My friend Steve and I were talking about parenting our adult children. At the end of the conversation, he summarized the entire discourse with an apt and precise observation, “It never ends.” I watch the news after dinner almost every evening with Betsy. It is overwhelmingly bad news about Covid-19, racism, antisemitism, unemployment, hunger, and stupidity. “It never ends,” I sigh as I load the dishwasher. Every day as people struggle with the loss of their jobs, the worries about their children if we reopen our schools and the worries if we don’t, the concerns about their own health and that of their elderly parents, or the loss of someone they deeply loved—the calls and emails rush toward me like a river of anxiety and pain. What is a rabbi to do with everyone else’s problems and his own when they never seem to end?
Today, I did two things that helped. First, I searched within the Torah for some guidance about how to manage my life and yours during this challenging time. Next, I bought a rubber chicken key chain. Let’s begin with the Torah. This week the Torah tells us of the korban tamid, a sacrifice to God that had to be made twice every day no matter what. Some sages consider this to be the single most important commandment in the Torah. No matter what your day might be like, no matter how sad, how busy, how joyous, or how ordinary—you had to offer something of value up to God each morning and evening.
Most people think sacrifice is synonymous with loss. We couch the word itself in phrases like “It was a painful sacrifice,” or, “He made the ultimate sacrifice.” But Jews see sacrifice differently. In Hebrew, the word for sacrifice (korban) comes from a family of words that include kiruv (to gather in), krovim(relatives), karav (come close). For our ancestors, these twice daily sacrifices were the most frequent and common way they drew nearer to God. To be at one with the One required a giving heart. Hence, the rubber chicken key chain.
I bought the key chain this morning while I was waiting for a new tire to be installed at my friend’s tire shop on Slausen right off the 110. It’s as poor a neighborhood as you will find in our city; filled with black and brown faces behind masks; so many people just trying to get by in the harshness and the heat. While I was waiting, a five or six-year-old little boy approached me on the sidewalk with a handful of rubber chicken key chains. Ever the salesman, he squeezed one to let me hear the squawk. His mother was behind him holding a handful of brightly colored, handmade string bracelets. She had a young baby wrapped in a sling on her back. Key chains and string bracelets are a hard way for a mother of two to make a living. I bought a key chain from that precious little guy for $20 and asked him if it would be okay if he kept the change. He smiled, ran to his mother to hand her the money, and waved as he and his family headed further down the sidewalk.
I don’t for a minute think that $20 is going to solve any of the world’s problems, or change anyone’s life, or that it absolves me or anyone else of more demanding sacrifices. But at the same time, for a brief, simple moment, when that young boy smiled, the world seemed like a better place. Whenever I look at that rubber chicken on my desk, I will think of him, his mother and baby sister sweating and hustling in the sun to survive. It will remind and encourage me to do more for those who have less and to count my own many blessings when I feel like the world’s and my problems never end.
Consider for a moment this exchange between a stranger and me on Facebook yesterday:
“Rabbi Leder I hope I am not intruding but I follow you on here, watch for your wisdom on LinkedIn, and read your books, but I am stymied. A good friend, who converted from Catholicism to Judaism has started using a phrase that many of us, her non-Jewish friends, find offensive. I am not sure what to do because it is reaching the point I do not even want to see her. She frequently inserts the phrase “we are the chosen people” in conversations as an excuse to get something she wants. I have always acquiesced. Yet now I hear it so often and silly me I believe God chooses all of us. He provided us with the tools (strong bodies, brains, heart and souls) to live our lives. I believe we should treat each other well regardless of race, gender, nationality or faith. I have read several Jewish position papers on this phrase to try and better understand it but I am failing. Since this bothers me so much should I simply recuse myself from this friendship? Thank you.”
Here was my response: “Like many Jews and non-Jews, your friend has a completely wrong understanding of what being chosen means in a Jewish context. It DOES NOT mean chosen for privilege. Anyone with even a basic understanding of Jewish history knows that for the most part Jews have suffered terribly and clearly have not been "chosen" for an easy or privileged existence. What it does mean is that we are chosen for and accept the responsibility of fulfilling God's commandments; thereby making oneself a better, more humane human being, and making the world a better place for all. Your friend needs to engage with the rabbi who oversaw her conversion so that rabbi can help her develop a better understanding of what it means for Jews to be chosen.”
In a world where there is no end of trouble, what is a Jew to do? The Torah makes it pretty clear this week. Sacrifice something for someone else every day, twice a day, and more. Act like you are chosen (because you are) and discover how much closer to God and each other we can be.
Love and Shabbat shalom,