Friday, December 23, 2016

Evan's 12/24 Sermon - Near-Final Draft

Gut shabbos, chag sameach, and gut yor. My name's Evan Tucker and this is the end of my first year as a regular attendee at Beth Am. Like just every Jew of my generation around here, I'm from Pikesville. I'm a Schechter grad who went to Beth Tfiloh for part of high school. I'm a composer and a writer, I have a podcast called Tales From the Old New Land and am about to start a column in the Jewish Times. I'm a Pisces who was born on Purim, and I'm an unmarried bookworm who spends most of my time wondering if the books in my apartment are ever going to fall over and bury me for a couple days. I grew up learning both Hebrew and Yiddish, though I'm hardly good now at either, and I'm the violinist and lead singer in a rock band that sings exclusively in Yiddish called 'Schmear Campaign.' At some point in the next year it would seem that I'll be teaching classes at Beth Am and I hope to see you all there. 

Before my family was Tuckers, we were Ticockis, and before we were Ticockis, we were Charlaps. Apparently this means that we're direct descendents of King David, which strikes me as a little unlikely. It also means that the direct founder of our lineage is Yakhya Ibn Yakhya, whose name comes out to an acronym for Khiya, Rosh L'Galut Portugal or Poleen, or Khiya, Head of the Exiles in Portugal or Poland. What this probably means is that somewhere along the way, one of my ancestors was a medieval merchant who knew he could get people interested in his wears by claiming he had better yichus than he did. 

This is the first sermon I've ever given, and if you had told me that I'd be giving a sermon in shul two years ago, you could have knocked me over with a feather. So if you can, try to grade me on a steep curve. It was also very difficult to pick a topic for this sermon since there's absolutely nothing of note going on in the world right now... And the topic was further complicated by it being both Erev Hanukkah and Erev Christmas. I could spend this time giving you some drawn out intellectual interpretation of Jewish history or philosophy or politics or art and culture, since that's generally what occupies my headspace for most of the day. But I have a feeling that a sermon like that is second or third date material. For the first date, it's always good advice to stick to safe topics. So let's just stick to a regular Davar Torah on this week's parsha, and go from there. 

But I'm obviously no Rabbi, and while for a non-clerical reader I'd like to think I'm fairly knowledgable about our tradition and our writings, you will not hear the most reverent interpretations of the Bible from me.

So with that in mind, let's talk about a bit of Vayeshev. 

So there's this Yuppie workaholic, a quiet guy who never had many friends, was never very close to anyone except his mother, and took every insult from his father, from his brother, from his uncle, with extreme patience, having to trust that eventually he will get what's due to him for having taken so much of everybody else's meshugas. Anything he got out of life was not because his family loved him enough to give it to him, but because he was smart enough to figure out how to get it in spite of the fact that they never wanted him to have any of it. And for decades, he does what he can to slowly and steadily grow his bank account so he can leave something to his thirteen children. But around the age of a hundred-and-three, he has a midlife crisis. 

All that work, all that deception, all that family betrayal done by him and to him. And for what? He's finally able to be with the woman he loves, but they only get a few years together, and while giving birth to their second son, she dies.

Everybody has a midlife crisis in their own way. But his midlife crisis is in relation to his children. Ten or eleven of them are already out of the house, and no matter what their grades, he sent them all to a state school. Here's a son who's clearly worthy of his Dad, with a great interpretive mind, and with very good fashion sense. He decides to spend a little extra and send him to Brandeis or University of Pennsylvania, he increases his allowance seventy-seven fold, the kid starts shopping at Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers and buys himself a Mercedes. 

The other brothers, stuck in middle management with student loans do the only logical thing when you're jealous of a brother and sell him into slavery. 

