Sermon
Parashat Shmot
December 20, 2013
Temple B'nai Chaim
Rabbi David A. Lipper


In Tennyson’s Idylls of the King he references a story of a lance fashioned from wood that was "storm strengthened on a windy height."  It came from a tree standing lone and solitary on a deserted mountain, battered and beaten by the wind's fury. Summer and winter it stood strong against the fiery blasts of summer heat and the snow and ice of the winters chill. Ice and snow, wind and rain, all were beaten back by this most sturdy of trees. The roots held fast; their grasp triumphed over every condition that sought to uproot them.

Here we have an important parable for life. Storms rise, vent their fury over our lives and leave for certain their tell-tale scars. But they also leave behind an impenetrable strength born in the crucible of life and create qualities of strength unimaginable. Stored deep within us, often beyond our own understanding is a fountain of strength that when pushed to the limits of our own comprehension, reaches out and grasps hold of us and carries us through the storm.

Our approach to dark days and difficult times is told by the philosopher Philo when he writes that "Blessed are they to whom it is given to resist with superior strength the weight that would pull them down."

More often than not, our inner growth comes from the battles in life’s ordeals and disasters. Storms are a natural component of life on this planet. Similarly they are a part of our own personal journey as the storms of life rage against our security and safety. Whether we, like Tennyson, can fashion a lance from the storms of our life, or fall victim by our lack of defense depends on the quality of our spiritual resources and the faith stories and practices that we are able to muster to our aid.  

The Exodus story is the most important story in our peoples past and present. The story is much more than the recollections we share sitting at our homes while munching on matzah. The story of Moses and the Israelites and the burning bush, must have impacted Tennyson for the bush in our story is forged in the fires of faith and watered with the tears of our people who sought refuge from the pain and struggle of their lives.  

To take us back in time, Abraham that towering figure of Genesis who left all behind in search of a new home and a new connection to God, is pulled stage by stage from the wealth and security of his father’s home in Ur and then Haran, to the far desert reaches of the Fertile Crescent. He travels beyond the pale of settlement and finds himself caught in the "liminal." That was the space between two worlds, the world of his father and the safety and security of family and the world of Egypt, where food was once again abundant. Keeping with the theme of you can never go back, Abraham presses forward towards Egypt, forever changing the course of human history and especially the history of his family and people.

Abraham enters Egypt with a reputation. Pharaoh encounters him and Sarai and through a series of unfortunate occurrences, ends up rewarding Abraham with great riches. What is most important here is that Abraham’s journey south begins the greatest story ever told and opens up the theme of from Bondage to Redemption.

So here we are in the moment. Abraham opened the door to Egypt and, like the proverbial Pandora’s Box, opened the gates of Egyptian Bondage. For the next 430 years or so, Egypt and Israelite hegemony become the buzz words through which generations of Talmudic and Biblical scholars would funnel the longings of our people. First for food, then for freedom, our people sought the guidance and direction of a higher power. Their hope found in the voice from a bush, solitary and lonely, burned but not consumed, hardened by nature, much like the tree of Tennyson’s youth and the staff, forged from its branches and watered with the cries of a people in search and in need.

Very early in my rabbinic career, I came across the poetry of William Ernest Henley. This British poet, critic and editor is a great illustration of a heroic soul that grew through life’s storms. As a child he caught tuberculosis and had a foot amputated. Much of his life seemed to struggle under the weight of the storms that pounded him. He was relegated to writing from his bed.  A verse of his that has been etched into my mind is this:

It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

Beethoven and Bach were deaf; Chopin continued to compose for 10 years while arthritis ravaged him.  Person after person, beaten and battered by physical struggles and pain raised their sails in order to find calmer waters. They transformed their lives into shields against the storms that surrounded them. They were fashioned with a unique spark of life that built faith and hope when all seemed lost. They proved that the human spirit holds a remarkable luminescence, powerful enough to melt away the darkness and defeat the storms of life.

In our own tradition, there was one man who held that kind of hope for the future. He heard the cry of centuries of pain and suffering. He sensed the ground shudder while the restless souls of generations cried from beyond this world for rest. He emerged into the world with a conscience hidden from his grasp and as he matured, the sparks of that conscience lit his soul afire and he found himself standing before the reflected image of himself in that lonely, solitary bush growing out of a craggy rock.  From that bush flowed words that would ring true to this day … "Shlach et Ami/Let my people go".  

This is the essence of the Exodus narrative. It is focused on the desire of individuals and then a people to be pulled from a bondage that has held them captive towards a freedom that will allow them to be the "masters of their fate" as Henley wrote. Exodus begins mired in one more famine that has led our people to once again return to the fabled storehouses of Egypt. Maybe the first message should be that our future will not be found in the Kings and Queens, the Pharaohs and Princes of this world. It will only be found when we look beyond our base human needs for immediate gratification and focus on the path of life and the Human/Divine connection that we can forge.

And so we are brought to the penultimate conclusion. Redemption is a Divine gift brought about only when the cries of our bondage can reach the highest heavens and the depths of our soul cry out for help. Redemption is possible only when the Divine relationship is in play, not when we have turned our back to our faith or relegated God to some casual position in our lives.  

In the Exodus story, God finds the Israelites in their suffering because they never broke the covenant or gave up their faith. God was present in their lives and they turned daily for God to help. This active engagement in the Divine covenantal relationship added presence to their cries and passion to their voice and God’s answer was the greatest redemption ever experienced.

For us today, the question about our own deliverance from our own bondage moments hangs on the relationship we have built with God in our own lives. The market may rise and fall, oppression may once again rear its ugly head, bondages may come but our tradition teaches that there is always a sun rise after darkness. The key to seeing that sunrise is our faith in that Divine relationship that guides and sustains us in both good times and bad.   

So like Lord Tennyson’s tree alone and exposed on a rocky crag, we stand most days battered by forces all around us. Resolute we stand because the roots of our "Aytz Hayim" -- tree of life reach deep into the soil and create for us a stable and firm foundation of faith. Storms will come and go, life will deal us inequities, we may stumble and fall, but with our faith in God and our belief in the renewing relationship with God, we shall stand tall and grow.  

Shabbat Shalom