April 19, 2024 -

Because My Mom Told Me So: Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Shabbat Mishpatim, Feb. 13, 2015

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is composed of the remarks shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at Kabbalat Shabbat Services on Friday, February 13, 2015. We encourage you to share this post, make comments below, and offer it to friends on Twitter and other social media, to engender discussion.

My wife Joanie and I recently had a familiar marital discussion. She asks me why I have such a big set of keys that I carry around, and I defend my oversized key ring with much bluster and exasperation, without ever really listening to the fact that she’s not criticizing me. She is just asking what all the keys are for. Helps to actually listen to what your wife is saying, now and then. Don’t you think?

Well, this this time it went a little differently. Joanie mentioned how much room on the bedside table is taken up by my keys. Then I looked at the keys, looked at Joanie, looked at the keys again, caught a glance of myself in the mirror, and realizing I don’t know what half the keys are for… I said … “O my God, I have become my mother.”

“I have become my mother.” You ever say that to yourself?

But truly I should only be so lucky as to be as talented as my mom. As a long time teacher of students with special needs, if you show my mom an IEP on a student that has a hundred labels explaining what the student can’t do. And her mind just as quickly begins to dream up 101 things the kid can do. As a parent, a grandparent, a sister and a friend, she greets anyone she encounters with an eye for the goodness we might possibly bring to bear. People have seen this her whole life. When Laurie Nosanchuk sees a cup almost anyone would agree is just about empty, she finds an angle by which to see the cup as one that is brimming over. Yes, Mrs. Nosanchuk grades on a curve… but the curve is in your favor.

My mother has always sought to convey that optimism to me, along with her tremendous work ethic. So she and my dad made it unambiguously clear what rules and ideals they were stressing with the hope of bringing order and meaning into my daily life. Sure, some of the rules had been worn down already by my older brothers. But I was left with no doubt what my parents thought led to security, well-being and direction.

What were some of their rules?

  • They taught me that your education that was as much about getting good grades as it was about learning to be a responsible person, a source of trustworthiness to the people in your life.
  • They taught me, much to many of your chagrin, to be loyal to my hometown teams. Somehow I got the message that lifting up loyalty to my home team, to my home school, to my home community and friends, whether they are in last place or a depressed place, whether your friend just won a big award, or whether his business just went bankrupt- was as important to your reputation as the name your parents gave you.
  • Finally, I remember being taught what Judaism says, only I learned that it was a Jewish value later. They taught me that a mitzvah you do begets other mitzvahs. And the reverse… that an abrogation of the law grows the likelihood of more law-breaking. I was raised in a mainstream Reform Jewish home, where a mitzvah was explained as something practical or mundane like drying the dishes after a meal, being willing to work at an event for a good cause, or helping a neighbor in medical treatment clear their sidewalks of snow even if they didn’t ask.

I don’t remember who taught it to me. But somehow I internalized the notion that doing a mitzvah kept you out of harm’s way. Do enough good and the world will save you from being hurt.

These were some of the rules I internalized. Just like the keys on my fat key ring, these were the keys to my my feeling safe and protected as I matured into adulthood. I look back on those keys to my upbringing, and realize that some of them open doors I still need them to. But others no longer seem to jive with reality, like the idea that doing mitzvot protect you from harm. But like my mother, I try to maintain a hopeful perspective on them anyway. Learning, loyalty, doing mitzvot, these keys to life may be homespun and old-fashioned. Yet even if they don’t protect you from getting hurt, they do open doorways to a richer life.

Our Torah portion, Mishpatim, could be described as a big fat key ring, with a mix of keys that are valuable and others that are just what we would hope would be common sense.  There are 53 separate mitzvot in this portoin.. and not one of them is sexy. No prohibitions against adultery here… nothing about coveting your neighbor’s possessions or setting high intentions for your Sabbath. Nope. The ordinances of Mishpatim are plain-spoken instruction book kind of rules, such as how you treat the people that work for you, what you do when your ox destroys a neighbors property, and whether and to whom you can charge interest on your loans.

Last week’s portion was much more exciting! It included spectacular fireworks and the Ten Commandments delivered in the in Adonai’s booming voice on top of a famous mountaintop. But this week- the rules that are delivered to the Israelites are ordinary, mundane things your momma could’ve taught you.

