My sermon from last week's Shabbat.
We are free at last! In this week’s Torah portion we see that we are now marching to the Promised Land. But wait, it is not going to be a direct path. We are going to take the long, arduous route, the path filled with struggle, conflict, rebellion, hunger and wanting.
Why would God lead us in this indirect way? The Torah’s answer is that so we might avoid war with the Philistines. I don’t like that answer very much. We are going to face 40 years of adversity so what why worry about one war. I am not a fan of war but it could be better than the 40 years in the wilderness. Such are not our choices.
Others suggest that we need 40 years to nurture freedom. You have to be born into freedom in order to fashion freedom. I think of Russian immigrants who struggled with the choices they confronted here in the United States. I once read that even the cereal aisle was overwhelming because of its wealth of choices. Growing up in a communist country that denied freedoms and choices they were ill equipped to deal with even the most mundane of choices. Apparently there was only one kind of cereal in the Soviet Union. Thus you have to grow up in freedom in order to build a free nation. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, only the Israelites who were born in the wilderness could cross over into the land of Israel. If born into slavery then they must die in the wilderness. If born in the wilderness, in freedom, then they can travel into the land.
The most interesting suggestion is that God purposely led us through this longer route so that we might taste adversity. Struggle and adversity, long hard work, is what teaches us the greatest lessons. Too often we want the short cut. Too many students for example read Spark Notes rather than reading Hamlet. The long, hard work, the struggle, is the greatest lesson and provides the most last meaning. You can only appreciate Shakespeare and what he teaches us about life if you read Shakespeare. It is not that I want struggle or seek it out. Ok, perhaps I do, and perhaps that explains my love of endurance sports. I even know someone who chooses to write two Broadway shows when they are only asked to write one. The secret seems clear. Challenge is what can lead to greatness.
Today is Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish Arbor day. On this day we recount the story of Honi, the Jewish Rip Van Winkle. Honi questioned why someone would even bother planting a carob tree. This tree takes 70 years in order to bear fruit. The person planting it would never be able to enjoy its benefits. You can only therefore plant and nurture the tree for the sake of future generations. You plant for grandchildren not for yourself. You struggle to nurture this plant so that others might enjoy its rewards. The challenge is apparent. Its rewards might never be tasted.
Let’s look as well at a modern example. Why do we name storms? And by the way when did we start naming winter storms? I think this might be a Weather Channel innovation, but still why? Why do we name storms? Obviously it is so that it is so they are easier to discuss and remember. But there might be a symbolic meaning. Naming suggests intimacy. Storms are of course about struggle. So if you name it, you can control it. You can wrest meaning from it. That is what we are supposed to do with struggle and conflict. Brave the storm and take hold of its meaning.
I am sure that everyone has read about Yesh Atid’s success in the recent Israeli elections. Now we will see if Yair Lapid will struggle for change. Will he choose the more difficult job of Finance Minister? Or follow the advice of his advisors and choose a ministerial job that better guarantees success. Will he think about his political fortunes or struggle with the challenges Israel faces? Will he turn aside from these financial challenges or make good on his campaign pledge of struggling for change?
Our tradition agrees. The rabbis write that the seas which part in this week’s portion did not part on their own. God waited for a sign. God waited for Nachshon to jump into the waters. God waited until Nachshon almost drowned. Then God parted the seas. Nachshon did not know there would be a miracle when he jumped. He chose struggle. He chose challenge. He could not know if he would drown or be saved. Still he chose the more difficult path.
Don’t be afraid of the longer journey. Don’t be frightened by the struggle. Don’t try to avoid it. Jump in like Nachshon.