Rabbi Evan Moffic
July 3, 2009
12 Tamuz 5769
Shabbat Shalom. Thank you for being here. I deeply gratified that we can celebrate this shabbat together. We are, in Jewish parlance, Erev Fourth of July. Tomorrow we celebrate not only the Sabbath, but our American Independence Day. July 4th is, as I see it, one of our two major American holidays. The other is Thanksgiving. Now I'm not running for any political office, so I can say this freely: I've always thought Thanksgiving was a more Jewish holiday than July 4th. While July 4th celebrates independence, Thanksgiving highlights interdependence. We give thanks for the bounty, the family, the freedom we enjoy. It doesn't hurt that Thanksgiving also takes up the Jewish custom of centering around a meal. While independence is a part of Jewish tradition--we observe, for example, Israeli independence day and, given our history, we know the value of freedom from persecution and oppression--interdependence is more so. It also better reflects our reality as human beings in the 21st century. No matter how successful, how intelligent, or how powerful we are--we depend on others. Albert Einstein put it well when he said, "A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of others, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have been received and am receiving."
Why understanding this interdependence important? Why does it matter? Well in America we often have the ambition of pulling ourselves up from our boot straps, of being a self-made person. Ralph Waldo Emerson articulated the American creed well in his famous essay, self-reliance. This country was built up by pioneers who left their familiar ways behind. They sought a new life free of the old dependencies. That was part of the American way. How do all the famous Western films end? With John Wayne riding off, alone, into the sunset.
This myth is powerful. And it does have some truth to it. Part of growing up and becoming a mature human being is learning to do things independently. I have begun to see this in our daughter Hannah. I'll take a spoon and give her some ice cream, and she'll cry out--NO I want to do it by myself. Now that might have something to do with it being ice cream and her being two, but nevertheless, there are certain things we do on our own.
Yet, even our most basic actions reflect, as Einstein put it, the labors of others. Think of when we turn on the water faucet. To get that glass of water, we depend on plumbers, chemists, engineers, upon the manufacters of pipes and spigots, and also on the people who build the reservoirs, water meters and generators. One of the great achievements of the environmental movement is that it has helped make us more aware of the ethical and global implication of the work that goes into producing the food we eat, the coffee we drink and clothes we buy. We depend on others, and with that dependence comes a sense of responsibility. A sense of responsibility that demands of us, especially in these difficult times, to reach out to those left behind. That interdependence and responsibility find expression in an interesting Jewish law, that we happen to abide by here at Solel. In order to be kosher, our sages taught, a sanctuary must have windows. We are not permitted to isolate ourselves from the world around us.
On a more personal level, we also discover interdependence in our relationships. It's not always easy to see, but when we think about it, it's there. In my meetings with couples preparing to get married, I always ask each of them to describe the other, and to tell me a bit about what makes them want to spend their life together. Very often, one of the partners--for some reasons, it's usually the groom--talks about how his fiance has helped him become a better person, has helped him grow, become more thoughtful, and even more successful, as he has become more aware of his own strengths and weaknesses. Paradoxically, we discover ourselves through others.
Our Torah conveys this message of interdependence subtly but beautifully in the story of Adam and Eve. In Genesis 2, we read the famous story about Eve being made from the rib of Adam. Now the patriarchal nature of story is a subject for another sermon. So is an examination of the health and dynamics of Adam and Eve's relationship, which, of course, has its problems. For our purposes, let us look at the language Adam utters upon awakening and discovering Eve. The text reads, "This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh:
She shall be called "woman: [ishah] for she was taken from man [me-ish]. The hebrew text here since contains a nuance—lost in translation—whose significance is immense. Adam and Eve are not personal names. Adam means taken from the earth, and eve, chava, means life. Adam and eve are the hebrew equivalent and john and jane doe. In this passage, for the first time, we encounter the word esh and esha. They are much more personal and meaningful than adam and eve. Esh and Esha connote a human being with personality and character. If we look closely at our passage, we see that Adam calls himself Esh, man, only after he describes Eve as esha, woman. In other words, adam must first pronounce the name of eve and acknowledge her humanity before he can pronounce his own name and recognize himself. To use Martin Buber's terminology, he must be able to say "Thou" before he can say "I." In Judaism, there is no such thing as the totally independent, unattached individual. We are born into, and we gain our character and sense of self from the people and community to which we attach our lives. No person can exist in a vacuum.
This truth applies to our professional lives, as much as it does to our personal lives. At its most basic level, a business could not exist without customers. A doctor could not function without patients. And a rabbi really could not, well, give sermons, teach, counsel and build community without synagogues. I think about this truth as I begin my rabbinate at Solel. A synagogue needs a rabbi to lead, teach, provide spiritual leadership, and do all the things rabbis do. Yet, a rabbi also needs a synagogue. [slow] A rabbi needs a community that gives him or her support, ideas, challenges, wisdom and strength.
There is a beautiful hasidic teaching that says a rabbi can make a ladder. But only a congregation can decide how high it can go. Solel is the place where we will build and climb that ladder together. It is a ladder that connects us to God and to one another. It is a ladder that is sometimes help up by the rabbi, sometimes held up by the congregation, and at all held up by God and by our Jewish tradition. As we take each others hands and begin to climb this ladder together, let us say our traditional blessing of joy: Baruch atah...shechyanu