I’d like to warmly welcome the high school students from the Rae Kushner Yeshiva Academy. These young men and women are here in town because they will be spending the next three days in Washington at this year’s AIPAC policy conference. I cannot commend you enough for coming here. The rest of you have to appreciate that for Jews in the tri-state area coming to Baltimore is like going to the moon – just not as cool.
I think it’s wonderful that you’ll be supporting and participating with a lobbying group that is essential to ensuring the safety, stability, and strength of Israel.
Although I will not be in attendance this year, I have had the pleasure of participating in the conference for many years. I imagine for the students here this is the first time you’ll be attending, and I’d like to share with you some thoughts about how I have felt at the policy conference.
There are two types of feelings that I have felt at this conference. On the one hand, I have felt inspired by the talks, by the participation of such important political figures, and by the magnitude of the crowd. And at the very same time, I don’t recall ever feeling so insignificant at an event. There will be 20,000 people in attendance. 20,000! And I remember looking around and wondering, let’s say I walk out the door right now, would it make a difference? Why am I spending so much time here if I am like a drop of water in an ocean?
A while ago, I had a similar feeling. I was at a wedding of a daughter of a woman that I know. I wasn’t officiating, I didn’t know very many people there, and the few people I did know were on the opposite side of a large Mechitzah. I was eating at my table, making small talk with the person next to me, and the chosson and kallah entered the hall and the dancing started. I walked over to the dance floor – in the middle was the groom and his father and father-in-law, in the next circle was his immediate family, in the next circle were his close friends, and then there were people like me, dancing on the periphery. And again, I found myself wondering, what am I doing here? Would it really make a difference if I just leave now? Why am I dancing at this wedding?
I am sure that all of you here have felt that way one time or another. You have felt completely lost in a crowd, wondering what you’re doing there and if you really make a difference.
In this week’s Parsha we read about the Jewish People bringing forth their donations to the building of the Mishkan. The Jews were very generous in their gift-giving. So much so, that immediately after sending out the call that there would be a collection, an announcement had to go out telling people to stop. But here’s where it gets tricky: The Torah states that there was “enough/ dayom” and then a few words later, the Torah contradicts itself by stating, “v’hoser, there was too much.” Which one was it? Was there just enough or was there too much?
The simplest answer is that anyone who has ever built anything knows that you need some extra material. If you’re putting down floor for 1000 square feet, you buy 1200 feet of flooring. That’s just the way it goes.
But the Ohr HaChaim suggests an answer that is instructive and inspiring. There was enough; the Mishkan, to be built, did not need any more material. But there were Jews who contributed to the Mishkan, there were Jews who wanted to play a role in the building of this magnificent structure, a meeting place between man and G-d, how could G-d turn them away? How could G-d say to them that their participation is unnecessary? And so miraculously, G-d somehow made sure that although there was indeed more than what was needed, G-d somehow made sure that every person’s contribution made it into the Mishkan, because every person’s contribution mattered.
And this idea is not just hyperbole, some corny, cute idea that makes its way onto a Hallmark card. In Judaism this idea is real, as real as can be. It’s real on two levels and I’d like to speak about both of them.
On the one hand, it’s real on a spiritual level. There is a tale told about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement. Apparently, he would daven Shemoneh Esrei for a very, very, very long time. His disciples, his congregants, they loved him, they loved him dearly, but what were they going to do for all that time between them finishing the silent Shemoneh Esrei and when he would finish? They wouldn’t dream of talking, of course…
So one day one of the Chassidim had an idea. When we finish Shemoneh Esrei, we’ll all slip out of the room, and in the next room, we’ll make Kiddush! We’ll poke our head in and when the rabbi finishes davening, we’ll all come back in. (The original Kiddush club!)
So the next week, they did exactly that. After they finished davening, they silently slipped out of the room one by one, and they were just about to start their Kiddush when! The rabbi finished davening, a good fifteen minutes earlier than usual.
After davening, one of the Chassidim went over to the rabbi and asked him, “Holy Rabbi, what happened? Usually your Shemoneh Esrei takes twenty minutes and today it took five minutes?!”
And the Baal Shem Tov explained, “The reason I am able to daven such a powerful and meaningful prayer is because I am strengthened by all of you standing in silent contemplation, I am lifted by your presence and mindset. But today,” said the rabbi, “I didn’t feel that strength and I had nothing to climb upon to reach the heights I normally reach.”
Now it’s a Chassidic story involving the Baal Shem Tov, so I can’t tell you if it ever really happened. What I can tell you is that it represents an absolute truth in classical Jewish thought. And that is, that you impact not only those who receive tangible help from you, not only from those who see you doing what’s right, but simply by being a good person, we are impacting our fellow Jew and the world at large.
