Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Consecration of Confirmands
As we focus on Shavuot and the Ten Commandments, the prohibition against idolatry should remind this generation to battle against the fake god of mediocrity. A blind rabbi’s campaign for Congress offers us wisdom, guidance, and an inspiring example.
We Can Do Better
There is a story about a young boy who was filling out a parochial school questionnaire (perhaps a Holland Hall application) when he came to the line marked “Religion,” after thinking about it for a while, he wrote “Jew.”
When the headmaster noticed the entry, he called the boy in. “Daniel,” he said, “why did you write ‘Jew’ under ‘Religion’? Don’t you know you’re an Episcopalian?”
“Yes, sir,” Daniel answered feelingly, “but I couldn’t spell Episcopalian.”
Friends, it’s easy to spell the word “Jew,” but it’s not as easy to understand what being a Jew means. I believe that the seven young people who – this coming Tuesday, on Shavuot Eve – are going to symbolically stand at Sinai and take their place as part of a covenant community, have a pretty good understanding of what it means to be a Jew. On a very personal note, let me say that I am proud that they are my last Confirmation class.
There is a lot of concern about the future of Judaism in our country, and perhaps even in Israel. It seems we Jews are an ever-vanishing people. I don’t mean to belittle legitimate concerns about our future, but I believe that our Confirmands continued quest for Jewish knowledge, and their willingness to translate that wisdom into positive Jewish living, are the answer to questions about our People’s future. All your Temple teachers have tried to teach you that Judaism has much to say to the modern world, and that it can bring direction and fulfillment to you and yours. I am confident you know that now.
On Tuesday evening we shall read the Ten Commandments, one of which is a prohibition of idolatry. For 3,000 years we Jews have declared war against false gods. One of the idols which I believe your generation must do battle with is the false god of mediocrity. You live with so many items which are manufactured with built-in obsolescence. You take it for granted that, rather than try to fix something, you replace it; you buy a new one. And I fear that this attitude sometimes influences your own personal sense of motivation and worth. Sometimes you’re willing to accept less than you should with regard to your own responsibilities. “It’s OK; it’s good enough.” So I’d like to tell you the story of one person and one prayer tonight. If you remember this story, your Confirmation will have special meaning.
Almost five years ago, Rabbi Dennis Shulman ran for Congress in the Fifth District of New Jersey. I don’t know this colleague except from what I’ve read about him. I wouldn’t endorse any candidate from this bima, and I wouldn’t vote for or against any candidate just because he is a rabbi, but listen to his life story.
Dennis Shulman grew up in a poor, working class family is Worcester, Massachusetts. A nerve disorder was diagnosed when he was 5; and by the age of 15 he was totally blind. He graduated third in his class from the prep school he attended on a full scholarship. The reason he had gone to prep school was that the public school he started was too easy for him. His teachers gave him a pass because he was blind, and Dennis did not want that. He wanted to go to a school that would ignore his handicap and hold him to the same standards as all the other students.
Shulman was a child in the days before computers, and he did all his work in Braille. While it’s not easy being blind in a sighted world even today, it was a lot harder back then before the existence of computers. Yet he came in third in his prep school class and went on to Brandeis University where he graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa. For grad school, he attended Harvard where he got his Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and from there he went on to become a rabbi. Today he serves a congregation in New Jersey as well as working as a clinical psychologist.
When reporters asked him why he was running for Congress, Rabbi Shulman said it is the issue of health care that drives him. Here we are, the most prosperous country in the world, and we are the only one that does not have national health care. My opponent calls it “socialized medicine”; from my point of view, it’s Judeo-Christian medicine. The idea that someone who is poor, or the child of someone who is poor, is not able to get proper health care, is just outrageous to me.
So, you have an idea of who Dennis Shulman is and why he was running. There is a statement on his website that I’d like us to focus on this evening. It says: “This is the major message that I have carried to the members of my synagogue and to the patients in my counseling practice and to myself, ‘We can do better’. And when you turn from dealing with your personal problems to thinking about the problems our country faces, the rule is still the same – we can do better! This is a good way to live your life and face your problems for individuals, and it is a pretty good rule for the country as well.”
One of the reporters who interviewed Rabbi Shulman asked what he had learned from being blind, and this was his answer: “I learned that a person is the measure of his abilities – not of his disabilities.” In other words, what counts is what you are still able to do, not what you are not able to do.
