Congregation B'nai Israel

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You Still Have More to Give

Rabbi Sarah Marion
Yom Kippur 5780
“You Still Have More to Give”

Broken shards.

Broken shards of sharp, jagged edged stone, scattered everywhere, at the base of the mountain.

 It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Moses was supposed to come down the mountain, his face still aglow after his face–to-face encounter with the Divine.

And he was supposed to present God’s stone tablets – solid, eternal and whole – and the Children of Israel, they were supposed to be there, eagerly awaiting his arrival. They were supposed to be there to receive and embrace God’s greatest gift to the world.

But, as often happens in the wilderness – and in life – things don’t always go according to plan.

And so when Moses looked out from his perch and realized that his people weren’t waiting for him with eager anticipation…when he realized that, instead, they had flown away, towards a golden god of false hopes, the tablets, too, went flying…out of Moses’ arms, and out into the air, and then down, down, down they went…crashing down the stone-solid side of the mountain, the colliding sound of stone against stone, until all that remained were broken shards of what once was.

In the days following, after softening from his fit of fury, after reconciling with the community and after receiving a new set of stone tablets, Moses looked around. It was time to move on. The community was packing up, getting ready to continue on its journey. And though he now held new tablets of wholeness in his arms, the original, broken shards still remained, scattered at the foot of the mountain. It was time to move on…but what to do with those sharp, broken fragments, those jagged reminders of painful memory?[1]

My house feels a little different this year, compared to how it has felt at this time, in years past.

Indeed, there is the feeling of newness that comes with moving and settling into a new environment, a new town, a new home. Our new living room couch is just starting to get its first creases and crinkles; our new backyard swing set creaks and cracks as my children ride the swings and squeal, “higher, mommy, higher!” And of course, at the same time, there are still those plastic fisher price toys, constantly scattered around my house that I continue to step on, day after day.

But this year, nestled under the pillows of our couches and hidden between the crevices in our kitchen cabinets…this year, in my home, there are new memories. Memories of our past three years in Baltimore, memories of my first rabbinic job right out of school.

Many of these memories are wonderful. And some of these memories are not. And as much as I have moved on with my life and my career, many of these painful memories still have a life of their own. I don’t recall giving these memories permission to come with me to Connecticut, but, nonetheless, like unwelcome and uninvited house guests, they have shown up anyway. And despite all my best efforts to cast them off and let them go, they are still there. They are there as I do the dishes, they are there as I switch the laundry, they are there when I lie down and they are there when I rise up. As I go about my new job and my new life, they are there. Though at times I wish I could forget they ever happened, I have come to realize that they are now and forevermore a part of me, a part of my story, a part of who I am.  

It was just over a year ago, on a Friday afternoon. I was finishing up my final Shabbat preparations when I received a call from a colleague that brought me to my knees. I opened my web browser and, there it was. My name, disparagingly plastered all over the local Baltimore news, the latest iteration of an escalating synagogue controversy that, at its core, had nothing to do with me…and yet, somehow, I had been dragged into the depths of this twisted, Kafkaesque nightmare. And the nightmare continued, in the coming months, as the story got rehashed and rehashed, like a wet towel over a wooden washboard, to the point where a congregant exasperatedly said to me one day, “I am so damn tired of seeing your name all over the news.” You have no idea.

Needless to say, I didn’t make it to Shabbat services that night, just over a year ago. And in the days and weeks that followed, there were moments when I didn’t know, in fact, if I would ever make it to Shabbat services again…because how in the world am I supposed show my face around the small, tight knit suburbs of Jewish Pikesville? There were times when I imagined, really, seriously imagined, leaving my rabbinic career behind and moving…uprooting my family to somewhere far, far away…maybe I’d move to California and become a yoga teacher and eat avocados all day. At times, it was a compelling vision.

I gather I am not the only one who knows what it is like to live alongside painful memories…memories that are like everlasting stains on the soul. I gather I am not the only one, trying to figure out how to live with whatever life throws at us.

Perhaps, you, too, have some new sadness or uninvited burdens in your homes and in your lives since you last sat in this sanctuary for Yom Kippur. Or, perhaps your pain is five, ten, fifteen or twenty plus years old by now, but, still, ever so present, as if it showed up just yesterday. The loss of a child. The death of a husband, the death of a wife. A painful divorce. Living with physical or emotional limitations brought on by chronic pain, ongoing illness. Memories of hurt, betrayal, or abuse. As we lie down and as we rise up.

