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Do It Yourself

09/09/2021 05:26:57 PM



Delivered At Congregation B'nai Torah, 2nd Day Rosh Hashanah 5782 September 8, 2021 Watch Video

When my oldest son was around 2 years old, we had a tough time getting him to put on his shoes and his coat. He wasn’t complaining about being shod. In fact, he was really leaning into the task. He had one simple protest: “I do SELF!” He did not want our assistance. We’d wait 20 minutes for him to fumble with the laces, or put his head through the armhole upside down or whatever. He was insistent, and we had to wait until he either completed the task, or tired himself out, or it was no longer worth going wherever we had originally been headed. Of course, now he puts on his own shoes, which is good because those size 13s are so big they are technically considered small watercraft- and he’s a teenager so he doesn’t believe in winter coats.

I know where he got it from. I am an inveterate do-it-yourself-er. Every year when I introduce the piyyut “Ki Hineh Kachomer” on Yom Kippur, I regale the congregation with tales of my misadventures in attempted home improvement. And for the most part, I enjoy doing it myself, “just taking care of it.” Around the office, I like to do my own IT support and A/V production, make my own copies and do my own data analysis. Sometimes that great. Sometimes its quite frustrating to the rest of the staff. Sometimes, I may think I’ve done a great job, like how I’ve been cutting my own hair during the pandemic. And all the people who have seen me only from the front would agree. But then there are the times when going it alone is not what I would have chosen. Sometimes, the hardest things in life are made harder by knowing that we are doing them alone, without support, not because we want to, because we have to. I think about the times these last 18 months when it was just me in the sanctuary, or at a bedside, or at a graveside.

This morning I want to talk about that experience of doing something yourself, without support, and the thrills and terrors that result.

Our Torah portion this morning tells the famous story of the binding of Isaac. Abraham, having received God’s command to sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loves, Isaac, gets up first thing the next morning, and saddles his donkey to set out on the journey. In Midrash Rabbah (55:8), Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai notes that this is actually somewhat surprising. Abraham is a wealthy man, with a staff, many manservants and maidservants. Saddling his donkey is a menial task, beneath his dignity. Surely he could have assigned it to a member of his staff, of his household?

Bar Yochai explains “love overturns the natural order.”

Sometimes, we take on a task, alone, and do not delegate it, because of our strong feelings. It’s so critical that we must do it ourselves, we don’t want to leave it to anyone else.


You used to have to be someone really important to farm out your menial tasks. I spent the two weeks before my wedding assembling Ikea furniture. They leave a lot to you. If you order meatballs from Ikea, you’re getting a cow, an allen wrench, and some pictographic instructions in Swedish. But now, you can farm out anything. you can get a taskrabbit to do it. We once tried a service that would hand-write personal letters. I’d rather type them, but know they are coming from me.

We find others to do our grocery shopping, our driving.

There’s a story of one of the chief rabbis of Israel- Actually, this was originally a Pope joke from Italy, but I’ll trade it for Unetaneh Tokef. This rabbi never got to drive anywhere. He convinced his chauffeur to let him drive. The chauffer didn’t really have much of a choice. The rabbi took the wheel and really gets the lead out, going about 90 miles an hour.  Which in Israel is impressive because at 90 miles an hour, you run out of country pretty quickly.

Soon enough a Police officer pulled him over. He  called the base chief, “I don’t know what to do. I’ve got a really important person pulled over.”

“Is it a movie star?”

“No, doesn’t look like a movie star”

“Member of Knesset?”

“I don’t think so.”

“The Prime Minister?”

“No. Then who is it?”

“I don’t know, but he’s got the Chief Rabbi as his chauffeur.”

There is an honor, a dignity, in doing something ourselves that we usually outsource.

There’s a story of the Chafetz Chayim, (and this one is true) who was already a highly-regarded sage, having written the definitive work on gossip (he was against it) and the Mishneh Berurah, one of the most influential commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch. He had a guest in his home for Shabbat; one of his aides offered to make the bed for the guest. The rabbi insisted that he wanted to do it. “I don’t have some help me put on my tefillin, why should I farm out this mitzvah?” I DO IT MYSELF! There’s something special about being hands-on in a mitzvah.

