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Sunday, October 22, 2017
Yom Rishon, 2 Heshvan 5778

Rosh Ha-Shanah Morning Sermon, September 21 & 22 2017

on Thursday, 21 September 2017.

This summer I found myself flipping through the television channels and very often ending up watching a few episodes of one of the all-time best shows, “M*A*S*H.”  (For those of you who are not familiar with “M*A*S*H,” it aired in the 1970s and early 1980s and is the story of the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.)  “M*A*S*H” is one of my favorite shows and I’m always happy to spend time with my friends Hawkeye, B.J., Hot Lips, Radar, Klinger, and the rest of the gang, so I decided to record the shows and made my way through the eleven seasons that this television show aired. 

One episode in particular touched me as a rabbi.  The story is called “Blood Brothers” and it originally aired in April 1981.  In the main storyline, Father Mulcahy (played by William Christopher) is anxiously awaiting the arrival of a senior officer, Cardinal Reardon, his boss.  Father Mulcahy is very anxious, wanting everything to be just perfect for the cardinal’s visit.  His preparation for that Sunday’s worship is all-consuming; Father Mulcahy spends all of his time writing what he hopes to be the best sermon of his life. (You can see, I’m sure, why I could relate to this storyline!)

The second storyline in this episode has one soldier, Private Gary Sturgis, played by a very young Patrick Swayze (in his television debut), learning that, in addition to his war wounds, he also has leukemia.  There is nothing that his doctor, Dr. Pierce, can do to help him, other than to send him to Tokyo for more tests and possible treatment.  Despite his own almost-assuredly fatal diagnosis, Sturgis wants to stay at the hospital with his best friend, who was very severely injured, in order to encourage him during his recovery.

Father Mulcahy learns of the situation and pulls himself away from his sermon-writing to counsel Sturgis about his newly-discovered illness.  Sturgis and Mulcahy spend the entire night talking.  In fact, Father Mulcahy is so absorbed with this soldier that he has to be pulled away from him the next morning, being reminded to go to the chapel, where everyone was waiting for him, to deliver his sermon. 

So there he is, in front of the entire camp, all of whom showed up to support him on his big day, wearing the same bathrobe he had been wearing the night before when he was called away to counsel the soldier, and suddenly he realizes how silly he had been to be worried about one measly little sermon, one simple little visit from a superior officer.  Instead of delivering the at-least-partially-written sermon that he had been working on, he said:

I want to tell you about two men.  Each facing his own crisis. The first man you know rather well. The second is a patient here.  Well, the first man thought he was facing a crisis.  But what he was really doing was trying to impress someone.  He was looking for recognition, encouragement, a pat on the back.  And whenever that recognition seemed threatened he reacted rather childishly.  Blamed everyone for his problems but himself because he was thinking only of himself.  But the second man was confronted with the greatest crisis mortal man can face, the loss of his life. I think you will agree that the second man had every right to be selfish.  But instead he chose to think not of himself, but of a brother.  A brother!  When the first man saw the dignity and the selflessness of the second man, he realized how petty and selfish he had... I... I... I had been.  It made me see something more clearly than I've ever seen it before.  God didn't put us here for that pat on the back. [God] created us so [God] could be here…  So [God] could exist in the lives of those [God] created, in [the divine] image.

“We are here so that God can be here [on earth].”  Those words really hit home with me. They’re not how I as a rabbi would probably communicate that sentiment, yet they are powerful and, I have found, a source of comfort and inspiration. They remind me, even though they were spoken by a television character, that we must be out there caring for others, both taking care of those who need physical and / or emotional care, and taking care of our world.  It is our duty.

One of the foundations for this obligation is found in this morning’s Torah portion, which tells of the creation of the world.  It’s a very familiar story:  God created light and darkness, heaven and earth, plants and trees, and all sorts of animals.  Throughout the first five days of creation, we read that God made many things, including many multiples of different types of living beings.  And yet on the sixth day of creation, God made only one human being, not multiple humans of different colors, shapes, or sizes:  “God said:  ‘Let us make human in our image’...thus God created human in the divine image (b’tzelem Elohim), in the image of God the Divine created him; male and female God created them.  God blessed them... And God saw all that had been made and found it very good.” [Genesis 1:26-28, 31]

The rabbis understood this passage to mean that God created one being which was later separated into two:  man and woman.  The Mishnah teaches that humanity was created as one single being so that no one might say to another:  “My parent was greater than yours.” [Sanhedrin 4:5]  We all come from the same line...we all have the same heritage...we all are brothers and sisters.  And God saw that we, God’s creation, were “very good.”  No other creation is noted as being “very” good in the creation story. Only we humans did God find to be “very” good.

The same Mishnah continues:  “…For a person strikes many coins from the same die and all the coins are alike; but when…the Holy One, Blessed be God, strikes each person from the die of the First Person, no person is quite like his friend.”  Descending from one common ancestor, God created each of us a little bit different than others, but also exactly the same:  b’tzelem Elohim -- in God’s image.  Each of us thus has the divine spark within us.

There is a word that is used in India that is said in greeting both friend and stranger alike:  “Namaste:  I see the divine spark within you.”  My colleague, Rabbi Debbie Pipe-Mazo, wrote about this phrase in our rabbinic newsletter years ago.  She suggested that we think of this statement when dealing with others, but she also challenged us to use it with ourselves.  She asked us to start by looking in the mirror each day and saying to ourselves, “I see in me evidence of the divine spark.”

I see her words on my refrigerator every morning.  That piece of paper reminds me every day that I am created b’tzelem Elohim and as such, I deserve dignity and respect. My life, my well-being, my feelings are just as important as anyone else’s.  Recognizing one’s own worth is the first step.

The next step is to apply that lesson to others, to everyone with whom we come into contact:  not just family and friends, of course, but also co-workers, our fellow congregants, the waiter at the restaurant, the clerk at the dry-cleaning store, everyone -- each of whom is also made  b’tzelem Elohim

The prophets remind us that “we are here so that God can be here on earth.”  They teach us that, as God’s partners, we are to take care of everyone in need, to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked as they, too, have the divine spark within.  God commands us to give tzedakah (righteous giving), to pursue acts of g’milut chasadim (lovingkindness).  Joseph Karo, the author of the Shulkhan Arukh, a collection of Jewish laws written in the Middle Ages, notes that “‘each person must contribute tzedakah according to his or her means.’” [Yoreh Deah 248:1]  Even those who themselves receive help from the community are to give whatever possible to others.  No one is exempt from this duty.

In an interview in February 2015 on the PBS television show “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly,” the host, Bob Abernethy, interviewed the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks.  Rabbi Sacks is an Orthodox rabbi and the author of 30 books. In the interview, Rabbi Sacks said:

Judaism tends to be a religion of deeds and making the world better, what we call Tikkun Olam.  So we really don’t have a problem with atheists or agnostics so long as they are willing to work along with us to make the world a slightly different place.  We don’t ask that everyone who comes inside this synagogue believes in all elements of Jewish faith.  We just say come and be part of the community, because it is in community that we find meaning, that we find relationship, that we find friendship and love, and it is in community that we change the world.

My friends, let us change the world by seeing the Divine presence in each and every person.  Let us come together in community to do the sometimes difficult work of tzedakah, g’milut chasadim, and tikkun olam.  Let us be God’s presence on earth.

Kein y’hi ratzon.

May this be God’s will.