January 18, 2012: Rabbi's Installation Remarks (Bo)

By pure chance or serendipity, this Shabbat closes out exactly one year since my interview weekend, when I arrived in Bloomington, we met each other in person for the first time, and we began to build together our relationship. The Torah portion was Beshallach, depicting the exact moment that the Children of Israel cross the Sea into freedom. The Torah portion this evening, on the occasion of my installation, is the preceding one, Bo, depicting the culmination of the long struggle of the Israelites to achieve freedom. Fittingly, the parsha overlaps this year with the weekend commemorating Martin Luther King, who marched toward the same goal.

“Turn it and turn it,” concludes the Wisdom of the Sages, “for it contains everything therein.” We read the Torah in a continuous cycle. As we reverse the scroll on Simchat Torah, we connect in one uninterrupted breath the last word of Deuteronomy, “Yisrael,” and the first word of Genesis, “Breishit,” gliding smoothly in our narration from the account of one particular people to the account of all of creation. On a finer level, observe that the very last letter of the Torah, Lamed, joins with the very first letter, Beit, forming the Hebrew word leiv, or the English word Love. Love, the same underlying force that animates the entire universe, is also the invisible thread that stitches one end of the parchment seamlessly to the other, so that there is no end to Torah, and no beginning. Thus, we can jump into the sacred stream of words at any point.

What if Torah began, not with Creation, but with Redemption? What if the Torah concluded, not with the children of Israel standing on the edge of the Jordan River, peering over into the Promised Land, but with the children of Israel standing on the edge of the Sea of Reeds, with the Egyptian army bearing down on them from behind? In fact, the preeminent sage Rashi himself suggested that the Torah might easily have opened, not with Bereishit, Genesis Chapter 1, but with this week’s parsha Bo, Exodus Chapter 12. In his own opening commentary to the Torah, he writes: “the Torah should have begun with the verse, ‘this month, the month of redemption, shall mark for you the beginning of all months...,’ (Exodus 12:1) except that the entire world is God’s.” (Rashi on Genesis 1:1) In other words, instead of setting our Hebrew calendars as we do, year 5773 since the Creation of the world, we should mark time instead from the pivotal event of our emerging peoplehood, the Exodus from Egypt, much as Muslims mark the years on their calendar starting with the nascent moment of their history. Only, the Torah is not concerned with the nation of Israel alone, but with all of humanity, and, indeed, with all of Creation. Israel’s particular history cannot be severed from the universal destiny of the entire world.

On a global scale, the Torah expresses the fundamental human condition of galut, of spiritual exile. Every year on Simchat Torah, at the precise moment when we expect to see our ancestors culminate their journey by arriving in the Promised Land, we roll the scroll back to the beginning of Creation. We live in an unredeemed world. On a societal level, this means, in Kantian terms, that "what is" will always fall short of "what ought to be." However, the unfulfilled state of the world as a whole does not imply that our personal lives and our individual communities must remain unfulfilled. Franz Rosenzweig once stated: “I do not seek salvation with my Father in Heaven someday, because I already live with my Heavenly Father today.” (Nahum N. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought, p. xix) Rosenzweig meant that the observant Jew fully experiences redemption here on earth by immersing herself in communal worship, the cycle of the days of rest and the rhythm of the holy days that constitute the liturgical calendar, and, most of all, the performance of Mitzvot, which imbue the fleeting moment with the aspect of eternity. (Glatzer, p. xxv) Rosenzweig’s prescription for a richly rewarding Jewish life can provide a blueprint for us as well. It is through worshipping together, learning together, celebrating festivals and life cycles together, performing acts of tzedakah and tikkun olam, comforting one another, and grieving with one another that we can achieve fulfillment at Beth Shalom.

My sermon on last week’s parsha associated with Creation the name for God of Elohim and with Redemption the ineffable name of Adonai. Just as at critical junctures Avram becomes Abraham and Jacob becomes Israel, so too, when He is about to liberate the Children of Israel, Elohim Himself declares: “I am Adonai.” (Exodus 6:2) That is to say, behind the divine Force of Creation, which is responsible for all that exists around us, lies the divine Force of Redemption, which enables human beings to overcome pain and injustice, to improve themselves and society, and, ultimately, to transform the world. This week, building on the distinction, I’d like to suggest that whereas the Force of Creation manifests itself broadly and universally, the Force of Redemption operates locally and on a case-by-case basis. The visions of the prophet, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not life up sword against nation, and they shall never again know war,” (Isaiah 2:4) constitute a utopian pipedream that will never materialize this side of Eden. However, redemption is certainly available to the human individual, as well as to the small community of individuals bound together in common purpose, if we define redemption as fulfilling one’s purpose, carrying out one’s mission, and living harmoniously with oneself and with one's neighbors.

The hackneyed directive “think globally, act locally” reflects a profound theological truth: redemption can only take place one individual at a time. We should not lightly dismiss the supreme significance of redemption defined so narrowly. After all, the Talmud reminds us: “the one who sustains one life is considered as one who sustained an entire world.” (mSanhedrin 4:5) Every person and every community is a world in microcosm. As Rabbi Green writes in Radical Judaism: our task, as Israel, is to be “ a dwelling place for God in this world, a living mishkan, to constitute a human community in which God is present, in which that presence is felt from within and seen from without.” (p. 131) Holiness may never pervade all of Creation, but there’s no reason why holiness cannot emanate from this one community in Bloomington, Indiana— Beth Shalom.

I am proud and honored to join with you in the work of Redemption. Let us build together a mishkan for the divine Presence to be actualized in the everyday activities of our particular community—worshipping, studying, creating, giving to others, forgiving each other, caring for each other, and repairing the world. Furthermore, what we accomplish here at Beth Shalom can serve as a model for Jewish communities everywhere, indeed, for people everywhere. Today, you and I join together to write the next chapter of the chronicles of Beth Shalom. The Torah as a whole may begin with the story of Creation, but it is entirely fitting that we here begin with the story of Redemption. Redemption is achievable, Redemption is among us, and Redemption is now.