Yom Kippur 5770: Keys, Lost and Found Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, Congregation Rodeph Sholom
“Today I am a fountain pen.” Even before that phrase was born, we asked the
timeless question: “What does it really mean to become a Jewish adult?” When thirteen year-olds come into my study to work on their speeches, I try to ask them as well. “After all,” I tell them, “it’s not as if you become bar mitzvah one day, and the next day you’re voting or working or driving a car.”
I may need to change my shpiel. One of our young congregants included the
following anecdote in his bar mitzvah speech earlier this month. He said:
…this summer my parents started teaching me how to drive upstate at our weekend house. As one of [them] sat in the front passenger seat, I started by learning how to back the family car out of the garage. For a City kid who takes subways and buses everywhere (or walks) this is a BIG DEAL… I had to learn to buckle up; check all the mirrors and then double check to make sure my younger sister was not in the area; depress the brake and, after engaging the gears into reverse, slowly back out of the garage… [The] quarter mile of raggedy dirt road never felt so exhilarating. One morning, when we were running late for a swimming lesson, my mom threw me the car keys and asked me to drive the car out of the garage by myself while she got my sister ready… I had never felt so grown up as I did that morning.
I restrained myself from asking where his weekend house was, so I could be sure to steer clear of that dirt road.
There is something to be said for the first time someone hands you – or throws
you – the keys. Keys to a car, keys to an apartment. having your own keys is part of what it means to become an adult. No wonder, then, that it is no small thing to give keys to our children, or if we have to take them away from our parents.
Some keys, though, we never have. “Rabbi Yochanan said: Three keys, God has
retained in God’s own hands and not entrusted to the hand of any messenger, namely, the Key of Rain, the Key of Childbirth, and the Key of the Resurrection of the Dead.” Another version adds: “The Key of Livelihood.”1 Not everything is in our hands, and on these days of awe, we feel it profoundly.
When we chanted Kol Nidre this Yom Kippur, we admitted something we are not
always willing to admit. We said: My word may not always be good. Everything I promise, I may not be able to fulfill. What I want to do, how I want to do it, the life I want to live – all these things are contingent. None are fully in my control. Between nuclear proliferation in Iran and domestic terror plots at home, the continued economic crisis and the roller-coasters of our own lives, we know this like we know our own names: not everything is in our hands. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom
1 Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 2a; Palestinian Talmud.
Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass on; how many shall come to be; who shall live, and who shall die” – it gets harder to say every year. Not everything is in our hands, and so much of what happens feels unfair.
“I don’t know why life isn’t constructed to be seamless and safe,” writes Anne
Lamott, “why we make such glaring mistakes, things fall so short of our expectations, and our hearts get broken and our kids do scary things and our parents get old and don’t always remember to put pants on before they go out for a stroll. I don’t know why it’s not more like it is in the movies, why things don’t come out neatly and lessons can’t be learned when you’re in the mood for learning them, why love and grace often come in such motley packages.”2 We don’t know why this is, but we know that it is.
My partner Andrea’s grandmother, may her memory be a blessing, was a smart
and funny lady. She had her own version of things. And so, Andrea grew up hearing the following heartfelt advice: “Sometimes, sweetie, God closes a door and throws you out the window.” I love that. I love it because it’s true. When one door is closed to us, it is a rare thing for another to magically appear, for everything to suddenly make sense. As Lamott says, “things don’t come out neatly.” Today, I want to look closely at what happens when we are thrown out that window; when doors are closed before us, and the keys are not in our hands.
First, the key to rain. This one sets the stage for the others, though for a moment
we need to detour away from Yom Kippur, and into the world of Passover (after enough fasting, even matzah looks good). When the Israelites left Egypt to head for the Promised Land, they left slavery for freedom – but they also left a land of rivers in exchange for a land of rain. Let me explain. Life in Egypt was based on the Nile. Agriculture was predictable because water was predictable; the Nile provided a reliable source of irrigation. Every year, it would flood at the same time, and the Pharaoh got credit for this annual flooding. In fact, it is because of the Nile that the pharaohs were seen to be gods. Taking it one step further, some even suggest that river-based systems like the one in Egypt are inherently inclined towards tyranny.3 After all, if you can make nature obey you, why not other human beings? It makes sense, then, that the first plague turned the waters of the Nile into blood, undermining Pharaoh’s claims of control.