How do we learn to live with the brokenness, the pain, the grief, the memories that may fade over time but never truly go away? How do we find the strength, in the wake of unimaginable pain and loss, to muster every ounce of strength to simply get out of bed the next morning and take those tiny, itty bity baby steps towards tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that? How do we keep on going, when we find ourselves lost, wandering in the deepest, darkest corners of the wilderness?

Moses stood, looking down at all the shards, all the brokenness, at the base of the mountain that day. And then, according to rabbinic legend, he did something profound. He picked all the pieces up, each and every one of them. And he tenderly placed them in the Holy Ark, right alongside the new, whole set of stone tablets. And then, he picked up the Ark – now heavy with the weight of both joy and sorrow – and he led his people forward.[2]

Maybe it is not about letting go of the pain, or trying to leave the pan behind. Maybe it is not about futilely trying to forget that the pain ever happened. Maybe, instead, it is learning that we can live full and beautiful and wonderful and fulfilling lives, right alongside it.

One of the greatest lessons I ever learned during my time in rabbinic school is the notion that each of us contains our own inner Torah – our own inner treasure trove of lessons, wisdom and experience. There is the Torah we learn from our sacred scroll, and there is the Torah we learn from those sitting next to us, right here, in this very room, in this very community.

And so as I was seeking insight and perspective for this sermon, I turned to you – my teachers, my congregation. I turned to some of the members of this community who have weathered unimaginable storms. It was an intensely sacred and humbling experience to be entrusted with the privilege of hearing and holding these stories. And so I share them with you, with permission from those who shared them with me, and with a profound level of humility, respect and awe. 

The stories I heard underscored the complexity of grief. They reminded me that no two stories are ever alike and no two experiences are ever alike. Each person copes with pain and grief and trauma in his or her own way. Grief is messy, and it is complicated. Grief is an ever-evolving, ever-changing experience of two steps forward, one step back. As Ivan Maisel told me, grief is carrying a boulder up a hill that never ends. Two steps forward, one step back.

And, at the same time, I was struck by a common refrain in some of the stories I heard. A refrain that reverberates all the way back to Moses in the wilderness, so many years ago. A refrain, that went something like this:  “Even with the broken shards…there is still more road left in my journey. There are still more streets for me to travel, more pathways for me to cross, more love for me to share along the way. Alongside the shards, alongside the brokenness, I still have more to give. I still have more to give.”

I first met Abby Leviss this past summer, when she came to one of our Saturday morning Havurah programs, with her three adorable kids in tow:  Mo, Mace and Myla. When I first met Abby, never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that she has, in her own words, literally crawled out of the deepest depths of hell.

Though she and her family are now living and thriving in Fairfield, Abby holds memories of a past life in California. A life that shattered when her first child, her beautiful 9 month-old Max, went down for a nap at daycare one day and never woke up.

I sat with Abby a few weeks ago, struggling to hold back tears, as she relived her story, for me. For us.

Tell me – how have you managed to go on living, after enduring the worst of all possible nightmares? I asked her.

“Through tiny, undetectable changes over time,” she answered. “Through the ultimate realization, after months and years of reading and searching and reflecting, that I am other things too, beyond this horrible experience. There is more to me, than this.”

Abby told me that she remembers asking herself, at one point, “What would be the first step I would need to take, to be able to be here? The first step, to continue living and being and existing in this world?”

Her answer?

“Having another child, having Mo, finding the courage to bring another child into this world,” she said, “was scary and life altering – but it helped and enabled me to go on.”

Abby has also found strength and meaning through her involvement with First Candle, an organization that supports bereaved parents and raises awareness for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome – the event that took Max’s life. Sitting with other bereaved mothers who have endured the unique agony of losing a child, Abby says she feels a sense of mission and healing. “It is an opportunity for me to give them something. An opportunity for me to give them hope.”

“I will never go back to the way I was,” Abby tells me. “I am permanently changed. But reaching an acceptance of that change has been crucial. My life is a constant dichotomy,” she says, “of joy and sadness…of strength, and why the hell did this have to happen to me.”

Why the hell did this have to happen to me.

When I lie down, and when I rise up.

