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Sermon on Erev Rosh Hashanah 2012/5773

 

Let’s Go Make Some History

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro September 16, 2012


It was Broadway and it wasn’t a recording of the music.  No, when the overture began, a full orchestra from violins to trombones and clarinets played through the melodies of George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess.  I got plenty of Nothing…Bess, you is my woman now…I loves you Porgy…It ain’t necessarily so.

And then the curtain came up to reveal the residents of Catfish Row followed immediately by the opening song:  Summertime.

And I thought to myself as I sat there only a few weeks ago, this is amazing.  I have heard the song Summertime a hundred times.  I played it on the saxophone when I was a teenager.  But this is the first time I ever heard and saw the song in context.  Summertime sets up the whole play.  It launches everything that follows in one of America’s great musical works, Porgy and Bess. 

If you’ll forgive me the colloquialism – Wow!

There was something truly thrilling about hearing Summertime – a song that has gone on to become an icon in the American songbook.

Sitting in the theater, I found myself wondering what it must have been like on October 13, 1935.  That’s the night when Broadway met Porgy and Bess for the very first time.  What if you had never heard Summertime?  What if you didn’t know the words and melody so well that you could almost sing along?  (Summertime…and the living is easy.  Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high…)

Sitting in the Broadway theater that opening night would you have guessed that this new song and show were going to make history… and you were there.  You were part of it.  In a way, you were making history.

Would you have known that?  Come to think of it, who ever really knows when and if history is being made?

***

It’s Sunday night, February 9, 1964.  I live at 79 Munro Blvd in Toronto.; my friend, Phil Holzberg, lives at 97 Munro Blvd.  Phil’s dad won’t turn on the TV that night at 8 p.m.  He refuses to watch that evening’s Ed Sullivan show.  So Phil comes over to my house and we watch the Beatles’ first performance on television.  

For us, it was exciting and entertaining.  As it happens, it was also historic.  But we didn’t get it.  We didn’t realize then and there that years later that night and that performance would become part of Beatles’ lore.  Ed Sullivan and the Beatles would enter the American cultural story.

***

It’s a Friday afternoon.  It’s an early dismissal day for Ninth Graders.  November 22, 1963.  My mother picks me up and, when I turn on the radio, you know what news I hear.  Who would ever imagine that an otherwise undistinguished day in November would take almost anyone who was part of the Kennedy story into history?

***

I’m thinking now of my friend, Bob Loewy, who lives in New Orleans.  Before last month’s storm called Isaac, Bob lived through Hurricane Katrina.  It wasn’t the first hurricane Bob had experienced in his years as a New Orleans rabbi, but we all know Katrina was like nothing else before.  And because he was there and because he was who he was at that time and place, I venture to say Bob made history.

My friend, who was just a fellow I’ve known since we were in our 20’s, just happens to have refused to give up.  He and his family were forced to flee to Houston after Katrina, but from Houston Bob set up a command center for his congregation.  He contacted congregants wherever they were.  He counseled and consoled.  When he was able to get back home, he kept up the pace and rallied many in his congregation to rebuild alongside him.  

Suddenly – certainly not having planned it – Bob became more than himself.  He became for many a symbol of resilience and faith. 

While it was happening, did he know he was acting in an extraordinary way?  Not at all.  But looking back on what happened during Katrina and during the months that followed, one realizes that my friend did make some real history in a time of crisis.

Of course, most people don’t go out planning to make history.  Consider someone we all know.  Consider Moses before he became Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher.  

I’m thinking of Moses when he was one prince among many in Pharaoh’s busy palace.  Moses knew he wasn’t born into royalty like the other princes.  He probably felt slightly out of place many times as he grew up.  But he was still a prince of Egypt and, like his adopted Egyptian brothers, he must have trained to oversee the construction of pyramids.    

Imagine one day, then, when Moses may have woken up late, rushed over breakfast, and raced out to his construction site.  I see him hurrying by hundreds of Hebrew slaves.  Suddenly, he breaks his pace because of a piercing scream.  He is already irritated with himself for being late.  Now he loses his temper when he sees a taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave.  He hits the taskmaster.  The man loses his balance and somehow hits his head when he falls.  Moses realizes in an instant that he has killed the Egyptian.

Now what should he do?  This was supposed to be an ordinary day.  Moses was planning to become a construction manager for future pyramids.  

But it’s a bit late for that dream now.  The moment of anger sets in motion a chain of events that will change Moses’ life and change the world as well.  That morning at dawn Moses was one among many princes.  By evening, he has begun to become the one and only Moses.

Anywhere, any time, it looks as if history just might make its claim on any one of us.  

Most of the time we act as if that’s not the case.  You meet someone after work and ask what did you do today.  The answer – Not much.  It was a regular day.  We answer that way because most of us experience our days as if they were pretty much like all other days.  The last thing we think about is making history. 

