The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Thoughts on Tebow and Faith

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Shabbat Shemot • January 12, 2012
Exodus 4:1-5
But Moses spoke up and said, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: Adonai did not appear to you?” Adonai said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he replied, “A rod.” He said, “Cast it on the ground.” He cast it on the ground and it became a snake; and Moses recoiled from it. Then Adonai said to Moses, “Put out your hand and grasp it by the tail” — he put out his hand and seized it, and it became a rod in his hand — “that they may believe that Adonai, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, did appear to you.” 
Moses was never excited about being chosen to lead.  From the first time God called him, he started in with excuses and reasons God should choose someone else.  In this episode, Moses stalls by worrying that the Israelites might be doubters:
Moses spoke up and said: “What if they do not believe me, but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you!’?!” (Exod 4:1)
God responds like a magician, as if to say: "Nothing up my sleeve..."  It’s a story about faith and doubt, about signs and miracles, and looking for proof of God’s existence.

Last month, in the Wall Street Journal, there was an article called “Tim Tebow: Denver’s New Favorite Mensch.”  It reported on the growing number of Denver rabbis who admire Tim Tebow and sermonize about him.  Now you can add me to list of rabbis giving sermons about him!
There has been a lot of public conversation about Tebow in the last weeks and months. About his very visible faith, and it’s potential role in Broncos victories.  I saw a poll on the NFL Network this morning: 43% (43!) of Americans attribute the Broncos’ success to divine intervention.  (42% do not, and 14% are not sure.)

Not long ago, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman wrote in The Jewish Week (the column has since been removed),
If Tebow wins the Super Bowl, against all odds, it will buoy his faithful, and emboldened faithful can do insane things, like burning mosques, bashing gays and indiscriminately banishing immigrants. While America has become more inclusive since Jerry Falwell’s first political forays, a Tebow triumph could set those efforts back considerably.
This take on Tebow’s faith is borderline offensive, and more importantly a misreading of Tebow, and of American religiosity.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld, in “What GOP Candidates Could Learn from Tim Tebow,” reminds us of the Gallup poll finding that 90% of Americans believe in God.  That said, Hirschfeld continues: “We are believers who embrace questions and seem to prefer ambiguity over certainty. When offered the chance, in a related Gallup survey, to choose between beliefs in God, a ‘universal spirit,’ or a ‘higher power,’ only about 15% chose God.  America is neither as secular as those on the far left would have us believe, nor as theologically certain as our Republican presidential candidates seem to be.”

Hirschfeld goes on:
“Tebow proudly proclaims his personal faith, but does so with remarkable modesty about his understanding of God, God’s word, or how it is meant to play out... What Tebow does not tell people what God’s plan is for him or his team.”

Now, it’s easy to be a detractor.  Looking at Tebow’s faith as if it’s about “pray hard enough and win the Super Bowl” -- that’s a house-of-cards theology.  There’s no integrity to it, and no depth.

It would be like taking our story of Moses’ concern too literally.  In order to prove himself to the Israelites as a true prophet of Adonai, God’s solution is: do some magic tricks!  Turn your rod into a snake.  Put your hand in your chest, take it out, and there are scales on it; put it back, and they’re gone.  Now you see it, now you don’t!  And if those tricks don’t work, take some water from the Nile and sprinkle it on the ground, and it’ll turn to blood.  Impress the people with presto-chango, some sleight of hand.

But we should be aware of the ancient context, and the place of magic traditions.  If religion is to be meaningful and useful today, it must be more than magic tricks.  The God described by the Israelites may not be quite the God we believe in today.  And the signs and wonders they looked for aren’t the signs and wonders we put our stock in anymore.

After Denver’s unlikely 4th-Qtr comeback vs. the Bears, some beautiful theology emerged from an unlikely source: namely, Bob Costas.  It’s worth sharing his words at length:
...the truth is, there’s nobody else quite like Tebow. No fewer than five of his seven victories have featured late fourth quarter comebacks. Approaching — okay, we’ll say it — the miraculous. 
Again today, Tebow did next to nothing until the waning moments, and then, down 10-0 with two minutes left, he throws a touchdown pass, and the Broncos tie it at the gun on a 59-yard field goal. And then win it in overtime on a 51 yarder. The combination of Denver’s continuing late heroics, and today, the Bears otherwise unexplainable errors, is enough to have some at least suspect divine intervention. Except that Tebow, whose sincere faith cannot be questioned, and should be respected, also has the good sense, and good grace, to make it clear he does not believe God takes a hand in the outcome of games.Most of us are good with that. Otherwise, how to explain what happens when there are equal numbers of believers on either side. Or why so many of those same believers came up empty facing Sandy Koufax. Or hit the deck against Muhammad Ali. Or why the almighty wouldn’t have better things to do. 
Still, there is no doubt that Tebow and his team benefit from his honest belief. How? Frank Bruni put it well in today’s New York Times. Whatever Tebow may lack in classic NFL quarterbacking traits, he possesses other qualities in abundance. And in his case, those qualities — confidence, equanimity, optimism — and a presence that can’t be explained, but can certainly be felt. The whole Tebow persona derives from how he sees the world, and his place in it. Those qualities, no matter how one comes by them, are an asset, perhaps especially in sports. 
Good for Tebow, and those who share his beliefs. And those who don’t can still acknowledge, and appreciate, that who Tim Tebow is, is not only genuine, but for the moment at least, it makes him and the Broncos, one of the most fascinating, and in whatever sense you interpret it, uplifting stories in sports.
I would like to invite Bob Costas to speak at services, because there’s profound wisdom there on faith.  And I have a feeling it resonates with many.

