Sunday, February 6, 2011

Gifts from the Heart

Gifts of the Heart – A Sermon for T’rumah February 4, 2011
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

Of course, it happened again. It always happens! Just never like this!

Those of you who were here last Shabbat heard my admission of a near faux pas of major proportion, when I realized, at 6 PM on Friday at the conclusion of a long and challenging week, that the sermon I had written was actually based on the WRONG Torah portion (the one we read tonight, not the one for last Shabbat!). I promised that, since the other materials I included were not time bound, that I would give that sermon this Shabbat. A sermon entitled “On Being Prepared, Not Rushing In, Gifts of the Heart, and the Power of Words.”

Shoulda known better! EVERY time I have a sermon done in advance, something comes up and makes me chuck the original right out the window. The handshake on the White House lawn. September 11. The DC sniper. But NOTHING could have prepared me for this week’s version of the Rabbi’s corollary to Murphy’s Law. NOTHING!

When the phone rang at about 1 PM on Tuesday, and Elizabeth told me it was Emily, the odds were real good that something was wrong. She was in the middle of student teaching – she shouldn’t be calling. Even with that awareness, confirmed when I heard the shaking in her voice even before I heard her say a word, the words still struck me like a ton of bricks. “Koomar just called. Mitch died this morning.”

Koomar (NOT his real name, but a beloved nickname – no slur here) is a friend from camp. Mitch is as well. The son of two Rabbis of whom I am quite fond. The best friend of Emily’s boyfriend. A really good 17 year old kid. The kind who, if they found him dead with an empty bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand, and an empty pill bottle in the other, your first reaction would be to ask whose idea of a sick joke was it to put those there, rather than inferring cause and effect. NOT the subject of a sentence whose predicate is “died this morning.”

This was every parent’s nightmare; every Rabbi’s challenge. Inconceivable. Impossible. And, as I discovered after making a few phone calls as Emily drove to the Temple, absolutely true. Apparently, he was discovered unconscious that morning in his home. As the autopsy seems to have confirmed, without warning, his heart just stopped beating.

There was, plain and simply, absolutely no way to make any sense of this moment. No chance of finding words to comfort my somewhat hysterical daughter. Not as a Rabbi, anyway. I resorted to Dad mode, as I held her tight, and shared her pain, and helped her deal with the news herself, even as she tried to help Kumar and Sam deal as well. For that moment, it was all I had to offer. I hoped it was enough.

So, there I was yesterday morning, driving with Emily (and Evan and John, who also knew Mitch) to northern New Jersey to say goodbye and help bury Mitch. To help his parents and family deal with the inconceivable. To be the Rabbi Steve that the Harlam family needed me to be, and that I needed to be to get some sense of normalcy back. All while I silently struggled myself to make sense of it all, and continued to fail miserably.

The turnout was predictably overwhelming. Camp friends. Fellow Rabbis. His school friends. His parents’ work colleagues. Family friends and relatives. All, it seemed, going through the same struggle – HOW? WHY?

Major kudos to my colleague – Rabbi Steve Kushner – for handling the impossible challenge of this funeral. His eulogy was BRILLIANT – it clearly showed his close relationship and sincere affection and respect for Mitch; it started, in some small way, to put Mitch’s death, and life, into some perspective; it allowed us all to begin to heal a bit. As I said to a couple of friends afterwards, “I hope, when I grow up, to be able to deliver a eulogy that powerful – once.”

Part of his message was to tie his eulogy to our Torah portion, T’rumah. To note, very accurately, how much of Mitch’s life was a display of his willingness and ability to share freely the gifts of his heart, just as the start of our portion instructs Moses to have the Israelites bring the gifts of their hearts in order to build God’s house in our midst. In that single, insightful teaching, Rabbi Kushner also provided the ironic twist that made all the rest of his words work, that at least for me, began the process of understanding and healing, at least of providing context and an ability to believe that there could have been order in all this.

