This is the night of nights, the holiest time of the year. The gates of prayer are wide open as God listens to our pleas. This day is one of utmost seriousness as we look at ourselves with unvarnished objectivity. How will God judge us? Will we be written in the Book of Life? Is it too late to make changes? Can we rid ourselves of anger and remorse? How can we become better human beings?
God will judge us with mercy and benevolence. God is “El Rachum v’Chanun,” Compassionate and Gracious. God wants us to change, to become more sensitive, giving, and empathic human beings. God wants us to reflect the highest values of our Jewish Tradition. We will speak tonight of three of the most important values which we need to embody- humility, gratitude, and contentment. I have not chosen these values cavalierly. After a lifetime of study, I am convinced that they are the central values of our faith. If we sincerely hold them, I believe, they will enable us to live a life of happiness and peace.
Even though this is the most serious of times, it does not mean that laughter is forbidden. So let me attempt to tell a story.
Meyer, a lonely widower, was walking home along Delancey Street when he passed a pet store. He heard a squawking voice shouting in perfect Yiddish: “Vas machst du?” Meyer couldn’t believe it. Perfect Yiddish coming from a pet store! He walked in to see who was speaking. You can only imagine his shock when he saw an African Grey parrot sitting on his perch, looking at him and saying, “Vus? Kenst sprechen Yiddish?” In a moment, Meyer placed $500 on the counter and carried the caged parrot to his little apartment. All night he talked to the parrot in Yiddish. He told the parrot about how his parents came to America, about how beautiful was his late wife Sarah, about his family and his years of working in the garment district.
The parrot listened and made comments. Together they shared some walnuts. The parrot told him of living in the pet store and how lonely he would be when the store was closed. Finally, the two went to sleep.
The next morning, the observant Meyer put on his tallit and tefillin and began to daven. The parrot demanded to know what he was doing. After Meyer explained, the parrot, being a parrot, wanted to do the same. So Meyer went out and had a miniature tallit and set of tefillin made for the parrot.
The parrot learned every prayer. He even wanted to learn how to read Hebrew. So Meyer spent months teaching the parrot Torah. In time, Meyer began to regard the parrot as a confidant and even a fellow Jew. On the next Rosh Hashanah, Meyer went to leave for shul when the parrot demanded to go with him. He explained that shul was not a place for a bird but the parrot insisted. Needless to say, they made quite a spectacle. Everyone questioned him. The rabbi was reluctant to let him in, but Meyer insisted that the bird could daven. The rabbi relented and then thousands of dollars were bet on whether or not the parrot could pray in Hebrew. Meyer took all the bets. All eyes were on the African Grey during services. Perched on Meyer’s shoulder, the parrot did not utter a sound during the entire service. Finally, Meyer said, “Daven, already!” I have four thousand dollars bet on you.” The parrot remained silent.
A morose Meyer left shul with the parrot on his shoulder. Finally, when they were several blocks away, the parrot joyously began singing “Ein Keloheinu,” in perfect Hebrew. The exasperated Meyer stopped and looked at him. “Why, after you begged me to take you to shul on Rosh Hashanah, did you not open your mouth to pray? Why did you do this to me?” The parrot replied, “Meyer, don’t be an idiot. Think of the odds on Yom Kippur.”
The values of humility, gratitude, and contentedness fly in the face of American cultural values. We are taught to exalt ourselves and be our own full time marketing representatives, shouting out our abilities to the world. We learn early on that in a culture that promotes individualism, we are personally responsible for our own fate. We are also taught to strive for greater and greater material gain. We equate “successful” with rich. When was the last time we thought of a teacher, a nurse, or a police officer as being a “successful” person? Our Tradition turns these assumptions on their head. Judaism is counter-cultural because it acclaims humility, reveres gratitude, and teaches that the secret to happiness is to be content with what we have. Our Tradition is one that values self-abasement rather than self-aggrandizement; dependence rather than individualism, and satisfaction rather than the constant seeking of financial gain. Our faith teaches us that we are continually dependent upon God for our lives, our prosperity, and our health- and that we should be thankful for whatever we have- and especially the problems and ill health we do not have.
The rabbis often wrote about the virtue of humility. The sages detested the prideful and arrogant, the boastful and braggart. They went so far as to say that only the humble will inherit the World to Come. One of my favorite Talmudic sayings is (Erubin 13b), “He who humbles himself, God exalts. He who exalts himself, God humbles. From he who searches for greatness, greatness flies. He who flies from greatness, greatness searches out.” The rabbis never tired of pointing to Moses as the example of humility, of one who tried to flee from greatness but whom God rose up like any other. The central prayer of the High Holy Days, the Unetaneh Tokef, tells us that “We are made of dust and to dust we will return; like clay vessels, we can break, like flowers we can fade, and like shadows we pass, and like a dream we will someday pass from sight.” This day forces us to confront our mortality, that no matter how great we may be in our own eyes, someday we will die. There may be many who will remember us and even a few who will passionately miss us. In two or three generations, however, except for the DNA that exists within our descendants, our existence will be a mere footnote of history. I am always reminded of this when I visit our O’Donnell Street Cemetery, which was founded in 1853. The old grave stones and monuments are so windblown and weather beaten that we cannot, in many cases, make out the names of those buried there. After about a hundred years, even our names no longer exist. Rich or poor, mighty or meek, it is like we never lived. There is little that humbles me more than that.
