Sam was married with two children, two boys. He was a salesman who basically traveled for a living. He called home every day, and he was up on everything that was happening. When he was home, he was tired, and he had paperwork to do, and he had planning to do, but he tried to play a little with the kids, and make conversation with his wife.
There were no fights; there were no specific issues or problems. But his whole life was an issue and a problem because he and his wife were drawing apart, slowly, gradually, day by day, and month by month. And when the boys were seven and five, his wife told him that she wanted something else and something more, and he was upset, but somehow, not as upset as he might have been. And he had certain days with the boys, and he kept some of them, but he often couldn’t seem to make those days happen, and he could see that the boys were sad about it. So he decided to make a dramatic gesture, and he asked to take the boys to Disney World, and he got the vacation time, from Sunday to Sunday, and things were very exciting.
Sam was invited to a small dinner party on that Saturday night before the Sunday morning flight to Florida. It was one of those parties designed to introduce two people. Sam met Janet that evening, and it was immediate: each finally found the person of their dreams. Janet gave Sam her phone number, which he called as soon as he got home, and they talked until well into the night, till around 4 AM, when they finally said good night with a promise to get together the next day. Sam slept late into the morning, and did not hear his phone ringing and ringing.
He had somehow forgotten that this was the morning he was supposed to pick the boys up to take them to the airport, and the boys were sitting there with their little suitcases, and he wasn’t there.
When he finally woke up and answered the phone, he heard his ex-wife screaming and saying things he had never heard her say before. And he realized, with a horrible thump, what he had done. He called Janet to tell her what had happened; she begged him to do whatever he had to do and pay whatever he had to pay so that the vacation would still happen. She knew a travel agent and she offered to help him work it out. He ran over to his kids’ house and profusely apologized and with Janet’s friend’s help made arrangements and he and his boys left the next morning, and he did not mind that he had to pay all sorts of extra money, and he and the boys went to Disney and had a nice time. But there was no magic for them in the Magic Kingdom. Something had happened. The boys had a good time and politely thanked him, but he could have been their tour guide for the emotion that they expressed.
Their mother got re-married and her new husband became the father who raised the boys, and over the years Sam’s relationships with his sons weakened into mere civility and Hallmark cards.
When he got back from the vacation he called Janet, who had her own story. She too, had slept late on that Sunday morning, and she forgot that she was supposed to be at her niece’s ten-year-old birthday party. She felt so badly about what had happened to Sam, and she considered it to be her fault, and she was so consumed helping him make arrangements, that she forgot the party. Her sister, mother of the birthday girl, screamed at her that she was self-centered and good for nothing and that she would never amount to anything. It didn’t matter what Janet said; as far as her sister was concerned, there was no excuse.
What made this so terrible was that Janet actually was a wonderful aunt who was very much a part of her sister’s family’s life. She almost lived at their house; she was at all their events and was a mainstay in any kind of pinch or crisis. She was a second mother to her nieces. If anything, she always felt used and unappreciated. Her sister had always put her down, their whole lives, and it always had been not just good-natured teasing but demeaning and even cruel criticism. And now, when she was given such a tongue-lashing over a missed birthday party, she actually, maybe for the first time in her life, responded, and told her sister how she had always felt. And when she told her sister that she had met the man of her dreams, and what had happened about his vacation, that was it, because then her sister climbed all over her with anger and sarcasm and told her that no self-respecting or respectable man would ever go near her anyway.
Other things happened but the point is that from that day forward, things were never the same, and she never again was part of her sister’s family’s life on any kind of basis, and things got more and more distant until there was no relationship at all. Janet has continued over the years to try everything: cards, presents, emails, phone calls, intermediaries - and nothing has worked.
But now it’s many years later, and Janet, G-d bless her, feels horrible, and she misses her sister, and now that the years have gone by, she misses her more, and even though her nieces have excluded her from their lives, she wishes she was in their lives.
“That’s the story,” said Sam and Janet, “about the evening that we met, an evening that changed our lives for the better, because we met, and for the worse, because of what happened the next day.”
I sat there for a minute and finally I asked, “You really want me to tell this story?” Yes,” said Sam, “Tell the people that sometimes you have to pay a high price for your happiness. Call the sermon, ”The High Price of Happiness.”
“I’ll have to think about all this,” I said.
“Now, Rabbi,” said Sam, “We want to know what you think about all this. We didn’t come just to tell you a story. We’re hoping that you’ll tell us something that will help Janet to feel better, or at least to be able to deal with things.”
