Rabbi Cohen Yom Kippur Afternoon / Yizkor Sermon – “The Works of Our Hands are a Blessing”

Yom Kippur Afternoon – Yizkor 5776
September 24, 2015
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

The Works of Our Hands are a Blessing

Have you ever heard of the butterfly effect? The idea is that a butterfly in South America can flit its wings and cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. That something we would consider so small can create such a large effect is almost impossible to understand but in many ways is quite true.

In May, we put an ad in the Orange County Jewish Life in which we wanted to let people know what was going on at TBS after our fire. We shared about the challenges and blessings that befell our congregation and, as Elisabeth Mann said last week, we have built this beautiful place out of the ashes. And we should take great pride in what we have done together. It is not only the beauty of this building that we are grateful for, it is the beauty of the human spirit and knowing what we’ve accomplished together. The community we build touches more people in ways we don’t even realize.

A week later, I received this envelope. There is no return address, only, Santa Ana, California. It is hand written and on the bottom, in red pen, it reads: “For Re-Building the Temple.” I opened the envelope and inside were a couple more pieces of paper taped together. On the top, it read, “Lift up this paper-“ Under that paper was a single dollar bill with a note behind that reads, “I’m on a very tight budget and unfortunately this is all I can send for rebuilding the temple.”

I was blown away. I was in tears that someone cared so deeply and felt such a connection to send one dollar as their gift for rebuilding the temple. This gift is the greatest gift because it comes from someone’s heart and soul. He or she does not have much, but to give tzedakah in such a loving and unselfish way was so beautiful. I do not know who this gift came from, but if you are sitting here right now or if you are watching us through our streaming, please know, I am truly grateful for your most precious gift. You teach us that the work we do, the community we create means something greater than any of us may ever understand.

Then there was the man who called a little over a month ago. Jill answered the phone in the office and said to me, ‘you’re going to want to take this call.’

“Hello?” I said. He said, “hi! I wanted to call and say ‘thank you!’”

“Oh, really, ok. For what?”

“Well you see,” he said, “I used to be homeless. I lived between your building and the liquor store across the street. The people in the shopping center were always so nice to me. I would stay in the back doorway of the liquor store and the police would come by and check in on me and sometimes even bring me donuts.  The woman at the restaurant there would bring me some food at night. And then, after you all finished in the day and the parking lot was empty, I would come over and sleep at your temple. It felt safe. And then, during the fall, you would put up the ‘ushpizin.’”

I kid you not, he said, “ushpizin”.

“You mean, the sukkah?”

“Yeah, that booth you would build every year. You would put that up and when it was there, I slept in it. I always made sure to leave by around 5:30 in the morning so that no one saw me. I didn’t want to scare anyone. But, staying in that booth, I felt protected and it was awesome sleeping under the stars in there. It was my own little home for that week.”

Now, I’m in tears! I can’t believe what this man is sharing with me. He felt safe when he was on our property and was able to get a good night’s sleep before the next day.

“So, where are you now? What is happening in your life?” I asked him.

“I’m living with my daughter and her family in Texas. It took some work, but we’ve gotten closer and we are happy. I get to be with her and my grandchildren and I’m happy! Like I said, I just wanted to call and say, ‘thank you!’ Thank you for the home you gave me when I didn’t have one.”

We talked for a few more minutes and I’ve been in touch with him since, and yes, he’s still happy. But what amazes me is that here we are, a community who cared for someone and we didn’t even know it. We provided him a safe place to rest and while I know, not all homeless stories end up with a happy ending, it was nice to hear that maybe, just maybe we were a part of giving him his happy ending, or should I say, beginning.

I was amazed how he called our Sukkah, ushpizin. Ushpizin is the mitzvah we are told to perform for the holiday of Sukkot that begins this coming Sunday evening – it’s a part of our High Holy Day season. Ushpizin is the act of welcoming others into our sukkah, inviting them to come in and have a meal with us and find comfort, shelter and a safe place.

Maimonides teaches that anyone who sits comfortably in the sukkah with his family and does not share with the poor they are only fulfilling the mitzvah of their stomach, not the mitzvah for joy, which is what we are supposed to fulfill. We are taught to open our sukkot to the needy as well as our family, friends and community. That we are to be like Abraham and Sarah who first opened their tent to the strangers who would later tell them of the birth of their son, Isaac, and then later, to all people who came their way. This is why the chuppah, the marriage canopy is open on all sides. In ancient times, when someone was coming from a particular direction, we knew where they were coming from and most likely something about them based on that information. Therefore, if you did not want to have someone enter your home from Yemen, you would close that side of your tent. But Abraham and Sarah kept all sides open – that no matter from where someone came, they were always welcome to find shelter, food, and companionship. Their home was a welcoming home for all, hence how we are to behave, especially at Sukkot.

