Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons
פרשת בא, תש״פ
Parshat Bo, 5780
by Rabbi Sydni
Saturday, February 1st, 2020
Actions Shape Character
In our Pirkei Avot class, a class largely focused on moral living, one particular community member likes to remind us, “It’s not what you say. It’s what you do.” While I do think that what you say is always important, actions often speak louder than words. We dwell in a religious tradition focused on action - with somewhere around 613 mitzvot in the Torah, we are obligated to do at every moment of every day. Our parshah today introduces us to perhaps the most actionable segment of the Jewish calendar - Passover. In our Torah portion, the Israelites are commanded to eat matzah, to not eat other types of leaven, to establish a new calendar, and to make a very specific Passover sacrifice, all while on the run from slavery in Egypt. Today, we observe the holiday through that same eating and not eating, as well as through a lot of kitchen preparation, a lengthy seder, and eight days of Torah reading.
Many commentators will say that this first set of active commandments in the Torah are set forth so that the people Israel can show their partnership with God, their ability to take action while God takes the action required for the final plague on Egypt. When we practice mitzvot, we say thank you to God for the world with which we’re blessed, and we show that we’re worthy of helping sustain that world. Today, I’d like to share with you an alternative take on why there are so many mitzvot involved with Passover, and really, why our tradition prescribes so many mitzvot in general. Here, the anonymous author of Sefer Ha-hinukh, a thirteenth-century work that explains reasons for all 613 mitzvot, answers the question of why we need so many mitzvot on Passover. As he says…
Surely one commemorative act would have been sufficient to ensure that the event would be recalled by us and not be forgotten?...Know that man is influenced by his actions and his intellectual and emotional life is conditioned by the things he does, good or bad. Even if he is thoroughly wicked and his mind is dominated by evil thoughts the whole day long, if he endeavours to be constantly occupied with the Torah and its precepts, though not with godly intent, he will inevitably veer towards the good. From the wrong motive he will be led to the right one, and by the force of his actions he will destroy the evil inclination since it is actions that shape character.
Conversely, even if a man is completely upright in character and positively conditioned to the Torah and its precepts, if he is constantly engaged in crooked pursuits, they will ultimately lead him astray and turn him into a criminal. For it is abundantly clear that every man is influenced by his actions, as we have already noted. For this reason our Sages stated: “The Holy Blessed One desired to give Israel the opportunity of gaining merit; God therefore gave them many mitzvot, since through good actions we are moved to be good and merit the Hereafter”. To this alludes their statement: “Whoever has a mezuzah on his doorpost and tzitzit on his garment and tefillin on his forehead may be assured that he shall not sin.” Since these mitzvot are practiced continuously, their influence is likewise continuous. Consider well therefore your occupations and pursuits; for you will be influenced by them and not vice versa. [...] Do not be puzzled by the large number of mitzvot connected with the miracles of Egypt. It is a fundamental principle of our Torah that the more we become preoccupied with them, the more we are influenced in the ways I have described.
For the author of Sefer Ha-Hinukh, what I do doesn’t just affect the people around me. What I do affects who I am as a person. The habits I develop now become the ideals I live out later. The mitzvot in Judaism exist, to an extent, to help us practice good habits. Traditionally, we wash our hands before we eat bread, we focus on the intricacies of what we do and do not eat, and we mark the passage of time with candles to remind us to pay attention to what our hands are doing right now, to teach us to actively practice gratitude and self-awareness.
Whether it’s choosing to only eat kosher meat or setting aside a portion of your weekly income to charity, what is a habit that you can develop that reminds you of your personal values? What can you do continuously, week after week or day after day, to direct you towards making more intentional choices? And at the same time, what’s a habit that you’ve taken on that hasn’t served you well - watching too many violent TV shows, staying at work a little too long, sending a few too many emails you wish you hadn’t? What is something you can do to break yourself of that habit? Just as you are what you consume, you are defined by what you do, regardless of your philosophy on those deeds. Habits are addictive, and surely, we can make positive use of that habitual pull.
Our Rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot - mitzvah goreret mitzvah, aveirah goreret aveirah - a mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, a wrongdoing leads to yet another wrongdoing. Let us drop everything and start doing today what we strive to do tomorrow. For the sake of ourselves and of the people who live with us each day, through our actions, let us become the characters we know we are.