Let’s leave room for doubt and uncertainty -- we are honest about not knowing God’s will, or the scope of God’s action in the world, or, yes, even the possibility of miracles -- but even without certainty about these things, we can still say: Faith is good, prayer is good, religion and spirituality are good. They are good when they make us better.

“Confidence, equanimity, optimism” says Costas.  I’d add to those: compassion, justice, righteousness. Reverence.

As George Meredith said, “Who rises from prayer a better man, his prayer is answered.”

I hope that’s a lesson from Tebow that we can all embrace. If you have faith, and through that faith caring community, then even when you lose -- even when things don’t go your way -- you still have love, you still have strength, you still belong, and you matter.

That’s what we’re about here. Building this congregation out of people of faith -- faith that helps us belong, and matter, and make a difference to each other and to the world.

And whether you’re on the gridiron or in the infinite expanse of time and space, we can say: we were here, and we made a difference.  We lived, we connected, we had faith.
Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

D'var Torah by Jessica Slosberg

Last Friday, our Educator Jessica Slosberg stepped in to give the d'var Torah.  Thanks, Jess!  It's a powerful message that makes the Torah portion come alive:

This week’s parshah, Vayigash, begins with one of the most poignant and literary moments in the Torah. Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers that he is not only the one they sold into slavery but he is one of the leaders of Egypt. This exchange takes place after Joseph had enacted revenge by planting objects and accusing his brothers of stealing and Judah pleads with Joseph (whom he doesn’t recognize) to let Benjamin return to Canaan and Jacob, their father, and have Judah stay in his place. The region is in the midst of a seven year famine and the brothers are in Egypt attempting to buy much needed supplies. After Joseph tells his brothers who he is, he asks whether or not Jacob is still alive. Judah assures him that he is and then the whole family is moves to Egypt, which of course sets up the Jewish people being slaves, but that is a topic for another d’var.
As I re-read the telling of when Joseph reveals his true identity what struck me was the obvious lovey-doviness of this reunion – and not the one between father and beloved son – but between the brothers. Brothers, who if you remember, treated each other incredibly callously and acted with real, unadulterated hatred toward one another. I mean, how else do you categorize bragging about a parent’s affection, selling your brother into slavery and then telling your father your brother was eaten by wild animals, and then having that brother come to power, unbeknownst to you, and then seek revenge. The ability to let bygones be bygones seems an important lesson in itself. Looking out at the world as we move into the New Year, it seems like in general everyone could benefit from reading this week’s portion. But I don’t think “love more” is really that practical of a suggestion, but it did make me wonder what our tradition has to say about love and how to love. Call it a hunch, I figured I would find something,.
Maimonides writes in Laws of Character Development that the only way to draw people close is through love. On first glance, this seems pretty straight forward – the whole you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar concept. People want to be treated with respect and understanding, and I get that (that is how I want to be treated). But does this mean we are to blindly accept and learn to love the faults of those around us? In the story of Joseph and his brothers there are some pretty large character flaws and incidents to forgive and forget. Is this really even possible?
And then in the Talmud I found this “Without reproof there can be no (true) love.” Now this seems to have some legs. So yes, love everyone (as best you can) but this doesn’t mean you have to love blindly. Our tradition gives us the power to better our relationships and the world at large by telling us that love is as much about challenging those around us as turning a blind eye to their faults or wrongdoings.
As an example of standing up and chastising out of love, I would be remiss in not mention what is happening in Bet Shemesh. For those of you who haven’t heard, a girls’ elementary school was built for the orthodox-zionist community on the border of a Haredi neighborhood. Since the school opened the students, girls 7, 8, 9, 10 have been yelled at, spit on and attacked by a minority group of Haredi men. This story was recently featured on the Israeli news and was then picked up by msnbc. This story has elicited condemnation from across the Jewish spectrum – from the most progressive communities to other ultra-orthodox groups such as Aish HaTorah. The message from all the groups is this is NOT the way of Torah, Jews should love (or try to) love other Jews. My hope is that eventually this group of radicals hears this message that comes from many Jewish communities – including communities where people live Torah observant lifestyles and from outward appearances look the same as these extremists. But mostly it reminds me that we have a duty, as Jews to speak up and criticize other Jews when necessary – and that we do it out of love. Because ultimately, these people are our brothers (and sisters), even if we disagree with their actions and it is up to us to remind them of the right way to act and to live our lives as an example.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for the families of the girls who have organized shifts to walk the girls to school, who have not yielded to the pressure and who have resisted the idea of dividing Bet Shemesh because they believe, as Jews, We should all be able to live together – with the idea that God said to Israel, “My children what do I seek from you? Nothing more than that you love one another and another one another.”
For me, the lesson of love through criticism is easy to learn when it comes to large, world issues that we are naturally removed from. But when it comes to interpersonal relationships it is much harder to accept criticism when it comes from a loved one. The ones closest to us are the ones who can hurt us the most even when – especially when – they are telling us something we already know but need to hear anyway. Comments from loved ones no matter what they are or when are given seem to be ill-timed, worded insensitively and generally unpleasant. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some validity there. The brothers were all reproved whether it was when Jacob didn’t believe his sons that Jospeh lived, because he thought them liars, or when Joseph gave Benjamin finer clothes to show how  futile the fight over the jacket really was, or when Pharoah told Joseph to talk to his brothers. This was all done out of love and affection – from people they had real and deep relationships with. I can’t imagine that these were easy lessons to learn on either side – important doesn’t usually mean easy..
So my resolution as I head into the New Year is to learn to take any reproof that comes from love as it was meant and to remember that this person has a duty to me out of love – to challenge me and push me and I have duty, out of love, to challenge them right back when necessary. 
Shabbat Shalom