So I’m fifteen years old and I’m in the car with my father and I’m blaring mad. I can still feel it: We’re on Greentree Road in Bethesda, Maryland and my father is driving me against my will to get a haircut. It’s 1968 and I don’t want a haircut. The Beatles are playing on the radio, singing the song “Help!” My father shuts off the radio, claiming that all this long hair nonsense began with those beach boys and so it was their fault to begin with. I’m very upset. How can I survive at Walt Whitman Senior High School if I get a haircut? Long hair is in and I desperately want to be in. I try my best card, saying to him, “How will I have a chance with Linda Sternfeld if I get a haircut?” But he doesn’t hear me. And I can still hear my father saying, “I don’t care if you like me. I don’t want anything back from you. I’m raising you the best way I know how. And when, someday, G-d willing, you’ll have children, you’ll pay me back by raising them the best way you know how. That’s the way it works; I take care of you and you’ll take care of them. I’m not expecting one thing back from you except that you’ll take care of the next generation.”
My father said words like these many times over the years. I only remember that particular lecture because the ending was so traumatic. He stood there next to me at Mr. Kaiser’s Barber Shop and kept saying, “Take more off! Take more off!” At that moment, my father could be certain that I would not be eager to do anything good for him, so it was just as well that he wasn’t expecting anything back from me.
My father raised me with the concept that parents do for their children and their children need not do anything back for their parents. But, as you know, the years go by and things change. It took me a very long time to realize that my father might have believed the “I do for you, you do for your children” philosophy then, when he was in his forties and he was going to live forever in total independence. Now, G-d bless him, he’s twice as old as he was then, and he does have needs, and he needs his children to help. I bought the package he sold me; I thought that I could pay him back by giving to my children. How naive and mistaken I was to think that.
We live in this wonderful time when so many of us live longer in relatively good health. But for all of the wonders of cholesterol drugs and chemotherapy and cardiac procedures, those of us who are lucky enough to get older do need help that we did not need before.
I think back to my father in his early forties. I look at him now, 84 years old, in what I would call terrific shape and health and mind. But even so, he’s feeling it. And I remember the words of the song that was playing on the radio during that argument in a new way:
When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way.
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured,
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors.
And now my life has changed in oh so many ways,
My independence seems to vanish in the haze.
But every now and then I feel so insecure,
I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before.
That’s it exactly. Our lives change and we need help.
Help me, get my feet back on the ground,
Won’t you please, please help me.
Think about how far down the person saying this is. They just need companionship. They appreciate people being around when they’re so down. “Will you please, please help me.”
This admission is so difficult for so many of us. It is an admission that you cannot live independently, that you can’t function on your own. Some of us are so reluctant to admit that we need help that we literally do ourselves in.
Let’s talk about the children who think that their parents did for them and now they will do for their own kids but that they do not have to do anything back for their parents. This is the very structure my father taught me on the way to the barber shop. We have words for these children: selfish, self-centered, ungrateful and insensitive.
So why does this happen all the time?
I have some words for both grandparents and parents. I am newly qualified to speak about this. To the grandparents, I want to remind you of a time in your life when you had kids and ran like a chicken without a head and drove like a cabbie and it was all a blur. If you had more than one child, there can be whole parts of those years you can’t even remember except that there was a maze of activity and being needed and the pressure of building up your financial lot in life.
Well, your kids are in that blur right now, so since you can remember the same period in your life, at least understand why they don’t do some of the things you’d like them to do.
And to the generation of parents for whom it’s all a blur right now, stop and think about your life. Maybe you don’t have to give into your kid’s every whim. Maybe you can have dinner at grandma’s even if the kid doesn’t like her meatloaf.
On these High Holidays, let both sides of the grandparent/parent divide stop and think a little about cutting some slack and doing better.
The relationship between parents and children has a great metaphor in the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. In the Bible, there are two kinds of covenants, of sacred contracts. One is where G-d gives to Abraham and Abraham does not need to do much back. The covenant is basically one-way: G-d gives to Abraham, the way a parent gives to a small child. Later, at Mt. Sinai, a new kind of covenant is made, where G-d and the Israelites are in a two-way relationship: G-d gives and the Israelites do the Mitzvot, the Commandments, in return.