My colleague Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus in Homewood, Illinois, explains that as flashy and memorable as last week’s portion is, “No society can live on its lofty principles alone.” Beyond the Ten commandments, “society needs rules and standards to regulate commerce and other interactions, it needs limits to restrict baser human instincts, and it needs a system to adjudicate disputes.” This portion, Mishpatim, she explains, “take us down from the mountain to the presentation of laws that will [actually] guide and govern” our day-to-day conduct. (Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, Torah Commentary on Mishpatim, ReformJudaism.org)

I agree with her. It has been my experience that all of us need a combination of teachings that inspire us… and others that simply provide us with boundaries and instructions, reminders and simple rules guiding us to know why we are here and what we are alive to do.

This concept actually governs the spiritual leadership I offer to this congregation. Together with my colleagues, I want our members to have aspirational values to reach our arms high as we can reach. But I also want us to have relevant governing statutes that help us plant our feet firmly on the ground of this earth, making a difference in the “here” and “now.” Practically speaking, I certainly want your children and grandchildren to know how to sing the four questions on Passover. But I am also desperate for them to know how to write and ask their own questions- their own unscripted, unvarnished, uneasy questions that arise to their lips when life doesn’t make any sense or when living and loving hurt like hell.

  • After all, what good is the Torah’s teaching to love your neighbor when your neighbor acts as though the disease you just learned you have, which may irrevocably alter your quality of life is something you should just get over?
  • What use is the Torah’s example of Esau and Jacob reconciling, if your brother or sister stays hopelessly estranged and distant from you, and barely even knows your children or your life?
  • And to paraphrase questions asked in the last several weeks, as we have lost several congregants in tragic deaths, right in the midst of their lives, what good is the law and loyalty to our tradition, if you can suddenly, without warning, be taken from your family?

I have to admit. It is a struggle to answer these questions. I am encouraged by friends to whom I ask guidance to let the Torah be the foundation of my answer- as Torah is the point of departure for the morality of our faith. But lately– the hurts our families have sustained, things seem out of control. In such an environment, it’s hard to see beyond the fear that life will never be the same.

A story.

There was group attending a stress-reduction seminar led by a widely respected author. At the beginning of the seminar, the facilitator stepped up to the blackboard and in the center he drew a square made up of nine dots, arranged in three parallel lines with three dots in each line. Can you picture it?

Then he challenged everyone in the class to take the piece of chalk and see if the participants could connect all the dots using only four straight lines, without removing the chalk from the blackboard, and without retracing the line. One by one, all thirty of the people in the room went up to the blackboard. They tried beginning from the left, from the right, from the top, from the bottom, and returned to their seats frustrated, unable to do what they were asked. The room was simply vibrating with stress.

But then… the instructor went up to the blackboard, picked up the chalk, and with great sweeping strokes that extended well beyond the perimeter of the small square, did exactly what he had challenged the participants to do.

Every one of the participants had presumed that to succeed they had to stay within the circumscribed area formed by the nine dots. But he had never told them they were limited to that space. Still, all of them concluded that the confines of the small box were the only area in which they had to move and find options. Not one of them could see beyond that assumption.

Why is that so? Why did every one of the participants make the same confining, narrowing assumption? Is it a loss of courage? A lack of creativity? A flaw in our education, or something we can blame our moms and dads for never teaching us?

I think it is only human. We stay in the narrowest space for the same reason we are confounded to open the huge doors of life’s most difficult unfairnesses with with nothing but a bunch of old-fashioned keys on a ring.  It can’t be done… and this leaves us with nothing but fear.

“Fear,”  writes author Sharon Salzberg, “strangles our creativity, restricts our vision…and when we are deeply afraid, we view any change as a threat and the unfamiliar as a mortal enemy.” Yet she continues a bit further to remind us that “being alive necessarily means uncertainty and risk, times of going into the unknown. If we withdraw from the flow of life, our hearts contract. We hold back so much that we feel separate from our own bodies and minds, separate from other people, even people we really care about. In the grip of…intense emotions, like grief and jealousy, we might feel anguish, but fear shuts us down, arrests the life-force. To be driven by fear…[then]…is like dying inside.” (Sharon Salzberg, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2002)

I so see her point. I know that feeling of shutting down and nearly dying inside. But I have learned that it is a pitifully poor response to encountering the traumas that touch our lives. It is human, of course, utterly painfully, tragically human to retract from others and withdraw from the very things we know might offer us healing when disasters touch the people we love.

