This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2015/5776 as part of a series entitled “The Simplest Things.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.
A rabbi was once counseling a couple dealing with money problems. She recommended that they put a tsedakah box on their mantle and put a little charity money in there every day. They responded incredulously, “Weren’t you listening? Our problem is that we DON’T have money!” But they tried, and they found after a couple of weeks that the act of giving to others actually gave them a sense of self-control, and the feeling that they had ability to help others. It also gave them a sense of perspective on their own issues; if you’re having a particularly bad day at work, you can rest assured that no matter how bad your day is, someone out there is having a worse day. And you don’t have to go to Syria to find them. It’s not a question of whether misery loves company, or even if the company loves misery, but rather the simple reality that life is not perfect, the universe does not run by our priorities, the world does not reward the righteous or punish the wicked or ensure justice. The pious Psalmist of the Hebrew Bible asks, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” He answers: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121). But what if heaven and earth were NOT made for us? What if what the Psalmist heard was only the echo of his own desire, and there’s no help coming from them thar hills? In that case, we must look elsewhere for our help.
There is no such thing as a pure individual, created from the dust of the ground like the Biblical Adam, without parents, without society – you do not have to go any farther than your own bellybutton. You were once attached to someone else, and cut loose by a second person and maybe tied by a third. There has never been the philosopher’s conceit of a pure state of nature, when autonomous independent individuals made rational social contracts to restrict their previously unrestrained rights. There’s a simple reason why the Genesis origin story starts with an individual and within a few chapters adds a spouse and children and agriculture and murder – any origin story has to end up with real human experience: mortality, ethics, society. I’m going to solve one of humanity’s great mysteries for you: which came first, the chicken or the egg? The answer is the egg: the first real chicken was inside, the next step of evolution from a species of pre-chicken. We came from people before us, and our society came from a society before that. Before you could even choose whether or not to ask for help, you received it.
Of course, we are not only our past, or our heritage, or our obligations. In Jewish life, we celebrate a child’s birth, but we also celebrate the growth of their autonomy and independence through Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the creation of the family of their choosing in a huppah [canopy] that represents the new home and partnership they have created. The past, the family, society does NOT own you, but neither can we fully ignore that we participate in an endless exchange of generosity. A famous rabbinic story describes a sage walking by an old man planting a fruit tree. The sage asks the old man how long it will take for the tree to bear fruit, and the man replies, “70 years.” “Will you live that long?” responds the incredulous sage. The answer: “I found carob-trees in existence when I came into the world, consequently my ancestors must have planted them. Why should I not also plant them for my children?” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 23a)
Last night, we explored how important it is to say to someone else, “I hear you.” Far easier to say, “listen to me” than to listen, much harder to hear when we ourselves need improvement without talking back. If “I hear you” is an expression of sympathy, “I’ll help” expresses engagement and commitment – I will take time and energy and attention away from what I would normally do for myself to do something for you. Even if we imagine that the favor we do today may be returned to us in some way, “I’ll help” is not like The Godfather, a sinister plot to accumulate obligations. Instead, it’s a stage in our personal connection with other people. Let’s say we’ve heard what someone has to say, and we respond with “I’ll help.” Simple, right? Maybe not. When is it appropriate to transition from hearing in sympathy to fixing the problem? How do we find the best way to help – do we know best, or do they? When is NOT helping really helping? Since we cannot help everyone, how far do we extend our hand? As you know by looking at the news any day of the year, the need is great and the resources are finite.
As I mentioned last night, I get to listen to people at all stages of life, and telling them, “I hear you” helps them even as it helps me to learn, to deepen my sympathies, to expand my horizons. Sometimes people clearly ask for help, but we can also be proud and stubborn. Some years ago, I did a High Holiday sermon series on “the hardest things to day” – phrases like “I don’t know”, or “you were right and I was wrong.” The hardest one for me, and it still is, was “help me”. Even if we need help, we want to be able to do things for ourselves, by ourselves. Admitting that we need help is difficult. So sometimes you have to offer “I’ll help” before anyone asks you, since they may never ask you even though they need it. You have to hear what they are not saying too. They may still decline your help, but they will know that they are not alone, they’ll know that someone else recognizes their situation. And if they were to ask in the future, you might be there. When we say “I’ll help” to someone else, it means “you are not alone,” even if they respond, “no thanks.” This is the problem of when.
