Today You, Tomorrow Me – Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk: Rosh Hashanah Morning 5773

Below is the sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple on Monday, September 17, 2012. These remarks were shared at the congregational service for Rosh Hashanah morning at the beginning of 5773. We offer them below for your comments and interpretations, for you to share and link with others, here on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. Shana Tova U’Metukah!

The Cleveland Jewish News recently approached us to ask that we share our High Holy Day programs and also to submit a brief message for the Jewish New Year . Now I’m a rabbi- so I have a different definition of brief! And in true rabbinical form, I missed the part of the note that clarified the message had to be 50 words or less! I thought- this is great! The Cleveland Jewish News wants to hear everything I always wanted to teach. So I wrote them back, and in my message I waxed on and on just like they taught us to do back in school. Like in scrabble, why use a 3-point word when you can use a 5-point one? We rabbis figure, with a captive audience, why share one message with the temple when you can share three or four?

When the intern at the CJN clarified for me that there was no flexibility on the 50-word limit, not even for a temple with four words in its name, here’s what I came up with: In 5773, Fairmount Temple will work to fulfill our core value: that each life is worth the life of the whole world. That is not just meant to praise the one who saves another person’s life. It stresses the power each individual has to make a difference and touch holiness. Join us.

How did that sound? I bet some of you who were counting the words didn’t think I could do it! But I do want you to know the unabridged version was even better. For the way I see it, we are here in this life to make a difference, and because Judaism says we can be an entire world to one another. We say each morning in our prayers: Ashreinu Ma Tov Chelkenu. These words mean: How rich we are! How good is our portion! And Rosh Hashanah is a great chance to see that big picture- and to truly welcome the presence, the love and kindness of others. We are not interchangeable. It matters whether we are here. You and what you do, your point of view and your concerns for a better life are precious to us at Anshe Chesed.

A story in our tradition compares our situation to another community that once lived small village in the Polish countryside. Apparently, in this village, the rabbi was much beloved by all the villagers. So it was with great joy that they looked forward to the marriage of the rabbi’s only son. In just two weeks, the young man would stand under the chuppah with his beloved partner. In order to guarantee a truly joyous wedding, the mayor instructed a carpenter to construct a barrel the size of a small water tower in the middle of the town square. So high was it that one had to use a ladder to reach the top.

When the barrel was finished, the mayor decreed that each villager had two weeks to bring a bucket full of the best wine from his cellar to the town square and climb up the ladder and empty it into the tall barrel. On the evening of the wedding, the barrel would be tapped, and from it would flow sweet wine. Then everyone could drink his fill, sing and be joyous!

So every day for two weeks there was a steady stream of villagers walking to the town square pails in hand. Each one climbed the ladder to the very top, lifted the pail over his or her head and poured its contents into the massive barrel. Finally the much awaited evening arrived. During the wedding there were tears of joy for the rabbi and his family.  Soon after the ceremony, the mayor decided the time had come to tap the barrel, enjoy the luscious red wine gathered bucket by bucket during the past weeks, and celebrate as never before.

The mayor approached the barrel holding a tap and mallet, and the villagers crowded around him. Each of them grasped empty mugs in their eager hands. With a smile as wide as the whole countryside, he climbed the ladder, pounded in the tap, and placed his hand on the spigot, ready to unleash a torrent of wine. “Mazal tov,” he called out, and he turned the spigot and waited for his mug to fill. But suddenly the entire village fell silent. For out of the spigot flowed nothing but water. When the villagers looked at each other, when they looked closely into one another’s eyes, they knew just what happened. Throughout the past weeks, each supposed that they could get by adding water instead of wine to the barrel, while everyone else did their fair share. After all, what difference would one pail of water make in all of that wine?

What difference does one person make? It’s hard for me to communicate this in any discreet way to the assembly of people who’ve gathered to welcome the new year. But one person in our tradition means everything. In each life is the life of the whole world.

As members of the Jewish community, one of us helps nine become a minyan, a comforting community in prayer. One of us helps the other fulfill the desire to raise their children as Jews. One of us reaches out to a neighbor or a stranger and offers friendship and solace. One of us says Mi Sheberach, a prayer of hope for another in health crisis. One of us, makes a difference with an act of tzedekah, or a willingness to volunteer. We need each other. As members of the Jewish community, heir to a path of kedushah, of holiness, we need each other to help us discover who we might yet be!

