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11/17/2020 05:12:31 PM


During a Thanksgiving season many years ago, a certain general of the Salvation Army decided to send greetings to every unit scattered across the world. Since cable rates were very expensive, the general was forced to confine his message to a single word. The general spent many minutes deciding which word to send. What would best express the spirit and challenge of Thanksgiving? Finally, after deep thought, he made his choice. The single word he sent was “others”. The general chose this word because it represented to him the essential reason for his life work.

Imagine if we had to sum up our mission in life with one word. How would we express what most mattered to us? What would be the word we would choose? Would this word reflect who we really are or who we should be? Of course, we can think of people whose lives can be summed up in one honest but sad word, such as money, power, status, and ego. But I would hope that, like the Thanksgiving cable, our word would be a source of inspiration to us and to others.

Following a popular word in the Bible, I would choose the word, Hineynu, or “here I am.” This is because showing up for others is so important. It is a virtue we honor at least in theory. Sadly, not always in practice. For instance, how often do parents say to their child, “I wanted to see you play soccer today but an important client dropped by work and I was too busy?” How often do grown siblings say, “We would love to come to our nephew’s bar mitzvah but we spent our vacation money going to Aspen this year?” How often do we tell people, “We can’t be physically with you but we will be there in spirit?” Being there in spirit is one of life’s rationalizations, but when let’s face it: either you show up or you don’t, and all the phone calls, texts, emails, and telepathic thoughts in the world will never replace a hug and kiss.

COVID has been a mixed blessing in this regard. It has kept us away from loved ones but it has also kept us closer to home. This means less attendance at significant events and more presence in the quotidian happenings we often take for granted. Moving forward with a more normal life, I hope we have learned that the little moments of presence also matter.

The Talmud records a story in which someone promises to return to his wife by a certain time on a certain date or they would be considered divorced. Such a practice was common in ancient Jewish communities, for if this provision was not made, and the husband never returned, the woman could never remarry. In order to complete his journey home, the husband needed to take a ferryboat across the river. As it turns out, on the certain day, the man arrives on the far side of the river just late enough to miss the ferry. He can see his wife on the other side and he shouts that he has returned. But according to the rabbis, the man has not fulfilled his side of the contract and the couple is declared divorced. As one sage tersely puts it, “This is not returning.”

We might think the rabbis were too hard on this man. After all, his heart was in the right place, and he almost beat the deadline. And yet, a closer look yields another conclusion: if you really want to “be there” then you take in account the schedule of ancient ferryboats, not to mention modern-day traffic. Showing up means not making excuses for why you couldn’t be there. Having your heart in the right place isn’t going to help the people who need our presence more than simply our good intentions. We may miss our families this year for Thanksgiving but what are we prepared to do to say “Hineynu” in other ways in the days ahead?

Sat, September 24 2022 28 Elul 5782