Here it is – The Social Sermon!
The purpose of the Social Sermon project was to see if there is an obvious and constructive way that we could harness the social element that we value in our shul. Hence: Socialsermon.com. The concept is to have people from all over the world sending in their favorite jokes, favorite stories, and favorite Divrei Torah. After several months we collate the best of each. Several months later we narrow down the playing field into one speech. Your joke, your story, your Torah, our Sermon. The response was overwhelming. I want to thank everybody who took the time to submit Torah to the Website. I also would like to thank the following individuals whose jokes, stories, and divrei Torah made up the content of this speech: Shana Weinstein of Tokyo Japan, R’ Ally Ehrman of Jerusalem Israel, R’ Shalom Baum of Teaneck New Jersey, Alison Hanard of Covington Kentucky, Ellie Ryzman of Los Angeles California, Simmy Webber of New York New York, and R’ Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton.
Here is the sum total:
[Note: There is absolutely no way to determine what d’var Torah is best and what is second best. There were thematic considerations and also certain emotional connections that aided in the selection process]
The State of Israel decided that they wanted to get in to the International Rowing Competition. And they put together a team and they entered into a bunch of tournaments, all of which they lost by a huge margin. It wasn’t even close. So they sat down to figure out what they can do. They decide why don’t we send one member to the United States and have him observe the team at Columbia, Penn State, etc. He’s been gone for a couple of weeks and there’s been much anticipation about his return and he does come back – they hope he’s got a clue for them. They sit down and they say “nu, Moish, what did you find out?” He says “I did find out the solution”. So they said “what are we doing wrong?” He says “in America, everybody rows AND Only ONE GUY YELLS.”
I had no choice but to use that joke as it was sent to me from Japan. But the message is a good one. We all seek to be heard. In a day and age of ATM’s, EZ Pass, and Check-out lines that don’t need a clerk – we still long to connect to other people. In 2012 it’s clear that we still need friends.
The Pnei Menachem (see Matos) points to the Gemara in Makkos which teaches us that if a student has to go to a city of refuge (ערי מקלט) – his teacher goes with him. Why? Because it says “וחי”, and the Torah is life. But based on that logic why isn’t his friend commanded to join him? Don’t we say או חברותא או מיתותא -give me my partner or give me death (Taanis 23a)? Why didn’t the Gemara require his friends to join him? The answer is that if he is a real friend he doesn’t need a ציווי, he will go on his own. A friend picks up and is there by your side before you even ask.
I would like to share some advice from the Rabbinic side of the coin. If you are ever unsure about doing a chesed, or whether somebody wants you by their side, err on the side of doing too much. Just go, don’t ask questions. If you see somebody sitting alone in shul, don’t assume they want to be alone – be a friend and join them.
Our relationships, our social interactions, they are the key to our Judaism. They are the key to our Torah.
There’s a classic contradiction between the notion that “Talmud Torah K’neged Kulam” (Torah study is the primary value) vs. “Derech Eretz Kadma L’Torah” (Being good to others precedes the Torah). Which one is the primary value? It is said that the Satmar Rebbe used to take attendance when giving shiur and while doing so he would kibbitz with the students. The students once asked their Rebbe why he does it. Isn’t it bitul Torah? The Rebbe answered that Derech Eretz is the matir (the trigger) which enables us to focus on our primary value – Torah. It’s why the Talmud begins on page 2a, because 1a is derech eretz.
Our connections, they’re the beginning of a burgeoning Judaism. And the key to any relationship – whether with others or whether with G-d, it all begins and develops with sincerity, temimus. Listen to this story sent to me from Kentucky –
A successful business man was growing old and knew it was time to choose a successor to take over the business. Instead of choosing one of his directors or his children, he decided to do something different. He called all the young executives in his company together. ”It is time for me to step down and choose the next CEO,” he said. “I have decided to choose one of you.”
The young executives were shocked, but the boss continued. “I am going to give each one of you a seed today – a very special seed. I want you to plant the seed, water it, and come back here one year from today with what you have grown from the seed I have given you. I will then judge the plants that you bring, and the one I choose will be the next CEO.”
One man, named Jim, was there that day and he, like the others, received a seed. He went home and excitedly, told his wife the story. She helped him get a pot, soil and compost and he planted the seed.
Every day, he would water it and watch to see if it had grown. After about three weeks, some of the other executives began to talk about their seeds and the plants that were beginning to grow. Jim kept checking his seed, but nothing ever grew. Three weeks, four weeks, five weeks went by, still nothing. By now, others were talking about their plants, but Jim didn’t have a plant and he felt like a failure.
Six months went by – still nothing in Jim’s pot. He just knew he had killed his seed. Everyone else had trees and tall plants, but he had nothing. Jim didn’t say anything to his colleagues, however. He just kept watering and the soil – he so wanted the seed to grow.
A year finally went by and all the young executives of the company brought their plants to the CEO for inspection. Jim told his wife that he wasn’t going to take an empty pot. But she asked him to be honest about what happened. Jim felt sick at his stomach. It was going to be the most embarrassing moment of his life, but he knew his wife was right.
He took his empty pot to the board room. When Jim arrived, he was amazed at the variety of plants grown by the other executives. They were beautiful in all shapes and sizes. Jim put his empty pot on the floor and many of his laughed. A few felt sorry for him!
When the CEO arrived, he surveyed the room and greeted his young executives. Jim just tried to hide in the back.
“My, what great plants, trees, and flowers you have grown,” said the CEO. ”Today one of you will be appointed the next CEO!”
