POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE
A Sermon for Shavu’ot 5772
By Rabbi Wayne Allen
For seven years, the Olson family of Turtle Lake, North Dakota (population 581) received postcards from ‘Jim.’ About three times a year ‘Jim’ sent brief messages describing his adventures. One card showed a picture of the Eiffel Tower with the words: “Was in Paris and saw Francois and Emilie. They send their regards.” Other cards were sent from Arizona and as far away as Ireland. They were all signed ‘Jim.’ At first, it was puzzling to Stan and Sheila Olson. They had no friend ‘Jim’ they could recall. And none of the names mentioned in the postcards rang a bell. But after a while, they came to treasure the messages they received from ‘Jim.’ In fact, they began to share Jim’s adventures with their friends and relatives. And the Olson’s friends and relatives began to inquire after Jim and his latest travels.
But on April 8, 2011 the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported the truth. ‘Jim’ was none other than thirty-eight year-old Jim Moore of Mankato, Minnesota who died of complications from bile-duct cancer. Jim held a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry and another in biological engineering. He attended church regularly and played in the church band. He was also a complete stranger to the Olsons. His friend Andrew Reeves wrote to the Olsons after Jim’s death on January 3 to explain. Jim’s messages were not part of some scam or an elaborate hoax. Jim Moore was fed up with opening his mail to find only coupons, flyers, solicitations, and bills. He realized how much he missed personal, real handwritten letters.
Now is where the story gets fuzzy. According to the United Press International, Moore picked a random, mid-Western town from the Internet and a random last name. He resolved that he would send this family the personal messages he missed. But since the correspondence was one-sided, it is unclear how SENDING the postcards fulfilled Jim’s desire for RECEIVING personal communication himself. The Olsons never had an address to which they could send a response! The only satisfaction Jim received was in hoping that the Olsons’ lives would be improved by his messages. And indeed they were.
The Olson’s, by their own admission, eagerly looked forward to receiving these postcards. It connected them with the broader world beyond their small town in North Dakota. It made them feel important, valued, loved. The Olsons – and their friends and relatives with whom the messages were shared – were given something to talk about, discuss and wonder. Sheila Olson said that these messages “enriched their lives” and provided them a moment to reflect on friends present and lost. All the messages, she went on to say, were kept in a special box.
I suspect there was something else at play here. Jim did not need to have a message returned. The fulfillment was in the giving. Jim must have sensed how the sending of the message itself, independent of the content of any message, would affect the Olsons. And in that he would not be alone.
Our tradition calls Shavu’ot “z’man mattan Torateinu,” the time of the GIVING of the Torah. A well-known and popular explanation for this name is that while the giving of the Torah by God to Moses at Sinai was a fact, the subsequent receiving, that is, the acceptance of the Torah, still remains in doubt. Put positively, RaShI (on Exodus 19:1) writes: “Yihyu divrei Torah hadashim alekha k’ilu hayom nitnu,” the words of Torah ought to be new to you, as if they were given today.” But the implication is clear. So long as Jews still fail to embrace the Torah, the Torah can never be reputed to behave been received, only given. This leaves the question, then, of why God would send a message that may go unheeded? An unheeded Torah would seem to be pointless!
Here is where I believe Jim Moore’s story is critically “revealing.” It is not the content of the Torah – as important as that is – that is key, but the act of giving of the Torah that is. The very idea that the equivalent of a postcard from the edge of the cosmos arrives in our hands is sufficient to awaken within us the feeling that we are important, valued, and loved. God’s giving of the Torah accomplishes these things regardless of whether or not the Torah is embraced and observed.
To be sure, the message we call “Torah” ought to be observed and treasured. (Thus we, too, keep it in a special box.) But the very giving of the Torah is both the name and chief attribute of the holiday.
May we all enjoy the spirit that attends it.