Our Mission Is To Care
A Sermon for First Day Rosh Hashanah
By Rabbi Susan Grossman
Beth Shalom Congregation
Columbia, Maryland 21044
This summer, my husband, David, had knee surgery just a few weeks before our planned trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. David’s doctor told us he could travel as long as we promised not to hike anything too strenuous.
The Tetons can take your breath away, for their sheer beauty and elevation. To keep our promise to David’s surgeon, we took the boat across Jenny Lake to reach what our guidebook said was a short path to Hidden Falls.
Life is unpredictable and mountains all the more so. A few hundred yards up the path we came to a sign that read, “Trail closed; bridge unsafe.” Just beyond the sign raged a river that looked ready to wash away the bridge in question. Another sign directed us to a detour. We, and the dozen or so others on our boat, quickly discovered that what we thought would be an easy and uneventful walk had become a rock scramble. The teens among us rushed ahead like mountain goats. The rest of us followed more slowly. During one pre-car-i-ous drop along the path, David reached up to steady me as I sought footing. Once I reached the relative security of a large rock, I turned around and reached out my hand to the woman behind me. She looked at me for a moment, startled, perhaps, that a stranger would offer assistance. I smiled and she took my hand. Once she set herself firmly on our perch, she turned to the woman behind her, who also paused before taking that woman’s hand. I moved from rock to rock with David’s help, each time turning to help the woman behind me. Once she reached me, she, in turn, helped the woman behind her.
At one point, I looked up from below. People all up the trail were helping each other. Young and old. Men and women. Some were family and friends. Most were perfect strangers. It wasn’t just passing forward an act of kindness. It was a shared sense of caring, of taking responsibility for the well being of others. This shared sense of responsibility began with a simple act: reaching out a hand to help a stranger who, in turn, reached out a hand to help someone else.
My friends, this is what it means to be a Jew in the world. To care. To care enough to feel responsible for others. To care enough to reach out a helping hand even to a perfect stranger. To care enough that our caring inspires others to care.
This is the life story of the very first Jew, the spiritual father of every Jew, AvrahamAvinu, Abraham, our father.
His story does not begin where we began our Torah reading this morning. It begins with Abraham caring for God. Abraham leaves his home for God. He builds altars and offers sacrifices for God. He worries about God’s reputation among the nations and does what he can to improve it.
Abraham’s faith does not make him a perfect human being. His care for God sometimes blinds him to his responsibility to care for others: for the feelings of his wife Sarah and his concubine Hagar and the well being of his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Abraham has more to learn before he can become the Father of the Jewish People. But he begins his journey, one that will change all of history, because he cares for God.
If, at first, Abraham sometimes seems to care too much for God and not enough for others, we, his children, might have the opposite problem: We sometimes seem to care too much for the opinion of others and not enough for God. We worry what our boss may think if we ask to take off the Sabbath or Jewish holy days. We worry what our kids’ teachers will think if our kids skip school second day Rosh Hashanah. We worry that our jobs, our kids’ grades, and everything riding upon them, might be affected if we care too much for God.
These are realistic, but not new, worries.
Let me tell a story:
In 2005, after our first Beth Shalom Mission to Israel ended, David, our son Yoni and I, stayed in Israel to join an archaeological dig at Ramat Hanadiv, on the heights above Caesarea. We excavated what was probably the royal palace of one of King Herod’s sons from over two thousand years ago. Now if you know anything about Israel’s history, or if you ever have watched I Claudius, you know that Herod and his sons were well assimilated into Roman culture. They dressed like Romans. They spoke like Romans. They were loyal Roman citizens. They had to be in order to survive.
We discovered all the makings of a contemporary Roman lifestyle: fine glassware, ivory cosmetic implements. We even found the leftovers of feasts: the bones of cattle, sheep, goats, and doves. Do you know what we did not find? Not one pig bone. Herod and his sons might have eaten brisket but they did not eat pork, though it was popular among the Romans in ancient Israel. I don’t know what they ate when they visited the royal governor down the hill in Caesarea, but, according to some historians, the Herodians refrained from eating pork even in front of Caesar. That must have taken guts: to refuse to eat something in front of the person who held the power of life or death over you. Instead of getting in trouble, though, Herod and his sons earned the Romans’ respect for their loyalty to their God and ancestral faith.
