Once, there was a great, wise rabbi of Nemirov often left the members of his village perplexed. He would disappear for long periods of time early on Friday mornings and no one knew where he went – including his wife. It was as if he disappeared into thin air.
For weeks the Jews of the town wondered where he might be. Though they searched far and wide for him, there was no trace. Soon rumors began to surface that this righteous man could only be in one place: heaven. Perhaps each Friday, in preparation for Shabbat and as his own form of purification the rabbi ascended to heaven and did nothing less than sit in God’s presence and absorb Divine wisdom. Perhaps, even, the Jews of the town thought, our rebbe is beseeching God on our behalf and averting any calamities which might befall us. What else, could this righteous man be doing if not acts on behalf of his precious flock?
Once a Litvak (in our terms an educated agnostic and antagonist) came to town and heard the villager’s tales about their rebbe. He mocked them and scoffed at their naivety. Sure that such disappearances could only the result of someone being up to no-good, he vowed to get to the bottom of this mystery.
So, one Thursday evening, while the rebbe was out attending to the affairs of the town the Litvak stationed himself outside the rebbe’s back door and waited. The rebbe came home, enjoyed his dinner, studied Torah and the Litvak watched as the candles in the house were extinguished and the rebbe went to bed. Outside in the cold the Litvak shivered and cursed the damp air, but he was determined to prove the villagers wrong so he kept himself awake until the wee hours of the morning.
Then, just before dawn the rebbe’s door opened and the rebbe stepped into the street. Except, rather than wearing the usual clothes of a village rebbe he’s dressed in the robes and tatters of a peasant. Aha! Thought the Litvak, “he’s surely up to no good!”
Carefully the Litvak followed the rebbe through the town as the holy man walked in the shadows and stealthily made his way to a small forested area just outside of town. Aha, thought the Litvak: “surely he’s off to meet a band of thieves!” The rebbe found a well worn path and headed into the forest. After some time the Litvak saw a run down shack in a clearing. It was dark and though the night was cold there was no smoke rising from the chimney. Just before entering the rebbe took an ax from a woodshed behind the house and headed back into the forest. There he chopped bundles of wood and carried them with great difficulty into the shed.
Finally, the rebbe knocked on the door and a weak voice answered: “Who’s there?”
“It’s me, Vassil,” the rebbe said in the accent of a Russian peasant. “I have wood to sell you.”
The weak voice answered, “I told you last week, I don’t have any money, I can never pay you!”
The rebbe said, again with a Russian accent, “Don’t worry, you’ll pay me when you can, I trust you.” And with that he pushed the door open and entered the house.
The Litvak stood close to one of the broken windows and gazed in. He saw an old women under tattered blankets shivering in the morning air. He watched as the rebbe started a roaring fire in the fire place and then made a soup from vegetables he had secreted in his pockets. He fills a bowl and served the old woman one spoonful at a time. As he attended to his task, the rebbe recited the morning prayers quietly under his breath – every once closing his eyes in thoughtful devotion.
As the Litvak watched the rebbe, tears streamed down this former cynic’s face and he began to recite the prayers with the rebbe. He left his post and returned to the town, sold his mansion in the city and moved to the small town to become a disciple of the rebbe.
Now, when the people of the town speak of the rebbe’s disappearance on Friday mornings and someone says: “Each Friday, the rebbe ascends to heaven.” The Litvak answers with a certainty that surprises everyone who hears him: “If not higher. . .if not higher.” (After a story by I.L. Peretz)
I don’t care how many times I hear or tell this story, it touches me every time. This is a story that speaks to something in me that is so moved by the deep level of person to person contact. Someone with ability reaches out to someone with need and what exists between them is a type of sacred space. What exists between the Rebbe and the old woman is a spiritual connection that is so deep, so compelling, so uplifting that it literally inspires me to seek those kinds of relationships in my own life.
It makes me remember the year I spent volunteering at Alyn Handicapped children’s hospital in Israel. Each Thursday I’d ride the bus to the suburbs of Jerusalem and take a severely handicapped young girl into the pool. The only limb she could move was her right foot. She’d kick that foot like crazy as I held her under her arms and pulled her through the waters. We’d laugh deep belly laughs as she’d splash the other kids. Here in the water, without gravity she had a freedom of movement she never had on land, and it was my privilege to be her support. My time with Mireleh always passed too quickly. It was the highpoint of my week and it was over before it began. As I look back on that year and I think that of all the prayers I’ve ever uttered in my lifetime, that time with little Mireleh brought me closest to God.
In fact it’s because of the power of those kinds of caring connections that I was compelled to go with four dentists from our congregation to the Forum in Inglewood a few weeks ago. No, it wasn’t a concert, not a sports event – for ten days the Forum became a medical clinic. An organization called Remote Area Medical (RAM) gathered LA doctors, dentists and other medical professionals to offer urgent care, free of charge to anyone in our region in need care. Usually RAM usually operates in well . .remote areas. . .but through the instigation of an LA Film Producer the organization was encouraged to bring its free medical clinic to the Forum for ten days.
