When I was a sophomore in high school my grandparents moved in with us. It was completely unexpected and capped off one of the most stressful times in the life of my family. My grandfather, who was living in Puerto Rico at the time found out that he needed a quintuple bypass, and knowing that the care in San Juan wasn’t adequate, came up to Rhode Island with my grandmother for the operation. Everything seemed fine...until it wasn’t.
My grandfather developed an infection in his sternum which ate away at the bone leaving a massive hole in his chest. Weeks in the hospital soon turned to nearly a year living with us as he finally healed. During that time my grandfather battled depression as he faced an uncertain future. My parents sought guidance and community, but I remember it being one of the loneliest moments in my family’s life.
Coincidently at that moment, I was growing into my Jewish self. I had been an active member of my youth group. That year I was confirmed. I attended Eisner Camp, loving the rituals and music. I had begun taking leadership roles in my synagogue youth group, which culminated a few years later with a place on my regional board. All markers pointed toward Rabbinic school, a childhood dream I had for as long as I could remember.
The irony of that topsy-turvy time in my family’s life is that even as I grew deeper and more involved in the Jewish community, it seemed less and less relevant to my grandfather’s illness. Judaism was a thing I did, a rich and meaningful activity like my other passions at the time: swimming and playing saxophone in my school’s jazz band. Yet, though it’s reach seemed deep, it did not have a voice in my family’s struggles. It did not speak to the most important thing going on in my life, my grandfather’s illness. Aside from the occasional healing prayer at Friday night services, there was no connection between his sickness and my faith.
Throughout this summer I have met many of you (and for those I have not met, I look forward to getting to know you over these coming years). In my office and around the table, in your living room and while snacking before services you opened your heart and stories to me, telling me about your history, your passion, your struggles, and your connection to TNT and your faith.
And though many of your stories were inspirational and your connections deep – ranging from the your adult B’nei Mitzvah to the funeral for a parent, deep and meaningful services to powerful programs that opened your mind and touched your heart – there were others of you who articulated something else. You struggle with Judaism. You question why this all matters, where it fits in. You would like to come more often, engage more deeply, be more present, but it seems that something is standing in your way.
The more I listened, the more I realized the problem is not yours. You have done nothing wrong. At issue is the fact that Judaism has not made itself relevant enough in your lives. It’s not there at your most important moments. It hasn’t spoken to your deepest desires, your most salient fears. It’s absent from you in the same way it was absent from me when my grandfather was sick; because it did not speak directly to the single most important piece of my story back then, it lacked true relevancy. It was a worthwhile way to spend my free time, outside of school and other commitments, but nothing more.
When Judaism fails, it is because it has not spoken to that which is the most important to you. Let’s do a thought experiment. If I asked you to list the five things you spend the most time thinking about what would they be?
As much as I would love for you to state that you spend the bulk of time thinking about how to connect to God, I’m pretty sure that would not appear on the majority of our congregant’s lists. What I can imagine is something that looks like this:
My parent is sick and I’m not sure how much of myself to give to them as I care for them
I’m a new grandparent and I’m trying to navigate how much of an opinion I’m allowed to have
I look around at the world, increasingly broken and crumbling around me and I feel helpless
I’m about to downsize and I don’t know what to do with my stuff
I want to have a second kid but I’m facing infertility
Or in my case....
I’m a new parent and I have no idea what I’m doing!
If religion is supposed to meet us at our most important moments, it must be in the middle of these questions. It must guide us, cajole us, comfort us, and give us strength. Judaism can’t be a feature of our lives but must be woven into the fabric of everything we do.
Once upon a time, this was actually true. In his book, the Sacred Canopy, the sociologist Peter Berger speaks about the role that religion played in premodern societies. As he explains, in premodern societies religion functioned as an umbrella over every facet of one’s life, hense the name “sacred canopy”. It dictated what to wear, who to marry, how to eat, and how we spend one’s times. This all-encompassing nature of religion made it a seamless part of a person’s life. In the case of Judaism, engaging with the tradition became a natural and integrated as breathing. One was Jewish by nature of living in the world. There was not a moment, a decision, a relationship that was somehow did not Judaism in its marrow.
Then, society changed. We went through a period of secularization. Now for most of us when we think of a secular Jews we think of someone who might not do a whole lot. It’s bagels and Broadway mixed with an occasional invite to a holiday celebration. But that’s not what sociologists like Berger meant. For him, secularization was making bubbles out of one’s identity that we can turn on and off as we want. We have our work bubble, our leisure bubble, our home bubble, and if we choose, our religion bubble. Now when Friday night rolls around we ask ourselves which piece of our identity we would like to engage and we choose between our “Jewish” selves and “work” or “leisure” selves in a similar way that we might choose between two or three different restaurants in our neighborhood.
This choice on how to spend our time is not a problem. I’m a Reform Jew because I believe we live in a work where we should have that choice. There is value in not returning wholeheartedly to the premodern “sacred canopy.”
The problem, however, is that in making those bubbles or spheres of identity, we don’t always put everything that can fit into our Jewish selves. We’ll include prayer but leave off our infertility. We’ll place Torah study inside but position our sick parent somewhere else.
We differ from our ancestors in that we choose when to let Judaism in but what we fail to take from them is the fact that if we embrace it, Judaism has the power to speak to all aspects of our lives, even those things that don’t seem overly Jewish. Judaism may no longer dictate for us what we eat or wear but it can still guide us in those central features of life: in taking care of family, in loving children, in healing our broken world, in facing heartache.
Reflecting back, I want to examine briefly what it might have looked like to my family to have had Judaism’s sacred canopy settle on us in those rocky times with my grandfather.
