Thursday, December 22, 2016

Evan's 12/24 Sermon - The Too Long and Too Hot for Shul Version

Gut shabbos, gut voch. I'm Evan Tucker and this is the end of my first year as a regular attendee at Beth Am. Like just about 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 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 I'll be teaching classes at Beth Am and I hope to see you all there. 

Before my family was Tuckers, we were Ticoczkis, and before we were Ticoczkis, 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 really smart, for a Polish guy... 

It was 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 tell a story in three acts which you all know, and after each act we'll pause for a bit of commentary. 

Act 1.

So there's this 75 year old aging hippie, a Columbia dropout who stood in the front row at both Woodstock and Altamont. A quiet guy who never fit in with his family and never liked being in business with his father, and he hears 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. The voice told him that if he became a desert hippy, he would be the father of an entire nation, but the desert is so barren that they nearly lose everything and they have to move again to the nearest city.

The biggest macher in the new city, perhaps a real estate developer turned President, sees the hippie's attractive and sarcastic wife and is so taken with her that he sexually harasses her until she agrees to become the macher's mistress, and he's so powerful that the hippie has to pretend she's not even his wife so he doesn't get killed. 

They finally manage to get out of that nightmare together, they go back to the desert, the hippie and his nephew go into business together, only to not get along, so the hippie tells him to take the good parts of the land when they divide the assets. The good land then becomes caught up in a series of wars, and the hippie has to save his nephew repeatedly from death and violence from two once great cities that are destroyed, during the escape of which the nephew's wife died. 

The aging hippie then wonders what all this hardship is for if he never has the kids which the voice promised him, so his wife tells him to use a surrogate mother so that he can have kids, only for the wife to become jealous of the surrogate. When his wife finally has a son of her own, her son and the surrogate's son don't get along, and she finally convinces her husband to drive away the surrogate mother, with whom he's been fooling around on the side, and her son out from their home. 

The voice then tells the hippie to kill his son, and he almost does it before the voice tells him not to do it. The wife dies from grief that her husband would kill his son, and the hippie wastes no time taking another wife and having another six kids.

Avraham was the father of many nations, he also was clearly a deeply troubled man, and however generous he was at times, he caused everyone he loved a world of sorrows. We don't know if he suffered himself for his troubles - he doesn't ever express his suffering in the manner which Ya'akov or Moshe does, let alone Iyov or Yeremiahu. We don't ever go inside the head of Avraham, we only know that he followed the voice of God - he did what the Voice told him to do, and in the case of the Akedah (sacrifice), it's not even clear that he understood the instructions particularly well.  

But it's almost because of Avraham's lack of direct expression that makes him the ultimate individual. He was the perennial outcast who looked around his predictable life, and the monotony of it made him miserable. We are a religion of laws and customs and expectations which there will always be enormous pressure to uphold, but Avraham is Avraham because he rebelled. He looked around where he was from and said that none of the options available to him will give him a meaningful life. Who knows, if Avraham grew up in Pikesville, he might become a Beth Am member. 
Act II

There are these two brothers, and they really don't get along. Obviously they're nothing alike. One's a jock who's so good at hunting that he gets an NRA membership, and so good at barbecuing that his father lets him host parties at the house long as he leaves his dad some venison steaks. The other is a nerd who doesn't have many other friends than his mother, whom he always helps around the house. The nerd is also kind of religious, a quality which his father may not like about him quite as much as he would claim to, considering that religion nearly got him killed a while back...

Anyway, the jock is having too much fun to care about his future, he doesn't want to go into his father's business and he certainly doesn't want to get an MBA. He's so unconcerned about his future that he sells his college fund to his brother for a bowl of soup. 

When it came time to write the will, the nerd cheats both the jock and their father. The jock, rather understandably, says "I'm gonna kill'em." The father says "I don't blame you." 

The nerd, possibly misinterpreting what was intended as hyperbole, though probably not, went to stay with his uncle in the 'Old Country.' Maybe he gets an engineering degree at the Techniyon or a law degree from Bar-Ilan. Meanwhile, the jock doesn't go to college and marries a gentile, but then realizes his father disapproves, so he divorces the goyisher girl and marries a poorer girl from his own faith. They never have much money. 

Back in the old country, the nerd has some weird dreams, perhaps after experiencing nargilah for the first time, and then he sees the girl whom he instantly knows will become the love of his life. But her father's not just a canny businessman who drives a hard bargain, but an insider trader and a racketeer. Her father employs him in his business, and multiple times he cheats this nerdy employee of his who seems like he won't stand up for himself. Cheats him to the point that he ends up in a loveless marriage to the sister of the woman he truly loves, and every time he thrives in business, his boss takes what's rightfully his away from him.

