Parashat Beshallach 5778

Rabbi Leah Jordan – 26 January 2018

I want to let you in on a little secret you may know already – Jews aren’t supposed to give new year’s sermons. Maybe this is already obvious. There’s nothing particularly Jewish about New Year’s. After all, we already had ours in September. Rosh Hashanah was already all about what we did wrong and about resolving to do better – so when the rest of the world started talking about beginning their New Year’s resolutions this past month, we should feel a little ahead of the game. And New Year’s itself commemorates a very Christian thing, albeit wrapped up in a very Jewish one: January 1st is the eighth day after Jesus, the Christian Messiah, was born on December 25th, so it’s Jesus’ Jewish bris – or circumcision. The style of doing a New Year’s sermon, we’re told then, is not a very Jewish one.

But I’m in the mood for taking the New Year’s resolution-style longview today: partly because I recently got back from a New Year’s family trip, and partly because of the fact that this week’s parsha, ‘when Pharaoh let the people go,’ is the ultimate story of freedom and redemption. At the start of this month, Moses’ encountered God for the first time in the burning bush. And all of this stuff about New Year’s and God and ethics has got me thinking about yet another thing that’s kinda Christian but isn’t:
What is my faith.

Before you cringe, here’s what I mean by that. On this new year, let us take account. In a world that is in no small part pain and anguish and thwarted chances – and which feels more like that every year, it sometimes seems – how are we to understand the God that Moses meets in the burning bush, who introduces God’s self as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and who declares, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh”? I will be what I will be. Who is this God who is raining plagues down upon the Egyptians this week? Who is this God we Jews supposedly believe in? How does He help? What are we supposed to do to be partners/in covenant with this God?

In the world of Trumpism and the rise of the far right, of the daily and regular grinding poverty of so many in this world, of climate change and suffering, to what Force do we appeal or believe in in this secular new year, as we look toward the future, having taken account of the year gone past?

On this new year, let us take account—So what is my faith? To whom can I look for guidance?
I come from a mixed marriage – my mother’s faith is Judaism; my father’s is Star Trek. My father is also, not coincidentally, an atheist.

He would say that there is no force to which we can appeal – because no such force exists. My mother, on one hand, harking back to the etymology of the word God, believes that God is the Good in the world. My father, on the other hand, believes in Star Trek, the notion that humanity will one day fly off among the stars, all of us still different from one another in many fundamental ways but united in common spacefaring purpose. My parents faiths’ would seem to disagree.

They do not in fact disagree. And neither, I think, does Judaism – (though anyone should be sceptical when one claims that Judaism “says” anything.)

In a prayer we Jews say daily, we say: Kee el po’el y’shuot atah. “For you are the power which works to save us.” Literally, for you are God of the Power to Save. Or as Mordecai Kaplan, the Jewish philosopher of the late 20th century had it: “God is the Power that makes for salvation.”

What the heck does that mean?

It’s the expression of a very fundamental kind of faith that comes down to us deeply from the Jewish messianic vision, political ideologies of all kinds and even Star Trek, and something that Dr. Martin Luther King boiled down famously into one sentence in the 1950s, during the beginning of the civil rights movement. King said famously: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

That is, despite what we see in the world, the injustice and the grief, we do believe that somehow justice will prevail in the end. The God of the Power to Save.

“The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.” King got that particular quote from a man who wrote it down a century before him, named Theodore Parker, a theologian and American abolitionist. Parker wrote: “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

The particular cadence of the phrase, ‘the arc of the moral universe,’ carried down through the decades all the way to King. Along the way, in 1940, it came to Rabbi Jacob Kohn in Los Angeles, who did that very Jewishly un-Jewish of things and delivered a New Year’s message like this one. (I think they didn’t call it a sermon cause then somehow he’d get out of having sermonized on Christian New Year). Rabbi Kohn said:

“Our faith is kept alive by the knowledge, founded on long experience, that the arc of history is long and bends toward justice,” … “We have seen so many ancient tyrannies pass from earth since Egypt and Rome held dominion that our eyes are directed not to the tragic present, but to the beyond, wherein the arc of history will be found bending toward justice, victory and freedom.”

The arc of the moral universe is long but nevertheless it bends toward justice.

It is hard to see that this may be so, not in the world around us. But I’d like to suggest that that’s the message of the God we meet in Exodus this month, the God Moses met in the burning bush, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I am what I will be, Kee el po’el y’shuot atah. The God who takes us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and oustretched arm and signs and portents. The God of the Power to Save.

I think that’s faith. It’s the Jewish religion on this Christian New Year: Ahavah Rabbah’s God of the Power to Save in this morning’s liturgy and Mordecai Kaplan and our God who Moses meets in Exodus this month, believing that the arc of the moral universe does bend in the long run toward justice, and that it is our covenant with that God to make sure that is truly so in the world.

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