Rosh Hashana sermon by Rabbi Paul Jacobson

Without Ulterior Motive

In her first day of service on the medical wards, Dr Danielle Ofri was charged with visiting Mrs. Dora Millstein, an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease who had fallen and hit her head.  The plan was to put Dora on a permanent feeding tube and then return her to her nursing home.  Ofri remarks, “I was ashamed to admit it, but I was perversely thankful for the numerous comatose patients on my service, because they made rounds faster and left me more time to concentrate on the active [patients,]…and the ones who spoke English.”[1] Ofri was simply looking to cross Dora off her list and move on.

All seemed to be in order when Dora succumbed to a fever.  Under such conditions, she could not be transferred from the ward.  She remained Ofri’s responsibility.  And what began as a mere medical obligation, another name on the list to be quickly transferred, became instead a labour of love.  Ofri explains:

I went back to Mrs. Millstein’s room.  I put down my bag, pulled up the empty visitor’s chair, and sat next to Mrs. Millstein.  Next to Dora….Dora’s left arm lay open on the bed, atop the neatly tucked white sheet.  There were the numbers….

Haltingly, I placed my index finger on the numbers….I was touching Dora’s skin, the same skin that had been wrenched by a Nazi soldier, stabbed with a metal plate of tattoo needles, and then abraded with blue ink rubbed into the wounds….

More than a half-century later, I was standing in the same position and handling the very same flesh as that Nazi….I was grateful that, between then and now, this skin had at least felt decades of loving touch from a devoted sister and a husband—sixty years of caresses to mitigate, somewhat, the vicious touch that had assaulted the tender underside of this arm and branded it with these numbers.  And now I was part of that chain of touch.[2]

Ofri departed Dora’s bedside.  And Dora died some thirty minutes later.  The next morning, when Ofri learned of Dora’s death, she wondered, of all of the fingers that touched Dora in her eighty years of life, if hers had been the last. Ofri concluded, “Many industries have been automated, and medicine is no exception….[But] in the end, medicine will always be about one patient and one physician together in one room, connecting through the most basic of communication systems: touch….Medicine simply cannot be automated beyond this point.”[3]

Since that fateful first day on the wards, Ofri has cared for countless patients.  And in addition to her work as a physician, she has authored three books, and written regularly for The New York Times about the emotional and very human connection between doctor and patient.[4] Ofri has learned and taught that our relationships with one another cannot be automated.  The power of genuine human encounter is revealed when we take the time and space to be present with another person, even in a case like Ofri’s, where she could expect nothing in return from Dora.

But for most of us, finding a place for genuine, sacred relationship is a hard-fought battle.  If we are fortunate, we might have such a relationship with our spouse.  In the often-fraught world of family, we might try to nurture, successfully or unsuccessfully, such a relationship with our parents, our children, and our siblings – but finding genuineness and sacredness in family, especially extended family, is usually easier said than done.  If we are lucky, we might feel comfortable showing our true self to a limited circle of friends and colleagues.  Today’s fast-paced, frenetic, online world gives us the impression that we are “friends” with each other.  We think that we are connected, networked, and even “Linked In” to one another, but the sad truth is that we aren’t.

Establishing relationships grounded in emotional intimacy is hard work. And even when we are willing to put in those proverbial hard yards, we know that it takes years to nurture a relationship and mere seconds – an inconsiderate word, a thoughtless gesture, an off-hand but offensive remark, a misunderstood E-mail – to destroy that relationship.

And we also consider our relationships with the wider community and with God.  Our synagogue, a bet Knesset, a house of community, is supposed to be a place where we create opportunities for meaningful, interpersonal relationship.  But how deep are our relationships if the people in the next row are strangers to us?  Is this community?  Regarding God, when one of the most widely read books in the Jewish community in the past year is Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, when we proudly proclaim to one another and to our children, that we do not believe in God, or state firmly that God is an unnecessary part of our lives, we have a problem that we need to address as a people.  If we are going to preserve the timeless covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people, we will need, going forward, to put in the hard yards.  And we’re going to need to search within ourselves, even if such a religious search pushes our boundaries, raises questions, and pushes us beyond the bounds of sheer comfort and complacency.

