This week we begin a new secular year (Happy New Year: 2016), and, in the annual Jewish Torah cycle, we begin the second book of the Torah, the book of Sh’mot. In the Midwest and South, communities are beginning the massive work of cleaning up from unusual weather—tornadoes and floods…thank you Global Climate Change. Speaking of floods, do you remember the famous story of the Iowa farmer during a flood? Well, if not, let me remind you. If you have, then ignore this until I get to the good part of the sermon:
Picture this: The river is overflowing. Water surrounds the farmer’s home and is up to his front porch. As he is standing there, a boat comes up, the man in the boat says, “Jump in I’ll take you to safety.” The farmer crosses his arms and says stubbornly, “Nope, I put my trust in God.” So the boat goes away.
The water rises to the second floor. Another boat comes up, the man implores the farmer, who is now in the second story window, to jump in. “Hurry,” he cries, “I’ll save you.” The farmer again responds, saying: “Nope, I put my trust in God.” So this boat goes away, too.
Now the water is up to the roof, and, as the farmer stands on the roof, a helicopter comes over, and drops a ladder. The pilot yells down to the farmer, “I’ll save you, climb the ladder.” The farmer yells back, “Nope, I put my trust in G-d.” So, the helicopter goes away, too; and the water continues to rise and (g’valt) the force of the rising water sweeps the farmer off the roof…and, of couse, he drowns.
The farmer goes to heaven. G-d sees him and says, “What are you doing here?”
The farmer says, “I put my trust in you and you let me down.”
G-d says, “What do you mean, I let you down? Shmendrick, who do you think sent the two boats and the helicopter!”
Okay. Here’s the good part: Let’s imagine to continue the story….What if the farmer has replied: “But G-d, aren’t YOU supposed to save me and rescue me from all harm? After all, isn’t that what I pray for?” And, perhaps this clearly Jewish Iowa farmer had then tried to drive home his point by quoting the first prayer of the Amidah: ‘Baruch Atah Adonai… Magein Avraham v’Ezrat Sarah.’ Praised are You, our G-d, the Shield of Abraham and the Help of Sarah.
“That’s right in Your liturgy, G-d. You made this promise to Abraham and Sarah! You are supposed to be the One who helps us, shields us, saves us, rescues us from harm. It’s all there in the Siddur! And in last week’s Torah parshah, Jacob referred to ‘HaMaalach HaGoeil oti?’ (The angel who saved me?) That angel was representing You, no? So, nu? What’s the deal, G-d?! Who needed guys in rowboats and helicopters? I didn’t! I needed You!!”
Hmm. The farmer brought up some good points and proof-text to back them up. If you were G-d (imagine, please, just for a moment), what might you have responded?
—– (Leave room for responses.)
Right, although G-d might reiterate that the Divine answer to the farmer’s faith was in the help that was sent, but then, G-d might have found this a teachable moment and might have continued the conversation:
“My dear farmer, I’m glad that you quoted the Torah to me. Unfortunately your knowledge of the Torah stopped with the Book of Genesis. Yes, to the Patriarchs I appeared as their savior and rescuer. But that was because, at that point, I was the G-d of individuals. If you were to continue with the Torah you might notice an important shift in my relationship with the world. And it begins with the opening stories of the Book of Exodus, the Book of Sh’mot.
“Let me refresh your memory in case you have forgotten: As you may remember, Pharaoh, fearing an uprising from the vast number of Hebrews he’s enslaved, decreed that all Hebrew newborn boys be thrown in the river. Yet two midwives, Shifra and Puah, defied his decree, stood up to Pharaoh, and started saving the Hebrew baby boys. “
G-d continues: “They didn’t just pray to me. No sir. They took matters into their own hands and saved lives. And then we hear that this one Hebrew baby boy is born. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. He was called Moses. And as you also recall, his mother, Yocheved, placed him in a basket and sends him down the river. Yes, she too could have waited for Me to pull off a miracle and jump in. But she didn’t. She took action. She sent her son away, in the hope of saving his life.
“And what about Moses’ sister Miriam? She stayed with baby Moses. She made sure he was safe. And when he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter, BitYa, Miriam didn’t just pray and walk away. She walked right up to the Princess and informed her that she could help her save the child by sending for a Hebrew woman to nurse him. Well, Bitya, didn’t have to rescue that baby. In fact, there is a Midrash that tells us that her arm grew 60 Els in length to enable her to reach out into the middle of the Nile and bring the basket to shore. (Cool special effect, no?) And the, when she saw that there was a Hebrew baby inside she could have cast it back into the water. She could have let him die. But she didn’t. She saved that baby boy. She raised him as her own.
