Sermon: On Jewish Study (and miracles)

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 4 January 2014

I’m not a great fan of this time of year.  It’s the ‘shoulds’ I don’t like.  Those awful, awful ‘shoulds’.
Should do more of this, should do less of this, should give up this, should take up this…
Shoulds make us feel like what we do is not good, when all we can really aspire to in life is to be good enough.
Shoulds are horrible.

So, I feel bad about what I am about to do … but with your permission, I’d like to suggest another should for you for the year ahead.

I do this with trepidation.  Reform Rabbis don’t do shoulds.  We do ‘mights’, we do ‘facilitating thinking abouts’.
We don’t do shoulds.

But today I’m going to do a should:
We should study more.

Now, quick caveat, I don’t mean that you should do this because I want you to, or because I think God wants you to.  I don’t even say this because Jewish study is a core, fundamental part of Jewish life, whatever our personal theologies or preferences (though it absolutely is).

I say this because Jewish study, if it is done right, is great. It is fun.  It can make our lives richer and more enjoyable.

I really believe this.  Look at what Tal and Nuri did for us this morning – taking two pieces of Torah and transforming them into thoughts for the twenty-first century. The Jewish library is full of that richness, that relevance.  Each of us can do that, too, and find a thousand texts to enhance our lives.

To me, rabbinic literature in particular, the formative stuff of Judaism is, quite simply, amazing.  I will never cease to be in awe of it, its creativity, its beauty, its insight.  The period 100ish – 900ish CE saw the most wonderful and inspiring human creative enterprise in history.  Done by rabbis and all based around, but not bound to Torah.

So, in 2014, please – I can’t even say the should – please study Jewish stuff more.

Let me give you just one example of the extraordinary literary richness of our tradition.

One of the main characters in the story of the Exodus that we are in the middle of reading – that will culminate next week in the crossing of the Reed Sea – one of the main characters is the rod of Moses and Aaron.  It transforms into a snake, it is held out over the waters of Egypt to turn them to blood; it brings forth frogs and lice, hail and locusts.  It parts the sea before the Israelites allowing them to cross.

This staff is one of the crucial characters.  Yet the Torah tells us nothing about it – its provenance, its power.  It is not relevant to the story of the biblical authors.

But the wonderful creative Rabbis knew – as Tolkein would have known, or JK Rowling – that surely this was no ordinary wooden staff, that something as important as the rod needs its own backstory.

So, wonderful creative rabbis, they invented one.
According to the Mishnah, compiled in Eretz Yisrael in 200ish CE, this staff was, in fact, one of 10 miraculous things created on the Eve of the first Shabbat, along with, among other things the rainbow which appeared after the flood; the mouth of the earth that swallowed Korach and his followers after their rebellion; Balaam’s talking donkey, the Manna, and so on.

I’ll come back to that Mishnah.  But, if that was the case, how did the staff end up with Moses?

The midrash Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (eighth century, Land of Israel) gives us a proper backstory:  Having been created as part of the Creation, the staff, it tells us, was given first to Adam in the Garden of Eden; he them passed it to Enoch, who gave it to Methuselah.
He in turn passed it on to Noah, who gave it to his son Shem, and on to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob and to Joseph.
When Joseph died, his belongings were removed to Pharaoh’s place, where the staff remained on the side until one of Pharaoh’s advisors fancied it, took it.  The adviser’s name was Jethro, and he took it and stuck it in the ground in his garden in Midian.
Having stuck it in the ground, there it stayed, as no-one was able to pull out the staff, until Moses came along, and for him, out it slid.  Jethro, mighty impressed, gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage, and Moses ended up with the miraculous rod.

All this from the imagination of the Rabbis.
And how amazing…
Two textual questions answered in one story: how come Moses ended up with this amazing rod for use in our current section of Torah, and – in case we were wondering – another problem of the Torah text: how come Moses ended up married to the daughter of a Midianite priest.

And in case you missed the similarity, Moses’ rod, it turns out is Excalibur!  Stuck until the right person comes along who can pull it out.
How fabulous, that a motif so familiar from English folklore can be found in a Jewish text from centuries before.

All of which is a lot of fun.

But, in the context of rabbinic literature, this also has a point.
The rabbis are keen that we understand Moses’ staff as a super-natural item.  Why?  What difference does this make to how we read the text?

By placing it in this creative story, by tracing it back to the eve of
the first Shabbat of creation the Rabbis also share crucial insights about our religious lives and how we should live…

By giving the staff a supernatural backstory, the rabbis recognise that divine intervention as found in Torah, is not what we observe happening around us.  They give us a mechanism for understanding the biblical miracles from our viewpoint.  They deny God the ability to continually intervene in the world, asserting that the subversion of the natural order that happens in the story of the Exodus, in this week’s portion for example, is not something that we can expect to see.

In describing biblical miracles as pre-ordained, as prepared by God in the penultimate act of creation, the rabbis also created a structure for the deviations in the natural world that we experience, that they are not seen as challenging the natural order, but as part of it.  We, unlike, for example, the Christian fundamentalist after Hurricane Katrina, can not read every natural event as the actions of an intervening God.

In other words, through their stories the rabbis tell us that miracles belong in the narrative.
And that tells us something about how we are to live.  Unless we too have an Excalibur style rod, we cannot live our lives in the expectation of divine intervention. We have to make miracles, not rely on them.  Through two rabbinic texts, through their creative imagination, we learn a crucial lesson – that responsibility falls on us.

So, actually, here are two ‘shoulds’ for 2014.
Number one ‘should’: ‘should’ study more.  This is just one example of the richness of rabbinic literature – it is full to bursting of creativity that can change the way we think about Torah, and hopefully, the world.  Grotty horrible stuff too, but also amazing insights.

And a more important ‘should’, too… a ‘should’ given from the rabbis to us through the mechanism of a great story.  Should act.  Don’t wait for miracles.   Our lives we have to make for ourselves.  The responsibility for creating the wondrous stories of our time lies with us.