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Rosh Hashana Day 1, 5782            September 7, 2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

L’shana Tova U’metukah – May we be blessed with a sweet and good New Year.

There is a story, perhaps a myth, told by Dr. M. Scott Peck in his book, The Different Drum. It is called The Rabbi's Gift
The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house, the Abbott and four others, all over 70 in age. Clearly it was a dying order. 
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. "The Rabbi is in the woods, the Rabbi is in the woods once again," they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the Abbott at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the Rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery. 
The Rabbi welcomed the Abbott at his hut. But when the Abbott explained the purpose of his visit, the Rabbi could only commiserate with him. "I know how it is," he explained. "The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." So, the old Abbott and the old Rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the Abbott had to leave. They embraced each other. "It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years," the Abbott said, "but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?" "No, I am sorry," the Rabbi responded. "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you." 
When the Abbott returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "well, what did the Rabbi say?" "He couldn't help," the Abbott answered. "We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving - it was something cryptic - was that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant." 
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the Rabbi's words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that's the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the Abbott? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbott. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly, Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly, he could not have meant Brother Eldred! Eldred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Eldred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the Rabbi did mean Brother Eldred. But surely not Brother Philip. Philip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Philip is the Messiah. Of course, the Rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? Oh God, not me. I couldn't be, could I? 
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect. Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends. Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one ask if he could join them. Then another. And another. So, within a few years the monastery once again became a thriving order and, thanks to the Rabbi's gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

I have always liked this story. Not because the central figure is a rabbi, but because it speaks to something very special that is inside all of us and it is not often that there is such a good description as to what it is and what it does. 
We read today, Unetane Tokef, a list of things that could happen to us in the year ahead. Today what will be is written, and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed. Who will live and who will die? On and on it goes letting us know that there is a fate for the year that is being assigned for us. But like the Rabbi’s Gift, we don’t have to accept what has been sealed. Repentance, Prayer and Tzedakah can rewrite our destiny. 
The world may be filled with a deadly virus; environmental concerns are driving fires, draughts, floods, and storms; political upheaval threatens democracies all over the world; wars and violence are driving refugees from their homes. We are being told that our votes no longer matter, who will win has been determined by voting laws and gerrymandered districts. The internet, with its thousands of voices makes our voice insignificant. Our lives are like dried leaves driven by the wind, compelled to a destiny by forces we don’t always understand. And yet, somehow, through contemplation, that is prayer; teshuva, that is turning around our actions; and tzedakah, the way we treat each other and ourselves, we can push back on all these forces and find meaning in our lives. 
And that is the point of today. It is the lesson that every life has meaning. Every person is a vital part of the world, necessary not just for our personal survival but we are needed in order for the world to turn itself around so it can grow and prosper again. Think about “Black Lives Matter”. Each young man who is shot is not just another statistic. The lives lost are not another anonymous death, but a real loss to a family, to a community and to society. We need to mourn these senseless deaths and grieve with their families. We must contemplate what we can do to end the killing and not just turn away and say, “it just doesn’t matter”. Maybe you will change your lifestyle to help bring climate change under control, you will stop saying, “What difference can I make?”  Maybe you will go to town hall and speak up in support of fixing the roads and sidewalks in a poorer part of town and stop saying, “nobody is listening” …. Whatever you might choose to do to make a difference, I can tell you, what you do matters… It matters. 
Like the monks in the story, we don’t know who around us might be the one who will redeem the world from all that plagues us. It could be anyone, someone we meet for a moment in the street, or maybe someone we have known all of our lives. Or maybe, we are the one that has been chosen to make a difference and to change the world. Rabbi Akiva says, in the Mishna in Pirke Avot: “Beloved is man for he was created in the image [of God]. Especially beloved is he for it was made known to him that he had been created in the image [of God], as it is said: “for in the image of God He made man” (Gen. 9:6). Beloved are Israel in that they were called children to the All-Present. Especially beloved are they for it was made known to them that they are called children of the All-Present, as it is said: “you are children to the Lord your God (Deut. 14:1)
This pandemic closed us off from the entire world; isolated at home, unable to visit with friends, unable to see our children and grandchildren, unable to shop and maybe meet some new people. Even our mail, at first, had to be left in the garage for a couple of days, just to make sure that the virus did not find us. Even if we could talk to people over the phone or the internet, we literally lost “touch” with those that mattered most in our lives. We were alone all day, alone when we got sick, alone when we died, alone when we were buried. All of existence seemed to be meaningless. 
But it never – NEVER has to be this way. If we give up on ourselves and we give up on others, then indeed all is meaningless and all that is left for us, is to die. But we don’t have to give up on ourselves. Judaism teaches us that there is always meaning around us that we can discover if we but open our eyes. Rabbenu Bachya ben Asher who lived in 13th Century Spain, in his Torah Commentary teaches us:
 לא על הלחם לבדו, “humans do not live on bread alone, etc.,” the bread that people normally eat does not possess the power by itself to keep man alive, but it must contain also ingredients enabling it to grow, to be assimilated by the body through a digestive process. These ingredients are usually referred to as the power and mazzal of bread. The Torah here reflects a well-known statement by our sages (Bereshit Rabbah 10,7) that there is not a blade of grass in this world which does not have its own mazzal, i.e., properties which enable it to accomplish the purpose of its Creator in calling it into existence. This mazzal tells the blade of grass: “grow!” … The principal message Moses teaches us here is that contrary to appearances, the power to keep us alive does not reside in the purely physical properties of bread, or any other food for that matter, but in the potential God has placed within that physical food to sustain and make grow the people who consume it. Bread was chosen as the example seeing that in order for man to even produce it so many steps are necessary that one could have thought that the finished product reflects man’s accomplishment more than it does G’d’s. 
The closer we are to direct divine input and reduced reliance on intermediaries such as the eleven stages needed to convert a kernel of wheat into bread, the closer we are to the true life-giving forces of heaven.

