On Rosh Hashanah, we read the famous story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is commanded by G-d to sacrifice his beloved son on a mountain. Before Abraham can actually do anything, G-d stops him from hurting his son. And they go home, together, and everything is fine. But according to some commentators, things were far from fine. They say that it must have been traumatic for Isaac, who trusted his beloved father completely, to learn that his father had been ready to kill him. They suggest that Isaac was never the same after being bound on that altar. They say that he was never the great leader that his father Abraham was, nor the fascinating father of his people that his son Jacob was, because he never got over the trauma of being bound on that mountain. These commentators suggest that as opposed to the limitless ambition of his father and his son, Isaac just got through the rest of his life, letting life happen to him rather than seeking all that life had to offer.
I want to talk today about the difference between people without limits like Abraham and Jacob and people with limits like these commentators say Isaac was. Let me talk about people closer to home.
You loved your father very much. He was of a certain generation, the kind of father who never showed emotion. You accepted this, thinking that the love was there someplace. He grew up in the Depression and he never got over it. That was his trauma. His mission in life was to provide for his family. If that meant he had to do two jobs, he worked day and night. He never had a vacation, but you do remember some drives in the country on Sunday afternoons. He never had any money to give you. Once, towards the end of his life, he did loan you some money that, unfortunately, you could not pay back. He was very hard on you when you did not return the money, and it became a wall between you. But there were other walls. No matter what you did, struggling to get through college while working to support yourself, graduating, getting married, getting a job, having children, through all that, he never gave you a compliment or say that he was proud of you. Once, when you were 53, and he’d given you a sofa that you had redone, he said that if he had known the sofa could look so nice, he never would have given it to you. That was the closest thing to a compliment he ever gave you.
You’re married to a nice man. He’s easygoing; he never complains or gives you trouble of any sort. He likes you just the way you are. If you gain some weight, he either doesn’t notice or is too polite to say anything. Your guess is that he wouldn’t notice if you gained a hundred pounds. He thanks you for making dinner every night. In your moments of frustration, you ask him to have a meaningful conversation about your life together. He tells you that he is very happy with his life. He likes his life. He likes the house. He likes his job. He doesn’t have to work at night or on weekends like other people in his company. He likes the kids and is not concerned that you don’t see them more often. When they call, he gets on the phone, asks them if they’re ok, and goes back to watching his game. When you tell him that you need more, he thinks you’re asking for a new car. He’s not a bad guy. He just doesn’t have all the levels and dreams that you do.
Since you lost your parents, your mother’s sister Ida is the only member left of that generation in your family. It is important to you to have a relationship with her, to help her. You see your mother’s eyes in her sister’s eyes, and that brings you comfort. But even though Aunt Ida is a nice person, and even though she truly appreciates your phone calls and your visits and the way you try to include her in everything, it’s hard to have a conversation with her. She is healthy and she has all of her faculties, but she doesn’t have much to say. She never had much of an education. She never had children and has trouble relating to yours. After about five minutes with Aunt Ida, you don’t know what to do. You ask yourself: “What do I say to Aunt Ida?” And gradually, you stop calling as much, and stop visiting as much, and when she passes away, you feel just terrible.
Your sister called the other day. You hadn’t talked to her since last Rosh Hashanah. She says that she’s fine. She’s doing ok since her divorce. So are the kids. She doesn’t ask you how you are. The conversation lasts a few minutes.
You have a friend who you try desperately to get along with, but who cannot reciprocate. You reach out and reach out but there’s just nothing coming back. And when finally you try to talk to her about it, she explains that after everything she’s gone through in her life, she simply cannot trust anyone.
The thread running through these situations is that I am describing you as a person who has more dimensions than these people in your life.
Some of the great problems in your emotional life come from the fact that these people don’t give what you want.
In your head, on your better days, you try to justify what they did not give you.
You ask: What altar were they bound on?
They may have lost fathers and/or mothers all too early.
They may have had emotionally limited parents who limited their vision of what relationships can be.
They may have suffered abuse and withdrawn into themselves.
They may have been affected by impoverished childhoods.
I am not qualified to talk about the psychological reasons for limitations. That is for people in other professions to talk about.
