Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:209 You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, 10 your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer — 11 to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; 12 to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 13 I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, 14 but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.
What a privilege it is to stand this day, as Rosh Hashanah approaches on Monday night, as my son celebrates his thirteenth birthday and we welcome him as abar mitzvah tonight, as the year 5766 is about to dawn full of promise - just maybe - for a little morepeace; a little more health and security for all people; a little more ahavat rei’echa, love of our fellow humans.
What does God mean in instructing us to stand this day? We stand at attention to listen to God’s promise of an extraordinary covenant, we stand in respect and awe, we stand because we want to reach just a little higher.
Tomorrow morning Daniel and Frank are going to share their words of Torah with us. I’ve had the good fortune to get a preview of Daniel’s d’var Torah, the words of teaching he has prepared, and I will tell you, I have learned a thing or two from my son. His analysis of what God wants from us really struck a chord for me, and I want to share a brief story from a 10th century midrash on the same theme. When you hear Daniel’s comments tomorrow you will see why I chose this one.
There was a king with two servants -- one dim-witted, not too bright, but a good fellow; and the other one energetic, creative and hard working. Now, the king had to go away for a couple of days. He left the servants, and ordered each of them to carefully watch over a room freshly filled from the harvest with grapes, wheat, and flax.
The king returned from his journey, and immediately summoned the servants to account for their precious stores. The first servant, the rather dim-witted one, obediently escorted the king to the room he had guarded, and look! The wheat, grapes and flax were in perfect order. Not a single bit of fruit or grain had been disturbed. The king thanked his servant. He had done a competent and trustworthy job!
The king then turned to the second one. “And you?” he asked. The second servant led the way to his storeroom and flung open the door. The room was utterly empty and swept clean. The courtiers who had gathered around were stunned. This was the best, smartest, most excellent servant in the palace! What had happened to the grapes, the wheat, the flax? Had they been stolen, or sold?
The king was silent. The servant beckoned the king to another door. The servant opened the door with a low bow. The king stepped slowly to the entryway and behold!
There was a dining table covered with a beautiful white tablecloth… made of the flax! There was on the table a great decanter full of a fine, delicious wine… made of the grapes! And the room was full of the aroma of two enormous loaves of fresh baked bread… made of wheat ground from the flour!
The king was overjoyed with the servant. “You,” he said, “have taken the most care of the treasure I left with you. You did not merely hoard it or guard it; you improved it.”
And so it is with us. We stand here this day with the grapes, the flax and the wheat which God has given us. We have our lives, our work, an abundance of resources around us, and it is up to us to transform what God has given us into what human creativity and passion can accomplish... to leave this earth a little better than the way we received it. In this way we will stand here in fulfillment of God’s covenant. And indeed, ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will.
[My teacher, Rabbi Dr. Byron Sherwin tells this story from midrash Eliyahu Rabbah.]