I have finally come back to Earth following a wonderful time at the Union of Reform Judaism’s Biennial Conference in Chicago. So many ideas and so many follow up plans for your Board to discuss and implement… more on this later. Of course, there was also the music… the 100 or so Cantor choir; the many musicians and composers who create the music of our movement… Ellen Dreskin, Josh Nelson, Dan Nichols, Sue Horowitz, Rob Aronson, Norman Cohen Falah, Rick Recht, Jeff Klepper, Danny Englander, Lisa Levine, Beth Schaeffer, Joe Black, Michelle Citrin, Shira Kline, Julie Silver, Ellen Allard, Soul Children of Chicago, the group Nefesh Mountain… who knew there was Jewish Bluegrass? Check them out on YouTube. Rabbi Allan, Judith, Judy and Linda can probably add to the list – there were many, many more .
This week I had the honour to lead the Erev Shabbat service and found a d’var Torah which really resonated with me and I am including some of it here. It was written by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs.
In his Laws of Repentance, Moses Maimonides makes one of the most empowering statements in religious literature. Having explained that we and the world are judged by the majority of our deeds, he continues, “Therefore we should see ourselves throughout the year as if our deeds and those of the world are evenly poised between good and bad, so that our next act may change both the balance of our lives and that of the world.” We can make a difference, and it is potentially immense. That should be our mindset, always.
In 1966 an eleven-year-old African-American boy moved with his family to a hitherto white neighbourhood in Washington. Sitting with his brothers and sisters on the front step of the house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not. Passers-by turned to look at them but no one gave them a smile or even a glance of recognition. All the fearful stories he had heard about how whites treated blacks seemed to be coming true. Years later, writing about those first days in their new home, he says, “I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here …”
As he was thinking those thoughts, a woman passed by on the other side of the road. She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, “Welcome!” Disappearing into the house, she emerged minutes later with a tray laden with drinks and cream-cheese and jelly sandwiches which she brought over to the children, making them feel at home. That moment – the young man later wrote – changed his life. It gave him a sense of belonging where there was none before. It made him realize, at a time when race relations in the United States were still fraught, that a black family could feel at home in a white area and that there could be relationships that were colour-blind. Over the years, he learned to admire much about the woman across the street, but it was that first spontaneous act of greeting that became, for him, a definitive memory. It broke down a wall of separation and turned strangers into friends.
The young man, Stephen Carter, eventually became a law professor at Yale and wrote a book about what he learned that day. He called it Civility. The name of the woman, he tells us, was Sara Kestenbaum, and she died all too young. He adds that it was no coincidence that she was a religious Jew. “In the Jewish tradition,” he notes, such civility is called “hessed – the doing of acts of kindness – which is in turn derived from the understanding that human beings are made in the image of God.”
“Civility”, he adds, “itself may be seen as part of hessed: it does indeed require kindnesses toward our fellow citizens, including the ones who are strangers, and even when it is hard.” To this day, he adds, “I can close my eyes and feel on my tongue the smooth, slick sweetness of the cream cheese and jelly sandwiches that I gobbled on that summer afternoon when I discovered how a single act of genuine and unassuming civility can change a life forever.”
A single life, says the Mishnah, is like a universe. Change a life, and you begin to change the universe. That is how we make a difference: one life at a time, one day at a time, one act at a time. We never know in advance what effect a single act may have. Sometimes we never know it at all. Sara Kestenbaum, like Reuben, never did have the chance to read the book that told the story of the long-term consequences of that moment. But she acted. She did not hesitate. Neither, said Maimonides, should we. Our next act might tilt the balance of someone else’s life as well as our own.”
We are not inconsequential. We can make a difference to our world. When we do so, we become God’s partners in the work of redemption, bringing the world that is, a little closer to the world that ought to be.
At the Biennial in Chicago 2019