One of the great debates of our time concerns the onset of life. That is, when does life begin? There are some who believe that life begins at conception, others believe that life begins at birth. And, of course, borscht belt comedians will tell you that life begins “when the kids move out and the dog dies.” (I believe that they are quoting Rav Groucho on that one…)
Jewish law recognizes the potential of life in a fetus. We know this because the Talmud records the case of one who strikes a pregnant woman causing a miscarriage, and assesses a civil penalty—the payment of a fine for property damage, since the fetus is not yet a life but has value as property. And in another citation, we are taught that it is not only permissible, but obligatory to abort a fetus whose presence is a threat to the life of the mother, since the mother is a life and the fetus only a potential life. It is only when the child’s head and shoulders are outside the mother’s body that the fetus—property, or potential life—is declared to be a human life, its potential having at last been realized.
No matter what side of the debate you find yourself on, and where you personally draw the line between potential life and life itself, it is almost universally agreed, based on ever increasing scientific knowledge, that a fetus becomes a sentient being with simple awarenesses, the ability to hear and feel and recognize that which is familiar, before the Talmud’s declared moment of birth. The experience of the fore-life, that which is experienced by the fetus prior to birth cannot be known to us with certainty, just like the experience of the after-life cannot be known with certainty, because no one has yet been able to give us a first-hand account of what it was like. Nevertheless, we wonder about what life is like before our birth. It is one of many things that we wonder about.
Hayom harat olam…with the sounding of the shofar, we proclaim “This is the day of the world’s birth”. And so it should be no surprise to you when I tell you that the rabbis wondered about what the world was like before it was born.
The book of Genesis, Bereshit, offers two creation stories that give us some of our earliest ideas about the world before it was born. The first one, which is the most familiar, (you know…the creation of the world in six days…) says that before the world was born, it was “tohu va-vohu”— total chaos. All of the elements of the universe were present; wind, water, darkness, space. But they were without any order or design, moving about, as it were, with no interconnectivity, no predictability and no purposeful interaction. The first creation story tells us that God fashioned the world out of these elements, bringing about an order and a design that evolved into the world as we know it.
The second creation story begins with Adam in the Garden of Eden, which, in the second story, is the world before its birth. In this second story, the world before its birth is the total opposite of “tohu va-vohu”. Not only is it ordered, it is perfectly ordered. It is paradise. Complete harmony, all of the elements; animals, trees, vegetation, water, light, interacting with purpose and combining to meet all of Adam’s desires and needs. There is no work, no pain, no hunger, no shame, and there is no death. In the second story, the world as we know it is not born until Adam and Eve are forced to leave the Garden. They enter into a world where people have to work for their food. They experience violence and pain, and life is finite. This is the world we live in, the one we know. The second story is a different imagining of how our world came to be.
Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the great masters of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah, asked a different question. He wondered, “If God is ever-present, then before the world was created, God was all there was.” That is to say, there was no world yet, there was only God. Then, by definition God filled all time and space. Luria then wondered, “If God, indeed, filled up all of the space, where would there be room for God to put the world when God created it?” And he offered this answer. Luria said that, in an act of great mercy and compassion, God retracted into God’s self to make space for the world. Only, according to Luria, the increased density of God’s light, resulting from this contraction, could not be contained in the vessels in which God’s light was kept, and the vessels shattered, sending shards of God’s light throughout the universe. This left the world in a state of brokenness, and in need of repair.
The teaching of the Lurianic Kabbalah is that we are charged with the task of gathering up the shards, and repairing the brokenness of the world. Luria teaches that we can bring about this repair by doing the mitzvot, and through the pursuit of justice and acts of loving kindness. This is what we call “tikkun olam”. Repairing the world.
Last night I spoke about many aspects of our world today that are in serious need of repair. War and hunger and disease. Diminishing natural resources. The effects of climate change. Israel and the Palestinians. Shia and Sunnis. (My goodness, even the Scots and the Brits are at odds with one another these days.) Escalating crime and violence here at home. The hardening of our hearts toward immigrants, visible minorities and the poor.
I spoke about the fact that repairing the world is a big job and we are small in relation to the task. But we are not too small to make a difference, and, according to Isaac Luria, tikkun olam is our responsibility and our mission. Pirke Avot reminds us, “Lo alecha ha-m’lacha ligmor. V’lo ata ben chorin lehitbatel mimenu—You are not required to complete the task, but you were not made free people in order to avoid it”. If the world is to be repaired one breach at a time, then that is the approach we must take. One small repair, then another and another, until the job is done. In the words of the Kotzker Rebbe (one of my favorites…) “The distance from west to east…is one step.”
So, where to begin? What will be our first step? Our tradition tells us to begin in our own community. And common sense tells us to start with a task that we can manage, one for which we can make a difference.
This morning, I want to suggest that, as a first step in the coming year, we do whatever we can to reduce hunger in our community.
