(Ki Tissa, Sh’mot Exodus 33:12-34:26 (D’vorim/Deuteronomy 16:13-17)
Hope in the Desert
Good Shabbos, everyone.
This is the third time I’m speaking on this special parashat for Succoth. The first time I did it, for my 60th birthday. The second time, for my 70th, and this time for my 72nd. (I no longer take 10 years for granted.) For me, the first marked the first sukkah we’d built (which I’d promised myself I would do if/when we had grandchildren to enjoy it). The second marked the first tallis I’d made, which I was somehow old enough to be ready for. ( Remember that book “When I Am An Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple.”?) This d’var is for my gratitude for having lived through this past year of cancer. My gratitude for my family at home, and my gratitude for my family in this community, the community who walked with us through the desert.
This year, I want to do three things. I want to talk about hope–Moses’s and mine. I want to share a very personal story, and at the end, I want to get back to Sukkot.
Today, we read from two scrolls. In the second, we read in Deuteronomy where we are told to live in booths for seven days and to celebrate the occasion. In the first, we read from the book of Exodus, parsha Ki Tissa.
Here, we enter the story just after the episode of the golden calf and we end with the second set of tablets. These are the tablets which include the commandment regarding the three pilgrimage festivals– of which Succoth is the last.
What has just happened is extraordinarily intense. Moses had just come down from the mountain, saw what the people had done, and in a fury, smashed the tablets he’d just gotten from God. Then he confronts Aaron, burns the golden idol, dissolves its powder in water and forces the people to drink it. Then finally, he has 3,000 people murdered for their transgression. What a moment.
Torah scholar Everett Fox describes the fierce emotions enacted in this scene as “the real world of human frailty—doubt, anger, panic, pleading, courage.”
I can relate.
Where we begin, Moses is working to convince God to continue leading the Israelites himself, no matter how “hard necked” these people are—rather than (as God had threatened) send an angel or messenger in his stead. God agrees to Moses’ request. And then Moses has the chutzpah to voice another request, a most incredible request. He asks God to show him His face. (Har’reni na et K’vodecha). This amazingly intimate request has been called the parsha’s “center of gravity.”
The last time I did this, I focused on God’s answer—of course, it was “No”.
No one gets to see God’s face and live.
Instead, God told Moses to stand next to Him on the rock and that when He (God) was about to pass by (and put Moses in danger), he would place him in the “cleft of the rock” and screen him with His hand until He had passed. God’s hand! “You shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen”.
Torah scholar Aviva Zornberg, called what Moses would see
“the aftermath” of God’s presence.”
There is so much to say about this response, and its extraordinarily physical vocabulary, but not this time.
This time I want to marvel at the fact that Moses not only had the chutzpah to ask for such a blessing, but how he had the hope that God would possibly bless him in this way. After all that Moses had been through with these impossible people, how did he keep having hope?
So here’s where my story about hope begins. All my life, I cried easily. “There she goes again, pishing and gishing.” But as soon as the ovarian cancer was diagnosed, I stopped crying. Not deliberately, but, no tears. No cleansing sobs.
I’d get farklempt when a doctor or nurse would say something surprisingly kind to me, but no real crying.
After months of this, friends were beginning to ask what was wrong with me? Why wasn’t I letting my emotions out? Why wasn’t I crying?
“You need a therapist, Judy”.
Finally, it was a few days before a day when I was scheduled for five appointments at Mass General, the last of which would be chemotherapy if the first four determined I was healthy enough to get the poison.
I was now scared enough to call a therapist, the only one I felt would be able to put me back together again if I started crying and couldn’t stop. She was a nationally known trauma expert from whom I had taken supervision many years ago. I knew her to be brilliant, effective and very kind.
I wasn’t sure she would remember me, or if she would agree to see me as a client rather than as a supervisee. But I took the chance and told her my story. Not only did she agree, she volunteered to come to my house the next day because I was too sick to get to her.
Immediately, I felt safe as she sat on the stool in front of me. “So what do you want to cry about?” she asked, softly. I had no answer, and I had no tears. I couldn’t make them happen. “I’m so sorry, Kay, I brought you here for nothing. I can’t cry. There’s nothing there.”