Shana tova – In most cases, most years don’t look all that different from one another.  A baby may be born.  Perhaps a wedding.  Maybe you sold your home and vacationed for 14 days instead of your usual 7 days.  But it doesn’t feel like history.  It doesn’t feel so grand.

Few of us would probably join Porgy in singing, “I got plenty of nothing.”  We might rather say, “I got plenty of something – except it really isn’t something that matters all that much.”

Here’s where Judaism would object.

Judaism would insist that in reality everyone has plenty of something.  It may not be plenty of clothes, cars, or electronics.  But everybody does have plenty of experiences that do matter a great deal.

Being alive puts everyone, as it were, on the stage of history.

How do I know this?  Because the Bible told me so.  Rabbi Larry Kushner draws this lesson out of a curious verse in the Book of Deuteronomy.  We’re at the end of Deuteronomy, which also places us at the end of Moses’ life and the end of our ancestors’ 40 year journey in the Wilderness.  

At that point, Moses tells our ancestors, “[Over all these years]God has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” (Deut. 29:3)

What does that mean?

According to Rabbi Kushner’s reading, Moses means to say this to the Jewish people, “You know, friends, you may not know it, your eyes and ears haven’t realized it, but what we’ve been through these last 40 years has been extraordinary.  You may look back on our time together and remember how you were sometimes hungry and how you more than once complained bitterly about the desert.  You gave me a hard time.  You built the Golden Calf.  You never made it easy to believe in God.  You shivered in the desert nights and roasted under the Sinai sun.  You also married and raised kids along the way. “

“But, up until now, you haven’t had heart, eyes, or ears to realize something huge.   As contrary and often irreligious as you have been, you’re all I’ve got.  Your story is the only one I know.  So I am going to write you into the Torah.  Your lives… your everyday doubts and fears are going to be remembered by your children’s children’s children.  Your lives are going to be at the center of the best selling book ever written.”

And that’s the way it is.  

Did you ever wonder why the Torah is populated by some fine people but a majority of questionable characters:  Adam who can’t follow the rules in Eden, Abraham who almost sacrifices his son, and the Israelites who barely get across the Red Sea before they start questioning Moses and God.

They’re there and they make history because real people – fallible people - are the only people there really are.   In the course of living their mundane lives, our biblical ancestors were lucky.  Someone was watching and recording them so that we might ultimately learn something from their failures and successes.

Right now, today, the same is true for us.  We stand center stage.  We are – each of us – the stars in the lives we create every day.  Sometimes this is obvious.  Big days like weddings or funerals feel momentous.  They feel historic.  But the larger truth is that every day in some way is historic – even when we have neither eyes nor ears to know it.

We are making history in the most sacred way every time we encounter the world.  Every time we smile or grimace, every time we listen or turn away, we are making history.  We are making our history.  We are writing the story that is our life’s story.

Maybe that’s what the Book of Life is all about.  We write in it every day and at this Rosh Hashanah season – once a year – pause to consider what in the world we have created since we last came together.  Is the text worthy of our best selves?  Have we by our actions each and every day written new chapters that make us proud or new chapters that achieve less than that?

Years ago, I came across an anonymous essay that was clearly written for parents of young children.  Its message is my message for tonight:  that what we do in engaging other human beings makes history.  What we do – even the smallest things we do on undistinguished days - shapes lives and matters.  

So let me share that text with you now.  With a few revisions, I think it teaches that nothing we do is inconsequential.  

Summertime or any time, what we do doesn’t only make a difference, it makes all the difference.

Here’s the text – 

When you thought I wasn’t looking, I saw you hang my first painting on the refrigerator, and I immediately wanted to paint another one.

When you thought I wasn’t looking, I saw you make my favorite cake for me and I learned that little things can be special things in life.

When you thought I wasn’t looking, I saw you make a meal and take it to a friend who was sick, and I learned that we all have to take care of each other.

When you thought I wasn’t looking, I saw you give of your time and money to help people who had nothing and I learned that those who have something should give to those who don’t. 

When you thought I wasn’t looking, I felt you kiss me good night and I felt loved and safe.

When you thought I wasn’t looking, I saw tears come to your eyes and I learned that sometimes things hurt, but it’s alright to cry.

When you thought I wasn’t looking, you were gracious, open-minded, patient and compassionate, and I learned how every day can be transformed by the way you live it.

You lived well and that taught me to live well.

You made something good out of whatever the day gave you.

That’s how you made history.

That’s how I learned to make history.

Every day an opportunity.

Every day a blessing.

Shana Tova – Let’s go make tomorrow a good day.

Let’s go make some history in this New Year.

 

 

 

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