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Don't Photo Shop Out the Important Stuff Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

July 18, 2015

I remember years ago when a member of our congregation first showed me a prototype of what we now know as photo-shop. He was so excited about the potential for editing the pictures we have of events in our lives. Is your bff no longer part of your life? Then remove her from that group photo of all your friends. Is the team driving your company now minus one co-worker? He no longer has to sit in the center of the photo you are using in the annual report.  Perhaps it shouldn’t have seemed so radical. After all textual editing has been around for a long time, and we know how the Soviets used to rewrite history to exclude those who had fallen out of favor.

This week, as I thought about our Torah portion which concludes the book of Numbers, I was wondering what an editor might do for this text, which both rambles and presents the Israelites in a less than flattering light. For some of the Torah portions in the book of Numbers, it’s hard to find a unifying theme.  The book also seems repetitive, the Israelites complain over and over, and each time bring devastating consequences on the community. If you search you can find a progression in these incidents, but for the casual reader one or two examples might suffice. And yet the Torah recounts all these incidents, large and small.

In this week’s Torah portion, appropriate for the conclusion of the book of Numbers, there is a recounting of all the stops the Israelites made on their journey, from the time they left Egypt until they arrived at the borders of the land of Canaan.  If you count them, you will find there are 42 in all, some of them quite familiar to us from stories in the Bible, and others more obscure. 42 is a lot of places to list, the 50 verses recounting all these stops can seem laborious. We might ask--if what happened in a particular place doesn’t reflect positively on the Israelites, why recount it? And further, for those places where we don’t remember something important happening, why do we bother to list the name of the place at all?

Our traditional Jewish commentators insist that each of the stops taught the Israelites something and therefore they should be remembered.  Even places where the Israelites experienced failure, they were learning and developing. As the Baal Shem Tov wrote: “Some of those places may not seem like they are moving us forward, we might fear quite the opposite,” still he insists, they were part of the journey and without them the Israelites would not have arrived at the Promised Land.

A contemporary commentator used the example of Abraham Lincoln who experienced quite a bit of failure before he eventually became president of the United States to understand how steps backward can also be steps forward.

Abraham Lincoln failed at business, and wasn’t admitted to law school. He ran for the state legislature and lost, he lost a bid to be a Senator and a race for Vice President. He suffered personal setbacks and even spent 6 months in bed in a state of discouragement. Yet each of these bad outcomes was a stepping stone to his ultimate success.

Further even inconsequential stops can be powerful opportunities, which we might recognize only retrospectively.  We are encouraged by our tradition in the words of the Psalmist, to find value in “ all your ways.”  Think of our own lives. Looking back we can sometimes see the importance of something that seemed meaningless to us at the time. The Chassidic commentators urge us to accept that while some stages of our lives are remembered better than others, each stage was essential. We might not realize it at the time, in fact, we may never fully realize it, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t set the stage for what came next.

Rav Abraham Kook, Israel’s chief rabbi in the years before the founding of the state, also leaned to the side of Jewish mysticism. He urged that a person be fully present to everything that they experienced, that which seems good and that which seems bad, that which seems important and that which seems trivial.  He would frown on our contemporary practice of seeing some aspect of our life, or some time in our life, as “real life” and everything else an unimportant.  If we do so we risk missing out on that which was really important and on the experiences and relationships that might be available to us outside of that focus.

Joel, you are still at the beginning of your own 42 encampments which will make up the story of your life. I hope you will find strength in the understanding that each stop, whether at the time it seems good or bad, significant or meaningless, lays a marker for your life’s path, whose destination can often be hidden from us as we set forth. For as much as photo shop is a lot of fun to play with, erasing pieces of the past, can prevent us from appreciating the full meaning of our life.


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