One of the positives that has come out of the pandemic has been people taking more of their Jewish life, their spiritual life, into their own hands. Over 50 years ago, the Strassfelds created the first and second Jewish catalogs,  do-it-yourself guides for Jewish life. Inspired a generation. That faded. People relied more and more on rabbis.

But maybe that trend will reverse. We’ve had bar/bat mitzvah families take ownership- running the service in their home, or helping organize the service here. I love the fact that, for the second year in a row, our congregation is supporting two lay-led satellite minyanim. I hope it’s a trend that continues. We have a generation of people who were paying attention at Camp Ramah and Day School, who made the most of a strong religious school, and can take ownership of their own practice and learning.

Sometimes our motivations for “I do self” are less than positive.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai notes a number of parallels to Abraham, and one of them is decidedly negative, Pharaoh during the exodus. After he sends the Israelites away, he has buyer’s remorse and goes after them. - vaye’esor et richbo vet amo lakach imo- he saddled his own chariot- v’et amo lakach imo. And his people he took with him.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai says “Love upsets the natural order, but so too, hate disrupts the natural order.” Pharaoh was so driven by his desire to afflict and recapture the Israelites that he did not wait for his servants, as a jing properly should. He prepared his own chariot. But there is a positive lesson even from Pharaoh: when we do something ourselves, we inspire others, we bring others along. In the Israeli army, the call of the officer is not “charge” from behind, but rather “acharai”- “after me!” Doing something ourselves can motivate others.

What things have you done for yourself this year? Did you do them out of love or out of frustration? Are there times you’ve said, “hey, if that guy can do it, why can’t I?” What Jewish things have you done for yourself? What things have you done for the first time this year? Have you ever had the opportunity to be hands on and inspire others?

But, there is a dark side to “I do self,” When you are alone and you have no choice. Tell you the story of Leonid Rogozov. He was on a Soviet base in Antarctica and he developed appendicitis. That’s bad. Every base was equipped with a medical facility and a trained surgeon. That’s good. Oh, I forgot to mention. He was that surgeon. That’s very bad. It would be months before help could arrive from the motherland. There were Americans, but this was the Cold War, and the coldest part thereof, so that wasn’t an option. Rogozov decided to remove his own appendix. He was going to use a mirror, but he didn’t have a good view of his own abdomen, so he had to do it by touch. He lived to tell the tale, was touted as a hero. Nowadays, with capitalism more prevalent in Russia, maybe would have inspired him to open a chain of self-service surgical centers. I’d call them “suture self.” Even today, Nasa suggests a whole bunch of surgical procedures that astronauts undergo before they go on a long mission, including appendectomy, lest they get into a medical space jam.

There are times in the cold and the dark, when we are very much on our own, and our fate, and maybe even the fate of others, rests very much in our own hands. Some of us found being home for parts of the last 18 months to be a blessing. Some found joy in cooking or baking. I really enjoyed doing my own grocery shopping. Some parents liked the opportunity to be hands-on with their kids. But it could also be lonely and overwhelming- trying to keep up with your own work pace at home or be out in the world, and have children who were doing home learning.

We’ve had to become amateur experts at all sorts of things that we never expected to have to worry about.

Those are the hard times in life- when we leave our accompaniers behind, and we are on our own trying to figure out what happens next, wondering if we have what it takes to navigate the unthinkable. Our Torah portions, today and yesterday, are full of those moments. Yesterday, we read how Abraham was caught in an impossible dilemma. He loved his son, Ishmael, so very much, and yet, his wife, Sarah, was telling him that he has to choose: get rid of Ishmael or tear apart the rest of his family. Then, Hagar was sent off into the wilderness with her son, and was sitting at a distance watching his life ebb away.

In today’s reading, Abraham sets off with a small entourage, just two servants, and then when he reaches the mountain he leaves them behind. Wouldn’t it have made sense to bring them up the mountain, in case he encounters resistance? Or maybe he’s afraid that the servants will side with Isaac. The Midrash tells us that even as he is on his way, the Satan- the accuser, the confounder, tries to distract and trick him. And, for that matter, what about Sarah? When he’s actually in that moment of life or death decision, holding the knife over his son, wondering if that voice he hears is an angel calling him back, or Satan, the accuser, trying to trip him up, yet again, he is going it alone, Sarah is not with him.

