude with a few words of prayer.

Yehi ratzon milfanecha, may it be your will. Lord our God, Lord of the Hosts, to fill us with the strength and resolve to better this world, to shepherd it to wholeness, and while it is not our responsibility to finish the work, may we never tire or turn away from our mission until it is fulfilled.

Shabbat Shalom

Sat, April 20 2019 15 Nisan 5779