A rabbi gave a sermon, and after the services, he greeted the congregation at the door. A woman came up to him and said, “Rabbi, I work for ‘CBS Evening News.’ Could you condense that sermon into two minutes?” The rabbi said, “Of course.” She said, “Then why didn’t you?”
Rabbi David Wolpe said, “The message can be put in very few words. A homily points to a Biblical verse. The verse could use a lot of words, but doesn’t.”
Wolpe gave the homily for the 9:15 a.m. EDT Wednesday, July 22, morning devotional service on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. His sermon title was “Making Loss Matter,” which is also the title of one of his books. The scripture text was Numbers 27: 18-23 (NRSV) —
“So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him; have him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and commission him in their sight. You shall give him some of your authority, so that all the congregation of the Israelites may obey. But he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the decision of the Urim before the Lord; at his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he and all the Israelites with him, the whole congregation.’ So Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole congregation; he laid his hands on him and commissioned him — as the Lord had directed through Moses.”
Moses is a good example, Wolpe said. In the scripture, Moses is at the end of his life and he could be aggrieved.
“All his life he did things he did not want to do,” Wolpe said. “He did not want to go to Pharaoh, but he was accompanied by Miriam, his sister; Aaron, his brother; the people of Israel; and God. And all of them betrayed him.”
Miriam and Aaron gossiped about Moses’ marriage to a Cushite woman behind his back. When God gave Miriam leprosy, Moses had to pray for her healing.
The people of Israel were constantly complaining out in the heat of the desert, looking for ways to undermine Moses’ authority.
God told Moses “as they were within striking distance of the Promised Land, ‘You die here,’” Wolpe said.
He continued, “Moses could have been bitter, but he was not. He did what God wanted him to do. God told him to put his hand on Joshua to lead. Moses put both hands on Joshua.”
Wolpe noted that when he teaches this scripture, he often asks the class what Moses did differently. “God told Moses to put his hand on Joshua, but Moses put both hands on him. Moses wanted the people to see that he gave his whole-hearted assent to Joshua’s leadership.”
It can be hard, Wolpe said, to pass on the leadership of a business to the next generation, who will take what was built and make it better.
“You know what, it takes a largeness of spirit to do what Moses did,” he said.
When people suffer loss, they can just brood or they can take the loss and make the world better. “When people come into my office to talk about a loss and ask me what to do, I tell them, ‘Do something that would not have happened if you had not suffered that loss,’” Wolpe said.
He continued, “You will change the past, because this loss led you to do this wonderful thing that helped some other person. Mothers Against Drunk Drivers is a good example. The mother who founded it could have brooded about her loss, but she took her hands and laid them on the next generation.”
There are some things that only happen through loss. That does not make the loss good, Wolpe said, but sometimes “things turn out for the best. We have the power to decide the resolution of a situation and we have the power to make life better.”
By laying his hands on Joshua, Moses’ story did not end. He established a legacy and he tried to rejoice in it.
“Don’t ever pretend it will be easy,” Wolpe said. The Mishnah says that the eye has bright and dark parts, and we only see through the dark part.
Many times we miss things in life, and it takes something like a pandemic to help us see differently, he told the congregation. “When we get back together we will see differently, we will hug differently. Loss can bring blessing; it is not what we want, but we have no choice.”
Whatever can bless us, can help us cope with the darkness and bring light, “that is our mission, it is how we grow. And it gives us a little bit of the promised land,” Wolpe said.
The Rev. George Wirth, a retired Presbyterian Church USA pastor from Atlanta, 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. 3,” by Joseph Sulzer. Miller sang the hymn, “We Are All One in Mission.” The anthem was “Meditation,” by Hugo Chaim Adler. Stafford played “Festive Prelude No. 2,” by Lewis Lewandowski, for the postlude. This program is made possible by the Rabbi Samuel and Lynn Stahl Lectureship for the Understanding of Judaism.