Erev Rosh Hashanah 5768: Rabbi Greg Wolfe

Be An Angel: Becoming God’s Partner in the Ongoing Creation of the World

Hayom Harat Olam. Today the world is born. Each year we celebrate the birthday of the world during the sacred observance of Rosh Hashanah by looking deep within ourselves and reflecting upon the meaning and purpose of our lives. We also contemplate our place in the universe and our responsibilities to this planet and the living beings who dwell here. Our tradition invites each of us, in our own way, to ask ourselves during these days, What on earth am I here for? What is my role in the world’s ongoing creation? Our answers to these questions renew and revitalize our sense of purpose in the new year.

Rabbi Marc Gellman offers us a midrashic insight into our life’s Jewish mission in this story from his book, Does God Have a Big Toe?:

Before there was anything, there was just God, a few angels, and a huge swirling glob of rocks and water with no place to go. The angels looked around and asked God, “Why don’t you clean up this mess?”

So God collected rocks from the huge swirling glob and put them together in clumps and said, “Some of these clumps of rocks will be planets and some will be stars, and some of these rocks will be … just rocks. Then God collected water from the huge swirling glob and put it together in pools of water and said, “Some of these pools of water will be oceans, and some will become clouds, and some of this water will be … just water.

The angels looked around and said, “Well, God, It’s neater now, but is it finished?” And God answered, “Nope!”

On some of the rocks God placed growing things, and creeping things, and things that only God knows what they are, and when God had done all this, the angels looked around and asked God, “Is the world finished now?” And God answered, “Nope!”

God made a man and a woman from some of the water and dust and said to them, “You know, I am tired now. Please finish up the world for me … really it’s almost done.” But the man and the woman said, “We can’t finish the world alone! You have the plans and we are too little.”

“You are big enough,” God answered them. “But I agree to this. If you keep trying to finish the world, I will be your partner.”

The man and woman asked, “What’s a partner?” and God answered, “A partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means you can never give up, because your partner is depending on you. On the days you think I am not doing enough and on the days I think you are not doing enough, even on those days we are still partners and we must not stop trying to finish the world. That’s the deal.” And they all agreed to that deal.

Then the angels asked God, “Is the world finished yet?” and God answered, “I don’t know. Go ask my partners.” (Does God Have a Big Toe? by Rabbi Marc Gellman. P. 1-3)

So if we want to know what we are here for, the Jewish answer is, we are God’s partners. God doesn’t depend on angels. God depends on us to beangels. Within each of us, a spark of divinity resides, waiting to be activated. We are God’s hands and feet, eyes and ears–and, most importantly, God’s heart. God needs each one of us. And each time we perform an act of kindness that heals the world then we bring God’s presence into our world.

We might even imagine that every year, on the world’s birthday, God remembers our original agreement and asks us once again to recommit, to renew our annual pledge to be partners with God in the ongoing process of creation. How could we give up? Our partner is counting on us. But how do we know what God wants us to do and how can we go about doing this work? What happens when we do God’s work? And why is doing God’s work so important?

Well-known Jewish educator and author, Ron Wolfson, engages his readers in exploring these very questions in his most recent book, “God’s To-Do List: 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth.” To heighten our awareness of our human capacity to make a difference in our world, today, right now, and to motivate us to get started, Wolfson has launched a Jewish community-wide read of his book this fall at synagogues around the country. Throughout his book, Wolfson reminds us that God has a To-Do list, just like the rest of us, and that God is seeking us out to be angels and partners with God here on earth in completing this list of divine opportunities.

How do we know what God wants us to do? Wolfson suggests that we focus not on what God says but what God does. The Torah is a catalogue of the various acts that God engages in–creating, blessing, comforting, caring, repairing– and we can participate in partnership with God in doing those things, too. These acts reveal God’s Middot, or Divine characteristics. We can create a better world, a world of loving compassion and justice for all, by following the path that God has set out for us.

