There is a story told of a simple man, living in a simple village. His name was Itzik. He was a man who loved God and devoted his life to the care of his synagogue and his family and his community. Each morning he worked as a baker, each afternoon he would spend some time with his wife and children and some time immersed in the study of Jewish texts, and each evening he would go to the synagogue to clean up, dusting the shelves, straightening the books. It was always dark by the time he got there, but he would light some candles and go about his business.
One evening, when the sky was clear and the moon shone brightly, Itzik went over to the shul for some housekeeping. But on this night, he kept hearing a noise – a faint cry –coming from the holy ark. Itzik stepped closer and closer – and as he did the sound grew louder and louder. Then Itzik saw a light appear from the cracks of the ark, and he opened the doors, and was almost blinded by the brightest light he had ever seen. Itzik yelled out, “Who’s there? Who is this?” And a soft voice came out from the ark, and said, “I am an angel, a messenger from God, and I have come to offer you one wish.”
“A wish? What kind of wish? Why me?” And the angel responded softly, “The heavens have taken note of how dedicated and kind you are, and you are being given one wish and one wish only – as a reward for your good deed. You may wish for anything you want – the choice is yours. I shall return tomorrow night, and you will tell me what you desire.” Poof – and just like that, the light disappeared. Itzik thought it might be some kind of dream, and he ran home to his wife and children – but he thought better of it and told no one of the encounter.
The rest of the night, he lay awake in bed deciding what his wish should be – he laid out the pros and the cons of each option. And all during the next day at work baking, while he was with his family, while he was studying text, he pondered his choices. When the sun went down, Itzik closed his books of study, picked up a broom, and began to clean the shul. Right on schedule, the moaning and crying began again – and when the light came forth from the cracks of the ark, Itzik opened the doors, and the angel again spoke from the light.
“Itzik,” said the angel, “have you decided on your wish?” And with a quivering voice, Itzik responded. “I have been thinking about this all night and all day and let me tell you – it has not been an easy choice. At first, I wanted to ask for money – lots of it – I could buy fancy clothes and donate a large sum to tzedakah. But then I thought about it, and I realized that although I am a simple baker, I have enough money to buy clothes and food for my family, we have a small but loving house, and I give what I can to tzedakah now. And so I realized that I should not ask for money, because although I am not rich, I am comfortable.
Then I was going to ask for fame. It would be nice to be famous – everyone would know who I am – and everyone would respect me. But fame is fleeting – and why do I need to be famous? I am needed here in this town, for my family, for the bakery, for the shul. And although no one knows me outside of this village, I am comfortable with that.
Then, I was thinking about asking for wisdom, but I spend every day reading the texts of our tradition. I grow in wisdom with every word on every page. And I love to study. If I was wise all of a sudden from this wish, what need would I have to study? I would miss that. And although I am not the smartest person in this village, I am comfortable with that.
And so, dear angel, I wish for nothing. I do not need money, or fame, or wisdom. I am comfortable with who I am and what I do. Since I do not need anything, I will not wish for anything. God has blessed me with all that I need and want. Thank you, but no thank you.”
At that very second, the light went out in the ark and the angel disappeared. Itzik felt proud of his decision. But as soon as he picked up his broom and began to sweep the floor, he heard another voice crying. But this time it was coming from the back of shul. He lit some more candles, and he saw sitting in the back row was the rabbi – the wonderful rebbe – and he was crying. Startled, Itzik asked what the rabbi was doing there at this hour. The rabbi told him that he had witnessed the whole encounter Itzik had with the angel. Itzik stood upright, ready to be praised by the rebbe for his selflessness, but the rabbi kept on crying. Itzik asked the rabbi what was wrong, and the rabbi said, “Itzik, you were given a gift – any wish that you wanted – and it would be fulfilled from the high heavens – you could have wished for anything, and yet you refused and said you needed nothing.” As the rabbis tears fell down his cheek, Itzik asked, “What was wrong with what I said?”
At that moment, the rabbi stood up and said, “Itzik you are a very selfish man.” “but rebbe, why do you think that? I am a humble man who is content to live in a modest way.” Itzik replied. “Itzik,” said the rabbi, “you could have wished for an end to hunger – and no one on this planet would go to bed without food tonight. You could have wished for an end to war – and it would have been granted – and nations would have beat their spears into pruning-hooks, they would have beat their swords into plow-shares – no one would ever die in a senseless war again. You could have wished for an end to all disease – no one would ever again suffer from affliction and die before their time. Itzik, you could have changed the world with your wish. But you were comfortable, and so you squandered a gift for all humanity. That is why I am crying. We lost a chance at improving our world because you were too comfortable.” And with that, the rabbi left the shul. Itzik thought about the rabbi’s words began to cry. And as the angels in heaven witnessed this, they too, began to cry, and their tears came down as rain upon the little village.
Now is the time for asking. Asking for forgiveness, asking ourselves what could we have done better? Where did we fall short? Now is the time for returning, for searching our souls and making an accounting of all the ways we have settled. Settled in to the status quo, settled in and ignored the needy, neglected our synagogue, our community, the poor, the suffering. We are supposed to be uncomfortable today not because Judaism encourages us to feel badly about ourselves – but just the opposite. Judaism gives us this time to reflect in order to better ourselves – to make the effort to become more loving, more generous, more just. Today we are reminded that being comfortable is not the point of our life. It is nice if it happens but comfort cannot be at the expense of seeing the suffering and heading the call to Tikkun Olam, to fix this broken world.
Often we do not take full advantage of the gift that Judaism offers because – like Itzik in the story – we are comfortable enough with our lives as they are … or, and perhaps this is the more likely story, the process of looking at our lives and souls in such an honest and “stripped of all pretenses/excuses” way moves us from a place of relative comfort to a place of great discomfort … and who among us wants to be uncomfortable if we don’t have to.