For if we make it happen, our temple can be a place of discovery, a place known for exaltation and blessing, and a place where we share our unique points of view for how to touch the world with repair. Then our temple wouldn’t be just a place to pray- but rather, a place where if one of us is struggling to pray, others sit at their side and gently teach them how. We wouldn’t be just a place to study, but a place where one by one, our members weave Hebrew and Torah into their lives. We wouldn’t be just a place to assemble but a place to feel unity in an increasingly fragmented society.

But to fulfill that vision, we must first reach out: to Jews and non-Jews, to the religiously devoted and culturally inclined, to those who felt once turned away, or to those who have simply drifted away, and help us all to feel uplifted by temple’s mission and at peace with its purpose.  “To live as a Jew,” we are taught, “…means to feel the soul in everything, in others and in our own existence. And the soul requires…elevation—Like candlewicks waiting to be lit, so we wait for the action that has a slight bit of pure intention, a grain of refinement. In each of us flickers a longing for Shabbatness, for beauty, for serenity.” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Ed., Susannah Heschel, pg. 55, Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publishers, New York 1996.)

These last words were written by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I love studying Heschel. For a “candlewick waiting to be lit” is a beautiful symbol of our encounter with others in the community who help us to spark a flame.  What I try to remember is that when Rabbi Heschel conceived of this idea, he wanted the light of our tradition to shed its radiance on all peoples equally and not just on Jewish causes or institutions. He defined walking in the marches for civil rights with Martin Luther King, Jr. as “praying with his feet.” In short, he wanted us to feel the soul in everything, the secular and the sacred, the miracle of being part of a broad and diverse humanity. Our kinship to such ideas is what I enjoy the most about serving our temple.

  • When Cleveland’s Gathering Place or the American Cancer Society gathers to race or bike across the city or state to raise support and awareness for those touched by cancer, the volunteer tables and teams of walkers are flooded with our members.
  • When the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center holds a sing-out in solidarity with so many who are touched by sexual assault, the choir of singers is filled with our members who want to be sure that no one who could be hurting miss their love and concern.
  • When Jewish Federation seeks volunteers to prepare food at the Cleveland Food Bank each summer, 3 out of 5 of the people putting their time and energy in as volunteers, are sitting nearby you today at services.
  • And when the Greater Cleveland Congregations, born in the living rooms of our temple members, advocates publicly for education reform, or works with the Governor or the county’s prosecutor to achieve change in our criminal justice system, or registers new voters for the vital election in November, individuals in our community like no synagogue ever are stepping up and saying, “Send me. Take me. Let some of what I have be shared with others.”

Ashrenu!  Indeed we are rich, but we are rich with activism, with kindness, and with willingness to trade our gratitude for our blessings we have for the opportunity to share them with those who do not. Still, how do we carry that spirit out into the parking lot today, out on the roads and freeways nearby, today and tomorrow? This can be a difficult challenge- to stay true in the New Year to the truth we’ve pledged at our temples on Rosh Hashanah? How do we stay true? I think here too we would be wise to search both within and outside our community, if what we are looking for is to find exemplars of our highest ideals. For models of human righteousness are often found in unusual and unexpected places.

Which leads me to a story. A couple of years back I read in the Sunday paper about a graphic designer in Portland named Justin Horner who had borrowed a friend’s car, but wound up getting stuck on the side of a freeway, where he waited quite a while for a road service to show up. He was feeling very let down that no one even bothered to stop to help or to ask him if he was alright. He put a large sign in the window that said “NEED a JACK,” but not even tow-trucks came to his assistance. So he was getting ready to hitch a ride when suddenly a family of immigrants pulled up behind his vehicle.

An immigrant man stepped out, and quickly sized up the situation and called for his daughter, who spoke a little English. He conveyed through her that he had a jack but that it was too small for the Jeep, so we would need to brace it. Then he got a saw from the van and without being asked, cut a section out of a big log right there on the side of the road. They rolled over the log, put his jack on top of it and then, just as they got the wheel off, his collapsible jack snapped and broke in two.  But no worries!  The immigrant ran to his van and handed the tire iron to his wife, and she was gone in a flash down the road to buy a new one.

