Thursday, February 1, 2018

Haftarat Yitro: Where Do You Go For Courage, a Brain, and a Heart?

Last week, I told you that I was going to devote the next few weeks' blog posts to The Wizard of Oz, because the synagogue is performing the show later this month.
Well, luckily for me, this week's Haftarah lends itself quite well to my theme. In fact, it's SO good that I had to decide which sermon idea to focus on! The Haftarah, from the Prophet of Isaiah, begins with Isaiah's vision of appearing in front of God, seated on a mighty throne, with smoke billowing around and a loud booming voice sending him off on a dangerous mission... sound familiar? And yet, despite these obvious connections, this is NOT going to be my post about the "myth" of the Wizard, and what happens when you pull back the curtain. No, this week, I want to talk to you about searching for brains, a heart, and "da noyv"!

Obviously, these pursuits are the focus of the plot in The Wizard of Oz (along with searching for a way back to Kansas, of course). But interestingly enough, when you put your emerald-colored glasses on, we actually find references to brain, heart,
and courage in several Jewish sources! Take, for example, the famous Shema prayer. In the first paragraph that we sing together, we declare that we should love Adonai, our God, "b'chol levav'cha, uv'chol nafshecha, uv'chol me'odecha," "with all your heart, soul, and might" (Deut. 6:5). The importance of a heart is explicit; the link between might and courage isn't too challenging; and indeed the rabbis imagined that intelligence and understanding could be found throughout the body, in essence coursing through our very soul. Based on the verse from Deuteronomy, we often talk about living Jewishly with "head, heart, and hand." Our tinted glasses may help us see that the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Cowardly Lion are not searching for disparate objects, unrelated to one another. Rather, their pursuits complement one another; each is needed to fully realize the potential of the other two.

As I mentioned above, the text from Isaiah that we read this week actually speaks to our topic. Not just the values of head, heart, and hand, but specifically how they are interconnected and interdependent. God sends Isaiah to prophesy to the people this message: "Hear, indeed, but do not
understand; see, indeed, but do not grasp." (6:9) And God adds, "Dull that people's mind...lest they repent and save themselves." (10) Surprisingly, the word for "mind" is "Lev," usually translated as heart! Just one chapter later, God instructs Isaiah to say to King Achaz: "Be firm and be calm. Do not be afraid and do not lose heart [because of the approaching enemy]" (7:4). Here, Isaiah is saying "be brave," or (for our purposes) "have courage"; and the term he uses is "do not lose heart," with the same Hebrew word, "Lev." It would seem that "Lev" can signify brains or courage, while the literal meaning is heart. These three qualities are sides of the same coin, and also vitally important for the success of one another. We are not meant to emulate the Lion, the Scarecrow, OR the Tinman... but rather all three.

Our Torah portion this week is a significant one, where God presents the Israelites with the Ten Commandments. Like our Haftarah, the scene is one of fire and brimstone, as God pronounces these ten, central laws, by which the people must abide. And yet, our rabbinic ancestors are ADAMANT that all 613 commandments
are of equal value; none is more important than another. Why, then, are ten elevated to this central status?? Many authorities respond that they are headers, categories under which all other commandments fit. I would add that the Ten Commandments each activate one of our three qualities, and sometimes all three! Reread the famous Top Ten, and think about whether God is asking you to use your hands, your heart, or your head to make yourself or the world around you better. The Wizard of Oz is actually not a tale about a ragtag band of new friends who join together their disjointed missions. In fact, when we scratch the surface and connect this story to the wisdom of our ancient tradition, we discover that all three (or really, four) objectives are interwoven. And furthermore, we are actually the ones skipping our way down that Yellow Brick Road. We ourselves are on a constant quest to use all our heart, all our soul, and all our might to the very best of our ability.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of Oz, the Great and Powerful, from the movie, "The Wizard of Oz"
2. CC image courtesy of Aymatth2 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Nevit on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Crakkerjakk on Wikimedia Commons

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