On the corner of two local through-streets sits my favorite church. Westminster Presbyterian is a local landmark. It towers over the elementary school to its right and the firehouse to its left. You can’t miss it. In fact, if you fly into Reagan National Airport and the approach is from the south, its steeple is clearly visible as you land, sticking up from the canopy of trees. The church helps to fund the annual budget by housing a cell tower up there for at least two major carriers.
Westminster is my favorite for a lot of reasons, including the dear friend of mine who leads it. It is home to a remarkable group of members who were the vast majority of the last social experience I had before the pandemic forced us all into isolation. They helped Pastor Larry Hayward, Pastor Maggie Hayward (yes, they are married; no, they are not co-pastors) and me fill two whole buses to tour Israel at the end of February. It was our third interfaith trip.
The population of the church, like most religious communities in the DC area, includes lots of people doing the ordinary things that ordinary people do, and a smattering of people whose professions influence the course of the nation. They are Democrats, Republicans, fierce independents, natural-born citizens, immigrants, wealthy and just-getting-by. And, to a person, welcoming.
I used to have an almost-infallible memory for names. But as I have gotten older and the sheer number of people I meet has ballooned, I am not quite so confident. So to avoid embarrassing myself, I now almost always greet people I sort-of know by saying “Hi, I’m Jack Moline.” By putting it out there that they might not remember me, my hope is that they will reply with their own names. The ritual continues with one or both of us responding, “of course I know you.” Mostly, it is true.
When it is not, it at least provides some context for the encounter. I have been introduced to one political figure many times, and he never remembers who I am. That’s just fine, because he meets a gazillion people a year. But my name and my yarmulke always trigger his memory, and the conversation always turns to whatever Bible passage he has been reading that week. It is refreshingly different from the “nice-to-meetcha” mantra that is otherwise inevitable.
The other result of my name game is to remind myself that I should not presume that other people know who I am. It is a lesson in humility that is worth learning and relearning when you live a semi-public life and can be seduced by the notion that you are kind of a big deal. (I was once at a social function, standing next to my wife, when a guy I did not recognize came up and tried to hit on her. When he asked her name, he recognized “Moline” and said, “Are you related to Rabbi Jack Moline?” “He is my husband,” she answered. “How is Jack doing?” he asked. “Why don’t you ask him yourself,” she said, “He is standing right next to me.”)
As I said, Westminster is a local landmark. Its big front doors open to the intersection on Sunday mornings. The courtyard next to the sanctuary is a surprisingly effective refuge from the traffic on the street. The parking lot across from the fire station takes up half a block and backs up to the park behind the school. The large marquee sign planted toward both cross (!) streets usually advertises the topic of the sermon ahead, along with which clergy person will be preaching. (Lately, it offers options for on-line and limited in-person attendance). You can’t miss it. If you park in the lot and enter the door that leads to the church offices, the chapel, the meeting rooms and classrooms and the best place to hang your coat on the way to the sanctuary, you absolutely know where you are going. You would not think you were entering George Mason Elementary School or Fire Station #3.
But posted right next to the door is a modest sign on which are painted the letters spelling “Westminster Presbyterian Church.” Just in case you don’t remember. Just in case you don’t know. Just so you know you are in the right place. Just so you know you are welcome.
It is a lesson in humility worth learning and relearning.
I have a friend who holds elective office who called me last week to ask me an ethical question. They were offered the opportunity to jump ahead of the line and receive the covid vaccine months before they would be otherwise eligible.
It was tempting. People in their family were immuno-compromised and the conduct of the office would be much easier without the constant fear of exposure to staff, constituents and others whose level of contagion was indeterminable. They asked me as a rabbi – is it ethical?
Before I tell you what I said, let me own up to envy. I am 68 years old and I have two medical conditions that put me in the third tier of eligibility. Once the health care workers and nursing home residents are inoculated, I will be next. But since Thanksgiving, thanks to the expected (and realized) surge of cases, I have diligently followed CDC recommendations and kept away from just about everyone. I haven’t gone to the grocery store, gotten a haircut, picked up my prescriptions, personally patronized the local businesses I have tried to support. Someone else (usually my younger and healthier wife) has done all of those things for me, except for the haircut (which you would know immediately if you saw me, which you won’t).
Each day, I get my exercise in by walking for close to an hour on a route that gives me plenty of room to stay multiples of six feet away from any other human being. If I see someone I recognize, I wave and shout.
