Rosh Hashanah's services gave us the opportunity to reflect on our lives as Jews and as caring human beings who look for ways to be better people. Our clergy's sermons were reminders of our better selves: that we are full of talent and potential; our world and nation has opportunities for us to express ourselves; that difficult emotions can be springboards for action.
Listen to Rabbi Lara Regev's sermon here. The full transcript is below.
The Gifts You Bring Can Change the World Rabbi Lara Regev Congregation Rodef Sholom September 20, 2017
A few weeks ago, I’m sure that many of us were glued to our televisions, phones, social media, and any other access we could get to the news of Hurricane Harvey. People told their stories of climbing to higher floors, hanging off of rooftops, waiting to be rescued by those whose hearts so moved them to help others in need. We saw families in their own boats as they floated down streets gathering their children, the elderly and animals. We saw people running to police, authorities, anyone they could to help others and bring them to safety with possibly only minutes to spare as the waters rose higher and higher. A rabbi in Houston and his family were forced to run to their neighbors top floor and, after hours and hours of waiting and posting panicked messages asking for rescue and hoping, finally posted a video themselves on social media of their own family floating away from their own ruined home in the boat of someone who had come to rescue them.
As the storm subsided, I found myself watching a video of a concert put on by Jewish musician Rick Recht for a day camp set up by our own Reform movement for kids who could not return to their schools. Rick opened his concert by singing, “ V’ahavta l’rei-acha kamocha,” words that come from the book of Leviticus in the midst of the holiness code, commanding us that we must love our neighbor as ourselves. I was deeply moved by this act, watching Rick who had flown from St. Louis to use his gifts to bring joy and love to these people, watching these children, many of whom had lost their homes and their possessions, sing with all their heart, with smiles on their faces, about loving their neighbor as themselves, loving those whom they potentially knew but didn’t necessarily know beyond a face or perhaps a name, but those with whom they now shared such an experience so deeply that they had no choice but to look beyond any differences and strive to save one another literally and figuratively.
The hurricanes in Houston and Florida were a human tragedy on the grandest scale. People’s lives and livelihood remain in jeopardy. A song and a smile might seem like a drop in the bucket, but for those children, it meant everything.
It’s plain to anyone who opens their eyes that the world is in need of repair. I could start listing it, but you can figure out the things that are most pressing for you or the things we should focus on most as individuals, as a community, as Americans, as Jews. For many generations, we’ve seen ourselves committed to and bound by the idea of tikkun olam , which has sometimes been translated as fixing the world. That is a very lofty goal. Tonight, I want to talk about something more practical, more attainable. I want to talk about you. I want to talk about me. I want to talk about making the world right and what each of us can do to make the a better place. Martin Buber, the preeminent 20th Century Jewish philosopher, teaches,
“Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique. It is the duty of every person in Israel to know and consider that he is unique in the world in his particular character and that there has never been anyone like him in the world, for if there had been someone like him, there would have been no need for him to be in the world.” He continues, “Every single man is a new thing in the world, and Is called upon to fulfill his particularity in this world...Every man’s foremost task is the actualization of his unique , unprecedented and never-recurring potentialities , and not the repetition of something that another, and be it even the greatest, has already achieved.”
Rabbi Stacy read this at our son Noah’s bris when he was 8 days old. Surrounded by our family and friends, I remember looking at baby Noah while she read this, sweet, innocent little Noah. What would his future hold? What would make him unique? What unprecedented potential or particularity would he be called to fulfill in this world? These thoughts filled me with tremendous hope for what our Noah could be, but also with a bit of fear for what the world held for this unique soul, what challenges he might face, and what might stand in the way of him reaching this true potential. More than anything, I wondered what incredible impact he might have on the world, greater than I could imagine. How would it manifest? And how, as parents, could we foster his budding interests and passions, and support him in channeling them to make the world a better place in his own way?
Every person brought into this world is unique and is placed here to fulfill their own purpose. Every person has a potential, and everyone’s potential is unique to him or her. We have no set path, and choosing the right or left fork in the road might set us up for who we are and what we become in life. But beyond those choices and the mundaneness of our daily decisions are the choices that we make to bring our gifts to this world and to the people we encounter each day. The conscious decisions to do good and the decision to make a difference for the betterment of humanity is in our own hands. The world needs us to bring the best of ourselves, to bring whatever it is that we can to heal, to help, to hold one another up. We are called to step up, to step out, to bring our unique abilities and to strive to be our best day in and day out.