Back 15 minute later, the two men finished the job with a little dirt on their hands and a lot of sweat on their brows. The man’s daughter brought them a jug of water with which to wash up and feel themselves again. Then Justin tried to put a $20 in the man’s hand, but the immigrant man refused it, so instead Justin went up to the other side of the van and gave it to the man’s wife surreptitiously. Justin thanked them personally and asked in the best Spanish he could muster, where they lived, thinking maybe he’d send them a gift.

The daughter responded in English. She said they lived in Mexico but were in Oregon so that her Mom and Dad could pick cherries for the next few weeks. Then they were going to pick peaches, and then go back home to Mexico.  Justin nodded his understanding of their situation, said his goodbyes and started walking back to his friend’s borrowed Jeep, when the girl called out and asked Justin if he had eaten lunch. Then she ran up and handed him a tamale she carried in foil. This family, undoubtedly poorer than just about everyone else on that stretch of highway, working on a seasonal basis, took two hours out of their valuable time to help a strange guy on the side of the road, and now they were feeding him lunch! So Justin was overwhelmed. He thanked her profusely and walked back to the car. But when he opened the foil on the tamale to take a bite, what did he find inside? His $20! He whirled around and ran to the van and the guy rolled down his window. He saw the $20 in Justin’s hand and just started shaking his head no.  The immigrant man just smiled widely and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: “Today you, tomorrow me.” (NY Times Sunday Magazine, March 6, 2011)

“Today you, tomorrow me.” What a statement, and what an encapsulation of the manner in which we want to be treated. Those who not only speak these words but model them in our conduct walk among us. But they prefer to go unrecognized, and don’t like being congratulated for something that they feel they are supposed to do.  None of them want a tip. They just to leave others feeling they were enriched, that their portion in life was good, and that they could be touched by righteousness. What do these people teach us? Today a stranger is hurting, and tomorrow it will be us. So for goodness sake, let us use this day to improve the lot of those who are hurt or injured or alone.

Today you, tomorrow me- I bet that many of you know someone who lives in this way. There is someone I know who lives in this way. She insists on having jumper cables in the trunk of each family car. Why? Simple, she answers. In case someone else she encounters needs help. The immigrant in the story is like her. He has little time, an inadequate tire iron, and a plenty of other places he ought to be. But instead of fulfilling those obligations, he shows a stranger at the side of life’s road how grateful he is to be alive, to have strength in his hands, and the force of life in his body to help someone change a tire. That immigrant is like Moses emerging from the mountain with two tablets in his hand. He doesn’t even realize how radiant he is. But others see the light within him and the Torah that shines through him as a blessing for all to see.

The mystics tell us the best way to live with that kind of humility is to remember that today is the birthday of the world, a day to share in the very light of creation. In the Zohar, we are taught that at creation’s origin, light in the world flared from one end of the universe to the other. But most of the light was hidden away, stored for the righteous in the world to come. Or Zarua Latzadik, it is taught, light was sown for the righteous in the world to come. Yet although traditional thought suggests that the “world to come” is a long way off, I’d suggest that this idea about storing away light for those who lived righteously was composed centuries ago. So maybe the world to come is not out in the distance. Perhaps, just perhaps, the world to come has come.

Today you, tomorrow me. If we see ourselves as living in that world our tradition imagined, then creation’s light will shine through the way we fill our time. As we begin this New Year, surely we’ll all have places to go and people to see. But that does not excuse us to drive speedily by the one who is hurting by the side of the road. As your rabbi, this is the value by which I strive to lead. But if there is a way I can better reflect that spirit to you, if I’ve missed the chance to empathize with you, then please tell me, so that I can share with you my heartfelt contrition, and join with you in making the year ahead a good and sweet year. For I believe that none of us is interchangeable. Rather, each of our lives is worth the life of the whole world.  That value is not just meant to praise the one who extraordinarily saves a life.  It’s also meant to point out the power we hold right now. What undergirds our celebration today is that each of us can make a difference. Each of us in our quietest, gentlest, loneliest moments, when no one is watching, can climb the ladder, pour our portion of sweet wine into our community’s barrel, and transform what we want to be, into what we are.

Ashrenu, How rich we are. Ma Tov Chelkenu, How good is our portion, U’ma’naim Ha-Goralenu, How sweet is our destiny!