“And when little Moses grows up, he goes out and sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. Does Moses just pray to Me to help that Hebrew Slave? No. Moses takes action. Moses, himself, helps that Hebrew slave. He saves his life.
“Of course, his action results in the death of the slavemaster, and Moses’s need to flee the palace, ending up in Midian, where he sees seven women at a well being accosted and harassed by male shepherds. Does Moses just pray for them? Does he just walk away? No. Moses helps those women by driving away their harassers. Who knows, he might have even saved their lives.
“So, my farmer friend,” G-d continues. “Do you see a pattern here? Moses, having learned from his mother, his sister, the examples of the midwise, and, of course, the Princess BitYa….Moses instinctively know that we are partners with Me; we are placed on Earth to repair it, to help others, and, if need be, to even save one another.”
The Book of Sh’mot (Exodus) takes us from the story of a family to the story of a nation. We do see an occasional miracle or two…the burning bush, the parting of the Reed Sea, the manna in the wilderness, but, for the most part, we begin to see how we become more in partnership with G-d, fulfilling G-d’s promises to our Patriarchs and Matriarch’s by living up to that Divine spark within each one of us.
Remember, in Judaism, saving a life is the most important value of all…and G-d has given us the ability to save lives…and not just the ability, but the responsibility.
Saving a person’s life can come in many forms. It need not just be rescuing them from drowning. It can also be by giving the right amount of emotional or financial support when needed. It can be by giving the right advice to save someone from making a mistake or talking them out of a bad situation. It might mean advocating to open our homes to refugees.
Moses wasn’t our savior. We don’t have A savior. Moses is our liberator perhaps. He certainly transmitted our basic laws to us, but he was not our savior. In Judaism we are each other’s saviors. We each have the responsibility to help others. And we have the responsibility to go the extra mile and even save a life whenever possible.
Saving lives is not a theological concept for us. For us, as is all of Judaism, it’s a real life application. We not only help others but we show up in their time of need and do something which helps then on their path in life. Big or small. It doesn’t matter.
And so, going back to the farmer, G-d’s real answer to him, as it is to us as well, is to know that these people were there to help. Those guys in the rowboat and that pilot in the helicopter were not only doing G-d’s heavenly work, for sure, but more importantly, they were doing their work here on Earth. It was the farmer who just refused the help.
Perhaps, had the farmer actually accepted their help and lived, just, possibly, he might have paid it forward and been given the opportunity to help another or to save another’s life.
That is the lesson of these stories which open the Book of Exodus. G-d has given us the task of helping and saving each other; G-d has faith in us, and, b’ezrat HaShem, with God’s help, may we, like those whom we read about this morning, never shy away from that task.
Today is New Year’s Day. We take a deep breath and plunge into the year 2016 with trepidation and hope, with challenges and courage. There’s a lovely reading by Kenneth L. Patton, in our Siddur, on page 815. Let’s take turns reading a line each. (Call on someone to begin.)
Each year, should be the best year we have lived.
Each year, we are more learned in the ways of life.
Each year, we are wiser than the year before.
Each year, our eyes know better the sights to seek.
Each year, our ears listen, with a finer tuning.
Every happening is a jewel, wrought about the fancy of time.
All that we understand of the universe is the setting for each sight and asound of day.
The child looks with gladness each year, to be one year older.
Should not this welcome pursue us all our years?
The piling of the years is a richness, like the piling of gold.
Our years are coins with which we can purchase more wisely at the bazaars of each new season.
Our love is more pliant and patient, having been taught by time.
This New Year is one year older than the last.
The earth is more abounding in its growth.
The creatures have moved another step in their unfolding.
Humankind has left us one more year of art four our contemplation.
History is one year more resonant with lessons.
The sunrises are one year more familiar and promising.
The sunsets are one year less fearful, and the peace of the night is one year closer.
Should not this welcome pursue us all our years?
And, from the Sephardic machzor, may we pray that this New Year be one of blessing, even as we wrestle with the many challenges that our world faces.
And….to one and all, may 2016 be, with G-d’s help, not only a Happy New Year, but a truly “Sweet ’16”!
 Based on a Sermon on Sh’mot, by Rabbi Michael Simon, December 31, 2013.