The Song of Redemption
December 3, 2011 / 7 Kislev, 5772
On Thursday night, Jennifer, Sibby, Rabbi Sager and I went to hear Paul Simon at DPAC. It was anoverwhelming experience. The nostalgia in the room. The pulse of a group of musicians who come together and become more than the sum of their parts. Even from the 2nd balcony, the awe of being in the room with the man whose recordings were so much a part of my childhood, so much a part of American life, and the lives of so many people in the room that night, to look down and see his mouth move and hear the words and the tone and the melodies I knew so well, all of it reminded me of the power and life of live music.
The tour is called “So Beautiful or So What,” named after Paul Simon’s new album. A few weeks ago I went onto I-Tunes to buy a copy but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I bought The Essential Paul Simon – a collection of Simon and Garfunkle concert recordings instead. I imagine I am not alone when I confess that, at DPAC, I listened patiently as Simon played a few of the new songs but they were not what I came to hear. What I enjoyed was when he played Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, The Boy in the Bubble and Graceland, and what I really really enjoyed was when he played the Sounds of Silence and The Only Living Boy in New York, and Hearts and Bones and 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.
One might think it should be different. Maybe we should have been upset that so much of the concert was devoted to things we have all heard so many times before? Simon is touring, after all, to promote his new album, but he and we know that is not why people come; we come to sing what is old, to remember and relive what know, to mark time through song.
I am asked sometimes why we read the same stories year after year, and I was reminded again the other night how when we repeat stories and lyrics and songs, they become a mirror; when the songs don’t change, we can better understand how much we have.
This week’s parsha is Va’yetze – it begins with a familiar story: Jacob leaves his home, comes upon a place, places a stone at his head, dreams of a ladder with angels ascending and descending, awakens and declares, “God was in this place and I, I did not know.” But this story, for me, will forever be associated with something different: it was four years ago on Shabbat Vayetze, that I spent Shabbat in the hospital and held the hand of my dear friend, Joel, as he left the world. Rashi’s comment on the first verse of the parsha – that the Torah includes the detail that Jacob left Beer Sheva to tell us that when a great man leaves a place, it makes an impression – that comment will forever be bound up in my heart as the Torah I shared at Joel’sfuneral two days later. I said Joel’s departure from the world made an impression in my life I would never forget. We value what is new, what is shiny, change. But there is something to be said for repeating what came before, for old stories which remind us of the passage of time, and what is most important.
With that said, I want to add a new teaching from this week’s parsha through which I can remember Joel. It begins not with the story of Jacob, but with the story of Leah. Leah is “snu’ah” – a term that some scholars say is a technical term to describe an un-favored co-wife, but it is also an emotional term: it means she is hated. “Jacob loved Rachel” (Genesis 29:18), he works seven years for her and, when those years are up, he says to Lavan quite brazenly, “Give me my wife, for my time is done, and let me come to bed with her,” but “when morning came, look, she was Leah” (Genesis 29:29). Jacob was deceived and, even though just a week later, he marries Rachel too, the Torah tells us in verse 30, “Indeed [Jacob] loved Rachel more than Leah. And when God saw that Leah was hated, He opened her womb…”
Why Leah was hated is a topic for another time. Suffice it to say I think it had nothing to do with Leah, but rather with what Jacob hated about himself. When Jacob confronts Lavan as to why he deceived him, Lavan says, “It is not done thus in our place, to give the younger girl before the firstborn.” Lavanreminds Jacob how, through deception, he put himself – a younger child – before his elder brother, Esau. Just as Jacob used the cover of darkness to deceive his father, now Jacob is now deceived in darkness.
Through no fault of her own, Leah reminds Jacob of a part of himself – his dishonesty – he hates, but rather than hate himself, he takes out his own self-loathing on Leah.
What I want to focus on is, “What does Leah do with her pain?” She has sons. When she has Reuben, in naming him, she says, “Yes, the Lord has seen my suffering, for now my husband will love me.” She hopes Reuben can make Jacob love her. Then she names Shimon, from Sh’ma, to hear, and says, “Yes, Adonai has heard I was despised and has given me this one too.” According to biblical scholar, Robert Alter: “Leah’s illusion that bearing a son would bring her Jacob’s love has been painfully disabused, for here, she herself proclaims that she is “despised” and that God has given her another son as compensation.” Then she has a 3rd son and names him Levi saying, “This time at last my husband will join me” – the verb for “to accompany” is l’laveh, from which we get the name, Levi. And then she has a 4th son and names him Yehuda saying, “This time I sing praise to Adonai.” About this last name, Alter writes: “With the birth of her fourth son, she no longer expresses hope of winning her husband’s affection but instead simply gives thanks to God for granting her male offspring.” In the margin next to Alter’s comment, I wrote, “to be a Jew is to give thanks to God with no ulterior motive, no hope or expectation of anything in return or that anything will change. It is to be grateful for life as it is.
Leah goes through a process of trying to make Jacob love her with Reuben, her first born, of coming to understand that she will always be hated and seeing Shimon as God’s compensation for her predicament, of hoping/trying again for Jacob’s love with Levi, and of final acceptance and even gratitude and praise, through Yehuda, the tribe from whom the Jewish people get our name: we are Jews from the tribe ofJudah.
To be a Jew is to inherit Leah’s journey, to feel within oneself the sting of being other, even of being unloved, to struggle, to hope, but in the end, to sing, and give thanks even, perhaps especially, when lifeturns out differently than we hoped it would.
I realized as I listened to Paul Simon start to play and tears rolled down my face that Thursday was the first time in 4 years I had been to a concert. The last time was when I heard James Taylor at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles in February 2007. Joel and his wife, Heather, and Jennifer and I had tickets to go together, but Joel was at Cedars Sinai hospital undergoing treatment, so Heather and Jennifer and I went, and Heather called Joel from the concert and listened to the concert through Heather’s cell phone.
