And…

The world has been grieving for too many days now. Orlando, Louisiana, Minnesota, Dallas, Nice, Turkey. And these are just the tragedies about which we know because the various news outlets deem them worthy enough for our attention. Of course, every day, 30 people die from gun violence in this country. Many die from cancer or other diseases long before what we might call a full life is over. Others die suddenly in the context of what we call a tragedy. And people starve to death all over the world while we throw away more food than we consume.

“ENOUGH!” we scream inside (maybe outwardly as well). Or in the words of the old Broadway musical, “Stop the World! I Want to Get Off!” But we can’t. We can’t get off the world and it won’t stop. What, then, can we do? How do we mitigate the negativity all around us (a negativity that we fear may be right on top of us at any moment?)?

Two possibilities come to mind. One is that when we walk down the street and someone is coming in the other direction, try to make eye contact with that person and say hello. We never know what might happen in the next moment and that passerby might be someone upon whom our life might depend or vice versa.

This past week, my wife suggested that we go to church – not just any church, Macedonia
Baptist in Watts, the sister church of our congregation. Pastor Shane Scott was amazingly honest and inspirational. He lifted us all up when all we could see was a downward spiral. Part of his honesty was to have all the young men in the congregation stand up and walk forward to the pulpit. He then asked all the older men to come forward and surround them. He told the rest of the congregation to rise “embrace” these young men, lifting up our hands, beseeching protection and blessing upon them. He asked the choir to sing a beautiful contemporary gospel piece called “I Need You to Survive”.  The song is sung from the standpoint of someone speaking to an anonymous “other”. It doesn’t matter who it is because when human beings act as horribly as we can or when the Universe produces it’s natural catastrophes, we need each other to survive, whomever that other might be. I need you to survive.

My other suggestion is to use the word “and” more than the word “but”. I find the word “and” to be much more hopeful, much more forward thinking. “But” stops us in our tracks. “And” pushes us forward. Hebrew has a nice indication of how “and” moves us into the future, into the inevitable unknown. In Hebrew the word “and” isn’t really a word at all. It’s a letter, the letter “vav” (ו ), and it’s always attached  to another word, attached moving onward. When the world is moving in many directions, it’s seems like we are, too, and we try to artificially “stop” the world with the word “but”. “And”, on the other hand, reminds us that there’s really only one direction to our lives and that’s forward. That’s where hope is possible. That’s where peace is possible. That’s where understanding and kindness are possible. We’d better get going to “and”. There’s much to be done, and only one direction to go to get there.

arrow on road

My Pastor’s Grateful for My Call and I Don’t Know What to Say

 

RNCD and Pastor Shane Scott 2015

My wonderful pastor, Shane Scott of Macedonia Baptist Church in Watts, was grateful for my call this morning after two police shootings of two African-American men in two days. He even posted his gratitude on Facebook. I’d like to respond to him and I invite you to listen in.

“Shane, my brother, colleague and friend, I feel at such a loss. We have been together for many occasions. Our congregations have shared Dr. King’s birthday weekend in each other’s places of prayer, we have done social service projects together, we’ve offered words of teaching to each other’s communities. We have consulted one another and counseled one another in our common roles as clergy.

“I remember after the children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, you taught me and my community an important lesson: that your community experiences a “Sandy Hook” every week. When I heard that, I didn’t know what to say. And now, in the face of the events of the last two days, again, I don’t know what to say except perhaps to tell you this story that I presented to my congregation the year before last on Yom Kippur, our holiest day:

‘My wife’s best friend of twenty-eight years, Karen Smith Elstad, died this past December. Karen was an esteemed attorney and a revered professor of law and one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. When she asked, “How are you?” she really wanted to know “I’m fine” wasn’t an answer for Karen; it was an invitation. She would also be able to offer follow-up questions and comments that helped you hone your answer. Still, after all of the give and take that followed “How are you?”, I never felt prodded or probed. Instead I felt like I’d had a wonderful experience with a true, caring friend.