I was moved when I read that line, because I believe that every human being has a handicap or handicaps of some kind. The only difference is that some have a disability which is on the outside and obvious, and others have a disability on the inside which you can’t see. What Rabbi Shulman’s example can teach us is thatit is what you do with what you have left, after you lose a part of yourself, that really counts.
You know the story of the three men who are told that the world is going to be destroyed in a cataclysmic flood in 24 hours. One says, “I’m going to confess my sins so that I can meet my Maker in purity.” The second one says, “I’m going to have as much fun as I possibly can in the time that is left.” And the Jewish person says, “I’m going to waterproof my Bible and learn how to live underwater.”
That is the secret of Jewish survival, my friends. Over the centuries we lost our land, our government, our Temple, our unique way of living, but we’ve gone on for 2,000 years, created new ways of worship and learned how to live in new situations. We Jews focused on what we had left, not just on what we had lost.
And that’s the lesson on how to live which Rabbi Shulman has taught us: that what counts is what you are still able to do and not what you are no longer able to do. Here is a person who is blind, who can function nevertheless as a rabbi and as a therapist, and who wants to function as a Congressperson as well. I find that pretty impressive. Don’t you?
There is a lesson in the siddur which Rabbi Shulman also teaches. A line in the daily morning service is a part of a long list of blessings in which we thank God for all the gifts we received so far, just in the short time since we woke up. We thank God for being able to stand up and to walk and to dress, and all the other things we would take for granted if we didn’t recite these blessings. High on the list is the bracha, “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, pokeach ivrim”. The usual translation is: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who opens the eyes of the blind.
But that’s not the best translation. Pokeach does not mean “who opens”. It means “who makes wise” the blind. A pikeach is a smart person. An entirely different understanding of God emerges from this translation. God does not cause blindness or cure blindness. God is that force within us and about us which gives us the ability to learn wisdom from blindness and from the other losses we suffer in life, if only we are willing to.
God is the Power within us and about us that enables us to respond to life’s challenges in a positive manner, to become better and not bitter as a result of life’s blows. God does not open the eyes of the blind; God gives vision and insight to the blind.
And all of us are blind in different ways and to different things. Therefore, for opening our eyes to the truth that in the end we’ll be measured by our abilities and not by our disabilities, by what we do with life and not by what life does to us, for teaching us this lesson in life and in the siddur, I am grateful to Rabbi Shulman.
His campaign slogan was “We can do better”. It is a slogan I believe we should all take to heart and try to live by. And especially, I recommend it tonight to our Confirmands. It is a slogan which applies to our lives, not just to political campaigns.
So why do I especially mention you Confirmands? Because as you have studied with me, the holiday which begins for Jews this coming Tuesday night is the anniversary of Sinai. Our Torah says that all of Israel was gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai. And before God gave our ancestors the Ten Commandments on which so much of human civilization is based, God said to them, “You will be a mamlechet kohanim, a kingdom of priests; and a goy kadosh, a holy nation.
So, what do you think their first reaction was when our ancestors heard those words? What would your first reaction have been if Moses told you that this is what God expected of you.
I believe that many of us would have been very tempted to say, “Who me? You really expect me to be that good and that holy? Don’t You know that I’m only flesh and blood? Don’t You know how many shortcomings and imperfections and disabilities I have? Do You really think I’m capable of becoming a special person, and that I can be a teacher or an example for others?”
To which God’s answer must have been, “I bet you can! I bet that you can be better than you are and better than you think you can be!” And when the people heard these words of reassurance, they agreed. “Yes!” with hesitation, with trepidation, but they agreed. Na-aseh v’nishmah – we’ll try our best to be what God believes we can be.
I love Rabbi Shulman’s campaign slogan, even though I must tell you that he lost the election. “We can do better” speaks to all of us. It reminds us of what God said to us when we stood at the foot of Sinai, and what some of you Confirmands may hear God saying to you on Tuesday night as you symbolically stand at Sinai. We can be better than we are. We can be better than we think we can be, if we focus on what we can do instead of on what we cannot do.
On Shavuot, the day when we celebrate the election of Israel. I hope and pray that many of us will adopt Rabbi Shulman’s slogan and live by it the rest of our lives. Whenever you’re discouraged, whenever you’re ready to settle for less than your best, whenever you feel you can only do so much and no more, I invite you to recite these four words “WE CAN DO BETTER”. Amen
I am grateful to Rabbi Jack Riemer – my homiletics guru – for these insights.