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We are God’s Firefighters, High Holidays 2009

There are days when I look at the world and I suddenly become very tired. Day in and day out, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week we are barraged with news of genocide, hunger, homelessness, violence, the spread of preventable diseases, and the extreme poverty that grips so much of our world. Sometimes I simply want to go to sleep, in the hope that all of this is just some type of a bad dream. And then I remember our ancestor Abraham, and a Midrash that was brought to my attention by Rabbi Sharon Braus.

The Midrash, in Genesis Rabbah, tells about why Abraham decided to leave his homeland, and all that he knew in search of a land that God would show him. Rabbi Isaac compares Abraham to a man who went travelling from place to place and stopped when he saw a building in flames. Upon seeing the burning building, the man calls out: Is it possible that this building lacks someone to look after it. Where is the Manhig, the owner of this building that is on fire?! Just then, the owner of the building looks out and responds: “I am the Ba’al Habirah, the owner of this building.” Rabbi Isaac says that similarly, Abraham looked at the world, saw that it was on fire, he saw the evil in the world and cried out to God: Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?’ And the Holy One, Blessed be God, looked out at Abraham and replied: “I am the Ba’al Haolam, The Owner of the Universe.”  To which the commentary adds:
My strength lies with you and with the House of your father, so Go- and in the words of the Psalmist (45) “forget your people and your father’s house, and let the King be aroused by your beauty…

In other words, Abraham saw that the whole world was burning and left his home because God needed his help to put out the flames. The midrash imagines that Abraham started his journey by responding to God’s call, taking God’s hand, and beginning the long journey of repairing the world.

On days when the fires seem to be raging everywhere in our world Abraham is not the only one that I think of. I also think about Isaiah. In the text from the Shacharit Haftarah that is read on Yom Kippur, Isaiah urges that our fast not be in vain.

Is such the fast I desire, a day for man to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast? A day when the Lord is favorable?!
No, this is the fast I desire.  To unlock the fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke
To share your bread with the hungry, And take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to cloth him, And not to ignore your own kin.
Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly….
Then when you call, the Lord will answer; When you cry God will say: Hineni, Here I am.  Isaiah 58:5-9

Yom Kippur is about getting in touch with God. And Isaiah reminds us that getting in touch with God, by definition, requires that we reach out to our fellow human being- regardless of who they are, how much money they have, or what they believe, to ensure that all of God’s creatures are treated with justice, equality, and human dignity. In the words of Rabbi Jill Jacobs,
Jewish text insists on the dignity of human life. Human beings, according to the Torah, are not only created in the divine image, but also represent manifestations of the divine presence….an injury to a human being is an injury to God….When the Rabbis speak about tzedakah… they use phrases such as “your brother” as a reminder that those in need…must be treated as family members rather than as people who are wholly other (There Shall Be No Needy, 214).

In Judaism there is no such thing as “those people.” Those homeless people, those poor people, those people coping with illness, those illegal immigrants, those starving people in Africa. No, for Jews that category does not exist. They are us, and we are them because we are all God’s creatures.

And as God’s creatures, we are obligated to help one another. Picking up where Isaiah left off, the Talmud makes this quite clear.
Rab and R. Hanina, R. Johanan and R. Habiba taught: Whoever can     forbid his household from committing a sin but does not, is     punished. If he can forbid his fellow citizens from committing a sin     but does not, he is punished for their sins. If he can forbid the whole     world from committing a sin, but does not, he is punished for the sins     of the world (Shabbat 54b).

On Rosh Hashanah we remember that we are responsible for ourselves. On Yom Kippur we remember that we are also responsible for one another. So how do we help put out the fires of the world? How do we help ensure that our fast is not in vain?

There is no shortage of causes; the world needs plenty of tikkun, plenty of fixing. The question is where to begin. Rabbi Harold Schulweis teaches that the most important question that we must ask ourselves is this: “For what can I have a great deal of moral compassion?”  Danny Siegel, one of the leading modern teachers of how to engage in acts of tzedakah, puts it another way and writes that each of us should begin by asking ourselves six questions:
1.    What am I really good at?
2.    What do I really like to do?
3.    What bothers me so much about what is wrong with the world that I get really angry and want to do something about it?
4.    What can I do right now, today, in the next week?
5.    Whom do I know?
6.    Why not?  (Bar & Bat Mizvah Mitzvah Book, 72, 73)

After Yom Kippur, when this sermon is posted, the questions will be there. Cut them out, put them on your refrigerator and take some time to think about it. Talk it over with your family, with your friends, and then make a plan. As I have quoted many times before: Ruth Messinger, the Executive Director of the American Jewish World service likes to remind her audiences that we cannot “retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed.” We have to start somewhere. Let these questions be a beginning.