That Karen was African-American was background information and only rarely a topic of conversation. Of course it was there when she was discussing her work promoting of women of color in private practice and at Southwestern University School of Law, where she was a dean. There were a couple of other occasions when it came up, too.

Karen was over for dinner with some of our other friends and probably because of something that was extant in the news, we were talking about racial profiling. Karen, as on countless other occasions prior and thereafter, was the only African American present. And, as in all of those discussions, everyone who knew Karen was waiting for her insights, not because she was African-American but rather because she was Karen. I recall feeling that Karen was unusually silent during that particular conversation. Then again, Karen was often quiet during discussions. When Karen did speak, it was always insightful and usually offered a perspective that had not been present. So, the white, West LA mostly Jewish participants kept talking until, at one point Karen said, “Shut up! You have no idea what it’s like to be black and drive around this city!” From that point forward, the rest of us listened. Karen talked about the times that she’d been pulled over. Sitting there with someone we cared about deeply who recounted instances in which she was a victim of racial profiling, our prior comments were reduced to drivel.

When it comes to such discussions, I still feel that, as a white person, I need to just listen. I don’t know what it’s like to be black in America. As a Jew, I have similar experiences in my personal history and in my people’s history that lead to similar perspectives, but I really don’t know what it’s like.’

“So, Pastor Scott, I’m all ears. The period on the world’s timeline when my people were shot simply because of who we are is really, relative to all of Jewish history, not that long ago. Our memory of it is always urgent and always accompanied by the words: “Never again!” but it is happening again and it’s happening to you and your community, which, because we have and will share so much, is my community, too. As I said to you on the phone this morning, I am ready to stand, to march, to protest, to lobby, to boycott and to speak truth to power with you wherever and whenever you tell me you want me. I know that members of our Beth Shir Shalom community are ready to stand with you as well. Until then, know that my heart stands with yours and you’re welcome to lean on it any time.”

A Story about Elie Wiesel

I have a story about something Elie Wiesel said that I suppose only a select few might recall. This is because I had the rare opportunity to hear Mr. Wiesel speak when I was in college. After his lecture, which I’m sure was amazing and, sadly, most of its specifics I have long ago forgotten, many people came up to the podium to ask him some questions. One of those questions and its answer have challenged and inspired me for decades. A person asked, “Can you forgive those who perpetrated this evil upon you and your family?” Mr. Wiesel’s answer was immediate, well thought out, and obviously (to me)had been given before. He said, “Don’t ask me. I survived. Ask the dead.” It’s a stunning response for the non-Holocaust survivor that lets us know that the Holocaust has an intrinsic morality that only those who traveled its dark paths will ever truly understand.

Mr. Wiesel was 87 years old. Most of his contemporaries have either joined him in death or will soon. Then it is up to those of us who did not experience the Holocaust to teach and preserve its unique legacy. By “us” I mean all of us, Jew and non-Jew. The future of the Holocaust’s memory and meaning belong’s to all of us.

Wiesel was one of the first people to respond to the murder of hundreds of thousands by the Khmer Rouge. He marched along the Cambodian border saying, “This happened to me. I can’t let it happen here.”

These are huge shoes to fill. We have no choice but to be worthy of the task.

Feeling Mandated to Act

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As a Progressive Jew, my sense of commandment moves from the internal to the external. I spoke about that sense of commandment, that sense of mandate, when I delivered these words at the vigil for Orlando organized by me and my colleagues of the Santa Monica Area Interfaith Council:

In my tradition, we are told, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor”. It’s not a suggestion. It’s a mandate, a commandment. If we translate it VERY literally, it’s a little more intense, “Do not STAND ON the blood of your friend.” For me this means, that if we DO stand idle while our neighbor bleeds, it is as if we are standing ON the blood of our neighbor. In standing idle, we think we are removing ourselves from the situation. The text tells us that by doing nothing, we actually take a step forward, CLOSER to our neighbor’s suffering, ON his/her blood, ON his or her pain and anguish.  In addition, by using the word “friend” in speaking about the one who bleeds, we are told that we cannot see a suffering person as anonymous, as nameless, as someone who can be ignored. When we approach this responsibility in the most encompassing, life-affirming way, I AM every person who was killed or injured in the Pulse Club in Orlando. I am their families and THEIR friends. We are all inextricably connected and no religious practice or identification, no sexual reality, no race or ethnic background can EVER separate us!

