Parshat Naso

Sermon Saturday Morning


1. Shabbat Shalom

2. I have always been fascinated with the gifts that the princes of the twelve tribes of Israel bring to the dedication of the Mishkan in this weeks parsha. What is the appropriate gift to bring to the dedication of the portable sanctuary at the center of the Israelite camp? What should a tribe bring as a gift to the “housewarming” as it were, to the place where God’s presence would dwell? Talk about a homeowner who has “everything”! And yet, each of the princes brings a gift on behalf of his tribe.

3. The two most interesting things about their gifts is that they all bring the same gifts to the Mishkan and the gifts are items that will be very useful to the priests who will serve there. They bring bowls and ladles filled with flour and incense and they bring gifts of cattle, sheep and goats to create herds from which the daily sacrifices can be obtained. The gifts the princes bring are identical so that they say more about the givers than they say about the gifts. There is no rivalry between the tribes. They all work together and in concert for the good of the sanctuary. In short, they do what is best for the community over what is best for themselves.

4. This approach to life is hard to find anymore. We look around us and we see that there are so many more people who are only interested in what is best for themselves than those who even think about the community. Neighbors who keep a clean and tidy home are often the ones who are littering the communal space around us. Politicians who are elected to serve their districts spend most of their time raising money for their reelection and avoiding all that could derail their campaign. News organizations that should be reporting for the public good end up filming and publishing whatever drivel sells their advertising. The sad story of Casey Anthony and the death of her daughter should only be a painful tale of a very sick mother. That the trial has become so lurid and sensational is because the News organizations have figured out that the public wants to see it, so they sell advertisng so they can give us as much as we want.

5. Now we have a culture where there are so many people who want to tell us what we should be thinking about. Not because it is for anyone’s well being, but because it suits their personal agenda. I had a friend once who used to say, with his tongue in his cheek, “If I want your opinion, I will give it to you!” I have people come up to me all the time and ask why I “never” speak about Israel in my sermons. I have come to understand that this really means, “Why don’t you ever tell everyone that you agree with me about Israel?” The right wingers want to hear me vindicate their point of view and the left wingers want me to vindicate their point of view. There are very few people who really want to hear about what is actually happening in Israel because, right or left, the reality makes them both uncomfortable. Just over these past few weeks, President Obama, did not say that Israel must return to the 1967 borders and Prime Minister Netanyahu did not really disagree with the President at all. If you think that the President DID say they should return to the 1967 borders you are watching Fox news and listening to the pundits on the right. If you think that the rift between the President and Israeli Prime Minister is a welcome breath of fresh air, then you have been listening to the news and to the pundits on the left. The truth is in the middle and if both sides are unhappy, that is a good sign that something important has been said. So after all the shouting and posturing on the right and the left, the truth of the past weeks is that Israel and the United States agree that Israel and the Palestinians must talk to each other and make painful concessions. Oh, and that Hamas will not be a part of the negotiations no matter what agreements they sign until they give up their guns and recognize Israel’s right to exist. All in all, I was pretty happy with our President, with the Prime Minister and the way they agree on the path to peace. I sometimes disagree with them both, but this time, I have to admit, I agree with them both wholeheartedly.

6. A woman called me to ask for my help in repairing the rift between her and her daughter. The daughter had made a decision that the mother disagreed with and she wanted me to resolve their problem. The family was supposed to have had dinner together on a birthday and at the last minute, the daughter had to cancel and the mother was heartbroken that the family was apart. She wanted me to referee the argument. “Can you do that?” she asked. “No” I replied, “the only way this problem will be resolved is if you both get together and talk it out. I can facilitate the conversation but you both have to want to resolve the disagreement.” But then I went on. I told her that I could not comment on her daughter’s position, since she was not on the phone and I could not hear her side of the story. I then told the mother that whatever decision had been made, that decision was in the past and it was too late to change it. The real issue is if there could be a resolution by making a better decision in the future. It didn’t matter anymore that the family was not together for a birthday, what matters is if the family can find a reason for the family to get together again soon. When we only can see our side of the story, we can’t always see the path to reconciliation in the future.

7. A couple of years ago, Newsweek magazine asked its readers to tell them what parts of the magazine they liked and what parts they did not like? What parts did they want to see more of and what parts could they leave out? To the editors’ shock and surprise, the part of the magazine voted out was the gossip page. The readers said they just really didn’t care what was happening to Lindsey Lohan or to Brad Pitt. The editors were “thrilled” to be able to remove what they had thought was an indispensible part of the magazine.

8. I came across a saying by Fredrick the Great, the king of Prussia in the 18th century. He said, “The greatest and noblest pleasure which we have in this world is to discover new truths, and the next is to shake off old prejudices”. Truth is not about who is right and who is wrong. Truth is about doing what is best for someone else. Sometimes the best answer is not what will make everyone happy, it will be what will make everyone equally unhappy. Being wrong is not a sin, it is a necessary part of learning how to be right.

9. I can tell you for sure that the tribes of Israel in the desert did not always get along. The big tribes often overwhelmed the smaller ones. Some were quick to assimilate bad habits into their tents, as Shimon will do in the upcoming parsha of Hukkat. Sometimes they will act in self interest as three tribes will do by asking not to enter the Promised Land because the land they were already on was good enough. But when it came to their faith and to their sanctuary, they were of one mind and one heart. When it came to God, they knew that they had to reach out to a higher standard in personal relationships. Moses did not have to tell them what gifts to bring. They knew what was required and they got together to make sure that what the Priests needed, the princes would provide. And not just for the priests either. The princes also provided to the Levites, oxen and wagons to help carry the parts of the Mishkan when they traveled from camp to camp. They got together and made sure that the right number of wagons were available.

10. If we can put our own needs aside long enough, we can realize that everyone has something that they can teach us and that every event has something in it that we can learn. It does not matter at all our age or ability, our background or level of education. When we are learning, we are growing. The idea is not to just grow older, but to grow in wisdom and in understanding. That is why we pause in our service to learn from the Torah and to learn from our Teacher, our Rabbi. It is not enough to go through the prayer book; we have to open ourselves up so that the words of Torah and the words of the Siddur will go through us; changing our direction, our understanding and leaving us open to explore new ideas and to test new theories.

11. It is not enough to just listen to one news broadcast or read just one newspaper. On any given day I am constantly comparing news items. I look at the news from eleven different news sources and even then I challenge myself to see if there is a hidden meaning behind the headlines. Getting at the truth is never easy and we should not expect that anyone can do it for us. When we hear politicians and pundits shouting at each other or at us, they are really saying that we should only listen to them and to ignore everyone else. That is a good sign that we probably should be doing just the opposite, listening to everyone else and ignoring what they are shouting.

12. The world is not a simple place and making sense of what is happening is not a simple activity. Let us remember the example of the princes of the tribes in our parsha. If we come together for a common cause, we will bring peace and completion to the world. If we place our own needs before everyone else, we will only spread discord and divisiveness. The Torah tells us to seek peace and even blesses us in this parsha with the prayer “ May the Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace.” May God grant us the peace that comes from loving our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, listening to them as we would have them listen to us. May this be the peace that pervades the world as we say …

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