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Haazinu 2018

09/28/2018 09:13:12 AM

Sep28

Rabbi Robinson

Many of you have often heard me say that there’s all kinds of learning, a lesson I learned from my teacher, Ken Ehrlich. I want to share one moment of learning from early in my rabbinic career.

It’s 1998. I’m walking down the hall at HUC in Jerusalem with a bunch of my classmates, and we’re talking about heaven knows what. Clearly, something isn’t going my way, but the details are fuzzy now. At some point, I say with joking, mock exasperation “Clearly I just can’t win”, when a classmate looks at me and says, deadpan, “then maybe you should stop trying.”

Oof. That hit where it counts. It was an aside, probably meant in the same playful spirit as my comment, but it ended up having a profound impact on me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that encounter and what it means for my life and my rabbinate. Specifically, what’s the winning thing about? On a certain level, it’s about vulnerability, or rather, masking vulnerability. In fact, I would dare say that a lot of what we do in our lives is to protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable, exposed. It feels bad.

There’s a famous story about President Johnson that, as he was getting on a helicopter, a Marine came over and said, “excuse me, sir, but this isn’t Marine One. That’s your helicopter.” To which LBJ responded “Son, they’re all my helicopters” and got on the wrong one. While true on one level, would it have been so bad if Johnson had smiled at the Marine and gotten on the other one? Did it matter that much? It does when we think of vulnerability as weakness and admitting our mistakes as a sign of failure.

But, didn’t we just go through a whole day whose purpose is to expose our vulnerabilities? To open ourselves up to healthy self-doubt? Isn’t that why we fast, on some level, and recite our sins alphabetically over and over again? By being vulnerable, we allow ourselves to be open to the possibilities before us. We allow ourselves to move past winning and toward growth.

That’s why we read Ha’azinu as well. God, through Moses, sings this song to the people, calling them to account right when they are about to cross the River Jordan and enter the promise land. They’re primed to focus on winning, to defeat the local yokels and settle this land flowing with milk and honey, but before they do, they are reminded of all their faults and foibles as a people. Their fecklessness, their failure to affirm God and follow the mitzvot. The song hits them right between the eyes and exposes their vulnerabilities. Not so that Israel will be defeated, not so that they give up, but to open themselves to growth, to learning, to not just be a people conquering a land, but to be a just people, a holy people. To be God’s people. So it is with us. We can only be just, and holy, and count ourselves as God’s people if we are vulnerable, if we take off our armor and allow ourselves to learn from our mistakes and each other.

Some time shortly before my encounter in the hallway 20 years ago, my teacher David Marmur taught me one of my favorite stories. Perhaps they are related. That in every conversation, there are two angels, the angel of winning and the angel of learning. The thing is, only one angel can be present at any given time. It’s been two days since Yom Kippur, Two days since we heard the shofar. May we continue to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, as on that day, and as such may we allow our better angels to prevail. Amen.

Fri, January 18 2019 12 Sh'vat 5779