In helfman

By Rabbi Jordan Helman.

Sermon: August 3, 2013.

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing many of our fellow congregants up at URJ Camp George, a place where Reform Judaism comes alive, surrounded on three sides by the idyllic Maple Lake – one of the most beautiful places I have been.  While up at camp, I heard a song that I recognized from my time working at camps in the United States, which has apparently swept the reform camping world – a setting of Olam Chesed Yibaneh – עֹולָם חֶסֶד יִבָּנֶה, by Rabbi Menachem Creditor.  Apparently it spread, as these things do, quickly across America, and slowly to reform youth in Israel and Canada. The melody lifts a section from Psalm 89, and translates it beautifully with four English verses –

I will build this world from love, and you must build this world from love, and if we build this world from love, God will build this world from love.”

Our Torah portion contains, what some would call ‘tough love.’  In the first verse, God lays this out explicitly, “רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיֹּ֑ום בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃”.   – “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse:  blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you this day, and curse, if you do not obey the commandments.”

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, a chasidic teacher around the year 1800, comments that רְאֵה, see, here is not about being alert – a literary device to catch our attention – see!!-  rather it is a physical command- See.  Laid out before us, as we go about our lives – is a choice.  We can choose to be ethical, or we can choose not to be.  We can choose to give צדקה, or we can chose not to. We can choose to observe and make modern what our ancestors passed down to us, or we can choose to abandon it.  We can choose to take up, as the Rabbis called it, the Yoke of Heaven, or we can pretend we are not making a choice, and ignore it.

This, according to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, is why in the Talmud the sages portray the choice of accepting the commandments of Torah – עול מצוות, or עול מלכות שמים, as accepting a “yoke” – the type of instrument by means of which an ox is made to pull the plough, the tool that eventually provides us with our sustenance.

The prolific translator Rabbi Eliyahu Monk appreciates this comparison, finding great wisdom in “the simile of a Jew who keeps the commandments as having accepted the “yoke” of heaven, portraying such a Jew as pulling a ploughshare, the reward for doing so is a long way off, until the harvest has been brought in and can be consumed.”

According to these commentators, those of us who walk in the path of Judaism are as if we are leaving behind us a better tilled, a better looked after world for generations to come.  I will build this world from love.

But, as our Torah portion makes clear, we have a choice.  Bachiya Ibn Pakuda, an 11th century Spanish rabbi, points out that only the first word of this Torah portion – רְאֵה – is in the singular, while the portion continues in the plural, thus emphasizing that this is a choice for each of us individually.

However as a Jewish people, we are all affected be each other’s choices.

When a Jewish mayor is arrested on corruption charges, or a Jewish investment banker is arrested for running a scheme which stole money from many, including major Jewish charities, it colours others perceptions of all of us.

We must, as Jews, hold each other up to the highest standards.

You MUST build this world from Love.

And while our Torah portion is Moses’s address to the Jewish people, we know that as the Jewish people, we do not live isolated from our surroundings.  And even in our own homeland, we look to our neighbors for economic, political and often even military support.  The greater We – all of us in this world – must see the blessings and the curses and must choose.

Blessings and Curses.  The 16th century Italian Rabbi Ovadia Sforno portrays these as absolutes – The choice of a blessing and curse does not permit of a compromise.  Our Torah portion labels them as two physical mountains, facing one another. They are two opposites between which one must choose.

Yet, while tradition tells us that we must build a fence around the sacred, as Reform Jews, we know that there is much grey in the world.  For instance, this week’s Torah portion commands us – לֹֽא־תְבַשֵּׁ֥ל גְּדִ֖י בַּחֲלֵ֥ב אִמֹּֽו׃ – You shall not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk.  Some of us take this literally, not mixing red-meat with milk, yet are unafraid of chicken parmesan’s chance of infringe on this commandment.  Others take it figuratively, trying not to colour the impression of a child based on the actions of the parent.  To observe this and the other laws which detail what is fit for our consumption as a covenant people with God, there is a rainbow of expression amongst the Jewish people from only eating food prepared to the strictest standards in the strictest home, to eco-kashrut, which is more concerned with the ethical sourcing of the food, the living wage paid to its producers, and even the quality of life the animal lived before it found its way to our plates.   We know there is much grey.

So, too, with the physical fences in Land of Israel, there is not simply blessing and curse, but a myriad of gradations in between.

There are now nine-months of peace talks scheduled.  I hope we will remain optimistic, for as all parents know, greater miracles have happened in nine months.

But as we hear news, if we like it or dislike it, think Israel is compromising on too much or too little, that what is happening to Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel – is a blessing or a curse, we can still remain optimistic that it will keep the State of Israel safe, and its inhabitants better able to build a life based in optimism and hope.

We must build this world from trust, from forgiveness, and from hope.

We must build this world from love.

All of us make a choice.  We can, as this week’s Torah portion commands us, give Tzedakah – a portion of our hard-earned work to support a more just world.  We can, as we can interpret from this week’s Torah portion, let go of prejudice and the right of retribution.  See! we all have the opportunity to choose a Jewish life – a life sowing seeds of love.  Seeds of peace.

And if we build this world from Love,

From each of our work, interacting with each other positively, doing our part to give Tzedakah, and doing our best to live a life filled with family – our own families, the family of the Jewish people, and the family of all of mankind,

God will build this world from Love.

As Rabbi Menachem Creditor writes,

“The world is frequently not in a good place, and we ache for it to be better, to make more sense, to be a place of love. We worry about our children, which is another way of worrying about everyone. And so we pray. We don’t have the luxury of waiting for something outside of humanity to liberate the world. We are called to be part of the healing. We must build this world from love. And if we do, then we are not alone. That’s when God is right here, between and within us all.”

We pray, as Israel moves forward once again into peace talks, that we are able to be supportive and optimistic, building on love and hope.  We pray as the Psalmist wrote, Olam Chesed Yibaneh. And let us all say, Amen.


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  • Rabbi Menachem Creditor

    Rabbi Helfman, I’m humbled to be part of your message. May all you write, all we sing, be realized soon and in our days. – menachem

  • Sharyn Salsberg Ezrin

    Thank you Rabbi Jordan Helfman for your inspiring sermon with a song, as you accompanied yourself on guitar – could you post a video of your song on our website? or find a youtube version you recommend. What are the chord sequences? Would love to try to learn it.
    Hope you will consider doing it again for Rosh Hashanah at the Family Service. We could all learn it together.

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