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Eat Your Peas With a Knife

Rosh Hashanah Morning October 4, 2005

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro
Sinai Temple, Springfield, MA

This is your invitation. 

      You are all invited to a birthday party.  This coming year, 2006, will mark Sinai’s 75th anniversary, and you are invited to be part of the festivities that celebrate our milestone.

      It’s going to be quite a year.  There will be learning.  On Sunday, January 8, we’ll begin our year with a brunch and speaker about Springfield as it has changed from 1931 through to 2006.  Early in May, Dr. Mark Washofsky, a very talented professor from Hebrew Union College, will be our scholar in residence.  He will spend a full weekend teaching us  about Judaism, bioethics, and end of life issues. 

      Next Fall we are going to launch a full court press on learning Hebrew.  During the ten weeks from Rosh Hashanah 06 to Chanukah 06, we’ll be offering as many as ten different opportunities to learn Hebrew from beginner to advanced levels.  We’ll be offering classes on different days at different times so that at least 75 Sinai-ites can give themselves the gift of Hebrew when Chanukah 06 arrives. 

While we are still learning, a Torah Scribe will visit this Spring, and our Religious School students will also create a giant art project as a permanent reminder of the anniversary.

      That’s our learning.  But there will also be doing for the 75th.  We’re going to call our birthday program “pools and schools.”  That means a modified swimathon for young and old on Sunday, May 7.  We’re going to swim to raise money to help keep open the public swimming pools in Springfield next summer.

      Since we have benefited so much from being in Springfield, we want to give back to our community in another way.  We are going to help purchase and install a playscape for the children at Washington Elementary School, which is less than a mile down the road from us as we speak. 

      Next Rosh Hashanah we will also expand our Shoes that Fit campaign.  On our 75th anniversary, we will collect 75 pairs of shoes for needy kids, but we will also  reach out to Forest Park Middle School and collect 75 reams of paper for them, 75 sets of art supplies, 75 books for their library, and perhaps 75 items related to their music program. 

      That’s our learning and our doing – to which we will add remembering and honoring.  We will remember our founders and also set aside time to honor long-time active members.

      Plus we’ll be traveling.  This summer I’ll be leading a congregational trip to Israel.

      There will be a major musical event next Fall.  The Reform movement is also publishing a prayer book to succeed our Shabbat prayer book, Gates of Prayer.  We hope to inaugurate that new book in 2006. 

      And, finally, after learning, doing, remembering, honoring, traveling, singing, and praying, we will have an actual party on Saturday, November 4, 2006.  Food, libations, and a wonderful entertainer will make this a super diamond anniversary party.

      I like this agenda.  In fact, the work of our steering committee. chaired by Liz Leshine and Judy Cohen, is so rich because we’re not really planning a birthday party for our 75th.  We are, instead, planning a multifaceted celebration of Sinai at its best when it comes to learning, doing, remembering, honoring, singing, and praying.  Actually when we do all that I’ve described plus a little bit more next year, we will be making a major statement about who we are as a synagogue. 

      Although we didn’t plan it this way, our 75th celebration is going to end up complementing one other initiative planned for the next several months.  That is the creation of a Sinai Temple mission statement.  We want to take what might be implicit in all our hearts and minds about Sinai and make it explicit as a vision for our next 75 years. 

      Later this morning I’ll describe how we hope to involve at least 180 congregants in starting the mission statement, but for now I hope you can see where we are going.  We will celebrate a milestone in Temple history while also asking the critical questions: What do we stand for?  What are Sinai Temple’s unique qualities at age 75?  What is our mission now and tomorrow?

      Come to think of it, what better theme could we choose for Rosh Hashanah than these very questions?  Except what if we rephrase them slightly so that they move from the communal canvas to a more personal canvas?  Let me take this notion of identifying a mission statement for Sinai and suggest that Rosh Hashanah can also be a time for laying out a mission statement that is individual.

Instead of asking what Sinai’s mission is, let me ask you what your mission is as an individual. 

What do you stand for?  What is your mission here now in your life?

      The story is told of a simple man who lived alone and had the habit of mislaying his clothes when he went to sleep.  Every morning he wasted hours just looking for his things until one night he hit upon a plan for finding his clothes.  “I’ll create a system,” he declared.  “I’ll make an accounting of everything.”  So, before going to sleep, he made a list that gave the exact location for each article of clothing and pinned the list on his pillow.  When he awoke the next morning, the simple man went around the room, list in hand, checking each article and putting it on.