The reality surrounding the depth and character of our relationships today – from family, to community, to God – is painful and lacking. We’re too busy.  We’re not interested.  All we want to know is, “What’s in it for me?”  This is a sad truth within our lives.  And no matter how strong many of our relationships may be none of us gets it completely right all the time – not personally, not professionally, and not communally.  And that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?

More than the fear of God, the desire to learn Torah, or the interest in hearing the rabbi’s sermon, what draws us to the synagogue at this time of year, is a need for healing in our relationships, a need to begin again.  How many of us have been hurt in a relationship this year, perhaps by another person’s selfishness?  How many of us have been selfish, and caused another person pain – knowingly or inadvertently?  Is anybody feeling guilty about how they’ve acted in relationship with another person?  Even with all of our successes, accomplishments and joys, there isn’t a single person among us who doesn’t want to erase the pain and torment, the hassle, the hurt and the heartbreak, of the past year and start afresh.  And so we come for a few hours, we think, we reflect, we sing, and we hope to walk away with some semblance of inspiration that will somehow make the world and our very fragile, human existence seem just a little bit lighter.  For we wouldn’t be here if our relationships were perfect.

But as the very fabric of our collective existence in life, creating strong, even sacred relationships with one another is absolutely necessary.  So what can we do that will help to bring about that healing, that fresh start that we crave?  If 5773 is to present opportunities for renewal, we will need to apply a new perspective to the way in which we enter into relationship.  The answer to the question, “What’s in it for me?” needs to be, “Perhaps, nothing at all.”  To echo the sentiment of the late United States President John F Kennedy, we should “Ask not what others or what God can do for us, but what we can do for others, and we can do for God.”

I say this not to be a downer, and not to be depressing.  I say this from years of having as high expectations of other people as I do of myself, from years of being disappointed in other people, and reaching the realisation, that the greatest paradox of being in relationship with another person is that the only thing we can expect to change or control about our relationships is what we bring to them, not what the other person may bring in response, and not the relationship as a whole.

Like Dr Ofri, who took the time to care for Dora Millstein without the possibility of receiving anything in return, we might benefit from changing our expectations when we enter into relationship, and approach our interpersonal encounters with greater selflessness, greater presence, and greater humility.  True healing is only possible when we are willing to look at ourselves and assert certain truths as individuals.  For when we are able to enter into relationship unconditionally, we expect nothing in return.  And then we learn to take responsibility for our actions – the very theme of this High Holy Day season.

Each of us, in our own way, needs to acknowledge certain individual truths.  I can only control what I bring to relationship.  I am only capable of changing myself.  I am responsible for my own actions, and for the integrity that I bring to my encounters with another person.  I have the ability to acknowledge my strengths and what I have done wrong.  I have the capacity to apologise and to forgive, and I have the ability, when necessary, to end a relationship.  But I cannot expect to control what others will do to me, no matter how much their actions might pain me.  In the shadow of pain and loss, I am responsible for finding constructive ways to process and defuse my anger, so that I will not remain irreparably spiteful, burdened, or hold fast to a victim’s mentality.

Here in this space we can strengthen our resolve together, as individuals and community.  But it is outside of these walls that we must take the core messages of our faith and infuse them into our daily lives.  The concept of individual obligation in relationship is found in the two most basic commandments that underpin our tradition – the command to love your neighbour as yourself,[5] and love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your being.[6] Both of these commandments place the responsibility of relationship squarely upon our shoulders.  Torah does not say, “Your neighbour shall love you,” but rather the other way around, “You shall love your neighbour.”  The love that each of us brings to the world is up to us.

