Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Chaos Theory:
Reflections on Life in the Sights of a Sniper

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Another time, in another place. I remember meeting with a man who was addicted to gambling. There were ink stains on his fingers, and a squint in his eye: years of reading the fine print in the paper, looking, he told me, for "the pattern." It had to be there, he was convinced, some meaningful set of data, some winning formula that would allow him to extrapolate and translate the victors of the past to winnings in his bets.

I thought of this man again in recent days. I am reminded of him as I watch the police in my county, the investigators in my back yard, the criminologists in the next neighborhood frantically scramble to solve this puzzle, and relieve us all of the death-dealing delusional psychopath known as the serial sniper. For it has to be there: a pattern, a predictability, some sense of meaning in the midst of this madness. There is a sense of grim determination: maybe we'll catch him by luck, it seems to say, but we can grab him for sure if we can only use our minds, and tease out a rational sense of what is coming next.

But there is no pattern. There is no predictability. And there is no sure fire winning formula we can use to win this game of chance, this random roulette.

It is a primal human need, this search for meaning. The very act of creation, detailed in the first chapter of the Torah, the story we tell of ourselves, is the imposition of order, upon a watery and formless mess. Only in Genesis, it is God who brings order. And the madman in our midst -- is claiming precisely the same identity.

The search for meaning is depicted, as well, in one of the best existential templates of our time, that television program appropriately called "Get Smart." For there, the enemy was everyone, and the enemy had a name. The enemy is "Chaos." And the forces of goodness and humanity and meaning and order went by the name of "Control."

Funny, that Control was a government agency. Fact and fiction blend together, but the goal remains the same. What would we give up of chaos, for a renewed sense of control? And is Big Brother watching, and waiting, for the moment when we reach that point?

We're getting e-mails once again from friends in Israel. Once again, as after September 11th, they want to know if we're OK.

Are we OK? The bus stop was deserted this morning, until the moment the bus pulled up. Then, some kids appeared out of the cars they had been waiting in. Some. About half of those who should have been there.

Are we OK? Children are asking why the can't go outside. Gas stations are shadows of their former selves, and its a really good time to get a table at that too-popular restaurant you've been wanting to go to. We tell our kids too little. Or we tell our kids too much. And when the lights are out, and the blankets pulled up, we wonder what to tell ourselves.

A friend said: well, it's worse in Israel. Another friend disagreed. Because there, at least you know why. And still we search for answers, and for meaning.

So here is my meaning for the moment, a lesson I have learned from watching the plumes of the Pentagon, and learned anew from living in the shadow of a sniper. Since September 11th, and again now, at every opportunity, I have been trying to convey to people -- this is what it means, to live in Israel. Now is the time to say: we are all Israelis.

But yesterday, with the roadblocks and the searches, with the disruption to everyone's lives in the search for a single person, in the delays and inconvenience and indignity and uncertainty, in the inability to just get to work on time, yesterday the Educator at our congregation said something else. Yesterday she said: "Today, we are all Palestinians."

No pattern. No predictability. But an insight and an understanding, because that is what human beings do. This time the realization that a full picture requires us to look through both sides of the scope.

Life is a crap-shoot. The odds are still in our favor. But still we spend our time, afraid of the random, making sense out of madness, trying with all our might to be gods ourselves, imposing order on chaos. Creating a world which feels safe once again.

Thursday, August 15, 2002


Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, Maryland

We are about to enter our season of repentence. We speak about teshuvah, the Hebrew word for repentence, which comes from the root sh.u.v., meaning to turn. To return. We speak very often in Jewish life about mending the world, repairing it, restoring it, returning to the way it was.

The Torah itself coveys a bold vision a radical concept of restoration. It is the notion of the Jubilee Year, the radically egalitarian levelling of distinctions, the "return," every fifty years, of the land to its "original" (Israelite) holders. However impossible the idea proved to be in practice, the ideal is there, for all to see -- that over time, inequities arise, injustice sets in, the world goes wrong. It is up to us, time after time, to attempt to set it right again.

