As a teaser for this post, I chose the image of Moses breaking the tablets more as a metaphor for how I felt after my diagnosis rather than what this is really telling. Here, Moses is pretty pissed at the Israelites for not trusting him or God that they were the chosen people. I’d be pissed too. Moses climbs a tall mountain, deals with bad weather, gets these heavy stone tablets, talked law with God, then has to schlep them down the mountain (and if he was then the same age as me, his knees would be killing him) only to find they were partying with a golden calf, worshiping it as a god. I chose this picture because I felt a betrayal by God and I was ready to break my covenant I worked much of my life to keep. The word Israel itself means “to wrestle ( with God) “. That’s what I did for months after I learned of my fate. Belief in faith was supposed to be for me a safe haven, a blanket of comfort. I’ll get into that in a little while.
What prompted me to choose this topic was watching an episode of The Crown. This particular episode focused on Prince Philip and the Apollo 11 mission. Prince Philip watched on TV in Buckingham Palace the live action from liftoff to landing on the moon and back again. When he watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, he was in awe of man’s achievement. Mind you, he was a stoic, hard, and less than sensitive person. He had no sense of spirituality. Instead, he claimed he was a man of action. He said as much when he addressed a group of priests on a spiritual retreat seeking meaning in their vocation. One thing the Prince wanted to do was to meet the astronauts to get their revelations of seeing the Earth from the moon and if God played a role in their experience. He got his wish and was able to get a 15 minute meeting alone with Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins. Once they were all seated opposite the Prince, he started working through his list of questions for them. None of his questions were technical, surprising from someone who is so pragmatic, they were all spiritual in nature. He asked what their respective thoughts were as they touched down on the moon and walking on the moon. Their answers surprised him: they said they had no time to think, they had procedures and protocols to follow and to be in constant communication with Houston. Even after the mission, they were just happy they got there and back in one piece. They were good old boys, good soldiers. Prince Philip was floored. He couldn’t believe that such achievement lacked spiritual depth. Later on in the program, he visited the priests again on their retreat and asked if he could join them so he could achieve some depth in his life.
For a good part of my childhood, Judaism was like the protocols and procedures the Apollo 11 astronauts used to get to and land on the moon and then to return to Earth. Those procedures had to be executed in a precise order. And those astronauts were well trained, practicing their routines until it became who they were, devoid of emotional or philosophical distraction, the very things Prince Philip wasn’t looking for from them. And so went my early religious education, lots of protocol and procedure, not so much on spiritual depth. I knew the language and the order of things, but not so much how to use it to live life more fully. The things that stayed with me are the values of Judaism: be charitable, practice Tikkun Olam (repair the world), welcome the stranger, and we are the hands of God. At Yeshiva, we were taught the Torah, the Halakha, Jewish law, (literally translated meaning ” how to behave”) , holidays, prayers, songs, etc. All of that was good for reiterating the tenets of religion, but integrating prayers in Old Hebrew as an adolescent, not so much. What I left Yeshiva with was the ability to walk into any synagogue and know what to do, and little desire to worship on a regular basis. What really turned me off happened just after my bar mitzvah. My local synagogue was a store front shul, attended mainly by elderly survivors of the Holocaust. My plight was that I was just of age to form a minyan (a minimum of ten men in order to conduct a service) . And wouldn’t you know it that every Friday night, there were just nine old worshipers in shul so they couldn’t get started without a tenth man. Given I was just bar mitzvahed, which means I was now a thirteen year old adult in the eyes of the Jewish community so was now duly qualified to be the tenth “man”. Now mind you, in the eyes of US and NY State law, I couldn’t smoke, drink, drive, or vote, but damn, I had the high honor of completing a minyan. You can imagine how I dreaded the Friday night doorbell ring by the rabbi, my mother getting my jacket and sending me out the door to synagogue. The only things that made the time tolerable was that I could understand if they were talking about me in Yiddish ( having grown up speaking it in my house) and getting a taste or two of Manischewitz wine during the kiddush prayers. Thankfully the service was quick because the worshipers knew the order of the liturgy and you can pray in Yiddish faster than any other language, maybe with the exception of Spanish.
By now, you can see why I lost the soulful part of religion and walked away from everything else I was taught. I will freely admit, though, that I also walked away with some strong values and a Jewish identity. To preserve that identity, I made a pledge to myself that I would always attend high holy day services no matter where I was and that has held true to this day.
Fast forward to the time I met Mary Ann, an Italian Catholic, and the agony of breaking the news to my mother that we were dating and would eventually marry. There are no medications besides anti-depressants that could have made that task less painful. When we married, we had both a priest and a rabbi co-officiate the ceremony. That set the stage for how we would celebrate religious holidays, both being true to our parents and tradition. Fast forward even more when we had a young family. We decided to celebrate both Jewish and Catholic holidays. I wrestled with that for sometime even though I felt strongly that I needed to fully honor and respect Mary Ann ‘s traditions as she did mine. After a time, for a variety of reasons, we moved out of Oakland and into Orinda where things changed in a relatively short period of time. After settling into our new neighborhood, I started looking for a temple to join. Fortunately for us we met the parents of one of Lucy’s elementary school friends who introduced us to what has become our congregation for the past twenty years. It was there Mary Ann decided to convert. During that process, she met a group of wonderful women, through which I developed a strong bond with their husbands and we all have been close ever since. So in pursuit of a place to worship, I found a strong and lasting community. Given how grateful I was, I wanted to give back what it gave me. I started volunteering, first by reviving the brotherhood group, next by starting a house band, then joining the Board and eventually becoming President of the temple (and to give you a sense of what that was like, at our annual blood drive, I would always wish the attending nurse good luck in finding blood in me because, as temple President, I had no more blood to give). I felt with all that, I was staying true to my faith by giving of myself so that God would look after me and allow me to pursue my dreams then and into retirement.
