Why Am I Soft in the Middle (When) the Rest of My Life is So Hard?

So here I am in Israel, at a Karaoke pub inside a hotel, drinking my Pepsi Max, standing outside the window, looking in because I can’t stand all of the cigarette smoke.  And these beautiful Israeli kids are having a blast, singing all of the hit songs.  I know a lot of prayers in Hebrew and a lot of traditional Hebrew songs but I don’t know any of these Israeli hits.       All of the kids know all of the words to all of the songs, and they’re singing with each sacrificial lamb who dares to go up to the microphone.  Kids having a good time, singing and smoking and drinking.
    So why do I keep standing there, riveted?  I can’t go anywhere, and I don’t know why.  It’s not my scene.  I don’t smoke and I don’t drink.  And I don’t know the songs and I can’t sing anyway.  I realize eventually that there’s something about these young people that is drawing my attention.  I talk to one of them, a young man named Eitan.  He tells me that he’s been in the army for a couple of years.  He’s twenty years old.  Like every Israeli teenager, he went into the army at eighteen years old.  He doesn’t like being in the army; it’s rigorous training and hard conditions and lousy pay.   And in the summer he was in Lebanon fighting against Hezbollah.  And when he says the word Hezbollah, referring to the enemy who has sworn to destroy Israel, his voice does not change, he does not speak with spite or anger.  And yet, there is something that I can feel, and it’s his strength, his toughness, his resolve.  But now it’s his turn to sing and he goes back to being a kid.  And he sings a song about love.  And he does so well that the crowd calls for an encore.
    But he refuses, playfully, and instead a young woman, who obviously knows him, starts singing a song about a Yeled Rah or “Bad Boy”.  And she points her finger at Eitan and he just loves it, and so does everybody else.
    Eventually, Eitan is nice enough to come over to me again, and he says that one of his friends told him that I am a rabbi from America.  I asked him what he’s going to do.  And now I hear another voice, and he talks about finishing his military service, taking a year to travel, and then studying biomedical engineering, working on devices to help people.  He decided to go into the field after seeing some terrible things happen to his buddies in the army.
    So I had the picture.  A bad boy, a rascal, who had gone into the army and now knows what he wants to do with his life.
    And then I thought about all of the young people I know in America, some of whom have direction, but at least as many who never have a real direction, who fall into a job or spend many years figuring themselves out.
    And I wondered if America doesn’t need a program through which all young people should have to do some kind of national service after high school, whether the high school-straight-into-college route does not simply prolong adolescence and dependence on parents.  
Purpose in life is something that can be promoted.  I believe that every person in this world is in this world for at least one reason.  The challenge in life is to find your purpose.  G-d created this world for a reason and He created you for a reason.  
If you believe this, your sense of yourself will completely change.  I talked to a group at our teen class some years ago and told them that their job was to discover their purpose.  After the class left, one girl came back into my office and asked me what her purpose was.  I said that I could guess but that it was her job to find out.  The good news is that it took four years but she discovered it, and her life is on a constructive track.
    Too many of our young people are not on track.
    I was talking to a young man.  I’m very fond of him.  His name is Scott and he’s on my archaeological dig in the Sinai desert.  He’s bright, good-looking, and a genuinely good and kind soul.  But he has no purpose in life.  He’s worked on a Ph.D. for years but he’s sick of his thesis and doesn’t want to finish it.  He’s been in a relationship for four years with a wonderful girl but he doesn’t want to risk commitment.
    And I say to him, “Your problem is that you live for yourself.  Purpose is outer-directed, and you are completely inner-directed.”  He looks at me in complete bewilderment.  And I wonder if Scott, and all the young people he represents, would not have benefited from service to his community or his country at a younger age, something that would have moved him out of himself so that he could have found out who he’s supposed to be.
    I run into a girl in Israel.  She’s American and she’s now been to Israel eight times at the age of 30.  I ask her if she’s volunteered or participated in programs.  “No,” she says, “I keep going to Israel to find myself.” And I say, “Israel’s a small country.  Maybe you’re looking for yourself in all the wrong places.  You’re not really living in Israel; you’re using Israel as a fantasy vacation-land.  A vacation by definition is a respite from reality.  You need to find out your purpose in the real world.”  She looks at me in complete bewilderment.
    She doesn’t get what my Israeli friend Eitan gets because Eitan, the bad boy, served his country and emerged from the experience as a man who cares about others.  He has purpose and he has what I call “emotional abs.”