In addition to the work that each one of us can do as individuals we cannot forget the power of what we might do together. We, as a congregation, are no stranger to the pursuit of Social Justice. Over the years we have held blood drives, Mitzvah days, and hosted a very successful homeless shelter that has helped many men in our community.  Hopefully, prior to Yom Kippur most of us participated in Project Isaiah- a program designed to feed the hungry in our community through Second Harvest Food Bank. Hopefully we will exceed last year’s collection of 3000 pounds of food and increase our impact through the collection of new socks, underwear, sheets and towels needed for school-aged children whose families can’t afford to buy these basic necessities.  We are blessed in our community to have dedicated volunteers who have run our Social Action committee for many years, who have made a huge difference in our shul and I the community, and who have inspired many more to get involved.

I also know that many of you participate in other non-synagogue-related community service projects with family and friends. I have heard about these types of projects from a number of people throughout the years. Here are a few examples:  I know of a number of Beth David members who have grown their hair over the years long enough so that it could be cut and donated to be made into wigs for cancer patients. I know of another member who spent three weeks this past summer volunteering in Thailand, building walls for villages, troughs to keep buildings from flooding, and working to keep animals out of schools so children could get an education. One member partnered with some friends and spent this past year raising over fifty thousand dollars from their friends and family members to then distribute to causes such as Darfur, Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, and helping to support kids in an orphanage.

But here’s the interesting thing. All of the members who I have just mentioned were under the age of 18!  I know that many members over the age of 18 do as individuals engage in this type of work. But the challenge is that we, like many other synagogues, spend so much energy encouraging Bnei Mitzvah students and High School students to pursue “Mitzvah projects,” but somehow as adults we get too busy to volunteer. We get too busy to make some serious time in our lives to serve the community. We get older. We get jaded. We get discouraged and we sometimes throw up our hands. Many of us give money. Many of us give time, food, and clothes….but none of us give enough because it is never enough. And yet, if we, as the adults of Congregation Beth David are teaching our children that to be a Jewish adult is to be a responsible adult who takes care of our world, then we must ourselves live up to this charge and figure out a way to do more. I am no exception to this critique. I don’t feel like I do nearly enough of this type of work, which is part of what brought me to speak about this with you today.

I will give you one specific example of ways that we might do more of this work at Congregation Beth David.  For years we have had a number of dedicated volunteers who have taken the lead with our Social Action committee. After many years of tremendous service and countless hours of work, they are understandably tired and they deserve to be given the chance to pass the torch to the next group of leaders. But as of this moment, we have no one to replace them. Perhaps not everyone knows that we have this need- but we do. And if you are willing to help chair or serve on the Social Action Committee, I am asking you to please e-mail me or call me after Yom Kippur. We have a proud history of pursuing justice and tikkun olam in this congregation. We are constantly looking for new outlets to do this type of work, some of which you will be hearing more about throughout the year.  But we need more community leaders, more volunteers, more hands to put out the fires of the world and I am asking for your help to ensure that as a community we can continue to do this critical work.

It is important to point out that this work involves extending our Jewish values into the greater world. Over the years I have come to realize that some people get nervous when the sphere of religion enters the sphere of the “rest of the world.” They often think that Judaism is about coming to synagogue, keeping kosher, celebrating the holidays, being a generally good person and not about working on issues of homelessness, hunger, health care, poverty, immigration, workers rights, environmental issues- just to name a few. But Judaism is clearly about all of these things, unequivocally about both ritual and social issues, and it has always been that way. This is not to say that Judaism should be the only voice helping to solve these issues, or even that Judaism has any one opinion, or one solution to any one of these issues. As the old saying goes, where there are two Jews, there are three opinions. But, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said when explaining his own involvement in Social Justice issues, while “we affirm the principle of separation of church and state. We reject the separation of religion and the human situation (Heschel, “What We Might Do Together”, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, 298).”
Or, as Martin Buber critiqued:
…religion is for (Modern man) only one aspect of his life rather than its totality. The men of the Bible were sinners like us, but they did not commit the arch sin of professing God in the synagogue and denying him in the sphere of economics, politics, and the ‘self-assertion’ of the group (Friedman, Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue).

