Sermon by Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg, Executive Director and Harvard Chaplain, Harvard Hillel, Oct. 25, 2020.
Good morning! Let me first express thanks, to Rev. Stephanie Paulsell and Rev. Alanna Sulivan, and to all of you for hosting me again to be with the community of Harvard's Memorial Church. Although this is an unusual way of being 'with' you, in this challenging and unusual year, there is a real sense of transcending the physical distances of these present times, as you invite this service into your homes and into your lives – and it is a great honor to be so invited. And I don't even have to worry about what to wear.
A lot is different amid this pandemic time, many of our ordinary groups and gatherings and times with one another are missing, and this is such a very strange academic year for Harvard. And it may sound odd for me to say that when I asked what your scriptural readings would be for today's service, and heard they would include the first through the twelfth verse of Deuteronomy's thirty-fourth chapter, I realized I had missed, this year, a particular time of crying.
I will explain.
The scriptural moment is Moses on the mountaintop, being shown the promised land, being told, one final time, that he will not live to enter it. In the Jewish cycle of scriptural readings, this lection occurred exactly a week ago, at the conclusion of our autumn holidays, as we ended our yearly reading of the Torah and started it anew. As a Jewish Chaplain at Harvard, I usually spend the celebratory evening of that milestone with our student community; and it is a celebration, Simchat Torah – literally, our 'Rejoicing of Torah,' full of songs and whirling dances, and in many communities the daytime of the holiday is just as festive and as raucous.
For quite a number of years now, though, I have been blessed to have discovered and to have become part of a quite unique and special rite of Simchat Torah daytime, crafted by my friend and colleague Rabbi Ebn Leader at Temple Beth Zion ('TBZ') in Brookline, where his wife Rabbi Claudia Kreiman is the Rabbi:
Rav Claudia leads the morning service; our former student, now Rabbi Lee Moore travels in from wherever she is in the world to lead the Hallel, the festival set of Psalms; we take out every scroll of the Torah from the Ark and make seven melodic and meditative circuits around the sanctuary all together as a community – circling kavanot, deepening spiritual intentions (rather than the dancing with abandon that so often typifies these circuits of the holiday) ; we place one of the scrolls on the reading desk; I chant from it Moses' exquisite final blessings of the people; Ebn reads the passages of Moses' death, and I cry; our friend Rev. Ronald White reads Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Mountaintop'-speech, his final oration, as our prophetic reading for the day, and Ron cries; we place another scroll, rolled to the beginning, upon the table, and we start the Torah anew – "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."
It may be strange to think of crying by appointment. In this year, perhaps especially, we know, individually and in our families and communities, how sorrow comes upon us suddenly, rudely interrupting our rhythms, disintegrating our composure. If tears are predictable, if one knows from a calendar that they are coming, can that be real crying?
In answer, I think of another instance of tears in a synagogue setting – a tiny Hasidic shtibel, a one-room sanctuary, amid the brownstones of Manhattan, which my doctoral supervisor, Professor David Weiss Halivni, used to frequent, and where I often would accompany him, in my graduate student years, on the holiday of Sukkot, the Festival of Booths. And there the leader of the prayers would chant the Prayer for Rain, a liturgical expression of our vulnerability integral to the holiday, and he would cry. There was a year when I happened not to be with Professor Halivni at the shtibel on the holiday, and I asked him afterwards, "Did the same gentleman lead the prayer for rain?" "Yes." "And did he cry?" "Why should this year be any different?" said Professor Halivni, with a philosophical smile.
Now you have to know – that response came from a man who had experienced personally the utter devastation of the Holocaust, who as a teenager was separated from his family on the railway platform of Aushwitz, never to see any one of them again, a man who suffered the hell of that place and several other camps before finally being liberated from excruciating and literally subterranean labor cutting a tunnel, which for many became a grave, lands away, in the hills of Austria for the Nazis. When Professor Halivni recited Hallel, when he intoned the festival Psalms, when he, each time, at the words "who raises up the poor up from the dust, from the ash-heap lifts the needy" – "mikimi me'afar dal, me'ashpot yarim evyon" – and each time spread out his arms, his palms raised heavenward in the most unaffected and intense expression of mere and total presence – then I would marvel at his cry.
Grief numbs. Loss trips us up and traumatizes. And in our struggling, however we may, to recover balance we often push tears away. There are funerals to arrange, children to feed, studies to complete, selves to hold together somehow as we lose our landmarks, not to mention times when there is sheer survival amid the nightmare of a Shoah; and grief can be terrifying.
Wise then that, as we survive and as we live, our traditions give us times for tears, moments in which to confront mortality, to acknowledge vulnerability, to mourn, to touch the humanity of our condition from a place and time of steady ritual, with a community to hold us.
Then Moses died there, the servant of the Eternal One, in the land of Moab, by the mouth of the Eternal One – Who buried him there in the valley in the land of Moab, facing Beit Peor, and no person knows the place of his burial to this very day. ... Never since has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Eternal One knew face to face – for all the signs and wonders the Eternal One sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, unto Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mightiness of arm, and all the great fearsomeness, that Moses did before the eyes of all Israel.
Unfathomable loss. Terrible finality. And we pick up again – "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" – and life goes on, how dare it? – and we do, as we live.
Know then, amid the losses of this year – the loss of loved ones to this pandemic, and amid this pandemic that has so often robbed us of proper gatherings of family and services of community – know then that there are and will yet be times for tears, and a community of love, if you are blessed to find that here, to hold you in them. Know that these times will come, and come again, and yet again, in a cycle of the seasons if you let them, and if you learn to meet them and to feel them. The regularity of calendar and liturgy may sometimes gall amid the immediacy of grief, and the whirlwind of loss is often not the place for hearing lessons about spiritual practice. Yet, as we live, the calendars of our traditions live as well, and in them we can sometimes learn to cry.
May you be held by community and by calendar, this year and for years to come, and may the tears you find amid traditions be wellsprings of insight, of blessing, and of love.