Julie and I have a close friend in Buffalo who lives on Grand Island (the place in between the two bridges you have to go over to get to Niagara Falls, if you are coming from the United States side). Never mind that Grand Island had an interesting role to play in Jewish history -- it was once proposed (by Mordecai Manual Noah, I believe) as a potential site for a Jewish national homeland, Israel-by-the-Falls, if you will. Its current claim to fame is as the source of a lawsuit by a Native American tribe who, it turns out, might well own the island. Our friend who lives on the island has an interesting conflict of interest: she is an attorney, and she happens to represent the tribe... in their claims against her home. It is considered quite unlikely by all involved that the current residents of Grand Island would ever have to pack their bags and sadly drive off over one of those bridges. But the claim is in the courts. And justice is being sought.

On my return from vacation this summer, I turned on the radio, and heard a news report about a demonstration in Washington that I had missed. While I was on Cape Cod, coming close to Plymouth Rock where (white) pilgrims first landed on these shores, here at home there was a rally on behalf of Reparations for African-Americans. Compensation for the evil, the ill, and, indeed, for the financial loss inflicted by the experience of slavery.

Now, I know very little about this topic. I know it is a growing debate within the African American community. But for reasons of my own, I find the subject to be of great interest, for the questions it raises, and for its implications for all of us.

My first reaction to the claim that payment should be made today for the experience of slavery over a century ago, I must confess, is slight personal indignation. What did I have to do with slavery? When African Americans were brought here, my ancestors were all getting chased by Cossacks. There's an injustice here, yes, but don't look at me.

That reaction fades with a moment's thoughts. For in coming here, and in becoming citizens of this great land, my grandparents took on the narrative of this country. In becoming American, they embraced its story. And its history. That history, now, is my heritage, even as my direct descendants were Europeans at the time. That is what it means, to join a people.

My second thought about reparations for slavery is to think of the link -- explicitly made by many advocates -- with reparations for the Holocaust. How are we seen, we who demand that justice be done for the horrors of a generation ago, in the eyes of others? Are we seen as crusaders for the right and true and good? For restoring a scale that was tipped, a life that was torn away? Or are we seen as greedy, and grubbing? As: if they (we) can do this, why not we (them)? Does it make a difference, really, that in the case of the Holocaust we are talking about living memory, and its immediate single generation that follows, and that in the case of slavery it is an older wound? What is the psychic statue of limitations on the suffering of a people?

And that issue leads to my final question. How can we measure the impact inflicted across the generations by a heritage of evil? It strikes me as devilishly hard. Not that I put much stock in a counter-argument: I just heard of some study claiming that the descendants of the slaves -- not the slaves themselves, but their descendants -- were probably far better off in their situation here, now, in this country, than they would have been had their ancestors remained free, in Africa. I find this argument profoundly offensive, even if it might somehow be true. Shoulda, woulda, coulda -- its a weak argument to begin with. We can never know for sure what might have been. (This is as offensive to me as the report a couple of years ago arguing that the crime rate was down... because of abortion, that a certain percentage of future criminals had simply...not been born. What a horrible assertion, to a Jewish tradition that believes in the dignity and potential -- and free-will -- of every individual human being.)

No, I believe that there is something in the African American experience that is different from that of any other group. They are the only group in this land of immigrants to be brought here against their will. That has to have an effect that lingers, an impact on the very vision and dream of what this country can be, an impact that might well be felt to this very day. How to measure it, how to calculate it, what to do about it are questions beyond my ability to fathom at the moment. But the issue itself, I reluctantly conclude, is a legitimate question.

We read in the book of Deuteronomy: "tzedek, tzedek tirdof, l'ma'an tichiyeh. Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live." Why, the sages ask, is the word repeated? Why the redundency? After all, if God wrote the Torah, as the tradition claims, every word, every nuance is filled with cosmic meaning. So, the word "justice" appears twice. There has to be a reason.

Many answers are given. Justice once, in civil cases, but be extra cautious, we are to learn from this, in capital cases. Or: justice, whether it is to your benefit, or to your loss. Or this: justice we must pursue, though we would hide from the question, duck the answer, shrink from the implications. Justice when it seems to us the right thing to do, and justice when someone else raises the issue.

I don't have any answers in this particular case. I just know what our tradition teaches: it is incumbent upon us to look each other in the eye. To examine the heart. To look at the way the world was, and the way it should be. To return, and repent, and repair.

The debate has been joined. The case is open. The conclusion has yet to come.

Thursday, May 16, 2002

Let He Who Is Without Sin...
Plain Talk on a Tough Topic --
Comments on the Crisis in the Catholic Church

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Once again, on an important topic, I have been silent too long.

