To Seek and To Find – A Devar Torah for Va’etchanan

The following was submitted as a Devar Torah to Beit Hillel‘s email list.
I first delivered the exegetical component to Washington Heights Congregation
(The Bridge Shul) in 2001. The message has been updated.

In his “Varieties of Religious Experience,” William James identifies the “sad discordancy” of religious experiences in the secular world. “But they come seldom, and they do not come to everyone; and the rest of life makes no connection with them, or tends to contradict them than it confirms them.”  This sentiment is succinctly captured by the quote, “If you speak to God, you’re religious; if he answers, you’re psychotic.”

We are no doubt familiar with the spiritual spectacle of Sinai, where the Jewish people were gathered to experience mass revelation. But for all its glory and significance, the Sinaitic revelation was essentially passive. The Jewish people might have accepted with “na’aseh venishma,” but the revelation itself was dependent entirely on God.  Witnessing such an experience, especially en masse, leaves little room for spiritual skepticism.  But since the revelation at Sinai was a one-time event, we would need some guidance of encountering God when God’s presence is less explicit, or perhaps even distant.

While Va’etchanan recounts the revelation at Sinai, it also provides a such a scenario and it solution. In the (inevitable) event the Jewish people will eventually sin by worshipping other Gods, they will be exiled and scattered among the nations of the world where we will continue in our idolatrous ways. And yet despite being immersed in this physical and spiritual exile, there is hope for reconciliation. We are told, וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם מִשָּׁם אֶת־יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּמָצָאתָ כִּי תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶׁךָ – And from there you will seek out God and you will find him; Because/If you will seek with him with all of your heart and all of your soul (Devarim 4:29).

If we pay attention to the grammar of this verse, we notice a change in number in both halves. First we are told we will seek God in the plural (וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם) but we will find God in the singular (וּמָצָאתָ) The reason being that our seeking in the plural, תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ, would have been done with all of our hearts and souls as individuals בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶׁךָ.  I believe the message is that while we may search for God as a community we can “find” God only as individuals.

As individuals, we all have our own various skills and life experiences which will ultimately determine how we relate to God, and these skills and experiences will hopefully mature during the course of our lives.  Assuming the Maimonidean premise that God is essentially unknowable, the most anyone can hope for is an incomplete understanding.  If no one can achieve complete understanding, then we are all essentially grasping at fragments, none of which can be considered “better” than the other. All that is required is a complete devotion to the exploration.

This approach is not without its challenges, the most obvious being religious relativism. However, here too we are given some direction in that we are commanded to remember that in the Sinaitic revelation we saw no image (Devarim 4:15). Setting aside theological arguments as to the corporeality of God, it is apparent that God does not wish to be worshipped as a corporeal entity. It is, essentially, an “incorrect” belief. Following this precedent I would suggest that regardless of our personal conceptions of God or God’s role in the world, our primary responsibility is obedience to God’s commandments.

But perhaps the greater challenge we face is not rampant relativism but the assuredness certitude that our conception of God is correct and complete such that we may judge others’ to be incorrect, not because of explicit verses to the contrary, but on the sole basis that it contradicts our own comprehension. Just as we are charged with seeking God for ourselves, we cannot deny that very same directive of others, even as they reach a different understanding based on their own hearts and souls.

If complete knowledge of God is unknowable, we must appreciate that even our best understanding is only fragmentary, and that it is possible others may contribute other fragments of which we may be unaware. To seek God as a collective means accepting one’s own limitations as well as the varieties of religious experiences of others, to be open to different ideas without imposing our own incomplete knowledge as the absolute truth. Perhaps by incorporating all the fragments, even the conflicting ones, will we merit to find God, both as individuals and as spiritual community.

Processing Happiness – 7 Minute Sermon for Chayei Sarah 2014/5775 (Hebrew)

This past Shabbat I gave the Devar Torah in my parent’s synagogue. Not only was this my first time since leaving my pulpit, but it was also the first time I had to speak in Hebrew. Although I’ve been in Ulpan for a few months, I’m still a long way off from being able to speak like a native, let alone infuse my usual sense of personality into my sermons. Thankfully, I did have help not only from Morfix but from friends who could not only correct grammar mistakes, but also assist with idioms and figures of speech. I take full responsibility for all errors.

The following text is from my working draft, though annotated with footnotes. Given my 7 minute time limit, 1 I had to use more “meivin yavin” textual references rather than provide actual citations.

Enjoy!

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Notes:

  1. I actually went 8 minutes.

All Good Things – My Final Sermon at The Stanton St. Shul (With Annotations)

Since I became a pulpit Rabbi I have rarely posted my sermons. In part this is because with the exception of the High Holidays I don’t write out my sermons word for word, preferring to deliver my sermons with a more conversational tone rather than a monologue. 1 However, given that this was my last Shabbat as Rav of The Stanton St. Shul, I had requests to share my final sermon to the congregation. Even when I do write out sermons in advance, I use my text less as a “published” document and more as a guideline in to ensure my focus. Consequently, the actual sermon I actually deliver occasionally deviates from the text in front of me, not in its essence or point, but in terms of word choices or spur of the moment editorials to include or exclude some material.

I hesitate to call my final sermon a “classic,” but I can say that this is fairly typical of the sermons I would give with its crucial elements being:

  1. A close read of a text, usually as in this case the Bible, but occasionally a Rabbinic teaching.
  2. A message or point based off of the text, presented as a “suggestion” or “possibility” and hopefully relevant to the congregation.
  3. Explicit and/or subtle references to outside works. 2
  4. Optional: explicit or subtle puns, usually bad.
  5. Do all of the above in 10-15 minutes.

Without further ado, the working notes from my final sermon at The Stanton Street Shul, with annotations.

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Notes:

  1. Although I was trained to give very formal sermons, I realized early on that not only did that style take substantially more time to prepare, but the extra effort would not have mattered to the congregation. I found the conversational style worked best in my synagogue to communicate ideas, and it allowed the freedom to adlib and respond to hecklers. For the High Holidays when I had to focus my mental energies on managing the service as well as meeting higher expectations, writing out the entire sermon was essential.
  2. I also don’t title my sermons, but if I had to for this one, I’d have used this one, taken from the series finale of ST:TNG.

Sermon Notes: Va’etchanan Shabbat Nachamu 2012 – The Possibility of Consolation

It’s been a long time since I’ve written out sermons, due to a lack of time and an evolving speaking style. Still, I’m finding it useful to have at least some written record of what I say from year to year and people have regularly been requesting I post sermons.1. The following does not represent a “polished” sermon, but rather are the notes from which I give the actual derasha. Even if the flow may be disjointed, the point and the derasha should still be comprehensible.
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  1. Protip: It’s best if you actually come to my shul for a Shabbat