A rabbi came to a new congregation. When it came time to say the Shema, the central prayer in the Jewish prayer service, half the congregation would stand and half would sit to say the prayer. The new rabbi went to the old rabbi for help.
“Tell me what the tradition is,” the new rabbi asked. “Is it to stand for the prayer?” The old rabbi said, “No, that is not the tradition.” The new rabbi asked, “Is the tradition to sit?” The old rabbi said, “That is not the tradition.”
The new rabbi then said, “Please help me. Half are standing and half are sitting and they are fighting.” The old rabbi said, “That is the tradition.”
Rabbi David Wolpe said, “In every church, every synagogue, every organization, groups disagree about traditions. This is not new. The Bible shows that people have always fought.”
Wolpe delivered the homily for the 9:15 a.m. EDT July 23 morning devotional service on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. His sermon title was “Lessons for the Pandemic.” The scripture text was 1 Kings 19:4-5 (NRSV) —
“But he (Elijah) himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’”
Wolpe gave a Reader’s Digest version of the story of Elijah and his encounter with the priests of Baal. Elijah was zealous for God and realized that the people of Israel were following Baal and not God.
He and the priests of Baal had a contest and God lit a fire on Elijah’s sacrifice, but nothing happened to the sacrifice to Baal. Although Elijah won, the priests of Baal tried to kill him and he fled.
On Mt. Carmel, Elijah encountered God and realized that God was not in the earthquake, not in the fire but, as the King James Bible translated it, “the still, small voice of God.” Wolpe said, “A better translation of the Hebrew is the thin voice of silence.”
Elijah was bitter and wanted to die. He told God that he was no better than his ancestors.
“This was not the only time a prophet said he wanted to die,” Wolpe said. “Jonah wants to die when he runs away from God. A teacher told me, ‘Do you know why Jonah is a prophet even though he ran away from God? Because he only ran away once.’”
Wolpe continued, “We run away from God all the time.”
God sent an angel to Elijah and told him to get up and eat something. “The angel treated Elijah like a person,” Wolpe said. “The angel invited Elijah to rejoin the world.”
After a Jewish funeral there is a meal, called the meal of transition. It is a commandment to eat at this meal, to pull the mourners back into the world when they would rather be in despair.
“We can feel that sense of despair now. We don’t want to join the world,” Wolpe told the virtual congregation. “The message of the scripture today is that we have to draw people back to life. Religion shows itself best in the simple, easy things of life.”
Theologian and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin is attributed with saying that human beings are not physical beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.
“Our way in the world is to be a person,” Wolpe said. “If you have not heard someone’s voice in a while, call them. Go outside, touch the earth. This is the stuff of life. This is what brought Elijah back.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, we are learning that what we are attached to can become a spiritual experience. “Everything can be elevated to a spirit, like saying a blessing when we eat.”
Wolpe said his mother used to admonish him, “Don’t eat like an animal.” What she meant, he said, was “express your humanness when you eat. That is what table manners are.”
Humans make love face-to-face, Wolpe said, “and we need to reach out face-to-face. We have to try to be physically spiritual human beings. We are soul and synapse. Make a blessing; the theology does not matter.”
He concluded, “Even when the world is quiet and shut down, we can hear the voice of God.”
Zach Stahlsmith, a recent graduate of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and part of the CHQ Assembly technical crew, presided. Joshua Stafford, interim organist for Chautauqua Institution, played the Tallman Tracker Organ. Michael Miller, a Chautauqua Opera Apprentice Artist, served as vocal soloist. The organ prelude, performed by Stafford, was “Prelude No. 4,” by Joseph Sulzer. Miller sang, “It is Enough,” from Elijah by Felix Mendelssohn. The anthem was “Andante,” by Ernest Bloch. Stafford played “Processional,” by Bloch, for the postlude. This program is made possible by the Rabbi Samuel and Lynn Stahl Lectureship for the Understanding of Judaism.