I have been silent, out of a fear that I would paint with too broad a brush, that the splashes of paint would splatter in ways I could not control, indeed, that the taint would hit too close to home.

During the entire duration of the Clinton sex scandal, I was silent, because of whispers and rumors and gossip about various improprieties in the congregation that I served at the time. How could I address issues of sexual morality from the pulpit... when the topic was already abuzz on too many tongues?

And now. This year. I have been silent as scandal has enveloped our brothers and sisters of another faith. Silent, because there is no community without its own memory of pain. And silent, because how is it possible to comment on the pain of a neighbor, without being prurient, or smarmy, or simply inappropriate?

Silent. But I can be silent no more.

Not when corrupt clergy act to suppress lay voices, to close off any outside involvement, to circle the wagons, and to squash dissent.

Not when reports surface of a new legal strategy, to counter-attack those who come forward with claims, to question their motives, to undermine their credibility, to ask victims if they "liked it," to sue parents for leaving their children in the care of those the church itself claimed the parents could trust.

Not when the issue is transformed, from an internal scandal, to a matter of justice and morality.

Not when I think there are lessons to be learned which will reach across the boundaries of faith, and touch our lives as well.

And so, with great trepidation, and with what I hope will be some sensitivity, I turn my attention in this Jewish column, to the Catholic Church.

My friends, I have a confession to make. It is this. The American Catholic Church... fascinates me. I think it goes back to one of the occasions on which this popular pope visited the United States. I read at the time that 87% or so of American Catholics love and revere their pope... but only 18% felt the slightest compulsion to actually do what he told them to do, in areas of human sexuality and personal autonomy. How uniquely American, I remember thinking: people are part of an organization that is thoroughly hierarchical... and they nevertheless pick and choose on their own, what they want to follow, and what they want to heed.

My interest in the Catholic Church grew in a more personal way when we moved to Erie, Pennsylvania. There, the only person in the whole community who my parents knew before I moved there, was a pretty powerful nun named Joan Chittester. Sister Joan is a scholar, an activist, and one of the most intensely intelligent people I have ever met. To meet her, to work with her, to get to know her, to call her a friend has been one of the great honors of my life. To watch her come out on 60 Minutes in favor of ordaining women, after the pope had just said, speaking ex cathedra, that the topic was not open for discussion, was to taste for just a moment the passion, the animating spirit in American Catholocism of today.

Or perhaps, of yesterday.

In Erie I also fought with a bishop, and got me to a nunnery. I tangled with the local diocese, after coming out against vouchers, receiving a letter from the bishop which treated me like I was an errant cleric in his personal employ. The letter did end with an offer to get togehter to discuss the matter. I pursued the opening, only to be invited to dine with said bishop at his residence... on the following Friday night!

After straightening all that out, I spent one of the best weeks of my life with 150 women. I was honored to be the Scholar In Residence for the Annual Retreat of the Benedictine nuns in Erie. (See my column "Get Thee To A Nunnery.") I must have taught something, but I got more far out of the experience than I could possibly have given, and learned about devotion and commitment, community and love, in deep and profound ways.

So the American Catholic Church fascinates me. I have learned of the diversity in its midst, the depth of love in which it is held, indeed, I have even learned of the special bonds of shared experience which unite Jews and Catholics even when we are propelled to the opposite conclusions about important issues. To cite just one example, Jews and Catholics came to this country and found a similar problem. That problem was Protestant control of public schools. Both Jews and Catholics addressed the issue. It is just that we did so in different ways. Catholics created a vast and wide-ranging private school system, for their values, for their children. As Jews, we reacted in a different way. We went to the courts, to create a level playing field on the grounds of American civic and communal life. Opposite answers, but locked together as reactions to the very same feeling of exclusion. We share a hidden history, and an experiential bond.

This year, these days, with each new revelation, with each news cycle, I cringe anew. I feel the pain, of too many good people. I feel the sadness, of a shattered trust. I join in the anger, at abuse of power. But, above all... I see now more clearly with each passing day the elephant in the room, the aunt in the attic, the dark and sinister subtext which no one seems willing to talk about.

The real reason I have to speak out about the scandal in the Catholic Church at this time is that I believe there is something more subtle -- and more sinister -- going on than the corruption of a spiritual institution, the self-defence of a religious bureacracy.

I think I can see the root cause of the problem facing our neighbors in faith. "They" are not going to like what I have to say. And neither are many of "us," either.