First and foremost, God is a creative force. We are created in God’s image. This means that we, too, are imbued with the creative capacity. “When you create,” Wolfson writes, “you’re releasing your godliness into the world.” (Wolfson p. 26) Wolfson highlights, in his book, 10 characteristic actions that God models for us. As God blesses, so, too, do we have the power to bless others. Just as God rests, shouldn’t we take a day off? If God can forgive, then we must also possess that ability. I want to whet your appetite for being God’s partner with a look at just three of these qualities, but I want to encourage everyone to read the entire book for themselves. In this way, I hope to stimulate a congregation-wide conversation among members and within families about how we can all work together on God’s To-Do list. God knows … there is plenty to do, but our rabbis taught that we are not obligated to complete the work. Our only responsibility is to get started. (To order your copy of the book, call Marti in the office by September 19th, so that we can read the book in the week leading up to Mitzvah Day on October 7th. The cost of the book will be approximately $11-$13, depending on how many copies we order.)

So what are some of the things that God does that we can emulate? God calls. God comforts. God gives. You may say to me, “But rabbi, I don’t really believe in God.” It’s true. Many of us may not believe in God; especially in a God who makes lists of things for us to do. But many doexperience God and have felt God’s presence. Being God’s partner is not an act of faith, but rather an act of faithfulness…to our ideals, to our dreams, to our belief that what we do matters. The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shneer Zalman of Liadi, taught that there will come a time in everyone’s life when you can’t believe in God. Too many things will have happened to you, too much knowledge of bad things happening to good people. “At that moment, go take care of someone who is sick. Go visit someone who is lonely. Go do an act of tzedakah , or chesed [lovingkindness]. You will feel God in your hands and your faith will be restored.”

God calls and we can, too. In the Torah, God is calling on people all of the time! God calls to Adam and Eve in the midst of the garden, “ayeka, where are you?” God calls to Abraham, “lech lecha, go forth to a new land!” God calls to Moses, “Shelach et ami, Set my people free!” God calls patriarchs and prophets in days of old. Could it be possible that, maybe, God is calling you today?

Many of us don’t think about our passions for helping others or making a difference in people’s lives as a calling from God. But whether we think about what we do as a divine calling or not, there are things that we feel called to do, simply because we know they are right. And we know that we must respond; whether it is to give food to a homeless person, to help a neighbor, to volunteer our time, to support our favorite cause, or to march for something we believe in.

Your calling might be expressed through your artistic talents: We have quilters in the congregation who have offered their skills for the Linus project, which makes comfort blankets for those in need. Your calling might be for social justice and volunteering for organizations that work for economic equality. Maybe your talent is simply being handy around the house. This, too, can be a calling. My father-in-law, Sherman, is the handiest angel I know. Whenever anyone in the neighborhood needs something fixed or looked at, Sherman is always the first call. He is always ready to help with advice and a repair, and I think this kind of service brings him great joy. Now that’s a model of tikun olam!

When we are moved to share our loves and lives with others, then we are not only listening to our calling but we become callers, as well, helping those whose lives we touch feel connected to God’s presence. There are so many paths, so many ways to call and be called. You simply need to find your calling and respond. On the simplest level, you can just call your family … just to check in. Is there someone you haven’t called for awhile, maybe you have lost touch? This is a chance to reconnect and let them know you are thinking of them. You can call your government representatives, too. They are waiting to hear from you about what is important to you. Call others to be angels, too, and invite them to join you in your favorite project.

God comforts and we can, too. One of the best examples of God offering comfort can be found in the Book of Genesis where God appears to Abraham while he is sitting at the entrance to his tent. Why does God make this special house call? According to the rabbis, God comes at this particular time because Abraham was recovering from his circumcision and God was performing the mitzvah of visiting the sick. The highest ideal that we can aspire to is emulating God’s ways. Our rabbis put our responsibilities succinctly: “As God is merciful, you should be merciful. As God is compassionate, you should be compassionate.” We can express our divine comforting abilities by visiting and comforting the sick, by consoling the bereaved, and by welcoming the stranger. At each of these moments, we need only be present in order to be God’s angel on earth.

How many in our community are unable to participate fully in the life of our congregation because of some limitation they face, creating for them a sense of isolation and alienation from the larger community. We need to take action and create an organized opportunity for Bet Haverim angels to visit the elderly and infirm in our community, to connect with those who have impaired access to the services we offer. What if we had angels who could give rides to Shabbat services to those who don’t drive or angels who would make regular calls to those who are home-bound, especially on holidays? Maybe this item on God’s To-do list resonates with you and you would like to help us develop a way to reach out to these individuals and make them more a part of our community. Jewish Family Service in Sacramento is ready to partner with us in offering loving hands of comfort to those in need. Maybe you are that angel to make this happen.

