I was honored to preach at the San Francisco Theological Seminary today, as the first part of an interfaith pulpit exchange with my dear friend, Rev. Scott Clark. I preached on the Presbyterian Lectionary’s Hebrew Bible reading for the week… Scott will be at North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation co-teaching about the Passover story on March 29, and teaching about Shifra and Puah, and other topics, the following night. If you are around, I hope you will join us.
First, I have to tell you how very happy I am to be here among you again. I was a student of SFTS in 2005-06, the year before I started rabbinic school, to begin to learn Hebrew grammar, and to see if I could be a student again. I walked into the classroom, days after everyone else—17 ministers to be—had participated in a team building orientation, and I did not know a soul. Rev. Clark, then a first year student, recognizing a lost soul, welcomed me.
I had a head start on everyone else in the class – after all, I could already decode the Hebrew, and when our teacher flashed up a bit of text – Genesis 1:1 – 5 on the screen, it turned out to be the first Torah text I had ever learned to chant in the ancient trope. So you might say I was the Hermione Granger of the class in some respects, but so was Rev. Clark… (I love saying that, by the way.)
I returned to SFTS my last semester of rabbinic school – last spring – to study Clinical Pastoral Education with Rev. Laurie Garrett-Cobbina, in an amazing semester of growth and challenge (can you have growth without challenge?).
One of the many lessons she taught me was a new way of looking at our shared texts: she asked us to look at text in an immediate sense – after what we’d studied that morning, how did the text speak to us? In the first weeks, each text seemed taken from what Jews consider our “greatest hits.” For example, Isaiah 58 was one of the first texts, text we read on Yom Kippur, our holiest day. To follow Laurie’s instructions required a considerable shaking of my foundations, to hear that text – about the fast God expects of us – as it related to our morning. And each time we did this, I could hear and feel pillars shake and crusts of rigidity give way to a new openness to listening.
And so we come to this week’s lectionary reading from the Hebrew Bible (I recently saw something that referred to the Younger Testament, so I wonder, should I say, Older Testament?): Jeremiah 31:31-4. Noting Polly Coote’s comment on reading Greek at Scott’s ordination, I wish I could assume your Hebrew, especially your oral Hebrew could manage what I will read… but I suspect not… (and there will be no quiz.) I promise to translate when I’m done.
Jeremiah 31: 31See, a time is coming—declares Adonai—when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah.
32It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers, when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, a covenant which they broke, though I espoused them—declares Adonai.
33But such is the covenant I will make with the House of Israel after these days—declares Adonai: I will put My Torah (My teaching) into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts. Then I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
34No longer will they need to teach one another and say to one another, “Heed Adonai; for all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall heed Me—declares Adonai.
When I re-read this text, I could understand how the early Christians read in this, 600 years later, the covenant they were experiencing.
For the Jews who remained Jews, the text tells us that God will eventually bring us back from our exile on the shores of Babylon to the Promised Land and the community covenant will be renewed. Just as we had inscribed God’s torah on the doorposts of our houses, now they would be inscribed in our hearts. We were used to inscribing these words, and we were used to letting them into our hearts.
Not surprisingly, I think, Jewish commentary on these verses is sparse. Even Rashi, the great French Jewish medieval commentator par excellence, had little to say. Maybe the use your ancestors made of it made my ancestors shy away from it. Or maybe it just felt like a familiar metaphor. After all, the concept of instilling sacred words on our hearts appears earlier, in a few stirring verses of Deuteronomy (10:12-17):
12And now, O Israel, what does God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God, and to serve God with all your heart and soul, 13keeping YHWH ’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good. ….therefore, circumcise your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.
Circumcising our hearts – are you squirming yet? When this term appears, we always think both about covenant and about opening ourselves to the Divine. Here it is about opening our hearts, ridding ourselves of whatever closes it to the message of love, reverence, walking in the right, true paths.
Jeremiah was the most tortured of prophets, whose words were not heeded by his generation but whose words rang true in the end (even if we want to argue with his metaphors of violence against women, rape, and abandonment (which we do, another time)).
The destruction of the Temple, the Axis Mundi, the connection between heaven and earth, between God and Israel, was destruction that I can only imagine when I feel emotionally strong enough – a literal decimation of the people, exile, starvation, people killing their children rather than watch them die slowly. Death and destruction rained down on them. Spiritual death combined with physical death. Could anything have been more horrific?
And yet Jeremiah finally, finally brought words of hope. The time is coming… hang on, hang in there, it will come. God’s torah, God’s teaching will be inscribed on our hearts, and we will behave instinctively.
Commentators, both Jewish and Christian, seem to form a consensus that this would happen because God will forgive us. Forgive us for our heavy sins. Walter Breuggeman, in the Huffington Post, defines those sins as
violating “the Ten Commandments of Sinai
by economic policies that abused the poor,
by foreign policy that depended on arms,
by theological practice that offended God and
by illusions of privilege before God.”
