This is a time of considering what should be our priorities in life and being mindful of how well we have been acting in relation to them.
What should fill our lives? What actually does fill them?
If we imagine our lives as a home, what would we like to fill it?
Let me begin with my version of a classic Jewish tale:
Once there was an old, wise, and prudent king who had no children. As the king grew older, he decided it was time to confer his kingdom upon one of his loyal advisors. So he called to them and said, “I am getting older my friends. Soon, I will pass away. But before I die, I will anoint one of you to be the next ruler. I know that all of you are good people, so I am going to give you a test: I will give each of you four gold coins to take to the market to bring back things that will fill my house with beauty and make it a nicer place to live.” He told them to come back the next day with what they had found.
The three advisers went to the marketplace. It was full of all kinds of things that were interesting and beautiful. The smells of delicious baked goods filled the air. You could find anything you needed or wanted.
The first advisor was a big fan of rugs. All he could think about when he received the assignment was finding the best ones. He glanced at the rugs in the market that day. He thought they were very beautiful and of how nice it would be to be able to stand on one of them instead of upon the cold stone floors of the castle. The rugs were useful and beautiful—but also expensive. He could only buy a couple at most. Yet, the task was to help to fill the house with beauty and make it a better place to live. The rugs would be a good start.
The second advisor slowly wandered through the market. He was becoming very discouraged. He thought about buying rugs too, to help with those cold castle floors, but saw another advisor doing that. Perhaps, some nice furniture? If he got a chair that was too small, it wouldn’t work. If he got one that was too big, the king might even be insulted. Could he find the Goldilocks chair?
He imagined an embarrassed and angry king stuck in his chair. Perhaps, I should not get something that would go on the floor? Then he saw a large and wonderfully beautiful tapestry that could be hung on one of the walls. It would not fill the whole house with beauty, but it would help.
The third advisor was contemplative. She walked around the marketplace all day, looking and looking. Once she stopped to help a lost little girl find her mother. Another time she helped an old woman load her donkey with bundles of firewood. She talked with the shoppers and laughed with the children playing games. But her search for something that could fill the King’s house with beauty and make it a nicer place to live seemed in vain. She had almost given up finding anything. It was getting dark and the market was closing.
And as she passed a small shop for the last time, she saw exactly what she needed! “Why didn’t I think of that before?” she said out loud.
The first advisor, arriving early the next morning, brought in the gorgeous rugs. They brought beauty to two of the rooms. “Those rugs are quite a nice addition to the castle,” said the king.
The second advisor, arrived shortly after lunch. He brought in the work of art, a tapestry of the setting sun that would hang on the wall of the entry hall. “Amazing details,” said the king. “Again a nice addition.”
Standing on the rugs helped to take a bit of the chill away. The tapestry of the setting sun brought a bit of color, when the light shone through the windows, but as the light was fading outside, it was becoming difficult to see.
Finally, as it was becoming dark, the third advisor came in. In each room of the house she set out candles which she lit. A soft, warm glow filled the corners and hallways. Everyone began chatting amiably as they busied themselves around the house, for the light had chased away the shadows. Now, you could see the tapestry and the rugs. She put wood into all of the fireplaces and heated the whole house. While she was going about her work, she sang a beautiful song. As she sang, other people came to the house and joined their voices with hers.
The king sighed a happy sigh and smiled with contentment. He knew that he had found his successor, the woman who had filled the castle with light, with warmth, with the beauty of song, and with friends and family members of the king who not only increased the beauty of the song they sang, but filled the home with the beauty of friendship and love as well.
Sometimes, we focus on our possessions. “The one with the most toys wins.”
Sometimes, we focus on what we lack. “If only I had a bigger house, a nicer car.”
Sometimes, we focus on what others have. “I wish I was like them.”
“$1,000 really isn’t THAT much for an IPhone X is it? It has facial recognition!”
Sometimes, we focus on what we perceive that others have,
“The grass must be greener on the other side of this fence.”
Sometimes, we go through our lives half asleep, not even aware of our surroundings.
Today, the great shofar has been sounded, waking us from our slumber, calling us to attention. The High Holidays are upon us.
Let us take time to turn our attention from the complexities of the world around us to the complexities of the world within us, to the needs and desires, the longings of our souls.
What do we want in our lives?
With what will we fill our homes?