Sunday, March 31, 2002

I Hate Your Gut

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, MD

Bombs go off in restaurants and grocery stores in Israel, teenage girls find themselves with such rage and so little hope that they cheerfully put an end to their own lives, Arafat is surrounded but somehow personally inviolate (that man has nine lives; he once surivived an airplane crash -- mechanical failure, of all things, and he walked away). Anything we might say today about "hamatzav" ("the situation," which is apparantly what some Israelis have been calling this unprecedented string of attacks and fear and tension in their lives) will be outpaced by events tomorrow.

And our own lives march on, in our families, in our community, in our congregation, almost in disconnect mode, Kafka-esque to those with an eye on both home and homeland.

An early Zionist leader once asserted, correctly in my opinion, that "Judaism will be Zionist, or it will not be at all." Israel plays a central role in our identity as Jews, in how we see ourselves, and in how others see us. Whether we welcome it or not. Whether we acknowledge it or not. Our fate and our faith are tied up with what happens on a distant shore. As Americans schooled in the notion of near absolute individual liberty we may be loathe to admit this, but our future as a people, as a community, is as linked to what happens far away as it is in our own hands. We are almost as dependent on the decisions and actions of others as it is on the choices we make ourselves.

And yet our silence -- indeed, my own silence -- has been deafening. Is it a distancing of destiny? Are we forgetting how bound up we are with what goes on in Israel? We have completely put away the active anti-Zionism of our pre-World War One Reform Jewish past. But do we now witness a creeping non-Zionism, a simple indifference? Is it possible that we do not think that what happens "over there," matters very much to us, over here.

Perhaps there is one other possibility. It is helplessness. The fact that we simply do not know what to say.

Oh, plenty of American Jews do know what to say. They say it at the top of their lungs, and spend time shouting at each other over perceived policy differences. The other day I heard someone refer to Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish, pro-Israel, pro-peace process group, as traitors he wished were dead, and that he would rather deal with a non-Jewish anti-semite than a Jewish one any day. The rhetoric of
those who are involved is so shrill, the words are so hot because the stakes are so high: each side (pro-Oslo and anti-Oslo) thinks the other is playing fast and loose with the very survival of the Jewish state. How quickly that argument descends from passionate disagreement, to questioning the patriotism of dissent.

But I would argue that those who are not shouting right now, some of us, are silent not from disengagement but out of sheer frustration. We do not know what to say. And we do not know what to do.

We read in the Torah that Moses, confronted on a number of occasions with a problem he could not solve himself (e.g., the ridiculously radical request of the daughters of Zelophead that women be allowed to inherit land, when there was no male offspring), uttered a great and powerful response. "I don't know," he said. "I'll go ask."

But then Moses had a luxury we do not. It was direct communication with the Creator of the Universe. (I am a religious person. I do believe that God speaks to us as human beings. The difference between me and Moses -- and, indeed, between me and modern day fundamentalists of any flavor -- is that while I believe that, clearly, God speaks to us, they believe that God speaks clearly. I believe, quite differently, that all of our lives are a struggle, or a journey, to figure out what it is that God wants of us.)

And so, in the midst of uncertainty, frustration, with pain and anger, still, I want to share a couple of my thoughts on hamatzav, the situation in the Middle East, as it stands as I write these words. Knowing it will be out of date already by the time you read this.

This is "a time to be strong." The only problem is: Jewish history and tradition give us two very different models of what being strong means. There is the model, long supressed, of the fighting Jew. Judah Maccabee. Simon Bar Giora. Bar Kochba. Ben Gurion. Then there is the model of the Talmud. "Who is strong?" we read in Pirkei Avot. "One who conquors his instincts." Where response is not just reaction. It might equally well be restraint. (To muddy the matter even more: a tale is told of Sigmund Freud. He was told by his father that once, a bully had knocked off his hat, pushed him off the sidewalk and said: "Get out of the sidewalk, Jew." Freud asked his father what he did. The answer crushed the future inventor of analysis. His father said: "I stepped into the gutter, picked up my hat, and went on my way." Years later, confronted by three antisemitic bullies, Freud himself chased them away with his stick. But Freud -- and not his father -- is the one who lived at a time when he had to flee his country.)

But there is a danger in restraint. There is a law of unintended consequences. I believed at the time, two years ago, that the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon was the right thing to do. It saved lives. But. The sight of retreating Israeli soldiers is cited throughout the Palestinian population as the inspiration for this current intifada. What was the right thing to do for ourselves nevertheless sent the wrong message to others.

