The Here and Now Parshas Shoftim

I’m sure by now you’ve seen the Pizza Hut commercial.

Certainly, the many people here today from the former Soviet Union know what I’m talking about. Da? 

In 1997, Mikhail Gorbachev, who passed away this week, appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial. He and his granddaughter are seen walking into a Pizza Hut, which of course, is an American franchise that had only recently opened its doors on Russian soil. At another table in the restaurant, two men who notice him start arguing. “It’s Gorbachev! Because of him, we have economic confusion,” says one of them. His friend, clearly a lot younger, replies, “Because of him, we have opportunity!”  The argument continues: “instability”, “freedom”, “chaos”, “hope”, and back and forth and back and forth.

That argument of Gorbachev’s legacy is still going on today. There are people like Vladimir Putin who despise Gorbachev’s shift to restructuring the USSR to a policy of openness, or in Russian, glasnost and perestroika (how’s my Russian accent, guys?). And others, especially many Jewish leaders, who hail him as a hero who allowed millions of Jews to go free. You’ll find some obituaries that claim that he was a visionary who saw value in democracy, and others like Natan Sharansky, who argue that he was an ardent communist who was forced to make concessions.

So as this argument is playing out in this Pizza Hut commercial, an older lady stops the two men and exclaims, “Thanks to him… we have Pizza Hut!” Which no one can argue with. And before you know it, the entire Pizza Hut is raising their glasses to toast Gorbachev… for bringing them Pizza Hut. (Only in Russia do they have alcoholic beverages in Pizza Hut.)


My initial reaction upon seeing this commercial was that this is bizarre and pathetic. Clearly, Gorbachev was in need of funds – which he was, and therefore allowed himself, he, formerly one of the most powerful people on earth, to appear in a commercial for pizza. Not even good pizza, I am told, and allow himself to be mocked.


But I thought about it some more and I realized that maybe I was mistaken, maybe this commercial can teach us a profound truth about life and about Judaism. Hear me out:  


Every one of us desires to have a legacy, right? We hope that we’ll be remembered for doing something good, positive, constructive in this world. So, we build our legacy. We give donations that will ensure organizations that we value will impact people for years to come. We build families – the clearest form of legacy. We come up with ideas that will change the world, or our communities, or our workspaces. We all want to leave our mark. And that’s great and it’s important. But sometimes, it comes at a cost.


There’s a Chassidic tale of a man who had a recurring dream. He dreamt that under a certain bridge in Cracow there was a huge treasure buried. Night after night, he kept on having this dream. This guy was poor, dirt poor. He figured he had nothing to lose so he packed his bags and started travelling across Eastern Europe until finally he arrived in Cracow. He finds the bridge and starts digging.


He’s digging and digging and digging until suddenly he hears a voice yell, “Jew! What are you doing?!” He looks up, there’s a Polish soldier staring at him menacingly. “What do you think you’re doing?”

He tells him the truth. “I know this sounds crazy, but I had this recurring dream that there’s a treasure buried under this bridge. So, I travelled from my home to come here and find it.”


The soldier looks at him and then bursts out laughing. “You fool! I also have a recurring dream of a treasure buried, but it’s across the country in Berditchiv. Do you think I am going to travel there to find it?”


The Jewish man says, “Wait, where in Berditchiv?”


The soldier replies, “In this and this street and in this and this home, under the fireplace.”


Sure enough, the address the soldier gave him was his address. The man went home, dug up his fireplace and found a magnificent treasure.


You see, sometimes we are so focused on the big picture, sometimes we are so focused fulfilling our dreams and laying out our legacy, on accomplishing all of our big plans, that we ignore and lose sight of what’s right in front of us, right under our nose.


Let me ask you a question, what is the mission statement of Judaism?


