André Malraux, French novelist and minister of cultural affairs, wrote Antimémoires near the end of his life. During World War II, he was friendly with “a massive, dangerous soldier, who became a priest after the war,” said Rabbi David Wolpe.
Wolpe delivered the homily at the 9:15 a.m. Monday, July 20, morning devotional service on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. His sermon title was “Children of the Wilderness.” There was no specific scripture text.
Malraux went to visit his friend 20 years later and asked him, “You have spent 20 years in the confessional. What have you learned about human nature?”
The priest said, “I can’t tell you what I heard in the confessional, but I will tell you two things. First, everyone has more pain than you know; everyone has a story. Second, there is no such thing as a grown-up.”
Wolpe said, “People come into my office and tell me they can’t get over something their mother did when they were 10. Some part of all of us never grows up. That is a central metaphor of the Hebrew Bible, a book without an ending.”
From Exodus, Chapter 12, to the end of the book of Deuteronomy, the Children of Israel were headed to the Promised Land. And in the book of Joshua, when they finally get there, it was no “land of milk and honey,” but a lot of skirmishes and fighting with the people already there.
“Torah teaches us that the world is a wilderness filled with difficulty and pain,” Wolpe said. “They are called the Children of Israel because they are children. They were not happy in the desert but wanted to go back to Egypt where things were not any better.”
He continued, “We expect perfection in life and when things are bad, they are not as they should be. Someone comes into my office and has lost a job and gotten a divorce and says, ‘Why me?’ No one ever comes in and says, ‘I live in the richest nation ever conceived on earth and my parents loved me. Why me?’”
Wolpe told the congregation that we expect that we deserve good things, but that our struggles are undeserved. “God blessed Abraham with everything. He had to leave home, almost lost his wife, threw one child and his mother out, almost killed another child. He was blessed with the full panoply of life.”
Someday, Wolpe said, someone will write about growing up during the pandemic. “That person will not write about being blessed by the pandemic, but they will write about understanding life more deeply because of the experience of the pandemic.”
He continued, “The world does not guarantee us a blessing. If we accept death and problems as part of life, we won’t take the blessings for granted.”
Wolpe said he did not know why he was given the gifts he was. “I did not deserve them, I was lucky. Because I am lucky, I am not guilty, I am responsible. I have the responsibility to spread that luck to others.”
Everyone has difficulties, he said. “If we hold on to each other, we will make it through the desert. It might not be the promised land, but there will be moments of goodness, love and peace.”
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president for religion and senior pastor of Chautauqua Institution, presided from the Hall of Christ. 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. 1,” by Joseph Sulzer. Miller sang the hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” The anthem was “O for the Wings of a Dove,” by Felix Mendelssohn, and sung by Miller. Stafford played “Introduction zur Thodenfeier,” by Anonymous, for the postlude. This program is made possible by the Rabbi Samuel and Lynn Stahl Lectureship for the Understanding of Judaism.