    You know what abs are, the muscles in the abdomen, the stomach.  Think about Rocky and all physically-fit people, working on their abs.  You can punch them in the stomach and they’ll be fine.  They may wince, they may stagger backwards, but then they stand up straight and tall again.
    I’m telling you that we Americans today are soft in the middle.
We are soft in the middle because we indulge ourselves.
We want to eat what we want to eat. If we don’t feel like exercising or just walking for a few months at a time, we make up wonderful excuses, how it’s cold outside or our knees hurt or the gym’s too expensive or our favorite, we’re “just too busy.”
How expensive is it to give up what could have been extra years of life because of our laziness?
How busy could we be that we couldn’t use some extra years that a decent diet and some regular exercise might just buy us?
But NOOO, we need our chazarai. I’m not even talking about the real chazarai that many of us eat; don’t even get me started on that. I mean the junk and the trash and the garbage we happily consume in the name of indulgence.
We Americans today are soft in the middle; we can’t resist anything. Since we lack discipline, we don’t have emotional abs.  We cannot take a punch.  When life hits us, we are knocked down for the count of ten.
    We read the story of Abraham and Isaac and we are horrified.  How could Abraham have been willing to sacrifice the child for whom he’d waited one hundred years?  
But we American parents are at the opposite extreme: We coddle ourselves and we live to coddle our children.  We want to shield them from all harm and in the process we forget to teach them how to deal with harm when it comes.  In Judaism, every parent must teach their child how to swim, which of course is a metaphor.  But we’re so desperate to keep our children away from the deep end that we never take them to the pool at all, and then when life throws them in anyway, they don’t know what to do.
    We have to teach them how to take a punch.  
In the recent movie, Rocky Balboa, the aging ex-champion tells his son: It’s not how hard you hit.  It’s how you take the hits and keep moving forward.  
Life will hit you hard.
We have to help our children develop emotional and mental abs.
We have to show them the world, and not just from a hotel window.  
We have to show them what poverty and sickness and homelessness are.  We have to teach them about hunger and thirst.
 We have to teach them about dealing with anxiety and rejection.
 We have to show them about the infirmities of old age.  
We have to teach them about death and grief and mourning.
    When my first child, my Rachel, was three, I decided that I would never discuss death in the house.  If I officiated at a funeral, I said I was doing a service.  If someone died, I didn’t mention it.  And when her goldfish died I ran to get another one.  She couldn’t understand how the goldfish doubled in size in an hour.  I said it was pregnant.  She asked how it got pregnant.  That’s when I really started sweating.  Before I could answer, we heard a scream.  We ran outside and the man across the street had died and was being taken out of the house on a stretcher.  I realized then and there that I could not shield Rachel from death. And then when a beautiful little boy in her nursery school class died the next year, I knew it once and for all:
    There is no shielding, there is no protecting.  Better to teach your child well, and completely, about life.  A new goldfish won’t work.  Don’t teach them things they’ll have to unlearn.
    Exercise their emotional abs, their mental abs, their spiritual abs.
    Why don’t we do this?  We’re trying to protect them because we love them so much.  But our loving and caring approach raises weak and spoiled and dependent children who have trouble becoming adults.
    Why do we do this?  Because we’re scared for them.  And why are we scared for them?  Because we’re so scared of life.
 It’s so ironic; we have it so good and we feel so bad.
    We had unreal expectations of life; that life would give us inside straights, straight A’s, no traffic jams, and a partridge in a pear tree, whatever that means.
    And we’re anxious, terrified, panicked, stressed and overwhelmed.
    You’re not an Israeli parent who has to send your child into the army, but you’re at least as afraid.
    And even though you know better, you tell them to expect straight A’s, inside straights, no traffic jams and a partridge in a pear tree.
    And when they have to fold with a bad hand or fail an exam or hit traffic or buy a house with an empty pear tree, they don’t know what to do, because you taught them to expect only the best.
    And they become anxious, panicked, stressed and overwhelmed.
    And they become afraid.
    Fear is the heritage we transmit to the new generation.
    People talk to me who are shocked, shocked that they have gotten sick or that they have suffered a loss or that they have a problem of any kind.
“I was never sick before”
“I never lost anyone so close to me.”
 “I never expected to have a problem like this!”
At the moment, feeling for their suffering, I express compassion.
But when I step back from what they’re feeling, I want to say,
Are you kidding?
Why are you shocked?
You’re going to get punched.
Anyone, including your loving parents, who told you differently, was painting a fairy tale.
You must live expecting to get punched and train yourself and prepare yourself to take the punch.