I know that for me, in such moments I hide in my cave. But if I’m hurting and afraid, even if you are standing right outside the cave and telling me it is safe to come out… chances are I am going to crawl further into the cave… before ever developing the courage to walk step by step out into an unforeseen future. In this way, I’m nothing like my mother, and thank God. That way I can lean on her, ask her advice. But ultimately all any of us have is what is inside of us to get us out of the narrow and confined spaces of life.

That’s where I think… we have to start thinking like the instructor in that stress reduction seminar. And give ourselves permission to draw great big sweeping strokes on the blackboard, and connect the dots any damn way we please…expressing ourselves with individuality, with creativity, and with a vision for what you can make not of the nine dots on a board you’d dream to win in a lottery… but with the last nine dots keeping you solvent, sane, or allowing you to hold a measure of dignity.

What I’m trying to say is…whether this Shabbat you are hurting because of a recent trauma in your life… or leaping for joy because of a great big piece of pride and naches you are experiencing, or somewhere in between…if you can imagine it- what kind of connect-the-dots picture would you make tonight with chalk on a board? And what does your picture say about you? What value does it represent? What door does your picture open to an even brighter day than the one in which we are now living?

Rabbi David Wolpe of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles tells a story about how his grandfather died when Rabbi Wolpe’s dad was only eleven. He was an only child… so he bore much of his grief alone. A traditional Jew, he would walk to synagogue each morning to say prayers in his father’s memory, for a year after his father died.

At the end of the first week, he noticed that Mr. Einstein from the synagogue walked past his home just as he left to walk to shul. Mr. Einstein, already advanced in years, explained to the eleven year old boy, “Your home is on the way to the synagogue. I thought it might be fun to have some company on my walk. So I’m walking by your house, so I won’t have to walk alone.”

For the rest of that whole year, Rabbi Wolpe’s dad and Mr. Einstein walked…through the humidity of the summer and the snow of the winter. Along the way, they’d talk. They’d talk about life and loss and meanwhile a little boy mourning his dad was not so alone at a time when he might’ve felt terribly alone.

When Rabbi Wolpe’s dad grew up, he called Mr. Einstein, now well into his nineties, and asked him if he might like to meet his new wife and child. Mr. Einstein agreed, but in view of his old age, he said that Rabbi Wolpe’s dad would have to come to him. He took down the directions, got his son and his wife into the car and began to drive….

…And weep… for he realized the journey to Mr. Einstein’s home was long and complicated. His home, even by car, was a full twenty minutes away. He realized that during the loneliest time in his life, a man he barely knew but with whom he shared a shul had walked an hour a day for nearly a year, just so he wouldn’t have to walk alone. By the simplest of gestures, Mr. Einstein had shown caring to a frightened child, and a path to walk again with confidence and with faith back into life.

(Rabbi David Wolpe, Why Faith Matters (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008)


I love that story.

The reason is that tonight…in the midst of a cold and sometimes lonely Cleveland winter, after too many tragic deaths in too short of a time… I am visualizing no more than nine dots on a blackboard. But because you and I are here together, I can imagine how we can without lifting the chalk up from the board… draw…a picture of the path from Mr. Einstein’s house…to the house of an eleven year old, grieving boy… to his temple and back.

It is a path of chesed, of kindness, a path of bitachon, of trust, and one of emunah, faith.

Why can I see that path of kindness, of trust and faith? For two reasons.

One is that I have no other choice. Staying holed up inside a cave is simply not an option on the table our tradition sets before us. We are taught that blessing and curse, life and death will be set before us. But we must choose life, that our children might live and be well! So the best Jewish thing to do when you feel boxed up like you can’t breathe because you are so sad or scared…is to create a path out of the cave and back into the fresh air around us, and to the people who love us…some that we know and others who simply show up to support us.

And the other reason I can see that path? Well it’s the reason for most of the things I ever learned as a kid, and probably you as well. Because my mom told me so.

Thank God.