“And You Shall Be A Blessing”
May 22, 2016
Associate Dean and Stodghill Professor of Religion
I love to tell Bible stories – quite a legitimate enterprise, I assure you, for someone who has taught biblical studies for as long as I have. Oh what a soap opera unfolds as younger sons displace older brothers, as Moses stands with arms outstretched to ensure an Israelite victory, as Yael lulls an enemy general to sleep and then takes a tent peg and a hammer and smashes his brains out, as Jephthah sacrifices his daughter, as David and Bathsheba begin their affair, as the Deity calls out to Abraham, “Lech Lecha!”
The translation of those two words varies: “Go you forth,” or “Go to yourself,” or “Go into yourself,” or even “Go for yourself.” Isn’t Hebrew awesome? Two little words that mean all that. Go – move forward – find yourself – go from what you know – leave your comforts behinds – take a huge risk, a leap of faith – and oh, by the way, don’t worry about your destination.
This is leave-taking. This is the promise of transformation. The Deity doesn’t share with Abraham where he is going, just that he needs to go. Vayelech Avram – “And Abraham went.” The journey of a lifetime was about to begin. And so it is with you.
Indeed, it seems to me that this marvelous story which begins in Genesis 12 beckons each and every one of us – almost graduates like you and almost retirees like me – to take risks, to travel into the unknown in pursuit of our true purpose or purposes in life. It encourages each of us to listen to our intuition, to pay attention to the inner voice that more often directs our heart than our head. It teaches us that we may have to leave what we know and move away from areas of comfort, stability and ease, in order to develop our potential and become our most authentic selves –that is – to learn who we are meant to be and what it is our mission to do.
I have to believe that the stark juxtaposition between the soaring heights of his early years and the depths to which he would fall in the years to come was not lost on Joseph. The first and favorite child of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, the recipient of Jacob’s doting affections, not to mention that coveted coat of many colors, Joseph had every reason to look forward to a life of privilege and purpose. As a young man, he dreamed not once, but twice of a marvelous future with himself at the very center. So when Joseph was flung into the pit by his brothers, sold into slavery in Egypt, falsely accused by his master’s wife and then cast into jail, I imagine that Joseph must have wondered to himself on more than one occasion, something along these lines – “Really! For this I was put on earth? How is it possible that I, Joseph, heir to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, have been brought so very low? A man chosen from among the chosen, now separated from my beloved father and all that is dear – and even worse – fated to obscurity.” Now we know, because the narrator tells us (and because many of us have seen the musical – Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat) that the Deity was with Joseph, that everything would be ok. But Joseph didn’t know; he was unaware of how his story would turn out. Cast down from the high perch where his life began, poor, poor Joseph had fallen into a purposeless existence, a life whose mission was obscured from all – worst of all from himself.
All of which makes it so very remarkable to hear what Joseph says to his brothers when he reveals his true identity to them. Remember, he had become the Egyptian vizier and his brothers had come to Egypt for provisions to survive the very famine that he had predicted. His brothers tremble before Joseph, fearful of the vengeance he will exact upon them for the crimes of their youth. But Joseph does not reproach them with anger or spite – just the opposite. “Do not be distressed or angry that you sold me here,” Joseph tells them. “It was to save life that God sent me ahead of you…to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” (45:5-7). Joseph’s response is noteworthy, not merely because of his willingness to forgive his brothers, to let bygones be bygones, to be magnanimous at the very moment when it would have been so much easier and human to act otherwise (I mean, he could have said something like – you numbskulls! You’re no brothers of mine! You threw me into a pit, sold me into slavery. Off with your heads!!) Joseph’s response is remarkable because embedded within his words sits a striking theological statement – a combination of faith, humility, self-awareness and sense of mission – that enabled him to rewrite the story of his life. Not just his current high stature, but all of the lows that came before – his descent to Egypt, his years of imprisonment, even his brothers’ initial treachery – all reframed as necessary steps towards a greater good. Yes, Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers, but that is only part of it. The real revelation of this scene is one of self-revelation – of Joseph announcing to himself that he has been put on this earth for the purpose of saving lives, those of his brethren and all of Egypt. This is the moment that Joseph ‘gets it,’ when he understands that the point of his existence isn’t to have power and it certainly isn’t about some brotherly quarrel that had long since run its course. Here and now Joseph realizes that the story of his life – past and future – is to serve a cause greater than he ever imagined possible.
