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Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, Sinai Temple


It was a San Jose afternoon in November 2006.  Dorothy Thomas was driving her ten-year-old Toyota when a police man noticed her expired licence plate and ordered her to pull over.  Short on cash, Ms. Thomas had not bought her $10 renewal sticker on time.  The officer’s database indicated she had been warned once already.  Following regulations, the officer called for the car to be towed away.

“I got down on my knees and begged for another chance,” Ms. Thomas recalled.

But it didn’t work.  The car was taken.  Short on cash to begin with, Ms. Thomas couldn’t pay the towing and storage fees.  Without her car, she couldn’t reach the hospital where she  worked in the administrative offices.  She soon lost her $16-an-hour job.  Without a paycheck, she couldn’t pay rent on her home.  She moved to Oakland to live with a friend in a beaten-down house on a street they called Crack Avenue.  By year’s end, Dorothy Thomas at age 49 occupied a bunk in a homeless shelter.

By the way, the debt on the credit cards came about when Dorothy Thomas decided that, as an African-American woman, she had to do everything possible to educate her children well.  So she rented a home in a neighborhood slightly beyond her means in order to give her two daughters a boost to get the best education they could.  That would be their way to climb out of the poverty their mother knew as a child.  When Ms. Thomas slid into poverty, one daughter had already achieved a Masters in education.  The other was half way through college.*

Nothing like this happened to anyone at Sinai Temple this year.  But echoes of this story did play themselves out in our congregation because in one way or another we all lost something this past year.  In fact, I want you to know that as I worked at this sermon, I did something unusual.  I tried to see your faces as I wrote. 

I thought about many of you and individual stories and individual circumstances, and I literally wrote some of your names across the top of my page.  I wanted to write as if I was talking to you in person:  those of you who have lost a job, those who fear they may lose a job, those whose pensions have been ravaged, those who had something last year which is gone this year.  I tried to imagine what I could say to you individually in the midst of this congregation. 

Even if you’re not Dorothy Thomas, what was your year like?  Was it frightening, horrible, troubling, devastating, dispiriting? 

There is no end to the adjectives that could describe this year of recession.  So let me choose one that should probably apply to almost all of us.  At minimum, I know this year has been unnerving.  Even if you have a job, a home, and an intact pension, I think almost everyone here has never experienced a year like this one.  Most of us did not know the 1920’s and 1930’s, which means most of us have never experienced a downturn this severe.  We have never really encountered forces that represented a serious threat to the way we have lived most of our lives.

Here’s what most of us know.  We know a life trajectory that has generally pointed up from year to year.  It’s not just us.  It’s a generational phenomenon too.  In the main, we have done better than our parents.  In the main, our parents did better than their parents.  Each generation has worked hard so that the next generation would be better off. 

Speaking of generations past, have you ever been to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of New York City?  It’s a fascinating building in downtown Manhattan that has been around since the Civil War.  It has now been restored to the way it looked at the turn of the 20th century when so many immigrants entered America and lived there.  A tenement was the prized destination for Europeans who longed to make good in the new world.  Except the Tenement Museum shows us what the tenement was really like:  dark, dirty, cramped, and, when indoor plumbing was finally installed, one toilet for as many as 30 to 40 people.

There’s my point.  Over 3 or 4 generations, we have come a long way up.

And none of us is foolish enough not to know how far our families have traveled.  We all know about poverty.  But, for most of us and our families, poverty happens to someone else.  Generation by generation, we have moved farther and farther from want.

We have forgotten the wisdom of this story.  It’s told about King Solomon of Bible times who had an arrogant advisor, Benaiah ben Yehudah.  One spring, Solomon said to him, "Benaiah, there is a certain ring I want you to bring me. I want it when my birthday arrives in the autumn, which gives you six months to find it."

"If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty," replied Benaiah, "I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?"

"It has magic powers," answered the king. "If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy." Now Solomon knew that no such ring existed, but he wanted to give his minister a taste of humility.

Spring passed and then summer, and Benaiah had no idea where to find the ring. On the day before Solomon’s birthday feast, he decided to take a walk through one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He came upon a merchant whose wares were displayed on a shabby carpet. "Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy person forget his joy and the broken-hearted person forget his sorrows?" asked Benaiah.

He watched the merchant take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When Benaiah read the words on the ring, he knew he had found the right ring. 

That night the palace was full of guests ready to celebrate with the king. "Well, my friend," said Solomon, "have you found a ring that can make a happy man sad and a sad man happy?”  Everyone who knew about the search for the impossible ring laughed and Solomon himself smiled.

But to everyone's surprise, Benaiah held up a ring and declared, "Here it is, your majesty!  I found a ring with three Hebrew letters on it.  The letters are gimel, zayin, yud, which begin the words "Gam zeh ya'avor -- This too shall pass."

As soon as Solomon heard the inscription, the smile vanished from his face.

He looked at the guests filling the banquet hall. He looked at the tables covered with shining serving pieces, silver goblets, and fine food.  Then he read the inscription again “Gam zeh ya’aovr – This too shall pass,” and he knew the words were true.  

With the passing of time or through poor decisions or bad luck or any combination of the three, his life, like all lives, came without guarantees.  From riches to poverty, from poverty to riches.  Who knows?  Who controls?  “This too shall pass.”

That’s what happened this year when, you might say, the bottom fell out of our world.  We were, in different ways, reminded – This too shall pass.  Or in other words, there are no guarantees.  Nothing is necessarily forever. 

That doesn’t mean we don’t react when that 401K becomes a 201K or far worse.  One of the classic responses to pain is described by Rabbi Jack Riemer.  When life turns against us, we often ask, “Why me?”  “Why am I the one who invested with Lehman Brothers?”  “Why am I the one who had to be fired?”  “Why am I the one working in a business almost on the brink of bankruptcy?”