Each of us has had those profound moments of fear and loneliness, faced with a task or a decision with lifelong consequences. Would we enter a relationship, or leave a relationship, despite our doubts? Would we change course on a conflict at home, at school, at work? We had that group  project at school or work that we knew had fallen to us.

Even if you were fortunate to have parents, friends, a partner to guide you, that weight was there. You may have turned to God for guidance, but I suspect he did not answer you with angels, prophecies, or miracles, as he did for Abraham’s family. If you have ever had the experience of caring for an infant, for loved one who was ailing or aged, there are those moments in the middle of the night when you are faced with a human being who needs you, physically, emotionally - they need your whole selves. Even if you are in the hospital, there is really no-one to call at 4:30 AM. In the stillness of the early morning, it still fell to you to saddle up, not knowing what the journey would bring.

For the next few minutes, I want to delve more deeply, into what may be one of the most profound examples of a journey that is walked alone. It may be contentious for some, traumatic for others. I’m talking about the challenges of pregnancy loss and termination, or, to use the word, abortion. The topics are very much in the public eye, with battles in legislatures and courts between groups that identify themselves as pro-life, and pro-choice, and politicians of various stripes using the issue to score points. Those questions are profoundly important. But as a rabbi, on Rosh Hashanah, I’m not here to talk about blue or red, or constitutional law, what legislatures or courts should or shouldn’t do. I’m certainly not here to mess with Texas. I’m here to talk about what I’ve devoted my life to, our Jewish ethical tradition, and how this issue impacts real human beings, including people who are here with in this room, or watching along with you. In order to understand this question from a Jewish perspective, it’s worth reflecting on the word Zechut. In modern Hebrew, Zechuyot are rights- and that’s what modern legal systems are based on. But in rabbinic Hebrew, Zechuyot are spiritual credits for when we do the right thing. So, in that sense, Jewish ethical conversations are not about rights- they are about responsibilities.

We have a responsibility to protect the wellbeing of others. In the book of Exodus 21:12, it says:

“One who hits a man and he dies- he himself shall die.”

The penalty for murder (or indeed, manslaughter) is death. When someone is murdered, the victim is not alone, all members of society are obligated  stop what they are doing and intervene. We have an obligation to protect human life- that’s an obligation that overrides almost every other obligation in the Torah.

BUT, a few verses later we read (Exodus 22:22-23):

“22. If men quarrel, and hurt a pregnant woman, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no further harm follows; he shall be surely punished, according to what the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.

23. And if a disaster follows, then you shall give life for life.”

The loss of the mother’s life is a disaster- its murder. The loss of the fetus has implications, too, but they are more personal. It’s an act of harm to the prospective parents, but society does not have the voice that it would have, that it should have,  if there were an assault or murder.

That does not mean that abortion is without ethical consequences. Elsewhere in rabbinic literature, we are told that the fetus is considered like a "limb of its mother.” Our bodies don’t belong to society. Women’s bodies don't belong to men. men’s bodies don’t belong to women. People’s bodies don’t belong to other people. Our bodies, and our limbs, do not belong to anyone else, but they also do not belong solely to us; they are gifts from God that come with obligations. We are forbidden from harming our own bodies just as we are forbidden from harming the bodies of others.

Why is it that some other religious groups, who read the same Bible that we do, feel so strongly that abortion is forbidden under any circumstances? The answer is, if you will, lost in translation. The Septuagint, the most famous translation of the Bible into Greek, interprets the same verse that we read from Exodus: "If there be a disaster, then it is life for life" to mean that "if there is a form to the fetus, then it is life for life." In this translation, killing the fetus is considered murder as soon as it has human form.

But that’s not the Jewish view. There’s another passage at play, from the next chapter in Exodus- it says that if you catch someone breaking into your home, and you have reason to expect that they might kill you, you may kill them preemptively. And so, our tradition holds that while there is indeed a responsibility to protect the life of a fetus (that’s why pregnant women are sometimes advised not to fast on Yom Kippur) that right is not absolute, because the wellbeing of the mother is even more  important.