But…right now, in my individuated self, I am me and I’m not grieving. At this moment if I grieve, I’m standing idly ON my friend’s blood. So I won’t mourn.  I’ll be angry. I’ll be disgusted. I’m disgusted with assumptions of a gun culture in this country that some perceive as having been woven into the fabric of our nation from when the creation of the world first began! That is NOT so and we need to start screaming that to our Senators and our Congress people. Because we will NOT stand on the blood of our friends. We need to demand that those representatives actually READ the second amendment and recognize that its sole purpose was to protect state militias of the 1790 era. We will NOT stand idly by. We must say that for ANYONE in this country to own an ASSAULT rifle is not just illogical, it’s insane. DON’T stand idly by!

Now you may not be Jewish and you may think this may not be your commandment. Don’t worry, we still consider you obligated. We’re ALL obligated to pursue justice and, to do that, NOT ONE of is allowed to stand idly by. If you haven’t called Congress yet, call tomorrow morning. And then call them the next day and the next and the next. NEVER sit idle until we bring this country back to sanity. DON’T stand on your friend’s blood. Don’t stand idly by.

This Month Ramadan is Our “Bershert”

Maimonides said that “miraculous” events in world history are not miraculous at all because they were woven into the fabric of the universe at the beginning of this creation. Such awesome occurrences such as the splitting of the Sea of Reeds (aka, the Red Sea) and the Ten Plagues were not abrogations of nature, but rather planned variances planted into nature so that at the right time, in the proper context, they would come into realization.

As a result, Maimonides did not “believe” in miracles. He did, however, grant that each of us will perceive certain experiences in our lives as miraculous, as beyond serendipitous and coincidental. I see a miracle in this year, when our Holy Festival of Shavuot (one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals, Sukkot and Pesach being the other two) arrives during the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan. The “miracle” is not the timing but rather the theme of each. Shavuot is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Likewise, Ramadan is the month in which Quran was revealed to Mohammed. On what is known as Lailat al-Qadr (Night of Power or the Night of Destiny) the beginning of the Quran was given to Mohammed (the rest to be slowly revealed over the next twenty-three years). The revelation at Mt. Sinai, on the other hand, is seen in rabbinic tradition as including all “t”orah, purposely written with a lowercase “t” to indicate all of Jewish teaching and learning, from the Torah, to the rest of the Bible to the Mishnah to the Talmud to the Aggadah (literally, “telling” or story) and “even [to] the question a pupil asks his teacher” (Exodus Rabbah 47:1).

What makes a text “holy” for a people? Is it the text itself or is it the way in which people interact with it? Must it be seen as coming from a “holy source” or could it even be perceived as being written by human beings who were creating the stories and the laws with a “holy purpose”? Is only our Jewish text holy or can we appreciate, without adopting, the specialness and the poetry of other texts considered “holy” by other – could other texts, even secular texts, be considered part of “t”orah for us? The whole world is filled with “t”orah. That is the revelation I celebrate on Shavuot.

