It is my sincere hope that all of you have been enjoying our sermon theme for the High Holy Days, “Hear O’Israel,” and not just because you get to listen to good music and watch the rabbi dance a bit on the bima. Rather, I hope it is because together we are learning about what it means to truly pay attention, to give things the proper consideration they deserve, to be awake and aware of all that surrounds us, good and bad. As we move into Yom Kippur, I hope to keep this theme going, and with that in mind, I bring you this story from the Talmud, tractate Taanit 21A, about a rabbi named Nachum of Gam Zu:
They said about Nachum of Gam Zu that he was blind in both eyes, both his arms were amputated, both his legs were amputated, and his entire body was covered in boils. And he was lying in a dilapidated house, and legs of his bed were placed in buckets of water so that ants should not climb onto him, as he was unable to keep them off in any other manner. Once his students sought to remove his bed from the house and afterward remove his other vessels. He said to them: My sons, remove the vessels first, and afterward remove my bed, as I can guarantee you that if I am in the house, the house will not fall. Indeed, they removed the vessels and afterward they removed his bed, and immediately the house collapsed.
His students said to him: Rabbi, since you are evidently a wholly righteous man, as we have just seen that as long as you were in your house it did not fall, why has this suffering befallen you? He said to them: My sons, I brought it upon myself. Nachum of Gam Zu related to them the following:
As once I was traveling along the road to my father-in-law’s house, and I had with me a load distributed among three donkeys, one of food, one of drink, and one of delicacies. A poor person came and stood before me in the road, saying: “Rabbi, sustain me!” I said to him: “Wait until I unload the donkey, after which I will give you something to eat.” However, I had not managed to unload the donkey before his soul left his body. I went and fell upon his face and said: May my eyes, which had no compassion on your eyes, be blinded; may my hands, which had no compassion on your hands, be amputated; may my legs, which had no compassion on your legs, be amputated. And my mind did not rest until I said: May my whole body be covered in boils. Nachum of Gam Zu thus prayed that his suffering might atone for his failure. His students said to him: “Woe to us that we have seen you in this state!” He said to them: “Woe is me if you had not seen me in this state, as this suffering atones for me.”
Obviously the rabbis of the Talmud liked to tell parables, and speak in hyperbole in order to make their point. This story is no different. Certainly I am not saying that if we don’t pay attention to things we will end up blind, amputated, and covered in boils. Instead, what I hope this story from our sages helps teach is that there are so many times when we hesitate, when we pass things off as nothing, when we feel that things can wait all because we are focusing on ourselves. Rabbi Nachum of Gam Zu did not see that the man asking him for food was dying, and this caused a terrible consequence. Each day, we do not see things that are happening. We fail to see that our planet is dying, children are dying, the homeless are dying, soldiers are dying, veterans are dying–Jews, Muslims, Hispanics are dying.
We cannot look away. We cannot wait another minute. We must pay attention. We must stare into the burning bush as Moses did. Because if Moses had looked away quickly, he would not have noticed that the bush was not, in fact, being consumed but rather that it was the angel of Adonai. Take the time this week to stare into the bush, to pay attention, to Hear O’Israel. I can think of no better way to prepare for Yom Kippur than this.