“For my sake the world was created and I am nothing but dust and ashes.”
As many of you know, this past summer, my family and I took a trip around the world. It was a dream come true; an adventure that proved to be one of the most rewarding things we could ever have done together.
For those of you who have asked me “How was your vacation?” I can only assume you have never been in one small place with four kids for over two months. Vacation it’s not!!!!
Tonight, tomorrow and on Yom Kippur, I want to share with you lessons and insights from our journey, but above all, I want to talk with you about a journey far harder and difficult then the one we just came back from.
Tonight we all embark on a journey that will not take us to high volcano peaks, rain forests or jungles. Our Journey is best described by Wendell Berry who said that: “The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”
Our spiritual journey asks us to reach deep within ourselves to the most private, hidden parts of our souls, the places that only we know, those that we share with few, if any at all.
How you prepare for your journey and what you take with you, will determine much of how your journey will look.
For our journey I have prepared for a gift. Don’t worry, its small and doesn’t weigh much but its precious.
I smile as I remember the faces of Roni and Tom, when they first saw the size of their back pack and realized that it is possible to pack 10 weeks worth of clothes into them. The fact that their packs weighed under 15 pounds was truly a miracle!
The gift I want you to take is a card.
On one side; you will see a quote from the Talmud: –“ Bishvili nivra ha-olam”—“For my sake the world was created.”
On the other, a quote from the book of Genesis—“V’anokhi afar v’efer””—“I am but dust and ashes.”
Carrying these two quotes is a tradition attributed to Rabbi Simcha Bunem. He used to carry these two quotes, each on a different slip of paper in a different pocket, and he would take out the appropriate slip of paper when he needed it.
These notes carry with them great wisdom. Please take them with you as you leave tonight. (In about 12 minutes) - They do not weigh 15 pounds and will take up very little space in your pockets but they might be exactly what we need for our journey on the next 10 days of awe. A journey of one inch, very grueling and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at the innermost parts of our soul , on Yom Kippur.
WE can use these two notes in a few different ways which I will share with you today, tomorrow and on Yom Kippur. I personally carry these two with me, if not always physically, then at least in my awareness, and use them often -
Allow me to share two such moments with you…
We are in the train station in New Delhi, Platform 6. The train called the “Agra express” pulls in. We push our way among thousands of people and step into our train car. I find my seat and start making myself comfortable. As I do so, I am joined by an indian family traveling to a wedding. In a very typical situation on a train in India, we are all seated closely and there is not much personal space…As we are in it together for the next two hours, a conversation begins: “Where are you from” I’m asked. “I’m from Israel” I answer their question with pride. The expression on their faces tells the entire story. They have never heard of Israel! “What do you do?” comes the second question. “I’m a Rabbi”. Again the puzzled expression. I try to explain: “It’s like a Guru - just Jewish.” Again, their expression says it all…Jewish? I realize that for them, so much of what I represent and that I devote my life to has no meaning, has no importance. Their lives will remain the same whether or not Israel exists, whether or not Judaism lives.
I feel so small; 1 Jew out of 15 million, looking at 1 out of 7 people in the world…I reach into my left pocket. I find in it a note that says “Bishvili nivra ha-olam”—“For my sake the world was created.” Its okay I say to myself. Maybe not to them, BUT I do matter.
Two weeks earlier in New Zealand, I’m in a very small airplane, really small. It is climbing up to the sky at a frightening speed. The air is so thin we have to wear oxygen masks. At 16,500 feet, my skydiving instructor, the man to whom I am tied and in whom I trust my life, taps my shoulder and says “ready mate?”- as if one can ever be ready to jump out of a plane with only a small piece of cloth and some strings tied to his back. I have no choice, I take a deep breath and jump. Seventy seconds later, after the most amazing free fall, the parachute opens. I scream “Hallelujah” and look around. I have a sense of peace that can only be achieved by hanging like a weightless cloud in the air, below me Mount Cook, Fox Glacier, the beauty of the entire south Island of New Zealand. The guide says to me “Welcome to my office”. I look back and say : “NO, welcome to mine.”
When I land, I am overwhelmed with adrenaline and a sense of accomplishment and greatness. I reach into my right pocket and I find in it a note that says “ V’anokhi afar v’efer”—“I am but dust and ashes.” Your office is on 4311 Hood Road. Don't be so arrogant.
I am certain that we have all experienced moments when we felt as if we were nothing but a speck in this universe. Conversely, we all have experienced moments in which life was PERFECT. Nothing could be better.
We all carry with us our own stories and stories of people we know; family members, friends and neighbors, who one day had it all, and the next day lost it all and the stories of those who at a certain point had nothing but were able to turn their lives around.
I think of Rabbi Meir Lao, born in Poland in 1937. When he was 4 years old, Lau was separated from his parents by the Nazis and shipped off to the Buchenwald concentration camp. In a miraculous way he survived and in 1945, only 8 years old, Lau was liberated by Allied forces. He was detected hiding under a heap of corpses when the camp was liberated. Lau's father, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau, had been chief rabbi of his town and was killed at Treblinka. The rest of his family was also murdered by the Nazis, except for his older brother. I think of this young boy, a Holocaust survivor and thousands like him, that in 1945 could not imagine the world being a kind place. Yet, after immigrating to Israel, Lau became the chief rabbi of Israel and the chairman of Yad Va’shem.
If you told him in May of 1945 that ”Bishvili nivra ha-olam”—“for my sake the world was created.” Would he be able to believe you?
I think of Marcy Borders, 42 years old.