We would begin with love, happiness, health, and warmth.
Some would say beauty, interesting and pleasing artwork, pleasant scents perhaps from flowers, though for allergy sufferers maybe not.
Some would say the smells of good food wafting from the kitchen and chocolate, lots of chocolate.
Some would add good music.
Some would say laughter, sounds of joy, and the voices of family and friends.
Some might say light, perhaps sunlight shining through the windows, perhaps, in the more abstract, rays of hope filling every room.
Some might add feelings of compassion toward others, of tolerance and welcoming, “let all who are hungry come and eat,” with that hunger perhaps being for food, perhaps being for companionship, compassion, or love.
Some would say, Shalom, an absence of violence, a sense of well-being, feelings of completion and wholeness.
For a moment, let’s consider a different ending to the story that I told. For a moment, let us consider this:
In the middle of the night, when the King awakened, he sat up in bed, swung his feet off of the side of the bed, and right into standing water up to his knees and rising.
Last month, when hurricane Harvey struck Houston, many people woke up to find that their homes were flooded by rapidly rising water. One of my rabbinical colleagues and his family found their home flooding rapidly and realized that their best hope for survival until a rescue boat could arrive was to break into the neighbor’s taller home and seek higher ground.
Rugs? Tapestries? Furniture? Candles? Cars? Family heirlooms? People were lucky to escape with their lives, a few of their most important possessions as long as they were small, hopefully their medications, and perhaps a change of clothes. That happened, in many cases, only because people came from long distances away with boats, kayak, and even giant rubber duckie pool floats to help with rescue.
We have a tendency to believe that disaster brings out the worst in people. In some people, perhaps. There have been plenty of reports of looting and no few of price gouging. Yet, for most people, studies have shown, disaster causes us to elevate communal good over personal good and saving lives over maintaining prejudices and seeking gain. We share our food, our clothing, our transportation, and our shelter.
Some people invited dozens of people seeking higher ground, electricity, or perhaps simply a roof over their heads into their homes. They picked up strangers in their cars or trucks. They dove into raging waters and formed human chains to save both people and animals. People like you and me. Not trained emergency responders. Not soldiers. People who happened to be at the right place at the right time. In many cases, people who went out of their way to try to be in the right place at the right time. Leaving the safety of their homes to seek what kind of help they could bring to those in need. One business owner, Mattress Mack, turned his Gallery Furniture store into a shelter.
In spite of the attitudes of some preachers who want to argue that hurricanes are punishment for sin, very few people affected by such events treat anyone they encounter as if they deserved to have their homes flooded, their possessions destroyed, their lives threatened by violent winds. We do not believe that anyone deserves that.
Amid the floodwaters, there are no arguments that someone is homeless or hungry because they’d rather not work or don’t have the fortitude to quit drugs or any of the other arguments that people often use to excuse an unwillingness to help. If everyone is endangered, nothing differentiates anyone from anyone else. The winds and floodwaters from hurricanes strike rich and poor, people of all colors and ethnicities.
Amid the floodwaters, someone being cold and wet and shivering and endangered isn’t the result of punishment for bad behavior. It’s as good as a commandment for us to enact Tsedek: to enact righteousness, to correct the wrongs that are going on around us, to respond to needs, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, house the homeless, lift up the fallen. And we tend to appreciate what is most important in our own lives.
If watching the news about all of the horrible things going on in our world, you ever find yourself wondering how humanity has survived to this point and wondering what hope there is for the future, the answer is that human beings rise in support of one another at times of true adversity. At times of disaster, we are more likely to see strangers as B’tselem Elohim, in the image of God, in our image. We are more likely to see commonalities instead of focusing on differences.
We are told that God created the world from Tohu and Vohu, a swirling mass of water and earth, and brought order to it all. Human beings standing in the midst of great floodwaters take on a similar task.
When our world is tohu va-vohu, a swirling mass of chaos, our task is to help bring order and a sense of shalom. Let us bring light and hope into places of darkness and despair.
May the New Year 5778 be a year of light and hope, of warmth and security, of health and prosperity. Should there be times of difficulty for us, may the coming year be a year wherein caring arms embrace us and lift us up. May the new year be a year in which joy and laughter, love and kindness, health and prosperity, fill our homes and our community.
Kein yehi ratson. May it be God’s will.
And let us say, Amen.