Updated: Oct 9, 2022
photo by Terry Harman
Recent blogs focused on the pattern of the Tabernacle using a wordplay, “The way, the truth, and the life.” Today, I want to take a slight detour in the book of Proverbs and the book of Acts until we make our way back to the subject of the three levels of holiness within the Tabernacle. The book of Proverbs has much to say about our "way" and our "ways."
Proverbs 14:12 JPS 1917
There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are ways of death.
Proverbs 3:6 JPS 1917
In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct thy paths.
Proverbs 4:26 JPS 1917
Make plain the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established.
A few years ago, I heard a masterful sermon by Rabbi Michael Stevens, Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth-El in Munster, Indiana. He gave his permission for the sermon to be shared with you. It’s about “The Way.”
Although Rabbi Stevens' sermon is a different take on "The Way," there are, "The Way" in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. The early followers of Jesus were identified as men and women who "belonged to the "Way" (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). Jesus also referred to himself as "The Way" (John 14:6). By the Way, I hope you enjoy the sermon.
"Don't Go Out of Your Way"
by Rabbi Michael Stevens
This sermon is called “Don’t Go Out of Your Way.” You can listen if you want to—but don’t go out of your way.
First of all, I want to thank Rabbi Zukrow for scheduling the Healing Service after my sermon-scheduling the Healing Service after people have to sit through my sermon is most appropriate.
I’ve thought about doing this sermon for twenty years now, ever since I began my seventeen years of teaching a Humanities course at Purdue University Calumet in Hammond. The course had a very short name: “A History of the Human Experience in the Western World from Ancient Times to the Present, as Expressed in Art, Literature, Music, and Philosophy.”
One of the textbooks we used for the course, The Creative Impulse: An Introduction to the Arts by Dennie Sporre, in the second half of the chapter called “Judaism and Early Christianity,” had a sentence that struck me as being very puzzling. I don’t usually quote college textbooks in my sermons, or any other time, and I don’t usually quote sentences by or about Jesus, but this one caught my attention:
“The Gospels portray Jesus as a teacher, miracle worker, and friend of sinners. He goes out of his way to associate with the poor, the downtrodden,
and the socially unacceptable.”
Why did this sentence sound strange? I don’t claim to know much about Christian theology, but if helping those in need was “going out of his way,” does that mean that for Jesus, helping those in need was something he was unaccustomed to? What does it really mean “to go out of our way?”
Let’s take a look at what “going out of our way” really means. On your computer, at “thesaurus.com,” you’ll find several synonyms for “going out of one’s way,” none of which I find appropriate for our discussion here: It means worrying about, being concerned about, exerting oneself, fussing over. The antonyms, just as well known to us, also don’t relate to this sermon: aiding, helping, ignoring, neglecting, and pleasing.
If you look at “thefreedictionary.com,” you’ll see “go out of one’s way” defined very clearly, in words that speak to the theme of this sermon: To inconvenience oneself in doing something beyond what is required.
The Free Dictionary also gives several examples of how we use the phrase “going out of one’s way” in conversation:
1. Lit. to travel an indirect route or an extra distance in order to do something. I’ll have to go out of my way to give you a ride home; I’ll give you a ride home, even though I have to go out of my way.
2. Fig. to make an effort to do something, to accept the bother of doing something. We went out of our way to please the visitor; We appreciate everything you can do, but don’t go out of your way.
To try very hard to do something pleasant for other people. They really went out of their way to make us feel welcome.
So, my question is this: If they had to go out of their way to make us feel welcome - does that mean that making people feel welcome is not their usual way of behaving? If we go out of our way to welcome visitors to Temple Beth-El, does that mean that being a warm and welcoming congregation is not our usual way? Or, in the wording in my Humanities textbook, if Jesus went out of his way to help those in need, does that mean that helping people in need was not his usual behavior?
For some of us - or, maybe, for most or all of us - we all have our “going out of our way” moments. Maybe it’s going out of our way geographically, offering someone a ride home, or a ride to Temple to attend a Shabbat or holiday service, or a program of some kind. Maybe going out of the way means going above and beyond our usual behavior, even for what should be ordinary and routine. We go out of our way to praise our children. We go out of our way to say thank you to anyone who is kind and helpful to us. We go out of our way to make visitors to Temple Beth-El feel that their being here is important to us.
The point of this sermon is pretty obvious. Showing kindness and expressing thanks and praise and appreciation should not be going out of our way - it should be our way, our ordinary and routine behavior.
And so, as we approach the end of these yamim nora’im, these Days of Awe, I offer some examples of when not to go out of our way, but rather, when doing the right thing should be our way, whether or not anyone says thank you, whether or not anyone returns or passes on the kindness, just because it is the right thing to do.
For each of these, the implied thought is
“Don’t go out of your way, let it be your way.”
So now, some examples: If we think of someone who might want to attend a Shabbat service or program at Temple, don’t go out of your way to call and offer a ride.
If you hear of a Temple member who is sick or hospitalized, don’t go out of your way to call or visit. Whether you understand the word “mitzvah” to mean a good deed or a religious obligation, Judaism teaches that bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, is one of the greatest mitzvot. But don’t go out of your way.
Another equally important mitzvah is hachnasat orchim, welcoming the stranger. We have visitors and guests at each one of our Shabbat and holiday services, and it’s a religious obligation not only to welcome them warmly but to continue our welcome throughout the service and the oneg. Of course, it’s so much easier to wish someone Shabbat shalom, and then ignore that person for the rest of the evening. Each one of us, as an ambassador of Temple Beth-El, has the obligation to welcome our visitors and guests. You can be part of the welcoming team - but don’t go out of your way.
A third example is especially timely during these Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, equally appropriate throughout the year: May we always be quick to apologize for anything we may have done to hurt or offend another person, and may we always be quick to forgive both others and ourselves - but let’s not go out of our way.
And one more example: we have a number of Temple members, some of whom have been part of our Temple family for many years, who come to Shabbat services on a regular basis, but who always sit alone during the Oneg Shabbat. Maybe you’ve noticed them - or maybe not. They may be shy, or may not feel comfortable initiating a conversation, especially when you and I are socializing with our friends, discussing Temple business with the officers and Board of the congregation, or planning our next mah-jongg or golf game. You and I can make them really feel that are part of our community, our Temple family, and not ignored or overlooked yet again. But let’s not go out of our way.
And so, I conclude this Yom Kippur afternoon sermon with words you’ve heard me say many hundreds of times: After this service, at our Break-the-Fast, and throughout the coming year, if you’re meeting someone for the first time, or see someone you haven’t gotten to know very well, go over to that person, introduce yourself, and take time to get to know the person, to listen to his or her story, to make that person feel that his or her being here really is important to us.
I commend you for sitting through this whole sermon. I invite you to stay for the duration of our Yom Kippur services and to enjoy the Break-the-Fast following. Just as importantly, I invite you, today and throughout the year, to make your home, your community, your congregation, and your world the most inviting, welcoming, nurturing, and caring place it can be—but don’t go out of your way.