Yiskor Sermon 2010
September 30th, 2010
How To Be Grateful, Even When Successful
(sermon influenced by Rabbi Hayyim Kieval)
One of the most famous preachers in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century was Rabbi
Jacob Krantz, the Dubner Maggid, who was renowned for his parables or meshalim. A fine example is this mashal, explaining the purpose of Sukkot.
Once there was a country ruled by a good-hearted king, who ordered that, at his expense,
the kingdom‟s slums and shacks were to be replaced by pleasant, bright houses. The citizens immediately carried out this generous law, and the land became prosperous as never before.
The good king went on a tour of inspection. Everywhere he was greeted with expressions of gratitude. But in his capital city, the king found in a forgotten corner, one old broken-down shack housing a poor family. The king was shocked.
“How is it that you also have not been given a new house to live in?” asked the monarch.
The old man who lived in the shack answered,
“The townspeople have forgotten us!”
The king said to himself,
“If my people can forget this poor man, whom they see all the time, then surely they can
forget me, whom they never see! I must, therefore, give them a reminder, as that they shall
never forget what I have done for them.”
So, after providing the forgotten family with a new dwelling, the king had the shack moved to
the center of the capital city. Above it hung this sign:
“This Is the Kind of Shack We All Used To Live In”Said the Dubner Maggid: When the Hebrew nation became prosperous in Eretz Yisrael, God commanded them to build Sukkot each year, lest they forget what He did for them after forty years of wandering in the wilderness.
Maimonides gave a similar explanation for the Sukkah: “To teach man to remember his evil
days in his days of prosperity”.
Just a few days ago, we went through the difficult fast of Yom Kippur. A very curious law in
the Mishnah (R.H. 9:1) states,
“Whoever eats and drinks on the ninth of Tishri is considered . . . to have fasted both the ninth
and tenth days of Tishri!”
In other words, we get just as much credit for feasting on Erev Yom Kippur, as we do for fasting
on Yom Kippur! How is that possible?
A brilliant explanation was given during the past century by the Rabbi of Bucharest, the
“Malbim”. He said that the sages realized that it is just as hard to feast for the sake of God as
it is to fast for the sake of God…..
The “Malbim” put his finger on a well-known truth of human nature that prosperity and religion
do not often go well together. It is an axiom that the yearning for God and the passion for
righteousness is to be found more among the troubled and the oppressed, than among the
comfortable and secure.
Prosperity often makes people self-satisfied and arrogant. Successful people are often
tempted to think of themselves as “self-made”. They begrudge any share of the credit to
anyone else – not even God.
This pattern was already well-known in the days of the Bible. Moses predicts the growth of this
attitude among the former Hebrew slaves, once they become rich and successful. He warns,
“Take care lest you forget the Lord, your God . . when you have eaten your fill, and have built
fine houses . . . and when your silver and gold have increased. Beware lest your heart grow
haughty, and you forget the Lord your God who freed you from the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage . . .and you say to yourselves: „My own power and the might of my own have
won for me this wealth.‟ But you shall remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you
the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant which He swore with your fathers . . .”
We usually think of misfortune and crisis as the true test of character. But it may be an even
greater test to pass through good fortune and success. Perhaps wealth is a stronger
temptation, morally and spiritually, than poverty. Perhaps the “Malbim” was right when he
said, “It is harder to FEAST for God than to FAST for God”.
Suppose we neglect to thank God for our prosperity. As long as it does not hurt anyone else,
what difference does it make?
The answer is that it makes a great deal of difference to others how we feel about our good
fortune. When we feel that our success is self-made, we forget that life‟s gifts have spiritual
meaning only if they are shared with others!
We forget that life itself is a gift; that health, beauty, cleverness, strength, talent, are blessings
which may be taken away from us without notice. We are not the “manufacturers” of most of
life‟s blessings. Nor should we satisfy ourselves with being the “consumers” only.
The spiritual attitude is to consider ourselves “distributors”. When we come to understand that
we are merely the instruments of a power greater than ourselves, when we realize that our
prosperity or success is given to us not merely to consume but to distribute and share, then we
are truly grateful and truly human. But, as long as we are insensitive to these spiritual truths, we
lose some of our humanity.
The Yiddish play “The Dybbuk” contains a memorable scene. A wealthy man was afflicted
with a miserable illness. No doctor could diagnose him so he went to a renowned Hassidic
Rebbe for help. The Rebbe led him to a window and said,
“Tell me what you see”.“I see people in the streets.”
Then the Rebbe took him to a mirror and said,
“Look into this glass and tell me what you see.”
“I see myself, of course.”
“See”, remarked the wise Rabbi, “what a difference a little silver makes. Through a plain glass
you see other people, but when you put silver on the back of the glass, you have a mirror in
which you can see only yourself! This is your trouble. Ever since prosperity has come upon
you, you have forgotten your humanity. Use your blessing for the benefit of others and you will
be well again!”
The Rabbi was telling the unhappy rich man of the basic meanings of Sukkot: Be thankful even
in the time of prosperity!
I began this Sukkot message with a mashal of the Maggid of Dubno. Let me conclude it with
a modern parable, which I thing the Maggid would have liked.
The playwright Moss Hart, brought up in the poverty of the lower East Side, finally made his
fortune on Broadway and in Hollywood. He purchased a huge estate and proceeded to
renovate it from end to end. No expense was spared. Lakes and ponds were created. Trees
were uprooted and replaced. Every visitor was given the grand tour, and would lavish praise
on Hart‟s handiwork.
All except one guest, the playwright‟s friend and professional partner, George S. Kaufman.
After his tour of the grounds, Kaufman remarked,
“My friend, all I can say is, What God could do if only He had your money!”
Even in their tough times, American Jews have more money than Jews have ever had before.
The challenge before us now is this: What could we do with our money, if only we had God!