In honor of the first yortzeit of Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz, z''l, I've planned three sermons focusing on the three main relationships he outlines as essential to faithful Jewish life today. The first of the three focuses on our covenant with Jews of the past, present and future.
Covenant with Jews of the Past, Present, and Future
We stand perpetually at the crossroad of yesterday and tomorrow. The present moment is the culmination of all that has gone before, and the promise of the future depends on the commitments of today.
No story better reflects this truth than our redemption from Egypt. These early Torah portions of the book of Exodus recount our ancestral family’s oppression, enslavement, near extermination, and ultimate liberation. The earlier tales of Genesis—the wanderings and adventures of the patriarchs and matriarchs—lay the groundwork for this epic tale of tragedy and triumph. And the magnificent narrative of plagues and miracles sets the stage for the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the re-entry into the Promised Land, and the unification of the Jewish People. This story like no other stands as a paradigmatic pivot point between past and future.
This week’s Torah portion weaves together the story of freedom with the instructions for its memory. The Israelites observe the first Passover and receive instructions for the annual commemoration of their deliverance, and three times in this parashah alone, the Torah instructs parents to explain the meaning of this occasion to their children. As heirs to this tradition, Jews in every age not only see themselves as though we personally went out of Egypt in the past but we also affirm our responsibility to pass on this communal memory to the future. Through the Exodus, we are bound inextricably to both our ancestors and our descendants.
This concept of our connection to preceding and succeeding generations is related to the main theme of my previous sermon. Three weeks ago, I introduced the idea of covenantal theology, a faith-based approach to contemporary Jewish life. As we neared the first yartzeit of Rabbi Doctor Eugene Borowitz—my teacher in rabbinical school and perhaps the most important Jewish theologian of the past fifty years—I outlined the basic tenets of his understanding of what it means to be a Jew in today’s postmodern era.
In short, Dr. Borowitz sees faithful Jews today as engaged in three significant relationships: a covenant with one’s self, a covenant with God, and a covenant with Jews of the past, present, and future. I promised three weeks ago to dedicate more time to each of these topics in a series of sermons, and this Shabbat I start to make good on that promise. This week’s Torah portion draws us in to the third of these three sacred relationships: the covenant with Jews of the past, present, and future.
None of us makes decisions on our own. We consider how our actions might impact or reflect on others, and we take them into account when we determine what’s right and wrong. As Jews, we stand in relationship with other Jews, even ones we don’t know personally, and they occupy a special place in our lives. And not just other Jews in our community, our country, or even around the world. This also includes the Jews of the past as well as the Jews of the future.
We are the heirs to the Jewish past. Judaism today would be inconceivable without the creativity, wisdom, and experience of the Jews of centuries gone by. In this regard, every recognizably Jewish act in some way is made in collaboration with those who have gone before us. And just as we are grateful for the system of morals and religious expression designed by our ancestors, we are also responsible for honoring our forebears in our own actions. Our covenant with the Jews of the past requires us to seek to make our own lives a legacy they would be proud of.
At the same time, we also stand in relation to the Jewish people in our own time and place. At this very moment, a hundred Jewish teenagers are celebrating Shabbat in our social hall, drawn together for a regional youth group event. Their main purpose is to get to know one another, and they’re motivated to do so only because they’re all Jewish. But for this commitment to our Jewish neighbors, the idea of boarding a bus or plane bound for Kansas City in the middle of the winter would be absurd. Yet some value still holds in the idea of bonding together as Jews.
And finally, not only are we heirs to the past in fellowship with the present but we also set the stage for those yet to come. When determining the best way to use our resources, change our traditions, or order our priorities, we must think about not only the needs of today’s Jewish community but the health of the Jewish community of the future. Even and especially if sacrifice is demanded of us—singly or as a whole—the wellbeing of our descendants must always remain relevant.
The first Passover was a prime example of this nexus of responsibility to the past, present, and future. The Israelites in our Torah portion dedicated themselves to the God of their ancestors, a God they did not know but whose reputation they had inherited from the stories of their mothers and fathers. They bonded together as a people in a shared moment of physical redemption, casting off the chains of slavery and tasting for the first time in generations the air of freedom. And in the midst of it all, they established a ritual designed to endure throughout the ages, a memorial that would unite Jews throughout time to our people’s deepest memories and most cherished values.
Sensitivity to this transcendent bond distances us from what Eugene Borowitz called “trendy impulse.” We are cautioned to hesitate to adopt the whims of the present moment in deference to our fidelity to both the past and the future. In other words, we may need to avoid what may seem like a good idea for now but which reflects poorly on the past or places a stumbling block in the future. Covenantal Judaism insists that either preserving or altering Jewish traditions requires diligent consideration of whether and how such decisions honor our bond to our people. When we change and when we stay the same, we do so with respect for the past and with the best interests of the future in mind.
Allow me to offer one practical example of this covenant before concluding. As you know, our congregation has expressed its unwavering commitment to refugees who have been resettled in the Kansas City area. This commitment predates the current political situation and is grounded in deep and eternal values essential to the Jewish people.
As I’ve said at other times, I believe that the call to protect the ger, the stranger, is fundamental to Jewish morality. Moses identifies himself as a ger, God time and again reminds the Israelites that we were gerim in Egypt, and we receive not once but twice the commandment to love the ger (Lev. 19:34, Deut. 10:19) just as God loves the ger (Deut. 10:18). Throughout our history, our people have fled hostile regimes to seek refuge in quieter lands, and we know both the tender support of the welcoming community as well as the harsh refusal of the rejecting community. Our religious teachings and our historical experiences bring the value of protecting the stranger to the center of what it means to be Jewish.
When B’nai Jehudah began to consider the issues of refugee advocacy, education, and support, we did not do so lightly. Rarely in recent memory has our congregation unequivocally and publicly endorsed a position that not all of our members would agree with politically. I truly believe that it was because of our covenant with Jews of the past, present, and future that our professional and volunteer leadership concluded that the commandment to love the stranger because we ourselves have been strangers is essential to who we are as Jews. We acted out of faithfulness to our ancestors, relationship with one another, and desire to bequeath to our children a Judaism that’s both significant and relevant.
Covenantal faithfulness is not purely abstract or theoretical; it has real consequences in our personal lives, in the life of our congregation, and to the outside world as a whole. It is a lived answer to the question “Why be Jewish?”, or as it’s phrased in this week’s Torah portion, מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת, “What is this service?” (Ex. 12:26).
Being Jewish today is service to our people in every age, a sacred calling to honor their dreams and desires. May each of us respond with faithfulness and fidelity, taking our place in the ever-flowing stream of the generations.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”