From the very first day that I heard about this event I knew that though I couldn’t offer medical services, I had to be a part of it. How could I, a person who enjoys much of the best of what this country offers not give some of my time for these folks who were in such desperate straights?
We walked onto the floor of the arena. My jaw dropped. It was 6 a.m. on Sunday, hundreds of people were sitting in the bleachers patiently waiting their turn for care. In front of us were dozens of dentists, doctors and other medical professionals busy setting up rows of dental chairs, medical stations, vision testing sites for the “huddled” masses. I asked one of the patients how long they’d been waiting in line. “Since Thursday.” she said. How desperate must you be to wait in line for three days? “Well, you’re here now and we’re going to do the best we can to take care of you.” I lied. I knew that at best we’d patch her up with one procedure and then send her on her way.
The dentists blew me away! I watched as these four dentists and Temple members David, Kenny, Gary and Michael sat at stations “stocked” with equipment that turned the clock back 25 years when compared to their own offices. They all have beautiful, private, state of the art dental practices. Now they were on the cement floor of the forum, at foldable dental chairs, on rickety stools, preparing to get to work in mouths that had been neglected and perhaps abused for years. I was the receptionist, greeting patients, taking them to their seats in line, reassuring them that the dentists would do the best they could. But the dentists – well they were working miracles. They worked for six hours straight: filling, extracting, advising, and grinding away at mouths that had been neglected for years.
I led a middle aged African American to Kenny’s chair. On the way I asked her when the last time she had been to a dentist. She said: “I can’t remember.” “Oh my God,” I thought, “I get anxious if I have to delay my six month check-up.” Kenny took her hand, welcomed her like she was a patient in his office in Beverly Hills. Spoke to her reassuringly, told her what he was going to do based on the condition of her teeth, and comforted as she gripped the armrests fearfully.
As I emptied trash cans of their medical waste and ran errands I looked at these dentists who had given up a Sunday because they felt they HAD to be at those rudimentary dental stations. I kept asking “my guys” if they wanted a break – “nope, just bring me another one, there are lots of people waiting.”
“How do they do this?” I thought.
Shortly before we left, I watched as David helped another middle aged Latina woman into his chair. With the help of a translator she told him what was wrong and then basically surrendered herself to his skilled hands. Like the old woman in the story she was helpless and needed to rely on him to alleviate the pain that she’d suffered with for so long. He, in turn, worked carefully and compassionately to remove what was left of her decayed teeth. I almost gagged as I watched him work. And then came the moment that gives me chills to even tell you: when he was finished she got up from the chair tentatively, took his hand and said: “Dios te bendiga” --God bless you. When. . .was the last time you said: “God bless you” to your dentist?
This was a powerful experience. Infuriating, as I saw first hand the failures of our society. Painful, as I had to tell people that the doctor could only take care of one tooth today and the others would have to continue hurting. Heartbreaking, as I heard people’s stories of pain, suffering and despair. And at the same time it was inspirational–all these doctors took time from their lives and showed up! It was uplifting – the nurses who work so hard all week also came and offered their care. And it was incredible – to see what good people could do for others.
On the way home I asked Kenny and Gary about the experience. I thought they might express frustration with the rudimentary equipment, exasperation with the uncomfortable chairs or the less than conducive setting. Without hesitation they both said: “it was amazing!” “A chance to do the work I love for no reason than to offer my skills to another.” Almost apologetically I asked them if it felt spiritual. “Absolutely.” “Why? I asked.”
“Our days in our offices are long, everyone is a demanding client so there’s a level of tension that comes with that. This was just us doing the work we love to do– dentistry – even if it wasn’t high tech or complicated – and the feeling of giving our time freely to another person was powerful.” I’m telling you the story now because I’m the converted Litvak in the rebbe’s story – I watched these four dentists as they cared for these afflicted people and I saw them ascend to heaven. . .if not higher!
What is it that made the rebbe ascend beyond heaven?
What is it that made the dentists find their time at the Forum to be so uplifting and spiritual?
Why are these kinds of human to human contact so meaningful?
I find the answer in a powerful story from the Torah. It tells of the reunion of the brothers Jacob and Esau. The two brothers had been separated for decades after Jacob fled his parents’ home because he had stolen the first born rights from his brother. It was a manipulative, deceptive act that resulted in an estrangement that divided the brothers deeply. Jacob was fearful that his brother would take revenge and spent his whole life avoiding him until finally, their wanderings brought them face-to-face. Jacob anticipated a battle or at least a powerful blow from his brother. Instead, Esau embraced him, kissed him and as he looked into his eyes said: “Brother to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” The tension ended, the brothers wept and the legacy of painful separation ended.
That’s the answer! When we offer another our compassion, our skills, and our care we see the face of God.
When the rebbe looked at the old woman – he saw the face of God.
When I looked in little Mireleh’s laughing eyes – I saw the face of God.
When the dentists David looked into the woman who said: “Dios te bendiga” – “May God Bless you he saw the face of God.
