Sunday, September 4, 2011

What Kind of World Do You Want to Live In?

Edited from Sermon Delivered at Beth Jacob Congregation, St. Paul, MN
Parashat Shoftim - September 3, 2011

Shakespeare said that all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. The Talmud offers its own pithy summary of the nature of life, saying that the world is like a “bei hilula” - a wedding hall. After my experiences this week, I want to suggest that the world is surely one big wedding hall, and also a funeral home and a house of shiva.

This Dvar Torah came to me on my way into the funeral home in Minneapolis earlier this week, to take a shift of sh’mira (the ritual practice of guarding/accompanying the body of the deceased) for my cousin, Robert Greenberg. My cousin Robbie, one of my closest first cousins, 57 years old, flew to Minnesota from Philadelphia with his wife and mother two weekends ago to visit my mother, whom he called “Aunt Gladys.” Robbie and his wife Carol, both remarkably kind and generous human beings, had often hosted my mother at their home and shul outside of Philadelphia, serving as surrogate adult children for her since I lived far away. Robbie and Carol had not seen my mother since last November when we moved her to the assisted living facility in St. Paul, so they came and had a wonderful weekend visit together. Heading home, at the Minneapolis airport, Robbie suffered a massive stroke, from which he never awoke. He died a week later.

I got a little lost on the way to the funeral home that day, and I arrived for my shift nearly 10 minutes late. I noticed a habitual reaction arise in my mind. “Oh no,” I thought, “how awful” - - the good-hearted person who had the shift before mine would have to stay late because I was arriving late. And then suddenly, getting out of the car, I knew - - not even yet knowing who the kind person was - - that she wouldn’t mind. I knew that whoever had taken that shift had volunteered for it out of a deep sense of compassion, a desire to honor the dead, and a willingness to spend time in the silent presence of death. That person had been sitting for two hours (in some cases more!), in a sacred space of awe and lovingkindness. In that context, my being a few minutes late wouldn’t matter.

A prayer arose in me in that moment. “This is the world I want to live in,” I thought, a world in which brief delays, small inconveniences, and the ordinary irritations of life don’t matter. This would be a world in which everyone, aware of the fragility of life, lived out of a place of deep compassion, gentleness, and patience. In such a world, we wouldn’t have to worry about small offenses and frustrations. We could trust that others would be gentle and patient with us, and that we would do the same with others, in a self-reinforcing web of kindness. We would all touch each other with tender compassion, remembering that we are in this human predicament together.

I was right - the person who had preceded me was completely lovely about my being late. I soon saw the list of people who had volunteered to cover 24 hours of sh’mira time - - and then yet another 24 hours, when it became clear that, with post-hurricane air traffic, there was no way to get seats on a flight to Philadelphia for my cousin’s wife and son until a day later than planned. No problem. A devoted and competent volunteer from the synagogue made sure that all the shifts were covered.

I stared at that list for awhile. It was an awesome thing, contemplating that long list of people - - none of whom (with the exception of my husband, who did one pre-dawn shift) knew my cousin. Each of them stepped forward into that stark space where death is literally present, because halacha demands it, because their sense of community requires it, and because their hearts call them to do it.

When the Talmud says that the world is a “bei hilula,” a wedding hall, it means that there is a lot of joy in the world. One Hasidic master (R. Hanoch Henech M’Alexander) imagines a person moving from a small town in Poland to the big city of Warsaw. The first night in his new home, he saw what was obviously a wedding across the street. On the next night, to his surprise, there was another wedding in the same house. And on the third night, yet again. “How many daughters does this guy have?”, he thought.
Neighbors eventually informed him that the house across the street was a wedding hall, and that each night a different bride and groom came to celebrate.

That is to say, the whole world is a wedding hall, and the Master of the Universe is the master of the house. Somewhere in the town where we live, I’m sure, there is a wedding today. We can choose “lasim lev” – to pay attention, to bring our hearts to the sheer joy of some unknown bride and groom starting a new life together, to parents teary with joy and with pride, to a community of family and friends - - somewhere - - for whom, for an evening, it seems that everything is possible. We can choose to join in their joy, even sight unseen, to celebrate the joys of others, and to strengthen our own spirits.

