Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Special Senior Sermon

Rafi Lehmann died the day after Yom Kippur this year. He was a few months shy of 28 years old. A month before his death, Rafi fell and broke several bones. A chain of events led to a spiraling decline, the ICU, unconsciousness, and death. He was just about to begin his last year of rabbinical school at JTS. Last week was when he had planned to deliver his senior sermon at the Seminary. His father, Rabbi Allan Lehmann, shared that sermon with fellow rabbis, and I delivered it last Shabbat. Several requested that I post it, which I have, below.

Parashat Toledot—Senior Homiletics -- Rafi Lehmann
Growing up in Florida, even the biggest hill in my hometown of Gainesville seemed quite insignificant in hindsight. It was a late summer morning in Northern Jerusalem, and I had just arrived the day before on a group flight with forty plus university students from all over the North American continent. We were up early with the sun after being awoken by the crow of a nearby rooster. I was living in the French Hill neighborhood in student dormitories at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Feeling a little bit jetlagged a few of the other newcomers and I began our trek to campus to get ourselves registered for Summer Ulpan and became better acquainted with what I would soon regard as the big scary monster of Israeli bureaucracy. Gradually, as a group, we climbed up the Churchill Boulevard, a World War I cemetery on our left and a pristine, glistening view of Jerusalem on the right—it was really quite distracting. Once arriving on the campus we walked to the Rothberg International School building and began the registration experience. By the time we finished it was lunchtime and asked the folks in the Rothberg building if they had any recommendations for lunch. Without missing a beat, we were directed to the Frank Sinatra Cafeteria—a cafeteria-style eatery with all kinds of a la carte Israeli specialties. A group of a dozen American students that arrived on the group flight the day before sat together in the corner of the dining hall. The food was good and rather filling, we happened to see the representative from the New York office that escorted us on the group flight having a cup of coffee with a friend, we bid her a pleasant afternoon and we were on our way to set up our campus emails.

It was there when it happened. An earth shattering noise that sent car alarms blaring. After a bit of confusion, it soon became clear that the noise was an explosion and about an hour later I was informed that the bombing occurred in the very cafeteria in which I stood only ten minutes earlier.


I don’t share this story with you out of a heartfelt desire to gain sympathy for a difficult experience that I went through, rather upon first reading this week’s parashah, Parashat Toledot, a particular piece of its narrative stuck out for me and it’s a thought that I remember exclaiming to myself that afternoon at Hebrew University. Very early on in the parashah, we encounter Rivka Emeinu (our mother) in the midst of what could only be characterized as a difficult pregnancy. Genesis 25:22 reads, “V’yitrotzatzu habanim b’kirba”—“And the children struggled together inside of her.”—she was having twins. Now, this is interesting and certainly chomer l’drush (material for interpretation) -as Rashi would even say in so many words- in and of itself. But I’m more interested in the second half of the verse. The text goes on, “vatomer, im kayn, LAMAH ZEH ANOKHI?!”—“If it is so, why me?” Why is this happening to me? The 12th century biblical exegete, Avraham ibn Ezra, understood this to be a question asked by Rebecca and being addressed to other women—if they had experienced similar travails while pregnant themselves, and their answer is a resounding no. Ibn Ezra taught that Rebecca’s response should be read as follows: “If pregnancy is generally experienced differently than the way that It is occurring to me, why is my pregnancy different?”

Ibn Ezra, without question exposes us to a very contextual, text-based reading of the verse. But I want to approach this question that Rebecca is asking from a different perspective altogether. I’m not convinced that Rebecca’s question is purely a scientific one—far from it. Rather, Rebecca’s question strikes at the very core of her being, her very existence. In the Zohar, from the section entitled “Midrash Ha’Ne’elam” we learn that Rebecca’s question should be understood to mean, lamah nivrayti?” or “Why was I created?”

“Why is this happening to me?” is one of life’s questions that many of us ask ourselves during trying times. It almost never has associated with it an easy answer. However, when asking such profound, deeply existential questions, it is rarely the “answers” that prove to be the most revelatory—at times, merely getting to the source, the heart of the question proves to be truly transformative and perhaps even “life-changing.” It could boil down to the question of what is my purpose, my motivation, my very role in this seemingly complex web of a universe in which I find myself.

I find Rebecca’s next move in the saga to be meaningful and quite instructive and it has helped me on my own life journey. The Torah teaches us that immediately following the matriarch’s deep question of “Why me?!” the text goes on with “Vataylekh l’drosh et Adonai”—“And she went to go seek guidance from God.” At this difficult, and self-definitional time, after having asked the all-important question, Rebecca seeks out God, the Source of Life, in order to better understand her purpose, perhaps even to seek out support from the one called “El Rachum v’Hanun.” Again, it is important to emphasize that she is not necessarily in search of answers, justifications, or a rationale for her excruciating situation.

It is exactly those trying moments when we yearn for proximity to the Force in the universe that we understand to be larger than ourselves. There is a desire to transform the chaotic, unintelligible present with an ordered discernible future.

That extremely difficult summer afternoon, and the days, weeks, and months that followed it led me to be a “doresh haShem”—a seeker, in an unquestionably deeper manner than I had experienced before that moment. In a sense, that “drishah” took place much more within than “without.” I have to admit, initially on an emotional level, I wanted answers—who was responsible? How could this happen? What could motivate a human being to be capable of such blatant hatred of the “other” to the extent that a heinous act like this was even possible!? Once the initial emotional, and even a bit exasperated response calmed a bit, it became an opportunity for heshbon nefesh (soul searching) and a genuine chance to reflect quite personally and confront life’s big questions: “what’s my purpose,” “what’s the very nature of my existence”… “LAMAH ZEH ANOKHI?”—The likes of which we so instructively observe Rivka pursuing in our parashah.

Master of the Universe, help us to embrace opportunities to reflect upon and better understand what it is that gives our lives purpose, direction, and a deep sense of meaning. While we will almost certainly encounter “birth pangs” in the process, grant us the strength and courage to prevent them from becoming stumbling blocks on our respective journeys.

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