And, at the same time, she tells me, “I still have more to give. There is Mo, there is Mace, and now there is Myla. There is Ted, with whom I now share a marriage of greater love, depth and understanding than we ever imagined possible. There are the other bereaved mothers who need my love and understanding and care. My life still has purpose and meaning. I still have more to give. I still have more to give.”  

Bernie Jacobs was one of the first people I met when I came to B’nai Israel. I have no doubt that Bernie would have been one of the first people I would have met, regardless. But neither Bernie nor I nor anyone else could have predicated that our first meeting would take place not at the temple, where his heart and soul resides, but, rather, at the Jewish Home, just a few days after a freak accident that nearly took his life. And so on my first day on the job here, Rabbi Schultz and I went to see Bernie, who had amassed new scars atop of his old ones.

Our beloved Bernie knows what it is like to be dealt a bad hand.

Before this latest accident, Bernie endured a heart bypass when he was in his 40’s – an ordeal that forced him into early retirement. And then before that, when he was in his 30’s, he endured sudden paralysis. And, yet, throughout it all, Bernie mustered incredible strength, resilience, and will, finding other avenues to devote his time, his energy, his talents. Finding himself no longer able to work, Bernie turned his efforts towards this congregation, his cherished home, becoming temple President and leading this community with so much love and care. Because he still had more to give.

Bernie tells me that this latest round of real and existential pain has hit him the hardest. Why me? Why does this keep happening to me?

But, true to who Bernie is, even alongside these painful and difficult questions, questions that may never cease from plaguing his soul, is the Bernie we all know – the Bernie that will never stop caring and never stop giving.

And, if there was any doubt – Amy Rich would be the first to testify – because what was Bernie thinking about, holed up in that hospital bed, when he first spoke to Amy after the accident?

“Amy,” he said, over the phone, “I’m worried about getting the plate ordered in time for the new Prosnit Prayer Space.”

“Are you KIDDING?!” Amy said.

All of us who know Bernie, know that he surely was not.

Because despite it all, Bernie always has more to give.

As I reflect on my journey this past year from Baltimore to Bridgeport, I now realize something that was there all along. My new teachers here, at Congregation B’nai Israel – my teachers Abby Leviss and Bernie Jacobs and Ivan Maisel and Beth Segaloff – whose story we will hear later this afternoon – all of these new teachers reminded me, that I, too, have moved forward, through my own wilderness, because of the deep conviction that I, too, have more to give.

Looking back to that terrible Friday afternoon, I now remember that what ultimately got me up and out of bed the next day, and the day after that. What ultimately convinced me not to move to California, was the Bar Mitzvah I was supposed to officiate the next morning. And the baby naming the week after for sweet baby Kara. And all the others I had promised to lead to the bima and to the mikvah and to the chuppah. All of those sacred moments were the bits of light that entered into my valley of shadows. They were the bits of light that reminded me that, despite it all, I still had a congregation and a rabbinic career that was precious. Despite it all, I still had more to give, dammit. I still had more to give.

At the end of this Day of Atonement, we will imagine, as we do every year, that we will go through the Gates of Righteousness, towards the promise of a new tomorrow, that is there, waiting for us, on the other side.

I’ve always found it troublesome, to believe that we can really cross through those gates after a day of fasting and reflecting and emerge renewed, refreshed, lighter, leaving all our past burdens behind, entering into this New Year with a clean and blank slate.

Because we know what it is like, each and every day, to lie down and rise up with pains of the present, and pains of the past.

And so as we inch our way closer to those gates, perhaps we ought to re-think that image. Like the memory of the broken tablets, being carried alongside the whole ones, perhaps we ought to accept that it is utterly and entirely acceptable to go through those gates with our pain, with our brokenness, with the belief that it possible to live full and beautiful and wonderful lives even with our heartaches. Because we are not just one thing or one experience. We are full, deep, complex, multi-layered and multi-faceted people, who have so much to give.

At one point or another, we all will encounter pain and heartache. That is what it means to be human.

And when it happens, I hope that you will hear that still, small voice, reverberating deep inside your soul. I hope you will repeat it to yourself, and I hope you will repeat it to those who need to hear it most:

You still have more to give.

You still have more roads to travel and more pathways to cross.

You still have more light to shine and more love to share.

There are still others in this world who need you, who depend on you, who love you.

You still have more to give to this world, You still have more to give. 

[1] My adaptation of Exodus 32:19

[2] Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 1:1