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March 10, 2023


Lisa Rubin

This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.

Rabbi Lisa Rubin

I recently learned about two spiritual perspectives that come from Jewish mysticism. They are referred to in Aramaic: One is called itaruta de-l'eylah, an awakening from above; the other is itaruta d’letata, an awakening from below. The first usually refers to God’s power and providence and the resulting awe that is awakened in us from above, from God. The second, an awakening from below, involves human initiative and agency.

We see both perspectives in the famous events we read in the Torah this week. The tradition is that Moses ascends Mt. Sinai, returns with two tablets, smashes them when he sees the people have built a Golden Calf, and ascends again for a new set of tablets.

The first set of tablets provide an awakening from above: We read, “The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing.”[i] They were inscribed, we read, “with the very finger of God.”[ii] Their destruction is that much more striking then, considering how sacred they were. They were wholly the work of God. But they did not last.

The replacement set of tablets was only a result of Moses’s pleas to God to forgive the people and reveal the laws again. Finally, God relents and says, “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets which you shattered.” Now Moses has to participate. He has a role. He carves the new tablets and takes them up the mountain to meet God again. He returns radiant and experiences an awakening as a result of his efforts in concert with God. The new tablets provide an awakening from below because of Moses’s involvement. And they are the tablets with staying power.

The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks taught on this subject:

An awakening from above may change nature, but it does not, in and of itself, change human nature. In it, no human effort has been expended. Those to whom it happens are passive. While it lasts, it is overwhelming; but only while it lasts. Thereafter, people revert to what they were. An “awakening from below,” by contrast, leaves a permanent mark. Because human beings have taken the initiative, something in them changes. Their horizons of possibility have been expanded. They now know they are capable of great things, and because they did so once, they are aware that they can do so again. An awakening from above temporarily transforms the external world; an awakening from below permanently transforms our internal world. The first changes the universe; the second changes us.

We’ve just passed the holiday of Purim. We know that the Book of Esther is the only Biblical book where God is not mentioned. There are no awakenings from above. The miracles, the motivation, the plot—all human driven. It is because of the efforts of Mordechai and Esther that the Jews are saved. And they are canonized as heroes because they awoke from below and did what they needed to do.

We’re looking ahead to the holiday of Passover. God plays a huge role in the Exodus and there are great awakenings from above throughout the story. But we know that Moses must and does play a part in going to the Pharoah to fight for the freedom of the people himself. God brings the people out of Egypt, yes, but not without Moses’s awakening from below—he finds the courage and confidence to play the role he was meant to play. The battles fought entirely by others on our behalf don’t change us. The ones we fight, do.[iii]

When people come to our Center for Exploring Judaism inquiring about conversion, inspiration has come from somewhere. No one becomes interested in Judaism in a vacuum. Sometimes, it is from above—a spiritual pull toward our community. Or, there is a religious encounter that warrants further exploration. Other times, it is a partner, or a lecture, or a movie, or trip to Israel that ignites curiosity about our tradition and community. There are so many doorways in, so many sparks to awaken to the idea of Judaism.

For those that choose a formal entrance—a conversion—there must always be an awakening from below, too. A conversion is so deeply personal. Each person must walk their path, take on the study, the internal work, the commitments. Only then does a true change occur. Only then does the conversion feel genuine. It is another example of the difference in things done for us and things we have a share in doing ourselves. The graduates of our Center for Exploring Judaism attained their goal of becoming Jewish because they were able to experience an internal awakening resulting from their own personal hopes and dreams. 

How fortunate we are for their decision. There are so few Jews in the world, their presence blesses us and strengthens us. I’ve always been proud to be Jewish. I’m grateful I was born into it. I even made it my profession. But after 13 years of doing this particular work of welcoming, I find myself wishing that I could have converted into it. My relationship with this beautiful tradition and way of life is so meaningful to me, and I was just handed it—I can only wonder how I would feel if it was something I had played a role in and worked toward.

So tonight, in just a few minutes, we’ll honor those who have chosen Judaism in the last year. I cannot honor them without honoring first my colleague and my dear friend Rabbi April Davis.

Rabbi Davis is moving with her family out of New York after seven years of service to our synagogue. She was the first hire we made for the Center for Exploring Judaism and we’ve never looked back. Deeply intelligent, wildly funny, endlessly compassionate, Rabbi Davis made her mark on hundreds of students. She made her mark on me, too.

April, the day we met at HUC when you were still a rabbinical student, you told me if I ever wanted to grow this program, I should keep you in mind. I count my lucky stars you approached me that day. I have loved our partnership—our thoughtful collaboration, our hundreds of hours at the mivkeh together, and our laughing lunches in the office. You and I have been sisters-in-arms all this time doing the work we both love so much. You always inspired me—your dedication, integrity and unfailing ability to think of the right biblical lesson or theme for the occasion. I will miss your voice around the table so much.

Whatever you do next, I hope you’ll remember what a difference you made here; what a gift you were to our community for these seven years. I want to invite you up now and give you a small gift to take with you to Northampton.

Present Rabbi Davis with the painting and explain.

I’d like to call another Exploring Judaism star teacher to the bimah, Rabbi Darcie Crystal.

And finally, I share with such joy that we welcomed 65 adults and 10 children in the past year through conversion, 75 new Jews. Whether you are here in person or joining online from all over the country, we appreciate you, we celebrate you, we welcome you. If you are in the Sanctuary, please come to the bimah at this time for the Aliyah.

[i] Exodus 32:16

[ii] Exodus 31:18

[iii] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.