      But just then a thought occurred to him, “All the clothes are here.  I’m ready for the day, but where am I?  There’s no accounting here of me.”  He consulted his list; his name wasn’t even there.  He looked around – in vain.  He couldn’t find himself anywhere.  He stood there, confused, and then gave up.

      “Who’s got time for this,” he thought.  “I’ll figure myself out later.”  So the man got on with his day, and, to tell the truth, he never did find time to locate himself.

      That story is about you and me.  Although most of us find our clothes in the morning, Rosh Hashanah asks us today whether we do such a good job in finding ourselves every day or any day.  The Hebrew term for the work of Rosh Hashanah is Cheshbon Ha-nefesh, which means taking account of the soul.  We’re being asked during this season to do our personal balance sheet, to tally up the plus and minus columns, to see how worthy or how off course we have become.

      This is the season when you look back over the past year and assess it even as you look into the future and ask yourself:  Where am I going?  Or, as I’ve put it today, what is my mission.

Another story.  This one comes from the Chasidic teacher, Shneur Zalman, who lived in Eastern Europe at the dawn of the 19th century.  Once Shneur Zalman was put in jail on trumped up charges.  While he was awaiting his trial, the non-Jewish jailer entered his cell and asked the Rabbi several questions.

      One question went as follows:  “Rabbi, if your God is all-knowing, tell me why He had to search for Adam in the Garden of Eden and say to Adam – Where are you?  Shouldn’t God have known where Adam was without asking?”

      “Do you believe,” the Rabbi answered, “that the Bible can speak to all people at all times?”

“I believe this,” said the jailer.

      “Well, then,” said the Rabbi, “you should see that God’s question wasn’t really addressed to Adam literally.  In every generation, even now, God calls to all human beings and asks – Where are you?  Where are you in your life?  So many years and day have passed.  How far have you gotten with your goals and your mission?”

      Those are the questions for the Jewish New Year.

      When you’re young, the answer to these questions can be fairly straightforward.  High School students have a clear mission.  For most, their goal is to get into college.  College students have a mission too.  For most, the task is to graduate from college and develop at least some idea of how they will make a living.  For young people in their 20’s, the mission is similar and also more far-reaching.  Establish a vocation, get close to settling down, and find someone special with whom you want to spend your life.

      None of this work is easy – especially because lurking behind the tasks of the 20-somethings are the questions their parents and grandparents face head on in all adult living.  For even if you know how you want to make a living and even if you buy a house and even if you find a spouse, you’re still bound to have some down time and in those quiet moments you’re bound to ask yourself why you have made the choices you have in your life.  Were they the right choices? 

      If you’re 35 or 65, is your life making sense?  What’s your purpose?  What’s your life all about?

Once, a student was taking a final examination for rabbinic ordination.  The head of the yeshiva had asked the student questions on every aspect of Jewish practice, including the details of what tradition permits and prohibits as work on Shabbat.  Before the yeshiva head awarded the ordination, he posed one final question:  “If someone cut his hand on the Sabbath, how would you act?” 

The student replied cautiously, “I cannot say offhand.  I would first need to consult the recognized law codes.”

“      Young man,” the teacher responded, “Your answer tells me that you are not ready to be a rabbi.  While you are looking for a correct opinion, the person whose hand had been cut would be in danger of bleeding to death.  Never forget the human being in front of you.”

      What’s your mission?  It is to know a lot.  (Learning has always been a top Jewish priority.)  But having knowledge can never be as important as not letting someone bleed to death.  As the Book of Leviticus states it so powerfully, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”  Or as the Book of Deuteronomy tells us, when uncertain circumstances present themselves, you must never take the option of being indifferent.

      I love the advice of Abraham Joshua Heschel.  He was as learned as any 20th century rabbi and still made this declaration about life’s purposes.  Heschel said, “When I was young, I used to admire people who were smart.  As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown to admire people who are kind.”

That’s why this story stands out for me.  It’s about a new student who arrives at a small residential private school.  At this school everyone eats dinner together.  On days when new students arrive, they join the leaders of the student body at a large table with the dean. 

