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First Plant the Sapling
As we begin the New Year, I'd like to share one of my favorite Midrashim (a Jewish story that explores ethics and values): "If you were holding a sapling in your hand and were told that the Messiah had arrived, first plant the sapling, then go out to greet the Messiah." (Midrash Avot DeRabbi Natan 8.31) I love this Midrash for many reasons. Though not unique to Judaism, our tradition is filled with a belief in the Messiah. Many faith traditions share this belief. The common thread is that the Messiah will be a harbinger of a world at one and at peace. The anticipation of a world at peace brings us hope.
Many prayers, understandably, are directed to hasten the coming of the Messiah. Yet, the beauty of this Midrash, is in its bold, distinctly Jewish, counter-intuitive imperative. We are not to wait passively for a Messiah to come and save the world. Even if the word is out that the Messiah has arrived, we are not to put our responsibility to act in the world on hold - for anyone!
Judaism wants us to cultivate a healthy skepticism of someone coming and solving our problems for us. The essence of Judaism is our individual and collective responsibility to make the world a better place. As my camp counselor, Uncle Artie Clark, a dyed-in-the-wool Mainer, would say to us before packing up our canoes at the end of a trip, "Boyyys, leave the campsite bettah than ya found it." That has stuck with me over the years. In the camping context it meant picking up after ourselves - no-trace camping. It meant leaving some cut, dry firewood for the next campers (only the human trace of consideration).
Of course, Uncle Artie and Jewish tradition are teaching us far more than just caring for campsites and planting trees. Our obligation is to care for one another and the earth entrusted to us. Our challenge, as we turn the calendar to 5774, is to think about what that sapling is for each of us. What is it that we can plant, that can take root and grow?
The beauty of belonging to a congregation is that we are not meant to go it alone. A synagogue brings us together around the Etz Chayim, the tree of life - the metaphor for Torah. With her millennia-old, deep roots Torah gives us something to which we can hold tight. As we immerse ourselves in the wisdom of our tradition, may the saplings we are inspired to plant today, bear fruit that brings us closer to that messianic era - that time when the world, indeed, will be one and at peace.
Shanah tova um'tukah - May it be a good and sweet year.
Rabbi John Linder