The religion of Mt. Sinai, Judaism, is supposed to be a two-way street, but for most of us, it’s a one-way street: We want G-d to give to us and we don’t do anything in return. We’re G-d’s children, and we’re selfish, and we figure that He’s in His prime and He’s Almighty and He doesn’t need anything from us anyway. So we’re happy to have a one-way street and we get mad when G-d doesn’t do exactly what we want.
But we should understand that G-d changed from the time of Abraham to the time when the Israelites were at Mt. Sinai. He learned that He did want a great deal in return. I can’t say that His needs changed, but I can say that His demands changed.
But we don’t get that. And so, like an adult child who has not adjusted to her parent’s new needs and demands, we just assume that we have a one-way relationship where G-d gives us anything we want and we don’t need to do anything in return.
We should understand that all parents, G-d included, want something back from their children.
This will sound cynical to you but I state it as a statement of fact: Everyone, even the most idealistic, altruistic person, wants something back.
I’ll try to explain this idea by teaching you a principle from social anthropology. To have kinship is to share without reckoning. If you are my kin, I will share with you, and will give you love or things and I don’t expect anything in return. That’s sharing without reckoning. If you are not my kin, however, I will give to you and I will expect something in return. I share but I reckon. And if I give and I reckon and you do not give back, that is unacceptable.
So the world is divided between people who are my kin and who are not my kin. I share without reckoning with my kin and I share with reckoning with everyone else. Anthropology is very interested in the gift, because a gift is something that I give to you, which would seem to be one-way without thinking of return. But there is supposed to be reciprocity, at least over time. You may not give me a gift in return immediately, but eventually you should give me something in return.
That’s in anthropological theory. In reality, however, even kinship is based on sharing with reckoning. In kinship, the expectation is that eventually, what I share with you and you share with me will basically even out. I don’t really think about it, because I think that I’m giving unconditionally and out of the goodness of my heart. I don’t think that I’m reckoning.
But some place, deep inside of us, is the expectation that just as we will give to others, show up at their kid’s wedding, and give the couple humongous gifts, they will give to us and be there at our big events with equally humongous gifts. And if they are not there for us like we were there for them, there will be a price to pay.
Many of our families, immediate and extended, have been destroyed through some variation of this theme. “I was there for you and cared about you but then you did not give to me or care about me.” And since we only have a few great events in our lives, and they are precious to us, and we want them to be perfect, if you mar that perfection, I am broyguss with you, I am angry with you, forever. Maybe, if you were hit by a car and in the hospital and you still sent a great gift, maybe I can let it go. Otherwise, I’m done with you.
All because kinship means the expectation of reciprocity over the long haul.
So when my father said, “I’m not expecting anything back from you,” he meant it, inside not only that moment but where he was in his life. After all, what could this shaggy dog rebellious kid ever do for him? But underneath that tough exterior was a heart that beat very differently from his words. And that heart said, “I have done so much for this kid and no matter how he is acting now, of course I want a loving relationship for the rest of my life with him. Are you kidding? Is being a parent just raising a kid and sending him out into the world never to see him again? That’s why I’ve spent these years sweating over every fever and every time he broke curfew and every lousy report card? Hopefully he’ll turn into something better than he is now. But even if he doesn’t, I’ll want to be as close to him as I can possibly be.”
So my father’s words, and my father’s heart, said two very different things.
Now let’s upload this anthropological theory and this personal story to all of us in all of our relationships.
Most of the people in this world fall into the category of “I do for you and you do back for me.” I pay you to render me a service. It’s clean and easy and closed. I don’t owe you and you don’t owe me. Everything between us is counted and reckoned and finished.
But when it comes to those for whom we feel kinship, the people we care about, it’s not clean and easy and closed; it’s messy and complex and open-ended, hopefully for the rest of our lives.
41% of baby boomers who have a living parent are providing care for them, either financial help, personal care or both. 8% say that their parents have moved in with them. Of those who are not caring for an aged parent, 37% say they expect to do so in the future. About half say they’re concerned about being able to provide such care.
34 million Americans are unpaid caregivers for other adults, usually elderly relatives, and spend an average 21 hours a week helping out. Millions more grown children are calling regularly, flying into town every few weeks or months or just stopping by to take Mom or Dad to the doctor. 89% say that this is a minor sacrifice or no sacrifice at all. But they worry about being able to do what needs to be done.