The mathematics of the conflict remain the same as they did two years, and twenty years ago. If Israel is to remain a strong, viable, democratic and Jewish state, it cannot continue to rule over so many Palestinians who want their own government. If it does so, it will either cease to be Jewish (through a Muslim demographic "victory in the bedroom"), or cease to be a democracy. To the vast majority of the Jews in Israel and around the world, either alternative is unacceptable. So a way must be found to give some of this territory back.

Right now, there is no one to whom we can give this territory back. Arafat has proven again and again to be duplicitous beyond belief. He has had enough opportunity to do the right thing. But as Abba Eban once said about the Palestinians, noting that they had and still have perhaps the worst leadership in the world, "they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

Our own leadership is somewhat suspect. While there can not be any moral equivalency between an obstructionist and a murderer, between a settler and a slaughterer, between Sharon and Arafat, nevertheless I believe... that Prime Minister Sharon has played every card, pushed every button, ordered gratuitious humiliation and acted with enough provocation that the Palestinians have reacted to him, and not in a way that was in their own interest. One might say that he has brilliantly revealed their true colors, by "mild" pressure. The only problem with that statement is... that it might be true.

In other words, sometimes that which is "justified" is not always "wise."

This is an existential crisis that Israel faces not because it can lose in the field of battle, but because it can loose in the face of slick operatives and gullible American audiences with short memories and a penchant for easy answers.

The other day I spoke to a large gathering of Fulbright Scholars, graduate students from around the world, who had come together in Washington, D.C., for a seminar on Tolerance and Pluralism as American Values in the Wake of the Tragedy of September 11. There, on the panel, with a Protestant, a Catholic, a Muslim, and me, where we were supposed to be speaking about American values (as Durban was supposed to be about racism), the Middle East overwhelmed the program. (Are the Palestinians the only people in the world who are suffering from anything???)

The Muslim speaker was terrific. He was warm, charismatic, friendly, and polished. He lives near me; he is already a friend of Rabbi Serotta's, and I look forward to getting to know him better.

He represented Islam well, with a human face, and a humane heart. But when asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he sounded so "reasonable" I just about cried. He revived the call for a bi-national state. With equality under the law. Liberty and justice for all. Freedom and democracy, with no one religion favored over any other. Such nice values. And everyone applauded.

So I took the microphone next. And I decided to call a spade a spade. Because, look. I think a Jew who is going to criticize a Muslim state had better be willing to apply those same values, and those same criterion of criticism, to Israel. And (call me a radical) I also think that a Muslim who is going to say that Israel should live up to certain standards of behavior and reflect certain values... had better be willing to stand for the same things in Muslim countries.Justice and democracy, freedom and equality, with no religion favored over any other. Sounds so wonderful. But if you call for those things in Israel, you'd better be willing to demand them... in Iran. And Iraq. In Saudi Arabia. And Afghanistan.

Because if you are not willing to do so, then you are saying, by that, that all the other religions in the world have a right to have lands -- more than one apiece, by the way -- in which their religion can have a favored status, but one religion in the world cannot have that.If that is what you are saying, I told these Fulbright Scholars, then you are supporting oppression and predjudice and bigotry and hate, rather than freedom and democracy, and, that is what you just applauded.

There was a stunned silence. I know. Speakers usually complement and coddle their audiences. They don't challenge them. They don't ask them to look at themselves in the mirror.

Israel is losing the PR war. And we are all in trouble because of it.

We need a radical change of heart. I'm sure that I am no more qualified to be a spokesperson for Israel... than those appointed by the Israeli government (although given how they often come across, I am perhaps no less qualified, either.) I just know that we need some new thinking, to tell our story... and to solve this problem.

Two months ago I attended a different forum in downtown Washington. Hosted by the Brookings Institute, it was a forum on Peace in the Middle East, featuring former Israeli minister Yossi Beilin, and a current minister with the Palestinian Authority.

Someone asked the Palestinian minister what he thought about Israel, and he said something like this: "Look, you are asking me to change my gut. I cannot change my gut. I wish it were not there. But..." and he went on to sound perfectly reasonable about co-existence and justice and the like.