I have not held my grandchildren, who live just an hour away, in just about four months. I know that still makes me luckier than a lot of people, but four months in the life of a toddler is a forever of new experiences.
My routine is routine. It includes reading the newspaper each morning and, not unusually for someone my age, watching both local and national news on television each evening. Even if you get your news from Facebook or Twitter, you know what I encounter every day.
The pandemic stories do not vary, but they still break my heart. Nurses in tears because they have never lost so many patients. Families devastated for the crime of a birthday party. A wizened doctor pleading with people to wear a mask so they won’t die. Grandmothers sitting in mile-long lines of cars hoping for a test or a bag of food. Single moms worried that they will be evicted because the rent is six months overdue and public assistance has evaporated.
But aside from the horrifying loss of life, the worst story for me was about the clinic that somehow got hold of a few hundred doses of vaccine and made them available to members of the owners’ faith community. Black market Moderna, as if they were starving Jews living in the ghetto.
Jews they were, as a matter of fact. They were willing to take those doses away from the doctors who were treating strangers in ambulances, from frail elderly imprisoned in nursing homes, from EMTs and firefighters and police who were tending to the victims of belligerent bar-hopping with naked faces. They reached out to certain respected rabbis from their community, men who were rightly embarrassed to discover that they were receiving contraband. But they did not reach out to Catholic priests, to Imams, to hospital chaplains caring for their own broken-hearted communities.
The Talmud discusses the dilemma of two men stranded in the desert, one with just enough water to survive and the other with none. What should they do? If one drinks, the other dies. If both drink, both certainly die. The conclusion, taught by the pre-eminent rabbi of all time, Akiva, is that the person with the water must drink and survive. Tragic though it may seem, he may not forfeit his life for another, and he may not forfeit both lives for the sake of principle. His claim on life in a time of scarce resources is non-transferable.
Those diverted doses of vaccine were spoken-for. The clinic owners stole life from a beloved uncle, an overworked respiratory therapist, the kid who delivers their groceries.
I really, really miss my grandchildren.
I told my friend that, ethically, they could not jump the line.
There is a blessing in my tradition that acknowledges a unique transition for parent and child. When that child comes of age – the tradition has settled on age 12 or 13 – parents recite words of praise and acknowledgment of God “who has released me from the punishment of this one.”
The belief system of most modern Jews gets in the way of understanding the meaning of that blessing. Children are not a punishment, and in our times, parenting is not over as puberty begins. Rather, a child is not considered to have moral agency until adulthood. They may understand right and wrong, but they are considered exempt from liability for their actions until they reach the age at which they can be presumed to have the judgment to be responsible for their actions.
But the moral order of the universe demands that no bad deed go unpunished. So, during those years that a parent is responsible for the moral formation of the child, Jewish tradition posits that the misdeeds of the child will be visited on the parents. When the child crosses the threshold to being a grown-up, the parent is relieved (both theologically and emotionally) and no longer held accountable for the consequences of the son’s or daughter’s behaviors.
It's not the child who is the punishment, nor the raising of the child. The parent is grateful not to be held responsible for another’s behavior. The concept is akin to putting a ship into port; the captain, relieved to no longer be responsible for the vessel and the lives on board, expresses gratitude, no matter how satisfying the voyage.
I am writing this column on July 1, 2020. In an alternate version of my life, today would have been the first day after the last day of my career as a synagogue rabbi. The agreement I had with my long-time congregation was set to expire yesterday, the end of an arrangement we entered when I was still responsible for all three of our children, who are now in their thirties. The details are unimportant except that the congregation and I wisely built in moments of reconsideration, and six years ago I exercised that option. In my opinion, I could no longer provide the care and attention my congregants deserved.
I am asked all the time if I miss it, and the answer is an unmitigated “no.” I think I did pretty well during close to thirty-five years, and I held myself to a standard of integrity I was no longer able to uphold to my satisfaction. Relieved of the expectations that come with leading a community, I have had the freedom to reconsider my own beliefs and practices. They are clarified in a way that put me at odds with some of the most important responsibilities of a community’s rabbi. I was right to retire.
I am asked rarely if it has been easy, but if I were, the answer also would be “no.” Maybe I had a romantic notion of what it would be like to be a “Jew in the pew,” but it was an unrequited romance. I did nothing to prepare my congregation to deal with a local emeritus. They did less. Without that guidance, my sense was that I was like (you should pardon the expression) the ghost of Christmas past – undeniable, but not especially welcome. My hopes of finding a place to contribute to and benefit from my community did not come to fruition; in fact, they were regularly frustrated. For a long time, I was resentful.
