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 third of the three focuses on our covenant with ourselves.
In short, Dr. Borowitz taught that the post-modern faithful Jew stands at the intersection of three fundamental covenants: a covenant with God; a covenant with the Jews of the past, present, and future; and a covenant with one’s self. My first sermon explored our relationship of responsibility to the Jewish people, and last week’s message focused on our diverse responses to whatever we think of as God. This week, parashat Terumah lends itself to focus on the covenant we have with our selves.
For Eugene Borowitz, the Jewish self “arises within the people of Israel and its Covenant with God.” In other words, as Jews our selfhood emerges out of the Jewish people as a whole and stands in eternal relationship with God. However, our selfhood is not defined by anyone else, not even God. We are “shaped” by these covenants but nevertheless are still “autonomous.” As Borowitz puts it:
It is as a single soul in its full individuality that the Jewish self exists in Covenant. … At any given moment it is ultimately I who must determine what to make of God’s demands and Israel’s practice, tradition, and aspiration as I, personally, seek to live the life of Torah in Covenantal faithfulness.
In other words, our Judaism insists that each person be fully involved in determining what’s right for them both Jewishly and in general. Tradition can’t decide for us, other people can’t decide for us, even God can’t decide for us. When informed by our covenants with the Jewish people and with God, the choices we make individually are fully authentic and true. And when people bearing different beliefs and opinions come together into a single community, we are richer and better for having diverse perspectives in our midst.
With this in mind, I’d like to try to highlight some of the varying beliefs in our community tonight. So here’s what we’re going to do. In a moment, I’m going to share a couple of questions about personal belief, and I’m going to ask you to share some of your thoughts with the people sitting around you. Feel free to discuss with someone you came with or to meet someone new. After everyone’s had a chance to talk in small groups, I’ll ask a few people to share some responses with everyone.
Defining a personal theology.
-What I can’t believe [in].
-What I can believe [in].
-What I must believe [in].
So here are the topics. I have found that it’s very difficult to simply state what I believe in, at least, not without a lot of preparation. But these three questions serve as a solid starting point.
What I can’t believe [in] is often the easiest. I can’t believe in a god with a body, for instance, or I can’t believe that life has no purpose. By proscribing what we can’t believe in, we start to carve out space for the next item:
What I can believe [in] sketches out potential possibilities without necessarily saying that I do believe in these things. For instance, I can believe in a personal god, can I can also believe in a god who is not at all a person. This question helps to scope out the realm of possibility for what my beliefs might be.
And finally, what I must believe [in] gets us even closer to articulating our own belief systems without actually making us say those difficult words “I believe.” For instance, I must believe in justice, and I must believe in the power of love. Hopefully, the things we must believe [in] are also things we can believe [in], but some of us may find that’s not the case.
What I can’t believe [in].
What I can believe [in].
What I must believe [in].
So, I invite you to discuss one, two, or all three of these questions with those around you. Feel free to start where you like and hopefully, when I cut you off in a few minutes, you’ll find that there’s still much, much more to say. (So I recommend continuing the conversation over Shabbat dinner following services.)
Now, talk amongst yourselves.
We opened our service with the question mah tovu mishk’notecha – how beautiful are the dwelling-places for holiness we build inside ourselves. Hearing the views expressed tonight, I believe, has shown us just how beautiful our community truly is.
[SLIDE – VA-ANI T’FILATI]
The song Mah Tovu also includes a verse from Psalms: וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּתִי-לְךָ יְיָ עֵת רָצוֹן, “And I—I am my prayer. May it be for You, O Adonai, in an acceptable time.”
וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּתִי—I am my prayer.
Without me, I have no prayer. Without Jews, we have no Judaism. Without each one of us, we have no community. So let us bring our full selves into our Jewish lives, to enter into relationship with God and with one another.
In honor and memory of Rabbi Doctor Eugene Borowitz, zichrono livrachah, may this be our blessing. Amen.
 Quoted in Nehama Leibowitz’ New Studies in Shemot, Vol. 2, p. 483, adapted slightly. Original text:
He commanded that each individual should build him a sanctuary in the recesses of his heart, that he should prepare himself to be a dwelling place for the Lord and a stronghold for the excellency of His Presence, as well as an altar on which to offer up every portion of his soul to the Lord, until he gives himself for His glory at all times.
 Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991, p. 284.
 Ibid. Full quote: “I have in mind … a non-Orthodox self that is autonomous yet so fundamentally shaped by the Covenant that whatever issues from its depths will have authentic Jewish character” (284).
 Ibid. 293.
Covenant with Self
[Before the opening song, "Mah Tovu"]
This week, with Parashat Terumah, we begin the cycle of Torah portions dedicated to the design and construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary used by the Israelites in the desert. God says וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם, “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25: 8). Rabbinic commentators have pointed out the oddness of this verse: Shouldn’t it be “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell in it”? The 19th century Polish rabbi known as the Malbim says no, teaching that God never intended to dwell inside a structure – for how could that even be possible? Instead, he writes, “God instructs each of us to build a sanctuary in the recesses of our heart, that we should prepare ourselves to be a dwelling place for God.” In other words, God dwells among us when we make ourselves into holy vessels.
In this light, we can understand in a new way the classic Mah Tovu. We can ask sincerely mah tovu mishk’notecha, how good are our sanctuaries that we make for God? And in moments of Shabbat reflection, we can dedicate ourselves to making our internal sanctuaries as pure and precious as we can.
[Sing Mah Tovu]
This week, the Torah cycle begins its lengthy description of the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary used by the Israelites in the wilderness. Parashat Terumah is my bar mitzvah portion, and I still remember well how it opens:
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְיָ֖ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה
מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃
And Adonai said to Moses: Speak to the Children of Israel, and let them bring Me gifts. From each person whose heart so moves him you shall take gifts for me (Ex. 25:1-2).
The scene as it unfolds is a beautiful one. We read, “everyone whose heart moved him came, bringing to the Eternal his offering for the work” (Ex. 35:21), returning “morning after morning” (Ex. 36:3) until Moses had to tell them to stop – the people had given enough. Each person wanted to add his or her own unique gifts to the building of the mishkan. Everyone wanted to be personally involved.
One of the lessons we take away from this story is that everyone counts; each individual’s contributions are important.
Which brings us to the theme of our evening. Those who had the opportunity to join us last week may remember that I delivered the second in a series of three sermons dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, whose first yortzeit was recently observed. Dr. Borowitz was my teacher and was a mentor to generations of Reform rabbis, and his system of Covenantal Theology changed the essence of Reform Judaism for the post-modern age.
“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.”