In the Land of Israel, there was never any illusion of being in control. Water there
comes from rain, not rivers, and rain, our ancestors believed, comes from God.4 This led to a sense of humility, an understanding that what mattered most was not within our
2 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (2000), pp.143-44.
3 See e.g. Professor Eliezer Schweid, The Land of Israel: National Home or Land of Destiny, cited in Rav Alex Israel’s Dvar Torah on Parshat Ekev (http://yehatzvi.org/shiurim/parasha/Ekev%20-%20rain_08_07.DOC).
4 See Deut. 11:10-12: “For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There, the grain you sowed was watered by your foot, like a vegetable garden, but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, is watered by the rains of the heaven. It is a land on which the Eternal your God always keeps an eye, from year's beginning to year's end.”
hands. There was no question, then as now, that water was a matter of life and death, and the key was not in our hands.
Now we circle back to Yom Kippur, and we circle back to our own time. What
might it mean to us that the key to rain is not in our hands? It means, I think, that the things upon which we depend are not as much in our control as we once thought. We fell into the Egyptian trap, thinking that we controlled our economy when the opposite seems to be true. We thought that there was always more, that the water would never run out. Last October, Alan Greenspan himself turned to a water metaphor, saying we had experienced a “once-in-a-century credit tsunami.”5 “I made a mistake,” said Greenspan, to think that the system as it was would work. We are not, in fact, the Masters of the Universe. Many of the things we thought we knew, we no longer are sure of. But one thing we have learned: the key to rain is not in our hands.
Second, the key to childbirth. This is a tough one to discuss, in our community
that is so defined by its children and its schools. I would guess that a significant number of the children of this congregation, mine included, would not exist without some help. What a tremendous blessing. We live in an era of advanced reproductive technology, a time when there are iPhone apps to remind you when you are ovulating. And yet, like so many of our ancestors whose stories are told in the Torah, having children can still be a tremendous challenge. All but one of the matriarchs struggled with infertility. Sarah does not give birth until she is ninety, what today would definitely qualify as ‘advanced maternal age’. When Rebecca finally conceives, she is pregnant with twins, and her pregnancy is so difficult that she asks God why this is her lot. Rachel goes so far as to say to her husband Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die!” And the haftarah for Rosh Hashanah, which we read just ten days ago, focuses on the pain of Hannah’s barrenness, and her poignant prayer for a child.
And yet, ultimately, every single one of the people in the Torah who have trouble
conceiving ends up giving birth. Strange as it may seem, I wish there was one who did not. I wish there was someone who could model for us what it means not to have those prayers answered, not to have that door opened by God. So often we hear about miracle babies, born after years of trying, or adopted after years of waiting. There are just as many stories which end without a child, it’s just that those stories are less often told. Andrea and I are so grateful for the family we are growing, and the family that we have. Yet those of us who have experienced infertility or pregnancy loss know that you can’t take happy endings for granted, as grateful as we are when they occur.
In a world where everything seems possible, though, it is difficult to know when
to stop. To what lengths should you go to have a child? How much, if at all, does biology matter? What if cost impedes further treatments, or efforts to adopt? At what point is it permissible, at what point is it desirable, to say that the door is closed? At what point can we make peace, and love our lives as they are? Shelagh Little writes:
5 “Greenspan Says Flaw in Market System,” ABC News, Oct. 23, 2008 (http://abcnews.go.com/Business/wireStory?id=6095195).