There is the temptation, however, to become prideful about one’s humility. “Look at me, look at how humble I am!” When taken to excess, all moral virtues can be corrupted. It is important for us to be balanced in our self-importance. According to Rabbi of Bunim of Pishkah, “Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written, “I am but dust and ashes.” On the other should be written, “The world was created for me.” From time to time we must reach into one pocket or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each.” Rabbi Bunim knew that the secret of holy living was to keep a check on our arrogance and our humility.
The first thing I say to myself in the morning is, “Modeh Ani Lefanecha, Melech Chai V’Kayam, She’Hechezarta Bi Nishamti, b’Chemla Raba Emunatecha. I thank you, living and Eternal God, for returning my soul to me with compassion. Great is your faithfulness.” This is traditionally the first prayer we say in the morning as it expresses our gratitude to God for allowing us to awake and begin our day. We are not naturally grateful. It is a quality which needs to be inculcated within us. I will never forget how, when I was a little kid, I embarrassed my parents by not being sufficiently grateful when I received a gift. That lesson has stayed with me my entire life.
“Gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds expectations, when it is undeserved. Gratitude is a sort of laughter of the heart that comes about after some surprising kindness. Most people feel grateful some of the time- after someone saves us from making a mistake or brings food during an illness. But some people seem grateful disproportionally. They seem thankful practically all of the time.”[i]
“People with dispositional gratitude take nothing for granted. They are hyperaware of their continual dependence on others.”[ii] They take nothing for granted and appreciate everything they receive. We live in a capitalist society which encourages individualism, ambition and pride. Our society would collapse, however, without an acknowledgment that we are dependent upon one another, the institutions we have created, and upon government for allowing us to live as well as we do. Ultimately, we are dependent upon God for everything we are and for everything we have. Every page of our new Machzor is replete with expressions of gratitude to Adonai for all the gifts we receive. We thank God for creating us, for redeeming us from Egypt, for giving us the Torah. We are especially grateful, on this holy night, for the opportunity God gives us to make teshuvah, to return to Him. Even though our shortcomings are many, if we sincerely repent, God will take us back in love.
American society breeds excess. We eat too much, drive too fast, and consume too much of the world’s resources. Our Jewish Tradition teaches us the opposite- that we should be content with what we have. The poet wrote in the book of Proverbs, “A contented heart makes a cheerful countenance (15:3) and adds “Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth and much trouble (15:16).” Kohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, “Better is a handful of gratification than two fistfuls which come from unworthy work (4:6).” The classic rabbinic aphorism stems from Ben Zoma who said in the Ethics of the Fathers (4:1), “Who is rich? One who is happy with what he has.” It is so difficult in this society of material and personal striving to ever be content with ourselves. We want to live in a nicer home, take more lavish vacations, be thinner, richer, and raise our status in contrast to our neighbors. There is, of course, nothing wrong with wanting to better ourselves. Yet when do we stop? When does this become an obsession, causing us to never be satisfied with who we are and what we have? Ecclesiastes also wrote (5:9), “A money lover never has his fill, nor a lover of wealth enough income.” Nothing has changed since the poet wrote these words almost 2,500 years ago. We should try to be content with what we have and who we are. Our “contentment, however, should never degenerate into moral complacency.”[iii] We should not focus our discontent inwardly, but rather, focus it outwardly. We should be unhappy with the state of our society and strive our utmost to repair it. There are times when “resigning ourselves to reality is sinful.”[iv] That sermon, however, will have to wait until tomorrow.
As I conclude, allow me share with you one of the most poignant stories of Yiddish literature, “Bontshe Schweig,” or “Bontshe the Silent,” written by I.L. Peretz. “Bontshe was a down trodden porter who would have considered himself rich if he ever held two pennies in his hand at the same time. His life was a journey in suffering, which began, symbolically enough, with a botched circumcision. He died in such lonely insignificance that no one erected a tombstone to mark his grave. Yet, paragon of contentedness he was, Bontshe never complained but praised God for every slight good that came his way. After his death, he was greeted effusively in Heaven. Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father, personally greeted him at Heaven’s gates. The angels who composed the Heavenly Court spoke of him with admiration and deference. Finding him to be an exemplary human being, the Court told Bontshe that his heavenly reward for his earthly existence was that he could have anything, absolutely anything, he desired. After much disbelief and hesitation, Bontshe finally, haltingly, said to the angels, ‘May I please have a hot roll with butter every morning?”[v] As the story ends, the angels on the Court wept.
None of us can be as humble and grateful as Bontshe Schweig. We can, however, try to be content with what we have. “Who is rich? One who is happy with what he has.” Let us strive during this New Year of 5776 to be humble, express gratitude, and be happy with what we have. Then we shall know true joy and peace.
Amen and G’mar Chatimah Tova
[i] David Brooks, NY Times, July 28, 2015.
[iii] Borowitz, Jewish Moral Virtues, page 169.
[iv] Borowitz, Jewish Moral Virtues, page 168.
[v] Ibid, page 169.