1. Shabbat Shalom
2. A few weeks before an important election, three university professors went on a fishing trip high up in the wilderness of Alaska. One professor was a research physician, one was a geologist and the third was an astronomer. As they sat in their boat and fished, they talked about how evolution has changed biology over thousands of years. They talked about the ages of the rocks that were found in the mountains towering above them. They talked about the vast distances between the stars and galaxies.
3. Through all these discussions, the fishing guide who piloted their boat, sat in silence and listened to the conversations of the professors. Finally, he broke his silence with a flood of questions for the teachers. “Are the rocks really that old? How many millions of years did it take for human beings to evolve? Are the stars really that many billions of years away? Is everything around us just a small part of something that is so inconceivably vast and ancient?” The professors patiently answered all his questions and when he finally digested all these ideas he said, “Then I guess it really won’t make much of a difference who wins the election.”
4. As candidates for President of the United States begin to consider a run for office, and Congress and the State Legislature debate the large issues that divide us, it is important to remember that in the vast reach of time and space, all too soon, the debates and conflict will be forgotten and the issues of our day will fade into an inconsequential moment in history. For many of us here, we don’t need to be university professors to understand this. We can just look back over the years of our lives. What used to be so important to us, has faded into the background and what we concern ourselves with today would have been unimaginable to us forty years ago. Rabbi Jack Riemer teaches that when he was younger, he was impressed with clever people, now he appreciates people who are kind. Years pass by as a dream and we discover that most of what we spend our time on is of little lasting importance. That Osama bin Laden was killed is important. To see a picture of his dead body, whether or not he was armed, put up a fight, whether or not the Pakistani government knew he was there or not, these will be forgotten in just days, when something new will come along and we will wonder why we spend so much time discussing it as if it mattered to the grand scheme of the universe. There may have been a “wedding of the century” in England, but will anyone still remember it a century from now?
5. But if elections and the news do not matter over the course of history, then what does matter? What makes a difference in the vast halls of time? Clearly this is a moment we can reflect on the Torah. Over thousands of years, our ancestors, our parents and our people, have turned to Torah to answer the great questions of life in a very deep and spiritual way. This week, the Parsha seems to address something as simple as the calendar, but even in a listing of holiday dates, there is much that is important that the Torah comes to teach us. So what does Parshat Emor have to say about the eternal essence of life?
6. The Torah teaches us that one day can be wasted time, or it can be sacred time. A day can make no difference or it can make all the difference in the world. If we think back over our lives, we can recall certain days that were very important in our lives. Some of those days we made important. The day we got married is a day we always remember. The day our children were born or were brought home is a day that is never forgotten. Each of us remembers one birthday or one anniversary that was special because we were with people we loved and they made our day unforgettable. We may not recall all the wasted days in our lives, but we do remember those where we had to rise above our surroundings. If we served in the armed forces during war, we may clearly remember the details of battles we once fought for our country. We may remember the fear of sitting in our homes as a hurricane battered our community. Maybe we have survived a fire, a terrible accident or a dangerous situation. Maybe our memories are focused on remembering the death of someone we loved, our parents, a spouse, or maybe a child. On these kinds of days, minutes turn into hours and a day turns into an eternity. The events of these days are etched permanently into the granite of memory.
7. Little things sometimes play a big part of what remains important long after time has past. An act of kindness that someone shared with us is not soon forgotten. I was trying to remove a tree that had fallen in my yard after a hurricane. My son and I were taking turns chopping it with an ax. A man from the neighborhood came by, saw us working and offered to bring his chain saw. Within a few moments, what would have taken us all day, was quickly turned into a small pile of firewood. I offered to pay the man but he refused and explained, “I once ran out of gas on a dark and rainy night and walking the two miles to the gas station, nobody stopped to give me a hand. I decided then and there to offer my help whenever it was needed. I am glad I was able to help.” I was glad too and I have never forgotten him. The first time I put a sandwich into the hand of a homeless man who had not eaten at all that day, I saw a smile that remains impossible to forget. I am sure that you have such memories as well.