Were Jeremiah here today, would he not note the same concerns, the same sins?
The Talmud, the vast compendium of rabbinic discussions completed about 1500 years ago, offered a slightly different list of 3 categories of sins that led to the destruction:
shedding of blood and
A contemporary leading Rabbi, Berel Wein, explains that idolatry is “the lack of any allegiance to the Higher Authority…wealth, greed and all sorts of injustice. All these are the results of having no responsibility to God.”
The second sin that led to the destruction of the Temple, the Talmud says, was murder. Life was cheap then; it’s pretty cheap today. People shoot congresswomen without regard to the collateral damage of whoever is nearby, or march into their schools and shoot their classmates and teachers, or people who don’t agree with them, or who just get in their way. We, like our ancestors, have become desensitized to it.
In Jewish tradition, human life takes precedence over almost anything; we call the concept pikuach hanefesh, the principle that saving a single life overrides virtually any other religious consideration, for to save a life is said to be akin to saving a whole world. In a society where human life is taken very easily it reflects just how far humanity has strayed from its purpose.
The third sin was sexual immorality. While today we might – and indeed are arguing about birth control and sexual freedom and who pays for contraceptives – in the time of the Talmud, as today, what they were really talking about was how we show respect to each other in a deeply intimate way. It is about appreciating the miracle of the inner person, the soul, not just the outer coat we wear.
Jews have always sought to understand our responsibility when disasters happen, and when the Temple was destroyed, we looked at ourselves. We could not see it as an abstract historic event of one country invading another. We concluded that because we had built a society that could not sustain itself, it had to end.
And so we come to today. Some of us believe that similar sins abound now—on both sides of the cultural divide. My list includes the lack of respect for women, the inability of people who are LGBT who love each other to marry and build sacred homes together; the high rate of bankruptcies caused by health emergencies… but my list is almost endless.
This Torah inscribed on our hearts — where are our lessons? What did we learn?
Surely one of the lessons we have learned, that Jeremiah tried to teach us here in these verses — is that forgiveness is given. Freely by God. Again and again, a new covenant is made. Each day, we Jews thank God – Modah ani lefanecha – I thank you because you have given me my soul back, all sparkling clean, and you have rabbah emunatecha, great faith in me.
Part of the lessons of God’s Torah is that we are supposed to act as God acts: if God forgives us, so too must we forgive. But this forgiveness, as with this newly clean soul, does not come without responsibility.
To be the change we want to see in the world requires us to truly look at ourselves – to take what Jews call a cheshbon hanefesh – a soul accounting – to see how we need to grow. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, a great 19th Century Lithuanian rabbi, taught that rather than worry about other people’s moral behavior and our own physical well-being, we should worry about other people’s physical well-being and our own spiritual level. How we act in the world, in our relationships, has a ripple effect on the rest of the world.
There is a story of the Chofetz Chayim, a 19th and 20th century Polish rebbe who had a tremendous impact on the Jewish world.
When asked how he had achieved this success, the Chofetz Chaim answered, “I set out to try to change the world, but I failed. So I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too. So I targeted the community in my hometown of Radin, but achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family, and failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself, and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”
Before we can change the world, we have to change ourselves, take that cheshbon hanefesh, that spiritual accounting, knowing that if we look inward, as Jeremiah told us, we will find God’s torah inscribed on our hearts… But we have to look, to seek.
One more story— in Genesis 1, we are told that each of us is created in the image of God, with the Divine spark. There is an ancient midrash, or commentary, on this verse:
The angels, having heard that God planned to create the human being in God’s image, grew jealous. What does a mere mortal human have to deserve such a gift? The angels plotted to hide the image of God from the human being.
One angel suggested that it be hid on the tallest mountain. Another suggested that it be sunk into the deep of the sea. But the shrewdest angel demurred. “A human,” he said, “is an adventurer. People will climb the highest mountain. They will plumb the deepest ocean. But if we want to hide it from them, let us hide the image inside each of them. It is the last place in the world that they will seek it.”
But we must seek it. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th Century rabbi, once said that Judaism—like other religions—does not require a “leap of faith,” but rather a “leap of action.” We have to act, not just rearrange our feelings.
If you want to forgive someone, give to them. If you want to be reconciled, reach out. If you want to let go of resentments, then act in a way that acknowledges the humanity you share with your enemy.
As seekers of truth, I pray that each of us looks for our internal torah, inscribed in each of our hearts, learns where we have maybe covered it with the shmutz/stains of every day life, and take the leap of action to forgive – ourselves first and each other next. As we each do this, we bring closer the day when truly we will all be God’s people and the world will know peace.
 Walter Brueggeman. Jeremiah 31:31-34: The Oracle of Newness. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/walter-brueggemann/jeremiah-31-31-34-on-scripture-new-covenant_b_1031455.html. Accessed 3/10/12.