Every Friday morning I listen to Story Corps on NPR. This morning it was a conversation between Angelo and Eddie, two sanitation workers from New York City. Garbage men.
But they did much more than pick up garbage. As one of them said, “I can do 14 tons of garbage. You think I can’t stop to pick up a baby carriage off a step and carry it down?” His partner added, “The garbage ain’t going anywhere.”
They talked about being proud of their work, of looking back after they’ve gone down a block and seeing that the street was clean and neat, ready for people to go about their lives.
And they talked about the day that one of them retired, and people coming out to the street to say goodbye and thank him.
They understood that their job was important. They knew they were doing much more than putting trash into a truck. They were serving the community, and they had a meaningful relationship with the people they served.
Service to the community isn’t always easy. Ask a sanitation worker after a long day of picking up messy trash.
Ask a local politician after a long day of trying to do the right thing and dealing with messy politics.
Or ask a teacher after a long day in the classroom and a long evening of homework and lesson planning, and worrying about the kid in the back row, who is too skinny and falls asleep in class, and sometimes has bruises.
Service to community isn’t easy. I am amazed when anyone is crazy enough to want to run for public office. The process itself is brutal – nowadays it seems your opponent will say almost anything about you, in television ads that are blared out to millions of people, day after day.
It’s not just digging up dirt from their backgrounds. Politicians are dragged in the mud simply for their beliefs.
After the primaries this week, I heard a demagogue talking about the Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s politics as being on the far left. The commentator said that his nomination “represents both parties being pushed toward the extremes.“ And I thought, what a shame that caring about fair wages, education, health care, and the environment is considered extreme.
They seem like basic rights to me. The Declaration of Independence assures us that it is our right to enjoy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Hebrew word for happiness is ashrei, and it is the first word in the book of Psalms. But the word simcha, joy, appears ten times more often.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls joy “one of the fundamental themes of Deuteronomy.”
He wrote: “Happiness is something you pursue. But joy is not. It discovers you. It has to do with a sense of connection to other people or to God. It comes from a different realm than happiness. It is a social emotion. It is the exhilaration we feel when we merge with others. It is the redemption of solitude.”
We don’t “happy” one another’s company, we enjoy it.
Joy plays a key role in this week’s Torah portion. After describing the ceremony of bringing first fruits to the Temple, the Torah declares: “Then you will rejoice in all the good things that the Lord your God has given you and your family, along with the Levites and the stranger in your midst.” (Deut. 26:11).
The second time joy appears in this Torah portion is in the context of the curses. The first set of Biblical curses are in Leviticus and speak of a total abandonment of Judaism by the people.
But the curses in Deuteronomy are triggered “because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and gladness of heart out of the abundance of all things” (Deut. 28:47).
As we move into the Days of Awe, the High Holidays, our tradition encourages each of us to look inside, to “re” – reconsider, renew, repent, recreate. We look both at the year that is past and the year to come.
We ask ourselves, what did I do, where did I go, who did I meet on the way during this year?
Especially who – the many people with whom we interacted, for good or ill. The times of sheer joy in each other’s company. The times when we were alone and joy seemed a distant memory. The times we had a pleasant conversation with the garbage man. The times we had gladness in our hearts.
In just a few short days, we will gather here to bare our souls to God and ask for forgiveness.
When we look back at the year that has passed, may we remember to forgive ourselves for our shortcomings and failures, feel pride in our accomplishments and strengths, and look forward to the new year with a renewed conviction to share both our joys and our sorrows with the people we love.
This is an edited version of the sermon that I gave this Shabbat at my synagogue, Congregation Kol HaNeshams.