Ozzie, Harriet and Ricky and the Heart of the Matter

When I was a child, there was a couple in my father’s shul that embodied kindness and intelligence. I’ll call them Ozzie and Harriet. They were the nicest, most refined people I ever knew: positive and sensitive. They thought three times before they said a word. When I got older, I learned that they both were psychologists, one in clinical research and the other in private practice.


Harriet had a brother, we’ll call him Ricky, who lived in town and was very close to both of them; Ozzie referred to Ricky as his brother.

One day, Ricky stopped returning their calls. They couldn’t understand what had happened. They wracked their brains, going over recent conversations, trying to determine if they could have insulted him in some way. They couldn’t even come up with a trivial incident that could have made him turn away from them. They kept trying, through other family members and mutual friends; they went to his house and stood outside the door when they knew he was home; no response, nothing.

And then disaster struck; Ozzie was diagnosed with a terrible cancer. And though he struggled mightily and got the best possible treatment, it became clear that he was not going to beat it. And Harriet wanted her brother Ricky by her side, and even more important, Ozzie wanted the person he’d also called his brother with him. Again, they tried everything. They sent word, over and over again, that Ozzie was not going to make it.

Now in a bedtime story, Ricky comes at the last minute, begging forgiveness, explaining why he had stayed away, and they all reconcile before the end.
Real life, unfortunately, is often not a fairy tale, and people, sadly, are not Prince Charming and Cinderella. Ricky never showed up. And in his last days, Ozzie called for Ricky, but he never came.

Still, on the day of the funeral, Harriet waited to see Ricky; assuming that for some reason he had had something against Ozzie but now would come for her. But Ricky didn’t show up.

When I heard that Ricky didn’t come to the funeral, I thought about some famous stories in the Torah. On the First Day of Rosh Hashanah, we see how Abraham, because of the will of his wife Sarah and at the command of G-d, sends his son Ishmael out into the desert. On the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, we see that Abraham is prepared to kill Isaac at the command of G-d. Now if you were Ishmael, you would never talk to your father again, and if you were Isaac, you would be too scared to ever go near your father again. And yet we see that Isaac only had a loving and respectful relationship with Abraham and we see both sons at Abraham’s funeral, paying their respects and demonstrating their love.

Why? I’m not sure, but it may have been because they both understood that Abraham did what he did against his own will. They looked into his heart and knew that he never could mean them any harm. They looked into the heart of the matter and they were able to forgive.

There’s a great old song by Don Henley called “The Heart of the Matter” that resonates for me in this context:
There are people in your life who’ve come and gone
They let you down and hurt your pride
Better put it all behind you; life goes on
You keep carrin’ that anger, it’ll eat you up inside

I’m learning to live without you now
But I miss you,
The more I know, the less I understand
All the things I thought I figured out, I have to learn again

I’ve been tryin’ to get down to the Heart of the Matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about
Even if,
Even if
You don’t love me anymore

I think about Ishmael at Abraham’s funeral. Ishmael had been expelled into the desert. Abraham had perfect faith in G-d and knew that G-d would protect his son. But Ishmael didn’t know what was going on and at one point his mother left him under a bush, crying; he nearly died of thirst. Ishmael forgave that. And I hear Ishmael at Abraham’s funeral saying:
I’ve been tryin’ to get down to the Heart of the Matter
Because the flesh will get weak
And the ashes will scatter
So I’m thinkin’ about
Even if, even if you don’t love me anymore

Ishmael was saying: My father may not have loved me but I loved him and I am here at his funeral out of loyalty to my own feelings. He let me down and he hurt my pride and he changed my life, but if I carry this anger it will eat me up inside. And so I’m here, Father, to bestow my forgiveness, even if you didn’t love me any more.

The heart of the matter, the essence of life, is the love you have for others.

