Be A Mentch – Hillel Didn’t Wait
Erev Rosh Hashanah
September 29, 2019 – 5780
Rabbi Joseph M. Forman
Shana Tova — Happy new year.
It’s wonderful to see all of you tonight.
I hope that this new year will be one of blessing and fulfillment, rich with moments of meaningful connection with friends and family and filled opportunities to discover how wonderful it is to be a part not only of the Jewish community, but more personally, how joyous it is to be a member of Or Chadash, our Jewish community and home.
I don’t know about you, but I’m often asked questions about Judaism. Maybe its because I’m a rabbi, or maybe its because I’m the only Jewish person some of my non-Jewish friends know.
A lot of those questions come from other clergy members. We often attend the same meetings…but some of those questions come from folks on a bike ride or in yoga class who were curious about Jewish beliefs. And now that the High Holy Days are upon us, I’ve been asked a few more questions. More on that later.
One of the most dramatic moments in the liturgy of our service is the reading on Yom Kippur of the words of Rabbi Amnon of Mayance. His Une Tana Tokef prayer. It begins with the statement: On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die who shall see ripe old age and who shall not.
These words are powerful, telling us that our fate is sealed. But are they words of truth or words of poetry? Are the words in our prayerbook expressions of our Jewish beliefs — our theology — or are they words of metaphor, poetry written to inspire us?
It’s an old question — but is fundamentally the one asked by my friends:
What do you have to believe to be Jewish? It’s a great question – especially for the high holy days.
Fortunately, as a rabbi and a Jewish professional, I know the correct reply:
Let me tell you a story!
I actually do have a story….
One day I was sitting in the library at the Flemington Jewish Community Center at a meeting of the Flemington Area Faith Leaders Association, our local clergy group.
Around the room were two rabbis, an Imam, and Christian clergy including Lutheran, Protestant, Episcopalian, Church of Christ and Unitarian denominations. We were discussing what our congregants believe. Someone turn to me and asked me what the members of my faith community believed.
My response was two-fold.
First, I responded to the characterization of our community as a “faith community.” I explained to the room that that was language that we in the Jewish community never use, because Jews are not a community united by common faith. Rather, what unites the Jewish community are sacred texts, shared traditions, common rituals and, most importantly, Jewish values.
And then I responded to the question about belief. Did I think that the members of Or Chadash believed in God? I answered that I doubted that many of them — many of you — believed in the God of the Old Testament. And, I added, in Judaism we have many different ideas of God.
One well-known Jewish book on God lists more than a dozen traditional theologies. And so, for every individual Jew, there can be a private, personal theology.
Jewish beliefs are so varied, that it’s impossible to claim that a Jewish community could be united by a common faith. Moreover, one didn’t have to believe in God at all to be Jewish.
This was a difficult concept for most of the room to grasp. Only the other rabbi and the Unitarian Universalist minister shared that the same was very much true for their communities. And so, turning away from Judaism for a moment, we began a discussion of what it meant to be a Christian or a Muslim.
In order to be a Christian, they explained, one had to believe in Jesus. And for Islam, one had to believe in Allah and his prophet Mohammed.
And when Christians attended church or Muslims attended a Mosque, they were all united as a community with a common faith.
How different it is for the Jewish community. But surely, there are ideas that we share. There is, perhaps, something we believe that unites the Jewish community.
Our values. Our belief that our deeds, our actions matter most.
Many of you are aware that I am a music lover. I have a collection of vinyl albums and CDs, and now that I’ve become a subscriber to a streaming music service, I feel like I own a record store with the ability to listen to nearly everything.
One genre that I actually own but two CDs of is Christian rock. That’s rock music for which the lyrics are about Christian themes. On an album by the Celtic group Ceili Rain is a song called: That’s All The Lumber. The song is a story about a man who dies and meets Saint Peter up in heaven. Here are a few of the lyrics:
Said a friend to a friend one day:
Was a man who passed away
St. Peter met him at the gate
Pete said: “Walk with me if you will
I’ll take you to the house you built”
Man said: “I can’t wait!”
