This is the first sermon Rabbi Marc D. Angel delivered from the pulpit of Congregation Shearith Israel, Simhat Torah 1969. Fifty years have passed since that first sermon, and yet the ideas within it continue to ring true.
Angel for Shabbat
In Jewish tradition, the number seven is associated with perfection. We have 7 days of creation; Shabbat is on day 7; there are 7 weeks between Pessah and Shavuoth; 7 years in the sabbatical cycle; 7 cycles of 7 years in the jubilee cycle; 7 days of Pessah and Succoth by biblical rule.
But what is the significance of 8? What comes after the holiness and perfection symbolized by 7?
This question is especially relevant in relation to the festival of Shemini Hag Atsereth--the 8th day closing festival. No other festival day in the Torah is tied to the number 8.
We have the power to direct our inner thoughts in the direction of happiness. We have the capacity to overcome feelings of distress, by channeling our emotions in constructive ways.
The famed American Jewish novelist, Saul Bellow, coined a phrase: "warehouse of good intentions." People had intended to contact an old friend...but didn't get around to it. People had planned on supporting a particular charity...but didn't find time to write the check. People had wanted to express their appreciation and love to a special person or persons...but the opportunity seemed never to arise.
As we enter the holy day season, it is important for us to remember that we each stand before the Almighty, who Alone knows the essence of who we are. The ultimate Arbiter of the value of our lives is the One to whom we are answerable. There is no point in pretending to be what we aren't, or in posturing to make ourselves more important in the eyes of others--God always knows the Truth about who we are.
In his essay “Fate and Destiny,” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik delineates two aspects of Jewish peoplehood: the camp and the congregation. “The camp is created as a result of the desire for self-defense and is nurtured by a sense of fear; the congregation is created as a result of the longing for the realization of an exalted ethical idea and is nurtured by the sentiment of love. Fate reigns in unbounded fashion in the camp; destiny reigns in the congregation….”
Angel for Shabbat, Matot Masei
by Rabbi Marc D. Angel
It is said that when Alexander the Great reached the peak of his career by conquering the entire known world—he broke down and cried.
One explanation for his crying is that he realized that there were no more battles for him to undertake. His best achievements were in the past. He had climbed to the top and had nowhere else to go. He cried in frustration.
In our world today, we are—unfortunately—accustomed to dealing with biased, hate-filled, and dishonest enemies. We sometimes wonder why people abandon reason and fairness in order to maintain hateful prejudices.
But we also know that the “Bil’am effect” is possible. Some special individuals—steeped in animosity and prejudice—can rise above their biases, can open their eyes, can become forces for good instead of pawns of evil.
In his book, “The Case for Democracy,” Natan Sharansky divides the world into two kinds of societies: fear societies, and free societies. Fear societies are tyrannies which rule by terrorizing their subjects, by restricting freedom of speech and movement, by instilling fear so that people will not voice opposition to the rulers. Fear societies are controlled by tyrants who are not hesitant to brutalize their people in order to quash dissent.
When the Israelites were liberated from their slavery in Egypt, they did not—and could not—immediately become free people. Although the physical servitude had come to an end, psychological/emotional slavery continued to imbue their perception of life.