At least Minister Rabbo was honest. But, Ramallah, we have a problem. You don't want to change your gut? Well, I hate your gut. And yes, I do want you to change your gut. Because unless you do, we will never, ever trust each other. And when you do... and when we do... and when we do it at the same time... when you change your gut... then I'll change mine.

Spilling your guts out isn't about therapy in Israel. It's life and death. And hatred is the heart of the problem.

Now why can't the world see what I see? And who in the world can we get, that can make them see it this way?

Ten plagues came upon Egypt. The final plague was one of violence. Like everything else, we can read the message more than one way. First, you can say, that when all else fails to achieve justice, blood will spill. The sword comes into the world, the Talmud says, because of justice denied, and justice delayed. Or, with President Kennedy: those who make nonviolent revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable.

But the other way to tell the tale is this. Nine plagues came first. They tried everything else. Everything else. Have we?

Just a few of my thoughts, in the midst of a violent and bloody Passover, an an armchair quaterback, in the game of the Jewish future.

Thursday, March 07, 2002

"When The World Was A Kid"
Finding the right words to help each other

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, MD

On the way in to school last week, my five-year old son Benjamin asked me the following question. "Daddy," he said in all seriousness, "what is your favorite animal... from when the world was a kid?"

When the world was a kid! I nearly drove off the road, trying not to laugh. What a wonderful way of phrasing a question about the early days of the earth. It was his way of initiating a conversation about dinosaurs. But it was a creative and deliciously unself-conscious way around the fact that he just didn't have the right words, for what he wanted to say.

For so many of us, in so many situations, there are times when we are not as creative as we need to be. And when we are painfully self-conscious. There are the many moments in our lives when we want to help, to hug, to hold, to reach out to someone else... but we just don't know what to say.

I just completed one of the most powerful experiences of my rabbinate. It was a four-week, Thursday evening support group, sponsored and organized by the Washington Jewish Healing Network, for those struggling with infertility. Few people in my new congregation are aware of the fact -- and who would know, to look at our five-memer family now -- although long-time readers of this column certainly are, that this is a road we walked for too many years. I remember the feelings. I remember the pain. And I wanted to do something, to give back, to offer some comfort and connections to anyone struggling with such a deep and soul-shaking issue. Or even, in a world beyond words, to just help create a space, for those who wanted, to be together.

The feelings that the members of that group shared are raw, and honest, and profoundly powerful. As I have written elsewhere, there are so many dimensions to the issue of infertility: Married couples who cannot conceive. Singles searching for partners, who yearn for children nonetheless. Gays and lesbians in committed relationships who would make wonderful parents if only they and the world could agree on a way. There are the too common tales of medical hoops, invasive procedures, intimacy set by the clock and not the heart. The monthly wait. The horrible trauma when we hear the beat of life at last... and it does not hold.

But if there was one experience these couples spoke about which I remembered the best, it was of how frequently we come upon the sheer inadequacy of words.

What does one say, when a friend is in pain? Too much? Too little? How can it possibly be just the right thing? Think about something you have gone through, a difficult time in your life. Wasn't it the case -- in any event, it was for me -- that of all the well-meaning support in the world, 99 people said just exactly the worst thing they could say. And one gem of a friend in a hundred hit it right on the head.

What's the wrong thing to say, to someone in pain? There are so many ways to blow it! Oh, it must be happening for a reason; you must have done something to contribute to this. Job's friends, offering explanation above love. For infertility: oh, just relax, it'll happen. ("Just relax!" An oxymoron, and two of the least helpful words in the English language. In the entire history of humanity has that phrase ever achieved its intended result?) About a miscarriage: Oh, it's nature's way.

Indeed, the list of ways in which we can insert our foot in our mouths seems endless. And no one is immune. Just the other day I approached a woman who was about to begin teaching a class, who I know is waiting for important news, and referred to her being in limbo. I winced as soon as the words were out of my mouth. I know that I threw her off stride, that I broke into whatever space she needed to mentally get set for teaching. It is like people who ask how my mother is doing in her recovery from her stroke (better than once predicted, but still not at all what we want, so, generally, poorly I suppose), two seconds before I need to begin leading a service. Even if the sentiment is right, the timing was terrible.

The art of finding the right words is a delicate and difficult task. How often we shy away from reaching out, just because we do not know what to say. We care. But we don't want to intrude. We are concerned. But we don't want to smother.

