[Note: The following is the sermon I delivered at the invitation of Rev. Shelby Ochs Owen at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Staunton VA on Sunday, 3/1/2015 as part of our second pulpit exchange. She addressed the congregants at Temple House of Israel on Friday, February 27th. — Rabbi Joe]
Rabbi Joe Blair’s ‘Drash’/Sermon to Emmanuel Episcopal Church
Staunton VA
March 1, 2015/Adar 10, 5775


Shalom! Good morning to you!

Let me begin by thanking you for again extending the opportunity for me to speak with you this morning. Rev. Owen – Shelby – my thanks to you for agreeing to repeat our ‘pulpit exchange’. Again, I hope that both our communities find it a rich concept and worth repeating in future, so that this, our second foray into this event, will become an annual occurrence.

I am approaching this ‘drash’ from an informal perspective; it is quite at variance with the style of your wonderful and masterful address to our congregation on Friday night – I hope it will be received with at least a small portion of the appreciation expressed for you remarks by my congregants.

I am limiting my remarks to the Hebrew Scripture reading from Exodus and the Psalm in the lectionary for today – but even so, I know there will be much more that could be said, and I will certainly not do it justice.

The scripture reading for today includes a section from Exodus chapter 17 verses 1-7 and 15-16. The reading of Psalm 22 is verses 22-31.

Jews generally don’t read Scripture in the same way that your lectionary sets forth. Instead of selecting a few verses each week, we tend to read a chunk of the text and look at the narrative and what it tells us. I would like to give you an overview of what the weekly reading that includes the verses in the lectionary would be, and then offer a few thoughts.

This reading falls towards the end of the portion of the Torah we call Lech Lecha, spanning Genesis 12:1-17:27. We read this in the annual cycle, back in October.

This is a key section: we met Abraham – under the name Avram – at the end of chapter 11, but now he is being singled out and made the focus of the story. This is the origin and start of the people who are known variously as the Hebrews, the Israelites, the Jews, the children of Jacob, and the children of Israel. This tells us our origin and establishes our ancestry.

In summary:

Chapter 12. Avram is told by G-d to ‘get up and go to a land that I will show you, I will bless you and make your name great, and your offspring will inherit the land.’ Avram does as G-d tells him.

Chapter 13. When there is a famine, Avram goes down to Egypt (in the immortal words of Mr. Rogers – ‘neighbor, can you say, ‘foreshadowing’?’), and there is a bit of subterfuge practiced here as he introduces the very beautiful Sarai as his sister, not wife; and Pharaoh takes her to be his wife, but is afflicted with plagues by G-d (is this another spoiler?). To get rid of the plagues, Pharaoh returns Sarai back to Avram, and sends them away.
Avram is traveling with his nephew Lot, and the land cannot sustain both of them with all the animals they own, so they agree to separate, and Lot leaves to go towards the plains and Sodom. G-d then reiterates and expands on the promise to Avram. (Note the multiple repetitions of this promise.)

Chapter 14. There is a bit of a war – four kings against five – and Sodom is conquered. Part of the captured booty includes Lot and all he owns. Avram hears this, takes his men, pursues the successful kings, engages them in battle, and defeats them, thus recovering all the booty and saving the captured people, including Lot, returning all to the kings of Sodom and Salem. These kings bless Avram and G-d.

Chapter 15. G-d then tells Avram he will receive a great reward, but Avram argues, saying ‘how can that be, as I will die childless?’ G-d (again) reiterates the promise of many descendants, but this time they engage in the ceremony of the covenant between the pieces. Animals are sacrificed and slaughtered, then the carcasses are cut in half, and the halves lined up in a row with a path between them. Avram walks between the pieces, and then after dark G-d in the guise of a pillar of fire (more foreshadowing!) does so.
This is the embodiment in form of the ancient Hittite contract agreement, through with the promises are made with the implication that ‘if I don’t carry out my part of this agreement, this (death and splitting of my carcass) is what should be done to me!’ This is a physical representation of the seriousness and importance which is placed on this promise. Actually, it is more than a promise, it is a covenant. The hierarchy is often defined as promise (you will try); oath (you will do all in your power, and will only desist if it is not possible because of something outside your control), and covenant (a solemn commitment to do what is stated, no matter what, with no options or outs). Taking on a covenant with G-d is a very serious business, not to be done lightly. Then, following the assertion of the covenant by G-d and the implication that G-d will do as stated without fail, in the midst of a great dread, G-d tells Avram about the enslavement in Eqypt for four hundred years of his descendants, and that they will then go free and possess the land that G-d is showing Avram.

