My High Holiday Sermon for Yom Kippur
“The giving of the gift”
This is a sermon about “the giving of the gift.” It is a sermon about many things. It is a sermon about a gift that I once received and it is a sermon about the gift that others have received. In the long run this is a sermon NOT about the getting of the gift.
Because it is the giving of the gift that is most important thing.
First, I want to tell you a true story about something that happened to me just a few years ago. I went to an art auction with my wife and while I was there I admired a particular painting.
When I inquired about the painting I was informed that it’s price was in excess of what I could afford.
Now a person doesn’t need to own everything they see, so I reconciled myself to the fact that I would never own this particular painting.
Apparently, someone overheard me that night admire that particular painting and the very next morning when I came to work at the Temple- there was the painting, sitting in my office.
It was an anonymous gift. There was no note or attribution as to whom I should attribute my gratitude.
That painting now hangs in my living room and I gain a lot if pleasure from it. Not only is it a beautiful painting, but also because of what it represents. Someone gave my family an anonymous gift, without any thought of credit or recompense.
I made a bow to myself that someday I would give a sermon that would include the story of that unacknowledged gift.
Do you know how much a gift, large or small, can mean to the person who receives it?
Fellow Jews- do you know how easy it is to give a person a gift? How can you not give a gift? How can you not do someone else a favor?
This is what my sermon is all about.
Rabbi Samuel Yaakov tells the story that after the war he heard about Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman of Piesnitz. Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman was a great rabbi who only taught little children in Poland during the 1920’s and the 1930’s.
Just before the Nazis killed this great rabbi he wrote down a few of his thoughts and sayings and he buried them in the rubble of the Warsaw ghetto. After the war they were found and later published.
For years Rabbi Samuel Yaakov searched for someone who had actually known Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman. Maybe there was someone who had been his student and who had survived the war and who could tell Shmul Yaakov of one of the master’s great teachings.
One day, in the late 1960’s Reb Shmuel was walking down the street in Tel Aviv on the Yarkon, the main beach road. And Reb Shmuel saw an old man, a hunchback, bent over, who was sweeping the streets.
“Boker tov!” Good morning- said Reb Shmuel and the man responded to him “Boker tov. Good morning.”
And there was something in the old man’s Hebrew accent that was so profoundly Polish that Reb Shmuel just had to stop him and say, “Excuse me, sir. Are you from Piesnetz, near Warsaw?”
“Of course,” responded the old man. “I was born there!”
“Unbelievable!” Said Reb Shmuel. “And did you know, by any chance, Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman?” he asked the old man.
“Did I know him?” responded the hunchback. “Of course, I knew him. He was my moreh heder, my elementary school teacher, before I was taken to a concentration camp.”
“Please,” begged Reb Shmuel. “Can you pass along any teachings that you remember of his?any little thing that you might remember from him?”
The hunchback adjusted his cap and he responded- “ Do you see this hump on my back? Do you think I was born with it? When I was in the camps for 2 years they beat me almost daily. How can I remember a thing that I was taught in the 6th grade?”
“Come back tomorrow,” said the old man. “I will try to remember something for you then…”
The following day Reb Shmuel returned to the Yarkon to see if he could find the bent and misshapen street cleaner.
“Now do you remember anything that Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman taught you while you had him as a teacher.”
“I remember one thing,” the street cleaner responded. “He used to tell us that it was easy to give a gift. That it was easy to do a favor for another human being. That it was easy to be a mensch- to be a good person.”
“I used to think about that when I was in the camps. Do you know how many favors it was was possible to do everyday in a caoncentration camp? Some days I gave a little bit of my soup to another person. One day I helped someone carry a large rock, because they had bad foot sores. And other days, I just listened to a fellow prisoner cry. “
“Do you know how easy it is to do a favor if you are looking for favors to do?”
“And then I came to Israel after the war,” said the hunchback. “I had no parents, no living relatives, no loved ones.”
“My body was bent from the daily beatings I had received in the camps. When I came to Israel, many was the day I thought of killing myself. Many was the day that I thought of walking into the ocean and ending it all. What was there to live for anymore?”
“But now I remember that I used think of what Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman had taught me. Do you know how many favors a man can do, if he keeps his eyes open?” Said the hunchback.