Why were there upwards of 900 people sitting and standing to hear these powerful words? Many, to be sure, were there because of the impact Mitch had had on them, even in his short life of 17 years. Many were there, offering the gifts of their hearts to his grieving family. But almost all of us were there, at least in part, seeking a sense of meaning in this tragic, inexplicable death, for ourselves.

If Judaism’s teaching is correct, and I still believe that it is, that death is simply the last act of our life on this earth – unavoidable, and not to be feared – then what more profound proof of God’s order and presence, even in the seemingly incomprehensible moments of confronting loss, than to have the circumstances of one’s death mirror how they lived their lives. If Mitch had to die at 17, after giving so much from his heart, how else should he go than by having his heart just stop? No matter how non-sensical it seems to the rest of us!

And Rabbi Kushner shared one other piece of wisdom as well. He acknowledged that many of us were mourning the premature passing of a young man with such potential for a future that now would not be. Without criticizing us, he reminded us how much Mitch had achieved, even in such a short time, and encouraged us to focus on the accomplishments that were real, rather than the fantasy of what might have been had he lived. He redirected us to Mitch’s life, not his death! And he did so as much or more with his example as with his words!

As I drove home, I pondered the power of that truth. I tried to find a way to distill that piece of wisdom out, as a valuable teaching for this Shabbat. I came up with the following:

[take out bottle] I place before us, for all to see, this bottle, with some liquid in it. Deliberately, the amount of liquid is well less than half the capacity of the bottle, lest we fall into the classic philosophical debate as to whether the bottle is half-full or half-empty. Because Kushner’s truth, demonstrated by Mitch’s life, is even more profound than that!

Most of us would either dismiss this bottle, especially if it were one of many in the refrigerator, for one of two reasons. With no label, it is unclear what the contents are. It might turn out to be a flavor we don’t like, or even, possibly, something not intended for consumption. But even more likely, most of us would dismiss this bottle, as lacking enough content to be able to serve the needs of quenching our thirst.

In the latter case, whether we realize or not, our perception of what IS in the bottle is shaped by what is not. In the former case, the inability to identify the contents is the key to our behavior. In the case of the death of a 17 year old, we naturally focus on what is not – the expected life that will not be lived – at the expense of the what is. We have difficulty fully identifying his ability to quench our thirsts and satisfy our needs for failure to comprehend exactly what he was and what he offered.

But, suppose I place this same bottle in front of a homeless person on the street, or a wanderer stranded in the desert or on a deserted island? Will either of those concerns that inhibited us from drinking the contents of this bottle apply in that case? Probably not!

We simply didn’t allow ourselves to fully recognize the gift that Mitch was in life. Not even those of us who admired and respected and knew him so well. Because none of us expected that Monday would be his last day among us! It took his death to shake our reality, and make us question so much, before we could be fully open to seeing what was in the bottle of his life as valuable. We needed Rabbi Kushner to focus us back on what was – his life, and not on what wasn’t – his death!

Wednesday night, as I taught our Confirmation class while still attempting to make sense of Mitch’s death, I was somewhat unfair to our kids. I held them up to Mitch’s example. I used his death in juxtaposition to their lives, as I asked them to try to express who they are as Jews today. Of course they came up short – because why should any of them sense the urgency of that moment? I am fairly sure Mitch didn’t spend Monday any differently than most other days. How many of us know when our last day will be? None of us! Isn’t that the point of Rabbi Hillel’s injunction to repent on the day before our death? That BECAUSE we don’t know when that will be, we should end each day with our karmic and cosmic accounts in order, in case it IS our last? And therefore, by extension, seek to accomplish all that we can each day!?

But was I really being unfair? As the Harlam family shared a meal after the service, to help each other adjust to the new reality of life after Mitch, I sat with the supervisor of our CIT program this summer – the program Mitch was in last summer. We know that we need to address Mitch’s death at some point, and how we could teach positive lessons from it. We began to form the outline of something that could keep Mitch’s memory alive and positive in the camp family.