What I can talk about is the way we respond to those who do not seem to be capable of giving us what we need from them.
We’re talking about coping with the people in your life, a husband who has very simple needs and doesn’t understand yours, an Aunt Ida who doesn’t have anything to say, a sister consumed with her own problems, a friend who doesn’t understand friendship. These are all nice people, good people who, for one reason or another, reasons that you understand or don’t understand, reasons you accept or don’t accept, are emotionally limited in what they can demonstrate.
I gave the example of the father who couldn’t compliment his child. No matter what you did, you never got a compliment.
I want to tell you a personal story along these lines. I probably will never live this down, but the story expresses what I’m trying to say so well that my instincts as a rabbi supersede my personal pride.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in December. I’m seventeen years old and I’m coming back to Washington from a trip to Virginia with some friends. We hear that there’s a rally going on in the middle of D.C. at the Russian Embassy. It’s called “Let my people go!” This was in the days when we marched to liberate Soviet Jewry. We decided to see what was going on. Thousands of people were doing a sit-in, blocking 16th St. in front of the embassy. We were 17, applying to college, and we didn’t want to get arrested. So we sat down as far from the edges of the crowd, right in the middle of the thousands of people, so that if the police started to arrest people, we would be the last to go. The police ordered everyone to disperse. No one moved. They gave us fifteen minutes, then ten, then five, and then they started to arrest people on the edges of the crowd. As if in a dream, I watched one policeman walk through the thousands of people right to me, sitting there in the middle. He said, “Let’s go buddy” and as thousands cheered, I was taken off to the paddy wagon to be taken to jail. I was shaken but I couldn’t help ask the cop, “Why sir, out of all of those thousands of people, did you make a bee line for me?” And the policeman said, “Because, son, you look like Lamchop.” (Oh, am I going to be sorry I told this story).
I was fingerprinted, put in jail, and released later that day. When I got home, my mother rushed to the door to make sure I was ok. My father listened as I told the story of my day. His only comment was, “They interrupted the Redskins game. I watched you being taken to the police bus.”
It’s the First Day of Rosh Hashanah, ten months later. I’m back from college and I have a job at the shul leading the Junior Congregation, so I’m not in the main service. After services, people are coming up to me and saying, “Shanah Tova Lambchop. Happy New Year, Lambchop.” I absolutely don’t know what’s going on. A man explains to me that my father had given a sermon about liberating Soviet Jewry, and how we all need to do our part, and told the story of how his son was arrested. My father had said, “Do you know that they even interrupted the Redskins game to show my son being arrested? That’s nachos.” I say to the man, “He never told me how he felt.” And the man looks at me and says, “He just did.”
We all communicate differently. I had misunderstood completely. You ask, “Ok, but why didn’t he tell you at the time?” It was me, it was my misunderstanding; I didn’t understand at the time that he was bursting with pride.
If people don’t communicate, or can’t communicate, in the way we want them to, in the way we’re looking for, with the words we want to hear at that precise moment, we get upset. But maybe we’re wrong to feel that way.
I go back now to the example of the father who couldn’t give a compliment, and who was so angry about a loan that was not repaid. This example was based on a real-life story. The son in the story came to see me after his father passed on. He had found out why his father was so upset about the money he had loaned him. It turned out that his father had nothing. The money for that loan came out of his food money. And all of a sudden, in one knockout moment of revelation, the man realized that, indeed, his father loved him. He had many limitations, but he did love him.
After Aunt Ida’s funeral, her next-door neighbor destroys you by telling you that you were her world. You realize that she just didn’t know how to show it.
Again, we are so anxious to be loved the way that we want to be loved that we are impatient and frustrated and angry because we didn’t get that compliment or we were criticized for not repaying the loan or we didn’t get to hear what we wanted to hear when we wanted to hear it.
As different as they are, people with and without emotional limitations are often in close relationships.
Think about it this way. What if you’re a supermarket and he’s a ma and pa store? Imagine a supermarket filled with produce, fish, frozen foods, bread, and so on and so on. If you go to the supermarket, you can get anything you want. You can fill your shopping cart to the top without selecting two of the same item.
