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A Legacy for Sinai Temple

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, September 23, 2015


It's 1963 and my summer camp friends and I have been delivered to a Saturday night movie in downtown Toronto. We are 13 years old, and somehow we have convinced our parents to let us see From Russia with Love, one of the early James Bond movies.

We are "psyched" to see the movie because we've all read that Bond book and many others. We've read and traded Bond at camp all summer... although one of our number has out read us all.

Our friend, Peter, nicknamed "Professor," not only read the Bond books but three other novels in the space of our eight-week summer. The largest book he read was a bestseller called Shoes of the Fisherman. It told the story of a fictional priest from Ukraine who becomes Pope, which was in those days considered to be an unimaginable event. It was a fabulous premise for a work of fiction - almost as fabulous as imagining that a Pope might come from South America.

But here we are. It's 2015 and we have a Pope Francis from Buenos Aires. He is in America today. Tomorrow morning he will speak to Congress. Just before he does so, I want to speak about him.

Pope Francis is not your usual pope.

He began his pontificate by putting aside the golden cross customarily worn by the Vicar of Christ. He also put aside the showy red papal shoes. He has retired the papal Mercedes in favor of a Ford Focus.

On his first Holy Thursday, Francis found a juvenile detention center in Rome and washed the feet of 12 teenage residents.

Early in his papacy, when asked about homosexuality and matters regarding sexual orientation, Francis replied, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord... Who am I to judge?"

When he appointed someone new to take over a charitable organization in Rome, he advised him, "Sell your desk. You don't need it. You need to get out of the Vatican. Don't wait for people to come ringing. Go out and look for the poor."

Francis also has a substantial working relationship with the Jewish community that goes back decades. One of the major rabbis in Buenos Aires, Abraham Skorka, is a personal friend. When Skorka visited the Pope last year, the Pope hosted him personally, supervised his kosher meals, and responded "amen" to the Rabbi's prayers.

Most recently, the Pope has even empowered local priests during what is called a Year of Mercy to offer absolution to those who have experienced what the Church calls the "sin" of abortion.

It's all quite unexpected. You have to like this man.

But know this.

Francis is not a Reform Jew. He is not planning a reformation of his Church.

Refreshing as he can be, Pope Francis is the Pope, and he is a devoted Roman Catholic. He lives and breathes his faith. More than once, when he has been asked to introduce himself to an audience, he has declared, "I am a sinner."

Just in case we were beginning to think Francis was one of us with his apparently more relaxed approach toward Catholic practice, a second look reveals that he is profoundly Christian. Even his marvelous encyclical on the climate crisis is carved out of his faith as a Christian.

Which is actually good. It's wonderful to hear him speak from his convictions as a Christian because we don't need Francis to be a New England liberal.

He's important to us... he's important to me on Yom Kippur morning because he is a man who knows who he is. He is clear about his beliefs, speaks his truth, and lives it.

Can the same be said about us?

On Yom Kippur, when we look in the mirror and examine ourselves, are we as clear as the Pope about our beliefs and values?

If your child or grandchild were asked 'what do your parents or grandparents believe,' what would they say?

Would they know where your center is?

Can you articulate what you stand for... what matters to you?

Your first option might be to fall back on the Ten Commandments. "I believe in the Ten Commandments. Those are my core," you might say.

Here's the problem.

Although I know you don't murder and probably don't steal, is that enough? I suppose if you were to avoid murder and stealing and coveting, and adultery while we are at it and then observed Shabbat and honored your parents, you would be touching most of the Ten. You would have the beginning of a value system.

But is that really you? Remember, the Ten Commandments start out with three commandments about faith in God. How do those commandments speak to you? Can you live them and share them as the core of who you are and who you want your children and grandchildren to be?

Maybe yes. I'm certainly not suggesting the Ten Commandments are a bad idea, but I am wondering if they really guide the way you shape your life.

Or perhaps you would like to slip over to Leviticus Chapter 19 and quote verse 18 as a kind of Eleventh Commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Perhaps that's it. That is your center as a human being and Jew.

Actually, If you go this route, you're doing pretty well because with slightly different wording the great sage Hillel offered the Golden Rule as the essence of a good Jewish life. Hillel is the same early rabbi who taught this Torah which might move you too. "Bamakom - In a place where no one behaves like a decent human being, you must try to be that decent person."