Similarly, Torah does not say, “Love God because God is going to grant you blessing, and fortune, and give you an easy life without pain and suffering.”  Torah says that we are to give our relationship with God all that we can.  In the eleventh century, Rashi stressed that loving God with all our heart means that we should serve God with all our powers for compassion, goodness and charity, even if and when we suffer incredible, unspeakable loss.[7] A century later, Maimonides emphasised in his Mishneh Torah, “One who serves God out of love occupies himself in the Torah and mitzvoth and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive: not because of the fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit.  Rather, he does what is true because it is true, and ultimately, good will come because of it.”[8]

What an incredible sentiment of hope and trust from which we can learn.  It amazes me to think of the wisdom and faith of these two commentators, these two men, Rashi who lived in the shadow of the crusades and whose mentors suffered religious persecution,[9] and Maimonides who with his family was forced at one stage into exile.  They didn’t ask the question, “What’s in it for me?”  They couldn’t expect even the most basic civility from their neighbours.  But they didn’t turn their backs on God.  And their relationship with God was not about making themselves feel better, or about having a spiritual moment, or about being emotionally moved.  They couldn’t even have the expectation that they would live to see another day free from torture and tribulation.  Both Rashi and Maimonides recognised that they had been given a beautiful collection of teachings and practices – Judaism – which at its core offered a recipe for serving God and serving humanity with justice, respect and love.  Through all of their hardships, they chose to love God, with devotion and with dedication, serving God with no expectation of receiving anything in return.

And so it comes back to us.  Many times in Jewish communal life we speak about responsibility, obligation, commandment and duty.  But we should also remember that the commandment to say the Shema daily is a reminder that we need to love God.  “Above all,” Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us:

The Torah asks for love; thou shalt love thy God; thou shalt love thy neighbour.  All observance is training in the art of love.  To forget that love is the purpose of all mitzvoth is to vitiate their meaning.  Those who think that the performance is the main thing are mistaken.  The main thing is the heart; what we do and what we say has only one purpose, to evoke the devotion of the heart.[10]

The character, the nature, the sincerity of that devotion rests upon each of us.  To bring a strong sense of self-awareness, even an awareness of our limitations into relationship.  To approach our interactions with an open heart, an open mind, and with the fullness of our being.  To learn from every experience under the sun.  To treat every human being with respect.  To act with honesty, to pursue justice, to offer compassion.  To try our best, to act with positive intent, to share positive, creative energy, and to inspire hope in something greater than ourselves.  To see the seeming miracles that fill our every day lives from breathing each morning, to watching our children smile, to the joy we feel in sacred embrace with our partner.  To call upon every single force of energy in the universe so that our love might be used to end suffering, to effect healing.  To love God simply because we see and feel God’s presence in one another, and we wish to express our gratitude and our praise for the beauty and the brilliance of this world.  And most especially, to continue to love, even when life wrongs us.  This is the devotion of heart that is asked of us.

None of this work, as Danielle Ofri learned early in her career about medicine, can be automated.  We can’t love on Facebook or love through Twitter or love through machines; our love has to be real, it has to be true, it has to be honest, and we have to be present.  No one can do the work of repentance for us, no one can do the work of love for us, and no one can bring healing to our relationships except for us.  Our efforts must come from the heart, with a willingness to give, a willingness to share, a willingness to change and to grow.

At this time of year, we ask the question, “Who shall live and who shall die?”  But maybe the question that we should ask is, “Who shall love?”  Who shall love with the absolute fullness of their hearts?  Who shall love, by bringing healing, wholeness, wonder and inspiration into the world?  And who, ultimately, shall love, knowing that their love, might even go unnoticed and be unrequited?


[1] Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, “Tools of the Trade,” in Jewish Stories from Heaven and Earth: Inspiring Tales to Nourish the Soul.  Ed. Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins.  Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008, pp. 43-47.

[2] Ibid., pp. 45-46.

[3] Ibid., p. 47.

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danielle_Ofri

[5] Leviticus 19:18.

[6] Deuteronomy 6:5.

[7] Rashi commentary on Deuteronomy 6:5, also noting Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 54a and 61a.

[8] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 10:2.

[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rashi

[10] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955, p. 307.

Rabbi Paul Jacobson is rabbi at Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW.

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