Rabbi Ackerman's Blog
Rabbi David Ackerman
01/22/2010 - MLK Unity Service - Shabbat BoLast weekend, along with our friends at Main Line Reform and Zion Baptist, Beth Am Israel joined in two spirited and uplifting unity services that honored the legacy and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. z"l. I had the great privilege of speaking/preaching at the Sunday service at Zion Baptist and in this space I'm pleased to share a brief version of my remarks. Thank you to the many Beth Am members who offered kinds words about these remarks. I found the whole weekend to be very moving and inspiring.
הנה מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים גם יחד
"How good, how pleasant, when brothers and sisters dwell together!"
The Hebrew phrasing of that statement actually adds an extra word. "Gam" means "something extra" or "and then some." The spirit, not to mention the length of our shared worship this MLK Weekend, has been a case study in "and then some!" And as we've learned, and committed ourselves to this morning, 'once a year, is NOT enough.' Let's keep that commitment.
As a newcomer to the long partnership of these three congregations, I wish to express my sense of privilege at being able to participate in this great yearly show of unity. Our worship together on Friday night moved and inspired me, and I hope and expect, many of you as well.
Reverend Pollard's rousing words about love - courageous love, nurturing love, self-sacrificing love - have kept me company over this weekend that honors and celebrates Dr. King's legacy. That complex notion of love anchored Dr. King's message and I agree that President Obama's election a year ago is a powerful result of the struggle that Dr. King led. Congressman John Lewis, one of the true heroes of the Civil Rights struggle puts it this way: "Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma."
The morning after last year's election, my dad shared an emotional message with his children and grand-children via email. In his note, my dad recalled the first time he traveled to Washington, DC as a young boy. He and his parents, my grandparents, climbed down from their train in Union Station and were confronted by separate facilities, waiting rooms marked 'Whites' & 'Coloreds,' separate drinking fountains. My dad wrote that he never imagined that he would see in his own lifetime the shift from racial separation in our nation's capital to an African-American President of the United States. He saw it; we've all seen it. That shift certainly qualifies as a "gam;" "and then some!"
A year ago, my two sons, two of my father's eight grand-children, came with me to President Obama's inauguration. I wanted them to know how far we've come since their grandfather was their age. I wanted them to have a different youthful impression of our nation's capital than the one my dad formed in the 1940's.
We froze that day a year ago and together we felt the warmth and the uplifting spirit of the occasion. Despite the cold, people's hearts were open and warm and soft. "How good; how pleasant."
I want to talk with you this morning about hard-heartedness. In the rhythm of synagogue life, we're in the midst of reading the story of the plagues, and a recurring motif of that tale is the question of Pharaoh's hard heart. Now, there's a philosophical problem that this motif raises. The Torah teaches us that God hardens Pharaoh's heart and then God punishes Pharaoh for his hard heart. That sure seems unfair. Perhaps Pharaoh's not responsible for his heart. Maybe this is just a set up in which Pharaoh has no chance. It's a problem that many interpreters have struggled with. The medieval philosophers reread the phrase entirely. Saadya Gaon understands a hard heart as a metaphor for courage and a bolstered spirit. God simply stiffens Pharaoh's resolve. Albo suggests that God takes Pharaoh's softness, his remembrance of his own misfortune and struggle, off the table. In Albo's reading, God simply restores Pharaoh to his original, "natural" state, a point echoed by the Midrash which presents God as reinforcing Pharaoh's innate, and already demonstrated, hardness of heart. Pharaoh sets the course; God puts an exclamation point on it!
So here's the picture. Pharaoh's nature, or his experience, or his determination not to be defeated by a God he does not know, combine to produce his hard heart. You know, it's really not so hard to identify with Pharaoh. We all have some rough edges - some piece of hardness in our natures and personalities. We all have experiences that have hardened us, sharpened our edges, left us guarded and suspicious and defensive. And we all can describe circumstances in which we've determined to stand strong, to not be moved, never to bend. Now, there are times when standing strong is the right thing. How many times have we sung the words "we shall not be moved?" The difference is that Pharaoh can never, ever, be moved. His stony heart is just too hard.
