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Erev Rosh Hashanah 2019/5780

10/03/2019 12:43:38 PM


Rabbi Rachel M. Maimin

We are all Miriam, We are all Aaron, We are all Moses

Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron,
stands in the desert,
arms open wide,
heart open wide,
or is it broken?
No, she thinks,
I will not let this break me apart.
I will choose to let my heart be broken open,[i]
wide open,
swelling like the waves of the Sea of Reeds,
one on either side of us,
as expansive as this wilderness
which surrounds me,
as far as the eye can see.
I want to be brave,
want to be courageous,
want to be able to go it alone.
And yet.
And yet my skin hurts.
It is filled with flakes,
white scales that appeared,
white scales that caused me to disappear.
Why was this a fitting punishment?
Yes, I spoke out against my brother, Moses –
but so did Aaron.
Why was I the only one punished?
I was sent out of the Israelite camp,
sent away from everyone I know because of my illness,
my illness that you sent to me, God.
[At least that’s what I was told.
I don’t know that I can believe in a God
who punishes people by sending illness to descend on them.
My God,
the God I know in my soul,
could not have done such a thing.]
And now the sun is setting.
And I am starting to tremble.
It is cold in the desert,
oh so cold at night.
There’s the breeze –
the breeze that seemed so gentle just a few moments ago,
picking up its pace
and swirling the beautiful sand
(it seems so striking, shimmering in the sunset)
all around me.
It is getting cold,
and I am surrounded by nothingness,
and I feel alone.
I feel alone,
and in pain,
and all I want,
more than anything in the world,
is for my family to be near to me.
Aaron, Moses,
my brothers,
where are you?
How could you allow me to be sent out into the desert
at this time of my suffering?
I know you tried to intercede, Aaron;
Moses, I know you prayed on my behalf.
But you never once spoke TO me.
And now I feel alone,
and scared.
Will I recover?
When I return to camp in 7 days
[yes, they did say I would be readmitted in 7 days],
will things be the same?
How will my friends respond?
What will my people say?
Will they speak to me?
Will they ask me about my days in the wilderness,
my days of wandering,
my days of suffering?
Will my life ever be the same again?[ii]

Who among us has not felt like Miriam,
felt alone, or afraid,
felt like we had been cut off from our community
at a time of difficulty and challenge in our lives –
a failure, a job loss, a death, a divorce,
an accident, a miscarriage, an illness –
physical, mental, spiritual?
Who among us has not asked the questions
that she might have asked,
feeling alone in our own wilderness,
a desert filled with suffering
as far as the eye can see?
Who among has not wondered,
to ourselves or aloud,
“Will my life ever be the same again?”,
not knowing if in 7 days
(or 7 weeks, or 7 months, or 7 years)
we would ever feel like ourselves again,
not knowing if it would be possible
to help our hearts to break open
rather than to split apart into a million pieces?
Who among us has not hoped, and prayed, and longed for
companions on our journey –
real companions,
true companions,
the kind who just get it,
the ones who know what to say,
who know what not to say,
who know when to speak and when simply to be,
who know what to do and how to do it
in order to be deeply present with us,
in order to help us feel a little less alone
and a little more seen?

And, too,
who among us hasn’t felt like Moses,
hasn’t felt like Aaron –
we want to do the right thing,
we try to support our sister
(our friend, parent, colleague, spouse)
and nothing seems to work?
We want so desperately to make things better
that we try to change the situation,
when we know,
in the deepest parts of our hearts,
that we do not have the power to do so.
Like Aaron, we ask one another, WHY???
Like Moses, we cry out to God: Please, heal her!!!
But how many of us respond directly to Miriam?

How many of us sit down next to her,
hold her hand,
look her directly in the eyes,
and say to her,
“We are going to get through this.
You are not alone.”

As Rabbi David Rosenn teaches about this experience,
this experience of feeling like Moses and Aaron:
“We are so often focused on relieving pain and suffering –
and rightfully so! –
that we sometimes lose sight of how important it is
to provide real companionship to those in pain.
We search for ways to remove pain
because we genuinely want to do everything possible
to bring their suffering to an end.
But we also do so because opening ourselves up
to sharing in someone’s fear and suffering
is extremely difficult and uncomfortable.”[iii]

So how do we shift our focus
from wanting to end pain and suffering
(a perfectly natural reaction –
and yet one that most of us can’t accomplish),
to being there for the people in our lives
in all the moments and chapters of their lives –
the happy ones and the ones filled with struggle,
the celebrations and the challenges?
How do we step out of our comfort zone,
out of what we assume someone might want from us,
to understand truly what they need from us?

Sheryl Sandberg,
the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook,
and author of Lean In,
has much to say on these and other related questions.
Along with psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant,
she wrote the book Option B
after her husband Dave died suddenly and tragically
while on vacation.
she became a widow,
a single mom to two young kids.
Her world was turned upside down.
And she began to understand the world differently,
to see life through a changed set of eyes.
Like Miriam,
she found herself in a wilderness where nothing looked familiar.
She could no longer “lean in” every moment of the day –
there were times when it took every bit of strength
simply to get out of bed in the morning.
And among the many new insights she gained,
she began to notice how people treated her –
who was there for her,
who wanted to be there for her (but didn’t know how),
and who simply disappeared from her life.
She sought out a new rule,
a guiding principle for living:
“…when someone is suffering,
instead of following the Golden Rule,
[treat others as you want to be treated],
we need to follow the Platinum Rule:
treat others as they want to be treated.

