One thing that is most striking about the Joseph story is that it is very much a story for our times: not only in the sense that its emotions feel contemporary but also in what place it occupies in the liturgical calendar.
As we contend with complex issues of polarization, hatred, the call for increased security, the inability to speak to difference and the myriad reflections on our American Jewish identities, one thing stands out clearly for me as a non-Orthodox, ‘Reformative’ rabbi. This is the hour of our Judaism.
Much has been written about the role of women in Scripture – far too much for me to summarize here. Women are compromised, erased, subjugated…. This is not an ancient story; it’s a very contemporary story and the obvious parallels leap at us from the page.
We live in a world of information overload. In fact, we are so super saturated by choice and by information, that it can actually paralyze us and shut us down. This phenomenon is called ‘decision fatigue’…. In our hyper-complex world, we are spoilt for choice… and the choice can spoil us.
Perhaps our Jewish future is like Schroedinger’s Cat: whether we live or die, thrive or decline, is a matter of perception. Abraham had to journey into the great Unknown: ‘el ha’aretz asher ar’echa’ – ‘to a land that I will show you’. He was called to draw on all his inner resources and vision in order to heed that vision.
This High Holiday cycle, we are exploring this verse as we try to understand and answer the charge of ‘veheyeh b’rachah’, of how we can be a blessing. Our previous sermonic journeys have forayed into the territory of the soul. ‘Lech lecha’ – we have ventured into ourselves, and reached for our deepest purpose because, as I said during my sermon for Shabbat Shuvah: we cannot live Jewish lives by instinct alone: we are called to make Judaism our own and ascribe to it a higher mission. When we discover how we want to shape our lives and take ownership of our Judaism, we can act with generosity, with confidence and hope, with love, with joy—and be a blessing.
What does it mean to go ‘from yourself, from your homeland, the place of your birth and your father’s house?’ Surely, the Torah could have sufficed in saying ‘lech m’artz’cha el ha’aretz asher ar’echa’ – ‘go from your land to the land that I will show you.’ We normally assume that the Torah’s language is efficient and focused, so if the Torah uses a more expanded syntax, it means we are called to read the text very closely. In fact, we are going to read it so closely that we are going to only look at ‘lech lecha’.
That’s right: this is a sermon about two words. Two words.
Erev Rosh haShanah is a perfect time to contemplate beginnings and blessings, and endings, of course, as we bid goodbye to 5778 and welcome in 5779. For my family and myself, beginnings, blessings and endings have been intimately woven into our lives this past year. It is little over a year ago since we arrived and since I stood here on this bimah as your new Rabbi. This community has welcomed us open-heartedly in Iowa City. Your generosity, kindness, good humor and curiosity have been instrumental in the continued process of building our sacred relationship.