“I’d rather not.” I said. “Because I do have a take on all this, but it’s very different from yours. And I don’t think you want to hear it because part of it, the part of it about Sam is very tough.”
“Please,” they insisted, “Say everything on your mind.”
“All right,” I said, unhappily, “Over the years, the two of you have developed an interpretation of your lives. The two of you, telling the story and thinking about it countless times, have come up with the formula that you traded your families for each other, what you call “the high price of happiness”.”
“Right,” they said, “Isn’t that clear?”
“Not at all,” I said. “This is your personal myth and you have made it up. Let me tell you how this old but not so wise rabbi sees what happened.
“Sam, you didn’t just lose those kids because of that morning. That picture, of the two boys sitting there with their little suitcases, has already left a scar on my heart. I will never forget that picture. How could you have forgotten all about that huge moment in your children’s lives, a moment that was supposed to help address all of the other things you’d missed? You didn’t just oversleep; you had talked about seeing Janet the next day when you were supposed to be in Florida. But the truth is that it was the last blow, after a long pattern of disinterest and missed opportunities. That was your last chance because you had already blown so many other times. You didn’t trade away your two boys for Janet; you had already traded them away for “a pocketful of mumbles such are promises,” as Paul Simon would say. The harsh truth is that you’d always been okay about losing your boys and that your ex-wife was right about you.”
And Sam looked at me and said, “I’ll have to think about that.” He wasn’t upset, he wasn’t defensive, and he wasn’t even mad at me for saying this.
And then I turned to Janet.
“I can take it,” she said, “Tell me the truth.”
“Here’s the truth,” I said, “You didn’t trade away your family to get Sam. Your family betrayed you. Your sister was mean and cruel from the very beginning. She used you and abused you and she couldn’t stand the fact that you were going to have a life that was not under her thumb. And you’re such a sweet, nice person that you mourn for the family. Those girls were old enough to know that you had been a second mother who had loved them dearly. They are older now. They could seek out a relationship with you. I blame them, too. They must realize what kind of person their mother is.”
Janet was stunned. “You mean … you mean …. It’s not my fault?”
“Of course not,” I said, “You have such a good heart and you know that there are only a few people in your life that you really love and you still love them. G-d help me, but you love your sister to this day so much that you would embrace her with open arms. And for such a good person to love such a bad person is a cruel twist of life and I’m sorry. I’m sorry that your love was not met with an equal love.”
At which point Janet cried and cried and cried.
It’s not Sam I want to talk about; it’s Janet. Because there are a lot of people here who are like her. And it is to these people I want to talk today.
You are a loving person and a good person. In a few minutes we will say a prayer and we will affirm that we believe in forgiveness. We believe in reconciliation. We believe in peace.
And if you accept my definition of love, which is that it’s forever, then if you love someone you love that person no matter what he or she has done to you. And you forgive them, and you want to have a relationship.
Think of a landscape painting. This person is on the landscape of your life, a tree or a mountain or a stream, and every time you look at the landscape the person is there; even if he hasn’t talked to you in twenty years, the painting is the same. And you just want to make things like they once were.
But no matter what you do, and you do everything you can think of, nothing happens.
How do you deal with that? The years go on and it gets worse.
What do you do if there is no forgiveness and no reconciliation and you feel sad every day and sometimes that sadness consumes you?
I want to suggest a process of coping with that sadness.
I want to make an analogy between those of us who are Janets, and Israel.
Let’s think about Israel as a person.
All you want to do is have a home of your own, because your life has been in danger everywhere else. And you create a home, and your dream is that you will live side by side with your neighbors, that in fact, you will take such good care of your home, building improvements and additions and creating flower gardens and manicuring the lawn, that your neighbors will learn from you and the neighborhood will become a model of human cooperation and structured beauty. All you want is to have a nice home in a nice neighborhood, with your own vine and your own fig tree and you will not have to be afraid.
But as soon as you have your home, the terror starts. No one wants you in the area. They put bombs on the school busses that your kids ride. They make up terrible stories about you and publish them on the Internet. And when you fight back and win, and you think there will be peace and quiet, that’s when the vandalism starts, of your house, your car.
And so what do you do? You keep trying to reason with them.
All you want to do live in your house and raise your kids and send them to school.
And they call you the neighborhood bully. And everyone believes them.
Why is there no peace between Israel and its neighbors?
Because the hard fact is, and many of us don’t get it, that some people in this world cannot be reasoned with, some people are toxic, some people are simply impossible to deal with.
