2005 Yom Kippur Sermon
While We Await the Coming of Messiach
One of the principles we have held close to our hearts as a people over the centuries is the coming of Messiach, the coming of the Messiah. It is believed that Messiach will usher in an age of universal peace and also will return the Jewish people from the corners of the earth to Israel .
Over these centuries we have been disappointed again and again, placing hope in particular individuals like Simon Bar Kokhba in the first century CE, and Shabbetai Zevi in the 17 th century, who then failed us. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkia, in fact, became so skeptical of messianic claims that he said to his followers, “If you should happen to be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out and greet the Messiah.”
Yet this belief in a messiah and a messianic age is so deeply rooted in Jewish tradition that a statement concerning the Messiah became one of Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Faith: “Ani Ma’amin, I believe with a full heart in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may tarry, I will wait for him on any day that he may come.” The refrain was sung often by Jews in the concentration camps and among the Jewish partisans fighting against the Nazis.
Maimonides wrote that in the messianic era, “there will be neither famine nor war, neither jealousy nor strife. The one preoccupation of the whole world will be to know the Lord. For (quoting Isaiah) the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”
When we think of Messiach, we think of an end to oppression, an end of national and ethnic and class divisiveness, God’s kingdom on earth bestowing its blessings on all of us. I have shared with you the story of the rabbi in the forest who told his friend, the abbot of a dispirited monastery, that “Messiach is among you.” When the members of that monastery heard these words, they began looking at one another and at themselves very differently, and the monastery began to flourish.
Eli Wiesel’s position on Messiach, however, is the one I like best. Wiesel says that even though we may not experience Messiach in our lifetime, what we are able to do is provide messianic moments for one another, provide opportunities of immense satisfaction and fulfillment for others, thus anticipating or perhaps helping to usher in the Messianic age. Let us take a few moments on this Holiest of Nights to talk about this idea beginning with a stunning example.
A retired professor woke up one morning and was told by his wife that he’d forgotten their anniversary. He reminded her that their wedding anniversary was not for another couple of months. She was hurt, and remained silent for a few moments. Then she said, "It was not that anniversary I was talking about. I was talking about the day six years ago when the doctor told us that I no longer had breast cancer. Don’t you remember? You said that we would celebrate this day for the rest of our lives.”
The professor told her that the day was not yet over, and that he had not really forgotten. Now he needed to think quickly. He remembered that his wife, weeks earlier, had been to a car dealership and had been smitten by a particular white Saturn. They had discussed it and had agreed to go and see it together sometime – but it hadn’t yet happened.
The professor phoned the Saturn dealer, gave his credit card number, and begged the dealer to have the car ready in an hour – making it look as if the car had been ordered earlier.
When the couple walked into the dealership an hour later, the only car in the entire showroom was the white Saturn. The dealer had asked his salesmen to remove the other cars and to move the other perspective customers to the side of the room. The only people on the floor were the professor and his wife. The wife began walking around the car, and suddenly gasped aloud. Running to her, the professor asked what had happened. She could not speak. Tears were flowing from her eyes. All she could do was point to a large red bow attached to a huge professionally printed sign on the hood of the new car. The poster read: To Julie, Happy Anniversary…6 Years Cancer Free. I love you with all my heart, Nathan.
It’s worth noting that the messianic moment here is provided not so much by the husband – who, after all, had forgotten the anniversary, but by the car dealer who transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Messianic moments for others can be done simply by putting one foot ahead of the other and doing such deeds which will make such a difference in the lives of others. In some cases the acts might be large, like the example just given, but they don’t have to be. The poet William Blake reminds us that one who would do good for another should do it in “minute particulars.” And we heard something about these particulars when we heard the recitation of our own random acts of kindness on Rosh Hashanah: the visits we made to shut-ins, the kindnesses we offered to persons in difficulty, the recognition we offered to teachers and others for the gifts they provided to us over the years. Messianic moments are holy under any circumstance.
Jews believe that human kindness and compassion are embedded in our basic nature. Unlike those Christians who believe that individuals are born with a legacy of original sin which must be overcome, Jews believe that we are born free of such sin, that we don’t have to develop some new transcendental ability – rather we already have it – although we sometimes have to dig it out under several layers of camouflaging ego.
