Parasha Devarim

On behalf of Congregation Beth Shalom, I would like to welcome Rosanne Kearny and Don McCallum and Kelly Callahan into our community and into the Jewish people.  You might not be fully aware of this, but this morning you joined a very complicated people . Even our earliest Rabbis were perplexed by the character of the Jewish people. Rabbi Abba bar Acha says in the Talmud, “One cannot determine the nature of this people! When asked to contribute to the making of the Golden Calf, they give. When asked to contribute to the building of the Tabernacle, they give!”

In our Torah this week, Moses compares the Jewish people to the stars of the heavens. In which ways are we like stars of the heavens?  The 11thcentury Biblical commentator Rashi , writing in the medieval city of Troyes, France, says that just as the stars are a permanent fixture in the universe, so the Jewish people are a permanent fixture on history’s stage. Whereas other people enter and exit from history, the Jewish people remain. Eight hundred years after the death of Rashi, writing from a continent that Rashi did not know existed and from a country that he could never imagine, Mark Twain said much the same about the Jewish people.  He wrote in 1899:

“The Egyptian, the Babylonian and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

The Jewish people are also like stars because often we stand out in the darkness.  Jews have been at the forefront in the battle against the Kingdom of Night in the world, first in the struggle against oppression, first to confront the haters in our world.  Yes, we have often paid the price when we have stood up to tyrants, when we have fought for the cause of freedom and for human rights.  We aspire, at least, to fulfill Isaiah’s vision of the Jewish People as a “Light unto the Nations” – a moral beacon toward which people of the world could look for inspiration and as an example of ethical living.

The Torah also compares the Jewish people to the sands of the sea. Each individual grain of sand is insignificant in and of itself, but those grains gathered together on a beach are a force to be reckoned with, a force that can withstand the power of the seas that continuously assault them.  Perhaps as individuals we may at times feel insignificant and weak.  However, when we stand together, we can withstand forces far greater than any one of us can withstand alone. Just as the sands of the sea are battered by the waves but endure, so the Jewish people, though persecuted and pursued throughout our history, have endured.

G-d promises Abraham that his and Sarah’s descendants would be “as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the sands of the sea.”  If Abraham and Sarah could see us now, they would be amazed how, from such a small family, there are now more than 16 million of us on earth. Yet, we are, comparatively, a small number of people, only 16 million in a world population of 7.4 billion. We make up .2% of the world’s population. Still, we are not as numerous as either the stars in the heavens or the sands of the sea, in terms of numbers of people. Yet, the sages never understood the blessing to Abraham and Sarah in term of numbers, in terms of a head count. Rather, the sages understood that the blessingsof the Jewish people would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens and the sands of the sea.

Now we have three more blessings  — Kelly, Don, and Rosanne — Welcome to our congregation. 

Shabbat Shalom