There is no single magic wand, for a healing touch. Indeed, by the time you read these words we will be approaching Pesach. (No! Not Pesach! We haven't even stopped buying hametz! Too early -- we're not even ready to get ready!) The Passover seder is the original CD-Rom, teaching at many different levels, with sights and sounds, only it adds touch and taste as well. (I say this as I am staring at the CD on my home computer, which is stuck, and stubbornly refusing to open, and while I have been searching for the right magic formula to use --"Speak 'Friend,' and Enter?" -- I confess to having uttered a few choice words which were probably the wrong thing to say.) At our seder tables we will read the story of the Four Children.

For those of you less familiar with the story, there are four children who ask questions at the Passover table. One does so out of a sincere search for knowledge. Another is snide, and mocking. Another is simple, and straightforward. A fourth has open eyes of wonder, but no words to ask at all. Our responses to each of the children -- the wise, the wicked, the innocent, and the one who does not know to ask -- differ; to each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

We know that there are different tacks to take, depending on the personality, the mood, the inclination, of the one we want to help. There is no "one-size-fits-all" way of caring. Indeed, it is possible -- probable -- that no one person can adequately respond to all the needs around him or her. One style is too in-your-face. Another too distant. What is a comfort to some is an invasion of space to another.

But space, in some ways, is what being helpful is about. In a world which does not often support reflection, to find a way to help people... be themselves.

In the end, perhaps, there are no right words. There is just a way... of being there. A stance, and not an answer. A shoulder, and not a solution.

When called to the mountain, Moses was told to ascend, "v'heyai sham, and be there." There is a power in presence, that precedes or transcends any particular position we might take with words. In pain and suffering, for help and healing, we are called to "be there."

May we always provide a place... where time and space can meet. Where the deepest love we share offers a glimpse of eternity, and a window into the soul. And in the midst of the world of words, a place where we can hear, and heal, through the sound of silence.

Insights on life, from a time when the world was a kid.

Thursday, January 03, 2002

At Home With Hope

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, Maryland

There is an old Yiddish aphorism. It goes something like this: "Man plans, and God laughs."

We had such wonderful plans, this past summer. Such a sense that we were doing the right thing, that is would be great for our kids, to leave behind the frozen chosen (the Jews of the snow belt) in Buffalo and Erie, to move to Washington, which means, for me, after 22 years away, to "come home." With excitement and enthusiasm I accepted a position as the Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom, in Chevy Chase, Maryland... not fifteen minutes from the home in which I grew up, in Silver Spring, Maryland. Not fifteen minutes from where my parents still live.

How blessed we were, to be able to be with family. How wonderful it would be, how great to have our children grow up near one set of grandparents.

And I'll be honest. I was really looking forward to my mother watching our children.

I never thought it would be the other way around.

Well, let me correct that. I guess I did know that the time would come, that it comes to all children, that the task of watching their parents falls onto their adult shoulders. But not this soon.

Three days before Yom Kippur, a month and a half after we moved to be with her, two months after her only granddaughter was born, my mother suffered a serious stroke.

Ironies abound. She was in the hospital at the time, for pneumonia, but it was overnight. And she was cured. And set to go home the next morning. So no one noticed. And we missed a window, to give her a new clot-busting drug.

She is the youngest of my children's four grandparents. And she was so very, very happy at the prospect of having those grandchildren close by.

We were told that she would never speak again. By now, in a nursing home and three months after the event, she has counted to fourteen, answered "yes" and "no" from time to time, sung along with "Happy Birthday," and managed to convey "I love you" to my brother and sister-in-law. She has held her granddaughter in her left arm. And we just don't know -- no one does -- how much she will recover. Or what the future holds.

Medicine is an art. It is not a science.

I hate doctors. I love doctors. I want to shoot the messenger.

A few reflections, if you will, of lessons learned along the way.

I wrote once (in a column called "Life and Death, Near and Far") that a rabbi once wondered out loud why we don't talk more about life and death issues. After all, it comes to all of us. The fear in the eyes of our family, the loss in the lives of our loved ones is a common theme we share with all human beings, with everyone who has ever been close to another human being. It is not a sacred calm, but the silence of the scared, that we don't talk to each other more -- much more -- about the beginning of life, and its end.

