I was panicking about writing my sermons for the Holy Days last year when, all of a sudden, I received a message from God.
It was a couple of weeks before Rosh Hashanah, and I was procrastinating in the superb Ostrow Library of American Jewish University, which has a row of old books deemed to have no possible use for anyone anymore. Over the years I have discovered hidden treasures among those old books, which the librarians give away for free.
Picture this: I am rummaging through this shelf of old books, and I stumble across an old, brittle copy of Rambam’s Moreh Nevukhim (The Guide for the Perplexed). The pages are so yellow that it is risky to even open it. Now Rambam (Rabbi Moses Maimonides, 1135-1204, from Spain and Egypt) is my homie; I love Rambam. Not just because he had rice at Pesach; not just because he didn’t serve the meal after a wedding until after 9:30 or 10:00 at night, long after all the Ashkenazim have gone home. I love Rambam because he asks the really big questions about the world. Rambam doesn’t ask constricted, self-interested questions. He asks broadly universal questions and clarifies humanitarian themes such as “What does it mean to be human?” “How does the universe work?” or “What are we supposed to be doing with our time here?” He musters the Torah and the resources of Judaism’s sages to answer those significant big questions.
Rambam and I are very close, so I thought this book would be a great addition to my library. It was a venerable edition in Hebrew with Hebrew commentary. A nice book to keep on my desk at work, I thought, but its real significance still eluded me. I didn’t yet realize that God had sent me this book not for my own benefit, but to share it with you.
Still standing in the library I opened the book and, inside the front cover, I noticed a bookplate: “From the library of Esther and David Lieber.”
Some of you may not know who Esther and David Lieber are in my life or in the life of our community, or in the development of American Judaism. Rabbi Dr. David Lieber was the first full-time president of the then-University of Judaism (what is now American Jewish University). But before he was president of the University of Judaism, he was the Rabbi at Sinai Temple, and he remained a life-long member of the congregation. Every year at the High Holy Days he would be sitting toward the right center of the Main Sanctuary, toward the back of the room. Anyone who knew David Lieber can attest to his unique, wonderful smile. The man simply loved everybody, and he loved from a place of real integrity and purity, deep in his heart. Lest you ever doubt that there was a Tzaddik (saint) among us, I am telling you, Dr. Lieber, alav ha-shalom, was a Tzaddik by any standard; a truly righteous, sweet man. Turns out that even though he didn’t serve rice during Pesach, and even though he always went home before the mustard lamb was served at a Persian wedding, David Lieber is one of my homeboys, too.
So a book from both the Rambam and David Lieber — how great! I knew I wanted to keep the book, especially when I looked up on the facing inside page and saw that Dr. Lieber had signed the book and dated it “April 28, 1942.”
Come back with me in time to the presentation of this little blue book: David Lieber is a young rabbinical student in New York City. The upper right corner of the page bears a note in his meticulous, tiny script: Jewish Theological Seminary, Morgenlander Prize. Now, I know what a Jewish Theological Seminary is, but I do not know what a Morgenlander Prize is. I surmise that it must have been a prize bestowed upon a promising rabbinical student to encourage him in his studies. In 1942, young David Lieber was awarded this book of the Rambam, as if to say, “Good job little Davey. Persist in your studies and you might amount to something some day.”
Inspiring as that message is, as treasured as the book is, it’s still not why I’m asking you to focus on it at such length. Here is why I think it so significant and where God’s heavy-handed message comes in.
I’m flipping through this treasure of a book for no particular reason (it’s just one of my quirks — I’m always looking for something enlightening just around the bend), and I find a small file card with a handwritten note in David Lieber’s handwriting. Unbeknownst to the young David Lieber, the esoteric reason he wrote this note and stuck it inside this little blue book is because one day I would be in a panic about what I was going to preach for the holy day, and David Lieber would deliver me a message to present almost seventy years later!
Here’s the message: David Lieber’s note card reads, “Faith that the forces making for good in the world, God, are the natural direction for which the world tends in spite of apparent setbacks.”
This is a message from the other side — pay attention! Let me explicate what my teacher, Dr. Lieber, meant by those words: God has created a universe in such a way that goodness naturally rises to the top. The universe, if left to its own devices, will produce goodness, righteousness, decency, all by itself. What interferes with that propensity to goodness is our evil inclinations, our pettiness, our creation of suffering for others, our aligning as warring camps that attack each other and harm each other, confusing what we want for what we need, indulging our greed and overcompensating for our insecurity.
One of the lessons I taught my children when they were little is that when you enter a swimming pool, you don’t have to fight to stay on the surface of the water. The water wants you to be at the top, and the water will buoy you if you let it. You just have to stop fighting the water’s natural tendency to lift. Similarly, Dr. Lieber is telling us is that we live in a universe in which goodness is the natural condition, and we address that natural goodness as God. But, Rabbi Lieber says, there are apparent setbacks. I don’t need to tell you what they are. You can detail your own list of awful events that really happen with devastating effect: loved ones who are taken away from us, natural disasters, and social injustices that we cannot control, and we cannot yet prevent. These losses are real and the suffering is deep. But Dr. Lieber tells us that evil and injustice do not eclipse a more fundamental decency — that the natural inclination of the universe is toward justice, toward freedom, toward goodness.
Rabbi Lieber offers a second insight: Social evil is something to be overcome. It is neither chance nor a reason for frustration. Hear what he’s telling you (it’s vintage David Lieber): Don’t give up; don’t lose hope. When bad things happen we are not supposed to become passive; we are not supposed to lay back and say, ‘oh well, this was meant to be.’ We are supposed to fight the undesired outcome with every insight we can muster, every last ounce of strength. When a loved one is sick, we provide the best possible medical care we can find for them. When someone under our care needs our help, we do not take no for an answer. We surround them with love and caring. When people need to be nurtured, we make it our job to do it. When injustice is evident, and we can oppose the harm, it is our obligation to stop it. We ourselves embody and mobilize the “natural goodness” that is at the core of the universe.