Rabbi Riemer says there is only one way to answer the question, “Why me?” And that is “Why not me?”  Riemer says we do ourselves a giant favor when we change our focus and ask – “Why not me?  Is there supposed to be an invisible shield around me that protects me from bad decisions or the ups and downs of life that befall other people? Actually, why not me?” **

When you put it that way, you have to admit that life doesn’t owe us only good fortune.  Asking “Why not me?” is a difficult but humbling question to ask at a time in life when things aren’t going well

Or listen to this bit of Torah wisdom from Rabbi Harold Kushner.  The focus is on Sarah, the wife of Abraham, who cannot become pregnant.  The Book of Genesis narrates the turmoil in Sarah’s life until the moment when she becomes pregnant.  Genesis 21 tells us, “Vadonai pakad et Sarah ka-asher amar –  God took note of Sarah as God  had promised.”

Rabbi Kushner notes that “God took note of Sarah” is the usual translation.  But the Hebrew verb “pakad” has multiple definitions. The Talmud uses one form of the verb when it talks about someone lending something to a friend. And if that works in the Talmud, Rabbi Kushner wonders if the Torah verse might read the same way.

Perhaps the Torah isn’t telling us “pakad – God took note of Sarah” by giving her a child.” It’s actually saying “God gave her the child – pakad - as a loan.” ***

Perhaps that tells us to think about what we have as if it were also on “loan.”  Maybe family and health aren’t written into any contract we humans sign at birth.  Good fortune too is not an entitlement.  What we’ve got here on earth are gifts.  They are precious, but they are still not fully our property.  Not an entitlement.  On loan.

It’s a radical way to reframe what happens to us in life.  In fact, let me take you one step further with a story about the early 20th century sage, the Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan.  We’re told that a visitor once passed through the Polish town of Radin and was invited to visit the rabbi at his home. 

Entering the great teacher’s simple apartment, the visitor was struck by how sparsely it was furnished.  “Where is your furniture,” the man asked.  “Where is yours,” replied the Chafetz Chaim.  “Oh, I am only passing through,” answered the tourist. 

To which the rabbi replied, “The same holds true for me.  I too am only passing through.”

I find that story very powerful because the Chafetz Chaim is ultimately right.  As King Solomon learned, “This too shall pass.”  It’s all on loan.  As the rabbi put it, we are passing through, and, if that’s the case, what do possessions mean?  How much “stuff” do we really need?

You can find a stream in Jewish thought which amplifies this idea.  A Yiddish proverb teaches “Tsu feel iz umgezunt – Too much is not healthy.”  There is a Sephardic saying that teaches “Bread for two will also satisfy three.”

Two years ago I wrote an article in the Temple bulletin preceding Chanukah.  I began with this question, “Did it ever occur to you that, for most of us, every day of the year is like Chanukah?”  I was thinking back then about our ability to visit the Mall almost any time we want during the year.  That means most of us, at least back then, could pretty much buy a new sweater or gadget in October, March, or April.  If we could treat ourselves to “gifts” all year round, I wondered what a Chanukah “gift” was supposed to mean.

One year later I found an answer to my question.  The journalist, Anna Quindlen, told this story last December about a family in rural Pennsylvania.  They raise bees for honey and live a very, very simple life close to nature.  The youngest child of three once turned down an extra box on his birthday.  He politely explained, “No thanks, I already have a present.”

If life and what we have in life is on loan and if it’s true that “this too shall pass,” that little boy knows what to do in hard times.  He already has a present. 

If fact, if we could really believe those words that we already have a present, all of us would be better off. 

The problem is that nobody wants to live with less.  Bread for two can satisfy three, but nobody wants to live that way.

Nobody wants to make lemonade out of lemons.  Nobody should lose a job or a home in order to discover the beauty of simplicity. 

Poverty and deprivation are not Jewish virtues, although acquisition and indulgence are also not Jewish virtues.

A great passage by the prophet Isaiah makes a critical point.  We’ll read it as our Haftarah later this morning, and in it we’ll hear Isaiah respond to our biblical ancestors who are so proud of themselves.  They are fasting.  They are bringing generous sacrifices to worship God.  They are feeling good and they want recognition.  To which Isaiah responds on behalf of God, “Is this the fast you think I want? No, it’s not.  What counts for Me is how you behave, live, interact, play, and love.  Ethics counts.  Integrity counts.”

And that might just be where Judaism leads us this morning.  We can’t have all we want this year.  Life changed.  In one way or another, everyone has to downsize.  But if can’t get all that we want, is there still some way for us to give?

Can we give of ourselves and, in that way, make life right?

Can we present the world with or own honesty, fairness, openness, forgiveness, love?

Having lost much does not mean we are lost.  Having less does not mean we need to be less.  401K…201K…No-K….We are still ourselves.  We’ve got our integrity.  We can still be the people we want to be.

Long ago, one of my favorite teachers, Hillel, took a hard look at a hard world and declared:  In a place where there are no human beings, you must try to be a human being.

This morning we might put the matter this way:  In a situation where so much has been lost, you yourself needn’t be lost.  Stand straight.  Think straight.  And be a mensch.  It’s not what you’ve got; it’s who you are.

That needn’t change.  That shouldn’t change.

In this place, at this hour, be a mensch.  It’s who you need to be.

* Dorothy Thomas’ story appears in the New York Times, Sunday, September 13, 2009

** Rabbi Riemer’s teaching is found in his sermon entitled “Three Phrases That Have the Power to Change Your Life.”

*** Rabbi Kushner’s teaching is quoted in a sermon by Rabbi Gerald Zeliger entitled “Life Wails.”


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