8. The calendar in our Parsha inspires us to see time in a sacred way. Every day is important but the seventh day is holy. Every week is important but the seven weeks of the Omer are to be lovingly counted. Every month is important but the seventh month, with Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot is a very holy month. Every year is important but the seventh year is a holy time where debts are canceled and the land is allowed its sabbatical rest. Every seven year cycle is important but at the end of seven of these sabbatical cycles, the fiftieth year is so holy that all slaves are released and freedom is proclaimed throughout the land. Day after day we mark holy time. Pesach reminds us of how God redeemed us from Egypt. Shavuot reminds us of the day we met God at Mount Sinai and the Torah which is the record of that meeting. Sukkot reminds us of how God was with us as we journeyed through the wilderness.
9. Compared to the vastness of the universe, our lives seem so small and trivial but the Torah reminds us that who we are and what we do does make a difference. Every little effort we make to ease the burden of someone else ripples through time. For my neighbor, a cold rainy night turned into a lifetime of helping others. There is a story of the Indian holy man, Mahatma Gandhi, who, when he was a young man, was traveling to New Delhi by train. When he arrived in the busy central railroad station, he found that he had been robbed. His wallet was gone and he had no idea how he would find a place to stay and how he would get a bite to eat. He sat despondent in the train station until a stranger found him and asked him, “What is wrong?” Gandhi told him his story. The man then bought dinner for the hungry student and gave him some money to get to a hotel and stay for the night, so he could contact his parents and they could make arrangements to get the student what he needed. Gandhi was elated and asked the man for his name to pay him back. The man refused to give his name. He said, “Once I arrived in this station and found that someone had stolen my wallet. A stranger came up to me and bought me dinner and helped me on my way. Now I come to this station looking for young men who were like me, and I pass on the kindness he gave me to others”. One act of kindness, a lifetime ago, made the difference in the life of Gandhi and that kind act colored all of Gandhi’s life as well.
10. A friend of mine lost both of his parents within a week of each other. His life fell apart. Michelle and I tried our best to help him at that difficult time. We were only students then so we could only invite him for Shabbat dinner, help him with the many issues he had to face in resolving his parents estate and, since he was a student also, help him by bringing home his homework and making sure he did not fall behind in his classes. A year later he was telling other students how he survived this terrible year. He mentioned our name in passing. I said to him, “What did we do? There was so much you had to do and we felt so helpless”. He looked at us puzzled and said, “What did you do? Why you did everything, I would not have made it through the year without you.” “But what we did was so little!” “What you did I will never forget.”
11. We have to go through life as if each day is significant and important; that this is the day that we will do that one thing or experience that one event that will change our life and the lives of others. It is as if that one moment we are a messenger from the Holy One, delivering our message to someone in need, or in that moment we are receiving a message from God that we have been waiting for our whole life. It may last only an instant, but the meaning of our whole life may be revealed in that moment.
12. There is so much around us that is trivial and, in the scope of the universe, insignificant. But there can be so much more in our lives if we can open ourselves to the possibilities that come with a spiritual life. Yes, it is possible to spend a day down by the clubhouse pool, with friends telling jokes, sharing stories and maybe a bit of gossip that is going around the community. But life can be much more than that. We can drive a neighbor to the doctor or to shul on Shabbat. We can visit someone who is sick and in need of our healing touch and our kind word. We can add to our shopping list the list of a friend who can’t get out to the store. We can say a kind word to anyone who seems to be having a bad day. We can give some cold water to a service man who is working out in the hot sun. We can be a friend to someone who just needs a friend.
13. It may not make a difference in the grand scheme of things, who wins the election, but it does matter each and every time we show someone else that we care about them, their feelings, their wants and their needs. A little kindness can go a long way; it can go on to the end of the universe and exist until the end of time.
May we bring joy and light into the darkest places and may our love for each other and for God fill every moment in time and every point in the cosmos as we say Amen and Shabbat Shalom