Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah
Yom Kippur Morning, 5777
Temple Beth Israel
Rabbi Rick Winer
Years ago, an old friend of mine told me I did a double mitzvah. There’s that initial, “wait, what?” because that phrase can be taken in another way but he was referring to a mitzvah that led to another mitzvah.
My friend Saul and I spent our junior year of college in Jerusalem. We hung out and played music and I taught him one of my favorite songs, an early New Orleans jazz piece, the St. James Infirmary Blues. When Saul got back home to New York, he was busking in the subway there. As he was finishing up, he played one more song… the St. James Infirmary Blues. As he played, a man who was clearly homeless, took a wadded up dollar bill out of his pocket, smoothed it out and laid it in Saul’s case. Saul finished up, grabbed his stuff and ran after the man. When he caught up, he tried to return the dollar. He said, “I’m sure you need this more than I do.” The man wouldn’t take it. He said to Saul, “when you played that song, you took me back to a happy time in my life. You take it.” Saul knew that he couldn’t return it now. That would diminish this man’s experience, so as he left the subway, he passed it on to another person in need. He credited me with this string of mitzvot because I taught him the song that brightened one man’s life and then brought the dollar to another.
A double mitzvah… maybe even a triple… or, as we sing at camp, mitzvah goreret mitzvah, a phrase that comes from Pirkei Avot (4:2), the Ethics of Our Ancestors which is the book our Brotherhood gives to each B’nai Mitzvah student.
Here’s another example…
I took a group of families to Israel in 1999. The trip really excited the Judaism within one of the kids in particular, Michael. He went on to URJ’s Camp Kutz for leadership as a teen and he participated in a track on social justice.
Then Michael went off to Duke University where he studied biology. There he connected with Dr. Sherryl Broverman who studies water issues in Kenya. As she did her research, she observed the complexities of the issues particularly in the village of Muhuru Bay. The girls of the village spent hours each day walking to Lake Victoria for water. If they wanted fish either as food for the family or barter for medicine or school supplies, they had to have sex with the fisherman. This led to the highest rate of HIV in Kenya, one of the highest rates in the world. The girls also commonly were forced to engage in what is called ‘transactional sex’ at school, meaning that if they needed pencils or paper, they would have to sleep with a teacher to obtain those supplies, just like they had to do for the fish. ‘Transactional sex,’ it’s a neutral sounding term for a horrible reality.
In addition, as the girls reached puberty, their culture did not discuss how to deal with feminine hygiene issues. Mothers absolutely would not discuss it with their daughter, only an occasional grandmother would. So, as the girls reached this age, with no hygiene products, they would disappear from school for a week or so each month, falling hopelessly behind and leading to a situation in which no girl from that village ever made it as far as college. Most did not complete the equivalent of high school.
As Michael was getting ready to travel to Muhuru Bay to volunteer in the village for the summer, he spoke to his mother about these issues. His mother worked for Johnson & Johnson who makes feminine hygiene products. She brought the story to the company, who was moved by the situation and decided to send Michael with a years worth of supplies for the girls of the village. He even helped teach hygiene to the girls and was subsequently dubbed ‘the pad man.’
Dr. Broverman, with the support of Duke University and Johnson & Johnson decided to build a school for girls in which they would not face the horrible circumstances ingrained in the village culture. In addition to schooling for the girls, the project included a water treatment plant to benefit the entire village of Muhuru Bay. The program is called WISER, Women’s Institute for Secondary Education and Research.
The school opened in 2010 with 30 girls, reached its full capacity of 120 three years later. They’ve graduated three classes so far and the first graduates will complete their university degrees in 2017. The school is currently building to double its capacity. The WISER organization “has also implemented community health programs including – information about sexual and reproductive health, HIV testing and counseling, sanitary pad provision to over 400 girls, sustainable gardening, and clean drinking water for 5,000 people.”
WISER’s website reminds us what many studies have clearly proven:
“Educating girls has shown to be the single most potent factor globally in reducing infant mortality… Studies show that educated women invest more in their communities, causing national economic growth. Girls who are provided with educational opportunities will change the world.”
Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah - One mitzvah leads to another.
A boy travels to Israel, goes to camp, goes to college, connects the passion of his professor with the resources and values of his mother and her workplace… the dots connect, the mitzvot connect.
Mitzvah goreret mitzvah - One mitzvah leads to another.
I had the honor of spending some time with Dr. Broverman. She knew who I was and did the classic Jewish guilt thing… admitting to me that, yes, she’s Jewish but doesn’t really engage in the religious stuff.
