Thoughts on Elijah at Mount Horeb

With Passover approaching my thoughts turn to Elijah for whom we open the door at our Seder to express the hope that we can make the world better than it is.

Elijah is the most storied character in all of the Hebrew Bible.  If one counts Midrashim there are more Elijah stories then there are stories about Moses (and more than the character who has the second largest number of Midrashic vignettes, Solomon). This phenomenon is due in large measure to the work of the prophet Malachi who at the end of his book transformed Elijah from a ninth pre-Christian c. figure of might and courage to the one who in Jewish longing would return one day to announce the coming of the Messiah and with him bring an end of war and bloodshed.  With the coming of the Messiah an era of everlasting peace and harmony would begin on earth.  Jews, of course, still await such a messiah or find inspiration for their efforts to create a world of peace and harmony in the hope that Elijah represents.  For Christians, Jesus is that Messiah, and they work to prepare the world for his return when the Jewish messianic hope will be fulfilled.

But the ninth C. BCE Elijah was subject to the same emotional highs and low that many of us experience. He had been the fearless champion of the Almighty yet – like many who selflessly give of themselves – he has fallen into a deep depression of self-doubt.  Even after his greatest triumph – decisively defeating the prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel — he fears that his work has been for naught and will have no lasting effect.  And worse, the wicked Jezebel still has a price on his head.

God tries to encourage him and by mystically transporting him to Mount Sinai (Horeb) where, like Moses — whose career Elijah’s parallels in many ways – Elijah stays on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.  There he is granted an extraordinary vision that offers those of us who believe today one of the most effective ways of explaining God’s presence in our lives.  Like Moses, and like many of us, Elijah seeks evidence that God is real!  God wants to help and sends a great wind, but God is not in the wind.   Then God sends an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake, nor is God in a fire.  But Elijah – like many of us – does perceive God’s reality in Kol D’mamah Daka, a still small voice.

Yes, if we listen very carefully we can perceive God’s will for us in a voice that speaks to us from the quiet stillness of our hearts.  It is that voice that encourages us to make the choice to use our talents in whatever ways we can for the benefit of others.  But the Voice only encourages; it does not compel. The choice as to how we use our talents is ours.

As profound and wonderful as it was, though, not even God’s voice could completely lift the cloud of despair from Elijah, and God knows the time has come for him – as it came for – to relinquish his role as God’s prophetic representative.  The Eternal One tells Elijah to anoint Elisha to serve as prophet in his place.

This should not be perceived as punishment.  At the waters of Meribah (Numbers 20) God knew that Moses’ unparalleled career had to end and that he would not be the one to lead the Children of Israel  — despite his eager desire to do so – into the Promised Land.  Like Moses and Elijah we must all some day relinquish our hold on the raison d’etre of our lives and trust others to carry on our work.

Those of us who aspire to be servants of the Almighty like Moses and Elijah can find valuable instruction here.  Our task is to do as much as we can for as long as we can. We must realize, though, that our prime years of productive service will not last forever.  That knowledge should give us urgency to make the most that we can out of every day that we have.  And, as the time approaches for us to let go, seek to empower others to carry forward the work that gives meaning and purpose to our lives.

Still, Thankfully, Looking Ahead: Thoughts on Reaching 75

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

If you attended Shabbat Eve worship at Temple Isaiah in Columbia, Maryland on March 19, 1976 you heard me deliver a sermon titled: “From the Top of the Hill Looking Down: Thoughts on Reaching Thirty.”

For those of you who could not make it that night I said:

Getting up early for morning Squash is not so easy as it once was, and each day the bathroom mirror testifies to the presence of an additional gray hair.  Age has been creeping up on me, and last Tuesday it tapped me – not at all gently – on the shoulder.

“celebrated,” I continued, “is hardly the appropriate word to associate with my thirtieth birthday…’endured would be more descriptive.

The trauma of the completion of my third decade lies in the passage of youth.  I am not old – just older –and not really young anymore. I am at the height of my physical strength, but I can expect my strength only to diminish. I feel like one at the top of a hill.  All that is left is the descent.

