Honored Rabbi Cantor, a person I have enjoyed knowing these last few months and Cantor Sofer, family and friends and fellow congregants, let me first give special thanks to Ted Hirschfeld for the excellent teaching he provided to me on my Haphtarah today. My wife Lisa also deserves special thanks for encouraging and enduring the time I spent learning and practicing my Haphtarah. To those that asked: Yes I did have a Bar Mitzvah on May 25, 1958, on Sunday the first day of Shavuot. Remembering what my mother, may she rest in peace, said to me many times: “Bernard we are a strange people, we eulogize the dead and criticize the living.” As I remembered the sense of exhilaration I felt, going through the process of practicing my Bar Mitzvah some 57 years ago, especially, that very last week, I decided to repeat the process that I had experienced in my early adolescence. In so doing, I wanted you, my friends and family, to join me in this celebration.
Let me begin by going back in time. It is the week of my Bar Mitzvah, 1958, and suddenly out of nowhere, I who rarely ever got sick, had developed a rash that within a couple of days covered my entire face. You can imagine my mother, fraught with fear: Her first thought being that I had German Measles as it was thought contagious and was making the rounds in the neighborhood at that time. Asking if I was okay, I repeatedly told her I felt fine except for the fact that I had a need to itch my face where the rash had spread. My father, as always the optimist he was, told my mother not to worry as I would be fine. But the rash spread and worsened to my mother’s distress and, I continued to feel the need to itch. When my face became covered with red marks my mother decided to have me stay home on Friday and on to the doctor I marched. I did not mind missing school because by this time I was feeling pretty uncomfortable in my own skin. How this could be happening, I wondered, on my Bar Mitzvah week. Why was God doing this to me? What was He trying to say to me?
Ah, how we can sometimes miss the obvious. The doctor immediately diagnosed my problem as a bad case of poison ivy. I had played stick ball with a friend, Marc Goldblatt, who is among us today in the congregation and on our block was an undeveloped lot. I went to fetch a ball he hit into the lot and I had stuck my head into a clump of what had turned out to be poison ivy. I took liberal amounts of calamine lotion and by Sunday my condition had cleared up to the point where I looked like a normal acned adolescent.
On a broader and more universal level, I remember being in the 4th grade in 1955 when I was 10 years old and the teacher saying that the likelihood of Israel surviving was small inasmuch as she was surrounded by its enemies among which was Egypt’s Nasser and, thus would more than likely lose its statehood. Saddened, I talked to my parents about that and they somehow reassured me not to worry. Obviously, the world underestimated the people of Israel as indeed, they are still here, stronger than ever. Besides which, Nasser had to put up with the likes of Hollywood in 1956, when Charlton Heston, as Moses, crossed the Red Sea unharmed in Cecil Demille’s epic: The Ten Commandments.
1948 was a huge turning point in Jewish history when Israel gained its Statehood and became a nation after its battle for independence. It had been 2100 years since the Jewish people had won a battle. when the Maccabees stood up against the Greeks in 163 b.c.e. 2100 years and, here I thought 86 years was like an eternity, when the Red Sox finally won a World Series in 2004. 86 years may seem a long time but compared to 2100 years it is a mere speck of time.
And now what about this holiday called Shavuot. Shavuot is the Hebrew word for weeks and has been referred to as the Festival of Weeks. By custom, we as Jews count 50 days from the 2nd day of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot which would be today. 50 days represented when the grain was ready to be harvested by the farmers. Shavuout is sometimes referred to as Pentecoste from the Greek work meaning 50. Shavuout represents the time, when Moses leading the Jewish people out of Egypt crossing the Sea of Reeds and entering Mount Sinai in what is now the Sinai Peninsula, receives the Torah or 5 Books of Moses from Genesis to Deutoronomy from God at Mount Sinai.
Today I read a haphtarah. A haphtarah is a series of selections from the books “Prophets” each of which corresponds to the Torah reading of that day. And so, my haphtarah corresponds to the Torah reading of today describing Moses’ journey to Mount Sinai. My haphtarah dates back to the time the Jews were in exile, after being conquered by the Babylonians, and comes directly from Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot he had in which he sees heaven opening up above with four heavenly creatures, each having four faces: 1) Human; 2) Lion; 3) Ox and an 4) Eagle. Each has wings extended upward at once human with other characteristics that are not human where he sees faces of humans and animals combined with wings that appear to turn into the angels of God. When he sees what he believes to be the image of God on a throne above the creatures, he falls to the ground; he then hears a rumbling voice believing that God has made him a prophet with the goal of leading his people back to the Promised Land. Ezekiel has this vision in Babylon after he is taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar who seizes Jerusalem in 598 b.c.e. where Ezekiel was born of a priestly family. The vision occurs in the 5th year of the Babylonian Exile which would have been around 593 b.c.e.
Now in ancient times, when a people were conquered they had two ways of understanding or reacting to being conquered: 1) The people that conquered them must have had stronger gods so let’s accept or believe in their gods and abandon our gods or for Jews their one God or 2) We are being punished because we have sinned against our God so we must correct our sins of the past to once more gain favor in the eyes of our God.
Around this time, carbon dating in areas where Jews lived, were rife with figurines and objects showing that Jews shared the practices of idolatry (idol worship) with other peoples. As a result of his vision, Ezekiel told his fellow exiles that the captivity was but temporary punishment for their disloyalty to God. He rebuked them for their ways and told them that their fellow Jews in Judah (Israel of today) would suffer the same fate if they did not change their ways. And sure enough, Nebuchadnezzar and his armies in 587 b.c.e destroy the Temple of Judah in Israel. Ezekiel has another vision and then is asked to record the date and the event. When the sad news was confirmed, the Jews in Babylon realized that Ezekiel the priest was truly a prophet of G-d: Ezekiel assured his people that they would survive as long as they worshipped God and followed His laws ceasing any practices of idolatry. The result was truly phenomenal inasmuch as after the destruction of the Temple in 587 b.c.e., carbon dating has shown that the Jewish people gave up the practice of idolatry. The giving up of idols and truly accepting a monotheistic God, I believe, to be a watershed in the history of Judaism.