Our Torah reads; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.” These words are part of our most important prayer, the Shema. We are to care for God not only with our feelings and spirit but with all we do. Eating Kosher. Remembering the Sabbath and holy days. Studying the Torah. For thousands of years, these three acts linked our ancestors to their past, their future, and to each other in their caring for God.
Caring for God is part of our mission as Jews in the world. Abraham understood this and offered to do anything for God. For all their faults, Herod and his sons understood this and were willing to risk the wrath of Caesar to remain faithful to God and our traditions. What are we willing to do to show God we care?
Caring for God is only part of our Mission as Jews in the world, though. Our Mission as Jews also includes caring for God’s creatures, caring for others.
Abraham is the first person in human history to care for others. He is the first person to feel responsible for perfect strangers. A little before our Torah reading begins this morning, Abraham runs out of his tent to offer strangers food and hospitality. Following this visit, Abraham argues with God to save Sodom and Gemorrah from destruction. Abraham does not plead for his nephew who is there. He risks God’s wrath, and thus his very life, trying to save the entire city. Nathan Laufer, in his book, The Genesis of Leadership, points out that it is only after Abraham shows he cares for others that the Bible refers to Abraham as “the Hebrew.”[i] It is only after Abraham shows he cares for others that he is recognized as a Jew.
Like Abraham, we, too, are to care for others. That is part of what it means to be a Jew. It is how we bring blessings into the world.
Let me tell you a story:
Sam Fishman’s parents escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe and married in Brooklyn in 1912. They managed to borrow $200 to buy a little candy store. The candy store business was hard work. They worked 18 hour days to eke out a few pennies here and a dime there. They barely earned enough to put food on their table and save a little for their children’s future.
One morning, a man entered the store and slowly approached the soda fountain. He was neatly dressed in a well worn blue suit and tie. He asked Sam’s father if he could have a glass of water, apologizing he didn’t have the two cents to pay for a glass of seltzer.
“Here, take a seltzer,” Sam’s father said. “You’ll owe me the two cents.” Sipping slowly, the man began to tell Sam’s father how he had walked all the way from the Bronx, hoping to find work in a shop down the street. He’d read the advertisement in last evening’s paper and had left his home long before dawn, not having money for the trolley. Sam’s father’s store was in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, miles from the Bronx. By the time the man reached the shop, the job was taken. Now he had to walk all the way home and tell his family. “When will I ever find a job?” the man sobbed.
Sam’s father went to the register and took out two dollars and change - the entire morning’s receipts – and gave it to the man. Afterward he never said a word about it. Sam writes, “To Pa, [it was] nothing rare or unusual. It was just Pa, now long gone, but still with me…in all I do.”[ii]
My friends, it is not enough to care for God if we do not also care for God’s creatures, for others. Spreading this message is one of the most important Missions we have as Jews in the world. Abraham understood this and risked God’s wrath to help save a city of strangers. Sam’s father understood this, and gave up his own desperately needed morning receipts to help a stranger in need. What are we willing to do to show others we care?
Abraham has one final lesson to learn before he can become the founding father of the Jewish People: He must learn that it is not enough to care for God and it is not enough to care for others. We also must care for each other. This is the lesson Abraham learns in our Torah reading this morning.
I was always troubled by the story we read today: Sarah insisting Hagar and her son Ishmael be exiled from camp and God sanctioning that decision; Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, not with a caravan, but alone with just a little water.
I was always troubled that our Sages choose this story for our High Holy Day Torah reading. But now I think I see why: As the Torah shows, Hagar and Ishmael must face their own journey and develop their own relationship with God. Perhaps Abraham understood this, trusted that God would care for them, and thus helped create the conditions whereby they could learn to trust God so they could fulfill their own mission in God’s plan.
As for Abraham, I think he finally learns to take responsibility for the well being of his wife, Sarah, and his son, Isaac, who, according to tradition, have been bullied and endangered by Hagar and Ishmael for years. It is not until he takes on this responsibility that Abraham’s role as the foundering father of the Jewish people is secure.
My friends, we were placed here to care. That is our mission as Jews: To care for God, to care for others, and to care for each other. Abraham is not perfect. He does not know this intuitively. But he learns. He changes. He grows. And so can we.
It is not always easy to care for each other. Sometimes it is inconvenient or requires some sacrifice.
Let me tell you one last story:
It is about two Columbia University roommates, Sandy and Art. In the middle of the school year, Sandy was diagnosed with glaucoma. Within weeks, he was totally blind. Returning home to Buffalo, he learned his future prospects were limited. At best, he could cane chairs to support himself.
