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.


Save the Last Prayer for Me

In his (beautiful!) song, “Gaia”, James Taylor sings about spiritual quest and spiritual longing:

“Pray for the forest pray for the tree, pray for the fish in the deep blue sea.

Pray for yourself and for God’s sake, say one for me, poor wretched unbeliever.”

I don’t think Mr. Taylor was looking at this week’s Torah portion when he wrote those lines but, he might as well have been. In the Torah portion Pharaoh, emotionally depleted at the end of the tenth plague, and deep in grief over the death of his son, says to Moses:

“Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the Eternal as you said! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!” (Exodus 12:31-32).

At the website for Reform Judaism, in the weekly commentary on the Torah portion, my colleague, Rabbi Beth Kalisch, notes that there are several traditional reasons that Pharaoh might have thrown out this last minute request to Moses. For Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, Pharaoh seeks God’s blessing for reasons of cynical pragmatism – since Pharaoh is also a first born son, he wants to be spared from the slaughter of the tenth plague. Nachmanides, 13th century Spain, sees Pharaoh as slightly more open, asking for blessing for him and his entire people. In the M’chilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Pharaoh, realizes that he is spiritually disconnected from God, as Moses relates to God, the God of the Jewish people, and seeks to bridge the chasm and return to God. In other words, it’s that concept of t’shuvah, turning and returning, familiar to us from the High Holy Days, our idea of repentance.

Please click and read all of Rabbi Kalisch’s drash (interpretation); it’s thoughtful and beautifully written. I would add another notion to her presentation, one other reason why the Pharaoh snuck in a quick request for a blessing: fear. He was afraid of Moses’ God that could not only defeat him but all of his deities as well!

Two comments about that: First is that, from my perspective, fear is not a productive relationship to have with God. What can we say for ourselves if we pray to God only because we’re afraid of might happen if we don’t?!

My other reaction to the Pharaoh for asking for a blessing is that he was afraid that there might be a god out there that he realized he didn’t know that was pretty powerful – so he’d better ask for a blessing from that god whether he believed in it or not. Pharaoh was, as were all Egyptians and much of the world at that time, a polytheist. He believed in a plethora of gods, of divine influence – influences that might, at a given moment, even be competing with one another. So why not add one more and ask for a blessing? What Pharaoh didn’t understand, and Judaism’s great gift to humanity, was (with apologies to George Lucas) that there is only one Force in the universe and it is, in the Star Wars verbiage, in everything. Even more, within Judaism, it is everything. One does not beg for blessings from such a Force, and this is a difference from Lucas-ism, one does whatever one can to be “with” the Force. It’s our responsibility to realize that the Force is already with us and to understand the blessings, and the responsibilities, that come with that awareness.

So…May you be with the Force!

(And, if you want to explore this even more, and you’re in and around Santa Monica, come to Beth Shir Shalom’s Shabbat experience on January 22nd, “The Force Awakens…Every Day!”)