by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben
On Yom Kippur – September 28, 2020
A guy is bragging to his friend that he has a dog who is so talented he can do anything he is commanded to do. The friend says, “OK, let’s try a simple command first,.” So he picks up a stick, throws it a distance, and commands to the dog, “Fetch!” The dog looks up at him for a moment, doesn’t even move and instead begins shouting, “All day long people tell me what to do. Roll over! Jump! Go through the fiery hoop! Good dog. Bad dog. Sit! Heal! Eat this! Don’t eat that! I can’t take it anymore! It’s no fun being a dog! I hate it! I wish I were never born! The fellow interrupts the dog and tells him with a sense of frustration, “All I asked you to do was fetch.” The dog looks at him with surprise, “Ohhhhhh! I thought you said ‘Kvetch.’”
That pretty much captures the last six months of all our lives. I don’t have to tell you what it’s been like, because we have all lived it, alone, together. That’s perhaps the most striking aspect of these past months—being alone, together—keeping physical distance from one another while creating one experience after another in increasingly innovative and creative ways to be socially connected. “I should have invested in Zoom,” says everyone I know.
What I have been reminded of throughout this endless pandemic, is what we have always known but so often forget: Just how desperately we need each other, how much we long in the very marrow of our bones to touch each other, to hold each other, and how spiritually impoverished I feel to be so physically disconnected to other human beings. It reminded me of the famous comment of Martin Luther King Jr. who once said, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
Unfortunately, to many of us the “boat” we are all in mostly resembles the best-selling novel The Life of PI where the young boy is stuck floating across a hostile sea in a 26-foot long lifeboat with a tiger. Just imagine the emotional toll it is taking on all of us to have in the back of our minds every single day that wherever we go and no matter who we are, every single other human being on earth is suddenly a potential threat to our lives?
As a nation we don’t seem to be coping with the fundamental insecurity of it all very well. Suicide rates were already up nearly 30% since the year 2000, and, at the same time, prescriptions for antidepressants had risen 65%. And that was before the pandemic. Since the pandemic hit us, the CDC reports an even more dramatic rise in suicides and suicidal impulses, sadly with the most dramatic rise among those age 18-25.
International health organizations are predicting that by year end there will have been over 850,000 suicides worldwide. As just one example, suicides in Fresno are up 70%, and we now have a national suicide rate at its highest level since WWII, with prescriptions for antidepressants having risen 34% in the last six months alone.
Last year when the news about Anthony Bourdain killing himself—right after Kate Spade had killed herself—hit the news, one of the teenagers in my Home Shalom workshop on creating healthy relationships pretty much nailed it when he said, “There are so many suicides. These people need a friend.” That teenager was echoing the wisdom of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahya in the Talmud where his simplest formula for wellbeing is Aseh lekha rav u’keneh lekha haver. “Get a teacher and find a friend.”
Well, since more people than ever are getting prescriptions to help them feel better, I decided that first I’ll tell you a story and then I’ll give you my own five-point prescription for how to successfully manage the challenging times in which we are living.
First the story:
I’ve been crying a lot this past year. That’s pretty much the story. Exactly a year ago, the day of Kol Nidre last year, I was sitting in the imaging center of the Cancer Institute at St. John’s Hospital getting a bone scan. This was after my own biopsy revealed I had prostate cancer to see if it had spread to any other parts of my body. And as can happen when one is a rabbi, at that same moment I was on the phone to a KI congregant helping her wrestle with the difficult end of life decisions that had to be made that day regarding her husband who was dying in Santa Monica Hospital just a few blocks away.
Gratefully, my own bone scan came back negative, so it’s only been the prostate cancer that I’ve been living with this past year. Even so, our high holiday theme of “who will live and who will die” has been on my mind ever since, and tears keep appearing whether I summon them or not.
