Sermon for 1st day of Rosh HaShanah 5772: "Hagomel la-chayavim tovot" - "Who bestows favor upon the undeserving"

(photos are by Rabbi Will Berkovitz and Rabbi Suzanne Singer)

Baruch atah adonai - eloheinu melech ha-olam - ha-gomel la-chayavim tovot - she-g’malani kol tov.
"Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who bestows favor upon the undeserving,  and has bestowed favor onto me."

Several minutes ago, I invited you to join with me in reciting this blessing - all those who recovered from illness, or had surgery, or extensive travel, or who had endured any other brush with danger during the past year.  It’s the traditional blessing of thanksgiving -- - the Birkat ha-gomel - that is recited upon such challenging moments of life.

More than 12 years ago, I recited this blessing in this congregation after I was attacked on a subway platform and realized how grateful I was to have survived the attack.  And ten years ago, many of us remember how - on the first shabbat after 9/11 - every single person who came up to the torah for an aliyah - a torah honor - recited this Birkat ha-Gomel blessing - because every single person either had worked in the World Trade Center, or had managed to escape from the world trade center or from the vicinity on 9/11.

But listen closely to these unusual words again.  "Blessed are you, Adonai, hagomel la-chayavim tovot. 
Who bestows favor upon the undeserving."

In this blessing, of course, “the undeserving” – is us.   This is a blessing that acknowledges that the fundamental unfairness of the universe sometimes accrues to our advantage.  Some people have a brush with danger and they emerge safe and unscathed – not because they have greater merit than those who do not so lucky, not because they have been singled out for divine reward because of extraordinary things they had done, but rather because God is “ha-gomel la-chayavim tovot’ - the one who bestows favor upon the undeserving.

When we have a brush with danger, we have a special responsibility to experience a commonality with those who have suffered -- to understand that, by rights, their fate could, or even should, have been our fate -  and to contemplate the obligations that are ours as a result of our good fortune.

This summer, I learned a lot about gratefulness, and unfairness, and responsibility when I spent nearly two weeks in Ghana, in West Africa, together with a group of 15 other rabbis, organized by the American Jewish World Service.  I spent those two weeks in a fishing village called Sankor, just outside the city of Winneba, along the Atlantic coast.   We worked with an organization and school called “Challenging Heights.” (   

The motto of “Challenging Heights” is essentially a Christian version of the Birkat ha-Gomel that we said earlier today.  The motto of ‘Challenging Heights’ is:  “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

Now, to understand WHY the motto of Challenging Heights is “To whom much is given, much is expected,” you need to understand some things about Ghana and about Sankor.

In so many ways, Sankor is just like Hoboken.   The people, by and large, are extremely friendly.  There are adorable children everywhere.  The town is right on the water - in this case, the Atlantic Ocean.    (As far as I can tell, here’s a  Google Maps link of Sankor.)   And it’s a genuine community - people live much of their lives outside, together with their neighbors.

But then there are many ways that Sankor is different from Hoboken.   In particular:  in Sankor, the most severe social problem has been families selling their children into slavery.   The people there are poor enough that sometimes, families will allow their sons to be contracted for labor on fishing boats, from as young as age 6.

When people ask me if there was a highlight from my trip,  my answer is obvious: It was the opportunity to meet and learn from a valiant and visionary Ghanaian man named James Kofi Annan, the founder of the “Challenging Heights” organization with which we were working.  And this is James’ story.

He was born in the fishing village of Sankor about 38 years ago.  In fact, the house where our group stayed was the home in which James lived for the first few years of his life.  James was the youngest of 12 children,
and his parents simply had more children than they could afford. At age 6, they contracted with a child labor broker and sent him away to work for the fishermen –for just $40 for each two years of his labor.  

For those seven years, he and the other boys who were captive with him were forced to work 17-hour days.  They couldn’t go to school.  They endured lashes and abuse.  Everyone was always getting sick, from drinking from the same lake water that they also used for every other purpose.

