The next thing you do can change the world. Maimonides, the great sage of the 12th century, uses a powerful metaphor to teach this lesson.
At this cusp of the New Year, imagine that the scales of the universe are perfectly balanced between good and evil. What happens next will cause God to tip the balance.
The Power of Imagination
Perhaps this idea seems absurd. “Come on, rabbi, that’s fantasy,” you may be thinking. “God doesn’t care what I do right here and right now.” You may be right.
But imagine if we lived with this perspective? Imagine if the next words we said to our spouse tipped the scales of the world from hostility to kindness. Imagine if the way we treated the next stranger we meet tipped the scales from indifference to empathy.
In fact, some people don’t just imagine. They do.
The Porter Who Saved a Life
Earlier this year a member of my synagogue told me a story. It happened during the the late 1960s, when the former Soviet Union began to allow a tiny number of people to leave the country. She and her family were fleeing from Romania. When they arrived in Germany, they had to pay an admittance tax.
It was not an exorbitant amount, but they had absolutely no money. It had been confiscated. If they did not pay the tax, their papers would not get stamped. They would be turned back.
They talked with the customs official. They cried. They pleaded. Frustrated by the delay, people in line began to shout at them to move out of the way.
Then something happened. The airport worker who had carried their bags to the customs office set them down. He took some money out of his pocket. He paid the clerk. He turned around and walked back toward the airplane. He never said a word. They never saw him again.
Would you say this was a miracle?
A miracle does not have to violate the laws of science. A miracle happens when the veil behind which God is hidden is lifted and our perspective changes. A miracle happens when God works through human hands.
By Evan Moffic,
(This is excerpted from my Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year’s sermon, 2012)
He steps in a pile of strawberries. His white shoes become his red shoes. He stops, says “Oh no,” and keeps walking, singing now about his love for his red shoes. Then he wanders into a pile of blueberries. He just keeps walking along and singing his song.
Then Pete steps into a big puddle of mud. But once again, he keeps walking and singing, “I love my brown shoes…” Just as he gets closer to school, he steps into a bucket of water. The water washes away all the colors. But now his shoes are wet. He walks into school singing, “I love my wet shoes!”
On the surface, it’s a story telling us that accidents happen. It also reveals much more.
1. Attitude is everything. Life does not always go the way we think it will. Pete got excited when he put on his new white shoes. That excitement and joy did not diminish when they became his red shoes, his brown shoes and his wet shoes. Things change. Sometimes we step in mud. Like Pete, we can choose to stay positive.
2. You can always start over. Every accident became an opportunity for Pete to have a new pair of shoes. His approach reminds me of a great story told by Rabbi Harold Kushner.
“I was sitting on a beach one summer day, he writes, “watching two children, a boy and a girl, playing in the sand. They were hard at work building an elaborate sandcastle by the water’s edge, with gates and towers and moats and internal passages. Just when they had nearly finished their project, a big wave came along and knocked it down, reducing it to a heap of wet sand.”
“I expected the children to burst into tears, devastated by what had happened to all their hard work. But they surprised me. Instead, they ran up the shore away from the water, laughing and holding hands, and sat down to build another castle.”
3. Keep singing your song. Through every accident Pete keeps singing. He was probably sad, but the singing helped cheer him and up keep him going. What do you have in your life that keeps you going? Is it a special song, a mantra, a prayer? Perhaps it is a deeply engrained sense of purpose and system of values? Amidst the puddles of mud we inevitably counter, we need a firm set of boots that will keep us looking up and standing straight.
4. Change is inevitable. Pete begins his walk in his new white shoes. He ends it in his new–but wet–white shoes. While life often seems to repeat itself, the only consistent is change. Nothing ever stays the same. We don’t need to sweat the small stuff.
This recognition does not leave us powerless. It does not mean we can sit back and simply let things be. Rather, it reminds us of both our opportunities and our limitations. As Maya Angelous brilliantly put it, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
There’s a reason we remember certain childrens’ stories. There’s a reason we smile when we read them to our kids. There’s a reason we read them over and over. With simplicity and subtle wisdom, they capture what is universal and timeless.