Timely Holiness

In this week’s installment of a wonderful series of Torah portion interpretations called “Israel in the Parasha (Parasha simply means weekly Torah portion)” [offered on the ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America) website], my colleague, Neal Gold, lays out one deeply-rooted, traditional-based argument after another about why Israel’s treatment of African refugees is, as he says it, “nowhere near what we might consider the ‘Torah standard’.” In his commentary, Rabbi Gold spins off of a basic and oft quoted commandment from this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, which includes the 19th chapter of Leviticus, sometimes called the “Holiness Code.” The mandate to which Rabbi Gold refers occurs, in basically the same form, no less than 36 times in the Torah (and, he he points out, some say 46 times). No other mitzvah (commandment) is repeated that much:

וְכִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ׃
כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם
בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I, Adonai, am your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Rabbi Gold goes into much detail about how we should consider three main understandings of this text. The first of these is the word “stranger”, in Hebrew, ger. Then he discusses how we are commanded to do “no wrong” to the ger. Finally, Rabbi Gold teaches about what it mans to “love” the ger “as ourselves.” I encourage you to read Rabbi Gold’s full article. Even if you have some Torah study under your belt, you’ll learn a good deal. I did.

What I will say here is that the thrust of Rabbi Gold’s citations is, as I often say, that Judaism doesn’t trust people to be “nice.” Being hateful, vengeful, xenophobic and elitist is much easier. It’s easier to isolate the stranger, to blame the stranger for all that is going wrong around us, to fear the stranger and to dehumanize the stranger. This is an important instruction for the Israeli government when it comes to its inhumane treatment of African, and other, refugees and it’s an important ethical and moral demand for America as well.

Our mandate, our job, as Jewish Americans, is to insure that we and, in fact, every citizen in America, applies the same sense of commandment, the same passionate and compassionate attention, to the stranger in this land that Rabbi Gold feels must be expected in Israel, our people’s holy land. What is most disturbing about the current anti-immigrant, xenophobic, vitriolic and Machiavellian rhetoric from bully pulpits in America and in Israel is not that those who speak it believe it, it is the thousands who hear it also believe it and are ready to act upon it. That’s where we come in. Chapter 19 of Leviticus also teaches us: hocheach tohiach, הוכח תוכיח, “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor (for doing wrong) for fear that his/her wrong doesn’t become yours!” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” For Israel’s free society and in our free society we must do all we can to civilize our actions and our discussion so that we do not “wrong the stranger”, insure and demand that those among whose roots are elsewhere are to us “as one of our citizens” and that we “love” and care for the stranger in the same way and to the same degree as we love and care for the native-born. Why? Because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. For us, it’s always Passover.

The Danger of Slander and the Power of Remorse

This week’s Torah portion, Metzorah, and last week’s, Tazriah, are the two Torah portions B’ney Mitzvah kids dread. The portions are all about a disease (tzara’at) that can erupt on the skin and also appear as mold on the walls of a house. The word tzra’at is often translated as “leprosy”. Since the disease can also effect something inanimate like the walls of a home and the individual stones that form those walls, it’s probably not leprosy but whatever it was, it was truly frightening for our ancestors. The ancient Jewish community reacted with understandable caution, quarantining the person or the home. If the afflicted person didn’t heal s/he was permanently separated from the community. If the home didn’t “heal” it was destroyed.

Since Miriam was similarly stricken with a skin disease when she publicly denounced her brother, Moses (in a racist outburst that demeaned him and his Kushite wife, Tziporah, who was an African), the rabbis interpreted the disease in focus in these two Torah portions to be punishment to a person who slanders or gossips about others. Rabbinic tradition considers slander to be tantamount to murder because it “murders” the victim’s reputation and, like murder, slander can never be undone (because it is impossible to stop slander from spreading once it has been instigated).

Rumors, gossip, slander and hostile opinions are even more uncontrolled in our day because they are often spread via social media or the news media. Many prominent figures and all too many “regular” folk, feel an amazing liberty with their words when a video camera is present or when they write on Facebook, Twitter, etc., and whether the words are true or not, the anger and bitterness is forwarded on to countless others. When perpetrators of slander are “caught” or pressured to “retract” their statements, THEY now receive the full wrath of society and we consider them forever tainted despite any sincere remorse they may offer. Of course, we rarely, if ever, look back at our own emails and texts to see in what rumor, slander and gossip WE have participated.

