5779 Erev Yom Kippur Sermon
Ask for help, Do it yourself or Leave it Alone...
In a few weeks, after being a rabbi for over 13 years, I will officiate my 150th wedding. I do my best to teach my couples a few pointers I’ve picked up over the years from working with so many different individuals and from personal experience.
Now, let me be clear before I continue, my wife is very understanding, beyond supportive and I love her dearly, but in every couple’s lifetime there are moments that defy explanation.
On occasion, I have hurt my wife’s feelings without even knowing I did anything wrong. To begin with, I used to think I was funny. I’ve been a student of comedy all my life, and I had picked up a few bad habits from my favorite comedians. For example, I love Steve Martin. I used to think it was funny when my wife asked me to do something to answer like Steve Martin in a resounding “Nooooooooo,” and then I would nicely get up and do whatever request my wife had made. It took her years to work up the courage and finally break it to me that she didn’t think I was funny at all when I did that.
Being a little wise, and a bit of a wise guy, I simply say “yes dear” and act out my Steve Martin routine in my head, reinforcing my belief that I am in fact funny, and completing her task in a polite, timely manner. Win-Win, right?
Once, I got in trouble for not drinking a protein shake that I didn’t know existed. You heard me correctly, I upset my wife by not drinking a drink I never knew existed. Now in my defense, which we all know is indefensible, I was running late for Torah study, I was focused only on getting out the door and getting to work on time and never even entered the kitchen to see my wife’s beautiful and nutritious, homemade concoction sitting there so lovingly on the counter.
Don’t even think about questioning whether my wife gave me proper notice said drink had been prepared in my honor. If she has the power of omniscience, she assumes that I should know all things at all moments as well.
So, you can imagine my lack of understanding upon returning home from work when she was quite upset that I had simply left the drink I didn’t know about on the kitchen counter untouched. That’s right, I’m an ungrateful, rabbinic swine of a husband. Please tell her you agree with her, it is safer for all of us if you never agree with my logic or rationale.
Now I happen to be a bit of a fanatic when it comes to language and efficiency of speech. Why use ten words when five will do? Ask a direct question and you will get a direct answer. I also hate stupid questions that aren’t the real question. One question that bothers me is when my wife asks me
“Whose cup is this in the sink?”
Now in my mind our kitchenware belongs to the collective we, the royal “We,” but for sanity’s sake, let’s assume the cup formerly belonged to me in an earlier breakfast setting only moments earlier. To me the question is dumb. My wife doesn’t care about the ownership of the cup. She cares that I didn’t put it directly into the dishwasher, which once again with my omniscient skills equal to hers, I should have known was dirty and was waiting for me to deposit said dirty cup.
Here is where I keep all my jolly retorts to myself, gently get up from the table and happily place my dirty cup into the dishwasher because as an adult my love for my wife is greater than my childish need to say something too smart for my well being. I don’t need to start a fight or need anyone to clean up after me and am very happy that I am loved, appreciated and still married to my remarkable wife. God knows she doesn’t tolerate fools, but seems to be fond of keeping me around with all these foolish notions I keep in my head.
I take these marital learning moments and try to teach my wedding couples how to communicate with the utmost confidence and efficiency.
I teach them: Don’t ask stupid questions if you don’t want a stupid answer…ask only smart questions.
I also teach that there are three ways to handle domestic chores in a home.
Ask for help.
Do it yourself.
or leave it alone.
I try to teach my couples that if they can eliminate a single repeating argument for a lifetime they might do away with as many as 100-1000 small arguments about cleaning the house and helping each other. If they learn to ask the right questions and be direct they will potentially eliminate the constant buildup of resentment and partner frustration.
Ask for Help - If you need help ask for it. If you want your partner to do something for you ask for help. If your partner forgot to do something you needed done, tell them nicely and ask for help. Don’t add your emotions to the task when the task is neutral and inoffensive to begin with. Most partners love being asked for help because it makes us feel needed. If it is our task that needs our attention we appreciate the gentle reminder that you need us to clean up after ourselves so that you don’t feel burdened and responsible for everything.
Do it yourself - If you know something wasn’t left out or put in the wrong place on purpose then do it yourself. Move it or clean it yourself because at the moment it is only bothering you. Do it as part of the team and don’t keep score and build up unnecessary resentment. Don’t expect applause just because you did something that needed to be done. If you want it done right then you have to do it yourself. But if you believe it is someone else’s responsibility then choose the third option.
Leave it alone - Sometimes the house needs to be left alone until the whole team can address the issue, or you must leave it alone knowing you will do your best to get to it later. This is the option of least resistance, but it adds a lot of mental strain because we often carry with us what we didn’t get done at home and stress about it all day. We need to be able to let things go and know that later will have to be good enough. Often, if you utilize your resources, in this modern age you might, call, text or email your family and ask for help and have it taken care of before you return home.
What happens if we don’t use these rules is that many of us end up keeping score. That’s not my plate, I didn’t make the mess, who the hell tracked mud into the house? None of us should ever go around our house keeping score of what chores we will deign to do and what chores we wouldn’t be caught dead doing. That is a sure way to achieve an early death at the hands of a resentful partner. If we all view menial tasks as neutral then it is easy to accomplish a task if we are closest to the chore. If we all learn to communicate our immediate or future needs then our family should understand our expectations.
If the sink is full and I am the one home the most during a day I don’t put name tags on the dishes and touch only the items I used. I don’t text everyone or send pictures of said sink to find out proper ownership of each item so that I can write down in some imaginary book which culprit left me a full sink. Half the time I don’t eat breakfast so I already know one cup is mine and the rest is not. My years of learning have taught me that the sink is mine and the dishes are mine because they are sitting patiently in my home for my attention. The situation is neutral unless I fill it with resentment. The dishes belong to my household, my clan, my pack and they need me to make the time to empty the sink and fill the dishwasher in order to have enough place settings ready for the dinner crowd.
Our partnerships, and home lives, are fraught with miscommunication and misunderstandings. Our spaces get cluttered, our sinks always seem to be full, our laundry always has several loads needing to go in and several more needing to be folded. Domestic responsibilities are a never-ending cycle necessary to maintain our domestic lives and none of them are gender specific. Our only true goal is peace, understanding, love and cooperation. What we wish for and work towards in our homes is what we wish for and hope for in the world.
As Jews we have been communicating and dealing with domestic issues since the book of Genesis. Most of the arguments and disagreements were about tending to the flock, cleaning out the tent, and why do we have to have goat stew for the three hundredth night in a row?! To which we often heard back…If you don’t like it cook dinner yourself!!
Our Torah is one of the greatest advice columns ever passed down through history. It contains lessons, history, moral codes, chronology and the beginnings of our genealogy. What does this have to do with wedding couples, partnerships and marriage? As Jews we only exist because of our historical ability to communicate our beliefs, and pass down our rituals. Our ancestors worked together to transmit our history, our culture, our beliefs and teach us the ability to communicate the idea of a peace filled world throughout history.
It is filled with practical advice:
Don’t trust talking snakes.
Playing hide and seek with God is futile, especially if God is angry with you for taking God’s food from the fridge.
Don’t tell the king your wife is your sister and then be surprised when said king wants to marry your sister.
Listen to your dad when he tells you not to tell the king that your wife is your sister.
Listen to your wife.
Clean up your own mess.
Always check under the veil to make sure you marry the right sister.
If you don’t check under your bride’s veil don’t be surprised when you wake up with the wrong sister. The first plague should always be enough when deciding whether to listen to God or God’s messenger.
The rest of history and our current world crises teach us what a failure to communicate leads to. We all know relationships that work and we all know relationships that don’t. We all know highly successful marriages and we all know of incredible relationship failures that end in bitter divorces. We’ve watched the Israelis and Palestinians fail to communicate for over 70 years, watched parts of the Muslim world fail to come to terms that Israel is here to stay unless they want a tremendous war that solves nothing.
The world we live in, the national and international relationships we watch thrive and crumble are all hinged on the balance of communication. A successful marriage is based on mutual respect, mutual trust and the ability to honestly communicate one’s needs, wants and desires. Our global leaders, especially those in Israel and Palestine have lost the ability to see themselves as life partners, have forgotten how to align their goals and desires.
There is a severe problem in the world where most of the international disputes are between male leaders who believe global politics is a zero-sum game. Humanity and the survival of the human race is a global issue. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is a symptom of, not the cause of global unrest. Israel is the eternal scapegoat for the world not wanting to deal with its racist, nationalist, anti-Semitic, anti-zionist beliefs and isolationist tendencies.
It is easy to blame Israel and the Jewish people for refusing to change who we are and what we believe. We have always been threatened with death and annihilation for holding on to our heritage and culture. Those threatening us never look inward and question whether their beliefs are the actual basis of most global problems.
What marriage survives if partners berate each other every time they disagree? What marriage survives, lies, intrigue, spying, character assassination, abuse, violence, self-sabotage, self-destructive behavior? And yet in global politics and national politics we think that somehow, we will run things smoothly if we berate each other, treat our adversaries like enemies and malign the intelligence of everyone who disagrees with us? Just using the word adversary or enemy for a political opponent who holds different beliefs sets up a toxic relationship that is meant to be a necessary partnership and not constant ideological combat. We are too evolved as a species to believe we need to fight over every single opposing idea.
The change begins with us. How we use words and how we use language to communicate with each other. In our homes we need to be gentler with our words and with how we express our needs and wants. I try to train all my brides and grooms to a modern standard where nothing is worth fighting about if it isn’t some giant betrayal of the bedrock of their relationship. Sure, we all get hangry, angry when hungry, or short tempered when we are tired or dehydrated. But if we can control our bickering, the tone with which we address each other, we will be able to bring more peace into our homes and teach more about peace to our children.
If every citizen of earth could truly focus on the peace in their home, then I believe we can focus on bringing peace to our cities and to our nations in order to make sure our leaders understand what true partnership is all about: communication, sharing, honesty, commitment to common goals, cooperation, respect and mutual support.
What’s my secret beyond the three rules I believe in? I also do my best not to allow my feelings to be hurt over every little small thing. I don’t get overly sensitive or believe that my wife would ever want to hurt my feelings or make me feel small. It has taken years to learn this self-control. I control my emotions, my reactions and my belief system in hopes of being a better partner and better communicator.
In my heart, for the world, peace is a moment away. It is the single moment when every human accepts that killing and hatred is not the way. Only respectful communication will get us anywhere. Our self-proclaimed enemies must put down their hatred and come to peace talks with an open heart. In order to truly achieve the peace they want for their families and nations they must give up their desire for destroying Israel or America or the modern world in order to assure their survival and that of all they love.
Peaceful and respectful communication is the only way to negotiate an unbreakable peace. We must put down all hatred and intolerance in order to communicate in the language of global love, understanding and acceptance. The Jewish people are skeptical optimists. We know our history well. We see both potentialities for the world at the same time. We see the potential for full scale, global holy war over nothing we can prove and we see the possibility of a peace where all religions preach tolerance in the same instance. Communicating in the language of love and respect is the only answer to mend the world.
May we find forgiveness in our hearts and give forgiveness as the greatest gift we can give. May we all be written for a sweet and healthy new year. And may my wife someday forgive me for lacking the ability to read her mind and know things before she tells me what I need to know.
Cayne yehi ratzon – May this be God’s Will - L'Shanah Tovah Metukah