      Once at such a meal peas were served and the student leaders began to snicker when they saw one new student eating his peas by lining them up on his knife.  The students elbowed each other knowingly until they looked up at the dean.  The dean had also seen how the newcomer was eating.  He’d then put down his fork and begun to eat his peas with his knife.  Soon, all the students did likewise.

      A sense for the feelings of someone else, sensitivity, kindness – what could be closer to our task on God’s earth?

      Back in 1947 in Cincinnati, no one probably expected much kindness when the Brooklyn Dodgers played the Cincinnati Reds.  Boos, taunts, and curses filled the stadium that day because the Dodgers were playing Jackie Robinson on first base.  Robinson was the first black player in major league baseball and was despised  everywhere he played.  He was even disliked by his own teammates.

That day in Cincinnati was particularly ugly.  Robinson was virtually isolated on the field when someone turned the day on its head.  The Dodger shortstop was Pee Wee Reese.  He had grown up in Louisville, a city not far from Cincinnati and not unlike Cincinnati in its southern attitudes toward blacks.  As the anger in the stadium reached a crescendo, Pee Wee Reese acted.  He walked across the field towards Jackie Robinson and placed his arm around Robinson when he got to him.

      A palpable hush fell over the crowd.  The curses tailed away.  One man’s kindness tamed a stadium full of hate.

      But did the Dodgers win the game too?  As a team leader, that was clearly Pee Wee Reese’s job on the baseball field, but I suspect his mission was something else that day.  His mission was to pave the way for his friend, Jackie Robinson, to be accepted as a human being among other human beings.

And that’s the key to this thing I’m calling a mission.  It isn’t the same as your job.  It’s not even the same as being a parent or spouse.  Your mission is what comes into play while you’re at your job or while you’re going about the business of being someone’s dad, husband, mother, or wife. 

      I guess your mission defines how you play all these roles.  It even precedes your roles.  It’s got to do with your character.  Your mission is how you go about being the human being you are.  In fact, when you fulfill your mission, you’re actually creating your legacy.

      Just in case you’re not sure about this, think back to high school and the 30 or 40 teachers you may have encountered during those fateful years.  True, some of the teachers you remember because they taught their subjects well or perhaps you had an affinity for the subject anyway.  But I’m willing to bet that who you remember positively has less to do with what they taught than with their ability to let their humanity shine through.

      Especially if Mr. Smith or Mrs. Jones opened themselves up even slightly to reveal themselves as people who cared about you, they are the ones you remember.  Theirs was a mission accomplished because one human being touched another human being for the good.

      Rabbi Larry Kushner teaches that we can matter to others in ways we may not even understand.  Kushner offers this image:

      Imagine that…

      Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. 

      For some there are more pieces.

      For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble.

      Some people seem to be born with a nearly completed puzzle, and so it goes.

      Souls going this way and that trying to assemble the myriad parts of their puzzles.

      But know this.

      No one has within themselves all the pieces to their puzzle.

      Like before the days when they used to seal jigsaw puzzles in cellophane, insuring that all the pieces were there.

      Everyone carries with them at least one and probably

      Many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.

      Sometimes they know it.

      Sometimes they don’t.

      And when you present your piece

      Which may be insignificant to you,

      To another, whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not,

      You can be a messenger of immeasurable love, support, and healing.

      With your kindness, you can be a messenger from God.

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      What’s your mission this Rosh Hashanah?

      I’ve got two answers.

      First, it is quite possible that you don’t know or can’t be sure how well you’re doing on your mission.  You may be the obvious piece in someone’s puzzle or you may be fitting into someone’s puzzle without even knowing it.

      If that is the case, more power to you.

      But this second lesson is also true:  Unless you are watching yourself and taking an account of yourself always, it’s only too easy to be eating your peas with a fork and fall short as one human being responding to another.

      You can be smart, successful, and well-dressed.  You can look marvelous, but the real trick in a Jewish life is to remember these words.  They come from Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, a great teacher and a great ethicist.

      Salanter taught, “Even when you are feeling most pious, even when you are praying with the exact words of the finest prayer, you are still obligated not to step on someone else’s toes.”

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      It’s as simple as that.

      Look left.  Look right.

      Everyone you see is created in the image of God.

      Your mission is to be sensitive and kind to them as a result.

      And….don’t step on their toes!

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