Because sometimes “I’ll help” is not helpful, at least not yet. Sometimes the other person needs to hear, “I’ll help,” but other times all they want is “I hear you.” I may have had a terrible day at work that I’m telling you about, but I’m not be ready to start fixing the situation or to get your distanced perspective on how this could have happened. “I’ll help” can mean “I’ll help when you’re ready,” not I need to help right now to fix the problem. I am a fixer, and those of us who are fixers want to act when something is wrong or someone we care about is upset. We ourselves would be comforted by acting first and talking later, but we need to understand that help has to meet the person where they are, not where we imagine them to be. Sometimes being heard is help enough, sometimes more is needed, but hearing always needs to be the first step.
The truth is that helping is not just a matter of understanding a particular problem, but rather understanding the person’s entire circumstances, and what THEY might want or need for themselves. The problem of How. My wife works for Foundation Beyond Belief, which collects donations from atheists and humanists and then gives grants to other charities doing important work – one of their criteria is that the charity work be clearly effective in the long run. We’ve all laughed at pictures of African teenagers with T-shirts saying, “I raised the roof at Jordan’s Bar Mitzvah,” but what happens when you donate clothing to be sent overseas? Whatever it costs in shipping expenses and environmental impact, when the clothing arrives, it is given away. That destroys the local clothing economy, undermining people who manufacture clothes, which makes it harder for that nation to clothe itself. American food aid is required to purchase food from American farmers and ship it overseas rather than wire the funds to purchase local produce – and what impact does giving away that food have on local farmers? That’s helping them by helping us rather than helping them to help themselves. You might think that providing bicycles would help with mobility, commerce, education – but not if you do not train a bicycle repair technician and provide the parts needed to fix them; of what use is a broken bicycle? Do you want to make sure girls in the developing world will stay in school? Yes, they need books and supplies and uniforms, and of course security; they also need sanitary supplies for their periods, a dire need for personal dignity rarely met by international donations. The more those girls are educated, the more they will be valued by their families, the later and better they will marry, and the fewer children they will have, which in turn will lead to valuing girls more and greater economic stability. But if they miss five school days a month for fear of embarrassment, they are much more likely to drop out and continue the cycle. How do we know all this, about dignity and mobility and food and clothing? Because we started to say not just, “I’ll help and here’s how;” now we say first, “What do you need? I hear you, and now I’ll help.”
How many ways can this apply to your life? Consider this: Have you offered to fix the problem too soon without listening first? How many times has the help you have offered not been what the other person needed or wanted? Have you been the recipient of help that was well-intentioned but misdirected? I do not believe that these difficulties mean we can never help each other, or that we should not try to help at all. Rather, it means we need to give others the respect they deserve to make their own choices for the kind of help they want.
A Humanistic attitude to helping has to include fostering self-sufficiency, and the dignity that comes from personal autonomy. When Maimonides composed his “ladder of charity” 800 years ago, the highest level was giving someone a profession so they will not need charity anymore; indeed they might be able to help someone else in their turn. We must not assume, then, that others will always need our help or that we will always be able to help. In fact, sometimes NOT helping is actually helping. The art of parenting is teaching your children how to live independent lives, which means a kind of parental self-contraction. Jewish mysticism imagined that, before creation, God was everywhere and everything, and there had to be a tsimtsum, a contraction into itself, to create space for the material world. There are times as parents, or as individuals who want to help others, when we need to restrain ourselves to let them do it, to learn it, to master it, to own it for themselves. That does not mean your child will drive home alone from her Bat Mitzvah, but the road they begin when they start choosing their own clothes, their own friends, their own activities, their own diet culminates in choosing their own life, whether their choices agree with ours or not. The physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson put it well: “We spend the first year of a child’s life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There’s something wrong there.”
