"Whenever truly terrible things happen in the world, I think to myself, 'Maybe I should try being religious.'"
With all of Mishkan's rabbis off duty or under the weather, self-described "fifth string rabbi" Rebecca Stevens steps up to speak from the heart about what it is like to live through this difficult time. God warned us that They would curse us if we didn't follow Their commands. Are we listening yet?
This sermon was originally delivered during the Friday Night Shabbat service on May 27th. For upcoming Shabbat services and programs, check our event calendar, and see our Accessibility & Inclusion page for information about our venues. Follow us on Instagram and like us on Facebook for more updates.
Produced by Mishkan Chicago. Music composed, produced, and performed by Kalman Strauss.
Whenever truly terrible things happen in the world, I think to myself, maybe I should try being religious. It seems helpful. It seems like it might steady me. At the very least, it seems better than trying to make meaning out of all of this on my own. This week, really, this afternoon, I had the rare opportunity to put that vague idea into action. As I mentioned, at the top of Shabbat, and in the middle, and if you're joining us now, you know, we are down four rabbis, and I am our fifth string rabbi. So I opened the Torah portion and got ready for some Torah to help me out of this mess. Here's a condensed version of what I read. God says if you follow my laws and faithfully observe my commandments, I will grant rain so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees their fruit, I will grant peace and you shall sleep with no fear. I will cause vicious beasts to withdraw from the land and your enemies will fall before you. I will walk among you, I will be God to you, and you will be a people to me. But if you will not listen to me if your soul rejects my laws, and if you do not carry out my commandments and break my covenant, then I will do the same to you. I will bring upon you illness that feels the spirit with grief. Those that hate you will rule over you and you will flee even though no one pursues you. It goes on like this for quite a while threatening among other things, our children, our future descendants, the structural integrity of our buildings — and our tastebuds. Quote: "You will eat your food but will not be satisfied." And that, my friends and fellow congregants, is why I feel like religion does not speak to me personally. Reading this I muster something between exasperation and fury. This is some old school, ancient curse, mafia don, possibly right wing fanatical, God shenanigans. Not only that, but the text goes out of its way to say if you still walk with me only by chance or walk contrary unto me, then I too will walk with you only by chance, and walk contrary unto you. Religious only by chance is by far the best way to describe my wandering into a spiritual community. And I suspect I am not the only one here who feels this way. There is no room for ambiguity. God only has bad things planned for me. Taking a step back, and squinting at the text, I can see that perhaps the point of it is just a little bit less literal. All of the table pounding is simply to make the point that our actions have consequences. What we do matters. What we put our time, energy, and belief towards adds up to the greater world that we inhabit. And all we have to do is look around at the extreme weather and extreme violence, to agree that our actions, our convictions, our willingness to throw ourselves into the work of the world is vital, and has tremendous consequences. Ordinarily, I find enormous purpose and this belief in the world and my responsibility in it. I am by nature, overconfidence, Exhibit A: I am your rabbi tonight. But I tend to believe that we can shape the world and that we can make it a more just and beautiful place. I believe that because it seems a better way of being in the world than just about any other choice we have. And yet, at the end of this very hard week at the end of this very hard month, somewhere in the middle of this enormously hard pandemic, I am off kilter from my normal sense of self. Looking at this text, I'm struck that it is not prescriptive, but rather simply descriptive. We do not believe in God. We do not follow their laws. We do not live in peace or sleep on our afraid or trust our children will come home. Our buildings collapse into the sea, a pestilence rages. We are filled with grief. God has made good on their threats. And I can think of is — okay, so now what? Any student of literature any lover of stories will tell you that the situation always changes. Something always happens. So what is next? And more interestingly, what do we do? I don't have a satisfying answer to this; I am but a fifth string rabbi. And I haven't read all that much further in the book. What all this makes me think of is the decidedly unreligious text Angels in America by the Jewish playwright Tony Kushner. And the blessing that one character asked for near the end of the play. Prior, the character's name says, "I want more life. I can't help myself I do. I've lived through such terrible times. And there are people who live through much, much worse, but you see them living anyway. I don't know if it's not braver to die. But I recognize the habits, the addiction to being alive. We live past hope. If I can find hope, anywhere, that's it. That's the best I can do. It's so much not enough. So inadequate. But bless me anyway. I want more life." As we head into Shavuot, the celebration of the revelation of Torah, a vision for a world reimagined. May we all find hope to bring with us. Shabbat Shalom.