It has reminded me of the Jewish man from the United States who was on his first trip to Australia when he got into a cab and out of the blue the driver asked him, “Did you come here to die?” The man was stunned by the question and immediately began thinking about these very high holiday questions of life’s meaning in the midst of never knowing what day may be our last. “What made you say that?” he asked the cabbie, who turned around and said, “Well, did you come here to die, or yester-die?”
Really, aren’t we all longing for “yester-die?” There is clearly a reason why Yesterday is the most covered pop song of all time, played on American radio alone more than seven million times. “Oh, I believe in yesterday.” And in keeping with the theme of how fragile our lives feel at this very moment in time, yesterday, really yesterday, September 27th, was my mother Betty Reuben’s 98th birthday, and I know she is watching from home in Sacramento, so “Happy Birthday again, Mom.”
Actually, most of the important lessons I learned in my life I learned from my mother. If she had been born in a different era, she would for sure have been a rabbi herself and clearly was the rabbi in our family. She taught me every day by living example what it means to be a mentsch, how to treat every other human being with dignity and respect, that my purpose in life was to find my purpose in life and make my life matter in the lives of others.
She taught me to be engaged in the political process of life, as she took me walking precincts as a young child to get out the vote. She taught me that voting was both a privilege and a right never to be squandered. She taught me to fight for the underdog and stand up for those most vulnerable in our society. I recall as a child many nights when, as she was the President of Jewish Family Service of Santa Monica, the phone would ring, and she would drive downtown to give money to an indigent who was in need of support, a place to stay overnight, and food to eat.
She taught me the value of education as she went back to college herself when my youngest sister was graduating high school, earned a Masters in Early Childhood Education, and not only ran a pre-school with outreach to the most vulnerable children and families in Sacramento, but taught education at Sacramento City College raising up disciples of her own. Indeed, my mother has always been my greatest role model as to what civic engagement is all about and what it means to be a fully participating member of the Jewish community.
When I asked her the other day as her 98th birthday was approaching how she dealt with overcoming fear and despair, she said, “I’ve never been one to focus on troubles, but rather on what I can do and to have gratitude for what I do have rather than worry over what I don’t.” That’s my mom.
She still gets called up for an Aliyah on the high holidays at her synagogue. Just a couple of weeks ago she gave the keynote for the National Council of Jewish Women’s Installation in Sacramento where she once served—naturally-- as president. Above all, it is my mother’s passion for social justice that continues to be her most inspiring legacy. Like the 14th Century Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, “Everyone is God speaking. Why not be polite and listen to them?” my mother treats every human being as if they are the most important person on earth and created in B’tzelem Elohim, God’s image.
Oh, and by the way, what has my 98-year-old role model mother been doing during the pandemic? Among other things, taking a class to learn Spanish and listening to lectures about notable Jewish women in history. Aren’t we all?
So, back to my story and the prescription for dealing with the insecurities we are all living with today. As I said, I’ve been crying a lot this year, not just because of the cancer, but mostly because of the emotional roller coaster that all of us have been riding together. It’s that lingering feeling of vulnerability that never seems to go away. That’s the story because my story is your story. It has been the most painful yet poignant reminder in my entire life that there is no “us” and “them,” we are all “us.” It’s why Didi remarked at the start of this pandemic, “The corona virus has leveled the praying field.”
So here is my five-fold prescription for staying sane in this seemingly insane world.
Remember those fabulous inspirational posters that the British government’s Ministry of Information created to keep up the morale of the British people during WWII as they faced the brutal air bombardments of the Nazis. My favorite poster was the one that was printed but never actually released; however, a few copies survived, and, after the war became the most widely sought-after poster in Britain. You’ve probably all seen it. It said simply, Keep Calm & Carry On. If we had services in person this year that for sure would have been this year’s keychain giveaway.
Remembering the words of Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher who wrote the Tao Te Ching almost 3,000 years ago, wisely reminded us, “New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.” We know what is ending and that life will never be the same, but we have yet to discover what is being born out of the birth pangs of today.