When I was much younger, I remember hearing the story of a rabbi who would pray – “Dear God, I do not ask you to explain to me why the world has been created, or why the good suffer and the evil prosper. Only, please, tell me: What am I doing in this world of yours?” Of course, I didn’t get it as a child, but I understand now that this is the fundamental question of human existence, the query at the core of us all, that boils down to one word – purpose. For what purpose have I been put on this earth? Not “we”, not humanity as a whole, as interesting as that question may be – but the deeper existential question – the one which we ask as we go to sleep and then use our waking hours to answer – that question is of a far more personal nature. Why me? Why am I here – and would the world be any different if I weren’t?
I like to think that to be human is to live with the knowledge that every life bears the potentiality of purpose and that a life well lived is lived in pursuit of discovering that purpose and, more importantly, seeking to fulfill it.
There are no hard and fast rules that I can share with you about identifying and fulfilling the particular purpose or mission of your existence. There is no play book here. Some people run towards their mission, some resist. Joseph embraced his mission as it became apparent to him. Others, like Moses, like Esther, like Jonah take some convincing along the way; they only accept their life work grudgingly or with great apprehension. What I can tell you is that there isn’t necessarily a correlation between the success of any person’s mission and his or her initial willingness to accept that mission.
Some folks will find their mission early – like Wendy Kopp, the woman who thought up the idea of Teach for America as her senior thesis in college. Tens of thousands of teachers, students and school systems have been forever changed by that single and sustained mission. Others will find their mission much later in life – like Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin in his late 40’s. Like Ray Croc who built up McDonald’s in his 50’s. And then there’s Abraham and Sarah who were 99 and 90 respectively, when they got around to having children. You never know when you will find your purpose, your mission…..or dare I say – missions. The fact is that over the course of a lifetime, each of us has multiple missions to fulfill – some may be momentary – an unanticipated intervention in another’s life – and some are ongoing, like parenting a child. And there is no hierarchy to the missions that make up the purposeful life. As the rabbis say – there is no person without his or her hour; there is no thing that does not have its place.
What we cannot do, what YOU dare not do, is abdicate your obligation and opportunity to find your purpose in this world, going to the grave with your song unsung, failing to contribute that one thing that only you can and that this world is waiting on you and counting on you to do.
Today is filled with such promise and possibility and you deserve to bask in the accomplishment and the triumph of this moment….but not for long because each of you is called to leave this place. And I imagine that you are afraid, that like Abraham you are going, but you don’t know where exactly or what you will find when you get there. You may have some inkling of your mission, but I imagine no real idea of how it will play out.
As for me – I’ve spent a lot of time on my knees recently, packing up my house as I get ready to move. Several weeks ago I found an old stash of my children’s t-shirts and one in particular made me tear up a bit – an old, tattered superman T-shirt that my younger son wore at every opportunity (clean or not). It had bold capital letters along the bottom that warned that “This shirt will not make you fly. Only superman can fly.” And it had dozens of safety pin marks around the shoulders where my son would pin a towel or a sheet or whatever else might blow in the wind. My son did love that shirt, but it was always mainly about the cape. And as I reminisced about a little boy running around the house with his cape billowing out behind him, my clock radio came on and I heard a song written by Texas country and folk singer, Guy Clark, called – quite appropriately – “The Cape.” The fact that my clock radio came on in the middle of the day is one problem. The fact that country music was blaring out of it is another – because this Pennsylvania girl has always been into rock, yea hard rock – certainly not country tunes. Yet, “the cape” struck a very deep chord because in its lyrics I recognized you and me – The first verse goes like this –
Eight years old with a flour sack cape tied all around his neck
He climbed up on the garage, he’s figuring what the heck
Screwed his courage up so tight, that the whole thing come unwound
He got a runnin’ start and bless his heart, he headed for the ground.
Well, he’s one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith
Spread your arms and hold your breath and always trust your cape.
What does it mean to take a leap of faith? It means to celebrate our joys and blessings despite the uncertainty, the fragility and often, the devastating realities of living our lives. To spread our arms and hold our breath, means that despite the unknown and sometimes even the injustice, we will not give ultimate power to those fears, suspicions and doubts that keep us from moving either forward or upward towards our hopes, our dreams, towards the realization of who we are and what we are meant to do.
