This is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 3/24/18.
Just a couple of weeks ago I had an experience that was both rare for me these days, and also I realized, refreshing, and perhaps even important in an odd way. I was out and about in the Baltimore area, and as happens about 99% of the time, I saw from across the room someone I know from the congregation. I figured I would go over to say hello and check in for a moment or two, knowing of course that the person would know I was there, and might feel slighted if I didn’t say ‘hi.’
I went over to the person and reached out my hand to shake hers, and said ‘how are you, good to see you.’ She looked at me with a blank stare, clearly in her mind thinking ‘who the heck is this?!’ Now I must admit my self esteem took a small hit. One of my own congregants, and she didn’t even recognize me!? How was this possible? After an awkward moment or two I said ‘its Rabbi Schwartz, from Beth El,’ at which point she realized who I was, and began to profusely apologize. I tried to reassure her – ‘please, no worries,’ I said. ‘Just wanted to say hello. Have a good time and I’ll see you in shul.’
Now in my poor congregant’s defense, I wasn’t exactly dressed in shul clothes. She is used to seeing me in a suit and tie, often with a tallis on, and that evening I was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, plus I had a baseball cap on my head. And it was probably in a place she was not expecting to see her rabbi. So I was totally out of context for her, and for a couple of days in my mind that was how I rationalized what happened.
But then I began to realize that the problem had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with me. That is to say, why should I have expected to be recognized in the first place? Am I so important, am I such a recognizable figure, that I think people should know who I am? What we had here was a problem of humility – namely my own lack of said quality. I had briefly forgotten one of my chief rules of rabbinical work, which is – never believe your own press clippings.
So it is perhaps propitious that we come to this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, in the week leading up to Passover, which as I expect you all know begins this coming Friday night. Because in both this morning’s Torah portion, and also in my experience of the Passover holiday, are lessons of humility that I will try my very best to take to heart in the months ahead. First of all, the Torah portion.
There is a wonderful story told of the Brisker Rav, who was the head of the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem. It seems that he had a student who was having trouble getting along with his wife. One day the student arrived early at the Rav’s home. The Rav invited him in, poured him a cup of coffee, and asked him what was wrong. The student replied, ‘My wife is giving me a hard time because I refuse to take out the garbage. Can you imagine that she wants me, a Torah scholar, to actually take out the garbage.’ The Brisker Rav sagely nodded his head, and simply said to the student, ‘let me think about this.’
The very next morning -early – there was a knock on the student’s door. Much to his astonishment the Brisker Rav was standing at his doorstep asking to come in. When the student invited his teacher inside the Rav went straight to the kitchen, found the garbage can, and took it out to the street. When the student asked the Rav what he was doing he simply replied “It may be beneath your dignity to take out the garbage, but I thought I’d show you it isn’t beneath my dignity.” By the way what the student’s wife said to him was not recorded in the version of the story I saw. We can only imagine.
But the story does reflect a small and curious detail that our Torah portion relates about the Priests in ancient times, and their service at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Priests were the most important people in ancient Israel, honored and respected as religious authorities and sources of wisdom. And this morning’s portion describes their day to day duties in terms of their Temple service. One can imagine that the Priest arrived at work in the morning to great fanfare. After all, he was going to be doing God’s work for the people, offering the sacrifices, making judgements about which things were pure and which were impure, helping people to recover from illnesses.
But the very first thing the Priest had to do when he arrived in the morning was to take off his fancy clothes, put on his schlepper clothes – old jeans and torn sweatshirt – and then he had to clean out the altar area from the ashes of the previous day’s sacrifices, and then carry those ashes outside. So literally, the great Priests of ancient Israel started their days by taking out the garbage. And that image is a very helpful reminder to me about he importance of humility – even when, and maybe particularly when – you find yourself in a position of Jewish leadership.
Which brings me to the second thing that helps to reset my humility needle, and that is Pesah, precisely because it is the family holiday of our tradition par excellence. When I stand here and preach, or lead services, or help you with life cycle events, I am the rabbi, and always treated as such, with respect. And believe me it is very much appreciated. But when I sit down at the seder table with my family, even though I am leading the seder, I am not the rabbi. I am Tali, Josh, and Merav’s dad. I am Becky’s husband. I am my parents’s son, Becky’s parents’ son in law. My children remind me that I don’t know the proper tune to a number of the Passover songs. (which may simply be a comment on my singing) Becky quietly reminds me I am talking too much, and that we need to get the food out on the table, something my congregants would never do while I am conducting services. Becky’s parents remind me they knew me when. My parents remind me they REALLY knew me when. I think you get the picture, and as you may imagine, it is all very humbling, and it is wonderful. Sometimes it is good to be reminded that you are no more special, no wiser, no more insightful or wonderful, than anyone else.
Of course in today’s world that is a lesson probably everyone could benefit from. Certainly our politicians, so entrenched in their own views, so convinced of their own wisdom and that they know better than anyone else, could use a good does of humility. Maybe they should take a cue from the Priests in the Torah, and show up early to work, change out of their suits, put on their work clothes, and spend a half hour taking out the garbage. Lord knows there is enough of it in Washington DC. But I am guessing the list could go on and on, and we could all think of someone we know – whether ourselves, or someone else – who could use a good dose of humility.
The question, of course, is where does that dose come from? For me, the two best sources are my faith and my family. My faith reminds me of how grateful I should be for every day and every blessing, of how little I should take credit for and how lucky I am. My family reminds me of something even more important – who I truly am – which is, just a person like everyone else.