In the American narrative, a lot of attention is paid to the question of viability- does life begin at conception, at first heartbeat, at birth? As near as I can tell, life begins when your kids are old enough that you can go out and leave them without a babysitter. While that question of viability does have a place in the complext dialogue of sages across the centuries, but the limit of the law is encoded in the Mishnah Ohilot 7:6 and again by Maimonides in code of Jewish law, under the laws of murder,  is that if a woman’s life is in danger, even if she is literally in labor in her ninth month, as long as the baby hasn’t been born yet, the baby’s life is sacrificed for hers.

So our tradition holds that while there is an obligation to protect the potential life of a fetus, that obligation is not absolute- as it would be for a born human. The fact that she’s having a baby does not reduce a woman’s obligation to protect her own life, and if having that child might harm her, then her life takes precedence. And that’s not only true for physical danger- many sages suggest that emotion or psychological damage weigh in as well.

A great analogy would be eating on Yom Kippur.  If someone came and asked me, as a blanket statement, about eating on Yom Kippur, I’d say that it was forbidden.    But there are literally dozens of situations where a particular individual might be permitted, or even required to eat, based on the advice of a physician or other circumstances.

And so, our ethical tradition might not support abortion across the board, or for purposes of convenience or gender selection, but would do so when continuing the pregnancy would cause harm to the mother, not just her physical wellbeing, but emotional distress as well. It is difficult to create blanket criteria for what constitutes harm. But Proverbs 14:10 tells us: “The heart alone knows its bitterness, And no outsider can share in its joy.” None of us can know what is in another person’s heart. In the Haftorah yesterday, Eli the priest jumped to the conclusion that Hannah was a drunkard and scorned her. In fact, she wanted desperately to be a mother, but her words and motivations were lost on the priest, and even her husband. It’s not just that strangers don't understand. Even a person who has once walked a particular road cannot know the journey of another walking that path at another time.

The first time I really had to think about this question was almost 30 years ago, in college, you know, at that school that I went to. And it’s one of the events that steered me into the rabbinate. In the absence of a Conservative rabbi on campus, I was running the Conservative minyan. It was perhaps one of my first adventures in donkey-saddling, in solo projects that were out of my depth. Late one evening, a young woman I knew from Hillel invited me to come over to her dorm. I had every hope for where the evening might go, but I was sorely mistaken. Earlier that semester, she had become pregnant and undergone a termination of pregnancy, and was still wrestling with what it meant for her soul. Was this ok? Was she a murderer? Given my role, she felt like I might be able to offer some guidance. I had already read quite a bit and I had some texts at my disposal, but I was about as qualified to offer peer reproductive counseling as I was to remove my own appendix, and in retrospect, I would have preferred the latter. I don’t remember exactly what I said, though it seemed like she found it comforting because we remained friends.

It’s a lesson that I’ve never forgotten: I may know what it says in the books, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning what it says in an awful lot of books, but that knowledge is not the same as knowing what is in someone’s heart. That when someone is walking the journey of Abraham, of Sarah, of Hagar, the journey of challenging choices, I can accompany them, but I need to let the final word come from God, not from me.

There are families in this congregation who have faced that same challenge that my friend in college did.   I’ve also sat with mothers who, like Sarah, have struggled the battle of fertility. Sometimes in fertility treatments, more embryos implant than can survive safely. Abraham faced the unbearable choice of sending away one living child in his family to ensure the wellbeing of another. These women have had to make that choice- sacrifice one life growing in their womb in order to save another.

I’ve had parents who faced the possibility of having a child with potentially devastating developmental defects and the impact that it would have on them, on their families. Like Abraham, they had to decide what God’s message really was for them, with this life they hoped for. Should they go ahead, knowing the possible terrible toll, or pray that God would help them beat the odds? What’s remarkable is that some chose one path, some chose another. Because it is not about the baby.  It’s about what the mother needs. What I’ve learned, what I know, is that as a teacher, as a friend, I can be a sympathetic presence, but it is not for me to stand in judgement.