Bahya, living 800 years ago, is teaching us that there is more to living than we know. Everything we encounter in the world has the power to “grow” within it and when we find that potential to grow, it can help us grow as well. There are lessons that all of nature has to teach us that can point us to our mission in this life. A simple slice of bread, even when processed in 11 different ways, still has within it the power to help us achieve our potential. It is not fate that gives us our direction; we are blessed with the power to find it for ourselves. 
Due to Anti-Semitism in Florida in the 1970’s my father was denied moving up to be president of the Florida Board of Realtors. He shrugged it off and turned his attention to the Florida Association of Independent Insurance Agents where he eventually served as president. He didn’t mope about what was denied to him; he went on with his life to rise again somewhere else. He never became famous for his pragmatism, courage, or faith, but he did go on to leave behind two generations of rabbis and counting. The mission of his life still echoes in the world. 
One of the last collections of Rabbinic Midrashim, the Tanchuma, collected in the 8th or 9th century, ends with this final lesson: 
And so, it says (in Deut. 17:6), “On the evidence of two or three witnesses shall the dead be put to death.” Does someone dead deserve another death? It is simply that the wicked during life are regarded as dead. Because on seeing the rising sun, such a one does not say the blessing, "blessed be the One who forms light."32The opening blessing before the morning Shema‘. When it sets, he does not say the blessing, "who brings on evenings."33The opening blessing before the evening Shema‘. Nor does he say a blessing when eating or drinking. However, the righteous do say a blessing for each and every thing that they eat and drink and see and hear. 
Blessings are not magical incantations that with a wave of a wand change the world. They are reminders to us that we need to pay attention to all that we eat, drink, see and hear. These blessings call us to rise above the ordinary and to see the potential that surrounds us; they flow through us and can raise us up higher than we could ever imagine, in ways that we can never predict. When we act in the world with deep sensitivity, with extraordinary respect, that feeling will radiate out and permeate the very air around us, making our lives, our community, and our world more attractive and compelling.
Did you see the video just a month or two ago, where a runaway car slammed into a building and traps a baby underneath, and a police officer runs to the car and alone, lifts it up so that bystanders could reach under and pull the baby to safety? Where does such strength come from? Where does such a will to defy death come from? Where does the courage to stand up to save a life come from? It comes from you, and it comes from me, if we ready ourselves for the moment when it arrives. 
So often we think that we don’t have what it takes to make a real difference. We are not strong, or beautiful, or wise or whatever. Here is a prayer, said by an anonymous soldier, that addresses just that way of thinking: 
I asked God for strength that I might achieve.
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy.
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life.
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed

We think that we know what it takes to be the hero, the savior, the one with the superpower that can change the world. But anything can be our “superpower” - our kind heart, our generous spirit, our ability to help others. Sometimes just one act can make all the difference to the world. Other people will take notice, and soon others will wish to join you in using kindness to make a difference. 
There was an orchestra playing a concerto, and one of the trumpet players sat with his instrument on his lap. The instrument was tuned, and the player was ready, but he sat still, trumpet in his lap staring intently at his music. On and on the orchestra played and still he sat until there came a spot, where he suddenly took up his instrument, put it to his lips and when the conductor pointed at him, played his one note, loud and true, and then the orchestra played on. The trumpet player relaxed. He had played his note, on time and in tune, and had done his part to make the concert a success. 
There are those who will tell you that nothing matters, you don’t matter, I don’t matter, nothing we will do will matter to the universe, our actions will not change the course of the stars nor the revolution of this or any other planet. They will tell us to go home, go back to sleep. The claim, that “I will take care of you, I will make sure you will be safe and secure, trust me and everything will be OK, you don’t have to worry about anything, I will take care of everything.”
This kind of autocrat is really telling you that he or she is deathly afraid of you. Afraid that you will wake up and discover that they are a fraud, that they really don’t care for you but only for themselves. They are afraid that you will have the courage to stand up and defy them, to take charge of your own life and discover what is right and proper for yourself. That you will study words of Torah to find the truth that makes life important. That all of us, working together, can build more important things than what we could build alone. There are people who will do anything they can to stop you from finding your true place in life, but truth cannot be stopped. Truth cannot be destroyed. Who knows, maybe the reason you were created was to stand firm in this moment. That the vote you cast, the letter to a representative you write, the opinion you share in the newspaper or online, the example of your life, will make all the difference. 
Or maybe you will live your life without flash and fanfare, you will act with kindness and concern for all people; recognizing that anyone around you could be the messiah, waiting for that one act of kindness that will help redeem this world. One by one people will see the way you live your life and aspire to live their lives like you. And you will become the beacon that will bring light to this dark world. 
Or maybe, you will just live surrounded by friends and family, living life as best you can, trying every day to live by the values you think are important, modeling those values to children at home or in a classroom. Always teaching others to be strong, to never give up, to speak the truth and to help others along the way. You will never become famous, but you will be loved by those who know you. That love too can help bring about the messiah.
Not me! You say. I can’t be the one who will bring light to this world! But how do you really know? How would you treat yourself differently if there was a chance that the world needed you just as you are to bring itself to fulfill all of our human potential? Would you stand a bit straighter? Think a bit longer? Be a bit more careful about the words you speak? 
Maybe not today or tomorrow, it may take months or years, but we can change the world, we can make a difference, we can have that one moment where we must play our instrument on time and in tune, and in that moment, we will become the messenger of God.
This past year and a half, COVID may have made us feel insignificant, alone and inferior being stuck at home, far away from family and unable to sometimes use the technology well. But Eleanor Roosevelt taught us so long ago, that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” 
I can stand here today and affirm, that each of us is a profile in courage, just going to the grocery story, just checking on a neighbor, just by protecting our own health and protecting the health of others, we have clearly and decisively shown that in adversity we are strong and in the face of the pandemic, we did not lose our humanity. We stood strong together and lived each day with a humanity that is derived from our faith in God. 
The world is a mess. There are people who are not too bright doing ridiculous things. We have been robbed of time with our family and friends. But we didn’t give up. We gave each day our best and worked hard to do our part to stop the spread of disease. The institutions of our community, our meeting places, our places of celebration, even our place of prayer have been empty and desolate. But a Hasidic prayer teaches us, “if you consider the person next to you might be the Messiah, waiting for that one act of kindness that will cause him or her to reveal himself and redeem the world, if you can treat that person next to you with a measure of kindness, even if that person is not the messiah, it will not matter”
Each of us has the power to do our part to bring the Messiah, the one who will redeem this world from the darkness that surrounds us. Each of us has been placed here, right here, to make a difference in our own lives and in the universe that surrounds us. May God give us the wisdom, strength, and kindness we will need to do our part to bring redemption to the world as we say….
Amen and L’shana Tova 

Fri, March 24 2023 2 Nisan 5783