Picking Others Up© - Rosh Hashanah 5777/2016

Picking Others Up©
Rosh Hashanah 5777/2016
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

Who in here has ever seen a Sefer Torah fall to the floor?  Raise your hand if you have.  Those of us who have are part of special little club.  It’s really a rare phenomena, but it is a sight that strikes fear in both religious and secular Jews.  Even the risk of it falling gets our hearts beating faster and faster.   

The one and only time I saw a sefer torah fall was when I was an 18-year-old counselor at Camp Ramah Darom.  It was a normal Monday when we read Torah.  Both campers and counselors alike were singing loudly with smiles as we were escorting the holy scrolls back to the ark.  A fellow counselor, a young woman around my age, was in charge of securing the Torah in the ark.  She tied the sefer Torah in its place, and closed the ark door, and then, you can guess what happened - the Torah fell out of the ark and hit the floor with a loud thump. 

There was a silence that came that was just as loud as the singing was before.  The campers looked at us, the counselors, for guidance - but except for picking the Sefer Torah up, we didn’t know what to do.  And so, we looked to the three rabbis for counsel – have you ever heard the term two Jews three opinions – can you imagine how many opinions rabbis have? 

The first rabbi said we should take turns fasting – a different person should fast each day for 40 days. 
The second rabbi said that fasting is an outdated practice - fasting won’t bring any good to the world - we should devote ourselves to 40 days of Tikkun Olam, healing the world. 
The third rabbi said being kind without Torah misses the whole purpose - 40 people should study Torah for 40 days. 

We had multiple meetings and learning opportunities about what to do about the fallen sefer torah.  But there was something missing in our studies, there was something we were overlooking. 

I sat next to the girl who tied the sefer torah in the ark through one of our learning sessions, and I noticed something:  she was quietly weeping.  For days, she would not smile.  Finally, I asked her if she was ok.  She thanked me for reaching out to her, and in fact, very few people had reached out to her.  She said she felt that everyone was judging her for dropping the Torah. I will be honest, I was just as 'guilty' as everyone else in that camp.  

As we were arguing over what to do, days after we picked that sefer torah off of the floor, we could not see this young woman who was still very much on the floor. 

Every year, rabbis have been giving you sermons about this day – we've telling you – you need to treat every person as if they are created in the image of God, B’tzelem Elohim. But the image of God is an abstract thought – on the other hand, a sefer torah - now everyone knows what that looks like - everyone knows how we treat a sefer Torah. 

When it falls, we pick it up. 

There is an old teaching from the Ramban, Nachminides - he said that each one of us human beings is a sefer torah - our bodies are like the parchment, our souls are the letters written on that parchment.

Creating a Sefer Torah also parallels the creation of human beings.  Both of us are made of the skin of an animal - and it takes almost a year to create a sefer torah.  Both of our creators take great pains to ensure that every detail about us is perfect in our own way. 

Can you imagine if we looked at everyone, every person, as if they were a Sefer Torah? 

Today, I want to tell you why it’s so important to change the way we view our fellow human beings.

I want to tell you what to do when we see a walking, breathing sefer torah fall, you pick it up.

I know that the election seems to be the topic of discussion around many tables, but the lives that were lost this year to senseless violence weighs heavy on me…I’m sure they do to you too. 

The number casualties we heard about this year are almost unbelievable, incomprehensible.  We see blood shed on our television screens, on our phones – it seems almost constant. 

But its not just lives lost, it’s also about a scary reality.  Terror attack:  Knife attacks and bombings, a reality that Israel has long come to grips with, and mass shootings and violence against civilians and police. 

What do you do when faced with so many Sifrei Torah that have fallen to the floor?  

We aren't the first generation to witness this much bloodshed, and I don't think we'll be the last either. 

We’ve been here before.

What did we do?  We picked them up, as many as we can…

There is an old story that many of you are aware of…

A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.

He asks:  “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” he asks.

“Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further they'll die.”

The young man looks at him with astonishment:  “Open your eyes old man!  There are miles and miles of beach and thousands of starfish!  You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them!”

The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish, showed it to the young man and flung it into the sea. “It made a difference to that one.”

It’s a nice story, but I actually learned the lesson from my great-grandfather.  He saw so many starfish on the beach, countless. 

My great-grandfather and my grandfather were prisoners at the Mauthausen concentration camp.  Day after day they would see Jews being worked to death, thousands of Jewish men, women and children walking into the gas chambers to their deaths. 

They used to go on marches, death marches, because if you fell, you were shot.  My grandfather was walking with his father, and there were other father-son couples on these marches.  On one march, a young man’s father fell down out of exhaustion.  The Nazi guard pulled out his pistol, and shot him without hesitation, and holstered his gun.  The man's son could not believe what he just saw.  He collapsed to the floor – he grabbed his father's dead body.  The Nazi saw the boy on the floor out of the corner of his eye – he put his hand on his pistol once again. 

In seconds, my great-grandfather rushed to the boy, picked him up and threw him upon my grandfather.  My great-grandfather re-joined the two boys, whispering things to that young man who had just lost his father.  And the three of them walked off together. 

Many years had passed - my grandfather was sitting in a cafe in Netanya in Israel.  A man around his age was staring at him and finally approached him.  He said, “I remember you - you were at Mauthausen.”  And so they talked about their experience; sharing the stories of when they came closest to death.  The man told his story, about being on a death march, about seeing his father falling, about trying to lift him up.  He said, “I would have died right there, but an old Jew picked me up and led me away.  He saved my life.  He told me that I had to live for my father, that if I needed someone to lift me up, he would be there for me.  That man was my angel.  I tried to find him after that day, but I never could.  I really thought he was an angel, he picked me up, saved me, and then he vanished.  I wish I could have found him.” 