And yet we know that we do not always live up to our potential, that we are not always our best selves. Perhaps there are times when we simply live in a state of apathy. Our siloed cultures push us apart from those around us. The headphones in our ears stop of us from listening and engaging with one another. Perhaps we are overwhelmed with the state of our world, that the task appears too great to make a difference so we don’t even attempt to do so. And I’m sure there are even those days when we wake up and say, “Why is this even my problem at all?”
These are all things that we all experience. They can easily distract us and can stop us from doing simple things in this world that can make a big difference. The weight of the world’s challenges paralyze us into inaction. Yet big problems are made up of many little challenges and injustices. We each might have the power in our own way to heal the brokenness we feel around us.
Each of us has a gift to give to this world, something that brings joy or light or strength or support to others. Sometimes your gift can be listening to a friend, lending a hand when needed, sharing your music, or teaching a skill you possess. Not everyone shares the same skills, and not everyone can do everything. That’s what makes us unique. But everyone can do something, even if it’s as simple as reaching out and giving a hug to someone in need. Even just recognizing each other’s humanity, something so small as making eye contact with a person on the street who appears lost or weighed down by the world, saying with our eyes, saying with our heart, saying with our words, “I see you, we are in this together,” such compassion is one of so many precious gifts that we can all share.
What gifts can you uniquely share with your neighbors, with your community and with the world? Think about it: I’m not talking about something that you do better than anyone else, or even pro bono work (although professional skills can make an incredible impact in people’s lives). What are you passionate about and how can that passion be translated into a positive impact for those around you?
I’m not asking you to turn your life upside down or feel consumed by the imperfections around us. Thinking that way is a trap that will ultimately paralyze you into inaction, as the French philosopher Voltaire famously said, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” We can all do good in this world without needing to be perfect.
Our Jewish tradition has taught this lesson for thousands of years. As one of my favorite texts in Pirkei Avot teaches, “ Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah bein chorin l’hibatel mimena .” “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We act as individuals but our impact is felt as a collective, for the work is never completed alone. We live out our values and share our gifts, and together one and one and one, we make a difference that is felt, a difference that is durable.
Sometimes it’s true that a group of many are stronger than the individual. The book of Ecclesiastes teaches, “Two are better than one, because they have good return for their labor. If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help him up.” And it is true that if we pool our money, we have more resources, and if we fall, better to have someone there to pick us up, and if we are faced with danger, better not to be alone. And we certainly know that there are instances where we must band together, use all of our skills, to make a difference.
As a Rodef Sholom community, when each of us steps forward to do even a small part, our impact is immeasurably larger and reaches beyond the walls of our synagogue, beyond the boundaries of our community. When we shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, stuff teddy bears for kids in hospitals, wash and bury our dead, write letters to our officials, show up at a shiva minyan, greet community members at Shabbat and holiday services, and so much more, we are fulfilling our obligation to perform acts of loving kindness and to pursue justice and peace. In performing these acts, we engage in tikkun olam, in making an impact in our own community, and those ripples are felt far and beyond our own walls.
Traditionally on Rosh Hashanah, we read a passage that proclaims “ Hayom Harat Olam ,” “Today the world is reborn.” Rosh Hashanah is a time when we take a step back and we figure out how we want to grow, how and what we want to change, and what it is that we want to do for the year. How do we move forward from what has been and define that which will be? How do we determine what it is that we want to do in the new year and how we can use our gifts to make change?
During these 10 days leading up to Yom Kippur, we spend our time contemplating the mistakes we’ve made, not so that we can beat our breast only, but so that we can be more effective and productive in the world than we were the year before. So I ask you: 10 days from now, who do you want to be? What gift will you bring to the world in the year to come?
There is a story our rabbis told that I’m sure many of you have heard about a man named Zusya. When Zusya died, he went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, "Why weren't you more like Moses or why weren't you more like Solomon or why weren't you more like David?" But when God appeared, the man was surprised. God simply asked, "Why weren't you more like Zusya?" The gifts we have are unique to us. Only we can decide to use them to make this world a better place, one moment at a time. And only then can we begin the true act of tikkun olam, of working together to heal this world and truly make it a better, stronger place.
Hinei mah tov umah na-im shevet achim gam yachad. How great is that we can be together, that we can give together, not all the same but stronger and wiser as one. Here we are, here we go.