A different set of emotions has taken hold during these peculiar months of quarantine. Understanding that no amount of objection in my heart would change the decisions about my role that have become the default settings in the synagogue was an important first step. I could argue their wisdom or foolishness, but the debate would never be settled. No one aside from me was even interested – at this point, both understandable and practical.
But I ask myself what my life would be like during this pandemic if I had the responsibility in the last fifteen weeks of my tenure to reimagine entirely the way to care for a congregation I had pastored for more than thirty years. If my energy and integrity to lead the synagogue was insufficient in more normative times, toughing things out in quiet distress could have only undermined the necessary changes in this time of challenge. Knowing myself as I do, I would have suffered from a deep sense of inadequacy and taken on myself any decline in its vitality and ethos of community.
Never mind, by the way, that my inclination to hold myself liable for shortcomings (yet not commendable for successes) was likely a major contributor to my exhaustion before my time. The serendipity of my earlier choice has brought some clarity to at least some part of this specific day. I would have borne the responsibility and, in some measure, punished myself, as most rabbis do, for the sins of omission and commission during these weird and unfamiliar times. To exploit the metaphor of the ship, I am grateful that a new captain took over in the last port, because I am not sure I would have put into this port successfully.
So, it seems right and proper to recite the aforementioned blessing on this day. I can’t remember if I said it six years ago; if I did, it was in a very different state of mind. Today, I understand it as I believe it was intended: a recognition that, having met my obligations to others, it is now incumbent upon them to meet their obligations to themselves.
My first sabbatical from my work as a rabbi came eleven years after I arrived at my pulpit. I was exhausted, and I spent much of the first half of my six months trying to regain some equilibrium. I began to refer to it as “emotional rehab.”
In the course of reflecting on the process, I realized that the demands on my emotions had overwhelmed them. I was expected to take care of my congregants, to acknowledge their experiences and to support them in their passages through the reactions they felt. I was allowed to be sad at a death, but not to be dissolved by grief. I could rejoice at a birth, but not be carried away by it. I was expected to be supportive of the bar or bat mitzvah student, but only very carefully critical. As a result, I became adept at tamping down my emotional reactions; it soon became (to mix the metaphor) muscle memory. Eventually, I was fried. My emotions had been cauterized.
What kind of a life is one without feelings? I was starved to experience the range of emotions as I once had. They had to be intense to get past the scars and scabs that had formed. And what emotion has that power? Anger, of course. I became an anger junkie. I looked constantly for opportunities to feel outraged, insulted, unpleasantly shocked or infuriated. It was no way for a rabbi to be.
I recovered pretty well after six months, and I was able to recognize the signs of relapse. I’d like to think I also became more aware of the cauterization of emotions that others were experiencing. Not everyone reacted the same way to the need to resist being swept away and, therefore, suppressing feelings. But when enough people do so it can have a spill-over effect on society as a whole.
That’s why I believe we are living in an age of cauterization.
There is no doubt that we are experiencing change in almost every corner of our lives. The result has nothing to do with the desirability of that change, rather the fact of it. Nothing is reliably the same any more. Technology enhances and intrudes on our daily existence. Sexuality, sexual identity, sexual orientation and same-sex relationships have become variegated notions, a challenge for people who feel uncomfortable with the very word “sex.” Weapons are presumed to be everywhere – the theater, the airport, the school, the church, the neighborhood. Fewer and fewer people affirm what was assumed to be universal – God – and those who continue to believe dismiss beliefs at variance with their own. Even television, which a generation ago called families to the same room at the same time (quality aside), now has splintered those who stream their preferences on multiple screens and devices.
How does a person respond? It is simply not possible to cope with the constant anxieties and confusion that result from constant change. Merely maintaining an equilibrium takes emotional energy that cannot be spent elsewhere. Public figures have famously railed about “political correctness” (which is itself an expired idiom), but they offer no reassurance to those whose nerves are frayed and who fear that they will be without capacity to gain a footing in a shifting landscape.
We are afraid of love. We are afraid of what we hear. And we are afraid to laugh. It seems to many that there is someone waiting to level an accusation of inappropriate, even criminal behavior. Making ourselves vulnerable provides an opening for what we suspect will be a frontal attack. We rehearse new words, new phrases, even new pronouns and cauterize our genuine feelings that need time and space to adjust to the changes that inundate us.
