B’chukotai- 5783 – Recognizing What Is Ours To Do

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Thank you for joining me today and helping me celebrate the 59th anniversary of my bar mitzvah. I have tried to give the D’var each year on this day, and I read through some of these recently. On my 50th anniversary, I spoke of the moment – the exact moment – when I became a bar mitzvah. During the service on that day, as we prepared to take out the Torah, those of us on the bimah made our way over to the aron kodesh.

There I stood, with Rabbi Kummer on my left, Ben Diamond, the President of the shul to his left, and on my right was our hazzan, Mr. Pralick. He was so old; he didn’t have a first name. Even the adults called him Mr. Pralick! Anyway, we belted out the words, “tivneh chamot Yirushalayim,” and I felt it. “Whoa . . .this is very cool,” I thought. “I am now . . . a bar mitzvah!”

That was the exact moment when I became a bar mitzvah. In other divrei Torah, I’ve tried to understand a lesson from the parashah – Bechuchotai. It tells us that G-d will reward those who follow the mitzvot and punish those who do not – even though in our world, at least, that is so demonstrably false. I’ve gotten into some of the arcane explanations that reconcile that cognitive dissonance for those who interpret the Torah’s teachings more literally than I do.

But as we mostly do here in the Kehillah, I’ve centered my comments on the parashah. We don’t usually stray too much from that focus. And typically, there is much to discuss. The Torah is filled with lessons of inspiration that can bear on our lives if we just give them a chance to do so.

Today, I want to focus on a theme that is somewhat different, but no less relevant to me and to us.

One of my very favorite stories and lessons in our entire Bible occurred a couple of months ago, with the reading of the Book of Esther during Purim. The book mentions G-d . . . not a single time. And yet, when the survival of the Jews is threatened by Haman (cue the noisemakers!), Mordechai tells his niece, Queen Esther, “Maybe this (meaning the saving of our people)  . . . Maybe it was for just such a purpose that you are in the position you are in.”  No mention of G-d!

Now, you might think that since I am not one who believes in Divine intervention in every moment, and that as one who does not believe that “everything happens for the best,” or that “there is a reason for everything,” why do I feel Mordechai’s statement is so powerful?

I’ve been thinking about presenting this theme for my dvar for a long time, and an experience at the Holocaust Museum clinched it for me. Some time back, Three of us – my friend Kathy Garber, another Docent Educator, Nelson Weil and I, were asked by the education director, Charlotte Decoster, to come in on a day the museum is normally closed – a Tuesday – and give a private tour to a group of around seventy-five 8th graders from a school for the “talented and gifted.” The school has seen a number of anti-semitic incidents among its students.

The school first reached out to the ADL, but for one reason or another, things didn’t change much, so they called on the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum for help. Charlotte gathered the three of us before the tour, flattered us by telling us that she had assembled her “Dream Team” (an uncharacteristic accolade by Charlotte) looked at each of us and told us that on that day, we were going to make a difference in the world. The story of Esther and Mordechai came to mind. I had a defined purpose that day.

As I gave the tour and was able to look the students in the eye, as I told them, showed them, and appealed to their better instincts, I felt as though yes, perhaps, just perhaps, I was making a difference. The feedback the museum got from the tour was very gratifying. Indeed, if I were more  . . . religious . . . I might even have said, that was why I was put in that position by G-d.

Those who are asked to be docent educators at the museum are required to prepare a tour with a special theme. Knowing me as you do, it will not surprise you that the title of my themed tour was, “Profiles in Heroism.” On that tour, I feature many people who helped the Jews during the Holocaust. Here, in just a few sentences, are 3 who felt a strong purpose in what they were doing:

Andre Trócme, the leader of a protestant church in France, who implored his parishioners to help Jews who were fleeing the Nazis. “Hide them. Feed them,” he pleaded. And they did so – and saved several thousand Jews. This, felt Pastor Trócme, is what the G-d-given mission of the parishioners was at that time.

Chiuni Sugihara, consular official in Lithuania. In 1940, the Soviets were bearing down from the east, and soon enough, the Nazis would invade from the west. There was horrific anti-semitism in Lithuania even without the Soviet or Nazi menace. Fleeing, desperate Jews poured into his border town of Kaunas. Against the orders of his government, which wanted him back in Tokyo immediately, he gave out around 6,000 transport papers over 29 days, so that Jews could take the railroad across Russia and enter Japan. He thought, “This is why I am in this position.” No specific mention of G-d. He was later disgraced by his government for disobeying orders. No specific mention of G-d.

And finally, Aristide de Sousa Mendez, the Portugese diplomat in southern France. “No visas,” said the Portugese authorities, referring to Jews who escaped their Nazi occupiers. Mendez meditated for several days, finally announcing he had heard a voice–maybe the still, small voice from the story of Elijah? Mendez announced, “Visas for everyone!” This was to become his mission. He distributed several thousand visas to fleeing Jews so they could cross into neutral Portugal through Spain and attempt to make their way to safety elsewhere. He lost his job and died in poverty.

One of the three heard G-d, one didn’t say specifically, and one simply heard a “voice.” But they all had a sense of mission.

Abraham Joshua Heschel has written, “Every person is unique and irreplaceable. Each of us has a unique purpose to fulfill in the world.”

Heschel believed that each moment in time is a precious gift from G-d. He wrote: “Each moment is an opportunity to fulfill our purpose and to make a difference in the world.” He said also that “every hour is endowed with the power to lend meaning to – or withhold meaning from – all other hours.”

Heschel clearly had a view of G-d and of our capacity to carry out G-d’s will that is perhaps somewhat different from mine. However, we could do a whole lot worse than seeing ourselves as people who discover opportunities to affect others, and thus the world, in ways that are unique to the moments we find ourselves in.

So even if we don’t necessarily feel that G-d placed us in a particular position in order to give us a particular opportunity, we can still view those times and circumstances as opportunities to affect positive change in the world and become G-d’s partner in our collective and unfolding history.

Some years ago, I was honored to give Grand Rounds at MD Anderson in Houston – and not a medical talk – it was to be a spiritual talk – good grief!

I concluded with a message inspired by the 13th century Franciscan monk, St. Francis. As an elderly man, he said, “I have done what was mine to do. May you find what is yours.” My hope and prayer for all of us on this, my special day, is that we all find moments and circumstances when we can make the world better – one deed at a time.