ROSH HA-SHANAH MORNING SERMON
OCTOBER 3 & 4, 2016
RABBI AMY B. BIGMAN
There once was a little boy who wanted to meet God, or so the story goes. He knew it was a long trip to where God lived, so he packed his suitcase with cupcakes, several cans of root beer and started on his journey.
When he had gone about three blocks, he saw an elderly woman. She was sitting on a park bench watching the pigeons. The boy sat down next to her and opened his suitcase. He was about to take a drink from his root beer when he noticed the lady looked hungry so he offered her a cupcake. She gratefully accepted and smiled at him.
Her smile was so wonderful that he wanted to see it again, so he offered a root beer as well. Once again she smiled at him. The boy was delighted!
They sat there all afternoon eating and smiling without saying a word.
As it began to grow dark, the boy realized how tired he was and wanted to go home. He got up to leave but before he had gone no more than a few steps, he turned around and ran back to the old woman, giving her a big hug. She gave him her biggest smile ever.
When the boy arrived home his mother was surprised by the look of joy on his face. She asked, “What has made you so happy today?” He replied, “I had lunch with God.” Before his mother could respond he added, “You know what? She’s got the most beautiful smile in the whole world!”
Meanwhile, the old woman, also radiant with joy, returned to her home. Her son was stunned by the look of peace on her face. He asked, “Mother, what has made you so happy today?” She replied, “I ate cupcakes in the park with God.” And before her son could reply, she added, “You know, he is much younger than I expected.”
[The American Rabbi website, “Pearlson’s Pearls 5777,” author unknown]
Can you imagine a sweeter story than this? (Pun intended!) Two people finding God in the other. Simply being present with each other, sharing some cupcakes and root beer, they found God.
Each of us is made b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image). We learn this in the very first chapter of the Book of Genesis: “And God created the human in the image of God; in the image of God, God created the human; male and female, God created them.” [v.27] So often, in our daily interactions, I fear that we forget this simple teaching, we forget that God created each person in the divine image.
Imagine how wonderful our lives would be if each of us took a moment to see God in the other before we open our mouths to say something! Imagine how wonderful our world would be if each of us acted with derekh eretz. Derekh eretz literally translated means “the way of the land.” It is the term we use to describe good manners, common decency, civil behavior. One way I read it described is “the behavior to which all thoughtful and decent people should aspire.”
Our religious school students learn about derekh eretz from the get-go. They learn about it in kindergarten and first grade and then again in the second and third grades. I asked our youngest students during our weekly t’fillot on Sunday mornings recently what they were learning at religious school. They told me that they were learning about derekh eretz. Many of them told me that it means to share their things with others, to be nice to others, and so on. One of the religious school materials from Torah Aura Productions teaches derekh eretz this way:
Derekh means “a road.” Eretz means “the land.” Derekh Eretz is “the right way to go.” Following the rules is part of Derekh Eretz. Being polite is part of Derekh Eretz. Acting with kindness and treating other people with respect is Derekh Eretz, too. It is Derekh Eretz to help others whenever we can. Derekh Eretz is the way a good person behaves. [Torah Aura, BJL: Mitzvot]
This sort of reminds me of the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. The problem is that while we may have learned in kindergarten to be polite, act kindly, and treat others with respect, as adults we sometimes (maybe often?) forget those lessons.
In our political discourse, especially this year’s elections, some of the candidates have just been so mean, obnoxious even. Last month we heard a lot about the governor of Maine, Paul LePage. He left a message on the voicemail of one of Maine’s legislators saying he wished he could challenge the legislator to a duel and point a gun at his forehead. If that wasn’t bad enough, the language that he used in referring to the legislator was so inappropriate that it had to be bleeped out when it was reported on television news. Governor LePage must not have learned about Derekh Eretz when he was in kindergarten.
In our professional and personal lives, unfortunately, we find this lack of Derekh Eretz as well. Whether it’s between colleagues or spouses, employer and employee, parent and child, treating each other as anything other than made in the divine image is unacceptable. Plain and simple.
I have learned that, although admittedly I didn’t count it up myself! — there are approximately 200 teachings in the Talmud and Midrash about derekh eretz, about how to treat others. [“Torah Im Derech Eretz,” Wikipedia] Obviously, the Rabbis wanted us to know how important this teaching is! One of the most famous of those teachings comes from the Midrash: Vayikra Rabbah 9:3. It is quite a lengthy text, but I will do my best to summarize it for you:
Rabbi Yannai was taking a walk and he saw a man who was extremely well dressed. Rabbi Yannai invited the man to join him at his house, where they ate and drank together. Rabbi Yannai spoke to the man about many important Jewish texts but realized that the man had no knowledge of any of them. The man didn’t even know how to say the blessing over the wine! Rabbi Yannai chastised the man for his lack of knowledge. The man told him that while he may not know about the important Jewish texts, he was a good man: He told Rabbi Yannai that he had never heard gossip and repeated it, nor did he ever see two people quarreling without helping make peace between them. It was then that Rabbi Yannai realized what a grievous mistake he had made: “You have much derekh eretz and I treated you so improperly!”
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, a Reconstructionist rabbi, serves the Temple Chai community in Phoenix, Arizona, and is a Chaplain (Colonel) in the United States Army Reserve. She writes and publishes extensively. In her sermon about Derekh Eretz, she asks, “What is the ultimate goal of Jewish life?” Her answer: “Judaism does not suggest that the highest goal is to withdraw from life and to live a life of contemplation and solitude. Rather, it challenges us to live with all the frustration and temptations of life in the world, and to find a way to elevate every moment, to seek the holiness in our smallest gestures and behaviors.”
Whether it is offering a stranger a cupcake and some root beer, opening the door for someone, sharing our toys, or lending a hand to another, remembering that each of us is made in God’s image and treating others as such is one of the highest commandments we can observe. Let us resolve on this New Year’s Day to see others as godly, as being made b’tzelem Elohim, and to always treat them as such in every aspect of our lives.