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Chizuk Amuno Congregation

Mitzvot Will Elevate You

It is the basic liturgical formula, which many of us know well,  Barukh atah Adoshem  Elokeinu Melekh HaOlam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotov

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The Silverman Prayer Book, which many of us grew up with, offers this translation-                                                                                                                                                                   Blessed art Thou, O  Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who hast sanctified us by Thy precepts.

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The Sim Shalom translation-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe Whose mitzvot add holiness to our lives.

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And our newest siddur, Siddur Lev Shalem, provides yet another translation–                                                                                                                                                                         Barukh atah Adonai, Our God, Sovereign of Time and Space, Who has desired us and has provided us with a path to holiness through the observance of mitzvot.

28 words

The new translation requires more than 3 times the number of words found in the Hebrew to translate and explain this prayer formula. Now, that’s real progress.

So, let me give it a try.

Praised are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has elevated us through Your commandments.

Our sages teach us “ma-alin ba-kodesh, that we ascend in holiness.

That’s what the observance of God’s commandments does. It elevates us. The observance of mitzvot takes us to a higher place. Some examples:

Kiddush Hashem– This describes a Jew who performs a meritorious act in public, which brings honor to the Jewish people, and in the eyes of the world,  lifts up Judaism and elevates the God of Israel

Shabbat Kodesh– The observance of Shabbat lifts us to a higher place, where we can begin to see the world from a higher perspective, from God’s perspective

Lashon HaKodesh– The Holy Language of Hebrew, with its value concepts, such as hesed, rahamim, tzedekah, loving kindness, mercy and tzedekah,  elevates our conversations, and lifts us up.

This morning, I will share with you three mitzvot which I have found particularly elevating. But, first some background.

Early on, like so many other day schools, Chizuk Amuno’s Krieger Schechter Day School established an 8th grade Israel trip for its graduates.

And in memory of my parents, we established the Ben and Sarah Schneider Israel fund.

Instead of buying each other gifts for their B’nai Mitzvah, families were asked to donate to the Israel fund. Sometimes, with large classes, we raised upwards of $25,000 for the trip. Half of the funds each year subsidized the cost of the trip, and half were donated to a tzedekah in Israel chosen by the students.  Those donations enabled our students to make a profound difference in the lives of the recipients, and elevated our students and staff very high.

Now, every student of Judaism knows that the greatest mitzvah is pikuah nefesh, the saving of a human life. In fact, one is even permitted to be m’halel Shabbos, transgress the mitzvot of Shabbat in order to save a life.

In 2010, we  visited the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, the home of the Save a Child’s Heart Foundation, that year’s recipient of tzedekah from the 8th grade class. That is a program that offers free life-saving cardiac surgery to children from throughout the Middle East, Jews and Arabs alike.  It was founded in 1995 by Dr. Ami Cohen, nephew of Barbara and Maimon Cohen.

Our students raised $10,000 for tzedekah. Because the surgeons and the nurses volunteered their time and expertise, $10,000 was enough money to provide one surgery to save a child’s life. Can you imagine how wonderful our students felt to know that their tzedekah fulfilled one of the greatest of all mitzvot, pikuah nefesh?

We  toured the hospital, we visited the families, and spoke to the doctors and nurses .Our students played with the children. I remember their smiles.

And I remember a sign in Hebrew that was  hanging over the entrance to the children’s unit. It said, “Ein Yaush, “in this place,  there is no despair. Here, there is no giving up.

If there were a doorway to the Middle East, those would be the very words that I would want displayed there-Ein Yaush. Never give up hope, never despair.

How many of you are familiar with the mitzvah called tzar ba-alei hayim, the prevention of cruelty to animals?

One year, the 8th grade class decided to  donate $8,000 to an organization that rescues animals and then trains them for animal-assisted therapy.

It’s called HAMA, humans and animals in mutual assistance. Our donation was matched by two funders in North America, resulting in a gift of $24,000 for this tzedekah. That was an enormous amount of money for HAMA.

We were staying at the kibbutz guest house of Ma-aleh Ha-Hamisha, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They were so grateful, that instead of just coming to accept the check, the founder Avshalom Bene and his assistants, pulled up to the guest house with a van, and  brought out six cats and dogs. He then proceeded to tell us the story of each animal, how they were abused, how they were healed, and the role that the animals  now played in the healing of both young and old. It was so moving to hear those stories, and watch our youngsters embrace those animals.

I still remember one of the stories. There was a little girl who lived with her mother and father in South Tel Aviv. Her father often came home drunk, and would abuse her mother. One day, the girl found a kitten. She asked her mom if she could keep her. The mother, wanting to bring her some joy, agreed.

When her father arrived home, and saw the kitten drinking some milk, he screamed ,”We don’t have enough money to buy food for ourselves, and now we have to spend money on a cat?” and he took the kitten and literally kicked her out the door into the street. He then screamed at his wife for allowing the daughter to take in this animal.

And he began to hit her.

The child just walked out of the house, picked up her new friend, and started walking. She walked and walked. It was late at night, and the police, seeing a young child walking by herself in a notoriously bad neighborhood, stopped and picked her up.

“What are you doing here so late at night?” She told them her story. They had her speak to a social worker. The police went back to the apartment to get her mother, and found both mother and daughter  a safe place to live in a women’s shelter. And they brought the injured kitten to Avshalom Bene at HAMA.