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It’s 8:00 a.m. and children romp on the playground outside of Starr King Elementary, a public school nestled on top of Potrero Hill in San Francisco. The morning scene of laughter and games is typical of any schoolyard, but inside something very special is happening — their parents are choosing groceries from the school’s Healthy Children Pantry.
The pantry is a program of the San Francisco Food Bank. It provides staples, grains and legumes, along with fresh produce for families to take home. Thanks to the support of its donors, the Food Bank has recently been able to supply Starr King Elementary’s pantry with eggs twice a month.
Like so many children in San Francisco, some of the students at Starr King Elementary get a free lunch at school. The food bank sends a calendar of what the lunch is going to be, so the parents can know what their kids are getting to eat. Children eat groceries from the pantry at home, and they eat lunch at school.
High unemployment, a tough economy, the rising cost of living and the effects of the recession that are still being felt by the most vulnerable, have pushed record numbers of people in San Francisco to the point of hunger. With government safety net programs stretched thin due to budget cuts, people have come to rely on the San Francisco Food Bank as the main source of hunger relief. Families who have always lived securely in the middle class are now seeking help at the food bank and its food pantries. The number of people at risk of hunger increased by 14% in the recession years of 2008 to 2011 and the numbers continue to grow.
There is a common misunderstanding that it is mostly the homeless who face hunger. But in a city as expensive as San Francisco, it's not easy to make ends meet. People in almost every part of the city and from all walks of life, including hard-working people with low-wage jobs, find themselves unable to afford all the food they need.
Children, seniors, unemployed and low-wage workers make up the majority of those struggling with hunger. The fact is that only 17% of those receiving food through the Food Bank network are homeless.
Many low-income neighborhoods lack an adequate number of grocery stores, leaving residents without a place to buy healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables.
Skipping dinner. Eating less, or eating less well. Giving up food in order to pay rent. These are the choices that some folks face right here in our community. One in four residents of San Francisco and Marin is unable to afford all the food they need. One in four. And while the numbers are staggering, hunger in our community is a solvable problem.
In the year that has just ended, The San Francisco Food Bank distributed more than 45 million pounds of food — enough for more than 100,000 meals each day.
And this will be its impact in the New Year 5775:
225,000 people will be nourished through its programs
meals in their own home.
Each year at the High Holy Days, our congregation participates in a non-perishable food drive, filling barrels with canned and dry foods to help stock the shelves of the food bank. You see the barrels in the foyer, and I know that you will fill them to overflowing during the next 10 days. This is a beginning, for sure, but it will not be enough.
Immediately after these High Holy Days, together with our friends at B’nai Emunah, Ner Tamid and Or Shalom, we will be forming a tikkun olam partnership with the expressed purpose of engaging in programs of hunger relief in our community. Together we will conduct food drives and raise funds for the San Francisco Food Bank and for Mazon, the Jewish Hunger Relief organization. We will make regular visits to the San Francisco Food Bank to volunteer—sorting and packaging food for distribution. We will donate left-over perishable food from synagogue events to women’s shelters and other agencies in need, and we will encourage our congregants to do the same after their b’nai mitzvah and wedding celebrations. We will make sandwiches for the homeless in our community, and volunteer at soup kitchens. And we will educate our communities about the problem of hunger and think creatively together to discover new and better ways to make a difference, in our community and then, perhaps, in other parts of the world as well.
And, of course, when I say “we”, I mean “you…and me”. We will need volunteers to make this happen. And so this morning I am inviting you to become a part of this tikkun—this small repair of this one bit of the world’s brokenness. Lori Ganz is one of our representatives on the Steering Committee, and she is looking for someone to sit on the committee with her. You can let Lori know if you would like to be her partner in this endeavor. And even if you don’t want to be on the committee, we will need you to be a volunteer and a contributor for our efforts to be successful.
Our tradition teaches that the world will be saved by 36 righteous people. The problem is, we don’t know precisely who these people are, so each of us has to act as if we were one of them. (Who knows, maybe we are…) On your way out of the service this morning, you will find a sign-up board in the foyer, and there will also be a spot on the Temple web-site, so that you can let us know that you would like to help. Leave your name and contact information and someone will be in touch with you.
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This past year the world lost an icon in the Israeli music world, Arik Einstein (z”l). With his passion for social change and idealistic spirit he composed the well-known song, Ani V’ata Neshaneh et Ha’olam –You and I will Change the World.
Ani v'atah, neshaneh et ha'olam.
You and I will change the world.
Ani v'atah, az yavo'u k'var kulam.
You and I, and then others will follow
Amru et zeh kodem, l'fanai, zeh lo
Others have said it before,
It doesn’t matter.
Ani v'atah,neshaneh et ha'olam.
You and I will change the world.
As this New Year, 5775 begins; let us build on the spirit of these words, and say:
Ani v’ata n’takeyn et ha-olam.
You and I can repair the world.
Ken Yihi Ratzon.