I know, that when that woman looked up from her chair with trust and hope into David’s eyes, she knew she was looking into the face of God as well.
I am struggling here to define one of the most powerful feelings I know. I’m telling you stories because are no words. Seeing the face of God is to see another with caring, compassion and love. It is a type of love that is different from the love we have for our family or friends– it is a love that reaches out to others because they are human and in need. And the actions that result from that love are an expression of the deepest spirituality that I believe we can ever experience.
I’m describing a kind of spirituality that is very different from that which we might find in ritual or prayer. “Face of God” spirituality comes when our engagement with the world transcends just “me” and connects me to a purpose that is beyond me and almost completely selfless. This is the spirituality that drove Mother Theresa her entire life. Some of you are nodding your heads. You’ve had those times. You’ve had the experience of extending your heart, your hands, your soul to another person and felt the sense of fulfilment that comes through the acts and through the relationship that is like no other.
I believe that now, during these tough economic times, when people are evaluating their life choices and life paths we have a unique opportunity that rarely affects so many so dramatically. Now, when we’re trying to restore some balance to our lives after we’ve lost it. As we’re brought low by circumstances that are both beyond and perhaps within our control we can come back differently. If our goal is to get back to exactly the same place we were before this all happened then we’re missing an opportunity. Our fast of Yom Kippur is mirrored by the economic fast that has been forced upon us. Just as the hunger of the fast weakens us and prepares us to rebuild to face the year ahead so too can this economic fast provide us with perspective to rebuild our society (starting with each of us). The Jewish message of hardship, of pain, of sorrow is that we have to come back differently. Our experiences have to transform us, change our priorities, cause us to seek fulfillment and meaning in ways we might have overlooked, ignored or avoided before. How to replace what has been loss with something that builds us up differently-- so that we are more resilient, more secure in our self-worth, involved in more meaningful pursuits than might have occupied us before this time.
I’m suggesting that we can rise higher than we’ve been before - to heaven – I’m not sure. But to a place where our lives and our values will be different from what they were in the past.
And among the choices that exist for us as we restore balance to our lives is that of reaching out to others in ways we might not have in the past. The truth about the story of the rebbe is you don’t have to be a rebbe. You can be a dentist who does pro bono work. A lawyer who takes on a few cases a year without charge. A doctor who spends a week in South America providing medical services. A grandparent who reads to someone else’s grandchild. A student who tutors a child in public school.
There’s an important caveat and a harsh truth: You can’t write a check and see the face of God. You can’t serve on a board and see the face of God. You can’t write a letter of protest and see the face of God. But, when you sit down with a little boy and say, “let’s read this book together.” When you walk into a middle school in Van Nuys and tutor a kid in math. When you sit with a group of young poor mothers and help them learn parenting skills you see the face of God.
When you offer your skills to others when the only compensation is their gratitude and the knowledge that because of our efforts they might be stronger and more capable to face the challenges in their own lives you see the face of God.
I have seen the face of God so many times this year, I can’t begin to recount all of them. I’ve seen the face of God in Father Scott Santarosa pastor of Dolores Mission Church as we spoke about ways that my community and his community can work together to help the people his little church in Boyle Heights overcome their daily challenges.
I’ve seen the face of God in Maria Rodriquez on Christmas Eve as she barked out orders to me and my family when we served the homeless at the Dolores Mission. Every year, for the past ten she gets all of her neighbors together to cook a Christmas dinner for the homeless men at the shelter at the church.
I’ve seen the face of God in Pastor Carlton Rhoden as he challenged his Baptist church to open their hearts to Gay people so that they could enjoy the rights of marriage.
These are a few of the experiences that I have had this past year and I will never be the same. I don’t want to guard them jealously for myself. I want more and more of you to experience that kind of spiritual fulfillment that comes from looking into another’s face and seeing the face of God.
Start on Mitzvah Day, November 1st, when our community volunteers throughout LA doing good for others in our city. We get about 700 volunteers. That’s great. But 7,000 of you are holding tickets to these High Holy Days. 700 is only a 10% return. Maybe great for a stock investment but not great for a Jewish community. We can do better.
But don’t stop there. Stop by your local elementary school and see if they need volunteers. Serve the hungry at SOVA or at a food pantry near you.
And, as our relationship with the Dolores Mission community in Boyle Heights gets stronger we need more and more of our congregants to step forward and get involved mentoring high school students for internships in your workplaces. We need volunteers for Koreh LA – to read to elementary school students we need athletes to coach kids for the Police Activities League out of Hollenbeck station and we need people who will sit with folks who live in Boyle Heights (people who you normally see as your waiters, nanny’s, and housekeepers) and say: Today, I’m not here to give you orders. Today, I’m here to listen and dream of what we can do together to make both of our lives better.
I want each of you to have more experiences when you give of your skills, your abilities and your time to lift another person up in ways that only you can. Because each of us has something different to bring to another. And when you do, I believe, from the bottom of my heart that your life will never be the same. There will be moments when you really will ascend to heaven. . .if not higher.