The fishermen wanted young boys on their boats because children’s fingers are smaller and better able to untangle the fishing nets when they get tangled.  But when the nets get tangled - it’s usually deep under water.  Fishing nets were expensive - at $200 apiece - and sadly, boys were cheap. James told us how half of the boys who were imprisoned with him drowned, and how he almost drowned himself on two occasions.

Somehow, James came to the conclusion that there must be another way to live.  He said he remembered his mother telling him about a dream that she once had, in which she dreamt that some day, one of her children would learn to speak English.  James began plotting his escape at age 11 but only managed to escape at age 13.  He finally arrived back to his parents, expecting them to be overjoyed to see him - but while his mother WAS overjoyed to see him, his father wanted to send him back to his master.

He was completely illiterate and uneducated at age 13, but enrolled himself in school, and somehow managed to excel at everything - even though he got almost no support from teachers and from classmates -- and certainly got absolutely no support from his family or community of Sankor, which regarded him as a failure. He managed to get a scholarship to college - the first one from Sankor ever to go to college.  And after college he started to work for Barclays Bank -- as you can imagine, his starting salary was several times higher than that of anyone else who had ever lived in Sankor.  And, he said, he had made a promise, to God and to himself, that if he ever managed to be free from slavery, he would devote his life to the needs of the neediest people of his community, so that what had happened to him would not need to happen to others.  After all, he said, ‘to whom much is given, much is expected.”   Words that were originally his personal motto, and then became the motto of his organization, Challenging Heights.

His organization assists freed slaves, giving them an education and psychological services,  and works with the police to identify and apprehend child labor traffickers and masters.  They also run a school for the neighborhood, to try to get the people in the community to appreciate the value of education and the evils of child labor.  

And our task was to represent the American Jewish World Service, to assist in building an information technology center at the school,  alongside the Ghanaian construction workers,  and also to get to know the students - many of the boys were rescued from the fishing boats as James had been,  many of the older girls had equally harrowing stories, as they were rescued from sex trafficking.  And now they are learning to read, to do math, to use computers, to speak English, and to dramatically improve their chances for their future.

Please imagine for a moment the experience of sixteen rabbis, from all across the Jewish spectrum - Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform - gathered under the African sky to hear James tell his story.  We, for whom slavery is such a key part of our community’s story, a theme that has animated the mission of the Jewish people, felt we had found a brother, or even an ancestor, as we heard in his story echoes of our own people’s stories.   Stories of cruel taskmasters.  Stories of children being thrown into the river.  Stories of people keeping alive an ancient and completely irrational dream that someday they could be free- whether these dreamers were living in Egypt or in Auschwitz.   And, eventually, stories of escaping from slavery, of passing through the sea to freedom, with a new life mission - with gratitude to God, ha-gomel la-chayavim tovot,  to the one who bestows favor upon the undeserving.

I know I will be thinking of James at every Pesach Seder for as long as I live.   

But James is not our ancestor, but our contemporary.   And the crimes that were inflicted upon him still continue.

When I mentioned to some people before my trip that I was going to Ghana with a group of rabbis, I would sometimes get the response: “I didn’t know there was a Jewish community in Ghana.”   Actually, there is a small Jewish community in Ghana, but as is clear, that’s not why we went.  The people we met were so utterly, completely unfamiliar with Jews - truly, the one and only thing they knew about Jews was that we were building a technology center for them and with them.  As you can imagine, Jewish history being what it is, being that kind of emissary of the Jewish people feels great.  But we’re not talking about a photo-op here.  We’re talking about a fulfillment of a traditional Jewish value that has been around for the entire history of the Jewish people.