The little girl went to a good school and was in a much better place. A few times a week, she would be reunited with her kitten, and together they would visit folks at a senior center, and everyone would be uplifted by those visits.

The third Mitzvah that I want to share with you this morning is called nihum avelim, bringing comfort to mourners.

The truth is, there is hardly a family in Israel who has not lost a relative or friend in one of Israel’s wars or in a terrorist attack.

Every year, when I visited Israel with 8th graders, we would spend a few hours at Har Herzl,  the Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery. We always invited our tour guides and our counselors to take us to the graves of people who were close to them- friends, family members, neighbors- and tell us their stories. We would then give each youngster a piece of paper and a pen, and ask them to write a letter to the family of one of the soldiers whose story they had just heard. We would tell them that they are fulfilling the mitzvah of nihum aveilim, and that it is never too late to write such a letter, and that the families tremendously appreciate knowing that someone still cares about their child, and still cares about them.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Our Israel trips were marked by all sorts of wonderful, fun activities. Our kids climbed Masada, floated in the Dead Sea, rode on camels, enjoyed dinner in Bedouin tents, and joined in the excavations at Beit Guvrin.  But, each year, whether I led the trip, or Rabbi Stuart Seltzer led the trip,  there would be at least one  morning or afternoon where the students would experience a different kind of joy, the joy of giving. Sometimes it took the form of presenting a check to a tzedekah, and sometimes it meant volunteering for  g’milut hasadim projects. These were often the moments that touched them most deeply and lifted them up the highest.

One year, the 8th grade, after considering many worthy causes, selected the Koby Mandell Foundation to be the recipient of the Schneider Fund donation. It was nihum aveilim for sure. We  met with Rabbi Seth Mandell, whose 13 year old son Koby was brutally murdered by terrorists when he went exploring in the Judean Hills with a classmate.

The  students presented Rabbi Mandell with a check for close to $11,000. He started to cry. He was really moved by the size of this gift.

Rabbi Seth Mandell is an amazing man.

Perhaps some of you remember him when he was the Hillel rabbi at the University of Maryland. That day, he spoke of the work of the Foundation, including a summer camp for youngsters who had lost family members to acts of terrorism. He told our group that as a result of their generosity, 11 more  children who lost a parent in a terrorist attack would benefit from a camp experience.  And he shared incredibly moving stories about those children.

With the 8th graders, Seth talked about his son Koby, and his goodness. And he challenged each of us, whenever we are presented with an opportunity to be kind, to be good, to remember Koby, and to do what he would have done- to rise to the occasion.

His wife, Sheri,  also spoke to us. She wrote a book, The Blessing of a Broken Heart. She spoke about her beloved son and brought him to life as an energetic adolescent who loved books and sports. Despite the despair that engulfed her in the first days after Koby’s murder, her strong bond with her husband, and her deep religious faith allowed her to fully experience the painful process of mourning, deal with the guilt she felt about living in an unsafe place, and find an inspiring direction for her life. Her book is laced with references to prayer and the Jewish traditions that Sheri relied on to give her strength.

Determined not to let their lives be ruled by hate, the Mandells  established the Koby Mandell Foundation, which sponsors healing retreats for women bereaved by terrorist violence as well as the camp for children.

More than anything, Sheri found nihum aveilim, comfort and healing in the support of her friends. Here is what she said in her book.

During shiva ,there are people who come and offer me words that ease my loneliness. Not formulaic statements like — ‘He’s in a better place’, or ‘Thank God you have your other children’, but words that tell me that they can stand with us in this place of sorrow. I need to speak. I need people to talk to me.

There are many people who offer me wisdom, and I hold on to their words like a rope that I can climb. The women bend down to me, sitting on the floor, putting their faces to mine. Their faces are so beautiful – their eyes open, their voices soft and strong. Today I know that each person is created in the image of God, because I see and hear God in their faces. I know all of these women are coming to comfort me, their arms wrapped around me, their eyes looking into mine. They reach into their souls and give me divine pieces of themselves- love and compassion. They feed me with their words.

Israeli women are unafraid of suffering; they know death as a companion. They say:

“Your son will not be forgotten. We will not let him be forgotten…”

“We will be with you. You will never be alone, never…”

“He is our son too; we are crying with you.…”

Then, the mothers who have lost children to terrorism arrive. One, who lost her teenage son in an attack when he was hiking in Wadi Kelt, says: “You will go on. You will live.” She gives me practical advice: “Don’t make a shrine for your son. Pack up his things and put them away. Use his room. You don’t need to keep out his pictures everywhere.”

She is an attractive woman, her hair styled in a fashionable, short cut. She is wearing makeup, earrings. I look at her and realize: you can still be alive after your son is dead.

A woman who lost her nineteen-year-old son in a drive-by shooting, says: “He is not gone. He will live inside of you now. We miss their physical bodies but we are still tied to them. You will never forget him.”

Their hands reach out to me like branches that will pull me across a raging river.

Almost everyone here this morning has suffered a loss. Almost everyone here this morning has offered comfort to loved ones who have suffered a loss. We are familiar with the mitzvah of nihum aveilim from close up.

It is my prayer this morning that the words and melodies of the Yizkor service offer you depth and meaning, and lift you high.

Kodshenu b’mitzvotekha-may the mitzvot lift you and bring you closer to God, and may you find comfort in this place. Amen.