A final Shabbat Sermon

by | Jun 6, 2012 | Torah Thought

This is the last Shabbat sermon delivered by Rabbi Arthur Steinberg at Temple Sinai on May 25, 2012:

This Sunday, May 27th, is the date of the third of our three Pilgrimage Festivals, Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, which marked the occasion of our ancestors traveling to Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem originally to offer first-fruits of the season and later, to commemorate the giving of the gift of Torah at Sinai. The agricultural aspect is related to the origins of many ancient festivals of this season. The associated historic event, however, has always had relevance for the Jewish people because it represents that seminal moment when we met God at Sinai.

How apropos it is that this Festival occurs in two days, within a week of the time Sinai gives its gift of Torah to Ohef Sholom Temple and our congregation, Sinai, where we have continued to meet with God, closes its doors. There must be a few great sermons hidden there.

The Torah text which describes that historic event is disturbing in that it suggests (according to one way of reading) that God’s voice is silent ever after the Mount Sinai experience.

“These words the Lord spoke to all assembled at the mount—out of the midst of the fire, the clouds and the thick darkness— with a great voice which was not heard again”

The problem is that such a reading leaves us with a sense of disenfranchisement. If God spoke only that once, then we are now distant and unconnected. That is why so many scholars rely on a reading by Onkelos, one of the earliest Aramaic translators of the Torah. Instead of reading “not heard again,” Onkelos translated the original Hebrew as “spoke with a great voice that did not cease” which is a perfectly legitimate rendition of the Hebrew.

And so we have a choice to make as we look at this verse. Are the events of Sinai representative of ongoing participation in a relationship with our people and its ideals or is it merely the exaggerated narrative of some ancient—possibly fictitious—event?

For some, Sinai is irrelevant, for some it is the very core of the Jewish experience.

In my years with you, I have encouraged acceptance of that alternate understanding so that we continue to listen for the reverberation of God’s message in our lives.

One way to understand that message is to believe that there is goodness in this world. There is love and kindness, tenderness and caring. These are among the awesome mysteries of life and they do exist. In spite of all the horrors of this world, in spite of the pain and hurt that comes our way, in spite of all the sorrows that we witness, in spite of all the cruelties which claim their victims day by day, there are values and ideals we still cherish, the decencies of life we still embrace. And if you tell me, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” you’ve got it backwards. That is not the way it goes. You will see it when you believe it, when you believe it with all your heart.

Don’t ask me how and don’t ask me why. Let me keep my awe and wonder about it. Some proclaim that God demands it of us, some may say that these are what God is, some teach that this is what our faith requires. I’m not looking that far for answers. I only want to keep the wonder in my heart…and maybe pass it on to others.

For 32 years this temple has been the focus of my life and that of my family… and for many of those years it has been the focus of you and yours, too. Within its walls I have named, taught and married you, taught your children, guided them through their bar and bat mitzvahs, blessed them at their confirmations, married your sons and daughters, rejoiced at your simchas, buried your dead and led you in your yahrtzeits. Good times and bad, great times and sad, it has been for you as it has been for me, the scene of every possible emotion known to humankind. But in my typical, self serving way, I’ve just mentioned the things I’ve done for you. Let me tell you now about the things you’ve done for me.

In all these years, I’ve seldom spoken about God, too presumptuous, too theological, too immodest. But let me tell you that because of you, I see God all the time. I see God every day because of you. I see God in the hallways of hospitals where you and your siblings count the fearsome hours while a parent or grandparent lies on a bed of discomfort. I see God in the countless ways that you dedicatedly devote your time and energies and finances to benefit a multitude of institutions for human and humane rescue, without honor and without recognition. I see God in every relationship of loving and helping and giving between parents and children, between husbands and wives, between friends and partners. I see God in schoolrooms where teachers patiently, lovingly, strive to open the minds of children. I see God in your lives as you struggle to help the disadvantaged achieve the dignity which other human beings have denied them. I see God in every good deed you’ve performed, in your every act of compassion, in every struggle against injustice and exploitation, in every anxious tear you’ve shed over another’s sorrow, in every courageous fight for righteousness. Every time you show care and concern for another human being, God is there.

And if God is here now, it is not because this is a synagogue or even because this is a special Shabbat. If God is here, it is because we’ve brought God here in our wonder, our remorse, our hope, our cynicism, our love, our idealism, waiting to be filled with the power and the understanding that we alone can bring to each other when we gather to be inspired by the teachings of our tradition.

Idealistic? Of course. Jewish? Unquestionably! Now, how could this change just because we change our street address? That’s ridiculous and the question is unworthy of us.

In another week or so, as I drive away from home in the morning, in a new direction, I will be commencing a journey forward. I pray that you will be doing the same.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Arthur Steinberg, Ohef Sholom Temple.