Sermon, January 23, 2022 – Epiphany III

Telling Stories

There is a wonderful celebration in the Jewish community at the end of Sukkoth, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles – which recalls the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness for forty years.  The celebration is known as Simcat Torah, which means “Rejoicing in the Torah.”  In this celebration, the final verses of Deuteronomy are read and then, with great flourish the Rabbi or the reader rewinds the scroll to the very beginning and reads the first verses of Genesis.  The Jewish community will read the entire Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures) over the course of a year; so, this is a continuous cycle of readings – much like our various lectionary cycles that continuously recycle from year to year enabling us to hear the whole of the sacred story told us in the scriptures.

In today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures, we find Nehemiah, the Persian appointed governor, and Ezra, his scribe, standing before the people.  Ezra begins to read the Torah – the book of the Law, to the people.  It takes all day and at the end the people begin to weep.  Nehemiah instructs them not to weep, but rather:  And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

In other words – rejoice and give thanks – celebrate the gift of the Torah.

The back story for this event is that the Persian emperor had released the Jewish people from their seventy years of captivity in Babylon.  The captives, as well as those who remained in Israel, lived through a period of abject spiritual poverty after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple in approximately 597 BCE.  The Temple was gone, along with every vestige of their religious life and worship evaporated.  Fast forward seventy or so years – the Persians overthrow the Babylonians and the Persian emperor gives permission for the exiles to return home.

Nehemiah is appointed as governor (meaning he’s responsible for collecting the taxes due the emperor).  Nehemiah and Ezra return to a still shattered Jerusalem.  This is where the story goes beyond today’s consideration (I invite you to take some time to read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah).  What was happening here is that the people – those taken into exile and those who remained had forgotten their story, they had forgotten who they were, and, more importantly, whose they were.  So, Ezra and Nehemiah tell the people their story.  The people needed to hear their story so they could, once again, become the people of God.

This, my brothers, and sisters, is why we recycle the lectionary every three years (two years in the Daily Office cycle).  By the way, the Forward Day by Day devotional guide is a wonderful way to follow the daily office lectionary.  There are other resources to help with this as well.

Nehemiah’s people had forgotten their story; consequently, they had lost their identity as the people of God – the Chosen people.  The people in Nazareth were on the verge of losing their story, their identity.  The Roman occupation, and Herod’s disregard of Jewish law had an eroding effect on the people.  When Jesus chooses the passage from Isaiah 61: 1 – 2, which heralds Israel’s return from captivity, Jesus is saying to the folks in his hometown, “remember your story.”  Remember who you are and, more importantly whose you are.  When Jesus says to the gathered congregation, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” he is telling them that their story is alive and well and the promise of God’s love and favor is still theirs.

Our Judeo-Christian faith is full of stories.  These stories remind us of the depth and breadth of God’s love for us, and for the whole world.  We have stories because it makes it easier for us to remember the great truths of the Gospel.  Writer Elie Weisel was once asked by God created humanity, he replied, “God made man because God loves stories.”  One of my favorite stories is about a rabbi named, Baal Shem Tov (which means – Master of the Good Name) who lived in the Ukraine during the early to mid-seventeenth century and is credited as the founder of the Hassidic movement in Judaism.

[Baal Shem Tov story – see below]

The moral of this story is that when someone comes to us and tells us our story, we know that we are loved and forgiven.  Therefore, we are able in the words of our first reading:

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Today this scripture is fulfilled in our hearing! Amen.

Baal Shem Tov story

The version I told this morning (23 January 2022) was edited and shortened from the version here:

The founder of Chassidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (called the Baal Shem Tov, or “the Besht” for short), was well-versed in the secrets of the Torah and of creation. But he also knew the greatest secret of all: what each man’s purpose is in this world.

Those who believed this completely and followed his directives were called his chassidim.

To each of his chassidim the Besht revealed his task in life, and one, who is the hero of our story, he instructed to become a wandering storyteller. He should travel from town to town and from village to village and tell people stories about the Baal Shem Tov. “You will know when your mission is achieved,” the Besht added.

Shortly thereafter the Besht passed on to his eternal rest. For the next ten years the chassid diligently and joyously carried out his assignment, wandering from town to town telling the “Baal Shem Tov stories” he had witnessed or heard about.

One day, someone told him that there was a rich Jew in Vitebsk who actually paid money for such stories: ten rubles (at that time a huge amount) for every new one, and five for those he had already heard, plus traveling expenses. It was a two-day journey, but to our hero it seemed like minutes. He knew many stories and he really needed the money!

When he arrived at the rich man’s plush home, it was already late Thursday evening, and he was so tired from the road that he wanted only to sleep. But there would always be tomorrow.But he woke late on Friday, and by the time he finished praying, it was already time to get ready for Shabbat. But there would be Shabbat.

Unfortunately, that evening at the Shabbat dinner, try as he could, he just couldn’t remember any stories, not even one. He thought that after a good night’s rest his mind would be sharper, but it wasn’t. And the next day it was the same thing: he would begin a story, and suddenly his mind would go completely blank.

He thought that perhaps he was going mad. No matter what he did, he had no results. He even remained for another two days, but it was obvious that something very strange was going on: he, who knew hundreds of stories about his great teacher, having witnessed many of them himself, and having told and retold them countless times over the years, could not remember anything! He had forgotten everything; he had no other choice than to shamefacedly give up.

The wealthy man was very disappointed, but nevertheless, against all hope, he accompanied the chassid to his wagon; perhaps at the last moment some story would pop into his mind—but it didn’t.

