It is unrealistic to hope for a life without troubles. Therefore we should try and deal with the life that we have. Have you ever seen a TV commercial for a car? The driver in the commercial is usually a very handsome man. Tanned, with a hint of designer stubble and a general air of confidence about him, as if he knows something we do not. Before he even gets in his car, he strides through his stunning, modern house purposefully. His beautiful wife, still in her dressing gown, kisses him sensually on the cheek and hands him a tiny, chic cup of coffee. He swigs from it, exits his front door to find the sun shining and glides into the driver’s seat of his vehicle. The car is usually a sophisticated black with maple wood finish. The man surveys the dashboard with a self-satisfied smirk as he pulls out of the driveway towards a job which is obviously well paid and fulfilling. Fade to the price of the car and an advertising slogan, something like “Live Better” or “Welcome To Happiness”.
There is only one problem. While we might wish for this perfect life with no cares or worries, it simply does not exist. It is a figment of an advertising executive’s imagination with no basis in reality. As a friend of mine wrote recently1: “It’s tempting to try and live a life without troubles. After all, it’s what we’ve been promised by endless advertising, by fairytales and by the myth of our own power. In difficulty? There’s a product that promises to heal your ills, grant you happiness, soothe your pain. Sometimes we think that we’d find it, if only we were more together, more intelligent, richer, had a different job or a different partner, lived in a different country, were born to different parents. But life isn’t shaped that way. It’s complex, mysterious, chaotic and surprising, whatever your circumstances. And whether we deny it or not we have to live as a biological creature in a physical world in which death cohabits with life, illness with vitality, wounds with healing, loss with love”.
I’m telling you, as a Rabbi, who is generally moral and careful about how I act, I really want to punch that guy in the commercial right in the kisser. No one promised us a perfect, trouble-free life apart from the people who make commercials. No one promised us that!! This is our life, right here, right now. All of us have a life which is not perfect. That is a fact. No one in this whole room is without worry, concern or stress. I know this because I have the privilege of you opening your heart to me. Between now and the end of our life there will be many moments of joy but also of heartache and pain. So let’s deal with it, meet whatever ails us head on. I am not the kind of Rabbi who will tell you everything will be alright. It won’t be. Instead, let’s assume there will be trouble ahead and confront it.
Imagine a map at Disney Land. The theme park is confusing with the lights, the rides and the jumble of streets and people. You feel lost and at sea. You find the map, you look all over it desperately for some way forward. Eventually your eye catches a small red dot in the corner of the map with the words next to it, “You are here”. You are here. That is what we need to tell ourselves from time to time. I am here. This is my life in all of its joys and sorrows. This is my life with all of its obstacles and challenges. This is my life. I cannot have someone else’s life. I cannot wish my troubles away. I need to be here now and deal with it.
We are a country of people on the move. In the US, thousands of people relocate to all areas of the country every year. Many people travel to attend college, to start new jobs, to live in a warmer climate, or to seek new opportunities. These are all common reasons for moving. But among the many thousands of people who move every year, there are many who move to seek the "geographic cure,".
What is the "Geographic Cure"? It’s a term used in psychology when people move to another area, hoping that their problems will disappear because they're in a new location. There is no problem with moving for a fresh start, for a change of scenery, for a new challenge. I know I share that with many of you here tonight. As long as we acknowledge that a change of location is not necessarily the solution to every problem. There will still be challenges in our life that we will have to confront in the new place.
So the question is not how to live without trouble, because the only way to do that is to deny life itself. Instead, we might ask again and again how to confront the difficult aspects of our life.
Once my friend went to the mountains of Montana with his family. They were determined to get away for a couple of days and spend some time in the wilderness. It was treacherous territory near their cabin and they had to be wary of the pitfalls of nature, not to mention the possibility of bears. Bears had been known to attack without provocation and my friend and his family were a bit worried. Before they went on a hike one day they approached a park ranger. “Get many bears up here?” my friend asked. “Sometimes we get quite a few”. “How ‘bout that easy trail around the lake over there? Any chance of running into any this morning – so near the store?” He paused long enough to hear the question behind the question and took a slow sip of his coffee. “If I could tell you for sure there wouldn’t be any bears, it wouldn’t be the wilderness now would it?” If someone tried to tell you life had no problems, they wouldn’t really be talking about life now would they? In the words of the Talmud: “You will be called by your name; you will be seated in your place, you will be given what is yours”. In other words, there will be certain challenges and difficulties which we will need to confront in our lives. There is no way around them.
So the question is how to deal with those problems which we will inevitably have to confront. I want to suggest three different direct solutions.
The first solution: to use our simple presence as human beings for comfort, warmth and love. That’s number one. To use our simple human presence for comfort, warmth and love. This is extremely hard. As a young Rabbinic student I had a placement at a hospice. I remembered being totally scared to even set foot across the threshold. I’m a worrier by temperament anyway so the thought of my own mortality had crossed my mind more than once but why put myself in the position of thinking about it all the time? Two things helped. The first was a story from another Rabbi. She tended to a man called David towards the end of his life. He had much professional success and known love and achievement but he was dying of cancer.
