There once was a little boy who wanted to meet God, or so the story goes. He knew it was a long trip to where God lived, so he packed his suitcase with cupcakes, several cans of root beer and started on his journey.
When he had gone about three blocks, he saw an elderly woman. She was sitting on a park bench watching the pigeons. The boy sat down next to her and opened his suitcase. He was about to take a drink from his root beer when he noticed the lady looked hungry so he offered her a cupcake. She gratefully accepted and smiled at him.
Her smile was so wonderful that he wanted to see it again, so he offered a root beer as well. Once again she smiled at him. The boy was delighted!
They sat there all afternoon eating and smiling without saying a word.
As it began to grow dark, the boy realized how tired he was and wanted to go home. He got up to leave but before he had gone no more than a few steps, he turned around and ran back to the old woman, giving her a big hug. She gave him her biggest smile ever.
When the boy arrived home his mother was surprised by the look of joy on his face. She asked, “What has made you so happy today?” He replied, “I had lunch with God.” Before his mother could respond he added, “You know what? She’s got the most beautiful smile in the whole world!”
Meanwhile, the old woman, also radiant with joy, returned to her home. Her son was stunned by the look of peace on her face. He asked, “Mother, what has made you so happy today?” She replied, “I ate cupcakes in the park with God.” And before her son could reply, she added, “You know, he is much younger than I expected.”
[- The American Rabbi website, “Pearlson’s Pearls 5777,” author unknown]
Can you imagine a sweeter story than this? (Pun intended!) Two people finding God in the other. Simply being present with each other, sharing some cupcakes and root beer, they found God.
Each of us is made b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image). We learn this in the very first chapter of the Book of Genesis: “And God created the human in the image of God; in the image of God, God created the human; male and female, God created them.” [v.27] So often, in our daily interactions, I fear that we forget this simple teaching, we forget that God created each person in the divine image.
Imagine how wonderful our lives would be if each of us took a moment to see God in the other before we open our mouths to say something! Imagine how wonderful our world would be if each of us acted with derekh eretz. Derekh eretz literally translated means “the way of the land.” It is the term we use to describe good manners, common decency, civil behavior. One way I read it described is “the behavior to which all thoughtful and decent people should aspire.”
To have a place in our heart for our neighbor, for each other, is the message of this season. We are here today to lift up each other. We are here to hear the prayers and the hopes and the dreams of each other. We are here to affirm, not deny … to elevate not denigrate … to join together and not break apart. Today is about wholeness and community and celebrating our lives and our community. Today, we look into the eyes of our neighbor and see God. We look into the eyes of someone we have had a disagreement with and see God. We look into the eyes of a stranger on the street and see God. Today we are reminded that in every person, rests the divine.
Rabbi Yannai was taking a walk and he saw a man who was extremely well dressed. Rabbi Yannai invited the man to join him at his house, where they ate and drank together. Rabbi Yannai spoke to the man about many important Jewish texts but realized that the man had no knowledge of any of them. The man didn’t even know how to say the blessing over the wine! Rabbi Yannai chastised the man for his lack of knowledge. The man told him that while he may not know about the important Jewish texts, he was a good man: He told Rabbi Yannai that he had never heard gossip and repeated it, nor did he ever see two people quarreling without helping make peace between them. It was then that Rabbi Yannai realized what a grievous mistake he had made: “You have much derekh eretz and I treated you so improperly!”
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, a Reconstructionist rabbi, serves the Temple Chai community in Phoenix, Arizona, and is a Chaplain (Colonel) in the United States Army Reserve. She writes and publishes extensively. In her sermon about Derekh Eretz, she asks, “What is the ultimate goal of Jewish life?” Her answer: “Judaism does not suggest that the highest goal is to withdraw from life and to live a life of contemplation and solitude. Rather, it challenges us to live with all the frustration and temptations of life in the world, and to find a way to elevate every moment, to seek the holiness in our smallest gestures and behaviors.”
Whether it is offering a stranger a cupcake and some root beer, opening the door for someone, sharing our toys, or lending a hand to another, remembering that each of us is made in God’s image and treating others as such is one of the highest commandments we can observe. To rise up, we need to be present.
A little girl comes home from Hebrew school, eager to show her mother a drawing.
Her mother is washing dishes.
“Mommy, guess what?” she squeals, waving the drawing.
Without looking up, her mother responds, “What?”
