Circles of Responsibility or What We Think About At 2 AM

Circles of Responsibility or What We Think About at 2 am – Kol Nidre 5777

You get a call that your mother has fallen in her apartment in Brooklyn and has been taken to the emergency room. You live in Connecticut; you don’t want to drive into the city late at night because you’re completely unraveled, so you take a car service. There you are in the back seat of the car, and it’s 2 AM, and you’re worried about how you’re going to do in this situation. You’re wondering:

Will I be able to deal with this?

Will I be patient?

Can I be Florence Nightingale?

Will I be a strong advocate?

Will I be able to navigate the channels of the hospital and doctors and nurses and medication effectively?

At the same time, I’m going to have to take care of my father who’s scared and bewildered, who’s been on the decline mentally for a long time now.

Will I just get irritated? The things that have always driven me crazy/ still drive me crazy.

The way my father walks around with his feelings out

The way he’d rather save a dime than a puppy


Your parents are really something else. They have lived and thought a certain way and really don’t understand any other kind of life, starting with yours.

They had regular jobs, pensions,

they’ve always lived in a building with a super,

they have money in the bank in savings accounts, and when they started each of those savings accounts, they got a free blender.

They now have eleven blenders and they’ve never used one, but they have all of them in what they call the Crazy Closet, which you would only want to open the door to/ if you’re wearing a helmet and shoulder pads.


You love them,

but the truth is, you don’t really do well with them.

They’re “chain worriers,” worrying about this after that on The Wheel of Doom, which can spin around and kill you if you sit too close to the television,

Or if you wear a watchband that’s too tight

or laugh during a meal.

At one point your father was worried about three things. When each of these things was resolved happily, you asked him if he was feeling less worried. “Yes,” he said, “I am. And that’s what I’m worried about.”


When you get near your parents, you quickly revert to child mode.

It’s now 3:30 AM and you’ve had some time to get yourself together. When you get there, you’re calm in the midst of the crisis that’s going on. And as you negotiate everything, like bringing your mother home in an ambulette, you have a pathetically large amount of pride in yourself for each task you fulfill, every piece of paper you fill out. You gather all their financial information and their pensions and their insurance and the prescriptions for their medications, all these real-world official and bureaucratic details.


And you stay with your parents, but you hate it there, in that hot, poorly lit, cluttered, cramped apartment. You want to go back to your own home.

So after two weeks, you go home,

But wouldn’t you know it?

As soon as you arrive home and breathe a sigh of relief, you hear that they had to call the police when one of them couldn’t get off the floor. And you feel so guilty that you left.


They don’t want help. “We can do it ourselves! How hard is it to make breakfast1 I’ve been making my own breakfast longer than you’ve been alive! We don’t want strangers in the apartment; they’re going to steal everything! You know what happened to Mrs. Rosenberg!”

They allow Life Alert to be installed but won’t use it because your mother’s afraid they’ll make her go back to the hospital. They don’t want an assisted living facility.

Your mother writes poems with sad stanzas such as this:

They, who once travelled

All over the map

Are forced to lie down

For their afternoon nap.


Finally, after never leaving their building for an entire year, they agree to see a “place.” It’s terrible and you go right back to their apartment. But when you take them home, you find yourself in a situation where your mother is on the floor in the hall

and your father can’t figure out which key will get him in the door.

It’s just you, and it’s overwhelming. Walking from the elevator to their apartment at the end of the hallway is a real journey.


Finally, you find a place around ten minutes away from your house in Connecticut.

It is nice and clean and blow-your-mind expensive. But it’s convenient for you, and they have an opening. Your parents agree to go for a trial stay. And never see their apartment again.


Which brings up the next chapter: Dealing with their apartment. You go through all their stuff, and they have a lot of stuff; they never got rid of anything. All their old love letters from when he was in the service in World War II, hundreds and hundreds of them, all about the weather and colds. One of them was always getting a cold or nursing a cold or getting over a cold. And after you’ve gone through all of their stuff, you will never think about your stuff the same way again, because you don’t want your kids having to do this when you get old; you become less naïve about the “joys of accumulation.”

And then your father dies, and you realize that all the things that irritated you about your father, don’t matter anymore, and all you remember is the good things.

And now you need to take care of your mother, who herself is suffering terrible indignities.

She says that she feels like her brain is melting.

You realize that your mother was never your friend; she was your mother. She won every fight. She was never wrong. She had a degree in pediatrics and child psychology from Dr. Spock University.