And I could keep going from quote to quote because Jewish tradition is full of great ideas about meaningful living. One idea flows into the other. We could list 50 first-rate insights about life, you could choose your top ten, and then have them at your side as Yom Kippur progresses and you judge yourself to have lived as well as you could or not.

The challenge is real because Judaism doesn't have a creed. We don't make life easy by spelling out what you must believe. You are supposed to follow commandments, but what goes on inside you... what shapes you as a person is in your hands.

That is why there is a Jewish custom that might interest you. It is called the ethical will. Ethical wills are documents which Jews over the ages have written after or even instead of the classic will that pays attention to finances and property.

Instead of focusing on which people inherit the money, the ethical will is a kind of gift to everyone in the family. It's a document in which a person says these are the values and priorities I have had in life. I hope you will carry them forward in your lives.

Here is one example of an ethical will. It comes to us from Nachmanides, a rabbi who lived in Spain around the year 1250.

He wrote these words for his son. "Listen, my child... Speak with kindness to all people... This saves you from anger, the major cause of misdeed...Always be humble... Regard every person as greater than yourself...Study Torah regularly so that you can fulfill its commandments. When you finish your studies, think carefully about what you have learned. Translate your learning into action...When you pray, do not think about worldly matters, think only of God.

Kindness... humility... Torah... walk the talk... prayer.

This is the legacy Nachmanides wants to leave for his family. Do his words reflect you? Are his values your values?

If it's not a good fit, consider another ethical will. This one was written 100 years ago by Sholom Aleichem, the Yiddish writer who created Tevye and the basis for Fiddler on the Roof.

He's a different man with very different concerns. Sholom Aleichem asks his children, "Wherever I die, let me be buried not among the rich and famous, but among plain Jewish people... so that my tombstone may honor the simple graves around me, and the simple graves honor mine... .

He continues, "My prayer to my children: Remember me with joy... and the main thing - live together in peace... help one another in bad times... pity the poor, and when circumstances permit, pay my debts, if there be any.

That's Sholom Aleichem: down-to-earth, centered on family and, speaking from the Lower East Side of New York City, concerned about poverty and tzedakah.

Are his values your values? Do his words describe what you hope will be your legacy?

And here's a surprise before I share with you a kind of ethical will from me to you.

It turns out that President Obama wrote what he called "a legacy letter" to his daughters in 2009 on the eve of his inauguration. I'm going to quote it not because I am promoting his presidency, but because in the letter he speaks as a father. He tells his girls what he stands for.

Dear Malia and Sasha,

When I was a young man, I thought life was all about me...

But then the two of you came into my world... And suddenly, all my big plans for myself didn't seem so important... I realized that my own life wouldn't count for much unless I was able to ensure that you had every opportunity for happiness and fulfillment in yours... I ran for President: because of what I want for you and for every child in this nation.

I want all our children to go to schools worthy of their potential - schools that challenge them... and instill in them a sense of wonder about the world... I want them to have the chance to go to college - even if their parents aren't rich. And I want them to get good jobs: jobs that pay well and give them benefits like health care, jobs that let them spend time with their own kids and retire with dignity.

And I want us to push... human boundaries to reach beyond the divides of race and region, gender and religion that keep us from seeing the best in each other.

[I believe] America is great not because it is perfect but because it can always be made better - and that the unfinished work of perfecting our union falls to each of us.

I hope both of you will take up that work... Not just because you have an obligation to give something back to this country that has given our family so much... But because you have an obligation to yourself.

Because it is only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential.

Love, Dad

Let me ask you on this Yom Kippur: Could you write such a letter? Do you know yourself and your dreams well enough to say who you really are? Have you created a life that stands for right and wrong and, as the President says, something beyond you?

I'm asking these questions because the Pope - or at least thinking about the Pope - made me do it.

I'm asking them too because there is, as they say, an elephant in the room. This is the last Yom Kippur morning sermon I will deliver at Sinai Temple, ALTHOUGH I'm not retiring when the sun sets tonight. This is only the beginning of the Jewish year.

