Placing God and Humanity Before us Always

This month, as we emerge from winter into spring, we complete our reading of the second book of the Torah, in which our common ancestry coalesces as a people and our journey through history is blessed with greater meaning. At the same time, we are witnessing a blossoming within our community.

Members of our community are stepping up – to lead sections of the services on Shabbat morning, to grow into new leadership positions within Temple – and to invigorate the work and special mitzvahs they select to do on behalf of us all. The ruach and blessing that you all bring in your own way, is creating a new vibrancy and a rejuvenation that will endure for generations to come. Todah Rabbah for this gift of chesed shel emet, (the purest form of mitzvah – a mitzvah of true kindness – with no expectation of reward, or, sometimes, even acknowledgement).

Sometimes volunteering can be difficult and cause burn-out. When we face life challenges, whether they present themselves as we serve our community, in our family life, in our jobs (or even some mornings when just trying to get out of bed at the end of a cold, Rochester winter,) there is a poetic verse of psalms can be helpful for us to remind us who we are and what we are trying to become: “shiviti Adonai le’negdi tamid,” I place God before me always. When we become mindful of this verse, our challenge then becomes, how do we make the invisible? How do we place God before us always?
Our patriarchs and matriarchs sprang from the ancient Mesopotamian culture – where law codes made it clear, human life in itself wasn’t sacred. Everything depended on one’s social and economic status. Survival in that culture didn’t depend on honesty, but shrewdness – which often meant lying and manipulating. If we look at the world that gave birth to our ancestors and our culture, we don’t find a world shining with God’s light, let alone the magnificence of Torah.

Nevertheless, our Biblical ancestors found God’s light – and they found it shining in a very dark world. We can learn from the stories of their lives by recognizing the many positive attributes they brought to bear to adapt to the circumstances of their lives, such as generosity, hospitality, and chesed (loving kindness), and devotion to God. There are also many, often unknown stories about how these attributes can play out in day-to-day life or difficult situations. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells an extraordinary story of his visit to Kosovo during the war. He interviewed Sir Michael Jackson, head of NATO forces in Pristina, Kosovo, where Serbian Christians had attacked Mosques and now feared reprisals. In the midst of this tense atmosphere, Jackson thanked Rabbi Sacks for what the Jewish community had done — they had taken charge of the 23 primary schools in the city. Because of the Jewish community, said Jackson, the children were still being educated.

How many Jews were there in Pristina? Eleven.

This tiny number, with Israeli help and support, ensured the education of the Muslim children. As we are seeing these past few months in our community, this was an act of hesed shel emet — a true kindness, one which can expect no recompense. Such goodness is in the highest traditions of our people, and these stories should be better known. This particular story is about Jews who placed God and the well-being of their neighbors before them always. It is also about the power we all have to endure difficult situations, reach across lines and do good in the world. All over the world there are countless unreported acts of generosity and kindness, done by people who understand that God transcends division. It is the enduring legacy of the One who brought all into being.

The stories of our ancestors lives, ancient and modern, teach us that we must look beyond the facts and the difficulties of a given situation (whether it be war or selfless volunteerism). We must see life with a “wide angle lens” – look at the whole of a situation, see the good, and have a heart of compassion … This way of looking at the world can help us maintain our perspective — as it teaches us how to place God and humanity before us always — as we continue to blossom this spring.

B’virkat Shalom,
Rabbi Aviva Berg