Then, without a sign or warning, my body started failing me which then lead to my diagnosis. It was at that moment when I found that all the years of religious training, commitment and service did little to prepare me to deal with it. I felt my covenant with God had been breached. To illustrate this point better, I’m going to try and sum it up with a joke.
Two old friends, Moses and Saul, attended synagogue for many years together. One Friday night service, Saul declares he is finally going to retire and that he is going to pray extra passionately to God who will hear his cry to win the lottery and retire comfortably. Well, a week goes by and, as usual, Saul sits next to Moses in temple. Moses leans over and asks Saul if God heard his plea and how much did he win in the lottery. Saul, a bit embarrassed and perturbed, tells Moses he didn’t win anything that week and is beginning to doubt God’s interest in listening to his prayers. Before leaving, he tells his friend he’ll give it another try. Another week goes by and again, sits next to Moses. Moses again leans over to Saul and asks the same question. “So, Mister Millionaire, how much did you win this week? ” Saul is visibly angry and declares to Moses,” Saul, for years I’ve proven my faith to God by coming to temple every week and praying mightily. And do you think the good Lord listened to my prayers at all? All I asked was simply to win one lottery and what do I get? Nothing! As far as I’m concerned, there is no God and I’m never setting foot in this place again. “ On his way home, the skies darken and, directly above his head, a beam of sunlight shines directly on him, followed by a booming voice, “Saul, meet me halfway, buy a ticket!”
Where am I going with this? Well, I feel like I not only bought one ticket, but many of them over the years. And what did I win? My dream of retirement? To be around to see a grandchild or celebrate my 50th anniversary? How is it that greedy malicious people live into their 90’s and my future is uncertain, already wheelchair bound? Hey God, whose side are you on anyway? Really, you’re letting grumpy, angry, and bitter people live long while me, a Yeshiva boy, an active temple member, even temple President, is now suffering from a disease that disabled me and will likely shorten my life way short of my statistically expected life span? I felt like the image I chose at the beginning of this posting where Moses comes down from the mountain, having put all of his faith in God ( he even heard God’s voice, damn it), is so pissed that he broke his covenant with God. Likely in his mind, it wasn’t supposed to work out that way. Hey, I couldn’t blame him because shit happens, even to folks like him.
Okay, I feel better now, thanks for indulging me. This type of rage I believe is typical of folks in similar situations to mine. I’m not going to dwell on it, now that I got that rage out of me. So where do I go from here? Like before, what have I learned that can directly support me to handle this? Where is my spiritual safety net? Sadly it’s not what I learned and have been practicing. It was enough for me to consider the same reaction as Saul in the joke above, “There is no God and I’m never setting foot in this place again.” But this is where wonder happens-when extreme adversity shakes you to your core.
I chose not to walk away from my history, my values, my identity, and my faith. It’s true to me that all of my religious protocol and procedure training prepared me to participate in temple when I was “normal”. But now, I ask myself, what benefit do I get from walking away from my identity, my community and even my sense of God? Even through my rage, it didn’t make sense to me to give up on inner faith. I’d be losing the opportunity to finally seek and truly find what my faith can do for me now.
As a result of all this, I decided it was time I really wrestled with God and call in all of my chits. While at temple these days ( I don’t go nearly as much as I used to), I use my time ignoring the protocols of the service and to engage in wrestling matches with God.
I decided to go another round with my faith, though it is a bit on shaky ground until I find out how to make this relationship work. I’m digging deeper to find the strength and stamina to defy the odds and use faith to make life meaningful and to feel confident that there is an energy surrounding us that defines us. What I am beginning to discover is a place within myself that I go to to find solace, calm, and hope. I have to believe that everything that surrounds me that makes life enjoyable and worthy is part of my spirituality, what some, including myself, is considered God. It’s my energy to affect others through my writing, through interaction with my friends and community, it’s the blessing of my family, it was the use of my hands in making beautiful things, it’s sitting outside in my wheelchair with the sun on my face, it’s my ability to eat a great meal along with a delicious cocktail, it’s writing a comforting letter to an asylum seeker and getting an answer back with a blessing, it’s getting sad, then recovering to a better place because I just let something go, it’s still being here for a little longer while others aren’t here to enjoy this crazy world. It’s the ability to decide your own faith and path. It’s all things beyond me yet guide and effect me.
So do I blame God for afflicting me? I do somewhat, but not enough to walk away because I need the spirit and love more than ever. Amen!
More to come…