Va’etchanan – Why Religion Matters

People see us acting on Jewish values, and it has the potential to touch them, and change them.

Certain stories stay with you – and this morning I want to share a story that I have told before and will tell again – because it has so much to teach. It is from our congregant Eric Sahn, who is on the national board of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). For those of you unfamiliar with AJWS, it is an extraordinary organization whose goal is to end poverty and promote human rights in the developing world. They have the knowledge, passion and innovation to make an enduring difference in the 19 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. They follow a two pronged strategy of grant-making to 450 social justice organizations in these 19 countries; while also advocating for laws and policies in the United States that will improve the lives of millions of people around the world.

Eric and his wife Amy have been to many countries to see the work of these organizations that AJWS supports. It was while visiting an organization in Nicaragua that a moment occurs that sits in my heart. Eric isn’t completely sure, but he thinks the organization was a farming collective group that created a seed bank, where farmers receive interest free seed for the best crops that would grow in their mountainous region. The farmers would repay the cost of the seeds after the harvest. The organization also provided training for agricultural best practices. After hearing from the farmers about the organization, Eric and people from the AJWS trip thanked them for their work and shared what AJWS tries to do. Eric recalls that the people on the trip had never met a Jew – and when they heard “American Jewish World Service” they asked what it means to be Jewish. What would you have answered? The Rabbi on the trip responded that Judaism’s central belief is that all people are created in God’s image b’tzelem elohim, and that it is our responsibility and obligation to help out anyone and everyone around the world who is need because they are a reflection of God. Then someone from the community responded: “We would like to be Jewish too.”

That for me captures a key piece of what it means to be Jewish that we often don’t articulate: People see us acting on Jewish values, and it has the potential to touch them, and change them. Not everyone will say, “We want to be Jewish too.” But they are changed because of how our Judaism defines us and impacts them. As that man heard how Jewish belief that human life is sacred means that all people – rich and poor, great and small are equal because we are all reflections of divinity – it moved him.

If we ask the most basic question: “What does being Jewish mean?”, an answer I am suggesting is that being Jewish is acting in a way where people notice our Jewish behavior and it changes them because of how we treat fellow human. The Torah rarely explains WHY we do things, but this week’s Torah portion makes exactly the claim I am suggesting. (go to chapter 4:6, page 1008) Moses tells us:

“Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’”

For me this verse teaches that Judaism contains within it a beauty, truth and goodness which confers a majesty and inspiration to those who observe it being lived. In explaining the Jewish system of law, the great 11th century philosopher Moses Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:31) asserts that Torah laws are “for our good” – in order to help us to build good, healthy, wise societies. Last in the same book, he goes further and says that Torah law will help us build a society that non-Jews will see and hold in high-esteem.

On some level it seems odd that non-Jews would see us keeping to our unique, particularistic way of life and say how wise we are. For Maimonides, the answer is that our moral behavior has an impact on those who don’t share our faith. In his book A Letter in the Scroll, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings examples of this happening. He brings Blaise Pascal, the 17th century mathematician and physicist, who writes: “The Jews have always been preserved…My encounter with this people amazes me.” People’s lives are changed by their encounter with us. So my question today is: “What do people see when they observe our Jewish behavior?” It is a question for a person of any faith – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist. Would others observe that our faith makes us more thoughtful and kind? Would they see that it engages and emboldens us regarding the ethical issues of our times? When we measure our religious life in terms of how people will observe and be impacted by our behavior, it demands a level of commitment and integrity. It means we have to take a hard look at who we are and what we do.

I want to share the story of a man whose Jewish integrity was so inspiring that people looked at him and said, “What a powerful, wise and beautiful thing Judaism is!” The man is someone who touched Marga and her family in a profound way – Rabbi Marshall Meyer. Everyone called him Marshall – so in this sermon I will as well.

In 1959, Marshal was a 29 year old New York born rabbi who decided to have an adventure and go to Argentina for a couple years. He ended up staying until 1985 during the most morally challenging period of Argentinian history when a right wing anti-Semitic military government terrorized its people. Marshall stood up to those corrupt men.

But he did more than stand up to an oppressive regime. He permanently changed the Jewish community in Argentina and throughout Latin America. When he arrived, attendance at synagogue had dwindled. Marshall brought life and music to the community. He spoke of the social justice of the prophets and created education programs for youth. He founded the first Conservative rabbinical seminary in Latin America. His synagogue was dynamic and full of life.

His integrity and moral conscience became a force. He courageously decried the actions of the military government – calling for justice and action. People of all faiths were moved by him. One article I read talked about how Catholics, Protestants, atheists and members of the Secret Service came to hear Marshall as he openly denounced the generals and their Dirty War. He received death threats regularly, but still met with relatives of the disappeared, visited jails and marched with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. People escaping the regime would sleep in his home – which was part of an Argentinian underground railroad. Marshall believed that silence was the greatest sin, and that evil needed to be opposed with every fiber of our being – even if it meant risking our lives.

When I began Rabbinical School, Marshall was one of my teachers for one year before he moved to New York City. He let us know that unless we were addressing poverty and wrongdoing, we were betraying our tradition. I later learned that while his synagogue was being constructed in Buenos Aires, he simultaneously raised money for the construction of a clinic in a poor shanty town. Every week Marshall joined the local priest to drive out to that town and serve the poor people. Before dedicating the synagogue and moving the Torah into the ark, he first demanded that the doctors in the synagogue join him in opening up the clinic in the shanty-town. In his words: “No ritual Torah scroll was sufficient with a living Torah of justice and mercy.” Similarly, when he became Rabbi as Bnai Jeshurun in New York City, which he revitalized with music, community, education and social justice – he demanded that a soup kitchen be opened up before the building was renovated. How could we pray and study Torah, when people outside the building did not have food?

Marshall’s faith changed people’s life. Rabbi Richard Freund, also a Rabbi in Argentina shared that once he spoke in Tucuman – a city some 1,000 miles north of Buenos Aires which had been on of the hottest spots of confrontation between the government and the resistance. A man stood up and said:

“My son disappeared under the last military regime. Rabbi Meyer came here in the midst of the repression in 1982 and stood where you are standing now and told me that God suffered because of my suffering and that he suffered because of my suffering. I tell you that even until this day I believe in the God of Rabbi Meyer.”

People looked at Marshall and they knew that this was a man whose Jewish faith gave him the courage, wisdom and purpose.

I don’t know that we can have the impact that Marshall Meyer had. Those are big shoes to fill. What I do know is that goodness ripples, kindness has an impact, and lifting up the divinity of another changes the world. Lived correctly, religion/Judaism makes us more thoughtful and kind. It helps us understand and be attuned with the world. It inspires us to make a positive difference in the life of others. That is significant. It creates moments where others, like the people from Nicaragua from the AJWS trip, notice and are inspired. Our actions impact in extraordinary ways! Let’s live that truth.

(Information for this sermon gathered from: A Different Night, the Big Book of Hanukkah, edited by Noam Zion and Barbara Spectre, pp. 272-278; The Story of an Icon, in The Forward by Ilan Stavans (March 18, 2005); We are Witnesses: The Jewish Theology of Liberation of Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, Conservative Judaism, 47:1, Fall 1994, by Rabbi Richard Freund)