One of the sages of the Talmud was named Nahum of Gamzu. Not because “Gamzu’ was a place where he was from, but because it means in Hebrew “This too,” and he used it in many of his most profound sayings. For Nahum of Gamzu, the greatest advice he could give whenever anyone was faced with a difficult challenge or a painful life experience was simply this: Gam-zu yaavor – This too will pass.
One of the most profound lessons I ever learned was from a religious school class. I was trying to teach them a Talmud quote in Pirkay Avot from the sage Shammai who says in the Talmud, “Greet everyone with a cheerful countenance.” I quickly learned, however, that they were too young to have ever heard the word, “countenance” when they repeated back to me what they thought I was saying. Only then did I realize their version was even better than Shammai’s. Their version was this, “Greet everyone with a cheerful count on us!” What better advice could any of us have than that? That is how we will get through this together—be someone that others can count on because we need each other now more than ever.
Finally, my number 5, Ernest Hemingway.
One of America’s greatest writers, Ernest Hemingway admitted that he wrote more than 39 endings for his famous novel, A Farewell to Arms, before finally completing it. Not only that, he kept all those story endings in a notebook his entire life. Eighty-seven years after he published his novel, a museum put a display of all the alternate endings to his book. Imagine that lesson, because I believe that this is the most important lesson of all.
You see, every story has the possibility of any number of endings and most of the endings to our stories we write. In fact, our lives themselves are not merely the collection of experiences we have one by one, day by day, but rather the STORY we tell about those experiences. It’s our story to tell, and, if we choose, we can re-tell that story totally differently the next time not just to others but to ourselves as well and in so doing actually change our lives. That is why I truly believe it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. All we need do is re-tell our story in a different light, from a different vantage point, with an emphasis on different parts of the story, and we change the very meaning of the story itself, as well as the way we see our lives.
After all, what distinguishes us from all the other creatures on the planet? It is our drive to make meaning out of our lives. Above all else, human beings are meaning makers – that is our genius, our real super power. To take the everyday drips and drabs of our existence, the choices we make every day of what we do and what we say, and to weave them into a story that gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Thirteenth Century Sufi mystic Jalaludin Rumi said “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” So, take your wounds and find your light. After all, our eyes are composed of light parts and dark parts, yet we only see through the dark parts.
Speaking of Hemingway, he became even more famous for his response when challenged to write an entire novel in just six words. This is what he wrote:
“For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”
When I realized how powerful six words can be, I asked for people on my Facebook page and Next Door to share their version of a six-word high holiday sermon. Here are a few that were sent to me:
“Old doors closed, new doors opened.” Janet Leahy
“Hungry I foraged through my past.” Nancy Ellison Handler
“Anticipation is not just about ketchup.” Phyllis Palin
“Started, and amazingly it was finished.” Neil Selman
“Yesterday, today, tomorrow, over too soon.” Loren Kaplan
“Common courtesy should be more common,” Becky Fish
The truth is that each of us writes the novel of our own life every single day by what we say and what we do and who we are. There are seven-and-a-half-billion people on the earth. Yet, since time began on our planet there has never been another human being exactly like you, and there never will be. No one else sees the world in exactly the same way that you do, feels exactly as you do, thinks exactly as you do, or has your exact talents and abilities. That’s why comparing ourselves to others is so foolish. There literally is no comparison.
Yes, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of being human is that, as long as you are alive, every single day you have the opportunity to write a different version of your own story, a re-write of the novel of your life. That is what Yom Kippur, these Days of Awe, are ultimately all about—the chance to rewrite the story of our lives once again, to remember that the quality of our lives is a direct result of the quality of our choices, and that those choices are totally up to us—to you and to me—every single day as long as we are alive.
So, what could be more appropriate than ending with the vision that became the central theme of the Nobel Prize winning author, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, in his ground-breaking novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, where he wrote:
“He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”
May we experience the rebirth we all need in the year ahead.