All of a sudden, the CEO spotted Jim at the back of the room with his empty pot. He ordered the financial director to bring him to the front.
Jim was terrified. He thought, “The CEO knows I’m a failure! Maybe he will have me fired!” When Jim got to the front, the CEO asked him what had happened to his seed. Jim told him the story. The CEO asked everyone to sit down except Jim. He looked at Jim, and then
announced to the young executives, “Here is your next Chief Executive! His name is Jim!”
Jim couldn’t believe it. Jim couldn’t even grow his seed. How could he be the new CEO the others said? Then the CEO said, “One year ago today, I gave everyone in this room a seed. I told you to take the seed, plant it, water it, and bring it back to me today. But I gave you all boiled seeds; they were dead – it was not possible for them to grow. All of you, except Jim, have brought me trees and plants and flowers.
“When you found that the seed would not grow, you substituted another seed for the one I gave you. Jim was the only one with the courage and honesty to bring me a pot with my seed in it. Therefore, he is the one who will be the new Chief Executive!”
We crave relationships, but not any relationship, the real one’s, the sincere and simple connections. That’s what G-d wants in our relationship with Him.
A student of the Beis Yisroel was once going through a difficult period. He wrote a letter to his Rebbe and he told his Rebbe how much he loved getting lost in the hypnotic lomdus and intellectual rigor of Talmudic study, but lately he has been having some questions in matters of faith. And those questions are impacting his general observance. What can he do? The Beis Yisroel looked over the letter and replied that the key is the Gemara in Shabbos 119b. The Gemara there says “whoever answers Amen Yehei Shmey Rabbah with all of their strength, their sins are forgiven.” Three lines later the gemara adds “even traces of idolatry are forgiven”. Asks the Beis Yisroel – what does this Gemara mean? The common explanation is that saying Amen Yehei… out loud is powerful enough that even a sin as grave as idolatry can be forgiven. But the Rebbe said “no, that’s not what it means”. Rather the Talmud is teaching us that G-d wants to hear us scream out to Him, “even with traces of idolatry”. G-d wants to hear us in all of our states. Because the key to our relationship with the Creator is not the shtick, it’s the temimus, the sincerity.
And the fact that we are trying our best is significant to the Creator. Like any good relationship, the bond is defined by what you put into it.
In Shemos (31:16) it says לעשות את השבת. What does that mean “to make the Shabbos”? Shabbos is made and is there whether we like it or not. The 7th day is Shabbos. Perhaps the meaning of this line can be understood by the subsequent line: לדורותם ברית עולם (to future generations as a covenant) If you want your yiddishkeit to pass over to the next generation – you need to make Shabbos. That means that you need to put your heart and soul into making it special. Telling stories, singing zemiros, inviting guests – make the Shabbos.
And when you put your essence into the relationship, it blossoms and grows.
There is no telling where a connection is going to develop. Sometimes, it comes in the oddest of couples.
During World War II 24 Rabbis were being held in Italy and faced the threat of return to Nazi occupied Europe with sure death facing them. The famous Rabbi, Aharon Kotler, founder of Lakewood Yeshiva, turned to the well-known Orthodox Jewish activist Irving Bunim and asked him who could intercede on behalf of these 24 Rabbis. Irving Bunim suggested the Italian mafia.
Rabbi Kotler urged Mr. Bunim to contact them immediately. After contacting them he asked Rabbi Kotler who are we sending to the meeting? Rabbi Kotler replied “you and I are going”. Off they went to meet the Godfather of the Mafia, Joe Bonnano. Rabbi Kotler did not speak English so it was Mr. Bunim who explained the problem of the 24 Rabbis trapped in Italy.
The mafia chief asked Mr.Bunim “who is the elderly man sitting next to you?” He told him that he is the Godfather of the Jewish people. “Of all the Jewish people?” asked the mafia chief. “Yes”, replied Mr.Bunim, “of all the Jewish people”. “Tell him I want a blessing.” Mr. Irving Bunim turned to Rabbi Aharon Kotler and in Yiddish told him, “Ehr vill a Brocha fun de Rav” (He wants a blessing from the Rabbi)”. Rabbi Kotler replied, “Zog eim ehr zol leiben lang un shtarben in bet”.
Irving Bunim turned back to the mafia chief Joe Bonnano and told him “the Rabbi blesses you with long life and that you should die in your bed”. Upon hearing this the mafia chief replied, “I like that” and promised within weeks to arrange the freedom of the 24 Rabbis stuck in Italy (which he did).
A number of years later a black stretch limo drove up to Lakewood Yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey. Two well-dressed men got out and walked up to the office. They were looking for Rabbi Kotler. Out came Rabbi Shneur Kotler and told them that he is Rabbi Kotler. “No” said the two Italian guys. “We are looking for an older man.” “That was my father but he has since passed away” stated Rabbi Kotler. The Italian guys went on to relate that their father always attributed his long life to his saintly father’s blessing. His age is especially rare in that line of business. Now that he retired in 1964 we are taking over the business and we came here for the same blessing. Sorry said Rabbi Kotler, that was my father, but I am not on that high level. With that the mafia sons bid farewell to Rabbi Kotler.
For saving 24 Rabbis, Joe Bonnano-The Mafia Godfather lived to 97 years old perhaps on account of Rabbi Aharon Kotler’s blessing. And he died in his bed.
Relationships emerge in places we least expect. But the real connections, the real friendships take place with deep conversations, with simple sincerity, and develop to the extent of what we are willing to put into it.