There was once a little girl named Hanna. Her mother made her a white Sabbath dress. Hanna couldn’t wait to wear it. On Friday afternoon, she took a bath and then put on her new dress. It was beautiful. Hanna was very happy. Her mother was happy, too.
Then Hanna went outside. Just past the gate her dog, Zuzi ran up and barked.
“Look, Zuzi, look at the new Shabbos dress Mama made for me! You’ll get my dress dirty.”
She went a little farther and met Edna, her cow, but she wouldn’t let Edna get near her: “No, no, Edna. You’ll get my dress dirty.”
She walked a little farther. Just as she turned around to go back home, she saw a man coming out of the forest.
The man stopped and took a heavy sack off his back. Then he sat down to rest. As Hanna came closed, she saw that he was an old man. He was covered with sweat.
She looked at him and asked, “Are you tired?”
“Yes,” said the old man. “I’ve been in the forest since sunrise making charcoal.”
“See my new dress?” asked Hanna. “It’s my Sabbath dress. My mother made it for me.”
“It’s very nice,” said the old man.
The man sat a little longer and then he stood up.
“The sun has almost set,” he said. “The Sabbath is near and I must be on my way.” Then he put the sack of charcoal on his back and started off with slow, heavy steps.
Hanna saw how his back bent under the load and ran up to him. “Can I help you?” she asked.
The man smiled. “That’s very kind of you, little girl.”
So Hanna walked behind him, with her arms stretched up high, to help hold up the heavy sack.
They walked along, talking together, for a while. Then the man stopped. “That’s enough for now,” he said. “You’re a good girl, but it’s time you went home.”
So Hanna turned and skipped happily down the road until …
She looked down at her new Sabbath dress. But what is this? There is a black spot here, another there – and another.
Hanna’s dress was covered with black stains from the charcoal-maker’s sack. The dress was ruined, and on the very first day she wore it!
Hanna burst into tears.
When twilight fell, Hanna was still sitting on a rock, all alone in the field, sobbing bitterly.
The moon looked down and whispered in a voice that only Hanna could hear. “What happened, child? Why are you crying?”
Hanna could barely speak. She pointed to the black spots on her new dress. “Look, Moon,” she sobbed, “my Sabbath dress!”
The moon looked. And then he asked, in a voice that only Hanna could hear, “Are you sorry that you helped the old man?”
“Oh no, no. I’m not sorry at all. But the dress, my white Sabbath dress … my mother …”
“Don’t cry, child. Go home now and don’t worry about your dress. All will be well.”
So Hanna started home. As she walked along, the moon followed her. Moonbeams flooded down and touched the dress. Every black spot became a tiny bead of light. Soon Hanna’s dress sparkled and glittered. It glowed like the purest silver.
On her way, she met her mother. “Who is this?” her mother asked.
“It’s Hanna, Mama! Don’t you recognize me?”
Hanna laughed as she ran into her mother’s arms.
As they walked home, Hanna told her mother everything that happened.
Then they went inside.
And the whole room filled with light – the light of Hanna’s Sabbath dress.
I went to Los Angeles in May because a young man in our congregation was ordained at American Jewish University and became Rabbi Noam Raucher. Part of the beautiful ceremony was that each new rabbi was given a brand new white tallis. And one of the speakers that night, Reb Mimi Feigelson, referred to the story of Hanna and Her Sabbath Dress by Itzhak Schweiger-Dmi’el. She made great use of the story to say: May your talleism get dirty. May you be so involved with helping others that your beautiful white talleism will get very dirty.
And I sat there and thought: life is all about getting your white Sabbath dress or your white tallis dirty, only to find that it is in getting it messy that it all turns out white and meaningful.
A large group of us went to Cuba in March. We had, I assure you, pure motives. We wanted to help the poor Jewish community of Cuba. Our dresses and our talleisim were white.
But while we were there, and after we came back, we had all sorts of questions about some of the people we were dealing with. I personally had forgotten something I have experienced right here in Connecticut for many years, that sometimes the people you need to help are the people who are just trying to survive and the people who are trying to survive have often become desperate. And if you’ve ever been really desperate, and I hope you’ve never been that far down, you do anything and you say anything and you can even look right in a rabbi’s face and lie right through your teeth and not feel bad about it because you’re just trying to survive and that comes before anything else, morality or truth or even your most cherished relationships. Desperation, from what I’ve seen, has its own logic.
Think about the man in the story. He saw a little girl. How much could she help him with his heavy bag of charcoal? And didn’t he know that the girl would get her beautiful white dress dirty? The truth was that he didn’t care because his load was so heavy he was grateful for any help he could get.
There’s an expression that we all know, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” We can turn that around and say, “Don’t bite the hand that you feed.” If you’re going to feed people, feed them, and don’t criticize them when they’re starving and they don’t act as they should.
Those of us who went to Cuba thought a lot about the relative benefits of socialism and capitalism; neither system works as it should because people are involved and most people only care about themselves and people make it all dirty. If you deal with people, you are going to get dirty. There are many, many times in dealing with people that you feel that no good deed you do goes unpunished.
But we still do good deeds.
So my take on our trip to Cuba, which is a lot like my take on life, is that we learned a lot, experienced a lot, and probably helped more people than it seemed. And if we felt that our dresses and talleisim were dirty, it’s ok, because G-d and the moon took care of things and when we came back they were white again.
I’m thinking that there are two kinds of dirtiness. One is getting dirty when helping others, like Hanna in the story. The other is just plain dirty.
I remember a time when the Conservative rabbis were going through a nasty fight. Yes, rabbis fight, too. This was not a proper struggle about women’s rights or any important issue. This was about egos and personalities. And the Conservative rabbis in Connecticut got together and someone came to speak to us who was on one side of the fight. And it was lousy, and I couldn’t bear it. But I was a young rabbi and I didn’t say anything. But there was an older rabbi there, and it was Rabbi Zwelling, may he rest in peace, Sharon Cohen’s father, and he waited politely until after the speaker left, and then he looked at the group and said just three words that I have never forgotten, “ I feel tamey.”
Tamey, to translate, means unclean, impure. Rabbi Zwelling was saying that this whole negative business was beneath us, it was angry and made us small, it was a terrible waste of time when we had so many important things to do.
I’ve been thinking about that time because I look at American politics and it all feels dirty. It is filled with financial deals and sell-outs and crookedness. But unlike that lousy business between rabbis that time, it is still the path to progress. As imperfect as our system is, as negative and self-serving as many people are, I believe in America and I believe that we will emerge economically and politically and historically out of our current mess.
Or a different kind of example: We try to help the people in our lives who are having trouble in life. And often, our efforts lead to terrible issues. All we wanted to do was help, and all we get back is anger and spite. And we feel like we have charcoal all over us.
Now for the good news. Here comes Rosh Hashanah, the new moon of the new year, and my robe is white; just like the Shabbos moon made Hanna’s dress white again, the robe is white again.
This is not about the person wearing the robe. I certainly have no right to white any more than anyone else and a lot less than others. The white robe represents all of us, and all of us are clean, and pure, and the new moon of Rosh Hashanah says so.
But the white robe also is here to remind us that a lot of our dirtiness is well earned. Around here, we really are good people who do care about others, and who in the next year will try even harder to help others, because we’re determined to do more and help more.
And so when you get upset in the next year, when you get punished for your good deeds, or you feel like your efforts have not succeeded or when you despair because you feel like you haven‘t helped as much as you could have, remember that just as Hanna does not regret doing what she did to get her dress dirty, neither should we.