That was not the life he wanted. So he returned to Columbia. How did he keep up with the work? His roommates read to him each night. They didn’t have to do that. In a competitive school like Columbia, time spent reading to your roommate means less time for your own work. But that’s not how his roommates felt. With their help, Sandy did well and adjusted to his new life.
One day, one of his roommates, Art, asked Sandy to join him on an errand he had to run. Sandy went along as they took the subway downtown. When they got to their stop, Art said, “All right then, Sandy, I’ll see you back at the dorms.” Then Art walked away.
You have to understand that Sandy had not been on the subway alone since he’d gone blind. You or I cannot imagine how Sandy must have felt standing alone on that busy subway platform. Yet, somehow, he found the courage to stay calm and make his way back uptown. Unbeknownst to Sandy, though, Art never left him. When Sandy made it back to campus, Art tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I knew you could do it. . . I wanted to be sure YOU knew you could do it...” But the story does not end there.
Sandy graduated Columbia with honors and went on to Oxford on a Fulbright Scholarship. He was quite poor but managed to save $500. One day, Sandy got a call from Art. Art was miserable in his own graduate studies. Sandy asked what he would rather do and Art replied he wanted to be a singer but he needed $500 to make a promo record. Sandy immediately gave Art his entire savings.
Sandy Greenberg became an inventor, CEO, venture capitalist, advisor to Presidents, and trustee emeritus of Johns Hopkins University. The $500 Sandy gave Art helped cut what eventually became "The Sounds of Silence." Art is Art Garfunkel. [iii]
Two friends. Two nice Jewish boys. They didn’t have to help each other. But they did. They cared. They felt responsible for each other. They acted in ways that not only helped each other but brought blessings to all those who have benefitted from their work.
Abraham clearly cared for God. But it is not until he learns to care for others that God recognizes him as a Jew. And it is not until he learns to care for each other that he truly becomes the founding father of the Jewish People.
That is our Mission as Jews: To care for God. To care for others. And to care for each other. Through our acts of caring we bring blessings to the world.
This is our God given Mission, the legacy Abraham our Father left us. Herod and his sons added to the legacy. Sam Fishman’s father added to the legacy. Art Garfunkel and Sandy Greenberg added to the legacy. How will we add to the legacy of our People? How will we fulfill the holy Mission God gave to Abraham, to our ancestors, and to us?
My friends, this legacy is not just ours as individuals. It is also ours as a congregation. How will we here at Beth Shalom fulfill our holy Mission? How will we care for God, for others, and for each other? One thing I can tell you, when we care as a congregation, we bring blessings not only to our congregants and to our community, but also to our nation, to our People, and to our world.
Helping each other around the edge of the Grand Tetons, our intrepid group of hikers finally reached Hidden Falls. We took pictures of each other and turned back the way we came. Finally reaching flat ground, we saw a sign for Inspiration Point. David’s knee felt good enough for us to join those willing to try to reach the vista several hundred feet of steep climbing above us. We did reach the 7,200 foot elevation overlook to find a stunning view of God’s creation spread below us. We did it by caring enough for each other, feeling responsible enough for each, to help each other make the climb. My friends, that is good advice not just on a hike but throughout all of life. We can navigate any obstacle and reach any height when we care enough to help each other.
This is what it means to be a Jew in the world: to care for God, to care for others, and to care for each other. To care enough to take a risk for God and feel responsible for the stranger and for each other. To care enough to translate our feelings into concrete acts of faith and assistance. When we care enough for God, for others, and for each other, we can overcome obstacles, reach great heights, and bring blessings into the world.
[i] My appreciation to Nathan Laufer, whose discussion in his book, The Genesis of Leadership, about Abraham taking on concentric circles of responsibility inspired this sermon, though I apply his discussion to different texts.
[ii] Adapted from Sam Fishman, “Tzedakah (Charity),” in Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Jewish Stories from Heaven and Earth: 4-5.
[iii] Adapted from the speeches of Jerry Speyer, “Living in Challenging Times,” Columbia Business School, Public Offerings (May 21, 2008) (http://www4.gsb.columbia.edu/publicoffering/post/136565/Living+in+Challenging+Times) and the 2005 commencement address of retired Johns Hopkins University President William Brody (http://www.jhu.edu/news/commence05/speeches/brody.html). My appreciation to R. Elliot Cosgrove for making me aware of this history in The American Rabbi Anthology 2 (2010), 137-8.