Chapter 16. Sarai who is childless decides to take matters into her own hands and create descendants. She is barren, so she gives Avram her maidservant Hagar to impregnate on her behalf, and the plan is that when Hagar gives birth, the child is to be Sarai’s. But when she becomes pregnant, Hagar views Sarai as less than herself and becomes insolent and insulting, so that Sarai is angered and hurt, and consequently mistreats Hagar. Hagar flees, but is sent back by an angel to have her child, Ishmael, and Hagar is promised that Ishmael will be the father of many peoples. Hagar gives birth to Ishmael when Avram is 86 years old!

Chapter 17. We come now to the chapter containing the lectionary selections.
Verses 1-7; Thirteen years have gone by since the birth of Ishmael, and G-d reiterates the covenant with Avram, renaming him as Abraham. In verses 15-16 we see that Sarai is also renamed to Sarah. The change of Avram  Avraham, and Sarai to Sarah included the insertion of an ‘H’ in English, which represents the letter ‘hey’ in Hebrew. Hey is the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and is viewed as an indicator of the presence of G-d. In this case, the two ‘heys’ stand in for G-d being with the two renamed protagonists, as these letters hey are seen as coming from the tetragrammaton, the special, unpronounceable, four letter name of G-d, consisting only of consonants, with no vowels. It is often seen written as Y-H-V-H (or Y-H-W-H), and forms the basis for the name used by some for G-d, Jehovah or Yehovah. The two ‘H’ letters are what are added to the names of Abraham and Sarah, showing that G-d is now with them and within them.

Verses 8-14: These verses add the aspect of circumcision on the 8th day to the covenant – a newly stated component, not mentioned before, and an addition that creates mutuality and action on the part of the Hebrews to activate the covenant.

Verses 15-16: We pick up the lectionary selection again here. Sarah is renamed, and Isaac is foretold.

Verses 17-27: Abraham requests that Ishmael be granted life and G-d’s care, and G-d decrees that Ishmael will have offspring, and be in the role of father of 12 chieftains (who will become the leaders of the clans, and then tribes that form the Arab nations). The chapter concludes with Abraham circumcising all the males in his household, including himself, with a flint knife.

The lectionary reading taken from the Torah portion for that week, in chapter 17 of Genesis, the piece that we are looking at, though not fully included in the lectionary selection, is identified in many textbooks as the Priestly version of the covenant with Abraham, largely repeating what was said in the earlier chapters, but adding detail to it. In this recitation of the covenant, the covenant is made mutual and reciprocal, with G-d promising Abraham what was stated earlier, and again here, and with Abraham and his descendants agreeing to the covenant, and signaling their agreement in turn by engaging in the ritual of circumcision. In this way, circumcision becomes the sign of the covenant, just as the rainbow is the sign of G-d’s promise not to destroy the world by water again in the Noahide covenant.

Additionally, and as a key component, the covenant is identified as passing through Abraham, and more specifically, only by way of Sarah. Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, is not dispossessed or ignored, but is set on a parallel track and is not part of this covenant. G-d provides for Ishmael, but does not include him in the lineage through which the covenant will descend.

We note that Ishmael, like Jacob, will become the father of 12 tribes – the origin and founder of these peoples, while Abraham’s later sons (by Keturah) will not be included in the covenant or noted at all, and they are not promised a role as the origin of any peoples. Perhaps Ishmael’s status as a founder and origin of peoples is because he was identified as the son of Abraham, and was originally thought to be the legal and adoptive heir to Sarah – though we saw that did not work out, and that relationship was severed. If that is true, then only Sarah’s natural (born to her) child, fathered by Abraham, will be suitable to carry on this covenant. Thus, Ishmael is excluded, while Isaac is the one to carry it on.

