Using Our Imagination
Parshat Beha’alotecha – 19 Sivan 5776 – June 25, 2016
(This talk is also linked to the website of Congregation P’nai Tikvah.)
Back in the old days, there was a Jewish family living in the Carpathian Mountains. They had a small farm where they grew crops and kept a cow, two goats and a few chickens.
The family had a decent life, but their farm house was very small, and when they started having children, they wanted a bigger house, but they could never figure out how to raise the money to pay for it. One day the wife said to her husband, “Go ask the Rabbi.”
The husband said, “You know, I love our Rabbi. But the Rabbi isn’t going to know how to solve this. Better I should go into town and ask a financial planner.”
“Look!” said his wife, “The Rabbi knows the Torah. The sages say that everything is in the Torah. Turn it and turn it and everything is in it!”
“Everything but financial planning,” said the husband, “but I’ll tell you what. I’ll do it for you. I’ll go and ask the Rabbi and we’ll see what he says.”
The Rabbi listened to the man’s story and immediately knew what to do.
“Which animals do you have on your farm?” asked the Rabbi.
“Well,” said the man. “We have a cow, two goats and a few chickens.”
“O.K.,” said the Rabbi. “Now go home and move the cow into your living room for one full week and then come back and see me.”
“Move the cow into our living room?” said the man. “My wife will divorce me on the spot!”
“She won’t divorce you,” said the Rabbi with a smile. “Remember, it was her idea that you ask my advice.”
The man went home, convinced his wife and together they moved the cow into the living room. Their children were delighted. They petted the cow. They talked to the cow. They even included the cow as a silent partner in their games. But the man and his wife were beside themselves, because the cow was not potty trained, she could not hold it until they escorted her outside, and the smell in the house was becoming putrid.
At the end of the week, the Rabbi told the man to move the goats into the living room.
“The goats?” asked the man.
“In order for your family to have enough room in your home,” said the Rabbi, “you and your wife must have all three animals in the house for one full week. Then come back and see me.”
The man made his way home, fearful of what his wife would say. She hated cleaning cow dung off the floor and he knew she would hate cleaning goat poop even more. But somehow she agreed, and together, they moved the two goats into the living room.
The children squealed with delight as the goats butted heads and annoyed the cow. It was a miracle that the furniture didn’t get broken, but the house no longer smelled like a house; it smelled like a barn.
At the end of the week, the Rabbi said, “O.K. This is the final healing for your family’s situation of needing a bigger farm house. Bring in the chickens and keep all the animals in the house for one full week and then come back and see me.”
The man went home and told his wife. They looked at each another and broke out laughing. “O.k.,” said the wife. “I see that you’re right. The Rabbi knows the Torah that’s in the ark, but he knows nothing about real life.”
“Yes, I think so,” said the husband, “but let’s humor him. After all, he is our beloved Rabbi; and besides, the kids will have a blast.”
The wife and her husband went into the yard and invited the chickens to join the cow and the goats in the living room. The children were indeed delighted, but the animals had to be very careful because they were always getting poked by the children or one of the other animals.
At the end of a very long week, the man returned to the Rabbi. “Rabbi,” said the man. “This just isn’t working. We need the animals out of our living room!”
“Yes, that is exactly what you need,” said the Rabbi. “Go ahead and move the animals back outside, help your wife clean the floors, and teach your kids how to care for the animals so they can retain their special new relationships.”
The man went home and told his wife the good news. They talked to their kids, they moved the animals back outside and they cleaned the house. A week later, the man and his wife went to see the Rabbi. “It is so good to see you both!” said the Rabbi. “How is your house?”
“Rabbi, you will never believe it,” said the wife. “The house is just the right size. We have room for everything. We don’t need to build any extensions on the house. All we needed was to get the animals out of the living room and get the smell out of the house. Now everything fits just fine.”
“Rabbi,” said the husband. “I owe you an apology. Behind your back, I started to think that you only knew about books and the Torah that is in the ark. Now I see that you know about everything. We don’t need a financial planner. We just need you to be our Rabbi so you can keep teaching us to appreciate what we already have.”
“That’s right,” said the Rabbi, “We need to appreciate what we already have. Now, if you can just go to my house and have a little with my wife….”
In this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the manna that the Israelites ate in the wilderness. As we know, the Israelites left slavery, they walked into the wilderness and they wandered there for 40 years. G-o-d sustained the Israelites on manna, which appeared in the form of little seeds that looked like coriander. Manna seeds would cover the ground every morning. The Israelites would gather the manna and cook and prepare it. Manna could be baked, roasted, broiled or boiled. The sages tell us that the manna was like magic. Whatever a person wanted to eat, that is what the manna would taste like.