God gives and we can, too. To the people of Israel, God gives food in the desert and the Torah at Mt. Sinai. To Adam and Eve, God gives clothes. To Abraham, God gives a covenant. We, too, have many opportunities to give, to open our hearts and our hands. “When you give, you are not diminished,” Ron Wolfson remarks. “Quite the contrary. Your heart is filled with gratitude that your contribution has made a difference.” (Wolfson, p. 94)

Ron Wolfson tells the story of Don Greenberg in his book, who is a giver par excellence. Don gives peaches. But these are no ordinary peaches. Every summer since he retired from his wholesale produce business, Don orders 88 crates of a rare variety of peach–the O’Henry Peach (maybe you’ve seen them at Ikeda’s)–which is the size of a softball and oozes the sweetest nectar and most amazing flavor. You are considered to be quite fortunate if you are one of the nearly 200 friends and family of “Papa Don’s” to receive a half case of this delicacy. Why does he do it? Don says, “I want people to experience something unusual. And, it’s fun to give them away to people on my list, plus I know that they will, in turn, give some of the peaches to their friends and family.” And, so the giving grows. Don’s unique giving project might inspire us to consider how we might start our own tradition of giving in our family and community? And what are some of the ways that we can give so it grows?

I remember how our family became “Mitzvah Messengers” on our trip to Israel last summer and we watched the giving multiply. Many people, when they heard we were going to Israel, gave us a few dollars to take with us to donate to worthy individuals or causes while we were there. By the time we left, we had nearly $150 to distribute. On the streets of Jerusalem, I ran into my friend, Danny Siegel, the mitzvah maven, who told me about his friend, Avi. Avi was a simple guy who sold flowers and juice outside the Super Sol grocery store in Jerusalem. And, yet, Avi was a mitzvah hero who made miracles happen for families. As we visited with Avi, we learned that he was continuing a mitzvah legacy started by his father over 30 years ago. This particular summer, Avi was collecting money to help a family in financial straits organize a bar mitzvah for their son. The boy needed a new outfit and shoes, a meal needed to be arranged. And, of course, they needed flowers and other items for a party. The little bits of money that I gathered here and there made their way across the Atlantic and helped make a real difference in the life of a child and his entire family. How fun it was for our family to look for things to do with the money people had given us! Why not do this mitzvah at home, too? Try putting a few dollars in an envelop and give them to your kids or grandkids or friends to distribute for themselves. Why not share the joy of giving? Winston Churchill said: “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” (Wolfson, p. 97)

This year I hope you will join me on Sunday, October 7th, in a unique day dedicated to giving: Our annual Mitzvah day celebration. We have fliers in the hall with all of the details. This year we will spend the morning studying and after lunch we will go out into the community to tackle God’s To-Do list together. While the kids are in class, adults are invited to join me for a discussion of Ron Wolfson’s book, God’s To-Do List, and ways to engage our community in Tikkun Olam. Let us make a communal commitment to come together this year on Mitzvah Day, and recognize our tremendous power to give of ourselves. We will see first hand how it changes not only the recipients of our good works but it changes us as well. In truth, every day is Mitzvah Day, a day to experience the sustaining energy that comes from making mitzvot a meaningful part of our daily lives.

When we participate fully with God as partners in creating the world, we are transformed. The story is told of the Kotzker Rebbe who emerged from his room after years of self-imposed isolation from the world. When he looked out at the Beit Midrash, the House of Study, he saw hundreds of students sitting around tables, their heads immersed in holy books. “What are you doing?” the Rebbe asked. The students replied, “We are studying Torah.” The Kotzker Rebbe exclaimed: “Haven’t you learned anything?! Don’t learn Torah. Be Torah!” The Rebbe was saying something very powerful that speaks to us still: Make your life a sacred text through the doing of sacred acts. Let us be Torah in our lives and transform the world in partnership with God. What better gift could we give the world or ourselves on this Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world.

Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will.

Rabbi Greg Wolfe