Which brings me back to Ozzie and Harriet. It’s six months after Ozzie died, and Harriet gets a call from Ricky: “Would she like to have lunch?”
“What? Do I what?”
He repeats: “Do you want have lunch on Tuesday at 12?”
She’s so stupefied that she agrees. She agrees to have lunch with him. When her kids hear this, they’re to say the least irate. “You’re going to have lunch with him?”
And Harriet said: “Maybe we can learn what happened. Maybe at least I can get some peace about this if I understand it.”
Her kids were adamant: “He does not deserve anything.”
Harriet went to lunch with Ricky over her children’s objections. At lunch, she waited. She waited for Ricky to explain everything. He talked about everything under the sun and she responded politely and she waited. And then lunch was over and he asked if they could do it again the next week. And she wanted to ask and she wanted to scream but nothing happened, her mouth wouldn’t work. And she agreed to have lunch with him the next week, thinking that maybe then he would explain himself and ask forgiveness. When her kids heard that Ricky had not apologized and that she was going to have lunch with him again, they nearly went crazy.

But once a week, for a long time now, Harriet and Ricky have had lunch. To this day, Harriet knows no more than she ever did. She’s tried to bring things up, many times, but he will not respond and changes the subject.

That’s the story. A very unsatisfactory story, isn’t it? It’s what I call emotionally controversial. Many of us will find Harriet’s actions impossible to understand. Others will say that if the song is right and Ishmael and Isaac were right and the heart of the matter is forgiveness, Harriet, as a psychologist, understood that her brother must have had some terrible problem or limitation and that he, in his own mystifying way, was asking for forgiveness.  But Harriet would tell you, very calmly, that she had lost her parents and she lost her husband and she had lost her brother but now her brother is back in her life and she wants him. She does not forgive or forget. She does not forgive him. She does not forget what he did. Not for a second. But she has made her choice and frankly, she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.  

There’s something even deeper in the story of Ozzie and Harriet, and it’s the reason I’m telling you this story. These two good people loved Ricky. Now everybody who hears this story will have an opinion about Ricky and what he did, and I’m no exception. But again, Harriet’s right: What we think doesn’t matter. Ozziet and Harriet loved Ricky. He doesn’t deserve the love of such wonderful people. But Ozzie would have embraced him with his last breath. And Harriet loves her brother no matter what and knows that Ozzie is with her every time she goes to lunch with Ricky.
So let me tell you the good news and the bad news about love.
The good news is that if you love someone, it’s forever.
The bad news is that if you love someone, it’s forever.

There is only one kind of love that is worthy of the word and that is unconditional love. We often have emotions that we mistake for love. We have emotions that are selfish, darkly rooted in desires and satisfactions. Many people say “I love you” one day and reject you the next. If you’re self-centered in the consciousness of “I, me, and mine,” you can’t love. Real love is without condition, without boundary. If you love someone, no matter what, it doesn’t stop. The one you love can break your heart into as many pieces as a jigsaw puzzle, and you come back for more.
Now where does this love come from?
It comes from G-d.
G-d’s love is unconditional.
And that is the message of these days: that G-d loves us despite our mistakes.
We have sinned.
We have stolen,
we have treated others poorly,
we have been disloyal,
we have abused alcohol and other drugs,
we have cheated on our taxes and on scholarship forms;
we have neglected a sick and elderly parent,
we have not made enough time for a child.
And the list goes on.
But admitting our sins is the first step.

The second step is to realize that God does not hate us for these sins. We feel like our acts have created a distance between God and us. The prayers on the High Holidays, however, tell us that there’s a lot we can do to narrow the distance between God and us. Good parents often will say to a child who has done something wrong: “I may be mad at you, I may not like you at this moment, but I’ll always love you.” In the same way, God, like Harriet, didn’t like everything we did but He’s ready and waiting for us, because God will always love each of us, unconditionally.

If you understand that G-d’s love is unconditional, then you realize that when you love another human being unconditionally, you are acting in a G-dly way. I’d go even further and say that all unconditional love come from G-d through us to another person.

I’d like to move from talking about one person’s unconditional love to that of our people’s love for G-d. I’m going to say something quite radical, and it’s going to make some of you uncomfortable. Some of you are going to be shocked by what I say. But I ask you to at least think about it.