But the thing is that magic only works when the believe in it. Here at Congregation Pnai Tikvah, we believe in Rabbi Mintz, and we just celebrated her legacy last weekend. Now that Rabbi Mintz is Rabbi Emerata and Senior Educator, we need to use our imagination to see what it will be like to have a new Rabbi. We don’t need a Rabbi to replace Rabbi Mintz. We just need a Rabbi to take over those things that Rabbi Mintz will no longer be doing for the congregation.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites lost their patience with the manna and they started begging Moses for meat. As if that weren’t enough, the Israelites also started complaining that they missed the delicious foods they had enjoyed in Egypt. In that moment, the Israelites had developed amnesia about all the problems they had faced when were slaves. All they could remember was the delicious Egyptian fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.
The Israelites also forgot that they could use their imagination to conjure up the delicious tastes of Egyptian foods when they were chewing on their manna. Instead of becoming connoisseurs of imagination, they became connoisseurs of the Yiddishe kvetch, the Jewish art of complaining.
G-o-d was furious at the Israelites for being so ungrateful for the magical manna and all the magical things that G-o-d was doing for them, such as allowing their clothing and shoes to stretch and adjust to their changing bodies so children could grow and pregnant mothers could carry their babies in the same clothes they had been wearing when they left Egypt.
In response to the Israelite’s craving for meat, G-o-d brought a big wind and with the wind came many thousands of quail that swept up and became strewn all over the ground. The Israelites picked up the quail, cooked it and started eating. But while they were chewing the quail, G-o-d brought a plague and many Israelites died.
After the plague subsided, the Israelites went back to their lives of wandering in the wilderness. During the remaining years of their wandering, they complained about other things, but they never went on another rampage of begging for meat, or Egyptian fish, melons and vegetables. It seems that the Israelites had learned to use their imagination to taste these things in the manna.
In order for us to succeed in our lives today, we need to develop our imagination. Our wonderful Congregation Pnai Tikvah is looking for a new Rabbi to serve side by side with Rabbi Mintz, Cantor Marla and our musicians Bill and Tim. We cannot know what it is going to be like when the new Rabbi begins to serve the congregation. We can only guess and gain insights by having a Rabbi come and visit like I am doing this Shabbat. In order to really know what it will be like when the new Rabbi is here on a regular basis, both you and your new Rabbi need to use your imaginations. You need to imagine the taste of loving a new teacher of Torah who may not always know how to help you solve your everyday problems. Like the Rabbi who had the family move their animals into the living room in order to avoid a remodel they couldn’t afford, you will need to patient with your new Rabbi when he or she gets a little clumsy while learning how things are done here at Congregation Pnai Tikvah.
Rabbi Mintz is very fond of saying that it does not matter if we believe in G-o-d. All that matters is that G-o-d continues to believe in us. This is one of the deepest and most profound teachings in all of Judaism. We cannot force ourselves to believe in G-o-d, nor should we, but we can use our imagination to conjure up an image of G-o-d in whom at least some of us can believe. We can walk with G-o-d throughout our lives and we can feel the presence of G-o-d in our hearts and at our sides. When we suffer, G-o-d is suffering. When we fail, G-o-d is failing. When we turn our lives around and rise from failure to success, G-o-d is also rising from failure to success. If it were not so, then we could not say that we are created in the image of G-o-d.
I want to dedicate this Shabbat to the wise and thoughtful members of the Pnai Tikvah Board of Directors and Search Committee. These wonderful congregational leaders have brilliant and beautiful imaginations. Help them, support them, encourage them and guide them with your input and your feedback and in all the ways that you are able to help strengthen this beautiful inspiring community
I hope that I will be your new Rabbi, but more importantly, I hope that your new Rabbi will be just the right Rabbi for your community. I have been in the rabbinate for 27 years. I served as founding Rabbi of Or Shalom in San Francisco and I have consulted to Rabbis as they face the challenges of guiding their congregations. In all these years and in all these role, I have never seen a more qualified and visionary Search Committee as your Committee. I trust in their decisions and I hope that you will trust them as well.
You might need to move a few chickens, goats and a cow. You might need to meet in a new space. There might be other new things, but one thing is for sure: The continuing presence of Rabbi Mintz and the continuing spirit of her predecessor Rabbi Schachat of blessed memory, will always be with you, coursing in the veins of this holy congregation.
May you be blessed with decades and centuries of success in practicing Judaism and bestowing the gift of Judaism on future generations. Keyn yehi ratzon. So may it be. And let us say, Amen.