The Holiness of Asking for Help

This message on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is from Rabbi Andi Berlin, guest rabbi for the Fairmount Temple clergy team, shared on Rosh Hashanah morning, 2019. We encourage you to comment below or to share the link to this sermon on social media such as Twitter or Facebook to continue the important conversation it engenders.

This summer my dad was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He had surgery and is currently undergoing chemotherapy. My parents are also the primary care givers to my younger brother who has Down’s syndrome and is also about to have surgery.

Despite all of this, my dad recently texted me asking how my sermon topics were coming along. I wrote back that I had decided to preach about “The Holiness of Asking for Help.” He immediately texted me back and asked, “Uh, oh, I guess you just talked to your sister.”

My dad rightly surmised that I had just gotten off the phone with my sister as we tried to figure out how to help my parents. My parents who will not ask for help.

But are they that unusual? I am going to ask all of you to do something I learned from Dr. Brené Brown, the famous research professor, author, and modern thinker.

  • Raise your hand if you are comfortable asking for help.
  • Raise your hand if you would rather give help than ask for help.
    (Note: Very few raise their hand for the first question. It looked like the whole congregation raised their hand for the second.)

“When you cannot ask for help without self-judgment, you are never really offering help without judgment.”

What Dr. Brown is saying is that as long as we judge ourselves for needing help, our helping others comes with judgment. We are saying, “I don’t need help, but you do.”

And yet, at the very moment we were created, we knew we needed help. After God created one human being, God realized it was no good for humans to be alone. So what did God create? Not a friend, a lover, not a sibling, nor a child. No, when God created the second human, the Torah explains that God created an Ezer- עזר, a Helper. In her poem, Call Me By My Nickname Debra Robbins writes, “They were created as each other’s ezer k’negdo, meant to help one another and act as sacred partners with God. Each of them, each of us, made in God’s image, meant to help another.”

Even though we were written as helpers at the very inception of the human race, we are reluctant to call each other by this name, our ezer, our helper, by declaring, “I need help.”

Why are so many of us unwilling to speak up when we need assistance? What do we believe it says about us?

My family is the middle of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah circuit. Every month for the last 3 years, a friend or someone in one of my kids’ religious school classes celebrates their simcha. Earlier this year, when a few of us had gone out for drinks, one mom, Lydia, started tearing up. “It is so overwhelming,” she said. I was surprised to see this emotion. Of all the parents, Lydia seemed to have everything in hand. Another friend asked how we could help. Lydia was appalled, “I can’t ask you to help! You each had yours and didn’t need anything.” I started laughing, “Yes I did! I was just too embarrassed to ask.” Another friend asked me seriously, “I was too. Why do you think that is?” I realized my answer as it was leaving my mouth, “I didn’t want to seem like I was taking advantage.” That evening ended with the four of us sitting in Lydia’s den stuffing gift bags. The rest of us expressed regret that we were each too shy to turn to the others. My daughter had been the first of that group. I realized that if I had been brave enough to speak up, I would have done the others a favor. We all would have the extra hands we needed.

There is an old parable, originally told by Rabbi Chayim of Tsanz and included in the Gates of Prayer. A man was lost in the forest for several days. He finally saw another and cried out, “Brother! Show me the way out of the forest!” The other man replied, “I, too, am lost. The ways I have tried lead nowhere; they have only led me astray. Take my hand and let us search for the new way together.” Imagine these two strangers, grasping each other’s hands, finding the paths they had not yet tried. Imagine the intimacy, the bond, as they journeyed out of the forest together. Had either one been too proud to say, “I cannot do this alone, help me,” they would both still be lost in the forest. They would both be alone.

Instead, these two forest men became each other’s ezer, each other’s help. They fulfilled the promise of our creation; we can call out to one another and be each other’s help.

Last night, I spoke about allowing for joy even at this time of such political and environmental turmoil. Finding joy is a funny thing, it can pop up when one least expects. Our ability to turn to another can enable that burst of unexpected joy.

When I thought I had finished writing this sermon, I wanted a colleague to read it. I was worried, though, about burdening congregational rabbis with my request just before Shabbat. Then, I thought of a recent friend. I have gotten to know Rabbi Bob Loewy in the last few years. I felt embarrassed to reach out to him; we did not have that type of friendship, yet. However, given the topic of this sermon, encouraging everyone else to ask for help, I realized I did not have much of a choice. I asked him if he would review the sermon. As we were discussing it he said, “You know, asking for help can give someone else great joy, too.” I asked him what he meant. “This for example,” he explained, “Talking with a colleague about sermons, thinking about this and helping you prepare for Rosh Hashanah, I miss it. Being retired, I don’t get to do this anymore. You have given me such joy!” Knowing I can turn to Rabbi Loewy, and that he can respond, has deepened our friendship. In order to get there, though I had to show Rabbi Loewy my vulnerability. I had to risk him saying, “What? You aren’t closer to other colleagues…go ask them!” Rabbi Loewy did not say this. In fact, he made me feel like I was the one doing him a favor, giving him an opportunity to enjoy an aspect of the holidays he missed. Our hesitancy to ask for help could be depriving someone else of experiencing joy.

