Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, January 12, 2019
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Last week was the yahrtzeit of Miriam Price, Paul Price’s mother. Miriam was a tremendous individual and a passionate Jew. A great businesswoman, she owned a popular children’s clothing store here in South Bend, Buttons and Bows, a lover and supporter of Jewish music, she and Manny her husband gave the synagogue funds to bring Jewish musical programs to our congregation, and a true baalat tzedakah. When I came to South Bend, Miriam and a few other members of the synagogue – Ilene Golden and Susan Sandock were regulars too – were part of a group that would visit Jewish members of the nursing homes in town. They brought me along for the first couple of years I was here. It was a tremendous commitment because there were about 5-6 places and maybe one or two Jews in each location. Nursing home populations are also quite fluid. Every time we would go, we would check the lists of who was in each nursing home. But our lists were usually out of date and it was not unusual to show up at the location and the Jewish person was no longer a resident. And every time, after pouring over the lists, Miriam would conclude, "Well when we get there we will see who is there". Because the goal for Miriam and the others was to do acts of gemilut Hasadim, and whoever we visited would be the recipient of kindness. In acts of spiritual sublimity, you just have to respond to what the situation calls for.
This weekend Martin Luther King, Jr celebration. King was an example of one whose entire life was a response to a situation which presented itself in the moment. King did not set out to be the great inspirational leader of his generation. But as the youngest pastor in Montgomery he was chosen to lead the boycott of the bus system after Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus. He had been studying in Boston so he was seen as learned and more sophisticated, but he was also too new in town to have made enemies and, given his family connections and professional standing, it was considered more likely for him to find another pastorate should the boycott fail. He did not know at the time of that initial bus boycott how he would end up serving God. Nor the influence and impact his life would have, not just on countering injustice against the black community and civil rights in this country, but on others who were awed by his courage and commitment to righteousness.
His I have a Dream Speech inspired one Eugene Lang, a prominent Jewish businessman from New York. Lang is best remembered for an impulsive gesture in June 1981, when he was invited to deliver the commencement address to 61 sixth graders at Public School 121 on East 103rd Street.
“I looked out at that audience of almost entirely black and Hispanic students, wondering what to say to them,” he recalled. He had intended to tell them, their families and their teachers, that he had attended P.S. 121 more than a half-century earlier, that he had worked hard and made a lot of money and that if they worked hard, maybe they could be successful, too.
But, he said, “it dawned on me that the commencement banalities I planned were completely irrelevant.”
“So I began by telling them that one of my most memorable experiences was Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and that everyone should have a dream,” he said. “Then I decided to tell them I’d give a scholarship to every member of the class admitted to a four-year college.”
There was stunned silence, peppered with a few audible gasps. Then students, parents and teachers cheered and mobbed him. He told them that he would earmark $2,000 for each of them toward college tuition and that he would add more money each year that they stayed in school. This offer led to the creation of the I Have A Dream Foundation and through it, thousands of students have had the opportunity to go to college because of Eugene Lang and others who were inspired by him.
There are many ways to serve God but often we do not know how we will until we do it.
After seven devastating plagues, a crack in Pharaoh's armor begins to appear. Moshe threatens Egypt with a plague of locusts. Pharaoh's advisors ask : "How long shall this man be a snare to us? Let the men go (Exodus. 10:7)!"
Pharaoh finally heeds the words of his court and tells Moshe to "Go and worship your God (Exodus 10:8)!" But, just take the men! Pharaoh is justifiably concerned that Moshe will not return to Egypt. Moshe refuses to leave anyone or anything behind. Enter the locusts followed by the plague of darkness! Again, Pharaoh is ready to deal, but this time he'll let Moshe take everything with exception of the cattle. Moshe argues that everything must be taken to worship God because, "We do not know with what we must serve the Lord, until we get there (Exodus10:26)."
Pinchas Peli suggests, "Those last words, to all appearances uttered by Moshe as a factual statement in a diplomatic exchange, express at the same time a profound theological truth. They teach us that when it comes to the worship of God, one should not expect to find ready-made formulas. True worship of God requires ever-new wonder and discovery through painful trial and error, ever-new decision and leaps of faith.
The story is told of Rabbi Haim of Sandz, one of the great Hassidic masters of the 19th century. Once, he stood at the window of the house of studies as his students were passing by: "Come here," he called over to one of them, "Tell me, if you would happen to come across a wallet full of money on the Shabbat, when a Jew is not allowed to handles money, what would you do? Would you pick it up?"
"Of course not," the young Hassid rushed to answer "You’re a fool then" the master retorted, as he called over another young student: "And you, what would you do in a similar situation? Would you pick up and take the wallet full of money?"
"Oh yes!" replied the young Hassid, after hearing the reprimand the master bestowed on his friend. "You sinner, you!" the master scolded the second Hassid and called over a third one: "And what would you do?" he inquired.
The third Hassid, after having listened to the master's rebuke of the two young Hassidim who preceded him, replied hesitantly: "Well, I do not know. At finding the wallet full of money, I would struggle with myself in deciding whether or not to take it. I hope I would e able to make the right decision."
"At last we have the real answer," Reb Haim turned to his disciples. "Truly, we shall not know how to worship God until we get there."
To serve God properly we need to keep an open heart, mind, and soul, a willingness to appreciate that life is not static and that what is most important is a commitment to kindness and justice and ethical behavior. These principles may at times be in conflict – a true debate, not the manufactured crisis going on right now, about immigration policies for this country would express countervailing proposals that might each be motivated by principles of justice, ethics and compassion – and thus we cannot always have compact, ready made solutions about how best to serve God. But if we strive for compassion, justice and righteousness, if we seek guidance from our tradition, if we remember that each human is in some way a refraction of the Divine, then truly we will know how to worship God when we the moment arrives.