For years, as a rabbi, I have stood with people at times of trial and trouble, I have sat in hospital rooms, I have held people's hands. Now with the shoe on the other foot I feel at once both different...and the same. United with all those families I have seen in understanding, perhaps for the first time, what it means -- really, what it means -- for someone to take time out of their lives, and come to visit. How important it is, how much it means, to just be there. For the reminder of friendship, the comfort of connections, the fact that my mother has been a part of so many other peoples' lives is a very powerful feeling. There is a tradition in the Talmud: to visit the sick is to take away one-sixtieth of the person's illness. (It is progressive, not cumulative; otherwise we would just organize teams of sixty people to go visit everyone in the hospital and, poof, grab a cameraman, we'd be ready for televangelism with all the magic cures we could bring!) I don't know what the visit does for the sick person. But I can tell you what it means to the family in waiting. It helps. A lot.

So I feel a connection between my experience as a visitor, and one receiving visits.

And I feel a fraud and a hypocrite, and a total disconnect, at the very same time.

Years ago I heard someone disparage the ability of Catholic priests to be marriage counselors. How can they know what it is like? How can they know what someone is going through in a marriage?

I thought the comments cruel, and unfair. For I have known priests who are astonishing pastors, and great counselors. Priests as colleagues who I might go to, not in confession, but in friendship. I have always argued that you don't need to be exactly in someone's shoes to feel their pain, to understand what they are going through, to be able to help.

I still believe that. If it were not true that you did not need to go through the exact same situation to be helpful to a person in pain, then no one could ever help anyone other than themselves. We can understand, with a feeling heart, and an open mind. We can be there for each other.

Having said that... there is still a special bond that exists between those who are in the same boat. We cling to every story of a stroke victim, we listen for the nuance of differences, for the shred of connection, with the tales of improvements beyond predictions. The commonality of experience creates camaraderie... and envy. Comparison brings comfort and angst. Support groups, I suppose now, have a great capacity to help... and to harm.

Julie and I share something with those who struggled to have children. But we do not share everything. We got lucky. Not everyone does. You would not know our tale to look at us now. But when we hear of someone having trouble conceiving, there is a knowing look, a momentary connection, a nod to a fellow traveler on a familiar road.

So I suppose I have helped other people by being there for them. And at the same time, I have stood there trying to bring comfort, having no clue what the people I was with were going through. Not in the gut. Not in the innermost fears and sadness of the soul.

And I did not know how much I did not know what a miracle is. I pray for a miracle anyway. Every day.

I know I've been inconsistent in my needs, and in what I receive from others. Sometimes a hug helps. Other times it feels forced, imposed, too intimate. (And I am a "touchy-feely" kind of person; I have never shrunk from a hug before.) Sometimes what people say is helpful. Other times the same words bring on bitterness. "Oh, isn't it good that you moved here." Of course. I can't imagine what this would be like managing it from afar. But hey. This ain't what we moved here for! Sometimes I want to talk about it. More often, too many people asking drives me bananas. How can I possibly "get anything done," when everyone wants to know how my mother is. In the context of tasks versus caring, what does "getting something done" mean, anyway? Maybe the work at hand is the connection people are trying to make, rather than the pile of paper on my desk. But maybe getting to the paper on my desk is the only thing that keeps me going.

The one really useful thing I believe I have consistently shared with families going through a trauma is to allow for the fact that different people in the family will react in different ways, at different times, that roles will shift, that the shifts can be sudden, and jarring, and that the emotional needs of different members of the family will be different at different times, and may bump up against each other.

It is not just in the face of death. Even in looking at a devastating illness.

To me, the comes in the question of optimism. How upbeat should we be? Who is "naive?" Who is "realistic?" Who is using labels, when we just don't know what will be. How much of pessimism is fear of getting hurt? Of being disappointed.

How can I bring comfort to my mother, to be helpful to her, when so much of what I see is what is not there, rather than what is? It is a whole new way to use language, yes... but a whole new way to use my eyes. And my heart.

A task calls, and it is beyond my grasp. I know what needs to be done. I am just not there yet. I know what I would want to say to others. What I would wish for them. To live with the gray. The mystery. The ambiguity. To hold on to the fact that we cannot know what will be, and to live with uncertainty. To somehow, some way, try to be at home with hope.

It's hard. It's very hard.

Eil na, r'fah na lah.

Oh, God, heal her please.

And heal all of us, of broken bodies, or broken dreams. Whose great plans shatter on the shore of a different reality. All of us. For we are all there, at the moment of truth, at the borderline of existence, the twilight of eternity, all of us, at one point, or another, on the journey of our lives.