What does it mean to take a leap of faith? – it means to be like Abraham who responded to the Deity’s Lech Lecha – move forward – with just such a leap that plunged him into the incredible, transformational journey that is life.
The song continues – Now he’s old and gray with a flour sack cape tied all around his head
He’s still jumpin off the garage and will be until he’s dead
All these years the people said, he’s acting like a kid
He didn’t know he could not fly, so he did.
Well, he’s one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith
Spread your arms and hold your breath and always trust your cape.
He didn’t know he could not fly – and so he did. How did he manage that, the song asks us to ponder? Perhaps this story from the Holocaust might help us imagine an answer.
It was a dark, cold night in the Yanovska Road camp. Suddenly a stentorian shout pierced the air: “You are all to evacuate the barracks immediately and report to the vacant lot. Anyone remaining inside will be shot on the spot.
Pandemonium broke out in the barracks. People pushed their way to the doors while screaming the names of friends and relatives. In a panic-stricken stampede, the prisoners ran in the direction of the big open field in which were two huge pits. Once more the cold, healthy voice roared into the night: “Each of you dogs who values his miserable life and wants to cling to it must jump over one of the pits and land on the other side. Those who miss will get what they rightfully deserve.” Imitating the sound of a machine gun, the voice trailed off into the night followed by wild, coarse laughter.
It was clear to the inmates that they would all end up in the pits. Even at the best of times it would have been impossible to jump over them, all the more so on that cold dark night in Yanovska.
Among the thousands of Jews on that field was Rabbi Israel Spira who was standing with a young man, a free thinker that he met in the camp. A deep friendship had developed between the two.
“Spira,” said the young man, all our efforts to jump over that pit will be in vain. We will only entertain the Germans and their collaborators. Let us sit down in the pits and wait for the bullets to end our wretched existence.” The rabbi glanced down at his feet, the swollen feet of a 53 year old Jew whose body was riddled with disease and gaunt from starvation. He looked at his young friend, a skeleton with burning eyes. As they reached the pit, the rabbi closed his eyes and commanded in a powerful whisper, “We are jumping!” When the two men opened their eyes, they found themselves standing on the other side of the pit.
Spira, we are here and we are alive, the young man repeated over and over as tears streamed from his eyes. Tell me, rabbi, how did you do it?
Rabbi Spira said – I was holding on to the coat tails of my father, and my grandfather and my great grandfather, of blessed memory, and his eyes searched the black skies above. Tell me, my friend, the rabbi asked, how did you reach the other side of the pit?
The young friend replied, I was holding on to you.
What does it mean to take a leap of faith? – Sometimes it means taking the risk of trusting in others, of sharing our real feelings, of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable for the sake of love. Because – let’s face it – if you live long enough, you will be hurt by someone you’ve loved, perhaps betrayed by some of those you decided to trust. But while life may indeed be safe without the risk that comes with trust, love and devotion, ultimately it is empty.
What does it mean to take a leap of faith – Sometimes it means taking special care to discern the voice that speaks inside each and every one of us even if we’d rather ignore it. Maybe you hear that voice, as did Abraham, as the voice of God, or maybe you hear the voice of homeless children in NYC, in Chicago, in LA calling out to you not to forget them. Maybe it’s your grandfather’s voice that will reach you as he wonders if you are finally coming for your long promised visit. Or perhaps the voice you hear may be the “still small voice of conscience” heard deep within. No matter how you hear the call, the key is not to ignore it.
Oh – and always trust your cape. Your cape may be your friends, your family, a community of care, of warmth, of compassion. Or even more powerfully, your cape may emerge in moments of faith, keeping you aloft and protected when you find you have come to the edge. Rest assured, you have a cape – even if it takes some challenge to recognize it. As the friend said to Rabbi Spira – I was holding on to you.
It is now time to leave this place and go forth. Of course, you are armed with a marvelous education – you’ve travelled and learned how to think critically, read closely, to work collaboratively – and behind you stands a community of family, friends and mentors who love you, who will be cheering for you every step of the way.
As you go out, let the words of Genesis echo always in your ear as they did in Abraham’s. “And you shall be a blessing.”
No matter where you go, no matter what you do, no matter how your mission unfolds – remember “And you shall be a blessing.”
Delivered by Beth Glazier-McDonald, professor of religion
May 22, 2016