What is left to feel? What emotion has the intensity to get past the scabs and the scars? Anger, of course. We have become anger junkies, gathering by the thousands to cheer insults against others, mouthing personal attacks against former friends and allies, belittling the people who disagree with us rather than engaging the disagreement. Every challenge is deemed bullying. Every cruelty is deemed justified. Every motive is deemed nefarious.
It is no way for a rabbi to be. And it is no way for anyone else to be. And it is especially no way for a nation to be.
Dr. King famously lifted up the beloved community. The phrase has specific meaning, but never mind what it is. Go with the very idea. Every member beloved. The chorus of voices and ideas both harmonious and dissonant. Every encounter, an opportunity to delight. That’s what we need.
There are practices we can all develop that are curative – not just palliative, but curative. If you are deliberate about pursuing three things, you will be happier and therefore less angry.
The first is love. And by love, I also mean sex. Physical intimacy is just as important as platonic friendship, though there is nothing wrong with that either. The touch of another person, tender and sincere, is probably the most effective way to recover a sense of openness to the world. Physical intimacy is not necessarily the same as intercourse or any of the variations of what is euphemistically called penetration. A kiss, a back rub, a caress or an embrace gives each person the reassurance that they are desired and desirable. It is a gift that may be unexpected but is always hoped for.
Of course, love must always be invited, never coerced. And by that, I also mean sex. How ironic that the very same acts that can bring comfort and satisfaction when desired can further fray the nerve endings when imposed.
The second is listening. And by listening, I especially mean listening to music. Yes, you should show an interest in what other people have to say. But if you are hoping to rehabilitate your capacity to feel, there is no more effective place to lose your dullness than in the tension and release that is the essence of musical expression. I have my own preferences, and I suspect you have yours. But you should be open to opportunities you might not initially elect. I am always lifted by “The Blue Danube Waltz.” Lennon and McCartney’s “I Will” is my own favorite Beatle’s tune, and my kids are still embarrassed by my air guitar to their “Birthday.” But nothing opened my heart and my tear ducts like the performance by Yo-Yo Ma’s Goat Rodeo ensemble of an old Irish folksong, “All Through the Night.”
Not every kind of listening works for me. And by listening, I also mean music. Taste is a peculiar thing, very personal. Music can reinforce your need for anger, not only calm it down. Lyrics and volume that give expression to frustration or belligerence can serve as a release of tension or as reinforcement. More irony – not every song soothes.
The third is laughing. And by laughing, I also mean doing so inappropriately (occasionally). We seem to be in a period of time that disparages humor. I can’t imagine a world without laughter; laughter requires funny; funny always comes at the expense of something or someone (even if it is yourself). Laughter is a release, figuratively and literally. Like music, it involves tension and release. Most attempts to explain humor are dreary (and definitely unfunny). My personal favorite is “the sudden realization of the unexpected.” (I know – too Freudian.) The biggest laugh I ever got was in a college class in which my study group presented on “What Makes People Laugh.” We were mildly well received as we presented examples of various theories. I was assigned the conclusion, during which my friend Bob stood silently next to me. As I spoke, I slowly filled a pie pan with shaving cream. The laughter built with anticipation, but when I ended with Bob still silent and my pie pan full, there was a momentary sense of disappointment. Until I smacked him in the face with the pie. He was “injured,” even as a willing participant. He was exploited. Everyone laughed.
Laughing is not always a good thing. And by laughing, I also mean doing so inappropriately. I can’t measure where laughter leaves off and offense begins – it is a moving target. Funny-hilarious to some is funny-cruel to others. If the purpose of funny is to cause harm, the laughter is not palliative, it is anesthetizing, which seems to me to work against the benefit. But I encourage everyone to understanding the difference between stereotyping – not a funny word – and exploiting foibles – a very funny phrase. Yet another irony: if derision makes you happy, you are not really happy.
Love, listen, laugh. They are cures for emotional dullness and for the craving for feelings that makes us seek out anger. As individuals, we need all three. As a beloved community, we need all three. The scars and scabs on our collective receptors for joy and grief, awe and compassion, kindness and resolve can be softened and healed. And so can we.
More than five years ago I decided it was time to retire from being a pulpit rabbi. I was very tired all the time. It was harder and harder for me to give the members of the synagogue the care they deserved. And I no longer had the patience to deal gently with leaders who felt they could define the responsibilities that I had fulfilled as a rabbi, mostly admirably, for more than thirty years.
I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession