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Shemini Sermon

This sermon was delivered on Friday, March 25.

We toss the term “acts of God” around far too easily, attaching the label most recently to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.  I understand that an act of God is a legal term used to describe events, such as natural disasters, that are outside of human control and for which no one can be held responsible. 

Yet as a lover of God I am uncomfortable with the term and bristle at its use.  I wish we were more comfortable ascribing positive events to God rather than the negative and catastrophic.  I choose only to assign good to God.  That is my posture.

In this week’s portion, Shemini, we read of Nadav and Avihu who offer an alien, strange, fire on the altar and were therefore killed.  What was so strange about their sacrifice so as to merit their deaths?  Some suggest that it was the manner in which it was offered.  Others say they were intoxicated.  I believe that were consumed by overzealousness.  They were intoxicated with their own piety.  They came to believe that they could bring about an act of God.  In the end such desires consume the believer—as well as many other victims.

In our world there are far too many people who think they know exactly what God thinks, and what God wants.  People think they can perform acts of God, bringing God to earth. There are people who think that their ideology is most holy.   Actually they think that only their beliefs are holy, and others must be cast aside.  They think that only they have God’s ear. 

Such beliefs only diminish the other.  They lead to terrible acts, such as those we witnessed in Israel these past weeks.  There were the gruesome murders in Itamar and the most recent bus bombing in Jerusalem.  By the way I must offer a correction.  Two of the Fogel children survived the attack not because they were out of the house but because they hid underneath the bed.

It is clear to me what feeds the hatred that leads to these terrorist attacks.  There is a direct line between the campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel and these attacks.  Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd, is the latest to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement.  Israel is not apartheid South Africa.  The blurring of this distinction serves to contribute to the violence.  In the West Bank a square was named this week for the leader of a 1978 terrorist attack.  The celebration of such murders only feeds more violence.  Israel has every right to protect its citizens.  The distinction between purposely targeting civilians and not is most important. 

Ultimately this delegitimization of the State of Israel, whether it be by comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa or severing the historic Jewish connection to the land of Israel, leads to this glorification of murder.  People speak of settlers as less than human beings.  They strip other people of their humanity so that can more easily murder.  That might not be the intention of all, but there is a straight line between the two.

To see Israel’s settlement as problematic is not the same.  To even think it is misguided and bad for Israel is not the source of the problem I am speaking about.  Delegitimizing the state ends up delegitimizing Israelis.   It leads to the dehumanization of others.  This is why the news speaks not of the murder of fellow human beings, but of settlers. 

I don’t understand how someone can murder a baby.  I cannot accept that this is ever justified.  I also don’t understand how someone can speak so confidently about what God wants.  There is a direct line between such zealousness and murder.  These are when God’s fires become alien fires!

I refuse to accept that God brings about such evil, or that God wants such evil.  I recognize that the earth is imperfect and that at times it trembles and quakes—sometimes in violent fashion.  By the way recognizing this fact does not mean we should be so unprepared.  The unfolding nuclear disaster is our doing alone.  But we must shy away from describing these events as acts of God.  That is to suggest that randomness and disorder are God’s.  I only wish to ascribe to God the good.

Most of all I draw from my faith the belief that all human beings are created in God’s image.  Every life is equally precious.  That belief is my fire.  That fire will sustain me and might even better our world.  All other fires consume the world.