And now she’s still your mother, but she’s become your child.

You want the aides to take care of her but you’re also jealous that she seems to like them more than you. At one point, she seems to be dying; then she improves. At other points, it seemed like she isn’t living and she isn’t dying, either. She takes a turn and then turns around. And then, slowly, she dies.

And now begins the task of working out the things you never worked out, and of dealing with the dreams that come on many nights.

But at least you know that you did your part.


The story that I just told you in the second person is really the plot of an amazing, award-winning book, “Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT?” a New York Times Bestseller, a memoir by Roz Chast, told through four-color cartoons, family photos, and documents. Death and Money are obviously hard subjects to discuss, and of course I’m saying that we must not shy away from such discussions.


But the title does not do justice to all of the themes involved in the story I just related. In Chast’s memoir, she gives us situations and expresses feelings that a lot of us can relate to. Somehow, she poignantly and humanely makes me think about things in my life, and things in a lot of your lives that I know about. I related to this book so strongly that when I just summarized it for you, I snuck in a number of my own thoughts and memories.

Many of us can relate to moments like being in a car at 2 AM wondering if you can handle what you have to do,

or of just being overwhelmed,

or of being so proud that you actually helped,

or of just wanting to get out of there and go home.

But even with all these moments and feelings, that’s still not the main point that I get out of Chast’s wonderful book. Her memoir is about her family, and about what she did for her family. It’s the word “family” that I want to talk about, what family means today. At its best, a family is a close emotional unit where everybody loves and likes each other.

But I want to talk about family when it’s not at its best, or even close to good, and that is to talk about family as a “circle of responsibility.”

Family has always meant something emotional, and something legal, but it feels to me that lately, what the word “family” means/ seems to be changing by the day.


I’m always learning, and most of what I learn is from people. Over the years, I’ve seen so many sad things, and there’s nothing sadder than seeing an older or sick person who’s all alone and neglected and isolated, situations where family members have not fulfilled what I am insisting are their responsibilities.


But I’ve also seen some remarkable things.

I’ve seen people who had gone through a divorce, and now their divorced spouse was sick or close to death, and they went and cared for their Ex. They had no legal or moral or financial responsibility to do so. In the usual way of thinking, they were no longer members of the same family. Why did they do it? Certainly out of goodness, but there was something more. That divorced spouse was part of their life, maybe not the best part of their life but, well, you know, this whole “relationship” thing is very complex. And there are people on the landscape of our lives, in the paintings of our lives, and no matter what, they’re still in the picture.

I’m suggesting that the concept of the family has expanded, and that family can mean something beyond law and biology.

I’m defining family not just as a biological or a legal or an economic circle but again, as a circle of responsibility. This is the phrase I want to emphasize today.

You may not be responsible TO the person, but you feel, nevertheless, maybe not in your heart but just to your sense of who you are and who he or she is, you feel responsible FOR them.

I’m wondering if we should stop saying, “He’s like family to me” and just say, “he’s family. And because he’s family, I’m going to be there when he needs me. It’s not because I have to be, it’s not even because I want to be. I don’t need to over-analyze this. I’ll just be there.”


So here’s my direct question:

Who is in your circle of responsibility?

Who are you responsible for?

I’m thinking about concentric circles with you in the middle. Your first circle is probably very small; it probably includes you and one or two other people.

I’ll quote a scene from the tv show Grey’s Anatomy, when one friend says to the other, “You’re my person.” Your person is the individual that you depend on and who depends on you.

The next circle is what you consider to be your inner circle, the people that you do anything for without being asked, or you do anything when you’re asked even if you’d rather not. I’m thinking about Roz Chast and her parents. You do everything and you put yourself out and you feel guilty and you second-guess yourself all the time.

On these High Holidays, those of us who really use this time for introspection often wonder if we’ve done right by our persons and the people in that inner circle.

Have I done my part? Have I been there? Have I kept trying even when I’ve failed repeatedly to get through?

Have I been patient with the things and people that irritate me?

So we have to be responsible for those in those first two circles. But that doesn’t end our responsibilities.


So I move on to the next circle. Early humans lived in nomadic bands of around fifty people. They did almost everything in the company of others. They were almost never alone.

This was their tribal circle.

We have a fun expression when we ask if someone’s Jewish: Is he or she a member of the Tribe?

