Yom Kippur 5778 - Wanting vs. Needing
I’m a rabbi because my dad died when I was 23 and I couldn’t even recite the mourner’s kaddish. At that point in my life I decided that I wanted to honor my father’s memory and become something more, someone who had the ability to be a force for good in people’s lives the way my father, as a psychologist, helped bring goodness and growth into his patients’ lives.
I wanted to become a rabbi because my Bar Mitzvah made me feel proud to be Jewish and understand the joy of leading services. I became active in my youth group and met friends who changed my life and have stayed friends for over thirty years, some even becoming rabbis also. My experience in Israel on my JCC Teen tour in 1985 influenced me so much I wanted to make Aliyah and join the Israeli army.
During undergrad I attended Yom Kippur services in Jacksonville, Florida where Rabbi Stanley Garfein’s sermons and demeanor have stayed with me ever since. I became a rabbi to try and understand why so many Jews walk away from congregational life. I strive to be different than the last four decades of Jewish life and create an experience we can all relate to and all embrace, one that doesn’t forget that we are all human, all struggling to figure out what it means to be our best selves. I want to be the difference that allows you to allow us to be part of each other’s lives in order to create a more meaningful Jewish experience worth living.
You are all here observing Yom Kippur. Together we look inward and try to figure out what we can do better, how we can become better versions of ourselves in this next year. I ask you to search for your love of your Jewishness. What do you love about being Jewish? What you relate to? What do you need that makes you feel Jewish? What do you want to experience as a Jew every day? Every week? Every Year? Are you excited for Purim, Passover Seder? A Jewish wedding in the family? Your child’s b’nai mitzvah? Shabbat dinner next year? I want you to search for the meaning of your Jewishness and Har Shalom needs to help you find what you’re looking for.
As parents, we all hope we can leave our children with our Jewish values and the self-confidence to be their best selves and always know they can turn to us. I believe it is important that our kids know while we are alive our hopes and aspirations for them:
Dear David, Sam, Yael and Solomon,
I grew up a hopeful kid, in a warm reform, Jewish home who trusted in the adults who surrounded me. I believed despite the turmoil of the 60s and 70s that we would figure out the Cold War, racism, anti-Semitism, Africa and that eventually all wars would end. I thought the United Nations stood for a world in which all governments worked towards peace, especially for Israel, and that it might figure out health care for world citizens, end world hunger and a cause a cessation of all battles over borders, ancient feuds and baseless hatred. I'm still waiting. I've lived through some amazing times and yet for the first time I have more fear for Jews and humanity now than I did during the last years of the Cold War.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have arrived once again. You haven't really seen or heard from us, your rabbi parents, in about a month although you all know how much we try to be present and not allow High Holy day preparations to ruin the end of our summer, the start of school and labor-day weekend. This year, from 5777 to 5778, feels as if it has flown by.
You've all grown taller, smarter and better looking. And you all tell me often how much more hair you have than me. Poet Merrit Malloy wrote “I'd like to leave you something better than words or sounds.”
My hope is that in our moments together I can leave you precious memories, sage advice and Jewish lessons that inspire you to live your best lives each and every day. Abraham Maslow first introduced his theory of a hierarchy of needs in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.” I’ve lost you already since that sentence didn’t mention American Girl Dolls, Minecraft, Ninjago or anything about Swing Choir, but bear with me.
Maslow writes that humans cannot concern themselves with becoming better people without dealing with our basic needs first, those being: Food water, warmth, rest, security and safety. From there we need to deal with our psychological needs: our intimate relationships, friends, prestige and feelings of accomplishment. Only once those are met can we work on our needs of self-fulfillment: achieving our full potential including in creative endeavors.
If we take time to understand the difference between our wants and our needs in our lives we just might be able to understand what is important in our lives towards becoming the best Jew and the best human possible.
David, Your mother convinced me that we should have a baby during rabbinical school because school had a co-op preschool on campus. I tried to convince her we just needed another kitten. Ever since my father died, I dreamt of having a son who I could name after him. I wanted you to carry on your grandfather’s memory and legacy. In your height, theatricality, sense of humor and charm you shine and do honor to your Grandpa David’s memory who you never had the chance to meet. I’ve done my best to wait patiently for you to get old enough for us to share books, movies, music, insight, comedy and art.
I tried valiantly not to cry myself to sleep when you thought my recommendations were less than stellar, or a book I offered you was beneath your consideration. I thrilled as you aged and took on drawing, acting and singing on your own and slowly picked up the books I’d left like stepping stones in your path, claimed them as your own favorite books and handed them back to me as books you thought I would enjoy. I’ve known you the longest of all my children and have shared the most with you of what is important in life.