We are blessed to be in conversation with three thousand years of Jewish wisdom. Since most of our most salient struggles are echoed in the stories of our ancestors we can open our sacred texts, be they the Torah, the Bible, the Talmud, or Midrash and see ourselves in the stories of others.
I wish at that time I had known the story of Rav Assi. Of all the people in the Jewish tradition he is the emblematic caregiver. Though he too struggles, in his case with a mother dealing with dementia.
As the Talmud relates:
Rav Assi’s mother was growing old and was struggling with her mental faculties. She asked him for jewelry and she refused to wear it. She asked him to find her a husband but then refused all suitors. Finally, he could not take it and he ran away from Babylonia to the land of Israel. Soon after, he heard she was coming after him. but before he react, he gets word that his mother did not make it through the journey. Rav Assi, bemoans his fate, torn apart by the fact that his leaving may have caused his mother’s death (Kiddushin 31a)
Though Rav Assi’s story is interesting, it’s not the story itself that is powerful but the two thousand years of debate that surround it. In the 12th century, two authorities, Maimonidies and the Raavad, Rabbi Avraham David of Posquieres eviscerated one another over whether Rav Assi was right to leave in the first place. Maimonides took Rav Assi’s leaving as proof that if we have a parent that we cannot care for we can ask someone else to do it in our stead (Hilkhot Mamrim 6:10). It’s the oxygen mask model of caring. Put yours on first before you put it on anyone else because you are no use unless you too can function.
But the Raavad disagrees. He states categorically, “This is not a correct ruling! If he goes and leaves him, who shall he command to watch him?!” As Israeli Rabbi, David Golinkin points out, there probably were a glut of good Jewish nursing homes in 12th century France.
Since then, there have been two camps. Those that follow Maimonidies say that you should care for your parent, but only to a point. After a while you are allowed to hire someone to do it in your stead. Then there are the stalwart followers of the Raavad. You build ramps, put bars in your showers, put a hospital bed in your living room but your parents must live with you.
In a way, my parents fell into the later camp but always questioned where the boundaries were. For us, figuring out throughout my grandfather’s many hospital stays where he was going next always a real conversation. If only we had known that these questions had been debated long ago. We might have learned a new perspective, been comforted in our own thinking, and at the very least felt that other people had tread that rocky path. We may have felt alone caring for my grandfather, but all we needed to do was open our sacred books and see that others have stood there as well. I had three thousand years of companions asking the same questions.
I don’t expect everyone here to have access to these stories and teachings. Our literature is vast. That’s why it is likened to a sea. However, there are those in this community who do. And we need to make them available, whether in through classes, book recommendations, film or any other means for those searching. We have an amazing resource at TNT in Karen Frank, our congregation nurse who is part of our Pastoral Care Team along with Ronni, Cantor Greenberg and myself. She can be a light in your darkness, pointing you toward the way.
Our ancestors have struggled with depression, infertility, divorce, old age, death and any other thing we can think of. And they can be our guide, if only we know where to look.
Though many answers can be found in our literature, not all answers appear in our books. Each of us is a holy text, as sacred as the Torah itself. And we have much to learn from one another. In my previous synagogue I held a group for caregivers dealing with aging parents. Together they bonded, bouncing ideas off one another, greeting their fellow congregants with open ears and open hearts. I saw that they arrived feeling lonely and left feeling heard. These were a group of people who got it when a member stood up during services at the mi-sheberach, the prayer for healing. And when one of their parents did die, they were the first ones to bring meals and offer comfort because they immediately understood. If only that group existed for my parents!
Whether its joys or sorrows that are present for you, you are not the only one. One of my priorities will be over these next years to kick off these groups. Yes, support groups for aging parents, but also groups for those downsizing, dealing with infertility, struggling as new parents, or any other need that might arise. One of the most challenging things is feeling alone. Imagine if we got everyone who felt that way into the same room. How many might feel seen when we encounter someone who truly understands.
I mentioned earlier that prayer didn’t cut it for my family, that a simple healing prayer wasn’t enough. Yet, ritual is profound and poignant if done well. What we need is to create that ritual for all of us. There are many prayers out there, written in recent decades to mark everything from moving to a new home after a separation to returning back to work after maternity leave, going for IVF to staging a yard sale. And if those prayers don’t exist, let’s write them together.
My family had countless everyday moments with my grandfather that could be made holy with the right intention. Every surgery, every act of taking medicine, every entry and exit from rehab, every first flight of stairs, walk around the block, visit home to Puerto Rico was a sacred act. If only we knew how to mark it as such. And in the everyday, my parents didn’t just need to pray for my grandfather’s healing. What they really needed was patience, forbearance, openheartedness, and optimism. These are Jewish values and we can pray for them every day as well.
Our Jewish selves do not begin and end within these walls. We carry them with us always. But how many of consider what we do at work, on vacation, in the nursing home, or at the doctors office sacred? Yet, if we allow ourselves to turn to our traditions and teachings, our rituals and community at those times, they can be.
The Kotzker Rebbe once asked why does the V’ahavta prayer say that we should keep our prayers “on our hearts” rather than in them. The answer is that if they rest atop, when our hearts break, they will seep in and fill the cracks.
Living beside my grandfather, fifteen years young, I had no words. Today I do. I will make it my mission to share them with you so they can find their way atop your heart. What matters to you, matters. Period. And your problems are Jewish problems. Your concerns are Jewish concerns. Together, we can make sure that when you search our sacred tradition for the tools to confront life, you will find them waiting for you, ready to sooth, ready to heal, and ready to inspire.