I responded… “I’m guessing that the values your parents instilled in you, that compelled you to act, to make a difference for these girls, for their entire village… those values come from a long line of learning what Judaism is really about… about making this world a better place. You’re doing Jewish. You’re doing mitzvah.”
I wasn’t just telling her this to make her feel better. I absolutely believe it. Again, her mitzvah may not be specifically spelled out on that imaginary list of 613 but I have no doubt that she’s doing mitzvah big time.
And look at the line from mitzvah to mitzvah. Michael’s parents take him on our congregational trip to Israel. That’s not only a mitzvah, that’s a pilgrimage in the original sense of the word. It excited his Judaism. He wanted more. He went to Camp Kutz which further excited his Judaism and immersed him in those timeless Jewish values of social justice, the same values that Dr. Broverman’s parents taught her, the same values I spoke about last night that were handed down through the Novak side of our family.
Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, one mitzvah leads to another.
So when Poornima brought up her passion to address water issues with our students, we connected the dots even further and connected her to Michael’s mother Carrie who now serves on the board of WISER. I am grateful that Poornima is stepping up to work together with Jeanna to educate our students about these issues and continue to make a difference. The idea was for the kids to participate in a walk, raising funds by carrying water to understand what children in some parts of the world go through and the time we have to do this walk coincides with Sukkot. Turns out, this has an ancient Jewish connection.
Many of us have danced the hora at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration to the song Mayim.
וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם־מַ֖יִם בְּשָׂשׂ֑וֹן מִמַּֽעַיְנֵ֖י הַיְשׁוּעָֽה:
Joyfully, draw water from the wells of deliverance, said the prophet Isaiah. (12:3)
This may be the last vestige of an ancient festival. Remember that when the Temple stood in Jerusalem what went on its precincts was primarily off limits to the general community, B’nai Yisrael. The following pilgrimage festival of Sukkot offered participation for every member of the community and it culminated with a water drawing ceremony. We recognized then the life-giving value of water and, today, in the Central Valley, we certainly understand its value as do the villagers across the globe in Muhuru Bay where life also revolves around the availability and access to clean water. Please see Jeanna and Poornima to see how you can help support this effort.
Providing sustenance is a core value in Judaism. We are taught to leave the corners of our fields for the poor. Throughout Torah we are reminded to feed the hungry. These issues are not unique to Muhuru Bay. Thousands of people here in our city and surrounding region do not know from where will come their next meal. Temple Beth Israel has long supported the work of Poverello House but our volunteerism is at a serious decline. It is a powerful opportunity to help serve a meal there. Mike McGarvin, who I believe was the first recipient of Temple Beth Israel’s social action award founded Poverello House with the philosophy: Listen with with compassion; give with a warm heart and a smile. Please check in with Judy Haber or Stephanie Negin to see how you can participate in this important mitzvah.
I always like to keep Israel in mind when thinking of mitzvah opportunities.
On Rosh Hashanah, Steve spoke about those blue boxes we used to drop our coins in for tzedakah. Those were the JNF boxes, the Jewish National Fund and it was about planting trees in Israel. We still have those blue boxes and we still plant trees in Israel but the Jewish National Fund has added water issues to their focus. In fact, with a significant amount of support from JNF, Israel has become a world leader in a number of areas within water management including recycling and desalinization.
I did not intend to focus on water issues for this look at practical mitzvah opportunities but it is clearly a core necessity, one that we cannot take for granted and from our gathering at Woodward Park for Tashlich letting the waters carry off our sins, through the immortal words of Martin Luther King quoting the prophet Amos that we should not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream, I see the drops of water connecting to make greater and greater bodies of water like mitzvot connecting to make greater and greater societies.
As I mentioned before, the ancient observance of Sukkot culminated with the ceremony of drawing water from the well and it is on Sukkot that we read the scroll of Ecclesiastes in which the prophet declares…
1:7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full;
[to the place from which they flow, the streams flow back again]
The sea is never full as Rabbi Tarfon reminds us that our task is not complete.
Across the generations
And every one of us
Drop to drop
stream to river
River to the sea
mitzvah to mitzvah
And though the sea of mitzvot may not be filled
Rabbi Tarfon reminds us, we must keep filling it
until justice rolls down like water
righteousness like a mighty stream Amos 5:23-24
Like a bucket brigade across time and space
Mitzvah goreret mitzvah - one mitzvah leads to another
until, finally, that sea is filled and the time of Redemption is at hand
And the Book of Life will forever be sealed with blessings for all of humanity, for all of Creation.