In other words, we simply cannot separate the work of Torah from any part of our daily life, and this type of Tikkun Olam work in which we seek to repair the world, is no exception.

There is a story, based on a Midrash, a rabbinic parable, in Leviticus Rabbah as told by Rabbi Ed Feinstein which beautifully illustrates much of what I have shared with you today. It is one of my favorites, and some of you may have heard it, but it bears repeating.

Once there was a kingdom that everyone called Paradise. It was called Paradise not because it was any more beautiful or any richer than any other place but because of the way the people who lived there cared for one another. In this kingdom, if a friend needed something from a friend, someone always stepped forward to help—without even being asked! If a neighbor needed some¬thing from a neighbor, someone would respond cheerfully and graciously without ever asking for anything in return. If a stranger needed something, people came forward to help with hospitality, generosity, and kindness.

All this was because of the wise king. The king knew that his subjects would treat one another the way he treated them. So he was always careful and attentive and helpful. If he couldn’t help someone, he would at least listen and express his concern.

At last the king grew old, and he appointed his son, the prince, to rule in his place when the time came. Soon the king died, and the prince assumed the throne. But the prince was not wise like his father, nor kind, and he did not treat people the way his father did.

The royal ministers approached the prince and cleaned, “Your Majesty, we have a terrible problem. There is a famine in a certain corner of the land, and the people there are starving. We must do something!”

“They are starving?” said the prince impatiently.
“Yes, starving! They have no food to feed their children!”
“But I have plenty of food,” responded the prince, biting into a big apple from the bowl of fruit before him. “If they are starving, I’m sorry. But it’s not my problem!”

“Perhaps Your Majesty didn’t understand. People are suffering, and they haven’t any food. They’ll die if we do nothing.”

“Well I’m sorry, but it’s just not my problem!”
The ministers shook their heads in disbelief and slowly walked away.

Just then another group of royal messengers approached the throne.

“Your Majesty, we have a terrible situation. A river has become poisoned, and the people who live along its banks have no water to drink! We must help them!”

“No water?” asked the prince even more impatiently as he poured himself a large glass of water.

“Yes, Your Majesty, there is no water! People are dying of thirst!” “But I have plenty of water!” responded the prince, holding up his glass. “I’m sorry, but it’s not my problem!”
No one in the royal court seemed able to move the prince. Every problem that was presented to him met with the same bothered look and the same response: “I’m sorry, but that’s not my problem!”

Before long everyone in the kingdom was acting like the prince. When a friend needed help from a friend or a neighbor needed a hand from a neighbor, the one who was beseeched would look bothered and respond: “You need help? Well I’m sorry, but that’s not my problem!” And since they refused to help one another, they certainly refused to help strangers.

Soon the kingdom had changed completely. It was no longer Paradise. It was a wilderness, a wasteland. Soon no one remem¬bered the way things had been. No one remembered the Paradise that the kingdom once was. No one but Fisherman. Fisherman remembered the old king and the way things used to be. It hurt him that everyone had become as selfish as the young prince. If only he could remind the people and teach them. But what was one old fisherman to do?
Then one day he thought of a solution. He gathered all his money and bought tools and paint and materials. He set to work fixing up his old fishing boat. He would turn it into a yacht, the most beautiful yacht in the harbor. Fisherman worked hard. Each day, people came by and admired his boat. “Hey, Fisherman,” they’d say, “when you’re done, will you take us for a ride on your yacht?”

“Sure!” he said. “Everyone will be invited!”

It took him a year to finish his work. When the yacht was ready, Fisherman made a huge sign and posted it for all to see. He invited everyone to come for a ride on the lake to celebrate the yacht’s first voyage.

Everyone came that Sunday morning, even the prince! It was a splendid, clear day. The sun shone warmly, and the lake was calm. Fisherman guided his yacht out onto the lake. When he reached the middle, far from the shore, he dropped anchor and invited everyone to enjoy themselves. His guests brought out their picnic baskets and fishing poles, and everyone had a wonderful day on the lake. Late in the afternoon the wind picked up, and waves rocked the boat.

“Fisherman, can we head home now?” his guests asked.

“Sure,” said Fisherman. “There’s just one thing I need to do.” He opened his toolbox and brought out a large hand drill. He walked to the exact center of the boat, positioned the drill on the hull, and began to drill.

“Say Fisherman,” people asked, “what are you doing?

“I’m drilling a hole.”

“But why are you drilling a hole?”