There is none. (The notion that being a light unto the nations as our prime goal is simply untrue. It’s important, but it’s not the entirety of our faith.) Nowhere in the Torah does Moshe say, this is what it’s all about. This is everything. This is the big picture. Instead, we are given Mitzvos. 613 Mitzvos. In addition to the 613 Mitzvos that are in the Torah there are a gazillion Rabbinic Mitzvos. There is a big picture in Judaism, but by not laying it out in the Torah, Moishe is teaching us not to worry about the big picture, not to worry about the End of Days, about the ultimate goal of the Jewish People. Because when we do so, we sometimes lose sight of, and even worse, we sometimes trample on, opportunities that are standing right before us.


There is a Mitzvah in this week’s parsha, that we are not to cut a down a fruit-bearing tree. And we extrapolate from there, that we are not to waste anything at all. Ba’al tashchit; do not destroy things for no reason. You take an extra piece of paper towel to dry your hands, you just wasted.


And the context of this Mitzvah is critical. It is describing the Jewish People in war. And in the context of warfare, when lives hang in the balance, the Torah demands of the Jewish soldier not to waste fruit trees. Really?! Is that so important right now? We have bigger things on our minds! But what the Torah is trying to do with this Mitzvah, it would seem, is sensitize us to the small things that we so often ignore, that we so often trample on in pursuit of what we believe to be greater and more important. 


Our Sages take this even further, suggesting that an even greater sin than wasting material items is wasting time. Think about it –


… In the five seconds I just let go by, you could have turned to the person next to you and told them how nice their hair/ suit/ dress looks. You could have made someone’s day. You could have said a short prayer and rejuvenated your soul. But we’re sometimes so focused on what’s next that we forget about what’s now.


In the 16th century, a great rabbi by the name of Rabbi David ibn Zimra received a question. A Jewish man was in jail for life. But he was given the opportunity to take one day off. One day! And he sent a letter to this rabbi asking him which day should he take off? Should it be Yom Kippur so he could say Kol Nidrei and Neilah with a congregation? Should it be Pesach so he could have a seder with family? Maybe Rosh Hashana so he could hear the Shofar?


You know what the rabbi answered? He said, take off the first day you can. Whether it’s Shabbos, whether it’s a Tuesday. Because today, each day, is an opportunity. Each day has endless potential. Stop looking forward, stop looking up, stop looking big, and look right in front of you.


That old lady, in the Pizza Hut commercial, she was right. Legacies, fame, honor. They’re nice, but they’re not always attainable, they’re complicated, and most importantly, they could be distracting. Bringing people together, to enjoy each other’s presence, right here, right now, that is a big deal. Hail to Gorbachev!


Now, it’s a struggle. I’ll be the first to admit. This Friday morning, I was davening shacharis, morning services, and I was thinking about what I was going to say this Shabbos. And I had to stop myself. What am I doing? I am in middle of praying. I have an audience with G-d! And instead of appreciating what I’m doing right now, I am thinking about tomorrow. What a waste!


So maybe we can all practice this. We’re all going to go to Kiddush. We’ll be speaking to someone. Let’s try to speak to them and speak to them only. Let’s not worry about refilling our plate, let’s not worry about the friend we want to catch before they leave. Let’s value what is in front of us. It’s priceless.


In sixty seconds, we are all going to rise and have a few moments of silence. It’s called the Amidah, shemoneh esrei, the climax of today’s service. We believe that at that moment we are standing before our Creator. He’s listening to us. Every word. An audience with G-d. Let’s speak our mind. Or let’s just allow ourselves to relish and enjoy the experience of G-d paying attention to us, to me, to you, because we matter to Him. Wow.


I hope and pray that we all leave noble legacies behind, undisputed legacies. And we’ll need to dream big dreams to get there, we’ll need goals, we’ll need strategies. But on this great journey, let’s not lose sight of what’s right in front of us, let’s not lose sight of the countless treasures that we can access every moment with small acts of kindness, with prayer, with Torah learning.


There is nothing more precious than what’s right here, right now.