Wednesday, September 02, 1998

Low Brush With Fame

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

Friends of mine are fond of the phrase "a low brush with fame." I have never been sure exactly what they meant by it, but here is what I think it means: you have some kind of encounter with someone which, through their merit and not through yours, is somehow catapulted into fame. Or infamy.

Maybe it doesn't mean that. Maybe it just means boarding a plane and passing Ed Koch and Pete Rose, sitting next to each other in First Class. But I'll take my definition. That's because, by my definition, my wife and I had not one, but two low brushes with fame of the same sort in a single week.

Both involve a story of sadness, although one, as it turns out, was temporary, and the other might not be. But they are of the same type. For last week, this AOL columnist learned that remarks we had made or encounters we have had were referred to in two published columns in other places.

Both incidents had to do with our long journey towards fertility. Both references were completely incidental to the columnists point. But we learned of them in the same week. A bizarre coincidence? Or a profound lesson for the coming Days of Awe? You be the judge. (Well, God is the Judge, although I think Kenneth Starr thinks that he is, but you get the idea.)

The first: at the Reform movement's annual rabbinic convention this past June, we wound up sitting at a breakfast table next to the terrific comedian Rabbi Bob Alper ("the only clergy person in America doing stand up comedy -- intentionally.") The opportunity was too good to pass up. My wife, as politely as possible, asked if she could share something with him. He was very gracious about being interrupted. She then told him that when she had had her first miscarriage, unexpectedly (of course) when she was visiting her sister in Chicago several days before Rosh Hashanah while we lived in Erie, was not immediately allowed to travel, and had to return home, alone, on Rosh Hashanah itself, during this incredibly difficult time, on a long drive from the Cleveland airport where she had gotten a cheap fare to Chicago, back to Erie, crying and miserable, she had popped his tape into the tape deck. And she had, miraculously, actually laughed. She has waited through another miscarriage, and two beautiful boys, to have the chance to tell Bob Alper what he meant to her at that moment. And she wasn't going to miss the opportunity to tell him.

Who could not be moved by such a compliment. I had a different occasion to speak with Rabbi Alper last week. He called me about something. And he read me a copy of an interview he had just done with the Jerusalem Post, in which he mentioned my wife's comment. Low Brush With Fame Number One.

The second was under sadder circumstances, but remarkably similar nonetheless. A close friend of mine, a quite liberal Protestant minister in his mid- 60's, was recently diagnosed with ALS -- Lou Gehrig's Disease. It is a mild form, slow progressing, and all that is affected -- and all that should be affected for many years to come -- is his speech. When I spoke with him recently, he told me that he had written an in depth column detailing his experiences with the diagnosis, treatment, and reaction to the disease. His words are truly moving, a great testimony to the human spirit. My friend lives in Connecticut. His primary care is now managed through the University of Connecticut Medical Center north of Hartford. And in his article, he writes "My only [prior] contact with the facility was the parking lot. I once picked up friends from Pennsylvania there. They were having difficulty conceiving a baby and were told that for their particular problem there was only one doctor who could help them, and she was at the UConn Medical Center. That was three years ago, and they now have two children..."

Actually, we went there to check out something that might have been contributing to the miscarriages, but turned out not to be, but the exact point isn't important. We're fine. And I am concerned about my friend, moved by his column but shaken by his news. Nevertheless, coming in the same week, that was Low Brush with Fame Number Two.

It's odd to think that chance encounters and comments over breakfast came make their way into some kind of permanent, published record. It's odd, that is, unless you are a Jew in September. With the High Holy Days looming over the horizon.

For is this not the very theme of these coming Days of Awe? That everything we say, everything we do, every move you make... somehow, somewhere, someone (read: some One) is watching you. In some karma-like connection with Eternity, our mortal acts and words are, if not published in a column, then recorded in a Book. Entered into our (do you remember this from Kindergarten?) Permanent Record.

Be careful, if you are a friend of mine. Maybe I will write about you in one of my columns. When you have forgotten what you have said. When you least expect it.

Be careful, if you are a human being. There is One who writes Columns in the Sky. And that One doesn't miss deadlines like I do. That One makes the Deadlines (so to speak). And the Lifelines. "You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims the signature... of every human being."

Forget whether the Secret Service agents can testify. Forget the fact that you are sure you can get away with something. Even all alone, God is watching you.

So be careful out there. And be careful in here. Have a healthy, happy year. And if someone does put your name in the news -- may it only be for good things!