Then I recalled attending a lovely celebration on my birthday a few days prior at Tio Pepe’s, one of Baltimore’s finest restaurants to celebrate the retirement of Rabbi Abraham Shaw who was completing forty years as Rabbi of Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore.

After drinking just one margarita that night, it was easy for me to close my eyes and imagine the celebration was not for Rabbi Shaw but for my thirtieth birthday. I began to wonder what my reflections would be 40 years later when I looked back, hopefully with the same satisfaction as Rabbi Shaw, on my rabbinical career.

I looked around our private room that night and formulated my perceptions of the older colleagues  (I was easily the youngest one there) with whom I sat:

One I labeled, “a bookworm rabbi,” who so immersed himself in Jewish study and writing of which most of his congregants understood and cared little. Yet they basked in the reflected glory of “their rabbi’s” scholarly achievements.

I classified another celebrant as “the businessman rabbi,” who, conducted his rabbinate like a corporate executive. He was a cracker-jack administrator and a great PR person with a ready smile and the knack for running from place to place and getting lots and lots of things done.  Unfortunately, I judged, that way of life allows little time for in-depth study, family life and intense personal involvement with the joy and sorrows of those he (and they were all he’s rabbis in the room were he’s at that time) serves.

There was another rabbinic colleague I considered an “acquiescent.” He just seemed to roll with the punches, does his best to give people what they want while seeming to have lost the desire that might have once burned inside of him to really challenge his congregants from the pulpit.

As I look back today, perhaps I judged my colleagues too harshly. After all, each was considered a success, but on that night forty-five years ago I resolved I would not become like a bookworm, the businessman or the acquiescent with whom I dined.

I promised myself that I would never lose my idealism, my desire to really make a difference in people’s lives or my personal integrity for the sake of popularity or position. 

I have tried my very best to keep that promise. 

But I wonder how a young colleague at my 75th birthday celebration would judge me.

I feel so blessed to have landed \in Sanibel where you inspire me to realize that 75 doesn’t have to be old. Those of you who are five, ten, fifteen and 20 years older than I have been such a blessing to me. You have made me realize that with God’s help I can still be productive and still make small differences in people’s lives. Jeanette Keyser, who died this past Shabbat at age 94 inspired me every time she trundled or wheeled herself into this room. Her body was frail, but her eyes shone with curiosity and the desire to learn.  She never lost her sense of wonder, and that is what I want for myself.

As I arrived at the tennis court on my birthday, Peter Danford wished me a happy birthday and friends asked me, “How do you plan to celebrate?”

“I am celebrating,” I answered, “by being here in the sunshine to play the game I love so much.”

Oh, I have seen enough and heard enough and experienced enough in my life personally to know that things can change in an instant. 

When they cracked my chest open for the first time to replace my congenitally defective aortic valve when I was fifty, I could not imagine my 75th birthday. There have been other significant bumps in my road including the need to open my chest a second time in 2012 to replace the replacement valve and sheath a life-threatening ascending aortic aneurysm. So, believe me, I know robust good health will not last forever, and it can vanish at any moment.

As I stand before you tonight the words I just read from the Torah, the exact words I read for the first time as a Bar Mitzvah 62 years ago resonate more than ever. I know that too many times (and once is already too many times) words I have spoken or things I have done have caused hurt and pain to people I love or people who depended on me in other ways. I never meant to. I was not aware on those occasions that I had given offense. But the Torah starkly reminds me that ignorance is no excuse. I am still guilty and must take responsibility for my actions as must we all. 

So, my sermon to myself at 75, which I invite you to apply to yourselves if you deem it appropriate comes from the third verse of Psalm 141:  

Set a guard, O Eternal One, to my mouth. Keep watch at the door of my lips.”

With that important admonition in mind, now that I am 75 I redouble my desire to live every day as fully as I can, enjoy what pleasure life affords me and try my best to fulfill the charge God made to Abraham 4000 years ago as he launched the new way of life, we now call Judaism:  והיה ברכה

“Be a Blessing,” to myself, my loved ones, to all of you, and all of those whose lives I may yet touch.