Parashat Bo 2017 – What does it mean to worship God?
When I think about the highlights of the Passover story, one of the most powerful lines that we all recall is LET MY PEOPLE GO. It is the moment of affirmation, where Moses, the leader of the Israelites, will no longer capitulate to Pharoah, rather, he demands that his people, ALL OF HIS PEOPLE, be let go.
And, as Alex told us, and as we know from our own experiences, not only were we freed but that moment of going from slavery to freedom, from degradation to redemption, became one of the most important narratives to us as Jews; that despite a situation at any given moment, we will hold out hope that things will be better, that freedom will come, that we will move forward.
But the question is, to where. When Moses said “let my people Go,” is that all God said?
The verse had three parts: 1)God told Moses to say to Pharoah: 2) LET MY PEOPLE GO, 3) SO THAT THEY MAY WORSHIP ME. WOW!!!
Today, I want to explore the third part of this. Who is to be worshipped? God.
You see, being free from slavery doesn’t mean that we were to just run amok. Not at all.
In fact, being Jewish meant and means that there is a system of ethical and ritual obligations that help give a framework to our lives, to shape them into meaningful moments, not just fluttering by each day.
So here is what I would like to explore this morning-
What does it mean to worship God and What does God demand of us?
What would God say about our behavior? Are we living up to our end of the bargain-we are free-but are we fulfilling the mandate to worship God?
And if not, what can we do about it.
1) What does it mean to worship God and what does God demand of us –
At first blush, this seems easy. How do we worship God? By acting “religious.” And what might qualify as being religious? Keeping Kosher, Observing Shabbat, Daily prayer, and more. Yes. These are all ways of worshiping God and ways that I believe can be taken seriously as we are also fully integrated into the modern, 21st century. But I don’t think we should stop there, because worship of God doesn’t begin and end with ritual observance. So where else does it take us? To ethical observances. Yes, worshiping God involves relationships with people.
And this goes back to the Tanakh, when we see that the prophet Micah shares:
Micah 6:8-What does god require of you? To act justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.
What does this mean? (I imagine, if I stopped for a moment, and asked those questions, each of you would help me fill in the gaps).
But since we don’t have all day, let me share a rabbinic opinion on this-
To act justly means to act in accordance with the principals of justice
To love kindness-to let your actions be guided by principals of lovingkindess
To walk humbly with God-To assist needy families at their funerals and weddings by giving humbly, in private.
Let’s stop here for a moment to think about what this means-ok-to act justly means to follow the principals of justice. Yes, to love kindness means to be guided by such principals. But what about being humble? There is a clear example-assist those who need it throughout their lifecycle moments. WHY? Because these are moments where a community should be bound together, should be responsible for one another.
Further-Our rabbis taught-deeds of lovingkindness are superior to charity in three respects:
Charity can only be accomplished with money but deeds of lovingkindness can be both personal involvement and money
Charity can be given only to the poor but deeds of lovingkindness can be done to rich and poor
Charity only applies to the living, but deeds of lovingkindness apply to both the living and the dead…
So where do we see these ideas played out? I am sure that each of us have examples of people we know who have displayed acts of kindness and love to others. This week is the 10th yahrzeit of my grandmother, Pearl Ponemon Ain, who would have been 102 if she were still alive. My grandmother was a brilliant, kind, and gentle woman. She graduated Columbia University Law School in 1937 and during her life helped countless numbers of people, and was even inducted to argue in front of the US Supreme Court. But the story that I remember about my grandmother is that she once met a Japanese woman in the early-mid 1970s that didn’t know English. My grandmother invited her to her own home, and they sat at the dining room table and my grandmother taught her English. This act, of giving her the skill to not just survive but thrive in the world is what it means to live and act with lovingkindness. It means to recognize the potential in each person. And in so doing, we are serving God.
So this brings us to our next question:
2) What would God say about our behavior today? Are we acting with justice and kindness? Are we demonstrating humility in our interactions with others? What do you think the intent of the verse was, especially as it was given after being freed from bondage?
To be honest, I think God would be conflicted. As a follow up to Alex’s sermon, and in light of the news, I would be derelict in my rabbinic duty if I didn’t focus for a moment on President Trump’s executive order from last weekend, temporarily placing a ban on entry to individuals from 7 distinct countries. Not only has this been something the entire world has been speaking about, even the Jewish world, from the halls of Yeshiva University and JTS, to the statements of rabbis of all of the major denominations, to the streets of so many, we see that there is a rejection of this executive order because of a Jewish obligation to love the stranger. As Rabbi David Wolp wrote this week:
Every country has a right to boundaries, borders, interests, and anxieties. There is evil in the world, and American Jews have the obligation to name it and be vigilant against its encroachment in their country. Jews know that Jihadist Islam is coming for us first, and that it is far harder to wipe out an ideology than an army. And many refugees, even well intentioned ones, arrive from parts of the world infected with the virus of anti-Semitism. American Jews have every cause to be vigilant.
Yet every crisis requires that we be informed by fear, but not controlled by panic. Judaism’s greatest gift to the world was the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God. To see people fleeing—parents, children, grandparents—and to simply say, “We will not take them,” is a betrayal of that gift.
And continuing on that theme: As Chancellor Eisen of JTS said this week: Let us be clear: there is no religious obligation more central to Judaism than the protection of refugees and immigrants. “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” (Exodus22:20). According to the Rabbis of the Talmud, the Torah admonishes us no fewer than 36 times to treat those who are foreign born with fairness and compassion. No other commandment is repeated so often.
Finally, Rabbi Jason Herman, an orthodox rabbi and the executive director of The International Rabbinic Fellowship shared: The IRF calls upon our members and constituency to listen to the moral voice of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s comments on not wronging a stranger “The degree of justice in a land is measured, not so much by the rights accorded to the native-born inhabitants, to the rich, or people who have, at any rate, representatives or connections who look after their interests, but by what justice is meted out to the completely unprotected stranger.” At this pressing time, we hope to inspire our community and our country to “Let justice well up as
waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24
There are so many things that we can ask ourselves-are we living up to God’s demands? Are we acting the way we should?
Here is the good news-as Jews, as members of humanity, we have a chance, each day to do teshuvah, to do repentance if we don’t like what we see.
We just entered the new month of February in the Gregorian calendar and Shvat in the Jewish calendar. We need to ask ourselves: what resolutions will we make-How will we be better family members? Better citizens? Will we focus on relationships with our family or with our neighbors? Will we focus on the environment w/Tu B’shvat coming? Will it be about our Jewish observance?
LET MY PEOPLE GO SO THAT THEY WILL SERVE ME.
Each of us have the luxury of being free. Free to love. Free to practice the religion of our choosing. Free to work. Free to learn. Free to speak. Free to travel. It doesn’t mean that we each don’t have our moments of feeling trapped but it means that we can see the light. But with that freedom comes the responsibility to serve God. To serve with our heart, our soul, and our might. To do so in a way that demonstrates that we deserve to be free.
So, as we celebrate Shabbat and we then prepare to enter a new week, let us each contemplate what it means to have been let go. Let us wonder-are we serving God the way we should. And if not, how will we do better?