After twenty years in the Old Country, he leaves to return to his family. While on the way, he's accosted by some strange homeless dude and has to wrestle him to the ground in order to keep moving and gets a lifelong injury in his thigh which gives him a limp. 

When the nerd comes home, he's a white collar professional yuppie with a thriving business while his brother never became more than a blue collar handyman. Before the reunion, the brothers are both very worried by how the other will treat them. But they're both older now and realize that the fights of the past are trivial. The yuppie even gives his brother a gross percentage of the business profits. He also gets back just in time to reunite with his sick father who never paid much attention to him, and the two brothers bury the father together. But once he returns to the desert, terrible problems begin anew. 

This yuppie's finally married the love of his life, but shortly after they return to his family, she dies too. His teenage daughter gets into an abusive relationship with a rich boy who assaults her, and her father, being as uncomprehending of the problems of daughters as too many fathers are, sees the advantages of marrying into a family with money, so he encourages them to get married. Her brothers, though, as neglected by their father as she is, are much closer to their sister and think of how trapped she might feel, so without a father who looks after his children properly, they decide to kill the rich boy while he's convalescing from surgery. Their father has to hire a lawyer to get them off the hook with the law and at the same time repair business relations with every other business in the desert, none of which will trust him ever again. This father, such a great success in business, but so neglectful of his children, curses them on his deathbed - leaving our world as so many parents do, with their resentments of their children unresolved.

Yaakov is a very different man than Avraham. If Avraham is a hippy who was probably too troubled and irresponsible enough to have too many children, then Yaakov was a yuppie workaholic who made lots of money. Like so many yuppies, he did what was expected of him and had a large family, but he cheated his father and brother, he neglected most of his kids, he neglected the women in his life, and he divided his family against itself.

If the story of Avraham is ultimately the story of a dysfunctional individual struggling with what might give him fulfillment, then the story of Yaakov is the story of a dysfunctional family that never treats each other properly. Everybody's lying to each other, stealing from each other, neglectful of each other, and that's just when they're not deliberately hurting each other. If Avraham deals with the wounds of a troubled psyche, then Yaakov deals with the wounds of a troubled family. 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. 

Every one of these acts deals with the larger unit than the last. The troubles of a Jewish psyche, the troubles of a Jewish family, and finally, Act III deals with the troubles of a lone Jew in a world of gentiles - the outsider in a world that still praising us to the skies for enabling their prosperity just days before they decide that we're a swamp that must be drained, only to decide we're great again as though nothing bad ever happened. There'll be an Act IV when we deal with the problems of a nation, but we don't have three-thousand years to talk about it. 

So this Yuppie has a son, it's his favorite son, and this son is a spoiled clotheshorse, a dandy, a Jewish American Prince who went to Park School. He clearly inherited his father's business competence, but his father spoiled him, and gave him a much larger allowance to spend than his brothers, which he used to buy clothes retail, and one day he comes home with a ridiculously expensive checkered jacket from Armani with a pinstriped shirt from Brooks Brothers and $400 dollar designer jeans from Ralph Lauren which he bought himself to celebrate getting into the University of Pennsylvania. And while dressed like this, he pulls up to his brothers in his Mercedes convertible, he has the gall to tell them that he'll always be more successful than they are. 

So his brothers do the only logical thing to do to a brother your parents love more, and sell him into slavery. He ends up in the same great country to the south that his great-grandparents did. He finds favor with the Vice-President of the country and being as talented as his father, ends up in a short time as the Vice-President's chief of staff. And just like his great grandmother, he's an immigrant who reluctantly comes to a new country only to encounter sexually harassment from his boss, or in this case his boss's wife. And as a coverup for her bad behavior, he gets thrown in jail. 

While he was in prison, he goes to the prison library and studies economics, and while in prison comes up with some radical economic notions he calls 'Cow Theory.' He explains his theory to a winemaker who's in jail for insider trading, and the Pharaoh. Eventually, there's a recession, none of the other economists with their tried and true theories can get the economy going again. The winemaker explains to the President the rudimentaries of cow theory, the President commutes Joseph's sentence, and...

I know this is a controversial point, even at Beth Am, but whatever one believes about the origins of The Bible, as a work of literature it is second to none - not even 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 in Bereshit (Genesis), Vayikra (Exodus), and BaMidbar (Numbers), tell us the stories we always need to hear. They read us far more than we read them. 

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