This man, a man who none of us met, was touched by something we did, something we had, and none of us knew about that. Both this man and the person who sent us a dollar have been touched by our congregation in ways we may not realize. Every action can make a difference in someone’s life, and like the butterfly, we might not realize the affect we have on others and they have on us.

There’s a story that takes place in Tzfat, Northern Israel, in which the richest man would go to synagogue every Shabbat and as usual, fall asleep during the Rabbi’s Torah teaching. (not that anyone here would do such a thing!). Every now and then, he would wake up and catch part of what the rabbi was teaching as he got more comfortable on the hard wooden benches and then fall back asleep. One morning, he woke up long enough to hear the chanting from Leviticus in which God commands the Israelites to place 12 loaves of challah in the ancient wilderness Tabernacle.

When the service was over and the man woke up, he didn’t realize he heard the Torah reading, rather he thought he heard a command from God that he was to bring God 12 challot for God to enjoy. The rich man felt honored that he thought God spoke to him directly but also a little strange that God wanted him to bring 12 challot. But who was he to argue with God?

The next week, the man brought the 12 challot and decided that they should be placed in the most sacred of areas for God, in the ark, right next to the Torah scrolls. The man said thank you to God for asking him to perform such a mitzvah and left the synagogue.

After he left, the poorest man in the town came to the synagogue to do what he did every week, straighten up before services. As he entered the sanctuary he started to speak to God. “O God, I am poor, my family barely has enough to eat and if you don’t perform a miracle for us, we will surely die.” The man started to go about his work of cleaning up when he opened the ark to make sure the Torah’s were all straight. To his surprise there were 12 challot in the ark. They were fresh and smelled amazing. “A miracle” he cried! “I had no idea you worked so quickly! Thank you God!” and the man ran home and shared the bread with his family.

As the poor man left, the rich man returned and went to the ark. He was surprised to see that the ark was empty and said, “wow! You really ate my challot! I thought you were teasing when I heard you say you wanted challah! I will make sure to bring you more next Shabbat.”

And sure enough, this went on for a number of months – the rich man would come in, leave his challot in the ark for God and the poor man would come in and retrieve the challot as a gift from God; he would eat seven, sell four and one, he would give to charity. The two men never knew about the other.

Until one day, the rabbi was detained in the synagogue and started to watch this weekly ritual take place. The rabbi called the two men together and told them what they had been doing.

The rich man said, “I see, God does not really eat my challah.” And the poor man said, “And God does not really bake challah for me.” All of a sudden both men were afraid that God would no longer be in their lives.

Then the Rabbi asked them to look at their hands.  “Your hands,” he said to the rich man, “are the hands of God giving food to the poor.  And your hands,” said the Rabbi to the poor man, “also are the hands of God, receiving gifts from the rich.  So you see, God can still be present in your lives.  Continue baking and continue taking.  Your hands are the hands of God.”

This time of yizkor, we remember those who are no longer with us. We reflect on who they were and the lives they lived.  We reflect on how their hands are the hands of God. Each of our loved ones did so much that made a difference in our world that we may not even realize. Some of those stories we might have learned over time and some stories we may never hear.

My Grandfather, my Mom’s father, Sanford Zaas of blessed memory, my mom never knew what he did in the war. Unfortunately, the Federal Center in Denver which housed all the papers detailing what many soldiers in World War II did, burned down and all the records were destroyed. But thanks to a friend of my parents, Howard, he was able to tell my Mom what her father did. He was stationed in Persia, today known as Iran. His papers were marked top secret because they did not want anyone to know that he was in charge of all the supplies that came in through the Gulf and were then sent on trains to the troops on the front. Even the document that everyone received upon crossing the Equator was marked Top Secret and not released until many years later. His helping load the supply trains and send them to our troops was a vital role in the war as were all of the troops who gave so much, including their lives, to the war effort.

But my great uncle on the other hand, there are so many things we don’t know about his life. Yes, we have letters he sent home from the war to his mother, but there are stories and pictures that are only faces on the page that we don’t fully understand. Whose lives did he touch? What differences did he make through the works of his hands? Some we know, but much we don’t nor will we ever.

As we remember those whose lives have passed before us, we should also work to build the library of memory and understanding. It is up to us to listen to the stories and then become the storyteller in return. Just like we heard Elisabeth Mann speak last week, it is now up to us to carry her story from the Holocaust in our own hands and share it for generations to come.

Finally, we should know that every action we take in our lives does effect someone else, even if we don’t fully realize it – be it through inspiring someone to give tzedakah or providing someone a shelter of peace, what we do, how we live, and who we touch – like the butterfly who flits its wings on the other side of the planet, can create a powerful change in our world. May this change be for a blessing and may the memories of all our loved ones be blessings today and always.



One Response to Rabbi Cohen Yom Kippur Afternoon / Yizkor Sermon – “The Works of Our Hands are a Blessing”

  1. Carol Black September 30, 2015 at 9:42 am #

    Thank you Rabbi for sharing these beautiful stories. They remind us what is important.