Here is the sermon I presented on the second day of Shavu'ot. Enjoy!
Last week I had the great privilege of participating in the retirement ceremony for Eyov Lailari, a member of the congregation who has just retired from the USAF after twenty years of distinguished service. Eyov rose to the rank of Lt. Col., and he did so by doing jobs for the military that he can only discuss in general terms. You can sleep more easily because of his efforts.
The ceremony took place at the Air Force Memorial in Arlington on the plaza that overlooks the vista from Arlington Cemetery, the Pentagon, the Potomac River and the George Washington Memorial. It is meaningful to civilians like me. I imagine it is more so for veterans and more so again to those who served specifically in the youngest of our country's armed services.
As I sat listening to Eyov's remarks, I notice something remarkable taking place over his shoulder in the distance. Rising from the leafy canopy that flanks the Potomac, a hawk flew a low path over the trees surrounded by a swell of smaller hawks. As I watched them as they flew in random paths over the river, I was captivated by what I saw: a mother bird who had nurtured her babies in the nest was now taking them for their first flight. Before long, one of the smaller birds broke away from the flock and dove into the trees. At first, I thought it had not been able to sustain itself in flight. But gradually, as the larger hawk climbed higher, the other birds, one by one, peeled off and took their own paths into the woods. In the end, the hawk drifted lazily high in the sky, the lone silhouette of the successful parent having completed the task with which nature imbued her: to raise the next generation and give them wings on which to fly.
Wow, I thought, that's heck of a sermon. I almost couldn't wait to write it. The only thing that I wanted to check out was the hawk. Not being much of an expert on birds, I wasn't sure if I had been watching a hawk or an eagle. And frankly, I hoped it was an eagle. It's a much better story if a new generation of eagles provided the backdrop for a retiring Airman.
I don't know who you turn to when you need to know about birds, but I turn to my friend Harvey Spivak. Harvey has been the long-time rabbi to the community Kalamazoo, MI and is the nearest thing I know to a renaissance man. He paints, he plays the flute, he has mastered a remarkable form of meditation and he is a birder. I remember how he skipped an entire day of a Rabbinical Assembly convention many years ago to go bird-watching in the Florida Everglades.
Harvey is also one of the gentlest teachers I know, so when I called him and described the scene, I asked him if he could tell me from my description if it was a hawk or an eagle.
"I suppose it could have been an eagle," he said. "But it was more likely a hawk. Tell me, were the smaller birds squawking a lot?"
"I couldn't tell," I replied. "I was quite a distance away."
"Well," he said, "blackbirds, jays and a few other species have the ability to recognize the shape of the hawk, and they are known to harass a hawk to chase it away. They don't harm it in any way, but they fly in groups all around it, sort of like mosquitoes. The tactic works, because in order to get away from the other birds, the hawk flies higher in the air until it gets to an altitude in which the smaller birds are no longer comfortable. They then fly away and go back to what they were doing.
"Now," Harvey continued, "I suppose it could happen with an eagle, but it was more likely a hawk."
I paused for a long moment. "So it wasn't a mother and her babies?"
"I don't think so," he said.
"You know you just ruined a terrific sermon," I replied.
We spent a few more minutes catching up with each other and then I excused myself because I had to come up with another sermon for today.
I just finished reading a book by another JTS friend of mine, Danny Gordis. The book is named Saving Israel, and it is his meditation on the changes necessary to sustain the State of Israel into an indefinite future of uncertain security. Danny makes a case that Israel needs to relinquish its notion that peace is only a motion away, that instead the hostile neighborhood in which Israel is located virtually guarantees that war will be a perpetual reality for many years – maybe even many generations – to come. He does a respectful and respectable job of illustrating that peace is an ideal of our tradition, but not a goal to which all resources must be devoted. Instead, he suggests, looking at our tradition without the preconceived idea that peace is our goal allows us to see the wisdom of the tradition in addressing the inevitability of war.
There is a lot more to the book, but that's all I want to discuss right now, because I wrote to Danny about some current events and I used his book to illustrate a point to him. I wrote how impressed I always was that Danny was not a prisoner of his own opinions. That is to say, even when he reaches a conclusion based on the best evidence he can find, he holds open the continuing possibility that more evidence, new evidence, persuasive evidence may come along to convince him to modify or even reverse his previous conclusions.
It is a remarkable talent, one that I admire and one that I find all too rare, especially in this city where the local industry is getting elected or appointed to something. We all have a tendency to organize facts to support our conclusions, rather than reaching conclusions based on facts.
I very much wanted to discuss with you the presence of mother love in nature, and how the nurturing necessary to bring a chick to the place of independence has the inevitable consequence of bringing the chick to independence – and then letting go. At this time of graduations and weddings and transitions of many kinds, it appealed to me as the message of the day.
But it turns out that the message of the event I witnessed was very different from what I presumed. It turned out that I interpreted what I saw with same kind of internal prejudices that lead some Christians to see Jesus as the middle matzah on the seder plate, or lead some folks at home and abroad to believe that the President is a secret Muslim, to either his credit or his detriment, or who imagined that if you kept digging a hole in Pekin, Illinois, you would eventually wind up in the capital of China.
And so the first of two lessons I draw from my misinterpretation of the bird event is that we all have to recognize our own prejudices in perception. What we want to be true, what we hope to be true is not always accurate and certainly not universal. The lenses we have placed in front of our own eyes, the filters we have placed over our own eyes can make us feel justified and satisfied about our conclusions, but can at the same time make us dismissive of other perspectives that may shape those conclusions differently.
The Yizkor service we will conduct in a few moments will illustrate this tendency for you vividly, I expect. With few exceptions, you will remember your loved ones with great fondness, perhaps even greater fondness than you felt for them during their lifetimes. Death and time have a way of shaving away the passions of the moment that elevated a resentment or conflict to the forefront of a living relationship. In the context of ultimate concerns, the goodness of each individual comes into a more balanced focus. Similarly, in some few cases the passage of time has allowed you to see the humanizing flaws in the life of someone whose goodness seemed too perfect to be true.
The lesson is not to distrust your own real-time perceptions, but to place a value on the perspectives that time and other opinions can provide. The lesson is not to be a prisoner of your own opinions.
The second lesson from the hawk and blackbirds is how hard it can be to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Birds are birds, we like to think, and in their abundant natural habitat ought to be able to get along together. Why did the blackbirds surround and chase the hawk? Were they protecting their young from a predator? Were they acting on an intuitive antipathy to the species? Is it what passes for sport in the realm of birds? Did the hawk have its own rights to turf and food? Is it any less entitled to its place in the woods than the numerous but less powerful blackbirds?
I guess a lot has to do with whether you are a blackbird or a hawk, and if you are neither, with factors that neither the blackbird nor the hawk can consider – environment, resources, ecosystem and the like.
In human conflict things are also not so cut and dry. It's hard to know, sometimes, who is in the right and who is less in the right, let alone who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. What can seem like objectionable behavior may be very necessary for survival. Might and prowess are sometimes no match for strategy and numbers. Versatility can sometimes overcome the unconventional.
And that comment brings me back to the reason I was sitting in the sun at the Air Force Memorial watching the air show put on over the treetops along the Potomac. A man who devoted his career to studying the nuances of human conflict and how to respond to hostility in the air, space and cyberspace was reflecting on the service he gave to our country and to the folks who are mostly our allies in this world. In his work, things are not always what they seem to be. But in his world, there is more at stake than a sermon.