I truly believe that this holiday, Rosh Hashanah is the holiday that reminds us that we must pick others up, even others who are different than us, even those who we might be fighting with.

The Torah reading that was chosen for today is strange isn’t it?  Today is the anniversary of the creation of the world, and yet, we read about the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael.  But there's a story in here that I think we wince at every time we read it – when Sarah and Abraham throw Hagar and Ishmael out of their home, giving them some bread and water.  After the food and water were gone, Hagar leaves her son Ishmael under a bush to die.  Hagar and Ishmael are on Death's door, Hagar cries out:  “Let me not look on as the child dies!”  She has fallen so low she cannot even say his name, Ishmael.  Far away, she bursts into tears.  And then, God hears the cry of the boy, and an angel comes: 

Kumi Se'i et HaNaar v'Hachziki at Yadech Bo Ki L'Goy Gadol Asimenu

Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”

But a literal reading of the words hold him by the hand is actually 'make your hand strong in his' 'make your hand strong in his.'
The Torah is actually giving us a remedy for despair. As if to say, “Find someone else to help; find someone you can take by the hand and guide to a better place. You won’t only help that person but you will help yourself.”

An angel tells Hagar, you must lift him up, with my help, with God's help, but it's you who must do the work. 

It's the people who pick others up that should be our heroes. 

This summer, there were many heroes of the Olympics.  But I want to tell you about my personal heroes.  It sure wasn't Ryan Lochty, but it also wasn't Michael Phelps for me either.  Getting to the Olympics is a life long dream for these athletes.  Since they were children, they've been preparing for those moments.  Can you imagine making it almost to the end of that race, and falling? 

New Zealand Distance runner Nikki Hamblin and United States runner Abbey D’Agostino were four laps from the end of the 5000m in Rio when they collided.

Hamblin, bunched tightly in the mass of running women, stumbled and fell face forwards, causing her US competitor D’Agostino – who was running directly behind her – to hit the track as well, falling on the side of her body.

As Hamblin lay in the fetal position on the track D’Agostino jumped up quickly and pulled the New Zealander to her feet.  They started running, but D'Agostino started limping – she couldn't finish.  She fell to the ground.  Hamblin could have continued, but she stopped. 

D'Agostino said she felt a hand on her shoulder, and heard these words: ‘get up, get up, we have to finish this!’

They came in last place, but through their actions, they showed the world what true heroes could be.  Hamblin said the following about this moment of kindness she wasn't expecting at the race: 

“When I look back on Rio 2016, I’m not going to remember where I finished, I’m not going to remember my time … but I’ll always remember that moment.  Sometimes I guess you have to remember trying to be a good human being is more than, you know. If I hadn’t waited for her or tried to help her I would have been 10 or fifteen seconds quicker and what does that matter?”[1]

When we pick others up – we gain purpose -

Sometimes, the world seems like a dark place.  It seems like the earth is scorched – like there is so much that needs to be done and yet we are paralyzed, what can I do? 

Again, we've been there before – thousands of years ago.  There's an old story:  Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai once was walking with his student Rabbi Joshua near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua falls down on the ground and looks at the Temple ruins and screams: “Alas for us! Oy Lanu! The place which atoned for the sins of the people Israel through the ritual of animal sacrifice lies in ruins!” Then Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai picked him up and said the following: “Do not grieve, my son. There is another way now of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We must now gain atonement through gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness...”(Avot d’Rabbi Natan 11a)

Part of my job is to lift others up through acts of lovingkindness – I'm happy to do it, I love doing it – but alas, I'm only one man. 

I once received a call from a congregant– can you visit so and so, he's in the hospital.  I said, I cannot today, can you? 
“No, I don't do that.”  I never asked why.  Perhaps it was because they did not see themselves in that way, how could they do what I do?  You probably need a title to visit someone, to lift them up – like chaplain, or rabbi. 
I know that some of you in here are not part of our community year round, but you are part of the human community.  So, will you do one thing for me?  You know the toiletries that you get from hotels, those little soap bars and shampoos.  Will you put them in a small bag and give them to the homeless who are asking for money and food on the corners?  Showing them just a little kindness, letting them know that they are human beings just like you, and just like you, they deserve to be clean would make a big difference in their lives. 

But, I'll let you in on a little secret, you don't need a title to bring God's light to the world – each one of you was born with a hidden light – and through our acts of kindness, that light is shown to the world.  

We bring pieces of God to the world by picking up those who have fallen. 

My friends, I need your help because others need your help. 

We are starting a new group at Shaarei Kodesh – the Sunshine Team.  You don't need to be a Torah scholar, you don't need to be shomer shabbat either – all it takes is you lifting someone up this year – to bring light to the darkness

By visiting and delivering food to someone who cannot leave their home...
By visiting someone in the hospital just to talk to them, just to listen to them...

You might be wondering how that man reacted when my grandfather told him it was his father who saved him.  The truth is, he never told the man who the angel was who picked him up, that it was his father.  And maybe its because we are all angels.  In the Torah, the line between angel and human is often blurred, and so our job is to lift others, to shine the divine light inside of us, and be angels for others. 

Those who pick others up don't always get the credit they deserve, they often times don't get the gold, silver or even the bronze just like you don't get an award for picking up a sefer torah that fell – and perhaps it's fitting that we don't.  The most famous tzadikim, righteous people, are anonymous.  And so, while we congratulate and honor the champions who donate money to tzedakah, as we should, we also know that its the tzadikim, the people who pick others up, that make this world go round.  By picking someone up, you can make a difference for one person, and we all know, that one person can make a world of difference. 

[1]           http://www.latimes.com/sports/olympics/la-sp-oly-rio-2016-runners-abbey-d-agostino-nikki-hamblin-1471369602-htmlstory.html


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