Abraham, the first Jew, had a commitment to social justice that even predates the torah reading we read today.  He intervened in a regional conflict to restore captives to freedom, and then appealed to God for just treatment for his neighbors.  In an episode shortly before today’s torah reading, God says,
“I know Abraham, that he will command his children and his household after him,  ושמרו דרך ה' לעשות צדקה ומשפט to follow the ways of God, to do justice and equity.”  (Genesis 18:19)

It’s a value that comes not only from Jewish tradition, but from Jewish experience.  Jews have never had any problem judging other nations based on how well or how poorly they took note of our suffering at difficult times in our own history.  So showing concern for people at their time of crisis, whether in Hoboken or Jersey City, in Haiti, in Ghana, in Tunisia, or anywhere in the world - is simply a way for Jews to extend the courtesy that we wish had been shown to us each time we experienced a similar crisis.

Rabbi Abraham HaKohen Kook, who was the first chief rabbi of Israel and a leading early religious Zionist, wrote an eloquent prose-poem about how some people sing the song of themselves, investing all their energy into their own self-fulfillment.  While others sing the song of their people or their nation, looking beyond their own needs and working for the betterment of their entire nation.  And there are still others who look beyond their own peoples and nations and sing the song of all of humanity.  And then there are those who look beyond their allegiance to humanity as they sing the song of all of creation.

But according to Rav Kook, what is the ideal? - the one who sings all these songs at the same time, as a שיר מרובע shir meruba, a four-fold song.  (Kook, Orot Hakodesh, Volume II, pp.458-45; see

Rav Kook’s words, from nearly a century ago, grow in their relevance.  We face a looming environmental crisis.  There is poverty in our nation, in our region and in our city.  Israelis face terrorist attacks, and Israel faces a campaign of delegitimization.  And many of us ourselves, as individuals, are enduring the effects of the economic crisis, facing job loss, loss of homes, or helping others through similar crises.  Adding to this the fact that fully half the word’s population lives in abject poverty is enough to make the most energetic among us want to throw up our hands, to give up.  What difference could WE possibly make?  Don’t we have enough issues already?

And Rav Kook reminds us:  not only do we not have to choose, but we CAN’T choose.  The song of the individual, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, and the song of the world -- are meant to be sung in harmony.  The most authentic answer to the question, “does Judaism say you should give tzedakah to organizations that help Jews, or organizations that help everyone?” -- is ..... "yes."   And I especially like fulfilling this Jewish value in a distinctively Jewish way –whether it’s through volunteering for the Hoboken shelter as part of the synagogue community, or through working with organizations like American Jewish World Service.

But back to James’ story.  There was something from his story that many of us did not understand:  Why was his motto “To whom much is given, much is expected.”  James was given nothing -- even less than nothing.  Everything he achieved, he achieved on his own.   If he had simply walked away from Sankor -- even if he had walked away from Ghana, or walked away from Africa – and he certainly had that opportunity -no one could have blamed him.   To whom nothing in particular is given, from him nothing in particular is expected.

But James explained:  much WAS given to him - by God, by the world - and this gave him an obligation to serve others.  And we understood:  some people look at the circumstances of their lives and they see nothing but their own independent achievements, how they have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.  And they expect that same independence from others.   And other people look at the circumstances of their lives and are full of gratitude for the opportunities and kindnesses they were given, they interpret the arc of their lives as a confirmation that God is ha-gomel la-chayavim tovot - הגומל לחיבים טובות - the one who bestows kindnesses upon the undeserving.  They regard themselves as the ones to whom much was given and from whom much is expected.

And the crazy part is --- as we learned from James, which of these categories you put yourself in
has almost nothing to do with the circumstances of your life.  It has everything to do with your outlook on life.

The American Jewish World Service ( brought our group of rabbis to Ghana  to learn about issues of global poverty from a Jewish perspective. And truly, statistics I had known in the abstract, with my head, I started to understand with my heart.

For example:  I started to understand  what it means that the world looks a lot more like Ghana than like Hoboken.  Before my trip, people would ask me, “Of all places, why are you going to Ghana?”, as if it was a remote place that bears very little relevance to “real life.”  But going to Ghana for me was not going to some remote and irrelevant place.  Going to Ghana was me leaving the ivory tower and going to see the world as it actually is.  20% of people on earth subsist on less than $1/day.   And an additional 30% subsist on less than $2/day.  (see,,contentMDK:20040961~menuPK:34480~pagePK:64257043~piPK:437376~theSitePK:4607,00.html)
And how easy it is to forget that those people have so much in common with us,  wanting the same things for themselves and their children that we want.  

