Sermon delivered to the Temple Israel Confirmation Class of 5774
June 4, 2014/5774
Shavuot is about receiving the
Torah at Sinai. Confirmation is about receiving this tradition,
symbolized by the Torah at Sinai. (Are you with me so far? Good.) Sinai, in the Bible, is
considered the most “interesting moment”— it captured the imagination of
the entire community. That’s what we always teach you, right?
But for a moment, I’d like
for us to focus not on the “interesting” Sinai, not on the “imaginative” Sinai.
Because, I suspect, it wasn’t all
the time, for all
people. What about when Moses was up at the top of the Mount, overstaying
his welcome with the big G?
The Israelites, they were bored.
were bored beyond belief— literally! Which is why they built a
So let’s play out the possibility that the real “story” of Sinai is
one of overwhelming boredom, and then overcoming boredom.
Raise your hand if you've
ever been bored in religious school. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been
bored reading the Bible.
Raise your hand
if you've ever been bored in services. On behalf of your clergy, I'd like
to say: You're welcome
I recently read a book about
boredom. And let me tell you: nothing is more boring than reading a book
about boredom. Except, perhaps, listening to a sermon about a book about
boredom. But on this morning, the morning of your Confirmation, your
Sinai moment, if you will, I feel so utterly obliged to address the issue of
boredom—and in so doing hopefully not bore you to death.
a story told of a mother who one Saturday morning calls to her child, “C’mon,
son, it’s time to go to synagogue!”
The son calls back from his bedroom, “Aw, mom, I don’t wanna go. It’s so
boring, nobody likes me, nobody ever listens to anything I have to say. Can’t I
just stay home in bed?”
The mother replies: “Absolutely not! You have to go!”
The son: “Give me two good reasons, mom.”
“Well for one thing,” says the mother, “you’re thirty three years
old. And for another, you’re the rabbi.”
For the first 14 years of my
life, the Hebrew school classroom was the epicenter of boredom, the “holy of
holies” for dullness, where we toiled in the Torah of tedium.
That’s why many people dropped out, and why
many still do.
This problem is actually
As the Jewish community
learned recently from a PEW study released this year, disengagement and
disconnection from institutional Jewish life—synagogues, JCCs, federations—is a
The normal “sites” – the
places that were fashioned to feel like Sinai, to capture the imagination of
the Jewish people are, by and large, doing a lousy job at that.
In other words, our community is suffering
But boredom is nothing new to
the story of Judaism.
We get it in the
Bible from the very start.
Immanuel Kant read boredom into the story of Adam and Eve.
Adam and Eve had remained in Paradise…. boredom would certainly have martyred
them, as well as it does other men in similar positions.”
The implication is clear: The
whole exile from Eden serves the function of making life interesting!
And the Rabbis too understood
the invasive, contaminating stench of boredom.
This is one reason why they created midrash. Yes, I know, we
told you midrash is designed to "fill gaps," to "solve textual
problems." What we really meant to say was: they made midrash so that they
wouldn't be so bored. They made midrash so that we, you, would NOT be
like the Israelites, so bored beyond belief that we get our spirituality
Take this midrash, which I
promise you pertains directly to Shavuot, and to the statement that you are
making by being present here at your Confirmation.
Here’s the context of the
midrash: the Rabbis are reading the first line of the book of B'Midbar—the book
of Numbers. It begins, "Vay'daber
Adonai El Moshe B'Midbar Sinai Leimor
." It's a weird beginning
to a book. Because usually it's "vay'daber
Adonai el Moshe Leimor
" - 70 times in fact, we see it that way.
But here's it's different—"And God spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai
So the Rabbis were confused: What
do you mean, IN THE WILDERNESS OF SINAI, Torah was given? Isn't that obvious?
Or could this suggest that Torah was given in a bunch of other places too?
Midrash answers: “Why does it say "in the wilderness of Sinai?" Our
Sages taught that the Torah was given in three ways: through fire, through
water, and through wilderness.”
And the Midrash
Why was the Torah given in these three ways? [What do these
three things have in common?] Just as
these are free and open to everyone, so too are the words of the Torah free and
Think about that for a
second: Torah is free and open.
does not own this text.
don’t “own” this story any more than you do.
Your teachers, the great ones or the ones who
bored you beyond belief, have no greater claim to this treasure than each and
every one of you!
And in case you’re still
bored having heard that, don’t worry, the Midrash isn’t done yet; it continues:
Why the Wilderness of Sinai? (it asks again). Anyone who does
not make oneself open, like a wilderness, cannot acquire wisdom and Torah.
This year we challenged you
to become un-bored.
Monday Night School experience, and I know personally in our Jewish Thought and
Practice class, you were pushed- and you pushed each other – to open yourselves
up to the possibility that Torah, that Jewish wisdom, that your obligations in
this world, aren’t lofty and beyond your own story.
They are within you.
You have made yourselves “open like a
wilderness.” And you discovered, in each of your own ways:
That Torah can be found in the fire of your anger and
That Torah, wisdom, can be found in the water of your
spiritual well, in the sea of your deepest thoughts,
That Torah can be discovered along the winding path of
your own river.
That Torah can be found in your wilderness, when
you’re lost or afraid….
Or, in the
wilderness, when you discover who you really are.
Having once been bored, and now
having escaped, you have each become so interesting and interested.
And that gives us immense
Because our community needs you
now like never before.
boredom is different from other kinds of boredom.
As Dr. Erica Brown writes in
her book Spiritual Boredom,
boredom is “unlike the boredom where we perceive that there is nothing to do in
a generalized way.”
With Jewish boredom,
more is at stake.
Because Judaism isn't
a tradition of theories. It's a tradition of action and impact; of looking
around, seeing hatred and injustice and doing something about it.
We can’t do that if we’re asleep.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go on a camping
trip. They set up their tent and, in
time, fall asleep. Some hours later,
Holmes wakes up his faithful friend.
“Watson, look up at the sky and tell me ... what do you see?” Watson opens his eyes, yawns, stretches, and
then replies, “I see millions of stars.”
“And what does that tell you?” Holmes asks. Watson ponders a moment. “Astronomically speaking, it tells me that
there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Timewise, it appears to be approximately a
quarter past three. Theologically, it’s
evident that God is all‑powerful and we are
small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful
day tomorrow! Holmes, what does it tell
you?” Holmes is silent for a moment, and
then speaks. “Watson, you idiot, someone
has stolen our tent!”
Karl Marx, who called
religion “an opiate to the people,” or some kind of sleeping pill, got it so
very wrong—our tradition isn’t a lullaby, it’s an alarm clock!
It’s a wake up call!
It’s a reminder that “someone has stolen our
tent” – and it’s on us to do something about it, to make things better, to make
things right, to ease suffering, to make your mark.
You are here for a
Today that purpose is
And together you are
So if you were bored in 2nd
grade, maybe that’s “on us.”
But here’s the thing: now, if you’re bored:
it’s on you.
Because now you know the
important difference between lacking faith and just being bored.
You, Confirmation Class of 5774, embody the
brilliant confluence of faith and doubt, of questions and discoveries—that
confluence, so long as it propels us toward responsibility—is the crux of
And so your mission, if you
choose to accept it—and by being here we take that as a “yes”—is to partner
with us to move each other, to move our community, to move our people, from
boredom beyond belief to belief beyond boredom.
Ken y’hi ratson, May this be God’s will.