We know from history that in 539 b.c.e. Cyrus, the Good king of the Persians, enters Babylon and gives back to the original cities the sacred objects carried off to Babylon. In 538 b.c.e., the Edict of Cyrus is proclaimed allowing the Jewish exiles to return to the Promised Land. In 537 b.c.e., the foundation of the Second Temple is laid and between 520-515 b.c.e. the Second Temple is erected.
Moses, receiving the Torah or having written it is, of course, more symbolic than historic. There really is no specific date as to when the Torah was written inasmuch as the event itself transcends any one point in time. Modern religious scholars believe that the writing of the Torah started sometime after the reign of King David in 1000 b.c.e. and, it was edited during and after the exile of the Jews in Babylon. With good fortune, when the Jews went into exile in Babylon, they were able to take the scrolls of parchment that the Torah was written on. In the 5th century b.c.e., the Pentateuch or the Torah, that is the five books of Moses, becomes recognized and accepted by all Jews. Ezra, a scribe, was said to have read this accepted version to his people when they have returned to Jerusalem. Acceptance of the Torah is then the binding force that kept the Jews together till present day after other tribes and peoples disappeared from the face of the earth.
So what then is the significance of the Torah? It would take an Irish Catholic, Thomas Cahill, to address this question in his wonderful book: The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. This is a book I recommend to both Jew and Non-Jew to read as it is a fascinating study of the Jewish Bible or the Torah. So now, let me highlight a few of the main points Cahill makes about the Torah that is the 5 books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Most importantly, the Jewish Bible changed history by literally creating history. Prior to the wonderings of Abraham outside of Ur, where he was believed to come from, every religion and culture in ancient times saw the world in cyclical terms with no movement forward. Humans simply followed the cyclical pattern of nature with no event being unique but rather being enacted perpetually. These cycles were marked by: 1) The phases of the moon; 2) the cycle of a woman’s body and 3) the seasons. Humans were believed to have no control of their fate as it was predetermined by their gods. The beer of the Sumerians was good because of its associations with the eternal, with the archetypal goddess who took care of such things. Nothing is considered new. But if everything is a circle repeating itself, there is no such thing as a future. With no future in sight, if all is a circle, there is little purpose to life because the pattern will repeat itself and the future cannot be influenced if everything happens over and over. The Israelites became the first people to live—psychologically—in real time, and they also became the first people to value the New and to welcome Surprise.
As Cahill points out, the Bible is distinctly different from anything else written before or after ancient times, because it lists individuals’ names “including names of women” thereby saying that every one of these persons was uniquely significant. No such listing of commoners’ names exists in pre-biblical literature. Other writings such as the Greeks, for example, have gods and humans mixed with the fate of the characters often predetermined by Fate. The lack of free will in the writings of these ancient cultures is evident, for example, in the famous Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles written in the 5th century b.c.e. In this tragedy, Oedipus, from the outset, is doomed to kill his father and marry his mother.
Rather, as Cahill puts it, the Bible is history, not mythology. Each episode fits into a logical progression of events so that it is told against the background of everything that has come before it giving it a natural sense and unity.
The second transformative Jewish contribution was its understanding of God. The Hebrew God, unlike every god before, “cannot be manipulated,” as this God “is a real personality who has intervened in real history, changing its course and robbing it of predictability.” The Torah’s account is grounded in its monotheism, a concept at the heart of the religion of Israel and promoted in Christianity and Islam.
Third, the Jews gave the world the notion of human freedom on two levels: The first and more obvious is the Torah’s rejection of slavery in the human condition, a reason why black Americans took so much solace in the Hebrew Bible’s Exodus narrative. The other point I discussed above: The Bible’s complete rejection of the cyclical view of life. “We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free but are as liberated as were the Israelite slaves when they crossed the Sea of Reeds” in their exodus out of Egypt.
Fourth, through the Ten Commandments, “for the first time human beings are offered a code without justification. Because this is God’s code no justification is required for who but God can speak: Thou Shalt and Thou Shalt not without such authority that no further words are needed.”
Fifth the Jews gave the world a day of rest. “No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest.” Even today you can hear many of us say: TGIF: Thank God It’s Friday. Those people, who work seven days a week, even if they are paid millions of dollars to do so, are in the biblical conception, slaves.
Sixth, the Bible’s “bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law.” I would maintain that this principle, especially, resonated with the founding fathers of America as they were said to base many of their ideas of justice and freedom on the basis of their reading of the Bible. Certainly, at the start of the Revolutionary War, America was viewed as the underdog against British forces but we know how that war ended.
Let me conclude on a positive note: Shavuot is a time of gratitude as it is the time when Jews accepted the Ten Commandments from God and the Bible and, it also represents the time of harvest of the farmers in Israel. As a practicing psychologist, I know that gratitude is a very important ingredient of happiness. Those that lack gratitude in their lives are often weighed down by the everyday difficulties that life presents to all of us.
Studies have found that people who are grateful are likely to be happier, hopeful and energetic, and they possess positive emotions more frequently. Individuals also tend to be more spiritual or religious, forgiving, empathic and helpful, while being less depressed, envious or neurotic. And here I may end by saying: Let us all count our blessings.