There is a famous story in the Talmud about a man who approaches Hillel and asks him to teach him all of Judaism while he is standing on one foot. We can especially appreciate that question today. We live in the age of the sound byte. We like things compact. So, I’d like to deliver the sermon today while standing on one foot.
Not literally. But I’d like to suggest that the essence of Judaism can be boiled down to two things. One is a verse from a famous hit song by Dean Martin. And, the other is a single verse from today’s parasha.
Does anyone remember Dean Martin? He was one of the great Italian-American crooners. He had his own tv show. And, he often teamed up with Jerry Lewis in the movies. Dean Martin had a song which began with these words: “You’re nobody till somebody loves you.” This is the core idea of Judaism. And, I know it from a verse in our parasha.
Amos Spiro spoke about this verse last night. Towards the end of Abraham’s life, the Torah tells us: “Va’adonai beirach et Avraham ba’col./God blessed Abraham with everything.” What does the Torah mean that Abraham had everything? The implication is that Abraham was blessed with a life rich in happiness and contentment. But, when we look objectively at Abraham’s life, it was full of troubles.
He had to uproot himself from his home at the age of 75. Then, he went down to Egypt and Sarah was kidnapped. He had to go to war to rescue his nephew Lot. He had to wait until he was 100 years old before Isaac was born. A fight between Sarah and Hagar leads to a traumatic separation between Abraham and his beloved son Yishmael. And, he had to go through the horrible trauma of thinking that God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac. This is a happy life? How could the Torah say God blessed Abraham with everything?
I think if we want to understand why Abraham was so satisfied with his life, it helps to compare him with two other men who are also described as having ‘hacol’—as having everything – yet, who were deeply unhappy. The first is Kohelet, Ecclesiastes. The second is Haman.
Kohelet describes himself as King in Jerusalem. And, Kohelet describes himself as having everything. He says he made up his mind to acquire more wealth and wisdom than anyone else in the world. He became the wisest person on earth. And, he became the richest man, too. He built mansions. He planted beautiful gardens. He bought servants. He amassed gold and silver. He accumulated more wealth “micol she’haya lefanay biyerushalayim” – he was the richest and the smartest of all the kings who had ever reigned in Jerusalem. Yet, he still wasn’t happy.
So, we know that the ‘col’ /the ‘everything’ that Abraham was blessed with could not have been wealth and wisdom. Then, maybe it’s power that brings happiness. That’s what Haman thought. He convinced King Achashverosh to order everyone in the kingdom to bow down to him. And, yet, when Mordecai persisted in not bowing to Haman, it made him miserable. And, Haman made an amazing statement to his wife Zeresh. He was bragging to Zeresh about his great wealth, and the fact that he was promoted by the king above all the officers. And, only he, Haman, was called by Queen Esther for a private audience.
But then, Haman continued, “V’chol zeh eino shoveh li/notice again, he uses the word ‘col’—col zeh – all of this is worth nothing to me as long as I see Mordecai sitting in the King’s gate, refusing to bow to me. Haman realized that, to paraphrase Dean Martin, he was a nobody because nobody loved him. Haman knew that the only reason people bowed to him was that they were afraid of him. And, being feared did not make him happy.
By contrast, Queen Esther had two things that Kohelet and Haman did not have. And, it turns out that Abraham had these two things as well. The Megillah goes out of its way to emphasize Esther’s chosenness. And, Esther was chosen in two ways.
First, she was chosen in love. The Megillah tells us: va’yeehav ha’melech et estair micol ha’nashim – There’s that word ‘col’ again/ all. Micol ha’nashim. Of all the thousands of women in the kingdom, Achashverosh loved Esther.
By the way, the Megillah doesn’t say why. It tells us Esther was beautiful, but it never says that she was the most beautiful. There is no why for love. We don’t love for objective reasons. Love is when someone looks at us and finds something uniquely beautiful about us that doesn’t exist anywhere else, and they are moved by it. We all need to be looked at that way by someone. We all need to be chosen in that way, not for anything we do, but simply for who we are.
But, there is also a second type of chosenness. When the Jewish people were in mortal danger, Mordecai asked Esther to intervene. At first, she hesitated. She was afraid to approach the king. But, Mordecai said to her: “U’mi yodea im l’eit ka’zot higat la’malchut/Who knows? Maybe this is the very reason you became the Queen. Of all the people in the world, God placed you in this position to be able to save your people. You have a mission. And, only you can do it.”
There are two things that give us the feeling that we matter. One is if we matter to someone else. Somebody loves us, and can’t live without us. The other is if what we do matters – if we have a purpose in our lives that will impact the world—and only we can do it. Esther had both of these, and so did Abraham.
In last week’s parasha, God says of Abraham, “ki yedativ/I have singled him out so that he may teach his children and descendants ‘laasot tzedakah u’mishpat’ – to do what is just and right. Abraham felt called by God, chosen by God to do something important that he was uniquely gifted to do. And, this is one of the two types of chosenness that made Abraham feel like he had everything.
The other was that Abraham also felt loved by God. The Torah describes God’s search for someone God could connect with the way it describes Adam search for Eve. There were dead ends. Generation after generation passed, and still God had not found a mate, someone who really understood him. Until Abraham.
Abraham had a wife and children that he loved and who loved him. Abraham had a God who he loved and who loved him. And, he had a life’s work that he believed was very important, and that his own contribution to that work was unique and irreplaceable. No wonder Abraham was a happy man. If we have these things, we have everything.
So, how do we know that this idea is central to Judaism? Because the central event of our history was leaving Egypt, Yetziat Mitzrayim. And, in Egypt, there were two things wrong with our lives. One was that we were gerim/we were strangers. We were invisible. No one loved us uniquely for who we were. People looked at us and looked right through us. We didn’t matter to anyone.
And, the second thing wrong, was that we were avadim, slaves. The Rabbis tell us a slave is someone whose work does not matter. If one slave disappears, another takes his place. Replaceable parts. There is no unique value to the work the slave does. His personality does not make an imprint on the world. She contributes nothing of herself that the world didn’t have before.
There are millions of people in the world today who feel like this. There are millions of people who feel they don’t matter. Nobody loves them. And, nobody appreciates what they uniquely have to offer the world.
Our mission as a people has always been to change that. Any moment that we give even one person the feeling that they do matter, that they are appreciated, either for who they are, or for what they do, then we are fulfilling the mission of Abraham.
The barriers to seeing what is uniquely lovable in another person can be formidable. It can be something physical, like autism. It can be an abrasive personality. Or reserve. It can be race, or ethnic difference, or social class.
But, each of us has a need to be needed. Each of us has a need to feel as if we alone can slay the dragon, re-capture the magic ring, and save our people. Each of us has a need to be picked, to be chosen from all the others for the beauty that is inside of us.
When we have this, we have everything. And, when we give this, we give everything.