The transformational figures of our time, a full list of them cited by Reverend Pollard in his sermon on Friday night, saw through and overcame the hard edges of their lives and experiences and circumstances. They overcame; we can overcome; we shall overcome. Reverend Pollard spoke of the examples of Mohandas K. Ghandi and Dr. King who would be 81 today. I wish to focus for a few minutes on Nelson Mandela. A few weeks ago, my sons and I went to see "Invictus" which tells the story of President Mandela's embrace early in his presidency of South Africa's national rugby team, the Springboks. Over the years of apartheid, the Springboks served as a powerful symbol of Afrikaner pride, a rallying point for whites and a symbol of disgust for blacks. Many in the African National Congress sought to outlaw the team altogether, to change its name, its symbol, its flag. President Mandela saw it from a very different perspective and brilliantly grasped the opportunity to overcome the past in the name of a shared future.
In one scene, the mainly white Springboks pay a visit to the prison at Robin Island where Mandela spent 27 years of his adulthood, confined to a 6 X 8 foot cell. The team's captain, an Afrikaner named Francois Pienaar, actually measures out the size of the cell with his arms, and in that moment he understands the transformation that Mandela symbolizes. How did this great man see past the bitterness of that experience; how did he emerge without a heart of stone? Mandela himself answers the question with a poem entitled "Invictus" whose final stanza goes like this:
It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.
The prophet Ezekiel captures the possibility of just such a transformation. "I will give you a new heart," he says, "and put a new spirit inside of you." Lev hadash, v'ruach hadasha לב חדש ורוח חדשה "I will take the heart of stone out of your body and give you a heart of flesh." With hearts of flesh we can truly reach out to one another, not just today, but everyday. Once a year is not enough, and as Dr. King eloquently taught us, there is a "strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills." Not so, teaches King. "Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively...We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time..."
Now is the time to set aside our hard hearts of stone, to trade them in for open hearts of flesh, to become the captains of our souls, to join hands to make our world a better, more just, more dignified, more beautiful place. Now is the time.
Previous Posts03/31/2013 - Pesah and the Language of Longing (Most Recent)
02/15/2013 - Rabbi David Hartman z"l
01/18/2013 - MLK Friday Night Welcome
02/07/2013 - Last Shabbat (Yitro)
10/10/2012 - Reflections on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes)
09/27/2012 - Yom Kippur 5773
09/27/2012 - Kol Nidre 5773
09/19/2012 - Rosh Hashanah 1st Day - 5773
09/19/2012 - Rosh Hashanah 2nd Day - 5773
10/19/2011 - Shmini Atzeret and Gilad Shalit
10/11/2011 - Yom Kippur 5772
10/10/2011 - A Yom Kippur Prayer for Israel
10/10/2011 - Kol Nidre 5772
10/02/2011 - Two Rilke Poems for This Week
10/01/2011 - Rosh Hashana 5772 Day Two
10/01/2011 - Rosh Hashana 5772 Day One
08/11/2011 - Torah and Water
08/08/2011 - Tisha B`Av 5771
05/04/2011 - Israel: In Our Hearts, On Our Minds
04/20/2011 - Pesah 5771
02/25/2011 - Shabbat Vayakhel
11/22/2010 - Thinking About the Big Stuff
11/22/2010 - Varieties of Jewish Families
10/05/2010 - Bashevis Singer on God & Creativity
09/27/2010 - Yom Kippur 5771
09/22/2010 - Kol Nidre 5771
09/22/2010 - Rosh Hashanah First Day 5771
09/16/2010 - Toward Yom Kippur
08/02/2010 - Palestine in 1912
04/09/2010 ספירת העומר Omer Counting
03/27/2010 - Time Out From Pesah Cleaning Reading
01/23/2010 - Shavua Tov - A Prayer for Haiti
01/22/2010 - MLK Unity Service - Shabbat Bo (Current display)
11/24/2009 - Parashat Vayetze & Thanksgiving
10/18/2009 - 30 Tishrei 5770 - Rosh Hodesh Heshvan
10/13/2009 - Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, a Tribute
09/28/2009 - Yom Kippur Sermon 5770
09/27/2009 - Kol Nidre Sermon 5770
09/21/2009 - Rosh Hashanah 2nd Day Sermon 5770
09/21/2009 - Rosh Hashanah First Day Sermon 5770
09/17/2009 - L`shana Tova Tikateivu v`Teihateimu
08/21/2009 - Rosh Hodesh Elul
08/18/2009 - The Torah of Trees
08/14/2009 - Parashat Re`eh
08/05/2009 - Tu B`Av [The 15th of Av]
07/24/2009 - Shabbat Devarim-Hazon
07/17/2009 - Parashat Matot-Masei
07/10/2009 - Parashat Pinchas