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The Bible is not a Fairy Tale Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Saturday, August 2, 2014

When you are working on a project for a long time and it runs into difficulty, it is natural to become discouraged and to wonder whether all the time you have put in has been a waste.

That can happen at work with an idea which just doesn’t pan out, despite weeks or months of effort, or in volunteering for a cause which seems to fail.

About a year and a half ago, PACT, a coalition of local congregations which we belonged to, dedicated a lot of effort to immigration Reform. The various congregations, mostly Christian and many on the East Side, worked very hard as immigration reform seemed to be an achievable objective. In addition to delegations to our congressional representatives and vigils here in San Jose, PACT members travelled around the state in bus caravans and to rallies. Then the political winds shifted and nothing resulted from all these efforts.  For many of the volunteers what was supposed to have been their introduction to the efficacy of community effort, became a lesson in frustration.

As we were talking about her Torah portion, Bailey suggested to me that this was how Moses might have felt about all of his work, given that he was not going to enter the Promised Land. He might have felt that it was all for nothing. After all, getting to the Promised Land was the goal, beginning way back when he was standing barefoot at the burning bush, and God promised, “ I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” It was this promise that Moses shared with the Israelites, telling them that God had told him:” I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and I will give it to you as a possession.”

The Biblical scholar Patrick Miller points out that in a fairy tale everything ends happily ever after, and that a fairy tale comes to an end once the primary goal is reached. It’s only “Into the Woods” that has a second act, real fairy tales close as Cinderella is found, or when Jack returns with the gold.  But the Torah is not a fairy tale and so comes to teach us some deeper lessons about perspective and success.

First of all, success for Moses is not just about himself, but about the community. Bailey, I think this is someplace where I can make a sport’s analogy. At the end of a game, the most important thing is not whether you as an individual have made a lot of goals in soccer, or baskets in basketball or even assists in baseball, but how the team has done as a whole. Moses’ perspective is much broader than himself. In the book of Numbers when he first learns that he will not enter the Promised Land, his immediate concern is not his own sadness, but the people. He wants to make sure that there is a successor to lead the Israelites forward.

The second lesson is about perspective. Over what time period should we measure success? Over 40 years perhaps Moses hasn’t been so successful, the desert wanderings are a time of squabbling, several times the people are in sight of the Promised Land only to have to fall back into the desert. But here we are, how many centuries later, reading these words, as a people of over 14 million individuals, living all over the world. The Jebusites, the Hivites, the Moabites and the Amonites have all disappeared from the face of the earth. But somehow these words have enabled our people to survive Exile and persecution and to maintain our identity as a Jewish people.

Finally, let’s return to Patrick Miller’s observation that the Bible is not a fairy tale. The Torah is meant to prepare us for life, real life, a place where not everything goes smoothly and it isn’t always happily ever after. Most often, we die like Moses without having achieved all of our goals. On Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath before Tisha B’av, in the midst of war in Israel again, for the 5th time since the year 2000 and the failure of Camp David, in the midst of grave concerns about Ebola and Global warming, ongoing worries about Russia and Ukraine, about Iraq and Syria, about so many hot spots around the globe- giving us a story with sugar coating, would be so inappropriate as to be not meaningful.

A fairy tale comes to an end once the primary goal is reached, but the Torah does not come to an end. The five books of Moses spill over into the Tanach, which spills over into the Mishnah and Talmud, and Codes and Commentaries and Responsa up until this very conversation we are now having about this week’s Torah portion. The story is not complete- the promise of the future still remains open.

That is why on the afternoon of Tisha B’av, we get up from mourning. The melody of our prayers changes from plaintive wailing to joyful sounds. Our tradition believes that on Tisha B’av the Messiah is born, a reminder that out of the depths of despair comes the seeds of redemption. The promise of our prophets is that those who have sown in tears, shall reap in joy. Ball games can be won in the last few minutes, even when your team is way behind. And Judaism teaches that the end of the story is up to us. 

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