Our souls are connected and our fate is linked to one another. What the Baal Shem Tov was teaching his Chassidim, what G-d was teaching the Jewish People by miraculously using all of their contributions is that there is no such thing as not contributing or as being unimportant. Our mere presence, our mere existence, impacts others in ways that we can’t even imagine.
I remember the first time I was exposed to this idea – the recognition that our souls are linked, the recognition of not only a carbon footprint, but a spiritual footprint that is far greater than we recognize, I remember being blown away. We don’t live in a bubble. We live in a matrix, in a web that connects everyone and everything.
But there’s a more practical side to this, something I was thinking about at that wedding. As I started to dance on the outer circle, I wondered what the dancing would look like if there were only the inner circles and not us dancing on the outside. It wouldn’t look that great, it would look a little empty. And perhaps today, the people at the center of the circle may not appreciate the fact that I am there or not there. But one day, the bride and groom will look back at the pictures and see a mass of people celebrating with them, even if they don’t recognize the individual faces, they will feel a lot of love.
When we think of people who impacted others, our mind wanders to big names, and that’s a pity. Because there are so many small initiatives, people who impact others dramatically, but in the most subtle of ways. These are people on the outer circle who may only be able to be seen in the background of a picture, but we would be so remiss without them.
I’ll give you two examples; one I’ve shared with you in the past, and one that I have recently become aware of.
After becoming president, President Truman’s advisors urged him to continue the very popular weekly radio address started by his predecessor, FDR. After deliberations with communication experts, the weekly speech was scheduled for Friday nights. A certain Mrs. Berl heard of this decision and was very disturbed because there would be many Orthodox Jews who would like to hear the President’s speech but would not be able to because of Shabbos.
So Mrs. Berl wrote a letter to the president describing her patriotism, but regretted her inability to hear him speak because she couldn’t operate an electrical appliance on Shabbos. “As a result,” she wrote. “I request that you reschedule the broadcast.”
A week later, she received a letter in the mail informing her that President Truman read her message and was seriously considering its contents. Two weeks later the president gave his usual Friday night speech on Friday night, but announced that for various reasons it would thereafter be broadcast on Tuesday nights.
Who is Mrs. Berl? I have no idea. But her name is not on any plaque, any building, she was not dancing at the center of society’s circle, but she made a difference.
The second story: There’s a young man who moved to the community a few years ago, his name is Raffi Bilek. He is a therapist by profession. Recently, he started an organization. They collect shoes. That’s right. When you clean up for Pesach, you will be throwing away old shoes. Don’t throw them away. There is a cardboard box out in the lobby, put your shoes in there. There are boxes all over the community.
Raffi comes along every once in a while and he picks up those shoes and he sends them to an organization that sends the shoes to Africa where they are used. And for each pair of shoes he sends them, they give him money. That money goes to paying therapists in the community to give highly-subsidized marriage counseling to those in need. Did you catch all that? That’s amazing!
Shoeless men, women, and children in Africa will have something to wear on their feet, couples in crisis will be helped, and you will see Raffi Bilek on the street and you will have no idea who he is. You may think he’s dancing on the outside of the circle. In truth, he’s right at the center and I sure hope he never stops dancing.
And then there are the countless people who don’t even have not-for-profit status; the countless volunteers that are in this crowd today, the people who visit the sick or call the elderly. There will never be a book written about them, but the impact they make is tremendous.
And that’s what the Ohr HaChaim is teaching us, it may seem like there is more than enough, v’hoser. It may seem like you are too insignificant, too small, too young, too run-of-the-mill-normal to make a difference. But G-d responds by saying, no, dayom. Without you, without your participation, without your creative ideas, without your simply being there, whether it’s dancing on the outside circle, whether it’s being one of 20,000 people in a crowd, or whether it’s coming to shul on Shabbos, without you, we would be lacking. You have something unique that only you can contribute. What that contribution is, is up to you to figure out. But it’s there and it’s real.
If I could ask the students from Kushner to please rise so everyone can see you. You came here today thinking you were going to be on the outer edges of this shul’s circle. You thought your attendance here meant nothing. And that’s the beauty of this idea – sometimes we think we’re on the perimeter of the circle, but really, we’re at the center. I want you to know that today you made a difference. You taught all of us that if you could schlep in from New York and New Jersey to support Israel, we can make the drive to DC. You taught us that it doesn’t matter how old or how young you may be, how renowned or how unknown a person may be, they can make a difference. And I hope tomorrow when you’re sitting among 20,000 people or maybe some other time in your life when you feel insignificant, I hope you remember that you are never extra, and without you there will never be enough.