The Torah portions Tazriah and Metzorah offer no sympathy or empathy for those who personally break out or whose homes break out in tzara’at. There is, of course, a method of returning them back into society or declaring their homes to be pure, but those ceremonies have nothing to do with an individual’s remorse or the community’s acceptance of that remorse, and these portions also say nothing of those who might be suffering through no fault of their own but who simply fell victim to a skin disease or mold on their homes and are assumed to be slanderers.

Remorse and reconciliation seem to be dying arts in the age of the internet. We should revive them. Remorse and reconciliation enable us not only to fully consider another person’s humanity, but also our own. Seeing others through our own fallibilities could create a better, more civil society in actual or digital word because it would, hopefully, force the perpetrators of vicious speech to think twice about what they say and those who hear or on the virtual receiving end of such speech to refuse to participate in repeating it.

Are We What We Watch?

Last weekend, the three top grossing films were “Dead Pool”, “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “Risen”. All these movies have a similar sub-theme: salvation. Honestly, salvation has never been part of my world view. I honor and respect that salvation is a crucial component of the belief systems of many of our Christian brothers and sisters. I know that it’s a part of my tradition as well. The opening words with which we begin Havdalah, the ceremony that ends Shabbat are: Hiney El y’shuati. Evtach v’lo efchad, “Behold God is my salvation. I will be assured and not afraid.” I love the melody that accompanies those words. It soars. The melody always makes me feel like I’m reaching another place.

But I don’t believe in salvation. I don’t believe that there is the possibility for rescue coming from some “other place.”That is what Mordechai tells Esther in the story of Purim, that if she doesn’t help the Jewish people at that moment, help will have to come from “Another place.” Scholars disagree over what the author of the Book of Esther meant by that statement put into Mordechai’s mouth. Was it an reference to God? An angel? A force? Fate?

I don’t believe in salvation…but I do believe in that melody that accompanies those words about salvation at the beginning of Havdalah. I believe in the “place” that melody takes me. Its a calm place filled with potential. Filled with the possibility for a world based on a commonality of purpose, mutual respect and understanding. It’s a place not of hope, but hope fulfilled a place built by human cooperation, empathy and honesty. For a moment, the melody makes me feel as though this “place” is possible, that we fallible but strong humans can actually do this. That’s the salvation I believe in.

The Force Awakens…Every Day!

I’ve seen the new Star Wars movie twice, not as many as some, more than others. For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, I won’t give anything away, although nothing comes with a spoiler alert on the internet. I liked the movie for many reasons, it returned to the same sort of campy action and dialogue as the first, it featured gender and racial inclusivity, it brought back some of our favorite characters all grown up, and it offered a continuation of the mythology and philosophy of the “The Force” which I’ve found compelling all these many years. Much has been made of George Lucas’s concept of the “The Force” and how it aligns or doesn’t align with Jewish theology. Mostly, I think it’s a pretty good fit.

Most people begin with a Kabbalistic notion of their existing in our lives, in our very souls, the yetzer ha-tov, an inclination to do good, and the yetzer ha-rah, our inclination to do evil. Similarly, in Star Wars, there is a light side of the Force and a dark side. On the other hand the Jewish notion of the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-rah might seem even more dichotomized because they don’t seem to be described as both part of one something or someone.

Actually, though, the mystical way of describing God is precisely as One and the relationship between the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-rah is closer and more symbiotic than one might imagine.

Nachman said in R. Sh’muel’s name: BEHOLD, IT WAS VERY GOOD refers to the Good Desire; AND BEHOLD, IT WAS VERY GOOD, to the Evil Desire. Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary!

Were it not for the Evil Desire, however, no person would build a house, marry and beget children; and thus said Solomon: Again, I considered all labor and all excelling in work, that it is a person’s rivalry with one’s neighbor (Eccl. IV, 4). Bereishit Rabbah 9:7 (The Soncino Talmud comments: It is the Evil Desire which in the first place inspires this rivalry which leads to great efforts.–One may triumph over his human failings by turning even them to noble purposes.)