There are by my count 40 Shabbatot ahead of us; 40 Torah Studies; 80 services (plus holidays); life cycle events; meetings; conversations in the hallway; conversations at Big Y; phone calls galore; counseling; Adult Confirmation; and High School Confirmation.

We're going to build a sukkah, dance at Simchat Torah, bless candles at Chanukah, enrich another Passover, and most certainly be outrageous at Purim. I plan to encourage you to be here more often, to learn more, to engage Shabbat more. We are going to break ground on a home for Habitat for Humanity.

And yet I am also thinking about legacy.

Wondering what we have learned from each other.

When it comes to my values, well, you've heard them from me hundreds of times. Visit my sermons on the Temple website. Dig out that compendium of bulletin articles we published on my 25th anniversary.

It's all there. It's me. It's what I believe and what I believe Judaism means.

However, lest you be uncertain about where I stand, I think it wouldn't hurt to retell three stories.

The first is the story of a candidate who appeared before the Admissions Committee of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He wanted acceptance into their rabbinic program, and he arrived fully prepared for the screening process. Tough questions came from the professors and the candidate acquitted himself with great skill.

Then came a question from one of the most respected professors, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel quietly asked, "Suppose you had to spend a week on a secluded desert island. What would you take with you?"

The student looked piously at Heschel and answered, "Of course, a Bible." After a pause, Heschel continued, "And nothing else?" The candidate caught himself, "Oh, yes... I would take some Talmud to study." Heschel continued, "And nothing else?" The candidate thought and then added, "I would take my prayer book for daily worship."

At this point, Heschel look at him kindly and said, "My boy, all the things you mentioned are necessary, but above all, I think you must not forget to take along a few sandwiches and a sweater."

My friends, as time goes by, please do remember the sandwiches and a sweater. Judaism is down-to-earth at its best. It is practical and life-affirming. You have to eat. And, by the way, learning and praying are also important. But always, a la Heschel, proceed gently and humbly. Oh yes, smile while you are at it. Humor helps.

Story #2 - Years ago an American Jewish businessperson took a tour of Eastern Europe. One day he came upon a little town surround by high mountains. Because the inhabitants of this Jewish town were worried they might miss the Messiah when he (or she) arrived, they had put a man on the mountain top. His job was to watch for the Messiah and ring a bell if he came.

The day the business man arrived he came upon the watchman and asked how long the fellow had been doing his job. "I began when I was a young man," said the watchman, "and I just had my third grandchild. A long time."

"And how much do they pay you?"

"Three kopeks a day."

The businessman was astonished and said, "I respect your dedicaion. The Messiah idea is excellent. But I can give you a job as a watchman in my factory for 20 times the money."

To which the watchman replied, "No, I couldn't do that. You don't understand. What I have here - waiting for the Messiah - this is a permanent job."

Sinai Temple, as time goes by, please stay on the watch. The Messiah has clearly not arrived in our neck of the woods - yet. But that doesn't mean he's not just around the corner. Keep an eye out for Elijah; he's my favorite prophet. They say he will let us know the Messiah is coming, but, while we wait, there is so much work to be done.

As someone once said... Don't stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. Justice, justice shall you pursue.

And Story #3 - What do we most need to remember?

It comes across in this story of Rabbi Max Arzt, a teacher from several decades ago. Arzt once told a group of rabbis about a train trip from Italy to Switzerland. Arriving at the station, Rabbi Arzt requested a second-class compartment and, without looking at his ticket, he boarded the train.

When the conductor came through to check the ticket, he said, "You are in the wrong car; you have a first-class ticket." The Rabbi replied, "No, I have a second-class ticket." But the conductor took him by the arm and literally pushed him into the first-class seats.

Rabbi Arzt continued, "I sat down and examined my ticket. Sure enough, it was a first-class ticket. The ticket agent had made mistake and I knew I had a sermon.

We Jews also have first-class tickets, but how many of us know it?

Sinai Temple, as time goes by, look at the ticket you were given when you were born a Jew or converted to become one. It is an extraordinary ticket: wise, varied, life-affirming, wholesome, courageous, and hopeful.

Come on board from this New Year to all those that lie ahead.

Stay on board and tell your children why it matters to you... why you wouldn't want to take the journey of life any other way.

We're bound for the future, blessed and secure in the lives we create today and every day.

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