Sometimes, though, the difficulty in asking for help is more than just overcoming embarrassment. When we go through life transitions, we are often surprised by where the pain comes from. A transition can cause a shift in our identity, in how we view ourselves. In an attempt to ignore this shift, we may lose the valuable help we need.

I knew someone we will call Bill. Bill was a former football player. I met him when he was in his late 60’s. One could still see his football days in his physique. He was large, muscular, and agile. He worked as a mechanic and was the friend everyone called to help with physical tasks. He delighted in helping his friends move, in repairing fences, in laying out tons of gravel and pebbles in people’s yards. He was the problem solver among his circle, the first to volunteer and last to go home. He was also a smoker. Unbeknownst to all but his wife and son, he had emphysema. As it got worse, he could no longer hide is ailing health. Eventually he had to bring oxygen with him wherever he went. In talking about why he tried to hide it for so long, even when the family could have used help from the community, Bill explained, “I’m the one you all turn to. I’m the one who can fix it, carry it, install it. Who am I if I can no longer do that?”

Bill could not ask for help because in doing so, he lost his own sense of himself. When he shared this struggle, he cried for the first time in public. Much later he explained that at that very moment, the moment when he was forced to show his deepest vulnerability, an amazing, miraculous thing started to happen.  He said later, “I have never felt as close to other people as I do now. This damn disease has forced me to let you all see me, like really see me. And you all still love me. I can’t believe I waited this long to show my full self.” It was heartbreaking when Bill died shortly after that. At his funeral, a mutual friend said, “I will always be grateful for those last few months with Bill. I got to love him deeper and more authentically than I ever had before.”

Bill experienced what Dr. Brown refers to as the “power of vulnerability”. The strongest Bill had ever been was when he allowed himself to be vulnerable, when he allowed us to see him.

Our fear of asking for help is often born from our fear of being vulnerable. Not weak…vulnerable does not mean weak. Being afraid of showing our vulnerability is being afraid of being seen, fully and completely, by others.

Dr. Brown explains that vulnerability is the willingness to be emotionally exposed. She also explains that it is the birthplace of “love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.” How can we draw close to others if we do not let them see us? To ask for help, we must allow others to see us, we must be emotionally exposed. What a miracle it is that the very situations requiring us to reach out for help are the ones that create conditions in which we become closer to those around us!

Emotional exposure is frightening. What if we show ourselves fully and others do not love us more, or worse, reject what they see?

The way this is often expressed is by others saying they do not want to “burden” us. When someone says they do not want to be a burden, they are saying they do not believe they are worth it. They are not worth the help that is needed.

How I wish in a single sermon I could convince us otherwise! Think of the times you have helped others. How often have you thought, “Gee, I am willing to help this person, even though they just are not worth it.” If you do not think that about those you help in that way, how dare you think about yourself! Our worthiness as human beings does not come from what we have done, what we have accomplished, or how we look. Our worthiness as human beings comes from the Divine breath that exists inside each of us. Before God created two human helpers, God first built the holy vessel of our bodies out of the substances created before us. Then, God breathed through God’s nostrils into the holy human body in order to give us life. Our soul comes from the very source of all creation. With few exceptions, that divine spark exists inside each human being and makes all of us worthy, all of us deserving of help and love.

  • Raise your hand if you believe that others in this chapel deserve help, that others in this chapel deserve love.
    [Note: the entire congregation raised their hands.]

If your hand is up, then you have to believe you deserve it, too. Otherwise, you do not really think that those you love and help, actually deserve to be loved and helped.

We can also make it easier for others to ask for help. If they can trust we will be honest about our own limits, they will not have to worry as much about the burden they might place on us. If we expect our loved ones to ask for help, we must be honest in return by telling them when we cannot offer the help they need. We are worthy of setting limits and boundaries. Setting these limits frees others to ask us for help because they know we are capable of saying “no”.

When my dad accepted my help after his surgery, he allowed me into a holy process. He gave me the opportunity to fulfill the 5th commandment; that of honoring ones parents. My time with my parents that week felt holy, it felt deeper. By letting her friends stuff gift bags, Lydia brought us into her joyous event. This was holy. Bill, when he was able to accept help from his community, let them see his entire being, let them love him all the deeper. This, too, was holy. When I asked Rabbi Loewy for help, I gave him back some of what he missed from his career. That was holy, as well.

We were created to be other’s help, to be ezer. Anytime we join with others in assistant, we are being holy. For in those moments, we are truly standing in the image of God.

In psalm 121, the paslmist cries out, “esa einai el heharim, Mayin yvo ezri? I lift my eyes to the mountains, From where does my help come?” The answer? “Ezri, mayeem Adonoi…my help, my ezer, comes from God.” And now I ask, how? How does our help come from God?

We are answered by Genesis 1:18, “E’ese-lo ezer k’negdo…I will make helpers, each for the other.” God made us to help each other. Our help comes from God, because God gave us each other to be that help. Just as the psalmist looks up to the mountains and asks for help, may we too, look at the creations next to us, around us, loving us, and ask for their help, knowing we are worth their love and deserving of their care.