The first thing we notice is that the Evil Desire, the yetzer ha-rah is much more important in this Jewish system of thought than we would have anticipated. It’s almost as though the Good Desire takes a back seat! This whole notion is based on a classic Jewish folk tale:

Soon after the return from Babylonian exile, the Jewish people again returned to sin. Fearful of another national catastrophe, Ezra and the other leaders prayed to God to erase the evil inclination from every heart in Israel.

“Although it is good for us to triumph over our evil inclination,” they said, “it is better to have no evil inclination at all, so that we receive neither punishment nor reward.”

In response to their prayers, a note fluttered down from heaven with a single word written upon it: “Truth.” And they knew that their prayers had been answered.

For three days and nights they fasted. Then the Evil Inclination came charging out of the Holy of Holies like a fiery lion.

“This is the Evil!” cried the prophet Zechariah.

They tried to seize the beast but only managed to grasp a single hair and pull it out. The creature bellowed so loudly that its cry was heard a thousand miles away.

“How shall we capture this monster?” asked the frightened people.

“Place it in a lead pot,” said Zechariah. “But take care not to destroy it, or the entire world will perish.”

For three days they held it captive in the lead pot. But during this time, the chickens stopped laying eggs, for sexual desire had vanished from the world. Not one egg could be found for the sick in all of Palestine.

“What shall we do?” the people cried. “If we kill this evil creature, disaster will befall us, but if we keep it captive, we shall no longer have eggs. And we cannot ask God to rob it of half its power, for God does not do things by halves.”

So they lifted the          lid of the pot and blinded the creature and set it free. And it once again roamed the world, but its power was greatly diminished. No longer did hearts incline to such evil deeds as in earlier times.

What’s the lesson here? It is not the abolition of evil that we seek, it’s better choices. It is the tension between good and evil, in every one of us all the time, that makes life possible. Without the possibility of doing evil and choosing not to, life ceases. There are no fresh eggs. There is no music. There are no books. No paintings. No invention. No discovery. No exploration. No love.

May we awaken the Force, the Oneness-of-All, within us and may we choose “the light”, goodness, kindness, creativity, reconciliation, cooperation, love and peace.

Making Miracles: A Rabbi Preaches at a Black Baptist Church

On the Sunday of Martin Luther King’s Birthday weekend, I had the privilege of preaching (no other word for it!), as I have for the last several years, at Macedonia Baptist Church in Watts, under the spiritual leadership of Pastor Shane Scott. Pastor Scott is a master preacher and I make no claims that my “preaching” was in any way like his.

Here’s my the sermon I gave in honor of Dr. King. Please imagine the congregation shouting out exclamations of encouragement (Thanks, Macedonia, it felt great!):

Good morning! And isn’t this a good morning! This is precisely what the Sabbath is supposed to look like. This is what the world will be like when the Messiah either comes or comes back, depending if you’re a Jew or Christian. No matter; the world will look the same! As Dr. King said, it will be a world in which “all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing…: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” Well we’re not there yet, not really even close. But looking out at this vision, as I did Friday evening at Beth Shir Shalom, I get a glimpse, I get a fleeting image. And it’s beautiful. This is what it looks like.

When I marched for a day with the NAACP from Selma to Washington, D.C. this summer (I re-iterate, just a day, not the whole thing!) we would shout out from time to time to encourage each other and to tell onlookers what we were doing, “This is what America looks like! This is what equality looks like! This is what freedom looks like! This is what justice looks like!” That’s what you look like, today.

If it’s hard to believe that such an America, such a world of equality and freedom and justice is possible, you won’t be the first people to express their cynicism and doubt. This week’s Torah portion (and we Jews read a portion of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, in order, Genesis through Deuteronomy, in a weekly year-long structure) tells of the Jewish people standing trapped between the Sea of Reeds, also known as the Red Sea, and Pharaoh and every single chariot unit in the Egyptian army.

