Thursday, September 12, 2013

Changing the World: Rosh Hashanah 5774

I hope you have all seen the recent movie “Lee Daniel’s The Butler.”  If not, spoiler alert: the boat sinks at the end.

The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a character based on Eugene Allen, who went from working the cotton fields as a boy in Georgia to serving eight American presidents as a White House Butler.  Inspired by Will Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post Article “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” the movie shows the quiet power of the invisible forces in our lives.

In the film’s exposition, Cecil Gaines sees his mother raped and his father shot by one of the plantation owners under whom they toiled.  In a brilliantly acted display of pity combined with condescension, the matron of the plantation takes him into the house and trains him to be what I will rephrase as “House Boy.”  She tells him that when he enters a room to serve, he should not so much as breathe.  The room should feel empty when he is in it.  The training to be invisible in a room combined with his own sense of anticipating the needs of those he serves make him the perfect butler.  So perfect that in the movie he is eventually sought out by the White House staff to serve President Eisenhower.  As he is trained by the White House Maitre D’, he is again reminded that a successful butler makes a room feel empty when he is in it.

Cecil spends 34 years going in and out of the Oval Office.   He is regularly confided in by the eight presidents he serves.  President Reagan calls him a member of the family, which lets us know that he enjoys a level of confidence that no other low-income American has.  It is this level of confidence that gives him this quiet power.  He served the White House in a time when the country was just learning about equality.  When Cecil left the White House he had to use separate water fountains and bathroom in public.  Segregation was the norm, and the men he worked for, by asking him personal questions, had their eyes opened to the problems with how America treated African Americans.

It is also a study of power and its contrasts.  As Cecil serves in the White House, his son   Howard joins protests.  He sits at the counter at Woolworth’s, rides the Freedom Bus, gets arrested and beaten over and over by standing up vocally for equal rights.  He even becomes a politician who speaks out loudly for civil right in America--and eventually for the desegregation of South Africa.  But Cecil and his son are not the only images of contrasting power.  Lyndon Johnson sits on the toilet asking for prune juice, JFK jokes about the 103 aspirins he takes daily to keep his Addisons in check, and a butler sits as a guest at a state dinner.  Cecil Gaines stands in a darkened Oval Office next to a blood-stained Jackie Kennedy as he powerlessly pleads, “Please tell me how I can help you?”  A look of triumph quietly creeps across his face as he tells his direct boss Mr. Warner that the President has pre-approved his request for a raise that Warner just rejected.  Director Lee Daniels does a brilliant job contrasting those who fight for their civil rights with those who serve the most powerful people in the nation.  The power of keeping your head down and working hard versus the power of rising up and fighting for your rights are regularly interplayed in dialogue and montage.  

The power one person has to change the world.

Tomorrow morning we will read the beginning of the Torah, which is fitting for Rosh Hashanah.  The Torah begins with God creating the universe.  God makes light and darkness, water, air, land, plants, and all kinds of animals, including human beings.  Last night I announced that our Study Theme for the year is going to be change.  So why not start big, with changing the world?  In Judaism changing the world is often referred to as tikkun olam.  Anyone who has attended a Jewish summer camp, taken part in Religious School, or attended services more than twice a year has heard this phrase before.  It has a tendency to be overused as a catchphrase for social action.  Tikkun olam does work as a term for social action, but the phrase originates from a Kabbalistic story about the creation narrative.  The 16th Century Mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria tells the tale of what happened before God started to create.

Before the creation of the world, God was everywhere, filling every space.  God wanted to create the world, but to do so God needed to make room for creation.  God had to withdraw from God in an act called tzimtzum.  Much like when we take a deep breath of air and compact our organs around our lungs, God’s essence was compacted around the edges of the space created by the withdrawal.  Rabbi Luria compares it to an emptied flask of oil that retains a sheen from the oil that was once there.  This God-oil, as it were, begins to drip, and it needs to be contained, so God creates vessels to hold the essence of God.  Alas, because of the power of God’s essence, the vessels shatter, and tiny shards of the Infinite explode throughout the universe.  These tiny sparks are hidden throughout the universe, and whenever we do an act of kindness for another human being, we bring two of these sparks together.  That act is not just healing the world, but healing ha’olam, healing the eternal.  Every time we make a positive change in the world we are healing God.