As my oldest, you have the maturity to understand the difference between one’s wants and needs and how to differentiate between what will add the most value to your life and what will not. You shine like the brightest star and always make me proud in how you treat your family, your friends and how no stranger stays a stranger long when they are around you. You make friends of everyone. You are kindness personified and continue to grow and understand what it means to truly be a decent human in this lifetime. I pray you enjoy your Jewishness all the days of your life. I pray that you follow your dreams and your passions. I hope you grow to understand failure as a natural part of succeeding at the things we work our hardest to accomplish. I pray you always know how proud we are to be your parents.
My dearest Sam, I miss you every day. I'm not sure you would even recognize the world we live in today. The world has filled itself with as much darkness as it has light. Both forces gather strength, but really only love wins in the end, because we have no choice but to defeat senseless hatred with love and hope.
You remain one of the greatest blessings in my life. I hope eternity is kind to us and allows our spirits to reunite in the world to come someday. Your spirit inspired us to create the family we have. Your memory is always a blessing. You were my thesis baby, my promise to your mother that we would bring our second child into the world as soon as I finished my thesis and was ordained as a rabbi.
You were the best baby, so much so that your mother and I felt we needed to have another baby as soon as possible before the magic that created you wore off. I swore to be better than the Brady Bunch ever were and never make my middle child feel middled. Yet you hated being in the middle just because. You were convinced that you needed more of everything and wanted so much for life to be fair and all things to be made equal. You never felt you got enough time, enough playdates, enough of anything. We too feel we never got enough time with you.
What you never realized is that you and Yael had more time with me than anyone else. David lost me to graduate school five days a week for a year, only seeing me on weekends. I started working full time by the time Solomon was 9 months old.
With you and Yael, I spent five days a week staying home, working nights while your mom worked days for six years. I strove to give you the attention and love you both needed, take you to all the tot Shabbats and instill in you a love of going to temple and being Jewish. You always loved the foods, smells and sounds of the Jewish holidays and took such joy in celebrating with all our family. When I wasn’t taking you two to the Children’s Museum or to Pump it Up, I convinced you both that Toy’s R Us was one giant toy museum so that you could play with every toy that intrigued you, satisfying your curiosity and need to explore. I tried to give you everything you both needed knowing that no parent can keep up with the wants of any toddler. Some days it was enough. Some days it wasn’t.
On our most challenging days I made up stories and songs. I hoped they would let you both know how much I loved you in those final moments before sleep carried you somewhere where you got everything you wanted and there was always enough. For us there will never be enough time, pictures or memories. I regret every video I never thought to take, thinking we would always have all the time we needed.
Yael, We couldn’t bring you into the world fast enough. Sammy was such a good baby that we couldn’t wait to bring you into the world. Fifteen months later you arrived with a barbaric yawp and have been making beautiful noise ever since. When you were born, the doctor told us we were the proud parents of a baby girl, and after having two baby boys we were both like “Doc, count again, a baby what?” We had no experience with baby girls or babies born in February since your brothers were both November babies.
You have always been a blessing in our life. You are beautiful, funny, brilliant, talented, fun to listen to, be around and share the day to day with. I love how you love going to Jewish sleep away camp, spending time with your Jewish friends and telling us all about what you learn in Sunday school and Hebrew school. I can’t believe that in only two years you will become a bat mitzvah already.
I love seeing what color you bring to every day. You are artistic, musical, theatrical and dramatic. You want to be heard, understood, hugged, loved and appreciated. You don’t always want to listen, remain calm, see things from the other person’s perspective or understand why you can’t have your way all the time. I pray you find patience and understanding. I pray that you become the teacher you dream of becoming to inspire your students the way your favorite teachers have inspired you. I pray that you love how your Judaism shapes your life and spirit in all the things that you do. I pray that your love of learning inspires your love of teaching and that you know how much love you came into this world with so that you may share your love with your world.
Solomon, A film inspired you being brought into this world. Your mom never thought she’d hear the words, “We should have another baby,” cross my lips ever. Knowing we could never outbreed stupidity, I knew I could at least bring one more smart and cute baby into this world. You are everything a parent could want in a child. I know you want every Pokemon card you can get your hands on, all the mods for minecraft and every app with fancy colors, bells and whistles. As a seven-year-old, you are all about your wants, thinking that you need all of them to enhance your life and make it better. You aren’t old enough to differentiate between your wants and your needs, to understand what really matters.