Harold was one of those people willing to do the digging. His life had been going nowhere when he saw a film made by a Hungarian Jewish woman whose family had been helped to escape from the Nazis and who wanted to do something in return for humanity. The film had to do with organ donations. Harold investigated further and learned that fifty thousand Americans in renal failure are now awaiting kidney transplants. Only 12,000 per year receive them, sometimes from relatives, usually from cadavers – the latter, of course, being of much poorer quality. Harold also read about a white schoolteacher in North Carolina who had given a kidney to a black student using a relatively painless new laparoscopic procedure. Most of us are born with two kidneys although we really only need one.
Harold decided to act. After getting all the requisite tests, including a psychological examination, Harold entered the OR near his home in Georgetown Virginia . While listening to the music he’d selected, surgeons made a few small slits below his navel, threaded in a small video camera, inserted their retrieval instruments, and gingerly jockeyed out his kidney. It was then rushed across state lines and inserted in an Ethiopian refugee woman who had been on dialysis for over a decade and who had endured more than 40 operations to keep her alive, her name going nowhere on the endless list of would-be kidney recipients.
Harold had never met this woman, but by the time he awoke from anesthesia, a nurse told him, “Your kidney’s inside another person, and she’s peeing up a storm.” Two months later, at a banquet arranged in their honor by the transplant consortium, the two strangers were introduced for the first time. “It’s a fairy tale,” Harold says. We might speak of it as a Messianic moment.
If any of you doubt what an organ transplant means to individuals who need them, just ask our own Paula Fielding or her proud mother-in-law Esther.
There are now about 200 instances in this country of individuals contributing a kidney to a stranger. For his remarkable book, Field Notes on the Compassionate Life,” the Jewish author Mark Barasch interviewed some of these kidney donors and other such giving persons, and also collected data on Holocaust rescuers, the so-called “Righteous Gentiles” in a search for commonalities.
Barasch concluded that those who carry out such acts are intrinsically no different than the rest of us. All that’s different is their perspective on life, or their ability to get their egos out of the way, or, if you will, the t’shuvah or turning of the heart we hope to achieve at these High Holiday services.
One common refrain from those he interviewed was, “I got back more than I gave.” Another recurring theme is the ability to get past “the fear of not having enough.” Many of these persons who had offered such extraordinary gifts concluded that whatever they had was enough, that they were sufficient as they were, that they didn’t have to hang on so tightly. One respondent called it, “enormously freeing,” calling to mind Gail Sheehy’s thoughtful comment in her book Passages that “there ought to be a reward for people who know when they have enough.”
And one more intriguing finding that contrasts these giving persons with others also interviewed by Barasch, others who perhaps had not yet experienced such t’shuvah. These others were often charitable, but their giving was tempered by the desire to pass on the lion’s share, or, more accurately, the lion’s share of the lion’s share of their wealth to succeeding generations. By contrast, the givers studied by Barasch, while never ignoring the financial needs of their children, were more conscious of the example they were passing on to their children and grandchildren. And there’s plenty of social science evidence to support their instincts – that our children exposed to altruism, exposed to the giving of Messianic moments, will be more inclined than other children to follow such examples. Imagine the example received by the children of a woman in this congregation who contributed enough to our Brattleboro Drop-in Center to permit every Drop-in Center family to have a three month supply of tuna, or of the woman who bakes a challah every week for a shut-in family. Barasch even discovered that a disproportionate number of Righteous Gentiles had parents who provided moral messages through their examples, who provided a legacy which proved ultimately more important than stocks and bonds.
Finally Barasch found in case after case that the offering of messianic moments had an effect that he could only label “contagious,” not just the heroic acts like kidney donations to strangers, but also the “minute particulars” referred to by Blake. In some cases these were passed forward; in others they generated comparable acts among those who witnessed them. They were gifts which kept on giving, messianic moments that generated hours more of such moments.
On his deathbed, the author Aldous Huxley was asked if he had any regrets about his life. What would he have done differently if he had life to live over? Without pausing for an instant, Huxley replied, “I wish I could have been kinder.” “I wish I could have been kinder.” Dare we imagine a world, or even a single community in which we all took Huxley’s message to heart, in which we all sought to make kindness and the offering of messianic moments the organizing principles of our lives? Would it bring lasting peace? Would it perfect our world? Who knows? However, our ancestors watching from on high, those who awaited so earnestly the coming of Messiach, just might be fooled into thinking that the Messianic Age had actually come. And when they looked more closely, they might not be terribly disappointed to learn that Messiach came not as a single divine being but as a community of kindred spirits whose actions had indeed ushered in the age they had so eagerly anticipated.
Brattleboro Area Jewish Community