My son Danny had an office mate where he works in Baltimore. Danny is very smart but naively thinks that he can get along with anyone. And no matter how hard he tried, and he tried everything, this guy would not even be polite.
And I would say to Danny, “This is not a reflection on you. This is a reflection of the other person’s limitations and faults.”
And Danny couldn’t accept this. He kept thinking there was some way to break through. But there wasn’t, until, thank G-d, the guy lost his job and had to leave.
Think about your life. Think about the things that bother you.
Now ask yourself: Whose fault was it?
There are three possibilities:
1. It was your fault. Maybe you know that, but maybe, like Sam, you have refused to admit to yourself that you did something wrong.
2. It was someone else’s fault. Maybe you know that, but maybe, like Janet, you have always blamed yourself.
3. Maybe it was no one’s fault, but you have blamed someone else or yourself or someone else unfairly blames you. A bad outcome does not necessarily mean someone is to blame. I will say this again: A bad outcome does not necessarily mean someone is to blame. Sometimes things happen that are beyond anyone’s control.
If you’re like Sam, you probably will not admit that it was your fault. I don’t really expect many Sams to do the hard work of seeing themselves and their faults clearly. It means busting open their personal myths, their glib self-images.
If you’re like Janet, however, you may have a hard time understanding that it never was your fault to begin with. Janet had always been treated a certain way, with condescension and criticism, and her self-image was weak and defensive from childhood, and so when she was told that it was her fault, she believed it.
I am asking you, if you’re Janet, and there are a lot of Janets here, to think seriously about this, and I’m not just talking about incidents or events but about the way that you have been treated by people in your life. This is very difficult, but you may start thinking better of yourself than you ever have.
And while on the High Holidays we think about sin and punishment, I also want you to think about the possibility that sometimes, it’s no one’s fault: not the doctor’s fault, not the nursing home’s fault; it’s not the fault of the family member who agreed to an unsuccessful operation; at some point, the body fails and there’s nothing more to do.
Sometimes you made the best decision given the facts and the possibilities presented, and it all turned out badly, but it still was the best decision at the time.
Let’s tell a little dirty secret about ourselves: There are people who we love to hate.
There are people who we just love to criticize.
I was with someone when a family member died. And a person who she wasn’t very fond of comes up to her and says, “How are you doing?” And when the person walks away, she says to me, “Can you believe that? What a stupid question. How do you think I’m doing?”
And a few minutes later, a friend of hers comes up to her and asks, “How are you doing?” And when the person walks away, she says to me, “Now there’s a thoughtful person who knows what to say.”
My point is that she disliked the first person so much that she would have belittled anything that she said.
That’s what we do with people we like to dislike.
For some reason, Israel is the country people love to hate. I can sum up the reason in one hyphenated word: anti-Semitism.
There are a lot of people who blame Israel for everything. Everyone loves to jump all over Israel and criticize it for many things that other countries do without hearing a word about it.
We Jewish people cannot let ourselves be Janets who blame our beloved Israel for things that are simply not true.
Janet’s sister persecuted Janet and used a birthday party as a pretext for her nastiness.
We Janets cannot let the haters win. We cannot let them define who we are.
Mind you, I feel very badly for Janet. It’s easy for me to say, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not your fault. Your sister is to blame.”
She is less burdened now, but just as sad, because she still wants her sister and her nieces in her life, and life is going by really fast, and she wishes things were different.
That’s the problem with being a loving person. We do want family. We do want peace. We will forgive.
But welcome to the real world, ladies and gentlemen. In the real world, there are people who don’t care about family or peace and who do not love.
Don’t let them change you.
But be aware that no matter how good you are, you will never change them.
My father, may he be remembered for good, was the person in the world I could turn to with the things that upset me. We had countless conversations about difficult and impossible people, and being a rabbi, he understood what I would go through. When I told him the story of Sam and Janet, he said:
“It’s plain as day why this story is in your gut. You’re Janet, the one who tries and tries and still gets hurt. Why don’t you listen to what you said to her? Being you, you approached the person with an open and full heart and you got a dagger stuck right there in your heart. And you accomplished nothing for all of your time and effort.”
My father was my teacher, so he waited for what he knew I would say:
“But Daddy, I did accomplish something. I can look in the mirror and say that I tried absolutely everything. And if by some miracle the person comes around, I will still welcome them back into my life.”
“Right,” my father said, “But I have a lot invested in you, so please don’t hold your breath.”
And then he thought about it for a minute and he said, “And what do you do after you give up on the mean people? You focus on the people in your life who love you back, and you hold them close, because they are what your life is really about.”