What are your favorite children’s books? What lessons do they teach?
By Evan Moffic, Rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park.
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Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Last week my colleague Rabbi Jason Miller shared the story of a 21-year-old college student named Brett Cohn.
Cohn decided to do a little experiment. He hired a film crew, some body guards, and several photographers with bright lights and microphones. He then asked them to accompany him as he walked through Times Square in New York.
Guess what happened? He was inundated. Kids wanted his autograph. Tourists had their picture taken with him. The film crew asked random pedestrians what they thought of Brett Cohn. They raved that they were his biggest fans!
We All Worship Something
What does this story say about our culture? What does it say about what we value? Do we admire for people for what they do or for how famous they are?
Before we get too hard on ourselves, we should remember that people have always been impressed with what seems big, shiny and new. Before people worshipped celebrities, they worshiped different gods. That’s part of the story told in the Hebrew Bible.
The big celebrity of biblical times was a god named Ba-al. The Hebrew word literally means “master.” He had lots of raving fans. The Hebrew God was very different.
He was not flashy, loud and surrounded by raving fans. The story of the prophet Elijah illustrates this beautifully. Elijah is alone upon Mount Sinai. The Bible tells us that a whirlwind appears. God was not in the whirlwind. Then an earthquake. But God was not in the earthquake. Then a raging fire. But God is not in the fire. Then God speaks to Elijah in a still small voice. (1 Kings 19)
Judaism resists the idols of the ages. Celebrities are the idols of our age. They can block us from appreciating our true heroes.
The great historian Daniel Boorstin makes this argument from both an historical and contemporary perspective. “The hero,” he writes, “was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name. Celebrity-worship and hero-worship should not be confused.”
How true! Making idols of celebrities not only creates embarrassing stories like Brett Cohn’s experiment. It also undermines our gratitude for the people who really do make a difference. The antidote to a culture of celebrity is a culture of humility.
Humility is not meekness. It is an openness to something larger than the self. It is found in listening rather than speaking. In looking at other people as ends and not means. It is listening not to the loudest voice. But to the still, small voice of conscience within us.
Forgiving others often involves struggle. As I wrote a few months ago, forgiveness does not necessarily mean condoning. Rather, it means accepting, moving on, and not holding your life hostage to the actions of another person.
Does this same logic apply, however, to the actions of a public official? As one of my congregants recently asked me, can we forgive a comment like that of Congressman Todd Akin, who contended that certain types of rape are “legimimate?”
Furthermore, what does forgiveness mean in this case? Since the comment was not directed at any individual in particular, who is entitled to forgive?
These are not easy questions, and in the case of my congregant, it is a hypothetical one, as she does not live in Missouri and has no connection to Congressman Akin. Yet, it does demand some soul searching. How do we judge the words and convictions of others, and how do we hold them accountable?
Here’s what I said:
1. Forgiveness demands a clear and unequivocal apology: We have all received apologies where the offender says “I’m sorry for how my actions and my words made you feel.” In most cases, this is not an apology for one’s actions. It is simply an acknowledgment that what he or she did or said hurt us.
Congressman Akin needs to apologize for what he said unequivocally. It is not enough to say he misspoke. It is not enough to engage in a new ad campaign. He needs to show that he understood the ugliness and dishonesty of what he said. It is not politics. It is ethics.
2. Forgiveness and atonement are not the same thing: As Rabbi Brad Hirschfield points out in his thoughtful article, forgiveness is letting go of one’s anger and moving on. Atonement, on the other hand, involves reconciling oneself with the offense. It involves a renewed relationship and understanding. It takes more than a few days, and more than letters and advertisements.
3. Keep an open mind: Politics thrives on divisiveness. It is about who wins and who loses. Human relations, on the other hand, thrive on empathy and understanding.
Todd Akin probably has no future in politics. Yet, he does have a future as a human being. Let’s hope that future is one of growth and empathy.
By Evan Moffic,
What Do You Think?