this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 8/17/14
In this morning’s Torah portion we find Moses in review mode, reminding the people about events that transpired as they wandered in the wilderness during the last 40 years. As is his wont, Moses is unflinching in his recollections, and he does not shy away even from the most painful moments that he shared with the people. In what we read this morning he rehashes for them the episode of the sin of the golden calf, speaking from his own perspective about how he experienced it and what transpired.
In fairness to Moses, he is as unsparing in remembering his own actions as he is in telling the Israelites about what they did wrong, and in this morning’s portion he describes the moment when he shattered the two tablets that he brought down from the mountain. You remember the story – Moses is called by God to the top of the mountain, spending 40 days and 40 nights there, receiving the Torah. Down in the camp the people begin to get nervous, they haven’t seen their leader, and they go to Aaron demanding that he build for them an idol. The calf is built from gold, and just as Moses is finishing his time with God the people begin to worship the calf. Moses hurries down the mountain, and when he sees what is happening, out of anger, he takes the two sacred tablets, throws them to the ground, and shatters them.
There is a rich midrashic tradition about these broken tablets, because it is impossible for the rabbinic mind to imagine that these sacred objects, arguably the most sacred objects in history, were just left scattered among the rocks and dirt of the Sinai wilderness. And so the Talmud teaches that the Israelites went out and gathered up the broken fragments, kept them, and then placed in the sacred ark along with the second set of whole tablets. In this way the broken tablets were revered, given a place of honor, and were not discarded.
That image in my mind has always been such a powerful image – that in the sacred ark you had what was whole, but also what was broken. In some ways it reminds me of a synagogue – a sacred space, like the ark is sacred, but a place where people who are broken can come for healing. And any given day in a shul, any given service, you very well may have, sitting side by side, people who feel whole and complete, but also people who are struggling in their lives, who feel broken inside, and who are looking for hope.
I worked in a place exactly like that for many years that was not a synagogue. When I finished graduate school – for the first time – I moved to Boston with a freshly minted masters degree in psychology from the University of Maryland. I found work in the area in a place called the Genesis Club, a state funded program that helped people with major psychiatric illness – schizophrenia, manic depression, bi-polar disorder – transition from the local state hospital back out into the community. I haven’t been back there in many, many years, but the intense news coverage this week of Robin Williams’ suicide and his struggle with psychiatric illness has reminded me of my days working there, and also of many of the clients that I spent time with.
The Genesis Club was a place that was filled with wounded and broken souls. These were people like you and me – people who had been walking along the path of life with potential, and goodness, with talent, and warmth – and suddenly their life journey was interrupted by the devastating illnesses they struggled with. There was Jim, the young man who had gone to college on a baseball scholarship with a 90 plus mile an hour fastball and was a major league prospect, but now sat staring vacantly into space day in and day out; there was Bob, who had a phd in physics and had worked at NASA on the space shuttle project, but now spent his time sitting in our living room area scribbling equations on old scraps of paper; there was Rich, a lovely guy with a terrific sense of humor, who took medication to help control the voices he had begun to hear out of a fan in his room one summer evening – and the list went on and on.
They came to us looking for two things – one was help – help learning some skills that might enable them to work a job, help balancing a check book, or finding a place to live, help with simple support for the practical day to day things that most of us take for granted. That was the easy part – we trained them, we worked with them, we found them jobs and homes and a better quality of life. But the other thing they came looking for was harder to find – that was hope – their hope had been extinguished, lost along the way, and they had all come to believe that there was no way for them to move forward in their lives. They really were like the broken tablets – they were shattered, destroyed almost beyond recognition – and we knew they were still sacred, still deserving of the respect and dignity that every human being deserves – we knew it – but our challenge was to convince them that that was true.
How do you help someone find hope? It is a complicated recipe, with some basic ingredients but with different flavors for every person. You treat them with dignity. You give them a place to go and a community to be a part of. You shake their hand and look them in the eye. You take what they say seriously. You play chess with them, and laugh with them. You let them know that they are needed, that you care about them, not because they are a client, but because they are a person. You go out to lunch with them, or to a concert, you help them find a job so they can feel independent. At the end of the day what you do is remind them that even if they are broken, they are still people, and they are still sacred. And when they begin to believe that, some of the broken pieces begin to come back together, and the hope that was dormant inside of them – little by little – begins to grow again. And it was a beautiful thing to watch happen, and a powerful thing to be a part of.
There was one client there who taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten. He was a young man, probably 20 or so, named Keith, very angry, often refused to take his meds, and he was prone to violent outbursts, generally physical, but he would yell and scream and he could erupt very suddenly, really not my cup of tea, but he was my client. I got in the habit of staying away from him as much as possible – if I saw him down at the end of a hall I would take a quick turn into another room, that type of thing. The truth is I was afraid of him, and it was so unpleasant to be with him I avoided him.
One day the director of the program called me into his office, and he asked me about it. And I said of everyone here, he is by far the most difficult person to deal with. And the director said to me – you know what that means is that he needs you more than anyone else here. And that has always stayed with me. The next time I saw Keith at the end of the hall, I fought the urge to go in the other direction, and instead I walked towards him. It wasn’t easy, and the truth is his behavior didn’t change much. But it was the right thing to do.
This is a week to remember that there are so many people out there who struggle with these illnesses. They may be broken, but they are sacred. They need both help and hope – and we should make sure that as a society we don’t duck away from them into a side room, but instead walk towards with open hands ready to help in any way that we can –