When you need to go to sleep you want to stay up. You feel punished and persecuted, feel ostracized from all things fun and engaging. You want McDonalds for every meal and Sprite for every drink even though your body needs healthier meals once in awhile and less sugar than your appetite would indicate. You want not to be little when only time will give your body what it needs to grow and mature. You want life to happen faster so that you can do all the things you want to do and experience everything you think you are missing out on. (You are missing out. Period. I hate to break this to you, but after your bedtime, adults play Minecraft all night long while eating ice cream and watching all the Lego Movies on infinite loop).
I love how you love telling us everything you know about being Jewish, celebrating the holidays with such enthusiasm and being proud of your ability to blow the shofar so well. We should all have such enthusiasm and adoration for our Judaism which makes us who we are.
Solomon, I pray that you keep your endless curiosity and that your artistic inclinations only grow with you into adulthood, improving with age and allowing your imagination to put pen to paper to create all the worlds and magical creatures you dream of. Life is meant to be an adventure. Our Jewish lives is meant to be the spiritual adventure we all want it to be. Use your curiosity to lead you where it will and don’t let anything hold you back. You amaze all of us with the light that shines behind your eyes and the endless amount of questions and insight that fit into young frame.
To you, my children, I want to leave you: Jewish eyes that see the world as a place of possibilities, hope, potential and goodness. Human eyes that see through the darkness of the world, and the violence into the humanity and human potential for us to create a world filled with peace, and humans that care for and about each other. I want to leave you Nations that understand that there are no real borders, lines or barriers to our human condition. The ability to love one another is the only barrier to sustainable peace and global human kindness.
Each of us sitting here are Jewish children. We are all Jews by choice because we choose to embrace and live our Judaism each in our own way. We have all descended from Adam and Eve, from Abraham and Sarah to arrive here today, thousands of years later, still searching for meaning, trying to find the words to leave our children that will see them through their Jewish lives, sifting through the words and memories of our parents and grandparents that set us on our paths.
Every day we want to leave the world a better place than it was yesterday. We strive to take care of the needs of our families, of ourselves, of our jobs. We volunteer for the organizations we believe in and hope that we make a difference in the choices we make. Every one of us started out tiny and frail, in the arms of the adults who made a wish and brought us into this world. Many of us have made our own wishes and brought our own miracles into this world. We all sit her on this Yom Kippur perfectly imperfect wondering about our role in the world and how we can make it all better just by being ourselves.
Once there was an old woman who had built herself a house, on the top of a hill. She had lived there for a long time — for as long as anyone could remember. She had no running water and had to get it for herself every morning. Every morning, she followed the same routine. She’d walk outside and pick up her long pole. Next to the pole, there were two buckets, each with a loop of rope over the top. She would take the first bucket, and hang it from the left side of the pole. Then, she would take the second bucket, and hang it from the right. Always the same bucket on the same side, in the exact same way. She would rest the pole across her old, but strong shoulders, and she would take the narrow, dirt path down the hill, to the stream at the bottom. She would take the pole off her shoulders, gently and carefully take each bucket off the pole, and then, one at a time, dip each bucket in the stream, filling it with cold, clear water. Then, just as carefully, she would place each bucket back on the pole, carefully lift the pole back up, and onto her shoulders, and turn to make her way back up the path, to her little house at the top of the hill.
Her right-hand bucket, had a small crack in the bottom of it, a crack that had been there for decades. And so, as soon as she started walking up the hill, the bucket would start leaking. A steady persistent drip, the bucket running out of water, step-by-step, so that by the time she reached the top of the hill, the bucket would be completely dry. She would put the right-hand bucket back where it had started, and take the left-hand bucket with her, to use throughout the day. Day after day, year after year, her mornings unfolded in the exact same way. Left bucket on the pole, right bucket on the pole. Walk down the path, take the buckets off the pole. Fill the buckets, put them back on the pole. Pick up the pole, march back up the hill. Drip drip drip. Right-hand bucket gets put back where it started; left-hand bucket gets used. Every. Single. Day.
The days passed. The months passed. The years passed. Nothing changed. The same routine, every day. Until one morning. while the woman was getting ready for her day, about to head to the front door to pick up her buckets, and her pole, and then down to the stream, she heard a loud knock at the door. She was more than a bit surprised — no one ever visited her. Ever. She open the front door, looked outside, and saw – nothing. No one was there. She looked around again, wondering if someone was hiding in the woods around the house, and saw no one. She started to turn back into the house, ready to close the door, when she heard a voice call out. “Hey!” She wheeled around and stuck her head back outside the door. No one. “Hey! Down here!” She looked down, and to her great surprise saw the right-hand bucket, the one with the crack in it, sitting on her front porch.
