Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Shabbat B’shalach
January 30, 2015

     You know that the phrase “D’var Torah” literally means “word of Torah”.  But when I say I’m going to give a D’var Torah it is never a single word; it is a drash, an explanation, a Torah lesson.  The plural of “D’var Torah” is “Divrei Torah”, words of Torah.  So I would like to begin this evening with two words of Torah which seem so far-out, so far-fetched, that you may even find them funny.  Listen to these two Divrei Torah, for which I’m grateful to Rabbi Jack Riemer, and then let’s explore the truth behind their humor and what they may mean for our time.

     The first comes from Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotsk, one of the great leaders of Chassidism.  The Kotsker was a passionate man who could not tolerate dull or boring people.  He wanted his Chassidim to be on fire with the love of God.  And so the Kotsker once said:  “I ENVY PHARAOH.”  It’s a rather remarkable statement for a Chassidic Rabbi – “I ENVY PHARAOH” – and he continued:  “Can you imagine what stubborn determination that Pharaoh had?  Ten times he was knocked down and ten times he got up again.  And even after the last plague, even after he and all the other people of Egypt lost their firstborn, Pharaoh let the Israelites go for a brief moment.  But then he reconsidered and went chasing after them.  What a stubborn man Pharaoh was!  If I had only half his stubbornness, can you image how well I could serve God!”

     The second word of Torah comes from the story of Jacob and his father-in-law, Laban.  You may remember that, finally fed-up with the way he was treated, Jacob left the House of Laban in the middle of the night in order to escape having to deal with him.  Without Jacob’s knowledge, his wife Rachel – for whatever reason – steals the household idols of her father and takes them along with her.  Laban goes chasing after Jacob.  Even though Jacob has a head start of seven days, Laban manages to catch up to him in three days.  When he arrives, Jacob says to him:  “What is my sin?  And what is my transgression that you pursued me so hotly?”

     That’s the Torah text.  Now listen to how Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin interprets this verse.  He says that when Jacob sees how eagerly Laban raced to catch up with him in order to recapture his house idols, Jacob feels embarrassed by his own lack of zeal for the one true God.  When he compares the speed with which Laban reacted in order to regain his idols with the leisurely rate at which he himself travels in the service of God, Jacob is ashamed and so he says:  “What is my sin that I do not serve God as enthusiastically as you serve your idols?”

     Now please understand that both these Divrei Torah, these words of Torah – one by the Kotsker, one by Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin – are homilies.  They are not meant to be taken as the literal meaning of the biblical passage.  Yet, nevertheless, each in its own whimsical way raises a question which confronts all of us in our time.

     The question is:  how come the fanatics and the zealots seem to be so determined and so passionate and so willing to give their lives for what they believe, while the moderates and rational followers of God seem to be so placid, so docile, so cautious?  How come today the crazies are willing to sacrifice their lives in order to destroy us while we – the moderates – are so reluctant to make sacrifices for what we believe is true?

     And even within Jewish life, how come the ultra-Orthodox and radical leftist zealots are so willing to make sacrifices for what they believe in while we – the moderates – whose faith is, or ought to be, just as compelling as theirs – seem docile and hesitant?  Islam does not have the market cornered on extremism.  There are also Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and even secular extremist.  How come the Labans and the Pharaohs of our world are willing to do whatever they must, are willing to fight to the bitter end if need be, to achieve their evil goals; while we, whose goals are surely as important as theirs, are reluctant to fight and seem always open to compromise?

     I’m not sure of the answer to this question, but I believe that we better find the answer quickly or else we will be in big trouble.  For if one side is willing to kill and to be killed, and the other side is cautious and careful and hesitant, the side with the more passionate determination is much more likely to win – and the extremists do seem to be winning everywhere in the world these days.  The West is on the defensive in the struggle against the zealots within Islam.  And within Jewish life, the moderates are on the defensive against those who are so sure that they are right – and that only they are right – that they will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.

     So what should we who live in the middle do?  I believe that, first of all, we should not be apologetic about living in the middle.  We should not be embarrassed at not being extremists.  The truth is very often found in the middle and, therefore, we should be proud that we are able to see both sides or even more than just two sides of many issues.  We should be proud that we can see the gray, and not everything as black or white.  We should be proud that we do not seek to demean or destroy those who disagree with us.  “Nuanced” has become one of the “in” words these days.  It is not a bad word; it means that it is not all one way or the other way – my way or the highway.  There are truths, not just one truth.

     Secondly, I believe we should proclaim those principles which we hold sacred, those principles which are non-negotiable for us, those principles which we stand for and are willing to fight for and, if necessary – God forbid – to die for.

     This evening I am going to try to articulate three beliefs which lie at the heart of Western civilization.  Let me see if I can state the things we believe in, the things we live by, the things we are willing to die for – the principles which separate us from those on the other side.

     I believe that the central pillar on which our civilization stands is that human life is sacred.  This means that whoever mistreats a human being blasphemes his Maker.  This means that each and every human being – with no exceptions, young and old, people of all colors, the well and the sick, the smart and the intellectually challenged, the believer and the non-believer – are equally made B’tselem Elohim, in the image of God, and whoever denies this truth is our enemy.  Whoever affirms this truth is our ally.  On this we will not bend and we will not compromise.  Human life is sacred!