Tuesday, September 01, 1998

Every Move You Make

Every Move You Make ...
(Providence is a place in Rhode Island)

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach

"Every step you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you ..." My first substantive paper when I was in graduate school at Brandeis University in the field of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies was about the book Of Deuteronomy. The paper was called, "Motive Clauses in Deuteronomy." (It was also the first paper I had typed on a word processor, on my father’s now Long-retired original Apple. When I was done with the paper , a mischievous friend of mine , who "knew about " computers and their capabilities, did a "Search and Replace " function , removing the word "motive " and replacing it with "Santa. " Fortunately, I caught it prior to the final draft. )

What is a motive clause? It is the exhortation we occasionally find following a commandment , giving us encouragement to obey the law, telling us what will happen if we do (or if we don 't). "Honor your father and your mother ... in order that you may have a long life on the land that the Lord your God is giving you." Do this, and your crops will come. Does that or your enemies will dance on your city streets?

These incentives are inextricably linked with the Biblical notion of Divine Providence, the doctrine of Reward and Punishment (given its fullest force, perhaps, in the book of Deuteronomy). If you obey, good things will happen. If not, you’ll get hit by a crazed camel.

What is most interesting about these motive clauses is that they reveal, through the proffered rewards and the threatened punishments, the highest hopes and deepest fears of the average ancient Israelite target audience. Blessings, bumper crops and healthy children. War, famine and exile. All premised on the notion that our fate follows from the kind of life we lead.

But there were some commandments with a "different” motive clause. "Have honest weights and measures," we are told, "do not curse the deaf," we are told, "because I am the Lord your God." It seems that the sins you could get away with, the kind of things that only you would know if you were doing Them ... a followed by a sharp reminder that, no, you are not the only one who knows. There is another One. When you commit a crime and cover your tracks (even if you don’t leave a bloody glove behind), you know. And God knows.

Like the song says, "every move you make, every step you take ..." The entire system of Divine Providence is based on the notion that you know, and God knows, and God knows that you know, and you know that God knows. (Work it out. You need all four.)

The thinking behind the Biblical tradition, taken to its logical extreme, is that every schlub whose numbers are called out right, every "innocent" child who gets sick is feeling the hand of an ever watching, ever knowing, Puppet -pulling God. And when the Biblical writers realized that not every nice farmer has a good harvest, they invented(alright, excuse me, borrowed) the notion of life after death. There is a place; they said ... there is a time, they said, when it will work out in the end. Where every good deed will be tallied and weighed against every sin, where the balance of our lives will be placed in judgment by an external power. I don’t buy it. Not the part about God causing everything, anyway. To me, Providence ... is a place in Rhode Island. Sometimes, you know bad things happen. And hoping and wishing and wanting won’t change them. They did not happen because you deserved them. And they won’t go away with even the most heart-felt prayer.

In our High Holy Day machzor , during the Yom Kippur Yizkor service, we read the following words : "If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown , but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease ..." Why? I always wanted to ask. Why link the two? Why can’t we have, birth and creation, growth and change ... and eternal life? What does the one have to do with the other?

But they are linked together, birth and death, and this prayer has a compelling logic of its own. Personally , I believe that bad things happen because death is part of the universe , that in order to have growth we must inevitably have decay , that to have new things come to be you must also have old things transform , change form, make room, take root, to return anew as something else . Over time we cannot have the growth of the new without the moving aside of the old.

Indeed, if you think about it, any time we change, any time we grow, there is that instant, that paradoxical transformative moment: before we can be what we are to become, we must surrender what we have been. The yet-to-be cannot overlap the once-was.

Rabbi Daniel Matt notes that the Hasidic rabbi Dov Baer , the Maggid of Mezritch noticed that the Hebrew letters in the word "ani", meaning "I, " "myself ," are the very same letters as in the word "ain, " meaning "nothingness ." It is only when we pass through the nothingness that the once was can become the yet-to-be . Death, then, is the ultimate nothingness through which we pass . It is thus a part of life, a requirement for life .

But once it is here , no one and no thing, not you, not me , not the best doctors in the world , not the Doctor of the World can fully control it. We try . We strive . We make progress . But we cannot control it all, not fully . Even God cannot . Death and disease need to be part of the picture of life . But once in the frame, they function , perhaps , at least partly at random . So even God, in my belief , cannot change the outcome of events . But is God watching? Is God (or a Democratic president with a Republican Congress) still relevant?

Elie Wiesel tells the chilling story of a man who cries out in anger in Auschwitz : "Where is God? God has abandoned us ." And another man responds . He points at the guards, at the smokestack and says : "This is not the work of God . This is the work of human beings. " Then he points at a man hanging on the gallows , swinging in the wind . "There," he says . "There is God ."

Did he mean that God was dead, that the tradition is over and done? Or could it be that it is time to transform the tradition . To stop looking for a God who pulls our strings . To realize that God was there . Even there . A shoulder . A touch . A push . A nudge . Crying . Weeping with us at a tragedy that should not have been .

I believe that God is not a puppeteer. But God is there . Watching . Wanting . Waiting for us ... to do the right thing . Not for any reward . But because it is the right thing to do. So the song is wrong . It’s not : "I'll be watching you ." It’s the theme song from Friends . "I 'll be there for you ." No matter what happens . No matter how much you hurt .

That is a song I can sing . And a tradition I can embrace.