Almost two years ago, I resolved to accept that I would never have children. I was 37 and had just learned my IVF procedure had failed. Our eight-year struggle with infertility included six rounds of artificial insemination, clomid pills, hormone injections, a surgery, and countless (and sometimes painful) diagnostic procedures. Every new test and treatment carried with it the hope that this time, it would work. What I had to show for it all: a picture of three sad little clumps of cells — the embryos that didn’t implant — and no real explanation of why I couldn’t get pregnant. Every woman facing infertility has to decide when she’s had enough, when she has reached her ethical, emotional, and/or financial edge. My sense of self-efficacy dictated that if I researched all the options, sought support from the right professionals and followed their instructions, I’d get what I wanted. I did all of these things to the point of obsession, but our options were running out. my main reason for calling it quits was that I was tired of feeling frustrated and desperate. I needed to stop trying so I could get back to living.6
We imagine, many of us, that when we become adults, we will meet the person we want to spend our lives with, we will form the family we want to have. How wonderful it is that we have expanded our ideas of how our families can be made, that all this technology has given us options, that adoption in Jewish tradition has always been an option. In Judaism, what matters is not how children are born, but rather how they are raised.7 And yet how painful it still can be, if what we imagine for ourselves is not what comes to pass. How painful it can be to realize that the key to childbirth is not in our hands.
There is a similarity, imperfect but important, between how we imagine our
personal lives and how we imagine our professional ones. Just as we may expect to find someone to love, just as we may hope to have children, so too we anticipate successful careers. Both sets of aspirations, of hopes and of dreams, define who we are to the world and to ourselves. And yet, our text reminds us: the key to livelihood also is not in our hands.
This year, I have seen many stories in the news, stories of people who lost their
jobs. Countless lives have been transformed, and some lives have been lost. One story that stayed with me is that of Steven Schnipper. 8 Steven Schnipper was someone who, “loved museums, architecture, reading, first edition books, the theater, seeing four movies in one day with his friend Annette Williams… Swiss Style design; Helvetica typeface; the simple beauty of a straight, clean line.” In other words, someone as unique as each of us. He also suffered from depression, the article tells us, but it was the economic downturn that proved the final stress. As the economy crumbled, this award-winning designer “was turned down for jobs as a salesclerk at Design Within Reach and a teller at Citigroup and TD Bank. To make his condo payments, he began withdrawing $25,000
6 Shelagh Little, “Life After Infertility Treatments Fail,” Motherlode Blog, The New York Times, Sept. 10, 2009.
7 The teaching that the person who raises a child is to be considered their parent can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 19b and Megillah 13a, and Midrash Exodus Rabbah 46:5.
8 Michael Winerip, “A Life on the Decline, and Then the ‘Why’?,” The New York Times, Sept. 20, 2009.
every three months from his 401(k). “What will I do if I can’t find a job?” he’d ask his brother, sobbing.” When Steven lost his job, his brother Scott said, it “stripped away his protective layer.” He had a home that he loved, a circle of friends, causes that he cared for; but none of that was enough to keep him from overdosing on antidepressants, and letting go of his life.
The Baby Boomer generation, the article goes on to say, is the group most at risk
for suicide, the most beaten down by stress. But it is not only boomers; especially here in New York, the stress starts early. Our teenagers need to be perfect students, and only then are called upon to be perfect adults. I worry for them, and I worry for us. We still have in our minds’ eye a trajectory which involves going from success to success to success: never failing, never stepping off the path; doing at least as well as our parents, never needing help. And so, when we lose a job, as so many have this year; when we leave the workforce by choice then find it impossible to get back in; when our youth graduate into a world where they are lucky to find work that is unpaid; in all these situations, we turn and blame ourselves. We define who we are by what we do, ignoring what we know: how much is beyond our control.
In his recent book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes just how much our life
stories are determined by our times. He shows how Jewish lawyers who graduated from college at the height of the Depression had few initial job opportunities, how their careers were disrupted by the draft, and how doors at many law firms were closed to them as Jews. At one point, nearly half of the members of the New York metropolitan bar earned less than the minimum subsistence level; their practice was seen as a ‘dignified road to starvation’. A generation later, Jewish lawyers in New York faced entirely different life circumstances, and rose to astronomical success.9 Those generations were not so different from each other, just as those of us who are still employed are not so different from those who are not. Of course, individual effort matters, in success and failure alike. But it may not matter as much as we like to think. On Yom Kippur, we are instructed not to go to work, to separate ourselves from our work. The day serves to remind us: the key to our very livelihood is not in our hands.