To be exact, most of us whose ancestors are Jewish are descended from one tribe, the tribe of Judah. That’s why our religion is Judaism, because we are descended from Judah. So since we’re members of one tribe, or in my case, 97.5 percent a member of this tribe, I want to invoke the meaning of the concept of “tribe” in thinking about who we are and how we live. Let me give you two examples of the meaning of tribal responsibility.


Do you remember the famous movie Dances with Wolves? It’s about a soldier who becomes adopted by a Native American tribe. He decides to live his life with them. In real American history, there were many European immigrants who were captured by Native Americans who grew to love their new families and the communal solidarity and when given a choice to go back to their biological families, decided to stay with their new tribe.


My second example is from today: We hear all the time about military veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and are having a terrible time reintegrating into society. But the fact is that many of those vets never saw combat. 50 % of our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans apply for permanent PTSD disability and only 10 percent of them ever saw combat. Sebastian Junger, in a new book called Tribe, says that these veterans were part of a unit when they were in the military, a unit that was their tribe; they lived a life where they were united, interconnected, and indispensable to one another. Like our primitive ancestors and like the Native American tribes, they were always together.


Then they come back to America, the country that they served, and they come back to a life where they’re isolated, without purpose, and bombarded with images of politicians screaming and insulting each other on tv.

They come back to a society that is divided and angry. And they’re often alone. They are not needed. They feel disconnected from everything and everyone, even from themselves.


So the Native American tribes gave more to their captives than white society did, and the military life, for all its dangers, often gives more meaning than civilian life.

And like the Native American tribes and like the military platoons, we need to be together,

to strengthen our sense of belonging.

We might have thought that the world was getting close

But it’s pulling away

We must be connected to each other


I once gave a very pro-Israel speech at the JCC, and some people at another synagogue that will not be named accused me of having a tribal mentality; one of them said he would never talk to me again. They meant “tribal mentality” as a slur, but I’ll gladly accept it as a badge of honor. I’m Jewish, and I am fiercely pro-Israel, and I’m a member of our tribe. If you’re a member of the tribe, you should be able to protect the reputation of your tribe against the lies and the falsehoods and the sheer hatred.

I am pleading with you to be responsible to your tribe, the Jewish people, to do your part. And this relates to Roz Chast’s story of helping those who are older.

Here is an example of how we at Beth Sholom are doing our part. The Towers is a great institution in our community for seniors. It’s a wonderful place with caring staff and interesting residents. But as much as the staff does for the residents, the residents are there 24/7, and there are needs that are sometimes not sufficiently addressed. These bright and engaged seniors need more programming. Some need help with computers and other tasks.

And so this summer, we sent out a letter, and we have people who are volunteering at the Towers, giving talks and lectures, helping with computers, working on their family trees, teaching Tai Chi, distributing groceries. Our Hebrew School kids made them Rosh Hashanah cards and goodie bags and you should have seen how grateful the residents were. We have great volunteers but we could use more, and it can be a way for you to give on your schedule and following your interests.

This is helping those in the tribe who need the help. It is fulfilling our part in the circle of responsibility that we call the Jewish community.

Some of you who are sitting here are responsible for Judaism in your family; you’re the Jewish magnets or Jewish role models in your family. Sometimes, your role is difficult, and you have to push others, and you get push-back. If there is anything that I can ever do to support you, to give you information or comfort you when you’re frustrated, please know that I’m here. You deserve the support; you are trying to fulfill your responsibilities to your family and your people.


In a certain way, each of us is always in the back of the car at 2AM, questioning how we’re going to do in the situation coming up. We have all of these responsibilities,

to the most important people in our lives,

to the other people in our families,

and to our tribe, our people.

And you know, sometimes, a lot of times; it’s just so overwhelming.

It’s so hard just to be you,

to deal with your own health and your money and your home and the next step in your life.

I know that. I get it.

But as inadequate as you feel, and even though you’re not Florence Nightingale, and you get irritated and impatient with the people in your life, you’re responsible for them.

On this holiest of days, look inside your heart, and ask yourself if you’re doing everything you should be doing.

When you’re staring at the ceiling at 2 AM, and you’re worried about what’s next,

and about what you’ll have to do,

and you’re saying, “I just want to think about things that are more pleasant,”

and your mind is getting dizzy going around and around your circles of responsibility,

and you feel like you’re on a merry-go-round and you just want to get off,

you have to be able to say,

these are my responsibilities and I’m doing the best I can.