One day, shortly before he died, David was moving in and out of consciousness as my friend visited. He opened his eyes for a moment, got very clear, and said, “You know, people have been doing this for a long time”. He was right. One way which I started to be able to do hospice work is to acknowledge that death is part of everyone’s experience. There is a very moving prayer in the funeral service which I always read as follows: “In the presence of death let us not fear. We share it with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be”. If that is true, then let’s not hide from the fact that we will all die eventually and deal with that reality head on. If we can acknowledge that we share death with every other human maybe we be present at their vulnerable times just as we would want them there for ours. The other thing that helped a piece of advice from a Hindu priest who worked at the hospice helped me. He said, “The people with terminal illnesses in this hospice are not looking for a theology lesson from you. They don’t want to discuss different intellectual ideas about the afterlife. They just want you to be present. You can give them a sense of healing with your very presence”.
If my message this evening is “it is unrealistic to hope for a life without troubles. So let’s deal with the life that we have”, then using our simple, human presence is helpful. Given that life will contain challenges, let’s use the gift of human warmth and love to alleviate other people’s burdens and allow them to do the same for us. Find the people about whom you care and who care for you and allow the warmth of human contact and empathy, talking, hugging, crying, to alleviate the pain that we all have to confront. Sometimes you don’t even need to be close to a person to offer comfort to them. Sometimes you just need to be human and open yourself to the person opposite from you. I see it all the time on a Friday night after services as congregants support each other and offer their simple, healing, human presence.
In the Talmud, there is a story about Rabbi Yehoshua son of Levi and his colleagues2. They live in the same town and in the town is an alleyway where people who are sick congregate. The disease they have means they are covered in spittle and mucus and there are flies all over them. One Rabbi refuses to sit anywhere near them. One Rabbi never enters their tent. Two others never eat any of the eggs coming from that alley way. Yehoshua son of Levi specifically goes to greet them, spend time with them and study Torah with them. No one wants to go down that dark alley way. No one wants to confront the darkness that exists. Yehoshua son of Levi, like we must, uses the simple power of his healing presence to bring warmth and love to the situation.
So the first solution. Use our simple human presence for comfort, warmth and love. My second solution, use the beautiful words of our tradition in times of trial. This second solution is a religious solution, not as practical as my first one but, I think, still helpful. In our bible, there are things called Psalms. They are religious poems. Some of them are attributed to our most famous King David. The most well-known Psalm is probably number twenty-three, “As I walk through the shadow of the valley of death”. The beautiful thing about psalms is that they are helpful for expressing our emotions. There is a different psalm for each situation. Sometimes we don’t have the vocabulary to express our true feelings and psalms give voice to the strivings of our heart. In times of trouble we might recite psalms alongside doing other more practical things.
From Psalm 86: “Turn Your ear to me, Lord! Answer me! For I am poor and in need…..In my day of distress I call to You……Turn to me G and be gracious to me. Give Your strength to Your servant”. From Psalm 143: “Adonai, hear my prayer, listen to my pleading. In Your faithfulness and justice answer me…..Make haste to answer me, Adonai! My spirit fails. Do not hide Your face from me”. Sometimes we need to simply let out our anguish. For centuries, Jews and others have turned to the Psalms for solace, guidance, catharsis, renewal and much more. In approaching this book, many people have found words or images that work for them, or that uncover words of their own, that were obscure or inaccessible.
My third response to confronting difficult issues in our life that we will inevitably have? Asking for help and using all the resources at our disposal. There are people that come to speak to me in troubled times but there are others who do not because, often, they don’t know what help is available. I am not a professional councilor. I am a good listener but no more than that. But I do have access to all kinds of professionals, agencies and services which can help in troubled times. Divorce, death, illness, financial crisis. You name it, I can get you help. You don’t have health insurance? I know where to send you. A loved one just died? Call me and I will get you the help you need. Need someone to talk to? I have on speed dial the names of counselors and therapists. You have a parent who needs home help? I know how to get you a reliable carer. Sometimes, not only do we not want to confront the inevitable challenges of life but we don’t think anyone can actually help or we don’t know who to ask. There will usually be people in your life who can help and we don’t have to be ashamed to ask because everyone needs help at one time or another. Often in the Jewish community, we want to show a good face to everyone else, to pretend that everything’s fine even when it’s not. It’s ok to be vulnerable, to be troubled. You’re just being human. There is no shame in it.
Those slick adverts on TV, they speak of a life that is perfect, unfettered by worry and without any cares. That is not real life. We all die, we all get sick, we all have problems so let’s deal with them! I know you’re thinking, “Oh, Rabbi Cohen is really bumming me out this evening, what a way to start the new year”. Well I’m not saying be pessimistic. There is so much to look forward to, so many blessings which we are lucky to receive. Let’s just understand the truth about life.