Lisa Greenberg changed the world.  If you don't know Lisa, she is our youth director and 8th/9th grade religious school teacher.  Our teens are at a critical moment in their lives.  They are thinking about college, about socializing their way through high school, and they don't have a lot of time to think about being Jewish.  Lisa keeps Jewish living on their radar.  She makes Judaism fun.  She makes it easy for our kids to be a part of the CBT community, and she keeps them wanting Jewish contact in their lives.  That is changing the world.

Rabbi Andy Koren changed the world.  In the summer of 2007 Rabbi Koren and I were serving as faculty at Camp Coleman in Cleveland, GA.  We were talking one evening about New Orleans and the devastation caused by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  It was almost two years earlier that so much of New Orleans was wiped out, and there was still so much to be done.  He asked me if I would be interested in bringing some kids to New Orleans to do some clean-up work.  I immediately said yes, and though we both seemed excited about the prospect I didn’t hear from him for about three months after that.  He called me up and asked if I thought I could get five teens to join his synagogue on a trip to the Big Easy.  He had 15 signed up, but he needed 20 to make it a viable trip.  A week later I had 8 kids ready to go, so the week after Thanksgiving we took off for a long weekend that would change our world.

While we were there we met the Carters.  Phyllis and Joe Carter worked as a teacher and a pharmacist’s assistant, respectively.  They had lived a nice life in a two-story house that they owned.  They had converted it into a duplex so their daughter and her family would have a place to live.  In 2003 Phyllis retired a few years earlier than she had planned so that she could focus on fighting breast cancer.  Joe retired in 2005, a few months before Katrina hit.  They had a retirement fund, a small savings, and they shared expenses with their daughter.  When they evacuated their home before the hurricane, they didn’t bring much with them.  They had been through storms before, and usually the warnings were false alarms.  So they went to Phyllis’ sister in Mississippi and waited it out.  By the time we met the Carters, they had used up all of their insurance.  The money they got paid for repairs and much of the flood damage, but they had more expenses than they anticipated, especially since they were robbed three times during the building process.  Joe took to sleeping in his truck in the driveway to deter thieves, and they worked on to fix their home.  One thing Phyllis promised herself was that she would save their retirement fund.  They could use the insurance money and use their savings, but she didn’t want to use their retirement money because she worried about having to go back to work, especially since her daughter had found work in Mississippi and decided to stay there.  So she decided that she would forgo painting the house, because they just didn’t have the money.  Her contractor told her that if they did that they couldn't get insurance for the new house because paint is more than aesthetic--it also gives a layer of protection against weather and wear.  Faced with a terrible decision, she decided she would have to bite the bullet.  She was walking out to greet her contractor, ready to tell him to paint the house, knowing it would put her in debt, when the phone rang.  Standing in her driveway, she answered the phone to learn that we were on our way.  We were bringing paint and supplies, and a crew of more than 20 workers to paint the Carters’ home.  Over the two days we worked on their home, we learned their story, learned that she was Lil’ Wayne’s third grade teacher, that she values learning just as much as Jews do, and that she has an incredible sense of humor.  Joe didn’t talk much.

We connected with the Carters and enabled them to live in the home they own in the city they love.  We brought together their Divine Spark with ours, and healed that part of the universe.  All because one person said, “Do you want to go on this trip with me?”

One person has tremendous power in Jewish teachings. The Talmud teaches that to save one life is to save the entire world (B. Sanhedrin 37a).  We are commanded to ignore all negative commandments--all the “thou shalt not’s”--if we can save one life (B. Yoma 84b).  Just as one person merits being saved, one person can do incredible things.  Examples of this permeate our texts.  Sure, we know all about Moses and Joseph and Noah.  David defeats Goliath.  Esther saves the Jews from Haman.  Yael single handedly takes down Sisera.  Elijah defeats 300 priests of Baal.  Rabbi Ishmael dies in silence while being tortured knowing God will destroy the world if he screams in pain.  The fate of the world has been changed time and time again by one person.

