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Friday, 15 September, 2017 - 3:23 pm

One Shabbat a cowboy went to shul. When he entered, he saw that he was the only congregant. The rabbi asked if he wanted him to give the sermon. The cowboy said, “I'm not a learned man, but if I went to feed my cattle and only one showed up, I'd feed him.” So the rabbi began.

One hour passed, then two, then two-and-a-half hours. Finally, the rabbi finished and asked the cowboy how he’d liked the sermon. The cowboy answered, “Well, I'm not a learned man, but if I went to feed my cattle and only one showed up, I sure wouldn't feed him all the hay.”

This Shabbat is the last Shabbat of the year 5777. On Wednesday night, September 20, we begin the holiday of Rosh Hashanah and the New Year, 5778. The Baal Shem Tov said that this Shabbat, prior to Rosh Hashanah, G-d himself is blessing us and the world for this coming year.

The second book of Kings tells a moving story that takes place on the final day of the life of the prophet Elijah. After leading a productive and rich life, before being taken from the world, Elijah went walking with his favorite disciple, the prophet Elisha: “They were walking and talking, talking and walking. The Talmud is asking, ‘What were they talking about?’”

The two prophets were looking at the world before them: the one that Elijah was leaving and Elisha was facing. They saw what we observe in our own times: a world of violence, terror, injustice and oppression. They saw conflicts between the Egyptians, Assyrians and Philistines. As they contemplated these events, they discussed how Elisha might best face this new world and what he had to do in order to help build a more civil and harmonious society.

Here we see what a Jew is called upon to do. It is not enough to engage in fashioning the lives of your own people. At the same time, you must be concerned with Briat Olam, making the world a home for the Divine presence, a place of justice, compassion, and human dignity.

Irving went to his rabbi who was well known for his charitable impulses. “Rabbi,” he said brokenly, “I think you should know about the plight of a poor Jewish family in our community. They are about to be kicked out and turned into the cold, empty streets unless someone pays their 3 months of back-rent, which amounts to $4,000.”

“How terrible!” exclaimed the rabbi. He went out and raised $4,000 in one day. The Rabbi told Irving, “It is so nice of you to show such concern for a fellow Jew.”

“Well,” Irving said, “I’m the landlord.”

From our very beginnings, to be a Jew has always meant to be a blessing to all of humanity. What were G-d’s first words to Abraham and Sarah in the Torah? “I will make of you a great nation... and through you, all the families on earth will be blessed.”

For millennia, we have responded to that call. That is why Jews are to be found disproportionately as doctors fighting illness, lawyers fighting injustice, economists fighting poverty, or teachers fighting ignorance. Jews have won Nobel Prizes out of proportion to our numbers. As a sociologist once said, “The Jews are a people who can’t sleep and don't let others sleep either.”

The famed U.S. senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once asked for a meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. After spending an hour with the Rebbe, he emerged looking rather surprised. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a religious leader quite like that,” he told the Rebbe’s secretary.

The senator explained that he had sought the Rebbe’s counsel concerning certain issues involving New York’s Jewish community. After offering advice regarding these matters, the Rebbe asked if he could request a favor from the senator.

“‘Here it comes, he is cashing in,’ I thought to myself,” the senator told the secretary. “‘Just like the other political leaders I meet, the Rebbe’s looking for a favor—probably special treatment for an organization or institution of his.’ Honestly, I expect that of people, that they’ll ask me to help with their special interests. But the Rebbe surprised me.

“He said, ‘There is a growing community in Chinatown. Those people are quiet, hard-working and law-abiding—the type of citizens most countries treasure. But because Americans are more outgoing and the Chinese are traditionally more reserved, government programs often overlook them. As a favor, I ask that you concern yourself with them.’”

The senator observed to the secretary, “The Rebbe has a community of thousands in New York, and institutions all over the state that could benefit from government support. I am in a position to help secure funding for them, but the Rebbe didn’t mention those. He spent his face-to-face moment speaking on behalf of the people in Chinatown. He’s never even been there, and I’m certain that most people in Chinatown have no idea who he is. They probably can’t even pronounce the word Chabad, but he cares about them. Their wellbeing is his personal favor!”

In advocating for the Chinese-American community, the Rebbe demonstrated something quintessentially Jewish: That a Jew thinks not only of himself and his own people, but of all the world.

The Chasidic masters used to say that there are two ways of keeping warm on a cold night: Buying a fur coat or lighting a fire. Putting on a coat keeps you warm. Lighting a fire keeps everyone warm. Since the dawn of our history, the Jew has always chosen to light a fire.

Now, we are approaching Rosh Hashanah. Let us retain the vision and ideals of Judaism and our ancestors. This year may we work at Briat Olam, making a small part of the world better for all. Judaism is a spiritual force that will give beauty and value to our lives, and to the lives of all people.

Shabbat Shalom and SHANA TOVA,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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