If you line up the entire world population in order of wealth, almost the entire American population would be clustered at the 90th percentile and above.   And in a place like Hoboken … whatever challenges we’re facing, from a material perspective, most of us are among the most fortunate people who have ever lived on this planet.   While at the same time, there are more people living as slaves today than at any point in human history. - estimates range from 12 to 27 million.  (   So Chapter 1 of the book of Exodus is going on NOW - but it’s even bigger than the original Exodus.

We are the  chayavim חייבים, the undeserving ones, who have managed to win a cruel and unforgiving international lottery, where we can take our electricity and our running water for granted,  we have regular garbage pickup, and fasting is something we can do next week for spiritual development and for the fulfillment of a mitzvah, not because we don’t have food.

In Hebrew, the word chayavim חייבים can mean ‘undeserving’ - but it can also mean ‘obligated.’ We are the chayavim חייבים in that we have obligations to the world that are not yet met.  So much was given to us, and as a result, much is expected from us.  

But I learned that figuring out exactly what IS expected from us  is more challenging than I had imagined.  So I would like to share with you four ways that I learned that Jewish tradition can inform the way we fulfill our responsibilities to the neediest part of the world.

First:  make sure your help is actually helping.
There’s a lot of helping in the world today that is clearly not done with the sense that all that much is expected from the donor.  Ruth Messinger, president of AJWS whom many of us met when she visited our synagogue in November, visited our group in Ghana and told us a story she learned from former Secretary of State Colin Powell.  Shortly after the devastating east Asian Tsunami in 2005,the highest point on the island nation of Sri Lanka was a mountain of blankets that had been donated by people around the world.  Only problem is that the temperature hardly ever gets below 70 degrees there.  

Obviously, whenever it is possible, donating cast-offs, donating what we were going to throw away anyway,  is an important method of tzedakah and is mandated by Jewish law.  Something well known to anyone who has catered an event here at the synagogue, for which the leftover food is appreciated by the guests at the Hoboken Shelter.   But if this is the ONLY paradigm for our generosity, then we are choosing the way to help others principally because of the way it benefits US,  rather than by the way it benefits THEM.

Sometimes, this kind of giving can even do damage. In some regions of Ghana, Western-style clothing is referred to as “broni-wa-wo” - which means “dead white people’s clothes” -- because there are such immense quantities of it donated by Americans to Africa, so it’s sold very cheaply.   And the unintended consequence is that it has helped to decimate the African textile industry.

Sadly, something similar sometimes happens when the United States provides food aid in times of famine and economic disaster around the world.  We learned that US law dictates that food aid must be delivered in the form of food, rather than cash.  But when the American corn, or grain, arrives in those countries, sold at very low prices or given away for free, the local farmers cannot compete against the free or subsidized American grain.  The goal may be to contribute to the economic stability of a region in crisis, but sometimes the effect is sometimes the opposite.

No wonder the Talmud, and Rashi, and other commentators instruct that it’s the needy person him or herself who is in the best position to guide the benefactor about what he or she needs.  And this is why American Jewish World Service is a grantmaking organization that finds the people with the vision, like James, and gives them resources to help them to transform their vision into reality.

Second, give sustainably.
There’s a reason why, when Moses Maimonides made his famous hierarchy of eight levels of tzedakah, his very top level was -- giving someone a job or loan or grant that will help them to dispense with other people’s aid.  It’s simply the most efficient use of resources.