Last, the key to the resurrection of the dead. I recently witnessed something closer
to resurrection than anything I have ever seen. Before Rosh Hashanah, I visited a woman in hospital who was sick with cancer. She had just had a harsh course of chemo in preparation for a transplant. Her own stem cells had been harvested, cleaned, and put back into her body, and she was waiting, minute by minute, to begin to feel the effects. I saw her again just before Yom Kippur. As much as her spirit had shone through in the first visit, this time she had a new spark. You could physically see the life returning to her body. We said the Shehechiyanu as the last tube was removed, and she took a giant step towards going home. It was an amazing sight.
But for every story of a life that is saved, we all can think of others whose lives
have been lost. And whatever we do to extend our lives, whatever we do to fight what ails us, ultimately we all will die. The key to resurrection surely is not in our hands.
9 Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers (New York, 2008), 131-39.
It is not especially uplifting, to talk about what we lack, though it is honest to the
themes of this day. Woody Allen gives his own spin on the Unetaneh Tokef when he writes, “Whosoever shall not fall by the sword or by famine, shall fall by pestilence, so why bother shaving?”10 If all these keys – to sustenance, to procreation, to livelihood, to ultimate life – are not in our hands, what, we may ask, is the point? There is a story in the Talmud which answers this question, in a truly disturbing way:
Our Sages taught: When the first Holy Temple was destroyed, groups of young priests gathered with the keys to the Sanctuary in their hands. They ascended the roof and declared: “Master of the World! Since we have not merited to be trustworthy custodians, let the keys be given back to You.” They then threw the keys toward Heaven. A hand emerged and received them, and the priests threw themselves into the fire.11
The priests were so devastated at the events of the world around them, and their inability to stop them, that they gave back the keys that they actually had. They gave back the keys, and they gave up their lives. This is not, it seems to me, a good solution, or a particularly Jewish one. Yom Kippur may remind us of the transience of our lives; it may remind us that we are not in control; but it also urges us, again and again, to choose life. The point is not for us to fixate on the keys that we don’t have. To be human is to be limited; but we can still aspire to be whole.
We cannot control the rain. We can, however, control our expectations, knowing
that there will be times of famine as well as times of feast, and planning best we can. The keys to humility and responsibility are indeed within our hands.
We cannot control our fertility. We can, however, create new understandings of
family, and we can celebrate lives lived fully, with children or without. The keys to love and welcome, those are within our hands.
We cannot control our livelihood. We can, however, control our sense of self,
defined by who we are, instead of what we do. Whatever happens during the year, whatever happens during the week, we each have abiding worth. The keys that open the door to a meaningful life, we can find them in our hands.
We cannot control our deaths, and we cannot control what comes after. We can,
however, control how we live, and we can shape the legacy we leave. Time and time again I have seen: the people who are most loved in death are those who, in life, were always reaching out; the people who cared deeply about those around them, those who left the world better than when they came. The key to true immortality, that is within our hands.
One final, wonderful story, taken from the streets of our city, as recorded in the
10 Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (New York, 2006), 214.
While walking my dog the other day, I ran into the enterprising local homeless man whom I often see taking out trash or washing windows for nearby businesses. “Fate is an interesting thing,” he said to me. He then went on to describe a man who, just the previous week, had angrily berated him for hunting through the garbage. “I just found his car keys,” he said, smiling and holding them up for me to see. I asked him how he knew they were his, and he replied that he had pressed the unlock button and watched the car light up. “I left a note glued to his window telling him that the man he was so mad at for hunting through the garbage has his car keys,” he said. “I’m always around the neighborhood. Let’s see if he can find me.”12
We began these Days of Awe with Selichot, the Saturday night before Rosh
Hashanah. On that night, we sang: Pitchu li sha’arei tzedek – open for me the gates of righteousness. Open for me the gates of the New Year. Soon, at Neilah, we will pray: Ptach lanu sha’ar – open for us the gates. Let’s see if we can find each other. So what does it really mean to become a Jewish adult? It means that we make that move from ‘me’ to ‘we’, that we see that we’re in this together. We are here for each other when our hands are empty, and we hold onto the keys we have. When we lose them, we help each other find them. And together, we open the gates.
12 Bill Amstutz, Metropolitan Diary, The New York Times, June 15, 2009.
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