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If - A Short Yet Powerful Word Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Moses, Mosheh, is known as a teacher- the rabbis of the Talmud call him Moshe Rabbeinu. It’s their highest praise, but in the Torah itself Moses is known as a prophet. In fact at the conclusion of the Torah we are reminded that there will never again be a prophet as great as Moses, whose relationship with God was deep and personal.

When we think about prophets we often think of their ability to see into the future. In fact when someone asks us something about the future, one of the ways people often hedge their answers is by saying, Well, I’m not a prophet, but.

And in Jewish tradition, when one wants to discount something that someone has said concerning the future, you can remind them that since the last of the Biblical prophets, prophesy has been granted, in the words of the Talmud, only to children and fools.

Actually foretelling the future was not the essence of prophecy. Abraham Joshua Heschel in his major work, The Prophets, insists on calling the prophets “forthtellers” and not foretellers. They are not fortune tellers or readers of crystal balls. The strength of the great prophets in Jewish life was in their ability to warn the community about the consequences of their actions, to look down the road into the future, and remind people of where they were heading.

This week’s Torah portion has a strange name. Most of the time portions use a strong word, like Shoftim, Prophets, later this month, or Mishpatim, rules, earlier this year. But this week’s portion is called Ekev, which sort of means if. It comes from the word heel, and means following on, in the wake of.  It’s like the word Jacob, Yaakov-remember the twin who got his name because he was born holding his brother’s heel.

The Israelites are standing at the border of the Promised Land. Though he will not come with them, Moses is able to look down the road a piece to see what’s ahead. There’s a lot of good ahead, if they act in certain ways. They are coming into a good land, a land of milk and honey. But if they are full of pride about their accomplishments, if they don’t remember their values, Moses warns, then the road ahead could be pretty rocky and full of dangerous pits.

In a sense, Daphne, your Torah portion contains both utopian and dystopian elements. It paints two pictures of what could be, inviting us to think clearly about our choices.

Often we think of choices in terms of material things, things external to us. Should I buy this or that, we agonize should I go to this school or that one, take this job or the other. We worry a lot about whether we are making good choices and about what the consequences will be. But in some ways those consequences are unknowable. Things happen that can’t be predicted. We can go to the wrong school, but end up with the one good teacher there who changes our life. We can take the right job but then have the company bought out from under us. Our ability to see into the future only goes so far.

Rabbinic Judaism stresses the internal choices we make as well as the external ones. These are the choices we make in our attitudes, in our values, in our focus. These set our course just as powerfully as the other choices on which we tend to focus. There is a lot in our lives that we cannot control, but we can control the way we respond, That is where our power lies, and the spiritual challenge of our life.

I think you are right that dystopian literature is so popular right now because of the very real fears younger people have about the future. And there are many scary challenges on the horizon. But I hope you won’t forget that the role of the prophet was to say if, and to remind us of the power we do have to made decisions that matter for ourselves and our communities. 

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