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"Blessed is the One Who is the Breath of Life"

Shabbat shalom! . . . It's the custom of Christian communities throughout the world to honor great teachers on the anniversaries of their births, and it's the custom of Jewish communities through-out the world to honor great teachers on the anniversaries of their deaths. One, according to a solar calendar; the other, according to a solar/lunar calendar. It's precisely because of those authentic, honorable differences that we can come together today, that the dates come together that connect the yahrzeits of Rabbi Marshall Meyer and Rabbenu Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, and Reverend Martin Luther King's birthday.

If our traditions used the same calendars or followed the same customs, we would not be able to link, a generation later, the lives that were linked in life a generation ago. And I think that is a kind of miracle, a teaching straight from God, of what it means this year for us to gather. And then it turns out that the parasha that we're studying, this week of that convergence is Parashat Sh'mot, the beginning of the story of our liberation, the beginning of the story of the birthing of a people, and the birthing of freedom. The miracle is compounded. For we look at Parashat Sh'mot, and what do we find?

One thing we find is the story of the two midwives, Shifra and Puah, who together do the first recorded act of nonviolent civil disobedience in all of human history. What could be a more powerful root for Heschel, for King, for Meyer? Marshall Meyer, whose entire life, for more than a decade, day and night, was a single act of civil disobedience in fascist Argentina, and King and Heschel, who marched side by side against racism in America and against the American War in Vietnam. As Rabbenu Heschel said, "Not just marching. My legs were praying."

What does it mean for us to be able to look back at that story of the midwives? And to look at the story in which Pharoah's daughter joins with Miriam, across national lines, across racial lines, joins together to save Moshe, in another act of nonviolent civil disobedience to help the process of liberation take another step together.

The parasha speaks of the rigorous, constricting, bitter work, bondage, imposed by Mitzraim, the Place of Narrowness, the Tight Spot. The parasha speaks of indecent work and decent freedom. And I remember the Great March, in 1963, at which Dr. King gave one of the greatest speeches, perhaps the greatest, ever heard on this continent, the speech remarkable not just for its rhetoric, its oratory, but for the fact that it keeps ringing, as a spur to transformation.

What was the name of the March -- its shem? That's what our parasha is about, about names. It was called The Great March for Jobs and Freedom. Why jobs and freedom? Because jobs without freedom are slavery, and freedom without jobs is a joke. A bitter joke.

Just months after the Great March, Rabbenu Heschel spoke and wrote, first calling into our memories that supernal, charismatic moment of the children of Israel at the Red Sea. What could be a more amazing moment? God's very self revealed to an entire people? And then he goes on:

"Only three days earlier, the people had reached the highest peak of prophetic and spiritual exaltation, and now they complain. About what? About such a prosaic and unspiritual item as water. This episode seems shocking. What a comedown from the birthing waters of the Sea, to mutter and grumble about prosaic water!"

Well," he said, "the Negroes of America behave just like the children of Israel. Only a few months ago, they experienced the miracle of having turned the tide of history, in the March on Washington, and now, a few months later, they have the audacity to murmur, 'We want adequate education, decent housing, proper employment.'

"How ordinary! How unpoetic! How annoying!"... That prosaic demand for housing without vermin, adequate schools, adequate jobs, right here, in the vicinity of Park Avenue, in New York City, seems so trite, so drag, so banal, so devoid of magnificence.

"But the teaching of Judaism is the theology of the common deed. God is concerned with everydayness, with the trivialities of life. What is at stake is a social movement, a call for social change in theory and practice. Technology is transforming our society continuously, yet our thinking is static. Automation is with us, and so is poverty and unemployment."

We jump almost a generation, and Rabbi Marshall Meyer, one of Heschel's most authentic students, speaks:

"Our synagogues should feed the hungry, whether they're Jews or blacks, whatever color they are. I think we have to live a very, very double, triple, quadruple mission. As Jews we're called on to fulfill many roles, the Jewish commitment is total. Either one believes in God, and that belief is going to change the ethical quality of your life, or we're playing a phony game.

"To think we can buy God off with a few well chosen words, engage in what Rabbi Heschel used to call 'religious behaviorism,' and that is enough? We squared our way, now let Him leave us alone. That's just a game. The turn to the right of the United States government," he said, "the fact that we live in a country with 30 or 35 million people beneath the level of poverty, that there is malnutrition and hunger in the United States, that's obscene.

"This should touch the Jewish American soul much more than others. Why? Because we came from the Land of Egypt and the House of Bondage."

Where are we now, in 1998? For millions of us there are no jobs, or there are jobs far beneath the abilities of the people who can find no job that matches their abilities. For millions of us, there may be jobs without freedom, jobs without dignity, jobs without restfulness. There may be jobs like Workfare, jobs without the freedom to create a union, jobs without the provisions of health and safety, jobs without dignity, without freedom. Slavery. This Tuesday, at five o'clock, on the steps of City Hall, in the memory and the spirit of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel, there will be a gathering of rabbis and ministers, black and white, and all who wish to join with them, to call out for a city of jobs and freedom.