If you know anything about Jewish history, you know that it is filled with misery. We were persecuted and discriminated against, hunted and exterminated, and if anyone had a reason to turn away from G-d, it was the Jewish people. Where was G-d at Auschwitz? Where was G-d during all those centuries of persecution? All of us have asked these questions, and the more you know, and the more you think about G-d, the more you’ve asked, and the more you’re troubled.

And the more you know, the more you are baffled by how the Jewish people survived. Why are we still here? The world has tried for thousands of years to destroy us. How did we make it? Why did we make it? It is surely one of the great mysteries of human history. Sometimes I think: G-d must be keeping us going for a reason. But then I read some more history, and I wonder if G-d did anything but allow things to unfold.

Recently I’ve been thinking that the secret of Jewish survival is to be found in one sentence:
Ve-ahavta eyt Adonai Eloheh-cha Bechole-Levavcha u-ve-chole-nafshecha uvechole meodeh-cha.
“And thou shall love the Lord your G-d with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.”

We did. We loved G-d. No matter what happened, it was our unconditional love for G-d that kept us going. G-d may have abandoned us as surely as Ricky abandoned Ozzie and Harriet, but we still loved Him.  
Not just in history, but also in our own lives, G-d has not always done what we wanted Him to do. He often just let things unfold, and many of those things brought misery to the people we loved.
Do you know the story of the Book of Job, where an innocent, righteous man suffers terribly and screams at G-d, demanding to know the reason for his suffering? And he waits and waits for the answer, but he never finds out. G-d speaks out of the whirlwind to Job and says: “I’m here. I’m not going to explain. You’re never going to know why anything happened. I’m not going to justify Myself. But I’m here. Let’s have lunch. Let’s catch up. Let’s have a relationship.”

And it’s not very satisfactory to Job, or to us. But it’s what we have. And we go on.

And somehow we see, over that lunch table, that G-d still loves us and always has. We can’t figure Him out; we’re trained like Ozzie and Harriet to analyze but we can’t figure Him out.
But it doesn’t matter. One way or another, we need G-d.
And some of us are like Harriet; it’s because of our many losses that we need G-d to be in our lives. And even though we’re angry at G-d, we still want Him.
We know that our loved ones are with Him and we need to know that He’s taking care of them.
He reminds us, in a good way, of everything and everybody we’ve lost.

I’ll move back from our relationship with G-d to our relationships with the people in our lives.
In the last year,
the people you love have made you irritated and angry;
they have insulted you, humiliated you and neglected you. Sometimes they loved you too much; they loved in suffocating ways, or they were stupidly jealous, or they were frustrating and exasperating. One way or another, they were a royal pain and a presidential disappointment.

I’m not asking you to forgive all of those things or to forget all of those things. Don Henley says the heart of the matter is forgiveness but frankly, he’s nicer than I am. If you can forgive, more power to you. But I don’t seem to have that super power very often, so I can’t ask you to have it either. But I can ask you, not to forgive or forget, but to love them, anyway.

There are people in your life who’ve come and gone
They let you down and hurt your pride
Better put it all behind you; life goes on
You keep carrin’ that anger, it’ll eat you up inside

And you will put it behind you, not just so it won’t eat you up inside, but also because that’s how real love works. It is this G-dly, eternal force that makes you feel this way no matter what.
Love is not just unconditional – it’s undeniable;
It’s more powerful than all of the irritations and pain and heartaches.
Just when you think you can beat it, here it comes again, overwhelming you.

On these sacred days, I ask you to think about your relationships with the people you love. This is the time to get down to the Heart of the Matter.
I know our wills are weak and our thoughts seem to scatter, but if there’s someone you love, and things haven’t been going well between you, do something. Life is really, really short.

Harriet, it turns out, is the most emotionally healthy person I’ve ever known. Take it from her: If she can have lunch with Ricky, you can make that call.

And while you’re communicating, and since you’re sitting here anyway, call G-d, and say that you’re going to be coming more often to see Him. He’s waiting for you to get down to the heart of the matter we call life, to understand that the heart of the matter is, after all, the heart.