Since moving to Baltimore 34 years ago, my three sons and I have provided a lot of business to area orthopods. I myself have broken my wrist, broken my shoulder, and twice damaged my right knee. Mainly sports injuries, if one counts dog walking on ice a sport.
There are a lot of stories related to those injuries, and I am not going to bore you with the details. For example, I will not share the story of the time that I was receiving therapy for my shoulder, and the therapist had to work on me in the middle of the office floor, as all of the cubicles on the perimeter of that office were taken by other patients. That particular therapist belonged to the “no pain, no gain” school of physical therapy.
In yanking my arm way beyond tolerable range,I instinctively yelled out a four letter word that you have all heard before, whereupon, a voice from one of the numerous cubicles shouted out, “Rabbi. Is that you?” to which I replied, “It most certainly was not me.” I won’t share that story with you because, quite frankly, it’s too embarrassing.
But,I will share the story of the second knee injury, because it leads to the topic of this sermon. It was a case of shelekhta mazal. It was eight years ago. I was on a step stool at home, and I was climbing backwards off of what I thought was the bottom step, but it was the middle step. Not good. The fall badly damaged my right knee.
After surgery, I began 6 months of physical therapy. I needed the closest therapist to Chizuk Amuno, as I was dependent on others to drive me back and forth. The therapist was Yoni Rosenblatt. Yoni was into Judaism, and he was thrilled to work on a rabbi, because it gave him, and me, many hours of discussion on Jewish topics.
After my last appointment, I expressed to Yoni my deepest appreciation for his wonderful work, and told him that I hoped to never see him again. And as I walked out the door, he said to me, “Rabbi, be a good Jew.”
What kind of thing is that to say to a rabbi? I’m not already a good Jew? What did he mean by that?
Being a good Jew is clearly the business that we rabbis are in, and that clearly is what this Yom Tov is all about. Being a Jew is an accident of birth, but being a good Jew is a statement of values. One thing we know for sure, good Jews ask questions.
Martin Buber relates a story in his Tales of the Hasidim. It concerns the third Lubavitch Rebbe, who, in Czarist Russia, found himself temporarily in jail on trumped-up charges. One night the jailer approached the Rebbe and inquired as to whether he might be able to ask him a question about the Bible. The Rebbe replied,”Of course.” And the jailer continued,”I’ve never really been interested in the Bible. But, lately, my friends have been encouraging me to read it. ‘Read it,’ they said, ‘and you’ll learn something.’ And so, last night, I read the first few pages of Genesis. And it doesn’t make sense to me. Look at this passage, for example, where God says to Adam,’ Where are you?’ There was only one man in the universe, and God didn’t know where he was?”
“No,” said the Rebbe. “You didn’t understand. God knew where Adam was. God wanted Adam to ask himself, ‘Yes, where am I?’ For example, you are 45 years old. My friend, where are you?” The jailer was startled that the Rebbe knew his exact age. That night, he began reading the Bible in earnest, trying to find answers to questions that he thought he had resolved earlier in life.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, reflecting on that story observes that at a certain time in our life, we begin asking different questions. Not the young person’s questions- How far will I go? How much will I achieve? But rather questions like: Where am I? What is my life about? When I look back at my life, how will I feel about how I lived?
That, my friends, is called heshbon hanefesh, taking account of one’s soul. Those are the questions that we should focus on today, on Yom Kippur.
Someone once wrote, “Who is a good Jew? The one who always strives to be a better Jew, no matter where s/he starts.”
I like that.
A good Jew is one who is always studying, learning more about his/her heritage, always welcoming new opportunities to enhance his/her Jewishness and that of his/ her community. A good Jew takes his or her learning, and makes a positive impact in the world. A good Jew is always growing Jewishly.
As good Jews, I think that we should all make a commitment to grow Jewishly in 5778.
“OK, rabbi,” you might say to me. “How do I begin?’
Here’s what I suggest. Look at your parents and grandparents. What were their values? That’s where I would start. How important were Jewish holidays in their lives? How important was the synagogue? How important was Jewish education? Personal learning? To whom did they give Tzedekah? What was their relationship to Israel? What were their Jewish dreams for you? Good Jews are not afraid to ask questions, and those are good questions to consider as we approach Yitzkor.
And if you were not raised in a Jewish home, what have you learned about Judaism from friends and family that inspires you? Who are your Jewish role models?
My Jewish role model was my Bubbie.
My maternal grandmother, Goldie Dorfman, aleha hashalom, grew up in Lithuania, and came to the States via Canada. She had no education to speak of, and never really learned English well.
Yiddish was her language, the language she used to communicate with my parents and her friends.
She got her knowledge of the world from the Yiddish newspaper, Der Forwards
How many of you grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home? Whenever I read this piece, author unknown, I think of the values I learned day in and day out.
“All I got was words”
When I was young and fancy free
my folks had no fine clothes for me.
All I got was words.
Gott tsu danken. (thank G-d.)