Pray for Me
As Pharaoh is watching his kingdom reel in the aftermath of the death of Egypt’s firstborn, he sends the people away from him and asks Moses and Aaron, וברכתם גם אותי (Exodus 12:32) - bless me too! I’ve noticed, since moving to Shreveport, the openness strangers show in requesting, “Pray for me.” Each week, I receive numerous requests from individuals who ask for names to be put on the Mi Shebeirakh list. Pray for me or my sister or my best friend, they say. But what drives that request? What use is there in yet another person offering prayer?
A simple, truthful answer is connection with God. When I pray for you, I ask God to pay attention to you and to all those who may be suffering in the same sense that you are. I ask God to help me deal with my own emotions in knowing that you and so many others are not able to live your happiest lives. On a deeper level, when I pray for you, I am reminding myself of your need for extra support. When I say your name out loud in community, I let the community know that one more of ours needs attention. Every time I pray for someone other than myself, ideally, I nudge myself to bake some brownies to take over to them, to give them a little more time to get their work done, to see if they need help with laundry or meal prep or paperwork. And I remind myself of the importance of supporting organizations that help with the other’s plight - whether it be cancer or mental illness or natural disaster or food scarcity.
Please, keep sending me your names in prayer, and please, don’t be afraid of offering your own. When others ask you to pray for them, take that on as part of your daily routine. See how that affects your relationships with God and with those in need. When we pray for the other, ultimately, we remind ourselves of our responsibility as partners with the Divine. We remind ourselves of our responsibility to help heal the world, to help heal the other human beings who live right by our side.
No Jew is More Jewish
I often hear people say, “Eh, I’m not very Jewish” or “So-in-so is much more Jewish than I am.” Let me tell you - no Jew is any more Jewish than any other. Communally, a person can be Jewish by meeting one of two criteria - one, that a parent is Jewish, or two, that she went through the community’s conversion process. In our community, specifically, to be defined as Jewish by birth, one’s mother must have been Jewish. To be defined as Jewish by choice, one goes through the processes of brit milah (circumcision), mikvah (ritual immersion), and beit din (learning that leads up to evaluation by a team of three rabbis). While the process is different in different communities, once a person meets the criteria of that community, Jewishness is no matter of degree. If you are Jewish, you are just as Jewish as I am. The Jew sitting next to you is just as Jewish as you.
Our parshah is the first in which a commandment is given specifically to the Jewish people - to keep a calendar! Parshat Bo also includes a whole list of commandments to keep for the sake of Passover, a list that ends with God’s plea - Torah ahat yihyeh l’ezer v’lager ha-gar b’tokh’khem. There will be one Torah for the citizen (ezrah) and the stranger (ger) among you.(Exodus 12:49)In more modern halakhic terms, there will be one Torah for the Jew by birth and the Jew by choice. Each of us comes from a radically different Jewish background - many who have been Jewish for decades have never had a formal Jewish education, and many who have been Jewish for months can quote the Torah on a dime. I come from a family that has been Jewish as far back as we can trace, and yet, I can count on one hand the number of relatives who can tell alef from bet. Those family members who define their Judaism solely through bagels and lox are just as obligated in God’s mitzvot as you or I.
We all have that privilege of being God’s chosen people, and at the same time, we all have that burden of being chosen to perform and refrain from performing specific deeds in the word.And the added bonus is that because Judaism is a people, kol yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh - everything we do as individuals ties into everything we do as a community. The mitzvot I perform are nothing if you are not performing mitzvot as well. My job, then, has to be to make sure that every Jewish person, no matter how she became Jewish, is pursuing mitzvot with the highest possible ambition.
A Talmudic dictum tells us never to ask a convert to “Remember the deeds of your ancestors,” as it is said (Exodus 22:21), “And do not wrong or oppress the ger - the stranger or proselyte.” Just as a convert’s Hebrew name is traditionally son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah, their ancestors are just the same as the rest of ours - their story has developed along the same lines as those who were born into that story. And I would even argue that their story holds a special sort of power because it was gained through positive action, through the affirmation of saying, yes, this is me. I feel privileged to be a rabbi in this community of so many who have actively recognized their Jewish selves, despite having been raised in a different faith tradition. I simply ask that we, as a community, expect the same responsibility and passion for our tradition from every Jewish person that sits in this room. I ask that we practice and teach the same Torah to both the ezrah the ger and that we give the same respect to new gerim, new wanderers, who choose to walk on the Jewish path.