This is all very hard, and such statistics hide how hard it can be and the tension these situations create. And what wrecks everything is when you don’t do what I never said I expected from you and maybe even never told myself I expected from you. But when you don’t do or say what I expected you to do and say, we’ve got a huge problem.
The statistics make it seem like we’re not reckoning.
But a lot of us are reckoning, keeping score on numbers of phone calls and visits a week, money lent and not repaid, and so on.
We reckon all the time.
We are angry because the reckoning on our scorecards does not look the way we think it should.
We reckon all the time and we reckon in ink, without possibility of erasure.
Sharing without reckoning does not really mean unconditional one-sided sharing. G-d does not give to His children without wanting something back and parents do not give to their children without wanting something back, no matter what they say or think.
We think that we will never reckon, that we will continue to give to others and never need anything back from anybody. But at some point, when we’re in trouble, we will need help. And if we don’t get what we need, we will start reckoning as a way of life.
We’re not like Bing Crosby, who didn’t count sheep when he couldn’t sleep but counted his blessings. We count all the bad things, over and over and over again. We don’t fall asleep counting our blessings. We stay up all night counting and recounting our grievances. And while we’re at it, we get out our scorecards that record our grievances against G-d and get angry at Gd and life itself.
So my question is: Are you a scorekeeper?
Can you share your life without reckoning?
Do you keep score about which family member or which friend did what on which date?
I’m not asking you not to reckon at all. You have a right to expect a general return for your sharing. But there will never be exact reciprocity in an open-ended relationship. At any given point, if you could really keep score of all the things that go on and not just remember a few things that got to you, it would really never be even. An open-ended good relationship between any two people does mean, however, that over the course of time, each does for the other according to his or her ability and receives according to his or her need.
I want to say a word to all of the tough people, the people who don’t need nobody. The truth is that, one of these days, you’re going to need some help. You’ll be the one who’s desperate.
I’ve known so many people who thought that they would never need anybody’s help in any way.
But over these twenty-something years as the rabbi of this congregation, I’ve seen everyone have their times when they needed something.
I’ve seen invulnerable people break in three pieces.
I’ve seen the strong become weak
The unflappable flapping in the wind of fear.
And now my life has changed in oh so many ways,
My independence seems to vanish in the haze.
And when those people needed help, sometimes their families and friends were there. And sometimes, they weren’t.
And so I want to ask everyone a hard question: are there people who have given to you in your life who now need help and to whom you have not given back? Don’t tell me that they don’t want anything back because it’s not true. From each according to his or her ability and to each according to his or her need.
It’s very simple: Help when you should and receive help when you need it.
And stop keeping score. Stop reckoning so much.
Once, my father was operated on for a tumor on his lung. After the operation, the surgeon came out and said that the prognosis was grim at best. A few horrible days later, the results showed that the tumor was benign and that my father was perfectly healthy. But the experience had knocked my father for a physical and emotional loop, and he came up here to Connecticut for a while. When he felt ready to go home, I took him to the airport, and he said to me, “I took care of you. Now you took care of me.”
He seemed so different from the guy who took me to the barber shop. But of course, he was the same guy. There are different moments and different times in our lives.
Thank G-d that was twenty-five years ago, and he’s been great since then.
Should I have said to my father at the airport, “You’re welcome, but just for the record:
“I remember how you drove me against my will to get that haircut,
How you laughed as I was shorn of my virility
How you glowed as I was shorn of my hippiness and my happiness
How you violated my personal rights
I blame you to this day for the fact that I lost my chance forever with Linda Sternfeld.”
Should I have checked the scoreboard and read a hundred such grievances to reckon if I should be of help when he was down?
Of course not.
Should I have said, “But you taught me that I was supposed to take care of my kids and I didn’t have to worry about you?”
Of course not.
Instead I muttered something like, “I’m happy I could help.”
My prayer for all of us on these High Holidays is that we work very, very hard, with everything we have, to have relationships in which we give and receive, lives in which we couldn’t reckon if we wanted to, because our love for each other has made our lives so full of giving and receiving that we don’t know where the circle begins.