Gott vet geben (G-d will provide.)
Zol men nor leben un gezunt zein.
(May we only live and be healthy.)
When I began to travel far
they couldn’t provide me with a car.
All I got was words.
Gey gezuntarheit (go in good health.)
Gey pamelach (go slowly.)
Hob ah glickliche reize.
(have a successful trip.)
I wanted to increase my knowledge
but they couldn’t afford to send me to college.
All I got was words.
Hob seichel (have good common sense.)
Zei nisht kein nar (do not be a fool.)
Torah iz de beste schoireh
(Torah is the best merchandise.)
The years have flown, the world has turned
things I’ve forgotten, things I’ve learned.
Yet still I remember,
Zog dem emmes (tell the truth.)
Geb tzedakah (give charity.)
Hobt rachmonus (have compassion.)
Zei ah mentsch (be a mentsch.)
All I got was words.
If you were fortunate, like many of us, to grow up in a home where Yiddish was spoken, you were nourished on Jewish values. You lived and breathed this stuff.
Bubbie lived with us. Because Bubbie kept kosher, we had a kosher home. Thank God for Bubbie.
Now, Bubbie loved the Jewish people. As a little girl, she survived the pogroms, the frequent attacks on her small community near Kovna. Unfortunately, those attacks left an indelible imprint on her. All of her life, she was afraid of the outside world.
She didn’t allow me to whistle in the house, because “they whistled when they came to attack us.”
She didn’t allow me to bring a dog into the house because, “when they attacked the Jewish community, they always came with dogs.”
Most of her family was wiped out by the Nazis in WWII, including her father and her brother, both of whom were hazanim.
She felt fortunate to be in America, the Goldene Medinah, and felt the need to totally devote herself to helping her people.
She belonged to and attended meetings of many Jewish organizations-Jewish National Fund, Hadassah, the sisterhood of the synagogue, European Welfare, and others.
There must have been at least six organizations, because there were six different pushkas in the kitchen, one for each cause. And before she would light Shabbos candles, she would have me and my brothers deposit pennies in each one.
She was constantly coming and going to meetings.
Two memories of my beloved Mitzvah hero-
I lived in Detroit. I was once walking home from school. Maybe I was in the 5th grade. And I passed Friedmans market. I looked in the window, and I saw my Bubbie.
What’s my Bubbie doing here? I walked into the store and she was behind a bridge table, selling baked goods to raise money for JNF. So that’s why she had been baking all those apple pies, and those coffee cakes. She was a very good baker.
I took my whole allowance, put it on the table, and got a big hug and a few tears, and a piece of that delicious apple pie.
My bubbie had no income,and she had no savings. My parents gave her money for whatever she needed, and one of her sons would give her some money from time to time. She put that money aside, and when she had enough, she would send a package to her sister in Moscow. Russia would only allow new clothing to be sent, and the duties and taxes were very high, but Bubbie felt the responsibility to take care of family.
Until the year she died, 1976, she didn’t stop giving. What a wonderful role model for her children and grandchildren.
One more thing about Bubbie. She had strong opinions about people. Some of my most colorful Yiddish I learned from my Bubbie. But, I also remember what she would say about an extraordinary human being.
ער איז זייער אַ שיינע איד
He’s a very beautiful Jew.
Mr. Friedman, who owned the grocery store, received that compliment because he was very gentle and very generous. He also davened in my shul, and years later, when he found out that I, a teenager, was interested in Torah, he invited me to come over several times on Shabbat afternoons to study with him. He wasn’t a rabbi. He was a grocer. He also happened to be a yodea sefer, a learned Jew. What a mentsch, and what a library! In his very, very modest home, he had 20 bookcases filled with sifrei kodesh, the largest Jewish library I had ever seen.
I’ve been here at Chizuk Amuno for 34 years. I knew and know many of your parents and grandparents. They had deep Jewish connections to Chizuk Amuno, and to Goldsmith, Rosenbloom, Krieger Schechter and the Stulman center, and to the Associated, and to Israel. Many of them were among the 1,000 adult learners in our Melton classes, and I know that they continue to be a source of Jewish inspiration for you and your families. Let their example inspire your future Jewish learning and living choices.
And as you are looking for ideas as to how to grow Jewishly this coming year, also check out the Mitzvah role models in our own community. During the 34 years that I’ve been with Chizuk Amuno, i have known dozens of such people, many of whom are here with us today.I want to share three who are no longer with us, but with whom I had a special connection.They offered me major inspiration.
Not long ago, Lou Miller died. Did you know Lou? Here’s his Mitzvah. For many years, he volunteered to drive seniors to doctor appointments. My father-in-law, Rabbi Mordecai Simckes, was among the beneficiaries of his kindness. Are there other people here who have that same Mitzvah? God bless you.
How many of you remember Jon Singer? He was my neighbor. I talked to him often. He had two Mitzvot with which i was familiar. He gave a lot of himself to help Jewish young men and women who were addicted to drugs and alcohol, and he would travel to prisons to visit Jews who were incarcerated there.