Now Egypt is the great place of the time. When you cultivate your spirit, you might make Aliyah or move to one of those hipster neighborhoods of North Baltimore. But to make it in Egypt is exactly what so many of our most successful Pikesville kids are trying to in my generation - it's exactly like trying to make it in politics or journalism in DC, or make it in the arts or finance in New York. It's an amazing feat for those who do it, but what you have to do to become a great success is unbelievably difficult, with incredible hard labor and compromises to your values that you will never see coming when you begin the journey, and no guarantee that you'll ever achieve the desired result. Had Joseph not been sold into slavery, he was just the kind of clever and ambitious and attractive young person of means who might have ended up in Egypt anyway. On the way, he encounters sexual harassment, he encounters deception, and even as the most traditionally successful Jew in the Torah, he has, as all Jews do, to struggle at every point to find favor with people who are predisposed to hate him - even in prison, the warden likes him and gives him that job in the prison library which the Warden gave Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption. The Torah portion ends with him still in prison, and completely forgotten about by the cup-bearer whose future he predicted, and to whom Joseph explained the rudiments of his economic cow theory. 

I like to think that the story of Avraham is the story of a troubled individual. Perhaps he's an aging hippie who never liked being in business with his father, and he literally starts hearing a voice which tells him to move into the desert with his wife where he knows nobody, there are no prospects for long term financial growth, and the neighbors are immigrant hating jerks. To me, it's the story of a troubled man trying to find his place in the world. The story of Yaakov is the story of a troubled family, full of people who deceive each other and insult each other and cheat each other out of money. And by the time Yaakov realized how it all went wrong and tries to make it up to his children, it's much too late. Yaakov is a man struggling with the weight of his family's expectations of him, and because he can never reconcile himself to what he can do to make himself feel loved by his family, his wives and children can never figure out how to make themselves feel loved by him either. But the story of Yosef is the story of a Jew in a troubled world - a world which raises Jews up to pinnacle of success, only to cast us back down into a world of horror, only to arbitrarily raise us up again in manners that seem almost providential in how little control we have over them.

Christians like to talk about the greatness of the New Testament's mercy against the incitements to vengeance of the Old Testament. This tradition has a Latin name, the Adversus Judaeus, and you hear variations on this even in everyday conversation in 2016. The idea of it is that the New Testament gives us a new conception of God, full of mercy, while the Old Testament contains a wrathful, petulant God who freely incites genocide.

I'm not going to sugarcoat this, there are moments when Hashem gives the most terrible and bloodcurdling orders that do not trouble Judaism's conscience nearly as much as it should. But because we acknowledge that we are very much an imperfect religion, it has set ethical boundaries on what we've generally been capable of doing in our name. We do not prostletyze to non-believers, we do not believe in rule over those who are not ours, we do not believe that there is a final interpretive or intercessory authority on Earth to whom we must submit. And the few moments in history when we have violated those precepts, such as the events of the holiday we're about to celebrate, there is abundant critical commentary which is deeply troubled by those events. 

There is no hagiography in Judaism. It is precisely the fact that the forefathers are not saints but sinners, that grounds Judaism in the humility to not spread its message as something that should be adapted by the entire world. Islam means quite literally that one submits to God, Christianity, at least slightly figuratively, means that we are saved by God, Yisrael means that we are a people who wrestle with God, and therefore do not accept his message, whatever it be, with faith or submission, but by enactment, the tactile process of applying laws to life that are constantly discussed, reassessed, and reinterpreted for the needs of every time and every place under circumstances that could erase any other system of belief. 

I know this last point is particularly controversial, even at Beth Am, but whatever one believes about the origins of The Torah, if I can ask you for a moment to see it as a work of literature, then it is second to none in the entire history of storytelling - not even Homer or Shakespeare or Tolstoy can compete with this level of creation. And the reason is because the stories of The Bible, particularly the stories of the Torah, do not tell us tales about great warriors like in the Illiad, or royal courts as in the Shakespearean tragedies, or aristocrats as in War and Peace. The Tanakh is a book so democratic that the characters in it are low enough to not even count as ordinary. The Bible is about outcasts, weirdos, the people who don't fit with the expectations of the society around them. The stories are meant to be consumed at those moments when we feel most isolated from those around us, they read us far more than we read them and they are there for when we need them. 

Gut Shabbos, Gut Yor, and to both Jews and Christians here, chag sameach.

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