I don’t know what Judaism means to you.
But I think that among other things, Judaism is an abs machine for the emotions and the spirit.
Judaism says: Just do it.
When you pray three times a day, there are plenty of times that you don’t feel like praying. You do it anyway. You become disciplined.
You go to a restaurant and you can only eat one or two things on the menu: You learn to be disciplined so that when the doctor tells you to stop eating certain things you just stop eating those things.
When you’re part of a community and not just in your own little fantasy bubble, you see people lose their loved ones and you see people get sick and you see every problem under the sun and you realize that you are no more immune to such things than they are.
You prepare yourself to take a punch.

Judaism is an abs machine, preparing your stomach to take a hit.
It makes you stronger right where it counts.

I’m talking today about two things, our lack of purpose and our weakness.
What’s the connection?
Our weakness messes us up and makes us self-indulgent; we’re so focused on ourselves that we have no other purpose.
And I think about Eitan, who conquered fear, transcended self-indulgence and emerged not broken but whole,
not driven by personal needs but the needs of others.
The name Eitan comes from the Hebrew root Natan, “to give.” Eitan means, “I will give.”
There’s a Hebrew phrase, three short Hebrew words, I’ve always loved: Teyn Lee Koach.  The word teyn comes from the same root natan.
When I was a supercilious kid in Hebrew School, driving my teachers crazy, they would point to a sign put up on the wall because of my antics.  
It said Teyn Lee Koach: “Give me strength.”
Now, as an adult, it’s what I ask G-d for.

Today we are all praying for different things and different people.
But my special prayer for you and me on these High Holidays is the three words my poor Hebrew School teachers said like a mantra at the time of their great travail, when they had to try to teach the yeled ra of the song at the Israeli disco, the bad little boy who was the rabbi’s son and had to be treated carefully: Teyn Lee Koach.  Give me strength.
    Give me the strength, give me the abs to do sit ups when I want to lie down flat on the mat and not get up.
Teyn Lee Koach to stand up to those who treat me badly.
Give me strength to take care of the people around me.
Give me strength to take care of myself.
That’ s one prayer.
My other prayer is that each of us finds the purpose of our lives.  
It may be caring for another person.  
It may be a job that needs to be done.  
It may be participating in community matters.  
It may be supporting another person who is doing important things.
But that purpose has to be something besides yourself.  
You are not the beginning and end of the world.  
You must give.
Paul Simon sang:
    Why am I soft in the middle
    The rest of my life is so hard?
I would answer the question like this:
Life is hard, but we make it even harder by being soft in the middle.
G-d doesn’t want us weak and dependent on Him, abdicating our responsibilities to ourselves and others.
So in the coming year, work on your abs.
Work on your physical strength.
Work on being strong enough not to give a punch but to take a punch and stay upright.
You will get sick here and there. When you get to a certain age, if it’s not this it will be that. Sometimes, we should be grateful it’s this and not that.

And work on your emotional strength.
Don’t cave in every time you get hit.
Don’t be so sensitive to every remark every insensitive person says to you.
Don’t let other people define who you are.
Get some abs.
And to the young people who don’t know who they are, I beg you:
Don’t just look for a job: Look for a purpose.
Look for what you want to do, not just to make a living, but so that you will be living with meaning.
And so I say my other prayer:
    Adonai Oz Le-Ammo Yetien
    Adonai yevarech Le-Ammo Bashalom
May G-d give us strength, because by giving us strength, He’ll give us Shalom, completeness and purpose. If we work on ourselves, G-d will be with us, giving us the strength to give.