And what of those who cannot help themselves – those unwilling or unable to make prudent choices, or those trapped by circumstances beyond their control or their ability to overcome? The addicts, the mentally ill, the refugees, the “tired tempest-tossed yearning to breathe free”? The choice of whom to help is particularly challenging, since our natural survival instinct is to help our own first and others later, if at all. Our needs may not be as dire, but it is easier for us to spend thousands of dollars to save one child fallen down a well than to spend hundreds of dollars on mosquito netting that could save many more lives. American Jewish World Service only works in countries that are in the bottom third of the Human Development Index. Sometimes people ask them, “why don’t you do work in Israel, where there are populations in need? Isn’t this JEWISH service?” They answer that their vision of Jewish service is not Jews helping Jews; Jewish service is Jews helping! Israel is in the top 20 out of 166 nations in the Human Development Index, so AJWS works in countries like Uzbekistan or Senegal. And, frankly, their work there is good for the Jews too – seeing food aid or medical supplies arriving in a crate marked with a Jewish star, the recipients know they will not be forced to build a church or to pray in order to get help. In those bottom tier countries, the lack of basic human needs like food, clothing, shelter, or human dignity makes aspirational development and self-determination secondary. A Syrian refugee family fleeing for their lives probably does not ponder whether accepting a food package undermines their self-determination. In these cases, without “I’ll help,” without life, there is no liberty or pursuit of happiness.
I still have not addressed the most challenging cases – can we help those who do not help themselves, those who even hurt themselves. To answer this, we need to explore the potential and the limits to the phrase “tikkun olam.” Many Jews have no idea what tikkun olam really means. They think it means community service, doing good, helping people, social justice. Some DO know tikkun olam literally translates to “repairing the world,” and they deploy it to confirm a partnership theology, where a limited God needs human effort to have any effect on the world. This is the “god as a verb” approach, though I’m still not sure how you conjugate it or use it in a sentence. We Humanistic Jews may sympathize in their tangible goals even if we find the supernatural vocabulary superfluous. The problem is that tikkun olam imagines there is a perfect solution, and with enough effort we can really fix the world, a return to Eden or a this-worldly paradise. The real origins of the phrase tikkun olam are in medieval Jewish mysticism, which imagined that when the world was being created, everything shattered. Humanity’s responsibility now is to perform all 613 Jewish commandments with the proper mystical intention, thereby liberating divine sparks from the material world and repairing not only the world, but also God itself. We know that language changes all the time – the same Hebrew word, avodah, was used for animal sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple, and then for the rabbinic prayer service, and in our own days for Israel’s Labor party! We can also understand even the mystical origins of tikkun olam through a Humanistic lens: yes, it imagined magical powers, but it also promoted an active humanity responding to a reduced divinity. Tikkun olam has always emphasized the power that people have to affect their circumstances, and each other.
At the same time, we must admit when there is a rupture with the past. If we believe there was no original paradise, then we have no illusions that there will be one in the future. And that means that not every problem is fixable, and not every person is helpable. If we are proverbially “out of Eden” and thus are free, that also means we are out of Eden without guarantees. Our Declaration of Independence does not describe a right to happiness; it is the right to the PURSUIT of happiness. Part of me would love to save my children “the heartache and the thousands natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” in Shakespeare’s words. But I cannot live their lives for them: they themselves must find love and then lose it, they themselves must attempt something beyond their abilities and fail, they alone will make plans that fall through so that they can learn to plan differently and better. “I’ll help” does not mean that I can help everyone, or that I will help in the same way forever. The help we give our children changes as they are better able to help themselves; a mature relationship between parent and adult child should be very different from childhood, because both parent and child themselves should be different. If we allow our children the freedom to fail and to suffer, that must also be true for others. When it comes to “I’ll help,” the words of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot apply well: “It is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” In other words, we are out of Eden, but we are not alone. We cannot help everyone, but that’s no excuse for never helping anyone.
The next 9 days, from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, have traditionally been viewed as days of awe and fear – a time of supernatural judgment when it would be determined who would live and who would die. WE do not fear divine judgment during these days; we have taken the responsibility for judgment onto ourselves and inside ourselves. That does not mean that we are easily off the hook. I’ve suggested to you some ways that small things like “I hear you” and “I’ll help” can make the world a little better for you and for all. Like life itself, I offer you no guarantees. What I do offer you is an opportunity. When we return for Yom Kippur, we will explore what it means to say “It’s my responsibility” and, perhaps the most challenging, “I forgive.” Between now and then, in these next nine days, find one person who needs to hear, from YOU, the words, “I hear you.” Find one person who would be helped by your saying, “I’ll help.” You do not have to go far – they might be sitting in this very room, or only a phone call away, or someone you have never met who might take your help and use it to feel healthier, stronger, more confident, more in charge of their life, more capable of helping others.
Remember that tsedakah box? Saying “I’ll help” can help you even as you help another. As we sing here so often, my strength is in me, and in you.