I was so surprised to find out that American Jewish World Service has what I initially regarded as a rather draconian policy against giving any kind of gift to any individual.  But we quickly understood the reason for the policy.  Once we experienced the extraordinary need, it was like we were paralyzed - no matter how much we could possibly give, it wouldn’t be enough.  We were living by very meager standards compared to what we are used to,  but still it was so different from the living conditions of the people we met.  Most people in the village, and most kids in the school, couldn’t possibly afford the 5c for half a liter of purified water, so they drank water from the tap – something we were warned never to do.  We had the good fortune to be able to hire a Ghanaian chef to make three delicious (kosher) meals for us every day, and we felt guilty at eating this food on the premises of Challenging Heights.  The kids did not appear to be malnourished, but they may never have had the experience of eating until they were full - and they were sometimes asking us for the leftovers at the bottom of the pot.

In helping us to understand the 'giving policy,' our group leaders explained to us:  What kind of behavior do we want to incentivize?  Do we want these kids to grow really really good at ingratiating themselves to American volunteers, so they can get a a little extra food or a little cash?  Or do we want to do whatever we can to encourage them to strive for the kind of authentic self-sufficiency  that can help them to succeed in the world?  (Seen from this perspective, perhaps the greatest act of beneficence in James’ entire story may have been the scholarship that he received to go to college, which set so much else in his story in motion.)

Third, don’t assume that help flows in only one direction.
Here’s a story, not from Ghana but from Hoboken.  Several years ago, the Hoboken shelter was renovating and wanted to put up a sign at the entrance to the shelter with a biblical quote that was somehow connected to the work of the shelter.  They asked me for some suggestions.   So I made a list of quotations, such as the verse from Deuteronomy that says
  לא תקפוץ את ידך לאחיך האביון, כי פתוח תפתח את ידך לו “open your hand to your needy brother.” (Deut 15:7-8).   I showed my list to the director of the shelter, and to her credit, when she told me that I had completely missed the point, she did so very gently.   She said:  “We’re not looking for a quote that divides the world into two categories, the helpers and the people being helped. In any interaction, who has any idea who’s doing the helping and who’s being helped?”
Actually, thousands of years ago, in the Midrash, Rabbi Joshua said the same thing:  תני ר' יהושע, יותר ממה שבעל הבית עושה עם העני, העני עושה עם בעל הבית.  "More than what the benefactor does for the needy person, the needy person does for the benefactor.”  (Vayikra Rabbah 34:8).  The line between the two is truly blurred.

Obviously I did not go to Ghana because of my prowess as a construction worker.   More than I went to work, I went to learn.  And what I learned was myth-shattering and paradigm-breaking.   I learned that they have a lot to learn from us.  But we also have a lot to learn from them.

My colleague Rabbi Toba Spitzer wrote about our experience:  “what folks there lack, we have too much of.  They don't have enough food; we have way too much, and have to come up with bizarre ways to restrain ourselves from over-eating.  They don't have enough hygiene; we have too much - [leading to] ….so much antibiotic use that we're breeding super-bacteria.  They have too little privacy; we have too much, [with so many people experiencing social isolation]....”  They have too few possessions; we have too many.  They have too little electronic connectivity; we have too much.   Certainly their lives need to begin much more to resemble ours.  But in some ways, ours need to begin much more to resemble theirs.

And fourth:  Don’t despair.
Problems of global poverty look intractable.  And truly, every single problem that I have ever faced, or discussed, in my life now looks very manageable by comparison.  But there are replicable solutions to the problems of global poverty - and we saw with our own eyes how one person’s passion really did transform a village.

In the famous words of Pirkei Avot: (2:19)
לא עליך המלאכה לגמור - ולא אתה בן חורין להבטל ממנה
It’s not up to you to complete the work - but you are not free from doing what you can.

May your new year 5772 תשע"ב bring blessing, good health, and peace to you and your loved ones.  And may it bring each of us many opportunities to express gratitude to God, הגומל לחייבים טובות - who bestows kindness on the undeserving - שגמלני כל טוב - and who has granted such kindness to me.


  1. Thank you for sharing this sermon. My friend, Rabbi Faith Dantowitz, recommended I read it. It has really helped me think about the Gomeil prayer and undeserving in a new way. Lisa Niver, We Said Go Travel


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