Now think about another store that only sells bread. If you go to the bread store, you can only get bread. If the bread at the bread store is fresh and warm, maybe you’ll pick up a couple of loaves, one for the car and one for the people at home. But you won’t fill a shopping cart with bread. As Moses said, we do not live by bread alone.
Unlimited people, no matter how well bred they are, are in close relationships with people who have limitations.
Or think about it this way: You go from an emotional zero to an emotional ten and every number in between several times a week. But your loved ones have never gone over 5, ever. For them, five is the absolute ceiling. Giving you five is giving you everything they’ve got. You cannot comprehend this and scream, “Give me seven! Give me eight or I’m outa here!” But they don’t have seven. They’ve just got five.
Have you ever known someone who just wasn’t interested in any kind of physical affection whatsoever? Have you ever known someone who was not capable of trusting you, no matter what you did to prove that you were trustworthy?
I am not defending it. But what if, no matter what you think or say, no matter what pressures and threats you bring to bear, a person whom you care about has limitations that are walls that cannot be broken down? What if, for real, three is normal and five is already a major stretch and sacrifice?
The difference is that those who are unlimited will always continue working to break out of their limitations.
The people with limits accept their limitations as the facts of life.
Unlimited people ask: Why would anyone limit themselves?
We’ve always heard that opposites attract. Since I am constantly talking to people who are frustrated by their loved one’s very different nature, I can’t help but think that maybe people do, without thinking about it this way, select someone in the other category. Maybe if you do not have limits, you like the security and predictability of a person with limits. Maybe if you like yourself with limits, you enjoy the excitement of someone who doesn’t have any. Maybe it’s the opposite of narcissism to love someone so different from you. But if that’s true, we shouldn’t get so frustrated and angry with the other person for simply being true to his or her own nature.
We have to understand why some of us live within their limits.
Let me say something painful.
We have very different lives. Some of us, I don’t know why, have it relatively easy and good; some of us, I don’t know why, cannot catch a break.
Some of those who cannot catch a break have lost their desire to live.
You can see it in their eyes; they have been hammered by life and the light has gone out of their eyes. You can see it in their eyes.
And so they live where it’s safe, inside their limitations.
Don’t show too much. Don’t get too excited.
Even in the good moments, worry, because who knows what’s coming next?
While an unlimited person uses the past to create a better future, some people are boxed by the past. Let me tell you about an unlimited person who refused to be boxed by his past and who would not accept the definition of others. His first name is Loser. I’m not making this up: His legal name, given to him by his parents, is Loser Lane. It seems that his father was a big baseball fan and named a son Winner. Now, Winner Lane is a very positive name, as all first names are supposed to be. So we certainly cannot object to naming a son Winner. But when, three years later, another boy was born, the father decided to complete the pairing and call the new baby Loser. What do you think happened to children named Winner and Loser? Mr. Loser Lane, now 44, is successful; he is a police detective in the South Bronx. Mr. Winner Lane is not successful; in fact, he has a history of petty crimes. It’s a great true story because Loser had every excuse in the world to fail. He could have said, “I am traumatized by my father’s cruelty. My fate is in my name.’ But Loser Lane did not see his life this way and he is the winner. Winner Lane can’t stay out of trouble. Loser is the winner. No one defines us. Winning and losing are within our grasp.
Those of us who are unlimited hear the story of Loser Lane and say, “Yes, that’s how I would have been. I would have transcended my name.” But those of us who have limitations say, “That poor boy. I don’t know how he rose above that horrible name.”
I think all the time about the way we define ourselves and other people. I insist that we should not sell ourselves short nor define each other. But there are people in our lives who define themselves, who limit themselves, and leave us no choice but to accept their definition.
And the more that we see how they look at life, the more we refuse to be trapped by similar definitions. An unlimited person wants to experience and has energy for life. To a person who likes limits, an unlimited person seems to have inner contradictions, weird inconsistencies. Unlimited people seem to act on hunches and are even willing to be unlucky. To a person who lives within limits, none of this makes any sense at all. People with limits are more consistent, predictable. They can also be extremely stubborn because they do not like it when life seems to break down the lines they’ve built around them. They like being set in their ways and they do not like their ways to be unsettled by anything or anyone.