No one promised us a perfect, trouble-free life apart from the people who make commercials. No one promised us that!! This is our life, right here, right now. No one in this whole room is without worry, concern or stress. Between now and the end of our life there will be many moments of joy but also of heartache and pain. So let’s deal with them, meet whatever ails us head on. Move to another city for a new challenge like many of us but don’t go too far and think that it will be the cure for all ills. People have being doing this for a long time. Dealing with their problems. There are many ways to do it. Employing our simply human presence and capacity for warmth and love. Using the words of our holy heritage to express what we feel. Engaging with the resources at the disposal of the congregation and the wider community, asking for help. “If I could tell you for sure there wouldn’t be any bears, it wouldn’t be the wilderness now would it?” If someone tried to tell you life had no problems, they wouldn’t really be talking about life now would they? In the words of the Talmud: “You will be called by your name; you will be seated in your place, you will be given what is yours”. Shana tova, a good year to you all.
Chapter 4. Scared of reality, that like might actually be chaos. Tohu vaVohu, G does the same in organizing everything.
DOES THIS MEAN WE SHOULD NOT BE OPTIMISTIC?
The struggle is maybe worth it, not for cancer, but for general hard stuff. Cancer is about gratuitous suffering and that’s for another time.
One way to deal with it is to get help - Circles of Support, counseling. Share burden with friends and family.
Reminiscence Therapy, look this up. Involves a thorough review of a person’s life to import a sense of meaning and resolve interpersonal conflicts or regrets. Helps one look back on life in a real sense piece by piece so Alzheimers patients can have a good ending.
Use of Psalms or prayer – see Pastoral Book. That could be one of the responses once you acknowledge your challenges. They will help you express what you’re feeling.
Success in therapy and life in general often comes from ones ability to behave effectively in life situations, to resolve or come to terms with past negative experiences, to have realistic expectations for change, to control extremes of emotion and behavior, to seek advice from others about appropriate life choices, and to make good choices.
Check out stress management, psychology.
Once when I was a Rabbi in London, I was called to do a shivah, memorial prayers in the house of an elderly woman who had died. I was in contact with his daughter and she was incredibly worried about holding the service in her mother’s apartment because it was so messy. She said to me, “It’s just embarrassing. She was losing her mind towards the end of her life and she just left all of her stuff everywhere, it’s like a bomb site. We can’t have the service there, we should have it in my apartment”. Her father, however said, “This is where she lived and this is where she died and this is where we’ll have the service”. I had some sympathy for the daughter so I suggested a cleaning service. The man from the cleaning service arrived at nine the next day. For three hours it was an exercise in futility. These people had never thrown anything away. Sheets covered all the furniture, and piled on top of the sheets were shopping bags full of unopened mail and newspapers as well as unopened packages of paper towels and toilet paper piled in heaps on top of each other. The man from the cleaning service moved bits of this immense mess from one part of the apartment to the other and at noon, he gave up and slumped in one of the overloaded armchairs, utterly beaten.
I wasn’t sure what to think. On one hand the house was unsanitary but on the other hand, cleaning it represented avoiding the troubles that the dead woman had. Leaving some of the mess symbolized the idea that this was her life. There was no way of avoiding it. Mess, clutter and anguish was her life. We have to deal with those problematic aspects of our life. However much we try we cannot polish, dust and vacuum the problems of our life away. We cannot sweep them under the carpet.
This idea of dealing with the present life that you have I learned from a Zen Rabbi. Yes, that’s right, you heard me, a Zen Rabbi. Alan Lew, before he became a Rabbi at places like Beth Sholom in San Francisco was a practitioner of Zen Buddhism and a bus driver. One of the practices which he learned was that of sitting. Not sitting like you and me but in the lotus or half lotus position, legs crossed, total concentration, listening to your breathing, being totally present in reality. He tells some wonderful stories about confronting reality. Cantor Gindlin is really the person to talk to about meditation but Lew describes his early years when he was beginning to learn meditative practice. Initially, when he was sitting in uncomfortable positions he would be in great pain. Also, he would be distracted by bugs and by boredom. The Zen Master in the room would always shout at him for not concentrating. After many months of sitting still in this way and simply breathing, he found it much easier to just be. To see the pain not as pain but as simply something he was experiencing. To not scratch or flap at the bugs crawling on his face but to just acknowledge they were there. NOT SURE THIS IS RELEVANT
A major New York City building was being dedicated, and among the many dignitaries present was Chancellor Louis Finkelstein of the Jewish Theological Seminary, sitting next to a noted Jewish philanthropist. The opening invocation-blessing was offered by a Protestant minister, who included in his words a stirring reading of a psalm, in English translation. When he had finished, the woman who was a communally involved philanthropist leaned over to Chancellor Finkelstein and whispered, “Wasn’t that moving? I wish we had that in our Bible!” Well we do. The psalms were originally in Hebrew. They can be recited on happy occasions but they provide an outlet to confront difficult times too.