“Why? Because it’s a nice day for drilling holes!” he responded nonchalantly.

“But, Fisherman, if you drill a hole in the boat, water will rush in, the boat will sink, and we’ll all drown!” they said.

As he continued drilling, the passengers began to cry and beg: “Fisherman, please! Please, stop! You must stop!”

“None. It’s my boat. It’s my drill. And I’m going to drill this hole.”

Someone remembered that the prince was on board. “Get the prince!” he shouted. “Someone get the prince! He’ll save us!”

The prince swaggered over. No lowly fisherman was going to ruin his afternoon. He stood over Fisherman in his royal robes, and a hush came over the frightened crowd.
“Fisherman, what are you doing?” he asked in his deepest, most commanding voice.

“I’m drilling a hole,” responded Fisherman, moving the drill around and around.

“Why are you doing this?” asked the prince in his deep, princely tone.

“Because I feel like it,” responded Fisherman without even looking up at the prince.

“Fisherman, if you make a hole in the boat, the boat will sink, and we will all drown,” the prince reasoned aloud.

“Uh-huh,” acknowledged Fisherman.

Small beads of sweat appeared on the brow of the prince, and his voice lost its commanding tone and took on that of a sincere¬ly worried man. “Fisherman,” he said, “I command you to stop!”

Fisherman ignored him and kept drilling. The prince was quickly losing his composure. Gone were the royal tone and all the royal trappings. Instead, he was just another frightened man. “But Fisherman, what gives you the right to do this?”

Fisherman explained slowly: “It’s my boat. It’s my drill. And I’m going to make a hole. Now, please, move aside. You’re blocking my light!” And he continued to drill.

The prince began crying and pleading, like everyone else. “Please, Fisherman, please,” he begged. “I don’t want to drown. I don’t want to get eaten by fish. Please, Fisherman! Please!”
When the prince began to cry, Fisherman at last stopped drilling. Yet again a hush came over the crowd. Fisherman looked up at the prince. “You don’t want the boat to sink? You don’t want to drown?” Fisherman echoed the prince’s pleas. Then Fisherman slowly repeated the terrible words that had ruined the kingdom: “Well, I’m sorry, but it’s not my problem!”

The prince cried desperately, “What do you mean it’s not your problem? Anyone can see that if I have a problem, you have a problem. And if you have a problem, I have a problem. If anyone has a problem, then everyone has a problem—because we’re all on the same boat!”

He stopped. Like a man who had just figured out a great riddle, he repeated the words slowly: “If I have a problem, you have a problem. And if you have a problem, I have a problem. If anyone has a problem, then everyone has a problem—because we’re all in the same boat! Anyone can see that!”

“Yes,” said Fisherman, “anyone can see that!”

“Yes,” said everyone on the boat, “anyone can see that!”
Fisherman smiled. “Now we can go home!” He pulled the drill up out of the hull, turned the boat around, and sailed safely back to the harbor.

The people who got off that boat were changed. Never, ever again would friend turn to friend or neighbor turn to neighbor or anyone turn to a stranger and say those terrible words. Instead, whenever a friend needed help from a friend or a neighbor need¬ed a hand from a neighbor or a stranger needed some kindness, and whenever anyone came before the prince, he or she would hear, “Please, let me help you. Because if you have a problem, I have a problem. And if I have a problem, you have a problem. If anyone has a problem, then everyone has a problem. You see, we’re all in the same boat.

Once again, the kingdom was paradise.

Yom Kippur reminds us that we are all in the same boat. Jonah, who we will read about at Mincha, tried to run away from his responsibility to help repair God’s world. He imagined that he could get into his own, individual boat, and run away. And as a result, he, along with everyone else in the boat almost drowned—because there is no such thing as an individual boat.

Ba’al Haolam, O God who created a world that is on fire. On this Yom Kippur let us remember that we, like Abraham, have been put on this earth to help put out the flames that surround us as we walk along the journeys of our life. Echoing Isaiah let us remember that while our stomachs are empty, our fast must not be empty.  May each of us, as individuals, find our passion for improving the world and pursue it tirelessly. May we, as a community, build upon our holy work at Beth David as we continue to pursue the work of Tikkun Ha Olam, Healing our world. On this Yom Kippur, as we honor the memory of those who are no longer with us let us remember that ultimately, as the Yizkor itself tells us, we honor their memory by engaging in daily acts of tzedakah. Only then will our world truly be paradise- because we will have come to remember that we are all in the same boat.