Martin Luther King Jr, Ghandi, Hannah Senesh, Nelson Mandela.  They all changed the world.  They all saved lives by their actions.  Each of them was just one person.  One person can make an impact on the entire world.  Perhaps they were just in the right place at the right time.  Thankfully, we have many opportunities to be in the right place at the right time with Congregation B’nai Tzedek.  We can change the world.

There are so many opportunities with CBT to be that one person who saves the world.  When my family and I spent our High Holy Days in Cincinnati, OH, Wise Temple would give us these paper bags on Rosh Hashanah, and we would have ten days to fill them and bring them to the synagogue.  We would fill them with non-perishable food items that Wise would donate to a local food bank.  My parents would take us shopping in between morning and afternoon services on Yom Kippur.  We thought it was fun to go shopping on Yom Kippur, especially since we were shopping to give to the less fortunate.  When I got here I learned that we do exactly the same thing!  Today you found paper bags on your pew.  These are not just to keep you from getting splinters.  Fill them up and bring them with you on Yom Kippur.  Since many of us will spend the day not eating, we can buy enough food for a day, and then give it to those who don’t get the nourishment they need.  This is an easy way to save a life and change the world.

Any one of us can change the world.  I would love to organize a trip for Congregation B’nai Tzedek to rebuild in New Orleans.  We feed with the homeless, clean up swampland with an environmental group, and build homes in areas wiped out by the flooding.  This gives us the opportunity to work at a personal level with homeowners,  a communal level with New Orleans’ homeless population, and on a global level by working to help the environment.  Talk about changing the world!  If we can get just ten families from CBT to go to New Orleans, we can partner with other organizations who would like to join us.  I even know of some families in Miami who would love to meet us there.

Probably the best thing we can do to change the world will be on March 23.  March 23, 2014 will be B’nai Tzedek’s next Mitzvah Day.  Our Social Action Committee has spent a great deal of time thinking about ways to bring people in to the synagogue to work as a team for the Orange County community.  Mitzvah Day in the past has offered various activities available for different groups of people.  Project Linus made no-sewing-required blankets for children who are away from their families.  Hygiene kits were made and donated to the Southwest Community Center.  There was cleaning of beaches and books, and donating of blood.  Activities for senior citizens, teens, and young families.  Activities that allow the whole community to lend a helping hand.
Some people scoff at the idea of a Mitzvah Day.  They criticize the idea that people are doing Mitzvot, the important deeds God commands of us, only one day a year.  I agree with this critique.  I do not think Mitzvah Day is an occasion to say, “I’m done,” and sit on the sidelines for the rest of the year.  I see it as a springboard of opportunity, a chance to find out first hand how much it means to help where help is needed most.  I see us building community, sharing time together on a Sunday, using our hearts and hands to heal the world.  I see us changing the world together.
We can be that one person who changes the world.  We don’t have to hope that we will some day be in the right place at the right time.  A right place is at CBT. A right time is on Mitzvah Day: March 23, 2014.  Soon you will learn details about Mitzvah Day from our monthly bulletins or weekly emails, or read about it in flyers from your children’s religious school teachers.  Please sign up early so we can plan accordingly.  Even better, let us know now that you would like to help plan a project on Mitzvah Day.  Perhaps you have a cause that stirs your passions.  You may be an animal lover, a blood and marrow donor, or just someone who wants to help.  Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.  We can help each other change the world.

Not everyone is going to have the president’s ear like Cecil Gaines.  We might not be able to march on Washington or ride the Freedom Bus.  We might not recognize every opportunity we have to do tikkun olam, to repair God’s infinite presence.  But those opportunities are out there all the time.  If we recognize an opportunity and seize it, we will make a huge difference.  In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For indeed that's all who ever have.”

1 comment:

Bruce Greenberg said...

All of your high holiday sermons were excellent. Looking forward to many more. I am however, concerned that you may have overstated the quality of The Butler. It's a fine movie that tried very hard, but it had too much content to cover and... It just ended up being a long movie with great intentions; hitting some emotional high points along the way. Blue Jasmine is infinitely better and should have the best actress award sown up. But that's just my opinion. :-)