Religious Life

Hearing the Cry

Hearing the Cry
19 Tevet 5778
Rabbi Alexander Davis

Once, a rabbi, a priest, and a minister went out in the middle of a lake. The priest told his two colleagues, “Shoot, I left my fishing rod in the car; I’ll be right back.” He got out of the boat, walked across the water to the beach, got to the car, walked back across the lake, and got back into the boat. The rabbi stared at this in amazement.

Thirty minutes later, the minister said, “I need to go to the toilet.” He, too, got out of the boat, walked across the water, found the nearest men’s room, walked back across the water and got back into the boat. The rabbi was absolutely dumbfounded!

The rabbi kept thinking, “My faith is as great as theirs!” So he spoke up and said, “I need to get something to drink; there’s a refreshment stand on the beach.’

He stood up, put his feet on the water, and splash, he fell straight into the water. The priest and minister helped him back into the boat. He was embarrassed, not to mention wet, but he knew he could do it if the other two can. So, he stood up again, stepped out onto the water, and splash! He was dragged out and again he decided to try. As he was going down for the third time, the priest turned to the minister and asked, “Do you think we should show him where the rocks are?”

We enter 2018 and not only are we freezing, we are drowning. It’s only been a few days, and already in some ways it feels a heck of a lot like 2017. We are plunged back into the same worries and concerns and problems. Is nuclear war with North Korea looming? What about rocket fire directed at Southern Israel? And the death of the Weiss and Steinberg families in the Costa Rica plain crash that has touched a nerve. I don’t mean to start the year off on a downer. But I am afraid that the year to come will be one big bomb cyclone storm.

How do we grow in faith that enables us to cross troubled water? Where are the rocks that keep us from falling? I am drawn to a verse in our parasha because it speaks about faith in an unexpected way.

Here is the background. Moshe has been summoned by God to serve as leader of the Israelites. Aaron has been commissioned as Moshe’s mouth piece. And the two of them learned to perform impressive signs such as a turning a rod into a snake. That is the setting.

Now pay close attention. Here are two verses and I want you to try to figure out where the verses break. That is, where would you put a period? “And they performed signs in the sight of the people and the people believed and when they heard that God had remembered the children of Israel, and had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshipped God v’yaas haotot l’einei haam vayaaminu haam vayishmeu ki fakad adonai et b’nai yisrael v’ki raah et onyam vayidu vayistachu’ (Ex. 4:31).

Where would you put the period? By the way, this is not just my question. If you look in our chumashim, you’ll see a discrepancy between the Hebrew and the English translation on this very point. I’ll tell you why this matters in a moment. But stay with me here.

If it was up to me to add punctuation to the Torah, I’d do it like this: “And they performed signs in the sight of the people and the people believed.” Period. Next verse: “And when the Israelites heard that God remembered them, they bowed and worshipped God.” In this formulation, we understand that the people believed because they saw those impressive signs. That is to say, miracles inspire faith.

But that is not how the Torah is punctuated. That is not where the official grammarians, the 9th C. Masorites put the period. Rather, “they performed signs in the sight of the people.” Period, full stop. New verse: “And the people believed and when they heard that God had remembered the children of Israel and had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshipped God.”

This verse contains a strange and unexpected juxtaposition. The Israelite’s belief is not linked to the signs they witnessed but instead to being remembered by God. Why is that?

The Emek Davar explains, “God took note of the Israelites because they believed, b’zeh sheheminu shamu.” The point is, they were rewarded for their piety; God answered their pleas. But I prefer the reading of the medieval Spanish rabbi, Ibn Ezra whose commentary focuses on the pshat, the straightforward meaning of the Torah. Ibn Ezra writes, “vayaaminu achar sheshamu, they believed after they heard.” After they heard that God had remembered them, they began to believe. They sensed God listening; they felt God’s hand of compassion and because of that they believed. They believed in a future- that tomorrow would be better than today. They believed in themselves. They had confidence in their leaders. They had faith in God.

That is the significance of where the period goes. The Torah does not have us base our faith on miracles like walking on water: “they performed signs and the people believed.” Rather, the Torah teaches that faith is nurtured by caring and compassion and is rooted in relationship.

The great Jewish philosopher, Rambam expanded on this notion in his chapter on The Fundamental Laws of the Torah, (Yesodai Hatorah 8:1):

The Children of Israel did not believe in Moshe because of the signs that he performed. For one who believes on the basis of signs has a deficiency in his heart, since a sign may be performed through enchantment or sorcery. No, all the signs in the wilderness were done out of necessity – not to bring proof of prophecy. It was necessary to split the sea, to drown the Egyptians, to bring the food of manna, etc. Why, then, did the Israelites believe? Because in the revelation at Sinai, our eyes saw and our ears heard. We encountered God face to face.

In Egypt, the Israelites were seen. At Sinai they saw. To see and be seen- that is the way of faith. And that is the very kind of faith we need in 2018.

It is the faith of a nurse who asks, “Do you need anything?”

It is the faith of a spouse who says, “Let me help.”

It is the faith of a friend who calls to say, “I am here for you.”

It is the faith of a child who says, “I see your affliction.”

It is the faith of a community that uses its collective voice to respond.

It is the faith of a nation that uses its experience of suffering to relive the suffering of others.

It is the faith of one brought low struggling to rise up.

It is the faith of one overwhelmed by worry to accept an outstretched hand.

It is the faith of one crushed by pain to allow herself to be lifted up.

These acts, this faith, these are the rocks just beneath the surface of the water that keep us aloft.

There is a well known story told about the Alter Rebbe, Schneu Zalman, the founder of Chabad. He shared his house with his son, Dov Ber, the Mitteler Rebbe. One day, when Dov Ber was engrossed in his learning, his baby fell out of his crib and was crying. Dov Ber was known for his unusual power of concentration. In study or prayer he was oblivious to everything around him.

But the baby’s grandfather, the Alter rebbe who was upstairs also engrossed in his learning, did hear the baby’s cry. He interrupted his studies, went downstairs, lifted the infant, soothed him, put him back in the cradle and proceeded to admonish his son: “No matter how engrossed one may be in the most lofty occupation, one must never remain insensitive to the cry of a child.”

That’s what it means to be a Jew. That’s what it means to be a person of faith. It is to walk in the way of God, to take note of the needs of others. It is to follow in the footsteps of the Israelites to reach for a hand of help.

God, as this New Year dawns, let us grow in faith that welcomes strangers, that lifts up the downtrodden, that supports the weak, a faith that hears and heeds the call.  For when we do, not only will we have expressed our beliefs through our deeds, we will have inspired others to grow in faith.