The identification of Sarah as the mother of the line of the holders of the covenant stresses the miraculous and un-natural aspects of this story: Sarah, at age 90, who has been barren for all these years – her entire life, I fact – and Abraham at age 100, will join as a couple and bring forth a child who will be the source of offspring too numerous to count or imagine, the fathers of nations and kings. This couple, who could not for years, and almost did not, have any offspring, are thus elevated to become the ancestors of kings and nations and peoples and so many offspring it is unimaginable and uncountable. This seems miraculous.

What are we to draw from this reading?

Well, on the surface, we can see here (again) that for and with G-d all is possible, even the miraculous. That should be no surprise….

Of far more interest to me is the very concept at the core, the description of the relationship formed with G-d. The essence, in my mind, is the offer and establishment of a covenant with G-d, and the covenant defines the relationship, at least in part.

It is axiomatic that G-d does not need us – it is all the other way. Why then would G-d enter into an agreement with us? What are we to G-d that G-d would care to enter into relationship with us through a sacred covenant?

In many things, our lives replicate what we see with regard to G-d, but here I see no analogy in our life – we don’t have a covenant with the bacteria in our gut, even though some of them may be beneficial, even essential to our wellbeing. Those bacteria exist within us, whether we like it or not. There is no choice on our part. G-d makes a choice to offer a covenant with us, and we (if we have half a brain) will jump at it and accept it.

When you think about it, contracts or agreements or covenants are essentially arrangements between parties who each have and control something that the other wants or needs. This makes the two parties relatively equal, at some level.

What do we have that would be attractive to G-d? Why would G-d want to enter into covenant with us?

We cannot know what motivates G-d; that is outside our ken. Yet, we can certainly see what the interactions described with G-d are, and what G-d asks, and draw some conclusions from that.

I propose to you that in our story today, G-d asks that we do something as our part of the covenant. When we look at it, we realize that this ‘something’ is not really “for G-d”, but instead serves as a sign of the covenant that we are entering; through this action we demonstrate our agreement and commitment to the covenant. It is a ‘proof’ of our engagement.

In specific, being circumcised is not ‘for’ G-d, it is our way of saying, ‘see, I really mean it, I am wholeheartedly part of this relationship, and I will do my part!’

I don’t have to tell you that the real issue is not circumcision – Sarah is not subject to that ritual, but she also enters into and maintains a relationship with G-d; and that relationship is passed from generation to generation, for both males and females.

Instead, what we learn is that the covenant can be viewed as G-d offering to us, in each generation, to each one of us, the opportunity to enter into relationship. It is up to us to accept that offer and take up our part. We have a choice. We have to choose.

Psalm 22 can be viewed as a reiteration of this offer of relationship, but told from the perspective of one who has entered into relationship with G-d. It opens as a plea from someone in dire straits; G-d responds, and when the prayer is answered the psalmist brings offerings of thanks, and praises G-d. The relationship set out is mutual and reciprocal. It tells us in brief that we seek G-d in times of trouble, G-d responds, and when we experience G-d, we respond in turn with gratitude, acknowledgment, and appreciation. Here, too, G-d is present, and it is up to us to enter into the relationship.

So I suggest to you that the lesson of our readings today is that we are given the gift of an opportunity, and it is up to us to make it a reality. We can engage with G-d and have a relationship, if we choose to do so. In turn, G-d will respond within the context of that relationship – and whatever the answer we get, it is an answer that reflects an ongoing relationship and connection. We must have the courage to choose to enter into and activate the relationship when we are invited to do so.

May we each be able to see and act on our opportunities, find G-d, build a relationship and connection with the divine, which will ripen into covenant, and so experience G-d in our lives.

Let us say, Amen.
© Rabbi Joe Blair 2015