But here we are, in synagogue, praying a liturgy that will soon remind us that the gates are closing; that this holy day is for each of us to feel a little uncomfortable. Uncomfortable at how quick we are to judge others sternly without fully knowing them. Uncomfortable with how easily our attentions can get diverted from those who need us most. Uncomfortable with the way we deflect our responsibility for the ills of the world by blaming them on politicians, or the rich, or the poor … or thinking because we didn’t cause the problem, or that it doesn’t effect us, that it is not our problem! Uncomfortable with the silence we keep in the face of increasing hostility and violence and injustice.
Today, the holiest day of our year is not only a most auspicious time, it’s not only a time to feel remorse or uncomfortable, today is an opportunity. An opportunity, as our Torah portion urges us, to choose life for ourselves and for the world. In this morning’s torah portion we read, “Atem Nitzvaim hayom! “You stand today, all of you, before the Lord your God; your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, and every Israelite; your young ones, your wives, the stranger in your gate; from your wood hewer to your water-drawer….I have set before you life and goodness, and death and evil…Life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse. And you shall choose Life.”
No matter our circumstance, no matter our challenges or how much we might feel we are living in darkness. No matter if we believe nothing could possibility get better with our life, that our lives of filled with ease and contentment, there is always more life to be lived! Each day, a new opportunity to live in relationship with our world, to exist with open eyes and hearts and not turn away to the call of what begs our attention. Today we can be make a commitment to risk and feel uncomfortable so that we will seize the opportunity to be moved into action. Action for blessing and so we choose life! Atem Nitzvim hayom. We stand here and we stand up this day and ask, What will our life be filled with? Will it be filled with missed opportunities to bring love into the world, into our family, our community?
Standing up means asking, are our eyes are open to the reality around us, to pain and to suffering, to the cries of those in need.
Standing up means we believe we are loved even when we don’t feel like we are, and that we have a responsibility to build this world through love. We are loved and we give that love back to the universe and so we choose life and blessing.
Atem nitzvaim hayom! We stand up and we take a stand against hate, injustice and bigotry.
Every Friday night at our worship service I read the names of those who died during the past week in Chicago gun violence. A few months ago, as I was reading close to 30 names, I thought to myself, “This is not good enough! I cant read one more name.” As I continued reading, I found myself feeling ill, physically ill. Reading the names to promote awareness of gun violence means nothing unless I am willing to do something to stop it, without working to prevent their deaths in the first place.” A group of concerned Beth Am members met with me after services that night to see what we could do, beyond just reading the names of each week’s victims. For starters, we settled on finding out more about the victims—that their lives should not go unnoticed, but this is still not good enough. To take a stand means to work for the end of gun violence. And to this end I have had an initial meeting with United Power, a non-partisan community organization composed of 40 religious congregations, not-for-profit groups, hospitals, health centers and civic organizations from across the area. United Power is an affiliate of the Do Not Stand Idly By Campaign, launched by faith leaders and citizens it is based on two simple premises:
- We can’t end the plague of gun violence in America until the manufacturers of guns make safety and responsible sales among their highest priorities.
- The companies that step up to lead in these areas will thrive. They’ll tap a growing demand for safety, and expand their market share among major public-sector gun buyers.
United Power is also involved with procuring affordable housing and health care for those in need.[i] Standing up means being part of the solution and choosing life. I would like Beth Am to be a member organization of United Power. If you are interested in helping make this happen, please email me or let me know.
Standing up is about being counted and this year it means that each one of us, who can, must vote. Beth Am is part of the Union of Reform Judaism get out the vote drive, titled, Nitzvaim. There is more information about the campaign on our Facebook page and we have voter registration forms on the back table in the foyer should you need. Stand up and be counted. Everyone one of us matters and so does our vote.
Standing up mean heeding the call: Never Again! Here, standing up does not only mean agreeing with the concept of Never Again it means doing something about it. Stand up to bullies whether they are on the schoolyard or in our public life. Stand up to people who try to intimidate and belittle, who do not see that all people are created equal, and who do not act with justice and decency first.
And be aware that if your intuition tells you that someone in a position of power is not safe, pay attention! If someone presents dangerous view points, spews hatred and not love, who tears people down instead of building them up, do not ignore or dismiss your reaction, but stand up! Speak out! And help stop this person and his rhetoric before it is too late.
Next month in New York city, The Anti-Defamation League, the ADL, is hosting a summit called Never is Now. They note, “At a time when anti-Semitism is experiencing resurgence around the world, when some Jewish communities in Europe feel pressured by anti-Jewish scapegoating and terrorism motivated by fundamentalist Islam and hate groups and a time when Israel is faced with a campaign of boycotts, sanctions and divestment like never before, THE TIME IS NOW to convene some of the world’s leading experts to address some of the urgent challenges facing the Jewish people and to identify new strategies to stop anti-Semitism.
The resurgence of anti-Semitism is happening and we have to stand up because indeed Never is Now. And we can not be silent.
We have a most magnificent opportunity—no an obligation not only this day, but everyday to choose life: to stand up this day and know that our voice matters and we are builders and healers in this world.
This day may we commit to standing up more than we did yesterday. This day may we stand up and be a voice of good and an agent of Tikkun Olam, fixing the world, even, no especially, if it makes us uncomfortable.
Itzik did have everything he needed. He showed gratitude for certain, yet he did not walk with open eyes and ears, his heart was not dedicated to fixing, but it was rather content in maintaining his status quo. May our gratitude be used to push through our compliancy and contentment. The world, our families, our community, our synagogue and the Jewish People need us to stand up. This day. We stand together and choose life and blessing.
Ken Yihe Ratzon. May this be God’s will.