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Inauguration Sermon
Shabbat, January 17, 2009
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Here is the sermon I delivered on the Shabbat before the Inauguration. Please forgive any typos!

I am indebted to Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff for the idea that prompted this sermon.

In this week's Torah reading, we recount the story of Moses at the burning bush. It is a story we read with intensity because it is a story of great intensity. Yet, so often we rush through the details because it is both compelling and mysterious. To rush through the story of Moses and the burning bush is to miss the point of Moses and the burning bush.

Many years ago, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner did an experiment to get a sense of how long it would have taken Moses to realize that the bush was not consumed by the fire. He sat in front of a fireplace and watched a log aflame, timing the minutes and seconds until it became apparent that the log was diminished by the flame. I can't remember exactly what he discovered, but it was somewhere in the neighborhood of eight minutes. Eight minutes is a long time, even if, like me, you are mesmerized by the sight of a burning log. Cut it in half. Cut it in half again. Two minutes of sustained attention is a long time to focus on an otherwise ordinary phenomenon.

The events of this coming Tuesday present a compelling narrative as well. The inauguration of any new President is a reason to be swept along into the celebration of our Constitution and our way of life. But if we fail to stop and notice the details, if we do not emulate Moses and stop to stare at the wonder of this particular moment, then we miss an exceptional opportunity.

This past week, we observed the anniversaries of two milestones for two different people. Wednesday was the 36th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. And the following day would have been the 80th birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Though Heschel was almost exactly 22 years older than King, they were kindred spirits. Each found within his own religious tradition a call to justice he could not ignore. Each risked and forfeited a comfortable life in the traditional role he had chosen to challenge the complacency of his brothers and sisters in faith and his audience in other faiths. Each walked across a nondescript bridge in Selma, Alabama on behalf of people they might otherwise have chosen to ignore.

Dr. King's legacy has become an official part of the American ethos. The day before next week's inauguration, we will observe the federal holiday that commemorates his birth. The attempt has been made to turn it into a national day of service a sentiment I endorse (after all, who wouldn't), but which, I believe, falls short of the message of the man. Dr. King, throughout his adult life, risked everything in this world he held dear for the cause of human rights and human dignity. He put his home at risk, his church at risk, his family at risk, his body at risk. He dared those who disagreed with him to face his witness with honesty, and he refused to surrender his non-violent resistance to their attempts to suppress him by might.

Within the African American community, there were disagreements about his approach. Many mocked his rejection of the imagery and tactics of aggressive resistance. They ridiculed his faith, referring to him as "De Lawd." But he had a vision, and it held firm.

We have a tendency to remember a single moment in Dr. King's life as defining. It happened 45 years ago last August, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. We refer to it as the "I Have a Dream" speech, and its soaring rhetoric and intertwining of Biblical and American watchwords can still pierce the heart.

But more important to us on this inaugural weekend is the last speech that Dr. King delivered. He had traveled to Memphis to support the efforts of the sanitation workers to earn a fair wage with decent benefits. And he said words that were eerily prophetic:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

Not too many hours later, Dr. King was felled by an assassin's bullet. At the age of 39, he recognized something that Moses learned at 120. Sometimes no matter how deep your desire nor how hard your work, the best you can hope for is to see the Promised Land from afar.

Dr. Heschel lived for four and a half years after the death of his friend Dr. King. His death was much less dramatic. One Friday night in his 72nd year, he went to sleep and did not awaken. His heart had broken one last time and was not repaired.

We have a tendency to lionize Rabbi Heschel in our day. The books he left behind inspire Jews and non-Jews alike. A number of years ago when I worked on a project with Rev. Jesse Jackson, he asked me if I could help him acquire a library of Heschel's writings. Roman Catholic priests place him alongside of Thomas Merton as someone who could speak universal insights out of a particular faith tradition. His famous response to someone who suggested he should be in synagogue instead of marching with Dr. King I am praying with my feet has been appropriated and reappropriated across the political spectrum.

But in his day, Heschel was an outsider. His brand of mysticism made him suspect in the intellectual environment of his time. His liberal approach to politics made him anathema to the conservative colleagues with whom he worked. His willingness to be identified with matters of social justice and the non-Jews who shared his commitments subjected him to all sorts of rebuke and disrespect from within the Jewish academic and religious communities. When I say he died of a broken heart, I do not mean to suggest it was over the suffering in the world. Suffering there had always been. It was over the unwillingness of the modern sages he admired most to perceive the consequences of the texts they studied.

Heschel believed deeply in the power of the word. As much as he resisted the anthropomorphic image of God that is the result of human attempts to connect the holy and the everyday, he nonetheless understood that the gift of language was divine, the primary way Jews and the human family have found to transmit the values that emanate from God. Torah is made of words, and therefore we who utter words have the ability to imitate God, to use those words to make Torah. But the genius of Torah is not its cleverness. The genius of Torah is to transform language, something which is symbolic, to action, something which is concrete and unmitigated. Here is one way Heschel put it:

Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.

What starts out as a sound ends in a deed.

Last week we ended the reading of the Book of Genesis. The last dozen chapters or so are taken up with the saga of Joseph. Joseph, as you know, was a man of dreams. In his youth, his dreams resulted in his exile from his brothers. In his imprisonment, his ability with dreams enabled him to rise from the pit to the pinnacle in Pharaoh's court. Joseph's father was a dreamer as well, seeing a ladder anchored in heaven and on earth. Our people found themselves in Egypt on the legacy of dreams. The dreamer was dead, but the dreams never died.

Our ancient ancestors recounted that dream. They spoke the words that were visions in one man's sleep, and they spoke the words that inspired a collective aspiration, the dreams to be a free people in our own land. That speech had power. Its words did not fade. What started out as a sound ended in a deed. The man who synthesized it and led us out of slavery took us across a wilderness, climbed to the top of a mountain and looked into the Promised Land. He didn't get there with us, but he let us know that we, as a people, would get to the Promised Land.

When Moses encounters the burning bush, for all the inspirational rhetoric, the deeds that emerge from the words are not always quite as effective as promised. Moses fails miserably with Pharaoh and even more miserably with the people. He makes nine attempts to persuade Pharaoh to let his people go before he succeeds. He leads the people to the edge of redemption only to have them rebel and be condemned to a forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. He fails bureaucratically, militarily, socially and politically, even as he nurtures and nourishes and nurses the people he loves. He dies before his dream comes true.

But the promise of that encounter and the legacy he inherited from the dreamers is enough to sustain him through the trials and tribulations that follow. And the story of his unlikely success, the ultimate outsider who became the ultimate insider, has been borrowed and reinterpreted and relived by every idealist in the Western world.

The next President of the United States is not Moses. He is not Joseph or Jacob; he is not Abraham Joshua Heschel. The next President of the United States is not the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

But as he takes the oath of office next three days and less than an hour from now, he will look across a sea of faces turned to him waiting to see words turned into deeds. Those words are not his campaign promises. They are not even the pleas and hopes of his new American constituency. They are words uttered from the mountaintops that overlook the Promised Land. They are the words of the dreamers, the sages, the founding fathers.

And if he sets his sights high enough, and he sustains his attention with patience, he will see them on that mountaintop. And God willing, he will see beyond.

Copyright: © Rabbi Jack Moline


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