October 2, 2003
We Are Not Small
Parshat Ha'azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52)/Shabbat Shuvah
It is easy to feel small. As you fall asleep one night, try to watch yourself in your mind's eye, your body growing quiet on your bed as your mind begins to wander. You are one person falling asleep in one room. Beyond you are two, five, 20 others in your home or apartment building or on your block. Imagine yourself rising, now hovering a thousand feet in the air and peering out across the lights of Los Angeles. There are almost 10 million people in Los Angeles County, each person unique. There are 260 million people in the United States, each with a story different than the other. Each soul has walked a journey unlike any other. Rising higher, you see the vastness of the United States below. As big as America is, did you know the entire continental United States can fit into the Sahara desert? Above the earth one looks to the stars and sees Mars and Venus and Jupiter. We sent a spacecraft to Jupiter in 1989. After traveling at a speed equivalent to flying from Los Angeles to New York in 82 seconds and using "planetary gravity assists," Galileo finally arrived -- six years later! Our solar system is one of 100 billion star systems in the Milky Way, and the Milky Way is one of about 30 galaxies in what astronomers call our "local group." Now that's some idea of "local!" It is easy to feel small.
And yet, the Torah tells us, at the edge of a vast universe is God. And most remarkably, is that in God's eyes, we are not small. We are beloved by the Master of the Universe. "The greatest sin of man," wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "is to forget that he is a prince -- that he has royal power."
As the director of Camp Ramah in California, I train a staff of young adults who are entrusted to care for and to teach over 1,300 children each summer. During staff week, we review health and safety. We teach how to develop educational and fun programs. But after a week of workshops and planning, on the night before the first kids arrive, we must return to the basics and remember what it is that is at the core of our endeavor: the uniqueness and greatness of each child in our care.
So I study with them the words of the Mishnah: "A person mints many coins with a single seal, and they are all alike one another. But the King of kings of kings, the Holy Blessing One, minted all human beings with the seal with which He made the first person, yet not one of them is like anyone else. Therefore each person must say, 'For my sake the world was created'" (Sanhedrin 4:5). I tell our staff that if the kids in our care leave Camp Ramah in California with a sense that each of their lives is so important that the world was created for his or her sake, we have done our job.
We have done our job because, though belief is not everything, when you believe God is that close, you begin to see the world in a different way. You are more grateful for a simple glass of water, for it is a gift from God. When you are God's child, you become more sensitive to the suffering of those who are in need, for the poor and the hungry are your sisters and brothers. When you believe your life matters to the King of the universe, you make different choices; you take your life more seriously. You waste less time watching TV and spend more time playing with and teaching your children. You pray. You practice acts of kindness. You sin less. "Your sins have separated between you and Your God," Isaiah said.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik taught that in the absence of sin, God's presence would be evident in every natural encounter. The whisper of the Master of the Universe would be heard in the bubbling of every crystal spring.
Do you hear the whisper of the Holy One? Do you believe your life choices matter to the One who created it all? Do you believe the way we live out our short years on earth matters in some cosmic story?
I do. I believe in you.
"On this day all of us pass before You, one by one, like a flock of sheep. As a shepherd counts sheep, making each of them pass under the staff, so You review every living being, measuring the years and decreeing the destiny of every creature" (Unetaneh Tokef).
Even if it has been many years, even if you never have, this year I challenge you to believe in yourself, to believe in the whisper, to believe in God.