     When I hear and read about teenagers who are willing and eager to be suicide bombers, and even worse when I see their mothers taking pride in what they are doing, I cringe.  How can there ever be peace with those who value our lives and their own lives so little?  Golda Meir once said something which has stayed in my mind.  She said:  “I have given orders to my staff that whenever an Israeli soldier is killed I must be notified, even if it is in the middle of the night.  When the heads of the Arab states leave instructions that they be informed each and every time an Arab soldier is killed in battle – even in the middle of the night – then there will be hope of peace.”

     Golda was right.  Only cultures and civilizations and religions which look upon human life as sacred and precious can live together in peace.  Nations or groups which consider soldiers as cannon fodder, or that revel and glory in suicide missions, or that hide rocket launchers in residential neighborhoods, have nothing in common with nations that revere human life and that send their soldiers to battle when they have do – but never do so lightly.

     The second principle I would suggest as fundamental to civilization as we in the West understand it is that we are religious and they are religious.  We believe in God and they believe in God.  But we believe that spirituality and ethical behavior are inseparable.  The God who spoke to our people at Sinai cares as much about how we do our work six days a week as about how we rest on the Sabbath.  In our Torah, gossip and lying and false advertising are just as treif as pork and shellfish.

     Nancy and I were in the Far East earlier this month and exposed more to Buddhism than we ever had been in our life.  Buddhism believes in a God who wants us to withdraw from the world in order to focus on the perfection of our own inner-being.  Our Jewish faith does not teach that.  Our God calls on us to be involved in the world.  Holiness and ethical behavior are inseparable.  And on this we will not bend and we will not compromise.

     When people ask us “who is your God?” we have a simple answer.  We hear it in this week’s Torah portion, “Adonai is my strength and might.  Adonai has become my salvation.  This is my God and I will enshrine God . . .  Pharaoh’s chariots and his army God has cast into the sea.” (Ex. 15:2-4)  Ours is the God who took us out of Egypt because our God values freedom. When God introduced Divinity to us at Sinai, God could have introduced Him or Herself as the One who created the world.  God could have introduced Him or Herself as the One who favors us and only us.  God could have introduced Him or Herself as the one who insists on unquestioning obedience.  God did none of those things.  Instead God introduced God’s Self at Sinai as the One who took us out of Egypt.

     So who is the real God?  The One who values freedom and who wants us to partner with the Divine to increase the amount of freedom in this world.  The God whom we know and serve is the One who is merciful and compassionate and who wants us to be merciful and compassionate too.  Therefore, anyone who tortures or decapitates in the name of God blasphemes.  Anyone who does so is our foe.  And anyone who is shocked and offended and horrified by such atrocities is our ally.

     These are two of the principles which we live by, and that we stand for.  Let no one suggest that these are namby-pamby, obvious truths – they are not obvious at all to half the world today.  These two principles – that every human life is sacred and that freedom is the will of God – are what we stand for.

     There is a third principle at the heart of Western civilization.  It is the principle that this is not a hefker world – a chaotic world, an anything-goes world, a “whatever” world.  Just as there are laws in nature which we disregard at our peril, so there are laws in society which we disregard at our peril.  The God in whom we believe has set limits to human behavior.  We cannot do whatever we want, whenever we want, wherever we want.  The God who has made this world has given us rules and regulations and limits which govern the way in which we are to live.

     Ours is law combined with compassion.  Ours is law to be studied and applied by the human mind.  Ours is law that overrules the lusts of human beings.  There are limits to what we can do with and on this earth.

     Anyone who understands this, anyone who understands that human beings are only human beings and that they must not claim to be more than that is our ally.  And anyone who denies that – anyone who claims that I am above the law and can do whatever I want – is our foe.

     These are three of the fundamental principles which we of the West believe in.  There are more, for sure, but these three are central.  It is our task to affirm and maintain these principles as binding upon us with the same certainty, the same zealousness, the same enthusiasm with which our enemies affirm and maintain their principles.  These are the principles by which we live and for whose sake, if need be, we are willing to die.

     Let’s not take the principles on which Western civilization is based for granted.  Our People taught these principles to the world.  Know that those who destroyed the Twin Towers, who attack synagogues and churches and mosques, are really out not to destroy these buildings but to destroy these principles.  Therefore, let’s take each one of them seriously.  Let us hold our principles as passionately as our enemies hold theirs.

     It is no coincidence that those who hate Western civilization hate Israel and the Jewish People as well.  They understand that these principles – respect for human life, commitment to universal freedom, and reverence for the God who is the source of law – are at the core of both civilizations.  This is not a military or political concept or compact.  The reason America and Israel stand together so firmly is that they have the very same core values at the root of our cultures – and therefore we have common enemies.

     Let us take our values and our principles as seriously as our enemies take theirs.  As the Kotsker put it:  “Let us serve God with the same enthusiasm and the same determination that Pharaoh served evil.”  As Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin put it:  “Let us worship our God with the same eagerness that Laban served his idols.”

     The great blessing of moderate people is that we are able to see many sides of a question; for this ability let us be thankful.  But the great risk which threatens moderate people is that we may be so forever caught up in seeing all sides of a question that we lose sight of what is really right and what is really our obligation to do.  We cannot afford that kind of moderation.

     And so let me ask you tonight to be proud of being a moderate.  It should be a term of honor, not embarrassment.  But our sense of moderation should not hold us back from understanding that some things are really right and some things are really wrong, and that it is our task to distinguish between the two, and then to live by that distinction passionately all the days of our lives.  Amen

– I am grateful to Rabbi Jack Riemer  for much of this message.