Those of us who are unlimited, who can change, who can grow, do not understand those who either do not want to grow or cannot grow. We are impatient with them, frustrated, and we feel that they are holding us back.
When I talk like this, some people with limits will say: “Yes, I see who I am. But I do not accept the idea that I am stuck within my limits. How can I change?”
The first step is to understand some of the things that limit us.
One thing that limits us is fear. Giving into fear limits our actions and our hopes. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear stops us. It is the limit-maker.
I decided at a certain point in my life that fear is boring. I try to refuse to give into my fears. When I’m really scared, I get extremely pro-active.
I ask you today to consider the idea that fear has prevented you from living your life.
Fear turns people who are usually capable into passive victims.
Fear can be our worst enemy, more dangerous than the object of our fear itself. Life is always challenging. Fear stops us from fighting. And in facing challenges, we must be prepared to fight. Half of the battle lies in our refusal to give in to fear.
I don’t mean you have to go jump out of an airplane. You don’t have to walk on poisonous snakes or do dumb things like the gullible contestants on that TV show Fear Factor. But you can try to deal with your fears. The truly brave among us admit that we’re scared but will not let our fears stop us.
The recognition of your limits is the beginning of becoming unlimited.
And yet, unlimited people often have the limitation of not understanding those who are different from them.
Unlimited people have certainly been anxious and so they think that they understand clinical anxieties; they don’t. Unlimited people get depressed all the time and think that they understand clinical depression; they don’t. “Just get better!” unlimited people say.
Those who are unlimited and in relationships with people who do not share their capacity for growth and change must understand that they don’t get what makes their loved ones tick. The irony is that unlimited people are often limited in their capacity to understand those who are different.
Remember, all human beings are limited. We are all mortal. We are all fragile. Sometimes those who are intolerant of others are those who haven’t had to fight the hard battles.
I come back to Isaac. If we read the Torah more closely, we see that Isaac, in his adult life, was a strong patriarch of his clan. We see him as a successful farmer. We see him negotiating a treaty with a potentially hostile nation. I don’t accept the idea that Isaac was so traumatized by what happened on the mountain that he was a limited person. What he seems to have learned from that early experience was that his father loved both G-d and him. Isaac always had great respect and love for his father Abraham, naming wells by the same names as his father, showing his desire to perpetuate his father’s legacy. This was not a limited, timid man but a man who lived his life well. Those who say that Isaac was a limited, traumatized person are trying to define him in a way that is simply incorrect.
Just as I am resisting this definition of Isaac, just as I insist that no one should define anyone else, so we all have to resist defining ourselves. We have to remain open to the possibilities. We have to keep growing. We could use a new interest. We could use another friend. We can become a true part of our community.
To those who have no limits, who run the gamut from zero to ten and back again, I ask you to be more understanding and show more understanding to those who do not have the range of emotions and capabilities that you have, those who only get to five on a good day. They are part of your life, by choice or by birth, and you have to try harder to live in harmony with them. There are people in your heart and in your life who do not have 1-10. Maybe a parent who has passed away; maybe a parent who is older and who doesn’t have the same range anymore; maybe a child who has 7 but gives it all to her kids and there’s nothing left for you. My friend Mrs. Martha Zwelling taught me a very important lesson. We were talking about someone who could not give certain emotional things and she said, “He did the best he could.” That’s what I call “understanding”. We have to understand that they may very well be doing the best they can. And just for the record, maybe it’s you who has limitations. You can show unlimited affection and sensitivity to your spouse but not to your children. I’m willing to say to you that I have my limitations and I have to try harder to break out of them. It’s a tough struggle for me.
Nevertheless, those of us who live within limits must examine whether we live this way because we have to or because we want to. If it’s not out of necessity but by choice, we have to think about our lives in a more reflective way. Can you get to six? Can you be seven?
I have been careful not to call people with limitations “limited people” because that is not the way I see them. I see all of us as limited in one way or another. We are all limited. Only G-d, immortal and outside of time, is Unlimited.
But we do not have G-d’s unlimited time. There is a new year; it could be a time for breaking out of our limits and becoming open to the unlimited possibilities of life.