While preparing dinner, mom asked her child to go into the pantry and fetch a can of tomato soup. But the little boy wouldn’t go in alone, saying, “It’s dark in there. I’m scared.” To which his mom responded, “God will be in there with you. Now you go and get a can of tomato soup.” So Johnny stood up, went to the door of the pantry and, peeking inside, saw how dark it was but got an idea. “God,” he said, “if you’re in there, would You hand me that can of tomato soup?”
Ever since the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we’ve been teaming up with God. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But even when the first couple got booted out of Paradise, God stayed with them. Adam and Eve may have been cut off from utopia, but they weren’t cut off from their Creator.
Judaism teaches that even when God exiled the Jewish people from Israel and allowed the Temple to be destroyed, God walked by our sides as we made the arduous trek northward to Babylonia. God went into exile with us.
For us as liberal Jews, God’s continuing love amidst diversity serves as a powerful, sympathetic metaphor, reassuring us that even at the most difficult moments in our lives, we need not feel alone nor powerless.
Of course, there’s a story for every purpose in Torah and, this week in Kee Teesa, a seemingly different message pokes through. The Israelites are only four months out of Egypt. Moses, the man who’d led them out of slavery, was now gone for more than a month’s time up some mountain he called Sinai. The people think he must have died and, desperate to renew their faith that something better still awaits them, build a Golden Calf, one of the deity-images they had learned about in Egypt.
The Israelites abandoned their system of religion – I’ll call it their system of ideals – to settle for something that seemed more readily at hand. Rashi notices that they rose early in the morning to do all of this, not knowing that Moses would return later that very day.
This got me thinking: If only they’d known that Moses was coming back to them that very same day, they might never have built the Golden Calf.
Ideals are a funny thing. They can help us get through difficult times, but there’s a “best if used by” date on them. You know, like on milk and bread. It’s really important to keep ideals in circulation, lest they spoil.
We’re living in difficult times right now. And our ideals may seem like they’re reaching an expiration date. Our country is still struggling to emerge from an economic recession, and careers may not be what they once were. Taking care of ourselves and our families is harder than many of us have ever known. And perhaps playing off of those difficulties, the Trump administration has placed undocumented immigrants, transgender teenagers, and people anywhere of Muslim descent in their crosshairs — a classic act of misdirection, when all the American people really want are good jobs with decent wages.
A short while after the Golden Calf is built, Moses does indeed come down Mount Sinai. He’s carrying with him a tremendous gift: the Tablets of the Covenant. The Torah. But when he sees how the Israelites have abandoned God and their ideals, he too loses faith and hurls. He hurls the Tablets to the ground, smashing them into useless shards.
Tempers flare. Arguments ensue. Disaster is narrowly averted as God and Moses talk one another down from taking destructive action against the Israelites. Little by little, trust is renewed. A second set of mitzvot is fashioned, the relationship is re-strengthened and, together, God and Moses and Israel journey into that future which you and I are part of to this day.
19th-century English poet William Blake wrote: “It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun and in the vintage and to sing on the wagon loaded with corn.” Blake’s words warn us that ideals are no sweat to maintain when nothing happens to challenge them. But when days turn cold, jobs are scarcer, and our government seems to have embraced bitterness and contempt, it’s far more difficult to remain steadfast in our ideals. Our siddur, which quotes Blake, adds, “It is a difficult thing to remember the challenge from God: You shall not oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds. [You shall not] forget we were slaves.”
Our tradition begs of us, in the darkest of times do not cower in a corner, do not abandon all that you have been taught. Rather, remember the lessons that came down from Sinai. Stand up, light a candle, and do everything you can to bring light back into the world.
Do you know the 23rd Psalm? Adonai ro’i lo ekh-sar … God is my shepherd, I shall not want. “I shall not want” is a difficult passage for a child to make sense of, so it should come as no surprise that one young student restated this opening line as, “God is my shepherd, that’s all I want.”
Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors … it can get tough to believe in You. From time immemorial when our lives have taken hard hits, many of us have lost our faith. Our ideals too. When things get tough, some of us grow cynical, tighten ranks, and look out for number one. But together, we can be tougher than that. So please, hang with us while we stumble through hard times. Help us keep our ideals. Stick with us as we work to stay true to the values You taught us, values we’ve always loved and by which we’ve tried to live. And may we help our beloved nation remain steadfast in its commitment to the ideals on which it was founded. A little girl may have said it best, “God is my shepherd, that’s all I want.” May Your gifts from days-of-old continue to guide us in building lives that bring blessing to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to all the world.
Since it’s St. Patrick’s Day, let’s end with an Irish blessing. I love the one that reads, “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields.” But there’s another Irish blessing, and in these times, I also wish this one for you. “May God give you … for every storm, a rainbow … for every tear, a smile … for every care, a promise … and a blessing in each trial. For every problem life sends, a faithful friend to share … for every sigh, a sweet song … and an answer for each prayer.
Now that’s a blessing! May you have the luck of the Irish and bring these blessings each and every day!