“Oh not for nothing, “ she said, peering at me very carefully. “What I see is how smart your body is.” A smart body? She had my attention.
Then she explained: “When we are living with intense trauma, the cognitive part of our brains tamp down and the parasympathetic part (the part that controls our breathing our heart beat, our pulse, etc) that part takes over. Your crying or not crying is not in your control. What I see is that your body is not letting you cry. It’s not letting you dissipate your energy with tears. It’s saving your energy to fight the cancer”. I was already sitting up straighter.
So I wasn’t crazy. I was smart.
“So tell me what you’re afraid of in Boston,” she went on.
I’m afraid I’ll get there in the morning and they’ll discover another exotic disease (like the babesiosis that came from the contaminated blood).
I’m afraid they won’t find a new disease, but my blood counts won’t be strong enough for the chemo.
I’m afraid I’ll be able to have the chemo, but it will hurt terribly (like the time I had it and was allergic to something in the prep),
or that the chemo would go well, but they won’t let me go home that day ( they never seemed to let me out the same day I came in)
or they’ll let me out, but I won’t have the energy to celebrate the last night of Hanukah with my grandchildren.
“Ok,” she said. “Now tell me all those fears in the form of hope.”
In the form of hope?? I had no idea what she was talking about.
Yes, like, I hope that I will get there and they won’t find a new exotic disease, I hope that, etc.
Slowly, with great effort, I recited my catalogue of fears in this foreign form of hope. By the time I got to the part about Hanukah, I felt completely different. What an intervention!
It was more than a simple reframe.
Something about the words were making something in my physiological nervous system different.
I understand this theoretically and clinically,
but it still sounds so simple minded: by the time she’d left my house,
I was actually looking forward to the next day.
By the end of that next day, all of my hopes had come true.
I told this story at the Hanukah dinner table, and my 10 year old grandson, Izzy, in the car going home, told his parents,
“Bubbie makes magic. She said what she wanted and she made it happen.” Magic. Some kind of magic.
As a child of Eastern European immigrants, hope was not a word I heard often in my house. Fear was the word we knew best. God forbid, keyn eynhore, the outdoors are dangerous, poo, poo, poo. Endless things to be afraid of.
I’ve been resisting this cocktail of shtetl reality, superstition, and Bubba meises, all my life.
Now when I hear a thought in my head, or the beginning of a spoken sentence that begins with “I’m afraid that…” I try to catch myself and change it to, “I hope that… “ And even if the fear is still there underneath, the different words, the reminder of this session with Kay, makes a difference.
And every time I would tell the story to the person who was visiting me (and many of you were on that stool in front of my sofa) I could see them taking in my story and making it their own. They were thinking about their own fears and internally changing the word to hope.
It was so great. I could see it on their faces. I was doing therapy.
Two weeks later, I was in the infusion room at Mass General. From behind the curtain to my left, I heard a young woman crying as she spoke to her mother. “Oh Mom, I can’t remember a thing. I have chemo brain”. “Chemo brain!” I shouted out. “I know all about that!” The curtain was pulled aside immediately. They wanted to talk as much as I did. The young woman was a beautiful 47 year old lawyer who had a lump in her breast. The doctors were trying to shrink it with chemo so that they could operate. Her mother said she’d been crying day and night since the diagnosis.
I looked at them directly. And in my most therapeutic, trance-inducing voice, I asked, “Would you mind if I told you a story?” “Yes, please do!” (in unison).
And so I told them my story. And as with all those I’d told before, I could see them taking it in and making meaning for themselves.
By then we had each finished our respective bags of chemo, got off our beds and all four of us, the lawyer, her mother, Allen and me, all stood together between the beds and hugged. When we were ready to leave and say goodbye, the mother forgot my name, and instead of Judy, she called me “Hope.”
I didn’t correct her.
The next day when I told a friend about this experience, she asked if I had a middle name. I didn’t. “Why don’t you take Hope as your middle name?