So, too, all the world is a funeral home, or a house of shiva. Flying back yesterday from my cousin’s funeral, I wondered how many people on the plane I was on had, like me, just suffered a heart-wrenching loss. How many parents on that one small airplane had lost a child? How many people had recently lost a best friend, a life partner, or a beloved parent? How many people were in pain, in need of extra kindness? I cannot know who or how many, but surely I was not the only one.

What would it mean to live out the insight that everywhere we turn there are people with pain in their hearts? While it may seem grim to put it this way, it would mean carrying ourselves much the way we do at a house of shiva. We would wait for others to speak, putting their needs ahead of our own. We would be on the lookout for someone who needs a hand, a loving word, or a bite to eat. We would move slowly and speak gently, invite others to go ahead of us in line, think of affirming things to say, and come home treasuring the people we love all the more. Because that is what naturally happens in us when, as in the funeral home and the house of shiva, we are grounded in compassion, focused on the truth of human vulnerability, and filled with gratitude for the precious and finite lives we live.

How might we contribute to the world becoming such a place? The answer, I believe, unfolds in concentric circles. The work of cultivating wise awareness and compassion begins in our intimate relationships, in our homes, and here in our home community, where we have boundless opportunities to practice being kind when we’re together, supporting one another in cultivating this perspective from which kindness naturally flows, right here, in what appear to be ordinary interactions. On the next level, our shul’s commitments to gemilut hesed (acts of kindness) make us more alert to the suffering beyond our immediate circle, training us to actively look for opportunities to offer words and acts of love to those in need of comfort.

Most broadly, the practice of compassion requires that we think expansively about all the people with whom we come in contact on a daily basis. Think about the people you encounter during an ordinary weekday: beyond your own home, the people at your work place, if you are lucky enough to have one; the people at the grocery store, the dry cleaners, the gas station. Think about the people you frequently find irritating – the annoying relatives, the person on the other end of the phone at your internet provider or your insurance company, the painfully slow driver ahead of you or the proverbial telemarketer. Ask yourself: which of these people have recently suffered a traumatic loss, and are using all they have just to get through this day?

Now perhaps some of you are thinking, “This sounds impossibly hard. By this logic I could never just be irritable or blow off steam at people who are demonstrably annoying or incompetent.”

That’s right, according to the aspiration that I have described, we should never vent our own pent-up anger or free-floating irritability with anyone, unless we knew that person to be immune to the challenges of living. There is no such person, so yes, I believe that this high standard of awareness applies to everyone, no exceptions. After all, the relative or community member who appears to be behaving outrageously could tomorrow be the person taking a shift of sh’mira for your loved one, or for you.

Now I’m not suggesting that we empower the inner critical voice to berate us every time we fail to live up to a super-human standard of righteousness. Rather, I’m suggesting that we set a kavannah, a sacred intention, to practice living out this insight every day, to regularly cultivate our capacity for compassion in the places where it flows easily, to stretch where it does not; and when we fall short, which we will, to pray for another day to practice some more.

And lest you think that this kind of awareness would drain the joy out of life, I suggest that the opposite is the case. How many times have you stood at a graveside filled with gratitude for the ones you love, along with sadness for the mourners around you? How many times have you turned from a frightening news report and hugged your kids (or picked up the phone to hear their voices)? Awareness of human fragility deepens and expands our appreciation of life. Not only does it not encourage a morbid outlook. On the contrary: it helps us to cultivate the deepest kind of joie de vivre and gratitude.

This all brings me back to that moment in the parking lot at the funeral home, when I was reminded of the very strange, counter-intuitive verse in Ecclesiastes Chapter 7: “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting; for that is the end of all human beings, and the living will take it to heart.” I hope that it will be a long time before you or I need to be at the funeral home or at the cemetery again. But at some point we will, and that knowledge can inspire us to a life of greater kindness and wisdom, and to pour more compassion into our troubled world. Shabbat Shalom and thanks for listening.