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Balak July 19, 2019

07/18/2019 03:50:53 PM


Rabbi Robinson

Balak 2019

Last week while I was away up on the Cape I had the chance to participate in my dad’s installation as president of his Rotary club. It was, in many respects, an interesting event; I’ve known many of the members of his club for years, decades really, and it was a great moment for him and for our family. He asked me to speak as part of the installation, and when I got up I recalled a former member of the club, a past president of the Cape Cod Synagogue, a guy named Milton Penn, who had been honored a few years ago, before he passed. He was given a lifetime achievement award, one that was well deserved. Here was a man in his 90s who still went to work most days, who had given charitably and of his time to support the community around him, and was in every respect a pillar of society, and was beloved. There was no doubt he deserved the recognition. At the time he stood up, said thank you, and said something to the effect of, “the point is service above self; I didn’t do this to earn an award, but to serve the community.” And then he sat down. If you didn’t know Milton, you might imagine that this was false modesty on his part, or a Yankee abruptness that would go with some lack of social graces. But then you didn’t know Milton. He meant what he said; we are called to serve our communities and each other, to put the needs of the community above our own, and while awards are nice, they cannot be the motivation. In a way, he lived the words of Pirkei Avot: do not be like one who serves in the expectation of receiving a reward.

I think about Milton a lot when I’m on the Cape, and often wonder what he would make of this society, one that is increasingly interested not in service, nor in doing service to receive a reward, but just the rewards themselves. Think of the people we know, like Milton, who work quietly, behind the scenes, just plugging away trying to make the world better, not looking for any kind of recognition. Now think about your social media feed, as people post and post and post, almost as if they’re looking for a fight, looking to tell you about their values, but not really showing them.

This isn’t a new issue, of course. We’ve always, always had to deal with those who would talk rather than listen, who would be happy to have another certificate on their wall but not much to show for it. There are a lot of people who would be like Bilaam, the prophet in our Torah portion. The rabbis describe him as haughty, more sure of his capabilities than he ought to be, or as a wise person once said, “always certain, sometimes right.” What’s most concerning about Bilaam is his interested in doing the work of prophecy primarily for reward, rather than for any higher cause. Even in the part I just read, when he praises Israel ‘freely’, it’s all a bit suspect; it’s more hype than reality. And yet, we sing it first thing in the morning, when we enter the synagogue. Why? Because it is a prayer, and prayers are not descriptive in nature, they are proscriptive. They are aspirational; they tell us what we should be striving for.

 The truth is, it’s not enough to simply say, “how lovely are your tents, your dwelling places.” We have to make them lovely, and I’m not talking about décor here. Saying those words, singing them beautifully on Shabbat morning, doesn’t make it true. Doing the work makes it true. Serving those in need, caring for those in need, makes it true. Are our tents beautiful? Have we opened ourselves, our doors, to those who are fleeing trauma, who have needs that are unfathomable to us? Are we talking about how great we are, or are we being truly great?

At that Rotary installation, as at all Rotary meetings, we began with a patriotic song. My dad chose “America The Beautiful”, perhaps my favorite national hymn, and we sang all four, plus the four different refrains. I’d direct you to look at it on page 377 in the prayerbook. Most of us are familiar with only the first verse, which is descriptive of the natural beauty of our land, but when you look at the text of the other verses, you quickly see that it is prescriptive: our ancestors, pilgrims all, beat a thoroughfare for freedom in the wilderness, were noble heroes devoted to liberty, and committed to make the cities gleam, undimmed by tears. What are we doing to live up to their dream, of a beautiful America? What are we doing to affirm these words? Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov: How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob. What are we doing to make these words true? Milton Penn knew, and he placed service above self, without regard for reward. May we do the same.

Tue, September 26 2023 11 Tishrei 5784