02/16/2012 03:56 pm ET Updated Apr 17, 2012

Making Meaning in Tough Times

I want to share a story. It could be an old Hasidic story, except that it happened to me. In my house, Shabbat is a 3-day preparation. We start avoiding it Wednesday night, and we try not to talk about it Thursday night, as well. The pressure finally builds, so that on Friday, we are madly running around -- Elana in the kitchen, and me running to the store at the last minute -- long after most Jews have finished their Shabbat preparations and purchased whatever they want. In some ways this is a benefit; there aren't very many of you all running around the stores when I'm there. One Friday afternoon, I am frantically dashing to one store for the challah, another store for the kosher wine, a third for a little dessert. In the midst of the rushing around, I find myself stopped on the corner by a street person -- in Yiddish, a batlan; a man who doesn't have work; a man who may be homeless. He stands on the street corner and asks me for money. In the middle of my crazy Shabbat preparations, he says to me, "Tzedakah for Shabbes" with an outstretched hand. An Ashkenazi bum! I can't be bothered with this right now! I've got to get the wine, I've got to get the challah, I've got to get ... fine! I reach into my wallet, hand him a couple of dollars, and I am about to go off with my business when I see him take my money, walk over to another homeless soul on the street corner, and say, "Here! Tzedakah for Shabbes!"

So I say to him, "You just took my money, and you gave it to that guy."

And he responds, "It's Shabbes. I have to give Tzedakah!"

Now I tell us this story because, in fact, he was absolutely right. No matter how poor you are, you have a need to give. Jewish law in fact, commands that no matter how poor you are, you are commanded to give. And I think about this story because this year has been a year in which even those of us who are not poor have continued to worry about money in a way that we have not had to in a long time.

Jews have asserted for thousands of years that things need not continue the way they have always been. We are not simply the sum total of choices that others have already made. We, ourselves, have choices to make today and tomorrow and next week, that will change the future. It is ours to decide. The prophet Zechariah asks a question that I would remind us of today, "Who would dare scorn small beginnings?" We require the will to begin again and a fresh vision worth following for us to know what our task must be. In an age in which money is tight, in which credit is disappearing, in which people are losing homes and jobs, in which Israel's security is threatened as much as ever before, in which we are forgetting how to talk to each other across party lines and across ideological divides, what is are we to do?

The Torah begins with a story about a God who did not need to create the world except for one small need. If God's core nature is to be loving, then there must be an object for God's love. You cannot love unless you love something. God had to create the world in order to be able to be loving. The Torah is quite clear about God's freedom and God's need. God enters into the vulnerability of relationship, into the risk of caring, creating creatures who are like God in their need to give love. That is the Torah's first story. And every subsequent story in the Torah is merely commentary.

The second great story in the Torah is that the mightiest force of the cosmos is tilted in favor of freedom; if given the choice between a small, obscure group of slaves and the mighty Pharaoh, God will descend on behalf of the slaves and pharaohs will crumble. That has been our core conviction from the moment we marched out of Egypt, and it has carried us throughout the millennia, as oppressor after oppressor sought to break the cosmic rule; sought to throw himself against human freedom as embodied by the Jewish people, and they have fallen -- each and every one of them. The universe is a haven for liberty. The path may be slow and the battle may be difficult, but with sufficient resolve and renewed determination, free will always triumph. That freedom is itself a manifestation of undeserved love. God offers us ahavat chinam -- unmerited love. And we are God's children. We are made in God's Image. We are most ourselves when we also muster the resilient courage to love.

We are told of Joseph, a man who explains to another Pharaoh how you survive seven bad years by planning during the seven good years. Today, now are in the opposite position: in our difficult times, we need to make choices now that prepare us for the good times that are coming; that make us ready to grow once again when the times are right. That makes it possible for Israel to flourish among the families of nations, for all the inhabitants of Zion: Jewish and Christians, and Druze and Muslims, all of them to be able to create a haven of democracy and freedom when the time is right. And we are given that capability. It is built into each and every one of us. The great philosopher Franz Rosenzweig commented:

"At each moment the future presents to humanity the gift of being present to ourselves, and so we may use our moments freely, and then deposit them in the vast receptacle of the past. In the enduring process of receiving and using our moments, we are then truly, man, master of the present; of our present; for it is truly ours, if we are present."

My question to us is, are we present? Are we so cowering with fear, so beaten into despondency that we are not here to rise to the moment? There is much that needs to be done, and we are positioned to do it.

My second message is that there are many kinds of wealth. I am all in favor of the first kind of wealth. I think of myself as the Robin Hood of the Jewish people. I take from the rich and I give to rabbinical students. So I am all in favor or money and of great generosity. But today I want us to remember other forms of wealth more important than money. I want us to think of the ways that our traditions remind us of what it means to be wealthy. If you can reach out right now and take someone's hand, you have a wealth that money cannot buy. If you have the gift of time, you are alive, you are breathing, you are thinking, you are celebrating -- you are so precious, and that gift is so rare. Ninety nine percent of the matter in the cosmos will never know what it means to awaken into consciousness, and yet you have been chosen to enjoy this inestimable gift. You are wealthy, indeed. If you can lie in your bed at night and think thoughts, and remember other times, and other places, if you can cultivate a rich inner life, you are wealthy beyond kings. If you are capable of learning something new, of stretching your mind, of growing into a new skill or a new talent, or some new piece of knowledge, think what a gift that is.

And then, culminating gift of all, you, like the Creator of the universe, have the capacity to give. I quote him often, and I will quote him again, my rebbe, my son Jacob. Jacob, you know, is a 19-year-old man who struggles with autism. And he has participated in Friendship Circle which sends typical kids to spend time with kids with special needs. Jacob often tells me that he does not feel that he is the recipient in the Friendship Circle. He feels that he gives as much as he gets.; that other kids think of him as a mitzvah project to check off a list, and he teaches them what is really important in life. So who is the bigger beneficiary, he asks. I remind you of Jacob's capacity to give, and yours. You also, always, have something to give to someone else, even it is a smile; even if it is a word of encouragement, a handshake, a hug, a moment spent in conversation. There are gofts that only you can provide to other people that are the call of the moment.

There is one trait that President Reagan and President Clinton shared in common. When the world was falling apart around them, they both exuded calm and hope, and that is why they were so passionately followed. In times of tribulation, in times of challenge, we also need to make of ourselves, strong towers of hope and of calm. The world is not falling apart. These cycles have begun long before our time, and they will continue again after we are no longer here. But the choices that we make as individuals and as a community will change what happens tomorrow. We can make that difference. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

The gods we worship write their names on our faces, be sure of that. And we will worship something -- have no doubt of that either. We may think that our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of the heart -- but that will out. That which dominates our imagination and our thoughts will determine our life and character. Therefore it behooves us to be careful what we are worshipping, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.

My blessing to all of us, my charge to us all is to worship hope, worship faith, worship love, worship justice, and then become what you worship. Become hope, and faith, and love, and justice.

In a world that hates without cause, love without end.

In a world that gives up too quickly, stay the race. We are an ancient and the proud and a strong people, not in the ways the world measures strength. And for that reason we have outlasted empires, because true strength is to rise up in faith, in Godliness, in love of humanity and in the service of compassion.