Understandably frustrated, but a little bit intemperate in their comments to their leader, Moses, the Jewish people say (Exodus 14:11-12),”Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.” Wow! They just were liberated from Egypt after four-hundred years and they already want to go back? Liberated from slavery and they accuse Moses of purposefully taking them out into the desert to die and saying they prefer slavery to freedom?

Although the text itself doesn’t say so, Moses, apparently complains to God, to which God responds (Exodus14:15-16), “Why do you cry to me? Speak to the people of Israel that they go forward; and lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the people of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea.” OK, let’s picture this: The people, quite rationally but with some hyperbole, express their concerns about their apparently ominous situation, either drowning in the Sea of Reeds or being killed by the Egyptians. In turn, Moses steps aside to ask God for help. God says, “Why are you asking me?! Go help yourself! Stretch out your hands and hold up your rod. See what happens.” Now let’s imagine that we are the Jewish people looking at Moses as he stretches out his hands over the water and…nothing happens, not right away anyway. He’s standing there with his arms outstretched over the sea, holding fast to his “miracle” staff which doesn’t seem to be making any miracles at the moment. And we, the Jewish people, what do we do?

There’s a rabbinic notion that all the miracles that would ever occur aren’t really miracles at all because they were woven into the fabric of the Universe just as the Sun set on the sixth day of Creation. Each of them “sits” there frozen in the fabric of time and space waiting for the perfect conditions for them to release themselves from their immobilized state and impact history and society. And what are those “perfect conditions” under which these seeming “miracles” take place? It’s when we stop believing in or hoping for miracles. It’s when we do something.

In our Torah portion, when God exclaimed to Moses, “Why are you asking me?” God was saying, “Don’t wait for me! Don’t wait for a miracle! Do something!” The rabbis imagine that in that moment between Moses raising his hands and the sea splitting open, a man named Nachshon with presumably others following, walked into the water to their nostrils. That’s when the sea split!

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of Dr. King’s dear friends and trusted confidants said, “We do not have faith in deeds. We attain faith through deeds – Deeds, not just thoughts or intentions.” So did Nachshon believe in what Moses was doing, standing there holding out his hands? Not yet. He probably didn’t even believe in God at that moment. He didn’t believe in miracles either. Nachshon and those who followed him knew something about miracles. They realized that this was a moment to act – not out of faith, but to boldly leap toward faith, faith in God, faith in Moses, faith in miracles and faith in themselves to be active participants in making and changing history.

Gandhi didn’t wait for a miracle! Rosa Parks didn’t wait for a miracle! Dr. King didn’t wait for a miracle! The Jewish people, before and after World War II, didn’t wait for a miracle to re-establish Israel! President Obama didn’t wait for a miracle for at least some meaningful restrictions on guns! They all walked into the water. They split the sea. They unfroze miracles they didn’t even know were there! Those miracles were there not because these people believed, but because they acted. As Heschel said, belief, faith, happens after we act, not because we think about acting.

Moses must have looked crazy standing there with his hands over the water! He was waiting for God’s word to be fulfilled. Little did he know that what he was really waiting for was Nachshon and a group of others to act audaciously and walk into the water. What they did made Moses’ outstretched arms audacious as well because leaders can’t take risks alone; they need others to go with them. You know, others like, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Jim Lawson, John Lewis, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Maurice Eisendrath, then the head of Reform Judaism, the Freedom Riders, the Montgomery Bus Boycotters, every clergy person who broke with the convention of their denominations and marched with King anyway and the hundreds of thousands of ordinary miracle makers who marched, too, and changed history.

Who knew that in this week’s Torah portion God would say, “Don’t believe in Me; believe in yourselves!” Well, we know that now. Let’s go make miracles. Amen.