Passed a mansion made of stone
But with each new house he’s shown
They get smaller by degrees
Stopped in front of a two room shack
Pete said: “Hope you’re happy with that”
Man said: “How can this be?”
“That’s all the lumber you sent
Looks like the builder man, he’s got your number
That’s all the lumber you sent”
Man didn’t know what to say
Poor guy was blown away
Said: “You mean this is what I deserve?”
Pete said: “I’m afraid it’s so
It’s too late, but now you know
Shoulda done better work”
The song reminds us that our deeds matter.
It says that what we do in this life has meaning.
This is true not only for Christianity, but for Islam and Judaism, as well.
Ceili Rain might not know the Une Tane Tokef prayer, that On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kipppur it is sealed, but they knew that what we contribute to the betterment of the world has lasting and perhaps eternal consequences.
20 years ago in 1999, a book called Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde told the true-life story of a young 12 year-old boy who started a movement to get people to help each other. The movie followed a year later, and since then there have been numerous projects based on the idea of Pay It Forward. It’s a concept that most of us are familiar with: When a kindness is done to you, you should, in turn, Pay It Forward by doing a kindness for someone else. Its become somewhat of an ethics for the secular world.
It’s hard to find fault with such an idea. But the rabbis of our tradition didn’t see the world that way. Remarkably, Pay It Forward is not a Jewish value. And today, when the need for acts of kindness and generosity of spirit is so in demand, I want to remind you of the wisdom of our sages. Its not that the rabbis didn’t think you should be kind to others. Far from it. They just didn’t think you should wait for another person to be kind first.
In the 1st Century before the Common Era, in Babylon, one of the most important Jewish sages, Hillel the Elder, was born.
Remarkably, it would be 40 years before he became a scholar of Torah and one of the greatest thinkers in Rabbinic Judaism. And tomorrow you will hear more from him.
Much of what Hillel is best known for comes from a small collection of sayings only six chapters long known as Pirke Avot. Pirkei Avot is often translated as the Chapters or Sayings of the Fathers, but a more precise translation would be Chapters – not of Avot, our patriarchs – but Avot, fundamental Jewish ideas. Pirkei Avot, however, is not a book on what Jews must believe.
Rather, Pirke Avot is a distillation of the most essential ideas and ideals that our sages wished to convey to future generations. A “How To” book whose subject is, quite simply: How to behave, how to live.
In one of the verses in Pirkei Avot, Hillel teaches:
B’makom she’ayn anashim, hishtadel lihi’ot ish.
In a place where there are no menschen – no decent people – you should try to be a mentch.
Rather than state that in a place where you were treated well you should pass on that goodness, Hillel says something quite different. In a place where no one is behaving decently, you should, nevertheless, try to be decent, try to be a mentch.
Today, it seems that conflict is to be found nearly everywhere. And it doesn’t matter if you’re engaged in a discussion about deeply held beliefs or a petty slight. When not a single person around you is doing anything that speaks of kindness, rather than wait for someone else to be kind, Judaism teaches us to rise above the pettiness and be a mentch. And even if no one follows your lead, keep doing those kindnesses.
Our modern sages carried forward this emphasis on action over faith. They wrote: Honoring one another, doing acts of kindness and making peace. These are our highest duties.
And they are. Not after someone does them for us. But first and always.
Rabbi Amnon of Mayance wrote:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die. Who shall see ripe old age, and who shall not.
And he concluded with this:
Oo-Teshuvah, Oo-Tefilah, Oo-Tzeddaka, Ma’avireen Et Roah Ha Gezerah…
But Repentance (changing our behavior for the good)
Prayer (finding words that can inspire us),
And Tzeddaka (performing acts of righteous living and giving)…
…these transform us and redeem our world.
On this Rosh Hashana may we all strive to be a mentch.
So may it be for us in the New Year.