Today we honor you, our volunteers, who drive us, who lead us and who guide us. The book of Exodus we began today describes the formation of the Jewish people. It describes how a ragtag bunch of nomadic farmers became a true nation with a secure sense of self-identity. Today I’m going to speak about the formation of the Jewish people in the book of Exodus, and the process by which an extraordinary sense of purpose can animate the development of generosity, volunteerism and leadership.
The legacy of the Hebrew slaves was the remarkable charge given to Abraham’s descendants by God centuries earlier, that they should “imitate God by doing righteousness and justice.” It was that legacy that awoke these miserable slaves from their servitude when Moses proved to them that he had been sent by God to ensure their freedom.
That transition, from misery and despair under Egyptian oppression to self-confidence and optimism marching towards the promised land did not happen overnight. It was not simply the result of an act of God or the hard work of Moses. Rather it was the slow and halting process of desperate slaves learning to hope, understanding that they as individuals had a destiny and responsibilities to something far greater than themselves.
When the Passover sacrifice was offered on the eve of the Exodus, it was offered by chavurot, by small groups who supported each other, as well as by households. When the Israelites were asked to contribute to the effort to build a portable sanctuary for God in the wilderness, they gave in abundance, and not just of their financial resources, but of their time and unique personal skills.
A powerful rabbinic tradition teaches that the Reed Sea did not split for the Israelites as Moses waved his staff like in the movies. Rather, they waited for the miracle and nothing happened. Then one individual took the initiative and began wading into the sea until he was up to his neck in water. Only then did the sea split.
Leadership amongst the Israelite people faced constant challenges, with complaints and criticisms coming from all quarters. Yet the wilderness journey taught the different interest groups amongst the people how to communicate constructively.
At a certain point Moses realized it was arrogant to think that he alone could lead the Jewish people and so he delegated his authority, asking people to step up, take on responsibility and empowering them to use their own initiative in difficult situations.
However, the key to the formation of this purpose-driven people was that very responsibility that God had entrusted to Abraham’s descendants, to “imitate [her] by doing righteousness and justice.” This was reinforced at Mount Sinai when God called on Israel to be “a nation of exemplars and a holy people.” The Jewish people became the nation we have spoken of by accepting, adopting and assuming this special responsibility amongst all humanity.
At the time of the building of the wilderness sanctuary; when God speaks of what a sacred community is, she speaks not of dwelling in that structure they had built, but of dwelling amidst the community of Israel.
Temple Emanuel is not a building of brick and mortar. Temple Emanuel is you.
All of you literally bring this sacred community into existence by sheer force of will, and with a shared sense of purpose that was gifted to our ancestors long ago.
I would like to offer all of you a particularly special blessing. It was lost for millennia, but was written by the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls and dates back more than 2,200 years.
יברככה בכול טוב
May you be blessed with all good things,
וישמורכה מכול רע
And may you be kept from all adversity,
ויאיר לבכה בשכל חיים
May your heart be illuminated by the wisdom of life,
ויחונכה בדעת עולמים
May your mind be graced with supernal knowledge,
וישא פני חסדיו לכה לשלום עולמים
And may your kind deeds be recognized, granting you eternal peace.
We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.