“”Do you know how many favors I was able to do in the camps or even here, in Tel Aviv? Do you know how easy it is ti give a gift? Do you know how easy it is to help someone else and to thereby heal yourself?”
“And believe it or not,” said the old hunchback. “That is the only Torah that I remember from Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman.”
“But nonetheless, now that I think about it, it has kept me alive for many, many years…
You see my friends , it is the giving of the gift that is the most important thing. Dear friends you don’t have to have been Ina death camp to give a gift.
You don’t have to be a rabbi to give a gift and you don’t have to give a gift to a rabbi. Sometimes the giving of the gift comes in the smallest and most unsuspecting way.
And so, this is only the first part of my sermon. We will come back to it later in just a little while.
PART 2. The giving of the gift.
One of my friends told me this story. Is this story really true? Did it really happen just this way?
Maybe this is just an apocryphal story.
As Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pischke used to say
“Some stories are just so. If you believe them word for word then you might be a fool. But if you refuse to believe in stories of love and hope then you might as well be evil..”
So…you take your pick.
The story goes like this:
“One day, when I was a freshman in high school, I saw a kid from my class walking home alone from school. His name was Kyle.
It looked like he was carrying all his books and I thought to myself “Why would anyone bring home all their books on a Friday afternoon? What a nerd!”
I had quite a weekend planned with parties and a football game on Saturday, so I just shrugged my shoulders and walked on.
As I was walking, I saw a bunch of kids running towards him. They ran into him, knocking all of his books of if his arms and tripping him so that he landed in the dirt. His glasses went flying and I saw them land in the grass a few feet away from him.
He looked up and I saw a terrible sadness in his eyes. My heart went out to him. So, I jogged over to him and as he crawled around looking for his glasses I saw a tear of gladness in his eyes.
As I handed him the glasses I said “those guys are jerks. They should get a life.”
He looked up at me and simply said “Thank you.”
There was a smile on his face. It was one of those smiles that showed real gratitude. I helped him pick up his books and I asked him where he lived. As it turned out he lived near me. So I asked him why I had never seen him before.
He said he had gone to a private school before this year. I realised I had never talked to a private school kid before.
We talked on the way home and I helped him carry his books. He turned out to be pretty cool, so I asked him if he wanted to go to the football game with me and my friends they Friday night.
He said yea and we hung out all weekend long and the more I got to know Kyle, the more I liked him.
And gradually, my friends began to feel the same way too.
Monday morning came and there was Kyle with that huge stack of books again. I stopped him and said, “Geez, you really are going to build up your muscles carrying all those books.”
He just laughed and handed me some of the books to carry.
Over the next four years Kyle and I became best friends. When we were seniors we began to think seriously about college.
Kyle decided on Georgetown and I was going to Duke.
He was going to be a doctor and I was going to get a degree in business.
At the end of senior year Kyle was the valedictorian of our class. I still teased him about being a nurd, but I was glad that it wasn’t me who had to prepare a speech for graduation.
That day, as he started his speech he cleared his throat and began “Graduation is a time to thank those who have helped you make it through the tough years: your parents, your teachers, your siblings your coaches, but mostly to thank your friends. I am here to tell all of you,” said Kyle.
that being a friend of someone is the best gift you can give them. And now I am going to tell you a story.”
And then Kyle told the story of that first day that we met in the ninth grade. I stared at him in disbelief as he described how he had planned to kill himself over they weekend and how he had cleaned out his locker so that his mom wouldn’t have to after he died.
As he told the school graduates about how he had planned to jill himself he looked at me and said “Thankfully, I was saved. A friend came along and saved me from doing the unspeakable.
And so, that day that I graduated from high school I learned an ineffable lesson. Never underestimate the power of your actions. With one small gestures you can change a person’s life, for BETTER or WORSE!
That year I turned 18 I learned that God puts us all in each other’s lives to impact one another in some way.
And so, this ends the final part of my High Holiday sermon on the giving of the gift.
Anyone of you can give a gift. Do you know how easy it is to do someone a favor? Do you know how easy it is to give a gift?
Someone asked me the other day, “Do the Jews believe in angels?”
And I answered “Of course, we do. But for us angels can just be anonymous men and women who remind us that we are loved and that we need to love each other.”
You see- in the end it is the giving of the gift that is the most important thing.
Rabbi Steven Lebow
Yom Kippur. 5783