Mitchell, you talked today about Mitzvot; especially the responsibility to look out for each other. As you said, you can’t just turn away from someone in need; you have to get involved and help make things better. And then, as you prepared for this day, the skies opened up over Houston and our country’s fourth largest city was inundated with water in a flood that has displaced thousands of people. Clearly, it is not just lost items that require our attention; we have a responsibility to help the people who have lost their homes and businesses in this disaster.
Houston was only one of the cities that experienced flooding around the world. The flooding in India, Mumbai caused the deaths of many people and caused a multi-story building to collapse. Floods, fires and war seem to be all around us. The news seems to bring us one disaster after another.
But, what is it that you can do? After all, you are just in Middle School; you are not the executive director of a large charitable fund. You don’t lead a company that can reach out to help those in need. You are just thirteen years old; what difference can you make? You are just one person even if we just focus on the flood closest to home, what effect can you have on a disaster of this magnitude?
The Torah, in this week’s parsha, is telling you that you can make a difference. Even if you do just one thing, send a contribution of money, a contribution that will provide food or clothing. If you were to just send a gift card for a store, your action will make a difference in just one life. You spoke about your concern for heart disease and you have designated some of your money to help heal people’s hearts. You want to be involved, you want to make a difference. Don’t despair that your actions are just a drop in the bucket. In Judaism, if you save just one life, you have saved the world. Or as we learn from the Talmud, “It is not required of us to finish the work but we are not free to desist from it.” Perhaps the results of our efforts will not be felt until a generation or two have passed, but we must do all we can today to help those in the future reach success.
Mitchell, think about it, if you help one child get back to school in Houston, that child will not fall behind in her education, she will go on to High School and then on to college. Perhaps, based on her experience in this flood, she will major in Civil Engineering, with a specialty in flood control. She will go to work after college with a city planner and they will begin to look at their flood program so that when the next flood happens, there will be less damage and less loss of life. All because you helped her stay in school and graduate on time.
I could draw the same lines with heart disease. If one person gets the treatment he needs, he could go on to make important discoveries that will guide us to better treatments for heart attacks and strokes, saving millions of lives each year. Your donations can save lives and change the world. We don’t approach this as “I will do for you and you will do for me”. It is more of a “Pay it forward” activity. You do some good for someone who will then do some good for someone who will then do some good for someone else. It is creating a chain of those who are working to make the world better, and one by one, they bring about incredible change to the world.
Mitchell, you are not alone in your pursuit of this Mitzvah. God is also with you. The reason you read Torah today and chanted the Haftara is because we have a tradition of learning and study that directs all the Jewish people in how we can bring justice, peace and compassion into the world. We are not commanded to live only for others, but we are commanded to be a holy people. We have to act in the way that God wants us to act, to pursue justice, to love our neighbor as our self, to be fair to others, to support the poor, the stranger and to help those who are ill. It is not about what we believe, it is about what we are commanded by God to do. This is the tradition; this is the religion in which you have taken your place today.
Mitchell, I challenge you to think big. As you progress through school, keep thinking of the difference that you will want to make for the world and consider how you might direct your life to a career that will bring about change for the good. In the next ten years, you will have the opportunity to decide if you want to make a difference in law or medicine, in technology or in science, in math or in literature. When you go on vacation, will you get your hands dirty helping citizens of a poor country build a better life? Will you teach young students who need a bit of tutoring to catch up on their studies? Will you mentor a young person find his or her own way in life? Over the next ten years you can begin to make a significant difference in the lives of many people.
Mitchell, your parents and grandparents have given you good role models in how to make a difference. But what it means to be a Bar Mitzvah is that now it is up to you to consider what the course of your life will be. You will get a chance to try out different ideas and personal styles in the years ahead. The next stage of your life will challenge you to find your own way to help others. You are off to a good start today. Your heart is in the right place. Now we challenge you to begin your lifelong quest of Tikkun Olam, of making this world better, repairing the problems we face so that all people can live with security, compassion and with peace.
May God be with you as you build your life in the years ahead and may God guide you to make a real difference in all that you do as we say…..Amen and Shabbat Shalom
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, September 2, 2017.