Like Leah, Joel struggled and hoped and questioned; he might even have felt hated by God in some moments because of the leukemia that was ravaging his body, but Joel’s lasting legacy is not loss: it is thegift of song and praise and thanks even after all hope was gone. Joel’s songs drew from a well of deep joy –a joy that knows not every question is answered, that knows pain, yet manages to weave harmonies and love from darkness. It is for this reason, I believe, that from Leah descends Judah, and from Judah’s line comes King David, and from King David comes the Messiah. Leah’s song is the song of the messiah’s redemption. That is the song I learned from Joel four years ago. Last Thursday in the music of Paul Simon, I was reminded again just how the song goes, and felt healed to sing along.
Praying for the Sick, Praying with the Sick
I sit at the foot of the bed as Joel talks slowly, as if using the muscles of his face takes great effort, because it does.
Joel weighs 125 pounds and says that he looks “like someone from Cambodia.” He is yellow from a bout with hepatitis, one of many illnesses that attacked his organs over the summer. He struggles to stand for five seconds, or to sit in a chair or in bed. Three of us visit with him for an hour or so, alternating between talking about the start of the football season and talking about his condition, encouraging him by saying that he will walk out of this hospital one day soon.
Our sports metaphors – things we might say in other situations, things like “you’re in the fourth quarter,” or “there’s a light at the end of the tunnel” – fall flat and sound stupid and inadequate. We are smart enough to know that we don’t know what to say, that there is nothing to be said, yet we know that our being there means a lot to him.
The TV is on mute, tuned to a sports station. I joke about many guys being jealous, what with football season starting and his having nothing to do except sit in front of a TV all day. But football games don’t matter when you have to work just to stand up. They are a diversion, one not even so welcome these days. An air of helplessness fills the room, deflates our altruistic enthusiasm in coming to visit. I feel a measure of relief when a therapist walks in and asks if Joel has time for his exercises. We all understand that takes priority; Joel has to take every opportunity to jumpstart his body back to health and strength. “I’m kicking you guys outta here now,” he says.
We stand up, and I say “All right, my friend.” I take an awkward leap and suggest a prayer. “Let’s do a mi’sheberach before we go.” Joel nods his head slowly; he is allowing me to say a prayer for the sick. Not wanting to increase the chance of infection, I ask Joel if I can hold his hand and he agrees. I hold his in my gloved left hand and reach with my right to Avi next to me, and we form a circle around the bed. I look Joel in the eyes and try to reach out to him from beneath my mask, to tell him without words that I love him, I love him very much, and I don’t want to leave; that I want to drop my life and ignore my wife and kids and sit at his bedside but I cannot, and he understands and loves me, too. I close my eyes and speak, slowly, the words of the ancient prayer.
Me’sheberach avoteinu, Avraham, Yitzchak, v’Ya’akov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, v’Leah...
May the One who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, may He bless and heal the one who is sick, Joel, the son of Sarah Miriam. May the Holy Blessing One pour compassion upon him to strengthen him and heal him and send him soon a complete healing to all his organs and limbs, a healing of body, a healing of soul, amongst all the sick of Israel, speedily soon. Amen.
Where am I as these words leave my mouth, and through rubber gloves I feel Joel’s hand weakly grasp mine? I feel hollow, a coward hiding a true prayer behind someone else’s words; I feel that I lack the courage to confront my own vulnerability and in that tension and blank space and silence speak words of my own. I feel grateful, too, to have someone else’s words, old, ancient words, Hebrew words that feel laden with power, words spoken for centuries by worried mothers and cousins and brothers. I am under no illusion that the Hebrew words are magic that will bring a cure, like coins you put into a vending machine to receive candy. And yet, in a corner of my mind, I confess I say them anyway just in case that’s actually how it works.
The words of the prayer flash through my mind.
“Son of Sarah Miriam,” for the mother is the source of compassion and healing, of the breast that suckles a baby. She feels the illness of her son in her bosom and is connected to wellsprings in a way a man is not. Joel’s mother died long ago; how will she help him now? May her memory and righteous deeds, may her loving soul watching over him, give him strength. I do not know if I agree with a theology that asserts that she can help, but I don’t care. You don’t pray according to a theological system.
“All his organs and limbs” is a strange phrase. Not so poetic, but down to earth. Body parts. His liver is broken. He’s yellow. Hospital rooms aren’t poetic; they’re ugly and bathed in harsh fluorescent light. They’re where you go when your liver doesn’t work. We’re not messing around with ideas now; heal his organs and limbs.
I say “a healing of soul” with yearning in my heart. Joel is broken. He needs hope and light, and he needs beyond what he can summon from himself. He needs strength and healing from somewhere else, from You. Please.
“Amongst all the sick of Israel” I don’t want to think about everybody else. Joel is 37. He has a wife and three children. He was studying to be a rabbi, for God’s sake. To serve You, damn it! But others are sick. Joel is a selfless guy; he’d tell me he’s not the only one. Even from a hospital bed, he’s a healer, he’s healing me. Heal him. Heal them all. Please.
I open my eyes and look at him again. A tear is in his eyes and I feel one in mine. The physical therapist moves toward the bed and I let go of Joel’s hand and turn away. We leave the room and walk down the sterile, quiet hallways of City of Hope hospital in silence and go out into another day of sunshine in Southern California.
Dedicated in loving memory of Joel Shickman (z"l), a rabbinical student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and Rosh Musica at Camp Ramah in California, who left the world on November 17, 2007/7 Kislev, 5768. Joel is survived by his wife, Heather, and their three sons, Coleman, Miles, and Ellis.
Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center of the American Jewish University.