Thank you Dr. Lieber. Thank you, God. But that is still not everything that I want us to consider.
What I want to reflect on was my first reaction when God handed me this book with Dr. Lieber’s notes in it. I thought: “This is a precious possession. I will cherish this the rest of my life: one of my favorite Jewish philosophers, from one of my favorite teachers and rabbis. I will treasure this legacy forever.” Then I started to think, “We all have precious treasures that we have been given by people we love.” So I want to invite you to reflect on what’s in your own home, in your own heart, enriching your own life.
I want you to think about that wonderful gift you were given by a loved one, perhaps by a spouse who is not with us anymore. I want you to think about the gift a parent gave you, or something they cherished that they bequeathed you. When you received that object, you knew it was so permeated with his or her love that you couldn’t help but pick it up and feel that love as if it were right now, right here, at this moment.
I want you to think about those special letters you filed away from friends, from parents, children, and grandchildren, and how when you received them, they illumined your soul and ignited your smile. They retain the power to make you shine to this day.
I want you to think about someone you are especially connected to right now, and how they are doing something amazing in the world: going to preschool for the first time; heading off to college for the first time; or coping with a difficult period yet somehow being able to stay his or her best self, surpassing previous limits. Think about the inspiration it gives you to reflect upon what that person is doing in the world.
I want you to think that when the Rambam wrote this book, and when David Lieber was given it, there was no independent, imperfect, innovative, democratic Jewish State in the Land of Israel. Yet we live in a time when I can send my daughter after high school to spend a semester in a vibrant, dynamic secular city called Tel Aviv. And then I can also give her the gift of a semester to study and live in a vibrant, ancient religious center called Yerushalayim, which for my grandparents was just a word in a prayer book.
We have so many inheritances, such a rich yerushah, such an abundant heritage!
If you place someone in a room and pack that room with gold, yet blindfold that person so she doesn’t perceive these riches, it is as if the gold does not exist. So my words are not about cataloging what we possess. Life is about mindfulness. Life is about remembering, about cherishing what is ours, because of our heritage and our faith; because we live in freedom; because we live in an age in which Medinat Yisrael exists and continues to struggle with its own shortcomings to make itself better fit its own ideals; because we live in a free country where we can gather in open communities; because we are surrounded by each other and the love we bring to each other’s lives; because of generations of people who have gone before us, who have prepared for us this rich and wonderful path of life. We are so rich it almost hurts to think about it. This is an abiding and wondrous wealth.
Jewish prayers often start with “Eloheinu, ve-Eloheinu Avoteinu, Our God, and God of our ancestors.” “Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzhak Ve-Elohei Ya’akov, Elohei Sara, Elohei Rifka, Elohei Rachel ve-Leah. God of our mothers and our fathers have gone before us.” What might it mean to really savor that the universe is as Dr. Lieber just taught us, naturally inclined to good because of our Bubbies and our Zadies, our Sabas and our Savtas — those who have gone before us, who nurtured our heritage, and when we needed it, nurtured us. We are swimming on the rich sea of their love and it lifts us up; it buoys us to the surface.
I will confess to you that sometimes in my prayers, I change the traditional words and I pray to Elohei Shira and Elohei Ya’akov — to the God of my daughter Shira and the God of my son, Jacob, because they have been around long enough that they are now part of my inheritance, too. They have given me so many gifts: My son’s resilience and his great sense of humor; his deep and piercing wisdom; his enthusiasm and his energy; my daughter’s refusal to be anyone but herself; her zest for life, her desire to go out into the world and know that the world is hers to conquer. There are so many blessings that I have been given, not only by those who came before me but by those who are coming after me. That stream, too, constitutes a rich inheritance. Four times a year we recite Yizkor (Hazkarat Neshamot), the Memorial prayers for the deceased. This service — recited at Yom Kippur and each of the Pilgrim Festivals — offers a recurrent chance to reflect on just how interwoven we are with our people, with our loved ones who are in our hearts but not in this room. But I want us just to take a minute, right here, now, wherever you may be. I want you to close your eyes for a minute and feel all the love of all the people who have made your life what it is today. The ones you know; the ones you haven’t met yet but you know are coming; the ones who were part of your life and still part of your heart; the ones who devoted their lives’ work to make your life possible, though you never met them, either.
I want you to think with your eyes closed of our brothers and sisters of the House of Israel all over the world, scattered in cities, in rural areas, in Buenos Aires, in Morocco, in Tunisia, in Israel, in Europe, in Asia, in Africa. I want you to feel their fellowship, and your oneness with them.
I ask you to feel the fellowship of all humanity: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, secular, from every racial group and every ethnicity — all of them our brothers and sisters, each of them God’s beloved children. And then I ask you to extend that kinship to our beleaguered and beautiful planet, our awe-filled cosmos. God is surely in this place, the Place of all places.
And then I want you to think about the One who makes it all possible. Our tradition tells us we have really one rabbeinu (our teacher), and that one rabbeinu is not you or your Rabbi, not me and not even Rabbi Lieber. That rabbeinu is God, the Ribbono Shel Olam — the One whose breath you breathe; the One whose life-force gives you life; the One whose will to goodness and survival and care you have the opportunity to channel. And as we emerge from these prayers and this day, I bless us all that we are truly children of the One, always walking in the world knowing that we are held, that we are loved, and that we are invited to be someone else’s inheritance.