Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Yitro 5781 Nechemta
Why is asking for help so hard? Why do we resist it so much?
Anna, we need your message this Shabbat. You were given the Torah portion of revelation, when we stand at Mount Sinai to receive Torah from God, but you chose a section of Torah before the main event, a section which may contain the revelation we need most this particular year. Moses was resistant to ask for help and learned to overcome that resistance. Here we are in month eleven of the pandemic. You taught us that we all need to learn how to ask for help.
Would that we could emerge from this long, difficult experience of isolation, of lockdown, of illness, of grieving, of boredom, of loneliness having learned to ask for help. Would that we could emerge from this pandemic more aware of what we need, and more comfortable with having needs.
This concept has implications at every level–personal, interpersonal, communal, societal, cosmic.
The first step in all of this is knowing at any given moment what we need. For many of us, the demands of our days require us to push through our needs, leading us to habitually ignore them. From there it can sometimes be hard to figure out what they are. How often when you reach for a snack are you actually thirsty? How often when you scroll through social media do you really need to go outside? How often when you watch TV do you really want to go to sleep? How often when you are cranky do you really need a hug? It’s pretty hard to ask for help if you don’t know what you need. Lately I’ve been practicing asking myself “What do I need right now?” It’s revelatory.
Next is taking the risk to ask for what you need or want. I realized recently that I wanted to talk to my old friend in San Francisco every day. I wanted a daily check in. That felt like a big ask, and even though we’re such good friends I was a little afraid. But she was delighted, and now we speak to each other every day. And she loved that I was vulnerable and told her what I needed. It made her feel closer to me.
If you think about it, love is wanting another person to have everything they need. Love is wanting another person to be happy. No one of us can give any other of us everything we need and want. But if we don’t take the risk to tell each other what we need, we never give each other the opportunity to show love. When someone does something kind for us, when someone willingly meets a need that we express, it also makes them feel good. We all are looking for opportunities to love. We want to love each other. So if I’m so busy being self-sufficient, where does that leave you?
This Wednesday my dog Ellie died. She had cancer. And on top of that my dad’s been in the hospital. I’m really sad. And my kids are really sad. A member of this community asked if her family could get me anything at the grocery store. And another member asked if she could make me soup. And another asked if she could bring me a care package. Not long ago I would have said, “No, thank you, we’re fine.” Truth is, I had made my own soup, I had shopped for my own groceries. But I said yes anyway, because a gift of soup and a handful of groceries that I forgot to get at my last shop and a thoughtful Shabbat care package made all of the difference for me. It wasn’t the food, it was the love. I felt cared for. I felt really grateful. And I felt so much more able to give love to the next person who needs it from me.
That’s how the world should be. Maximizing our opportunity to love each other. Right now Congress is debating President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID aid package. This conversation fits into a long history of our country debating whether people should be given help. Should single mothers get help with the costs of raising their children? Should poor families get help putting food on the table or paying rent? Should new home buyers get help with a down payment? Should new parents get time off to care for their babies? Should people without homes be given help to find and keep a home? Should people with mental illness or drug addiction have all the help they need to treat it? Should sick people get help paying for medical care or medicine? In this country we have such a strong idea that we’re supposed to do it all ourselves, that there’s something wrong with us if we need help. We lag behind the rest of the world in caring for each other through public policy. We‘re different from the rest of the world in expecting people to have no needs. The last thing you want to be in America is needy.
That environment, that culture, has to contribute to our reaction when someone says, “Hey can I do anything to help you right now? Do you need anything?” “No, no, no, I’m fine. I’ll be OK. I don’t need anything.”
Guess what? Some of the most important voices in Jewish history argue that the essence of Judaism is about neediness. God’s neediness.
Check it out. Right after the section of Torah you focused on today, Anna, we have the big dramatic scene at Mount Sinai. “On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai… Israel encamped there in front of the mountain, and Moses went up to God. Adonai called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you …declare to the children of Israel:‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.’”
God needs humans. In particular, according to Torah, God needs Jews. The entire Exodus story is God putting on a huge fireworks show of plagues and miracles so that the Israelites will see God’s power, will pay attention to God, will love God. And now, at Mount Sinai, God is begging the people to follow God’s ways, to keep God’s commandments, to be God’s people. “You saw what I did to the Egyptians, you saw that I brought you right here to Me, on eagles wings.” Can’t you see how powerful I am? Can’t you see how much I love you? This pleading will continue throughout Torah and the Prophets. God wants us. God wants our love, our attention, our praise, our commitment, our loyalty, our actions. That’s what covenant is all about, that’s what Torah is all about. And Prophets, and Kabbalah, and in modern times it’s the message most clearly conveyed in the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel.
“Judaism is God’s quest for man,” Heschel says. “The Bible is a record of God’s approach to God’s people. More statements are found in the Bible about God’s love for Israel than about Israel’s love for God.”
Why does God need us so much? Kabbalah teaches that God’s power depends upon human action. The Zohar describes God as saying “When Israel is found worthy below [by doing mitzvot, by acting righteously], my power prevails in the universe, but when she is unworthy, I am weakened above.” Heschel calls God’s dependence and longing pathos, calling it the central idea in prophetic theology, ….the theme of God in search of man,…the summary of Jewish theology.”
If God can be needy, surely we can too. We are born needing each other. In a couple of months we are going to be launching a whole new level of chesed activity at CBE, meaning that we are going to be reaching out to help each other all throughout our lives. When a baby is born, when a loved one dies, when a family is celebrating, when someone is sick, when someone is alone, when someone needs help. We are going to be creating a microcosm of that world that should be. The world where we maximize opportunities for love. The world where everyone is cared for. In order to do that, each of you are needed. Of course you’re needed to bring each other meals and show up at shiva minyans. Of course, that’s going to become part of our basic identity at CBE–just who we are and what we do. But no, I don’t mean that. I mean you’re needed to do something much more difficult. We need you to ask for help. That’s the harder part. We need you to say, yes, I would really love some soup. Yes, I forgot five things at the store and if you could pick them up for me that would be amazing. Yes, you want to bring me a challah and some wine because I had a death this week, I would be so grateful to receive that. I need help getting to the doctor, can someone drive me? I need help getting a vaccine appointment, can someone sign me up? I need help with meals this week. I’m lonely and would really love it if someone would call me.
Would that we could emerge from this pandemic knowing what we need and knowing how to ask for it. Would that we emerge from this pandemic having practiced a new kind of community that mirrors the world that should be. Would that we emerge from this pandemic maximizing opportunities to love. To love God, to love ourselves, to love each other. Let this be our Torah. Let this be our revelation.
Ken Yehi Ratzon.