“Guess what?” repeats the little girl.
Again the mother asks, “What?”
“Mommy, you’re not listening.”
Still not shifting her focus from the dishes, she says, “Sweetie, yes, I am,”.
“But Mommy, you’re not listening with your eyes.”
We are so engrossed in our labors, so head down and task oriented, that that we not only forget to listen with our eyes, we fail to open our ears. Our community, our congregation, our families, this very sanctuary is filled with souls that yearn to be heard, stories that speak about who we are and how much we have in common, but we can’t find anyone… to listen. In this New Year we must heed the commandment that stems from the one Hebrew prayer everyone in this room knows by heart.
Our tradition commands us “Shema” – we translate it as Hear O’ Israel, its root and meaning is not “to hear,” rather the higher value, the greater mitzvah – we are commanded to listen. Shema appears again as the first word on the scroll of a Mezzuzah, where we are commanded again to listen because what follows is important, so important that we nail it to the doors of our homes.
Hearing simply happens – Listening, however, is a conscious choice. Listening requires concentration so that your brain processes meaning. Listening leads to understanding. Listening requires not only your ears, but your eyes, your heart, your mind – indeed L’shma nefesh – we must listen with our soul, our complete being. Most people are not “hard of hearing” rather they are, “hard of listening”. How about you, are you hard of listening? I know I can be.
“David …. David ….!” When someone has to say my name a second time, I have failed at listening. Do you claim to hear when really your mind is somewhere else? When your children are talking and you’re on the internet or texting? When your spouse is talking and you’re watching TV?
Ashamti, “I’ve done that”. Salachti! – Forgive me! Have you?
Listening is about being present, being in the room and while there being fully present you listen with your whole being.
A student was visiting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as the great scholar of Jewish thought got word that a friend’s sister had just died. Heschel announced, “We have to go.” They drove to Boston, an hour away, and went to the house. Heschel walked in, hugged his friend, and sat beside him on the sofa for an hour. He didn’t mumble a single word, not one cliché, not, “How old was she?” Not, “Time will heal.” Not even, “I know how you feel.” He sat there in silence for an hour and listened, and when his friend was done talking and crying and storytelling he got up, hugged his friend again, and left.
On the ride back the student asked Rabbi Heschel, “did you know her well, the sister of your friend who died?” Heschel responded, “I’d never met her.”
The student was puzzled. “Why did we drive an hour to just sit on his sofa?” The great rabbi responded, “because that’s what he needed.”
Can we be like Heschel? Can we be a community, a congregation that shows up for each other?
A 19th Century Hassidic rabbi once said, “Human beings are God’s language.” The way we speak says something about us, but the way we listen says everything about us. Rabbi Harold Kushner added, “When we call out to God in our distress, God answers us by sending us people. Any path is easier to travel when you have somebody’s hand to hold.” Can you imagine putting out your hand for help and no one takes it?
We all have limitations, but something each one of us is uniquely empowered to do is to be a friend, to be a healing force, to be present.
In this New Year let us to commit to being a community; like Heschel, a community that shows up for each other.
Do this by sitting with a family at a shiva so they are not alone, they have the comfort of our presence.
Do this by attending a B’nai Mitzvah of a child you do not know. We have 15 this year. Celebrate the fact that these children will become the next generation of Jews who will join temples and shape and lead communities.
Do this by joining our Caring Community that reaches out to the sick and the home-bound
Do this by participating in our award winning Sisterhood
Do this at an Oneg Shabbat or a Kiddush Lunch. Sit and meet new people. Become a more engaged member of TBT. Reach out and take the hand of another member family. Get to really know the men and women of our congregation, so that no one sits alone in a sanctuary filled with people?
My friends, We can show up, like Heschel. We can say Hineni, like Abraham, and we can listen with intention and empathy, we can become a more caring community.
Let’s return to that mother in her kitchen with her daughter. The mother was now listening to her daughter. She put down her dishes and lifted up her eyes, she leaned down, got close to see the creation in the child’s hand. The mother focused on her words, she listened with her eyes and her ears and her heart and her soul whispered – Hineni – Here I am!
Remember the little boy and the older woman. Just sitting with each other on the park bench and sharing a cupcake and a rootbeer. Just being present in each others lives. Hineini – Here I am!
We, too, can listen, we can care, we can be present. We can lift up our community. We can become more than we ever imagined. And we can do it together.