You might not recognize the name Marcy Borders, but you all know her photo. She was a 28-year-old Bank of America worker who fled the 81st floor of 1 World Trade Center, after the first plane struck on September 11, 2001. 14 years and two days ago. A photographer took a photo of her running for safety covered in dust, a photo that became an icon of that horrible day.
Marcy Borders is known as the “woman in dust.” She was 28 on that day, her entire life ahead of her. She never recovered from the events of that horrific day. Marcy Borders fell into a spiral of depression and addiction. In August 2014 Borders was diagnosed with stomach cancer, attributed to the dust she was exposed to that morning. She died less then a month ago, 42 years old.
If you told Marcy on September 10 that she will soon be known as the woman in dust -“V’anokhi afar v’efer”—“I am but dust and ashes.” That the world is about to change forever – could she even envision such a thing?
These are just two of so many stories which remind us that the distance from the peak to the bottom, and then again, from bottom to top, is not as big as we might think or hope.
This year, carry these two notes with you. Once in a while remind yourselves what we want to forget, what the High Holy Days come to remind us every year, what we all know - as much as we hate to admit it – that we have little control over what will be, we have significant control over how we respond to our ever changing reality.
Let us remember that every thing changes, the good as well as the bad, the peak as well as the pit. The more we internalize this reality, we hope and pray that we can increase our ability to cope with changes, but even more so, understanding that what we have, what we are, is impermanent should open our eyes to see our blessings and express our gratitude, every day or inspire us to fight and change our painful situation, every day.
I am reminded in the story of King Solomon who asked his advisor to find him an object that when the king will look at - his bad mood will change in to a good mood and then, looking again, his good mood into bad. Solomon believed he was giving his advisor an impossible task. and yet when the advisor returned with a ring that had on it an inscription, the king, all joyous and happy, took one look at it and started sobbing. Minutes later - when looking at it again…he started smiling.
Until this day you will see many people in Israel walking with such a ring…what does it say… “Gam Ze Ya’avor” - ”This too shall Pass.”
Carry the note, buy a ring, If even just one person here tonight finds these teachings to be meaningful Dayeinu.
There are a few other teachings attributed to these notes, Please allow me to share one more tonight.
I like to say that they can also serve us -as what I like to call “Ego Meters,” tools with which to test our sometimes out-of-check egos.
So tonight- when you go home…in about 5 minutes…I’d like to ask you – to ask your self a hard question –
When you look deep inside, what do you see?
Are you the person who usually walks around feeling a sense of entitlement, that you made it in this world and with this knowledge comes an expectation that the world’s doors should open easily before you? Are you the person who tends to think that, most of the time, you’re right and the world around you is getting it all wrong? If this describes you, then take your card out of your pocket or wallet and look at the side that says “I am nothing but dust and ashes.”
We are all at times full of ourselves - and if we are - then let the dust and ashes pocket serves as a reminder that cuts through our arrogance; our conviction that we’re always right or that we need to be right. Let it put our lives and our ego in perspective. Let it remind us that what we have, we achieved not only by our own qualities and hard work but also by blessings bestowed on us by past generations and by God (some will change God to luck.)
Let it serve as a loud wake up call- an important reminder to think about how much of life’s bounty we really are entitled to, and do we perhaps enjoy a far greater share than any one person might reasonably expect? Let it serve as a reminder that as long as you have so much, as long as you are so blessed, sharing that blessing is the only way to truly enjoy it.
But if are you the person who never attends to your own needs, the one that constantly puts your self down, if you walk around this world feeling worthless, small, as if your life amounts to very little, If you regularly experience a sense of meaninglessness and lack of purpose.
If you are that person, Then hold the card and read to your self “For me the world was created”.
We all at times feel worthless - and when we do - let the “for my sake was the world created” serve as a reminder that the grandeur of creation comes to full expression in our creation, the creation of human beings.
We are complexly magnificent, able to be conscious of ourselves, able to transcend that which is - to what ought to be. Each and every one of us is “created in the image of God” and WE, in our existance reflect God’s greatest outpouring of love.
Let this note remind us that within each and every one of us is a unique soul, like no other.
Let us remember the beautiful words of Martin Buber: “Every person born into the world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique...If there had been someone like her in the world, there would have been no need for her to be born”. You are not just ashes and dust. You are the wonder of creation itself. You are unique and you are loved. You DO have a purpose. I’ll share more about that purpose tomorrow.
Please take a card with you tonight, and in the next 10 day of AWE, reach again and again into your own pocket, and pull out the card and read the side that feels less natural for you, the quote that makes you uncomfortable, the note that challenges your perception of yourself.
And if you can’t decide on which side to pause and reflect – then flip it from side to side - Because I believe, just as the wisdom of Mussar teaches, that most of us fall somewhere between these two quotes, sometimes knowing that the world was created for our sake, sometimes feeling like dust and ashes.
It is good to move back and forth between the two pockets. In the next ten days, The Days of Awe, we should all take the time and make the effort, to seek integration, and try to realize and to cultivate both of these qualities within ourselves.
As we begin this New Year, let us pray that we can all find that unique balance that will allow us to live in peace, in peace with ourselves and in peace with others.
May we make use of this balance to live our lives gently but powerfully, knowing that we are nothing, and at the same time, we are the crown of creation. Let us live in balance, optimistic but realistic, seeking and satisfied, demanding and generous. If we each can find our balance, then each of us will be able to bring the gifts we carry to the task of creating a world of balance, a world of wholeness, a world of Shalom.
L’shana Tova Tikatevu.
Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37B