By the time I got home, I had decided what I needed to say tonight. I needed to share with my Solel mishpachah the lesson I was blessed to learn with my Harlam family yesterday about the giving of gifts from the heart, and the beauty of being able to do so every day of our lives – for as long as we are fortunate enough to have our lives last.

But, I also remembered something else, which I offer as just ONE example of how some of us already DO both offer those gifts from our hearts, and get something back for our sharing as well. I remembered that I promised our Torah study group that I would take advantage of tonight being the night when we lap our Jewish selves for this year. When our continuing exploration of the Torah text, in serial fashion, picking up each week where we left off last week, and letting the discussion take us WHEREVER it will, is caught and passed by our annual cycle of weekly Torah readings in the sanctuary.

Because two weeks ago I challenged them to reach out, and bring even more people to the table. Not because we NEED greater numbers. But rather, because those who have become the core regulars get so much out of our participation, and we recognize the value of what we gain and its potential to empower others in our family, and seek to share.

For me, the beauty and power of our Torah study group is its mechanics. A group of us get together every Shabbat morning, and sit around a selection from our sacred text tradition. We do not listen to our Rabbi spout his wisdom (or demonstrate his lack thereof). Rather, we each bring to the discussion our own knowledge, experience, and world view. We do not always all agree. We do, however, all respect the opinions of the others, and their knowledge and experience – the gifts of their hearts and minds that they freely share with us. Our ultimate understandings, and our ability to apply what we learn to the lives we are trying to live, are shaped far more by these gifts brought by the group members, than they are by those specifically brought by me.

This example, this model, is powerful in its own right – hence our desire to share the experience with others. Please, do not let the fact that there is a core of regulars scare you off! Do not be afraid that you are jumping into this in the middle of something, that you start at a disadvantage. The more voices we have at the table, the greater the depth and diversity of experience, the more gifts being offered freely from more hearts, the more likely we all will be to benefit from what emerges.
And this model is also what we should be aiming for in all that we do together as a congregational family. It is already how we come together on Shabbat in prayer – sharing our unique experiences, needs, and desires with others, to help them, even as in so doing, we help ourselves. We do so in our social action work, in even more obvious and tangible ways. Let us also strive to do so in our membership recruitment and integration, making newcomers feel welcome at the table by sharing ourselves with them, and valuing what they bring to us.

As Rabbi Kushner taught us all yesterday, what we need to strive for is to be Mitch – not by seeking to take the place of one who has now been taken from us, but rather by following his example. By smiling – always. By being ourselves – our best selves – and seeing others as being their best. By sharing the gifts of our hearts, freely, willingly, in all that we do. Not by trying, but by being.

As a congregation, by finding more metaphorical tables to sit around together with others. More texts – both those written in sacred scrolls and those written instead by the blood, sweat, laughter and tears of our real life experiences – to gather around and grapple with together.

And to be aware in our lives, without being overwhelmed by the darkness of this awareness, that none of us knows when our last day will be on this earth. And therefore, to live our lives, especially our Jewish lives, with a little more urgency, a little more intentionality, a little more passion, a little more awareness of who we are as Jews, and what makes us Jewish.

If THESE are the gifts of our hearts that we share freely, then the structure we build in our midst to parallel the Tabernacle of our Torah reading for this Shabbat, the one that allows God to dwell both amongst us collectively, and within us, individually and collectively, will be one that strengthens all our lives, and the lives of those around us. In good times and in bad.

Thank you, Rabbi Kushner, for guiding me to this understanding, as you helped us all to deal with Mitch’s life and death appropriately. Thank you Mitch, and by extension to your entire family, for living your life in a way that is now a text for all of us to learn from. I am only sorry it took not being able to thank you in person for me to learn this lesson. KYR

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