A woman out for a walk comes around a street corner and finds herself in front of an accident victim lying on the sidewalk. Grateful for the first-aid course she’d recently completed at her local Y, she later tells her husband, “When I saw that poor man lying on the sidewalk in pretty bad shape, all my first-aid training came back to me. I bent down, surveyed the victim and his surroundings, put my head between my knees, and I actually kept myself from fainting!”
So maybe that wasn’t the outcome to the story you’d hoped for, or expected from a rabbi, but let’s face it, not everyone is equipped to save an injured person. You gotta know CPR, or how to stop a bleed or set a fracture. That may be more than a lot of us can handle. Still, there may be more we can do than just take care of only ourselves.
Tonight, we’re going to explore the idea of tikkun olam, of fixing the world, and of what repair jobs might be the right ones for you or for me. Tonight, we’ll be focusing on how each one of us can bring peace and gentleness and honor into our world, in a way that’s especially suited to us and to our individual abilities.
I love the piano. If you don’t know, I started lessons when I was in kindergarten. And I started practicing when I was in the tenth grade. That was when I discovered that I loved creating my own sounds. And while I had a brief period in my life when I was actually a full-time musician – complete with an off-Broadway musical – those days disappeared when I needed a real job with a real paycheck.
You know the story about Sergei Rachmaninoff, the great Russian-born pianist and conductor? Rachmaninoff himself told the story – it took place when he was very young and was giving a piano recital. He’d begun with a Beethoven sonata which had several long rests in it. During one of those measured pauses, a woman leaned forward, patted him on the shoulder, and said, “It’s okay, honey. Play us something you know.”
It’s a great story. And I suppose it’s better to believe in ourselves and not have others think we can do the job, than the other way around. Here’s another great piano story. This one comes from Istanbul.
You know what’s going on in Istanbul? Istanbul is a big city in the country of Turkey. And Turkey is a fairly democratic nation in the Middle East. It’s not so great on women’s rights, the ethnic rights of some of its citizens, or on freedom of the press. You might call Turkey a work in progress. But a lot of people are very hopeful that Turkey will become freer and freer in the years ahead.
Right now, however, there’s a huge protest going on in Istanbul that was sparked by plans to turn a city park called Taksim Square into a shopping center. It turns out, this is probably about more than trading in green space for money and profit. It turns out that, for many decades, Taksim Square has been ground zero for political and not-so-political demonstrations in Turkey (football games have gone bad there too). Violence has often broken out during gatherings in the Square and, until 2010, the Turkish government banned most protests there. Police were permanently stationed in the park around the clock to ensure no incidents took place.
Just last month, the protests against the shopping center started up. The world was pretty shocked to watch the police move in and use tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons against a gathering that looked a whole lot like Occupy Wall Street – in other words, a tent city, and a peaceful occupation of the land. An inconvenience perhaps, but not violent.
Watching the scenes from Taksim Square on CNN was pretty startling for me. You’d think the people had gone to war, like what’s going on in Syria, but they hadn’t. They were just upset and they wanted their government to know about it. You can imagine their disappointment when the government reacted with no dialogue, just force.
Then, a little over a week ago, with tension still mounting between the protestors and the police, a German pianist, Davide Martello, appearing with a small truck and road crew, moved a grand piano inside of Taksim Square and began to play. For fourteen hours straight.
The protestors quieted down, gathering around the piano player. As photos and videos went out across Facebook and YouTube, the crowd grew. Eventually, they would stand at 1500 strong. And the police? It’d be lovely to say they came over and joined the concert. They did not. But they can be seen at ease, resting on their shields, themselves calmed for a few moments during which the only tension was in the strings inside that grand piano.
John Wesley, a Christian minister who lived in England about 200 years ago, taught, “Do as much good as you can, for as many people as you can, as often as you can.” I’ve always loved this text. It’s a lot like something Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, wrote back in the 12th century, “If one is able to help another and does not do so, that person has transgressed the mitzvah to not stand idly by when another is in need (Lev 19:16).”
These teachings mean a lot to me. Because even if we think, when there’s something wrong in our world, that we can’t do anything about it, we can always do something. What would it take to fix the problem in Taksim Square? What would it take to fix the larger problems of human rights in Turkey? I’m not sure if I can do something about that. But if I can play piano, I might be able to help a little. And if playing the piano can help a little, what about playing the flute, or making scrambled eggs, or jumping rope, or writing a check, or joining a protest in Times Square?
“Do as much good as you can, for as many people as you can, as often as you can.”
That piano player was great. For fourteen hours, he calmed things down in Taksim Square. It was amazing. But the government still wouldn’t talk to the people.
Then this past Monday, someone else showed up to do what he could. I don’t know whether or not he could play the piano. He didn’t bring one with him, I know that. In fact, he didn’t bring anything. He showed up at Taksim Square, he placed his backpack on the ground, put his hands in his pockets, and he stood there. For eight hours. People noticed, and they gathered around him. Four police officers searched him, and his backpack. They asked why he was there? He said nothing. And then, more than 300 people joined him, doing the same thing. Then people all over the city heard about the standing man, and they began standing in the same way, wherever they were.
“If one is able to help another and does not do so, that person has transgressed the mitzvah to not stand idly by when another is in need.”
Whoever you are. Whatever your education, your abilities, your age, your size, your courage, or the loudness of your voice. If you see something going on that isn’t right, there is always something you can do about it. Something you can do. It’s the Jewish thing to do. It’s the Christian thing to do. It’s the decent thing to do.
I was reminded of it by a guy who played the piano in Taksim Square. He’s my new hero.
Are you familiar with the story of Corduroy? It’s about a little teddy bear who no one would buy because he was missing a button. A little girl who didn’t care about the button asked her mom to purchase Corduroy, but her mom said no.
The next day, the little girl showed up, purchased Corduroy with her own money, and took him home, herself sewing the button to hold up his shoulder strap. The teddy bear and the little girl live, of course, happily ever after.
Can you sew? Can you draw? Are you a mechanical engineer? Or a doctor? There’s lots that each of us can do. And there’s lots of what we can do … that we can also do for others. If each of us would share a couple of those things to benefit someone else in their moment of need, it could go a long way toward making at least one life and, who knows, maybe a whole lot more, better off than they’ve been in a long, long time.