The host slipped a few silver coins in the pocket of his visitor so he wouldn’t feel completely broken, and helped him onto the waiting carriage. Then, as he put his foot on the first step, he remembered . . . “A story!!! I remember a story!” he shouted.

“Once the Baal Shem took ten chassidim (I was one of them) and told us to get in his carriage shortly before Shabbat. We didn’t ask any questions, being used to such journeys. We entered and sat down and, as usual, we immediately felt as though the carriage was flying in the air. Moments later, we landed.

“We got out and found that we were in a place we had never seen before. It was a large town square that was completely deserted. Even the stores were all closed, and off to one side stood a stage or pulpit, that looked recently built, surrounded by several large crosses and flaming torches, as though there was about to be some sort of large outdoor church ceremony.

“The Besht told us to follow him as he quickly left the square, walked quickly through some winding streets, and in just minutes went through the gates of what was obviously the Jewish ghetto. He stopped before one of the houses and began pounding on the door, until a small peephole opened up and someone frantically whispered from inside.

‘Are you mad?! What are you doing out there?!’ Several bolts and locks clicked and slid until the door opened and the owner frantically motioned for all of us to enter, slamming it shut behind us.

“‘Tonight is one of their terrible holidays! The worst of the worst!!’ he said, short of breath, as he was reclosing the bolts and locks as fast as possible. ‘You’re lucky I let you in! In another few minutes the entire town square is going to be filled with bloodthirsty Jew-haters from all around, and the devil himself, Bishop Thaddeus, yemach shemo (may his name be blotted out), will give his annual Easter speech. It’s full of venom against us. Come, follow me — we will make place for you in our underground shelter. Come! We mustn’t waste an instant! Before they start going wild.’

“But the Besht turned to one of his pupils and calmly said, ‘Go back to the square, and when the bishop begins to speak, go up to the stage, pull on his robe, and tell him that I wish to speak to him urgently.’

“The owner of the house was shocked! He watched in wide-eyed astonishment as the chassid actually began to reopen the bolts, open the door and slip outside. He didn’t know if he should lock them again or not; he’d never seen anything like it in his life! It was like seeing someone walk into a burning furnace!

“The chassid, once outside, made his way back through the winding streets ’till he reached the square. It was already filled with thousands of people, and more were silently arriving from all sides. A strange, cold silence hung in the air, and it was beginning to get dark.

“The bishop strode to the front of the stage, as if from nowhere, and stood imposingly before the crowd in his bright crimson robes and high pointed red hat. The torchlight danced weirdly in his eyes and made the huge golden cross hanging around his neck gleam diabolically. To make matters worse, the fires and huge crosses surrounding the stage reminded the chassid of the stories he had heard of the Inquisition. But he pushed all these thoughts from his mind, waited for the bishop to begin, closed his eyes for a moment, whispered Shema Yisrael, and with his head down, began gently pushing his way to the podium.

“But the Besht wasn’t pleased. ‘Go back and tell the bishop“Amazingly, no one even noticed him. They were so transfixed by the bishop that they just moved out of the way, and before he knew it, he reached the front. He took a deep breath, said another Shema Yisrael, grabbed the robe of the bishop and pulled twice.

“The bishop was just beginning his tirade when he felt the tug at his garment and looked down. He was startled, outraged, his face became livid with anger; but before he could utter a sound the chassid looked him in the eyes and said, ‘My master and teacher, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, wishes to see you, and he says you should come urgently.’

“Suddenly the bishop’s face became pale and his eyes opened wide, as though he was afraid. ‘Not now!’ he whispered after a few seconds of confusion. ‘Tell him that I can’t come now. Later! Tell him later. Go away!’

“Miraculously, the entire crowd was all still standing like statues, as though hypnotized, and noticed none of this. So the chassid backed his way out and returned alone to the Besht, convinced that he had fulfilled his mission.

“But the Besht wasn’t pleased. ‘Go back and tell the bishop that if he doesn’t come now, it will be too late.’

“Without hesitation the chassid turned and did as he was told. He left the house, returned to the town square, pushed his way through the crowd, and pulled on the bishop’s robe just as before.

“But this time, when the bishop heard the Besht’s message, he was really stunned. He took a few steps back, put his head in his hands, and then, turning his face to heaven, he yelled to the crowd: ‘I’m receiving a message from the Lord!! I must be alone!’

“He motioned the chassid to leave, watched him as he walked toward the Jewish section, and then he himself descended from the back of the stage and headed in that direction, holding his hat under his arm.

“Minutes later he was standing with the chassid before the house in the Jewish quarter. ‘Tell him to remove his crosses before he enters,’ said the Besht from inside. The bishop did so, and as he entered the house and saw the face of the holy man, he fell to the floor and began weeping like a baby!

“The Baal Shem turned to the others and explained. ‘This man was born a Jew. He even had a bar mitzvah. But shortly thereafter he was lured to the Church and eventually became the anti-Semite he is today. I saw in heaven that now was a propitious time to bring him to his senses.’

“After the bishop stopped weeping, the Besht told him to stand and follow him into a side room, where they closed the door and spoke for several minutes. No one knows what they said in there, but after a while the bishop came out dressed in different clothes, left the house, and no one has seen him since. And that is the end of the story.’”

The chassid looked at the rich man and saw that he was smiling with contentment; he liked the story. He liked it so much that he put his hand over his eyes and tears began rolling down his face. He was crying, weeping from sheer happiness. “That is the story I’ve been waiting for,” he said.

He dried his eyes, looked at the chassid and continued. “I am the bishop in your story. The Baal Shem Tov told me in that side room to live a life of repentance until someone came and told me my own story. Now I know my prayers have been accepted by G‑d.”

By Tuvia Bolton

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