Caring for others, caring for ourselves - a d'var Torah for parashat Yitro

Three scenes from congregational life


On Shabbat morning I give a blessing to a nonagenarian in my kahal, who when I was in rabbinic school used to shake my hand after every service I led and tell me "good job." He has been a pillar of so many different communities and institutions around these parts (among them the local high school basketball team). He hasn't come to daven in a long time and there is joy in seeing him back in his usual sanctuary seat. I offer to bring the aliyah to him (our small sanctuary is intimate) but he wants to come up to the bimah. He slowly and painstakingly brings his tzitzit to touch the Torah scroll and recites the blessing with his daughters; then I read "Honor your father and your mother" and the room murmurs with appreciation at the confluence of life and verse. What an extraordinary blessing, to be able to do this, even though my voice is occasionally a bit scratchy all morning long.



On Sunday morning I stand in for our usual Hebrew school storyteller and tell a fictionalized version of the story of Honi and the man who was planting a carob tree. Jane usually personalizes her stories, I've noticed. And having just read a version of the tale which is transplanted (as it were) into modern times, I decide to make the story about myself as a girl at a peach orchard in the Texas hill country. When we do our belated Tu BiShvat seder later in the morning and we reach the tale of Honi the kids make noises of recognition: they see what I did there. (I pause the seder to tell them the rest of the story -- about Honi sleeping for 70 years -- though I don't go as far as the ending, where he chooses death over solitude.) The dried figs are especially delicious, and the tiny cups of coconut water we drink in lieu of eating coconut. But my voice is only semi-present; I manage to lead them in a call-and-response rendition of Adamah v'shamayim but it's a near thing.



Today a light snow has fallen. The new year of the trees may have come and gone, but the landscape is a white page marked only by animal tracks: winter has returned. Today I have no voice at all. An opportunity to imagine myself on a silent meditation retreat, I suppose, and to consider carefully everything I want to say before I type or write. Some of the things I do, as a rabbi, can be done in silence: emails following up on conversations, leaving little notes for congregants on Facebook, arranging this and that, planning future Hebrew school lessons for days when I have the voice to offer them. But most of what I do, I'm realizing, requires voice. My pastoral presence relies on my ability to respond to what's said. Even Torah study, our tradition teaches, is best done in hevruta, in the context of the friendship which arises through the back-and-forth of learning in conversation. What will I learn, I wonder, from the Torah of this experience, being temporarily unable to speak?