Perhaps another helpful analogy is that abortion is similar to divorce. It’s a terrible end to something that should have been holy. It’s something that no one should start out wanting, but there are times when it is the most ethical, or indeed, the only ethical response to a terrible situation. And we don’t always know what has happened behind closed doors, what has been tried and what hasn’t.

There are a few ways that our Biblical tradition, and indeed the very texts that we have read this Rosh Hashanah, must guide our communities. Yesterday we read Genesis Chapter 21, about Abraham being called upon by Sarah to make a tough decision about the future of his family. In that moment, he is lost in the choices before him.

God said- any decision about your family has to start with Sarah’s voice:

אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֹּאמַ֥ר אֵלֶ֛יךָ שָׂרָ֖ה שְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹלָ֑הּ

It was tough, but the result was strengthening his family. But it was not without its trauma. Hagar is distraught, not knowing where to turn.

This morning we read about Abraham making choices about Isaac’s life and death, and Sarah is totally absent, her voice is not heard anywhere in the chapter. The next thing that happens is that Sarah dies. Some would suggest that the shock of hearing of Abraham’s actions might have lead to her death. What if new restrictions on abortion result not only in births that might not have happened, but deaths as well?

There are a lot of things that one might find troubling about the legislation that was just passed in Texas. For the purposes of this morning, I would point out that it specifically targets those who try to help, in large ways and small. There are many effects, but one is to make those who are already facing a potentially scary and confusing time feel more alone, more vulnerable. And, on the flip side, it empowers anyone who feels like an amateur law enforcer, to declare, with all the forethought of a recalcitrant 2-year-old, “I do self!”

When Pharaoh saddled his chariot, it was, at least, with the understanding that he was taking the lead in an ill-considered venture. He didn’t tell his supporters to go run off into the sea while he sat back. He led his troops. This law says that government will not prohibit abortions, and in fact officers of the government may not participate. 

Another challenge-  if this precedent stands, stay tuned for a lot of “I do self” legislation; for instance, some state in the Northeast allowing anyone to sue anyone who owns a gun. Florida enacting legislation enabling you to sue any restaurant that serves dinner after 5:00 PM. Alabama- no, I dare not.

I have no doubt that the debate will continue to rage. I’m sure this sermon won’t resolve anything, but I suspect it is only a matter of time before we see some kind of legislation proposed, and passed, and maybe even upheld, here in Georgia.  If and when that happens, I’ll speak loudly to give voice to our ethical tradition, which does not encourage abortion, but recognizes that there are times when it is permitted, and even required, and understands that Sarah’s voice is the one that must be heard.

But the lesson of these stories, and these debates, is much bigger than this one issue.

There are times in life where we all feel confident that we can take on a challenge ourselves. Sometimes that is an amazing thing. We can let our enthusiasm drive us to new accomplishments. As Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said, “Love upsets the natural order.” Our rush out of the gate, our desire to be hands on, can inspire others. There are times in our lives when we face a challenge alone. That is our right. We have the right for our traumas, our dilemmas to be private. That's part of what defines human dignity. All of us have the right to be alone with our thoughts, alone with God, at our darkest times if we so choose.

But the flip side of that is that nobody should have to feel alone or abandoned when facing an existential challenge. Abraham sent away his servants. How would the story have been different if he had their continued support? How would the story have been different if Abraham, Sarah could have walked up the mountain together?

It takes courage to face a crisis without help. Sometimes it takes even more to ask for help.  How can we position ourselves to be the helpers, the supporters. How can we give relief to those who feel that they have no choice but to suffer and struggle alone? How can we encourage those around us to let us in and let us help lift their load?

In the coming year, what will you do to let those around you know that your footing isn’t sure, and you could use a companion on your journey, or that, even if you are not quite prepared, you’re still willing to walk with them up whatever mountain they must climb?

Abraham takes us that sometimes we have to put aside our pride to start a journey. When we do that, our love can indeed, upset the natural order.


Bill Murray Movie References

  1. Meatballs
  2. Stripes
  3. She’s Having a Baby
  4. Space Jam
  5. Lost in Translation
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