Now, older adults are not the only role models for a life of Mitzvah. Take Daniel Siegel. He was a student at Schechter and BT, and developed a brain tumor when he was a sophomore at Yale. He died in 2010, at age 22.
His academic brilliance was matched by his sterling character. I had the honor of officiating at his funeral, and collected many stories of his hesed, loving kindness, and sensitivity towards other people.
His mom and dad, Everett and Janet, his sister Leigh, and his friend, Mirielle, established a foundation in loving memory of Daniel. It’s called Sparks of Change, and it perpetuates his values.
Let me tell you about a project that I volunteer with through that foundation. Working together with Oranim College in the Galilee, it brings together 11th graders from both Jewish and Arab high schools who are open to coexistence , trains them in the knowledge and skills they need to model coexistence, and it brings them to the States to visit both Jewish and non-Jewish schools. The first year, they came to Baltimore and DC.
Last year, the group added Philadelphia to the itinerary. This year, there will be a second group travelling to Toronto. Next year, we plan to expand to Cape Town, South Africa.
Israeli teachers, high school students, Oranim college students, Jews and Arabs bringing hope for peace to their communities in Israel, and to our communities in North America and beyond. If this project is of interest to you, please speak to me, or to my friend and colleague, Desmond Kaplan or to the Siegels after the holidays.
Shalom is one of the most important of all Jewish values. Maybe that is how you will grow Jewishly this coming year. Maybe you will join me in increasing Shalom in the world, small step by small step.
By the way, I don’t know anyone in the world who is doing more for peace than our own hazzan, Manny Perlman. Thank you Manny for all that you do.
In the spring of 2015, I interviewed for an interim pulpit in Toronto. It was a large congregation, among the most right-wing Conservative congregations in North America. The rabbi was going on a sabbatical for part of the year, and the shul needed coverage . The interview included a program on Friday night, giving the sermon on Shabbat morning, and teaching a class after Kiddush luncheon. I thought that I had done well. As far as I knew, all that was left of the interview process was a meeting with the executive committee on Sunday morning after minyan, and then someone would take me back to the airport in time for my flight.
On Sunday morning they had a gezunte minyan, about 40 people. I was enjoying the spirited davening,
Then the rabbi came over to me and handed me a copy of Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, and asked me to teach something from Perek before the Rabbonem Kaddish. He was giving me 1 1/2 minutes to prepare. He obviously wanted to see if I could think on my feet.
I handed him back the book.
It so happens, that my favorite verse in all of Rabbinic literature is from Pirkei Avot. I had memorized that teaching, and didn’t need the text in front of me.
This is what I taught. הלל אומר הוי מתלמידיו של אהרון אוהב שלום ורודף שלום אוהב את הבריות ומקרבן לתורה
Hillel taught, Be like the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and drawing them near to Torah.
I love that teaching so much that I had bookmarks made with that quote, and had them put at your seats.
Please take one, and whenever you see it, remember not to give up hope that someday there will be peace.
I’ll tell you why I love this teaching. It doesn’t just say, “love your fellow Jews.” This is more inclusive. Every human being is created in God’s image. And how do you draw all people, not just your fellow Jews, near to Torah?
The concept is called kiddush hashem.
Many people associate this phrase with martyrdom. You’ve heard of Jews who died “al kiddush hashem,” for the glory of God’s name, or to sanctify God’s name. Actually, any meritorious act performed by a Jew that brings honor to the Jewish people, and in turn, honor to Torah and to the God of Israel, is an act of kiddush hashem.
Here is an example.
The First Mt. Olive Freewill Baptist Church burned down, and the folks from that church needed a place to pray.But where? Every other church needed their sanctuary Sunday mornings for their own services. And Baltimore Hebrew Congregation stepped up to the plate, and helped them out by making their sanctuary available every Sunday morning for five years. Can you imagine that!
Now, that’s a mitzvah. In fact, that’s an excellent example of kiddush hashem, sanctifying God’s name.
Every time that a Jewish person or Jewish organization does something praiseworthy that raises the stature of the Jewish people in the eyes of the world, it elevates Torah, and elevates God.
And every Sunday morning, as I passed the building on the way to work out at the Park Hts JCC, I saw the buses bringing congregants for services, and I said, “Thank God for those folks at Baltimore Hebrew. They are not afraid to take a stand for goodness, week in and week out.” And I carried that admiration in my mind, week in and week out.
It’s Yom Kippur, and it’s time to grow Jewishly. We’re good Jews. Let’s seek to be better Jews. Look for role models in your own families. Look for role models in our own community. There are so many places where you can learn and so many places where you can give.
As your parents and grandparents were role models for you, aspire to be role models for your children and grandchildren.
It’s not too late to make a difference in your life, in your family, in your community, for our people and for the world.
It’s not too late.
G’mar tov. May you be sealed for a good year.