What makes freedom? Rabbenu Heschel taught us it is Shabbat, the time for restfulness -- not the time for laziness and collapse, but the time for self reflection, for the rest that renews, for the restfulness in which we reconnect with what is divine within us, as well as what is divine beyond us. Where are the moments of restfulness -- for millions of us, even for many of us who think we're in the middle class, or higher, who are overworked to the point of spiritual and emotional exhaustion?

...This is a society divided into the disemployed and the overworked. And sometimes, they're even the same people, people desperately putting two or three or four bare, marginal jobs together, overworked, as well as underemployed.

In the last 25 years, while the distribution of wealth and income in America were becoming much more sharply skewed than they were a generation ago, something else has happened -- something in the Jewish community that is amazing and joyful -- and troubling,. Our community has become amazingly rich. We often are afraid to speak of this, lest we raise the lightning rod for anti-Semitism. But it's truth.

...There are now a dozen or so American Jews who are billionaires, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, who are millionaires, and tens or hundreds of thousands who live with enormous comfort. What are we to do with this wealth? Are we to let our faces become the face of Pharaoh with this wealth? Or shall we take a deep breath and share it, we the people of the Sabbatical year, the Jubilee year? We, the people who said, "There's no such thing as private property"? "All property is Mine!" says the Breath of Life. Says God, "All of you are visitors, tenants with Me."

The only owner on the face of earth is that unity of all of life. Be good renters, and remember to restore what you are renting to the one who is the Breath of Life.

So, are we, the people that bore that message into the world, to take on the face of Pharaoh? Or are we to draw on this amazing wealth that we have harvested this 25 years, and look toward creating a society that does not have, in the same breath, billionaires and people homeless, half naked, on the streets, a problem to the "quality of life" of those around them who don't pause to ask about their quality of life.

Are we to use that new wealth in such a way as to spur the addiction of our youth to a lethal drug, nicotine and cigarettes, and out of the profits of that addiction be honored by the official Jewish community? Are we to take the profits of this generation and decide to log an ancient forest of sacred redwood trees, that have been growing since Akiba, some of them since Moses?

Log them, why? Because ancient redwood trees, the lumber from them, you can sell at higher prices, because it doesn't have knots in it, and if someone wants to panel their library, it's fancier to have wood... redwood without knots in it.

I didn't make that up. That's from the annual report of the corporation that logs those ancient redwoods. And its owner is honored by the Jewish community.

Do we want to use that money to take on the face of Pharaoh? Or do we want to do with it what the Jewish Fund for Justice does, when it gathers from us all the money that makes possible the self organization of the poor toward ending their poverty? Do we want to use it the way The Shefa Fund calls us to use it, to invest -- not even to give -- to invest in the grassroots businesses created by those members of minorities who face a life of despair, not because they're incapable, but because the official sources of investment money in this society aren't interested?

Our Parshat Sh'mot is about names. And there are many names that arise within it, but the most important names are those names that God reveals to Moshe at the burning bush, two names of God.

The first one is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. "I will be who I will be." I am not stuck in who I was, or who I am. I am becoming. Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. A great spiral of transformation, in which we draw again and again on what has gone before us, ancient and just 25 years ago. We draw on what has come before us in order to move forward deeply on the great spiral. Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. With such a God, we, too, can become.

And the second name that God reveals: God calls Moshe aside, intimately, and whispers, "Let me tell you my nickname. What is my nickname? Yud Hey Vov Hey." No vowels. Not Jehova or Yahweh. Certainly not Adonai, Lord. These are strange letters. Not quite consonants, not quite vowels. Yud Hey Vov Hey. In English, Y-H-W-H. This is the name we have been taught not to pronounce.

So, on a day that honors rebels, I invite you -- l don't command you -- I invite you, if you are willing, quietly, to try, simply, to pronounce it. Y-H- W-H, with no vowels. Y-H-W-H. With no vowels. For me, it comes out [DEEP EXHALE] just breathing. The most intimate name of God, just breathing. What we breathe out, the trees breathe in. What the trees breathe out, we breathe in. We breathe each other into life. We gather together to breathe words with each other, to join the Breath of Life. And the Breath of Life breathes out, as well as in. The Breath of Life inspires, and the Breath of Life expires. And we stand here this Shabbat with three great teachers, who have breathed out their Breath of Life.

It's only an angry two year old who thinks you can breathe in and hold your breath and never breathe out again. They, our three great teachers, have breathed out.

But the Breath of Life doesn't end there. Here we are, and the question, it seems to me, is whether we will breathe in what they breathed out, whether we will breathe their neshamas, their life breaths, their souls, into our bones, our blood, our hearts, our brains, whether we are prepared to be a generation of Jews who are ready to breathe in their life breath, make it our own, in our own ways.

If we can do that, then the breath can give new life to our whole bodies, so that our legs can pray, as Heschel's did, our hands and arms can pray, the hands with which we give and receive can pray as we walk, touch, connect, in the world.

Blessed is the one who is the Breath of Life.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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