Take a cue from the person in distress
and respond with understanding –
or better yet, action.”[iv]

How might we follow the Platinum Rule?
Let’s start first with the negative commandments –
that is, the Thou Shalt Nots
of being there for others in their suffering.
Let’s not be like Aaron,
speaking about someone’s pain with everyone
EXCEPT the person who is suffering.
And, when we do speak with someone
who is in the midst of challenge,
let’s not avoid the subject.
Yes, those conversations may not be easy.
True, it can be hard to hear just how tough life is right now
for someone we care about.
But avoiding painful conversations doesn’t help anyone.
Because not speaking with someone about their illness,
or their loss, or their pain, or their suffering,
is not going to make it go away,
or help them forget what is going on.
As Sandberg describes so poignantly,
“I couldn’t understand when friends didn’t ask me how I was.
I felt invisible,
as if I were standing in front of them
but they couldn’t see me.
When someone shows up with a cast,
we immediately inquire,
‘What happened?”
If your ankle gets shattered,
people ask to hear the story.

If your life gets shattered,
they don’t.’”[v]
Let’s not avoid painful conversations;
let’s not avoid our loved ones who are in pain.
And let’s definitively not say,
“It’s going to be okay” –
because we have no idea what the future holds.

And what are the positive commandments –
that is, the Thou Shalts?
Let’s actually follow through on our first impulse,
which is usually,
“I should reach out.”
Let’s push aside the doubts that arise
immediately after we have this thought:
“‘What if I say the wrong thing?’
‘What if talking about it makes her feel self-conscious?’
‘What if I’m overstepping?’
‘He has so many friends and we’re not that close.’
‘She must be so busy.
I don’t want to bother her.’
‘I feel guilty for not calling or offering help sooner…
isn’t it too late now?’”[vi]
What all of these have in common
is that they are about our concerns –
they actually have very little to do with the other person.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed by our own concern,
let’s be present for the other.
“[Because in truth,] simply showing up for a friend
can make a huge difference.”[vii]

Showing up means that instead of asking,
“How are you?”,
we can ask,
“How are you today?”
How are you? is a question that
“[doesn’t] acknowledge
that anything out of the ordinary [has] happened…
[When we ask] ‘How are you today?’
it show[s] that [we are] aware that [someone in our life
may be] struggling to get through each day.”[viii]
Showing up also means
that “instead of offering ‘anything,’
[we should] just do something.”
Just doing something looks like the responses given to one man
who was sitting in the hospital with his sick son:
“…a friend texted [me], ‘What do you NOT want on a burger.’
Instead of asking if I wanted food,
he made the choice for me
but gave me the dignity of feeling in control.
Another friend texted…
that she was available for a hug if [I] needed one
and would be in the hospital lobby for the next hour
whether [I] came downstairs or not.”[ix]
“Specific acts help because instead of trying to fix the problem,
they address the damage caused by the problem.
‘Some things in life cannot be fixed.
They can only be carried.’”[x]

And this is exactly what we have to offer
to a loved one who is in pain.
We can call them to check in,
to say hi,
to ask how they are today,
and also to share the everyday
and not so everyday things happening in our own lives.
We cannot fix everything.
But we can be fully present;
we can help to carry someone else’s suffering.

Martin Buber teaches us that there are “two kinds of relationships,
the ‘I-It’, and the ‘I-Thou.’
The I-It relationship is one based on detachment from others
and involves a utilitarian approach,
in which one uses another as an object.
In contrast, in an I-Thou relationship,
each person fully and equally turns toward the other
with openness and ethical engagement.
This kind of relationship is characterized by dialogue
and by “total presentness.”
In an I-Thou relationship,
each participant is concerned for the other person.
The honor of the other…
is of paramount importance.”[xi]
When we are truly present with and for another person,
when we come to know another person,
when we give ourselves fully as a whole human being,
and open ourselves up to allow that person to know us,
we have entered into the most sacred of relationships,
an I-Thou relationship.
And by doing so,
we may bring a little bit more holiness into our world,
because “our relationship with God
serves as the foundation for our I-Thou relationships with all others,
and every I-Thou relationship…
involves a meeting with God.”[xii]

When we reach out to the people in our lives
who are facing difficulty,
when we do so with open arms, with open ears,
with an open mind, with an open heart,
we allow them to reach back out to us.
When we make the choice
not only to speak to others of our shared concern
like our ancestor Aaron,
not only to cry out in prayer like our ancestor Moses,
but truly to be present with and for the Miriams in our lives,
to accompany them while they are in the wilderness,
then we bring more wholeness,
more healing,
more peace,
more love,and more of God’s presence into this broken world of ours.

God, grant us the strength to be there
for the people in our lives who are hurting –
to use all the tools of our hearts –
“To literally say the words:
I acknowledge your pain. I’m here with you.
I see it. I see you’re suffering. And I care about you.” –
so that we may help all the Miriams in our lives
to feel known, and heard, and seen,
and less alone,
and deeply loved.


[i] Based on Parker Palmer’s idea of a heart breaking open rather than apart.

[ii] Based on Numbers 12

[iii] Rosenn, Rabbi David. “Feeling Another’s Pain.”

[iv] Sandberg, Sheryl and Adam Grant. Option B. New York: Knopf, 2017. 51.

[v] Ibid, 32.

[vi] Ibid, 47.

[vii] Ibid, 49.

[viii] Ibid, 38.

[ix] Ibid, 51-52.

[x] Ibid, 52 – includes a quotation from therapist Megan Devine.

[xi] Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Rabbi Rachel. “The Experience and Nearness of God.”

[xii] Ibid.

Tue, June 6 2023 17 Sivan 5783