She stared at it for a brief moment before speaking, “um… Yes?” Not really knowing what she expected to happen. But, whatever she might have expected, it probably wasn’t for the bucket to answer back. “Do you know who I am?” It asked her.
“Why, yes. Of course. You’re the bucket from the right hand side of the pole.” She spoke to it as if this was completely normal, even though it very much wasn’t.
“That’s right. I’m the bucket from the right hand side of the pole. And I. Am. Furious.”
“Furious? At what?”
“At me? You’re furious at me? What in heaven’s name for?”
“For mocking me.”
“Mocking you?” She asked in stunned disbelief. “How? What? What do you mean?”
“Every day. Every single day. You put me on that pole, and carry me down to the stream. You fill me with water, just like a bucket should be filled. And then, you carry me back up the hill, as if nothing was wrong. And I fail when I need to be succeeding. Every single time. Because, I’m broken. And you, you won’t fix me. I’m a bucket. I’m meant to carry water. That’s what I want to do; that’s what I am. That’s what I’m here for. But I can’t be that, and I can’t do that, because I have this crack, this defect. I’m a failure at the one thing I want to do.
“Do you have any idea — any idea, at all — what it’s like for me? What it’s like to go through this life, day after day, wanting more than anything to succeed that my one purpose? Knowing that I’m useless? All I want is to be a bucket — a proper bucket. A good bucket. A useful bucket. It’s not a lot to ask, but you won’t give me even that much. If you had the common decency to spend a few minutes — just a few minutes — repairing me, I’d be fine. I’m so close to being a decent bucket, but you don’t seem to care enough to help. Instead, you carry me back and forth, up and down that hill, day after day. Each and every time, failing at the one thing want to do. Failing, one drip at a time, one day at a time. What have I ever done to you to deserve this much cruelty?”
The old woman looked down at the bucket, this bucket which had been on her right side, for all these years, with a look on her face which was a mix of sadness and caring. After a long moment, she began to speak. “My good friend. I’m so, so sorry. I had no idea that you felt this way. You’ve been suffering all this time, and you have no idea at all, do you?”
“What you mean? No idea about what?”
“Here. Let me show you.”
She gently picked up the bucket, and carried it over to the top of the path which they both knew so well. “Look down the right side of the path,” she said. “What do you see?”
“Nothing. It’s just the path. The same path we walk, every day.”
“That’s right. That’s what it is. That’s all that it is. Now look at the other side. What do you see there?”
The bucket looked and noticed that the two sides were nothing alike. Looking down from the top of the path, the right-hand side was bare. But the other side, the other side was alive with color. The other side was covered with flowers, thick and lush, showing off every hue you could imagine. It was so alive, so beautiful.
“I planted those flowers, many years ago,” said the old woman. They’re lovely, but they need a lot of care. And, they especially need a lot of water. So when I found you, I knew I had found exactly what I needed. Every morning, I fill you with water. And every morning, as I walk back up this hill, you sprinkle out, so carefully, so precisely, drop by drop, exactly the right amount of water to keep these flowers alive. To keep them flourishing. To keep them beautiful. This path is the most wonderful place in My entire world. And it’s all because of you.
“I’m so sorry that you never knew this. So, so sorry that you thought that you were broken. That you were a failure. You’re not a failure, and you’re not broken — you’re perfect.”
The bucket stood there, stunned into silence. And the old woman looked at it with ancient, wise eyes and said, “What’s amazing is that precisely the thing that you thought made you broken was the exact same thing which made you so powerful. What you thought was your greatest flaw, was exactly what I needed to make our world a more beautiful place. The crack which you thought made you nothing, was exactly what I needed to make our world holy.”
We spend our lives trying to understand ourselves and where our Judaism fits into our lives. We exist to bring our own uniqueness in the world and create the Jewish life we want to live. Yom Kippur is not only a day of atonement, but a day of forgiveness. It is a single day that strives to stretch our understanding of being and living into eternity. It is a day to remember we are holy, created in God’s image, meant to be here to fulfill our own particularity.
I pray you all can feel your inner light driving you towards the Jewish journey you need to take. I pray that the things you want in your lives are attainable and that your Judaism adds value to your days. To my children, you are everything I could want in the world and more than I ever expected. You are colorful, smart, creative, funny, silly, fun to talk to and be around, athletic, ambitious, and curious.
You embody everything you need to learn how to get the most out of your Jewish and secular lives in this world. In the end, most of all, I want you all to understand that while you won't always get what you want, perhaps with the foundations of your Judaism and the love and support of your of your family, friends, your hard work and determination will always provide you with what you need.
Cayn yehi ratzon – May this be God’s will