I thought about it for one minute and said, yes, but I’ll take it in Hebrew: Tikvah. Yehudit Tikvah bat Yoseph v’ Chiekah.
And that’s how I knew myself at my grandson’s bar mitzvah this past June.
OK, now back at the desert, and the holiday of Sukkoth.
I’ve talked about this before, but I’m repeating it because it always brings me up so short. With all of the holidays we celebrate, and all of the milestones we mark, there is no holiday or ceremony commemorating our entering the land of milk and honey. Although it would make such a great story: First we escaped Egypt (that’s Pesach), then we were given the laws by which to live (that’s Shavuoth), and then we arrived safely (that would be Succoth). But no—then we kept on wandering. That’s Succoth!
Succoth is about the journey, not the arrival.
And not only is it about wandering and not arriving, but it is the only one of the holidays the Torah commands us to celebrate with simcha, with joy.
In fact, one of the names for this holiday is “Z’man simchateynu,” the Season of our rejoicing.” What is this? We don’t get to where we’re going and we’re commanded to be happy about it?
Michael Strassfeld, a popular Jewish commentator, calls Succoth the “to be continued story.” Should we conclude, he asks, “that Succcoth marks the fact that dreams don’t come true?” He answers with a qualified yes. If it were the “happily ever after story,” he says, we would be faced with the impossible question of why we’re still living in such an imperfect world, why there is still so much pain and suffering if in fact, we’d arrived in the Promised Land.
Succoth is about the fact that the story goes on—the story of the Jewish people and the story of each one of us. As trite as it sounds, we’re all wandering. The only question, of course, is how we make the journey. Where do we fall on the continuum between being constantly terrified on the one end, and totally oblivious on the other?
Strassfeld says that it’s not the future goal that sustains us in face of hardships, but the act and challenge of living in the moment.
As the commandment reminds us take pleasure in the moment.
Travel with joy. with HOPE.
Sukkot, he says, is the explanation of how to live after the exodus and after Sinai, how to live when we are no longer experiencing miracles, or hearing God’s voice directly.
At the risk of sounding grandious, I feel that I did experience “a miracle”.
The miracle of modern medicine, and the miracle of ancient community.
Between the doctors, my family, and so many of you in this community, I was with Moses in the cleft of that rock. And I am filled with gratitude.
This was going to be the end of my talk. As they say, “I’ve stood between you and lunch long enough”. But please, one more minute.
In his second day Rosh Hashanah d’var, Rabbi Weiner talked about the two cardinal modes of relating to God: love and fear. And he talked about two different types of fear: fear of the heavens, i.e., fear of the grandeur of God, contrasted with the second type of fear—fear of sin, fear of punishment for having done wrong. This fear, he said, is denigrated by many (including Maimonides). They call it an immature religious outlook.
He went on to muse about what he thought was our contemporary antipathy to the very notion of fear. My ears perked up. He was talking to me.
Rabbi Weiner’s talk was very erudite and very dense. I hope he’ll forgive me for mangling it, but what it made me think about was the dichotomy I had set up between my mother’s fears and my struggle with hope. It is clearly a false dichotomy.
Rabbi Weiner, quoting Milton Steinberg (the author of both “Basic Judaism,” and the novel “As a Driven Leaf,” ) told us that “No one who sees reality as it is…bitter as well as sweet, violent as well as gentle, frightening as well as comforting, will question for a moment that God is as fittingly an object of dread as of love.
Steinberg seems to be suggesting, Rabbi Weiner went on, that fear has a place in religious practice. He was talking about what might be called, “sacred fear.
So whether I think (like my mother) of taking on a new name in order to “fool the angel of death,” (I’d actually forgotten all about that one)
or I think of taking on a new name like Jacob who came through battle wounded but hopeful (and with a new name),
I am grateful for my new, more nuanced thinking about my mother–her fears AND her love. Yes, she was afraid of sinning against God, AND she loved Judaism. And somehow, that combination contributed to not only my having a community like this one, but to her grandchildren and great grandchildren having communities like this as well.
Thank you, and Shabbat Shalom