Godbrothers and Godsisters

Pete and Donald were brothers. Pete, the older brother, was a successful real estate broker in Santa Cruz, California. He and his wife worked hard and earned every penny they made. Pete had two daughters, a sailboat, a house near the ocean and friends who were also successful.

The younger brother, Donald, on the other hand, never married, owned nothing, worked on and off painting houses, and only got deeper in debt to Pete as the years went on.

They didn’t look or act like brothers. Pete was at home in the world and looked the part; heavy and happy. Donald was all bones; serious, obsessed with the fate of his soul, always looking for a different religion that would bring him salvation. He also worried about everybody else’s soul. Pete looked down on Donald; he asked: “Brother, what have you come to?” As far as Pete was concerned, the only question worth asking was: “Have you prospered in life or not?” Donald, however, couldn’t care less about money or success.

Donald decided to join a communal farm, but it was a disaster, because he kept making mistakes. For example, when sent to buy groceries, he met a needy family and gave the food away, leaving nothing for the members of his group, who were very angry. He tried to cook for the group and started a fire by accident. He was asked to leave, and so he was forced to call Pete and ask if he would take a trip and pick him up.

When Pete gets to the gas station where Donald is waiting for him, Donald asks him for money to pay for coffee and sandwiches. He’s starving. Pete gives him a hundred dollars, and when Donald protests, Pete indicates that he couldn’t care less about such a small amount of money. When Donald gets in Pete’s beautiful new car, he spills orange soda all over the new leather seats, irritating Pete.

They start to argue. Donald reminds Pete that when they were kids, Donald had an operation, and had to be careful not to have anything hit his stomach, lest his intestines come apart and poison him. When their parents would go out, and Donald would be trying to sleep, Pete would come over to his bed and punch him in the stomach over and over again. Pete doesn’t deny the story, but tells Donald that if he doesn’t stop talking about the past, he won’t take him home.

They stop at a diner and meet a man who tells an obviously bogus tale about how he has a gold mine in South America and would be willing to sell them a share. Pete knows exactly what the guy is but Donald thinks the story is real. So when Pete gives Donald the wheel and takes a nap, Donald gives the man the hundred dollars in exchange for a share in the gold mine. When Pete wakes up, he finds that the con man is gone along with his one hundred dollars. When Pete rebukes Donald for the loss of so much money, Donald asks to get out of the car. Pete threatens him that if he gets out of the car, they’re finished forever. Donald gets out.

And so Pete drives away. He is clear that he’s finished with Donald; that he will never take care of him again. But when he thinks about arriving at home without Donald, and his wife asking, “Where is your brother?” he slows down to turn around and go get Donald. And that’s how the story ends.

This story is fiction; it’s a short story called “The Rich Brother,” written by the well-known writer Tobias Wolff.  It’s a story that’s supposed to remind us of many stories in the Bible, in which two brothers represent two types of people. Think about Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, and so on.

In each case, the two brothers symbolize two types of human beings. Cain is the farmer, Abel the shepherd; Isaac is the Jewish people, Ishmael is the Arabs. Esau is the man of war, Jacob the man of peace.

Wolff has quite consciously written the story of Pete and Donald in this tradition. Pete is the man of the world; he’s Cain, Ishmael, and Esau. Donald is the victim, Abel, the quiet, good soul who cannot succeed in this world; Isaac, who follows his father Abraham to the mountaintop, Jacob, who stays at home cooking.

In the story, both brothers are flawed. It’s not good brother and bad brother. Pete is selfish; Donald is too selfless.

One message is: Don’t be Pete. Don’t be a person so driven by success that you are nothing less than a monster. Why does Pete hit his brother in the stomach? He is trying to kill him. He can’t stand Donald’s weakness, his goodness. Pete is Cain, who literally wants to kill his brother out of jealousy.

On the other hand, don’t be Donald. Don’t be so weak and so good. Abel is just an English translation. His real name, in the original Hebrew, is Hevel, which means vapor, nothingness. Abel and Donald are ethereal, loved by G-d but too good for existence in the real world. When Donald gives the commune’s groceries away to the needy family, he does this out of goodness. But in so doing, he does a wrong to his group at the farm. Donald is foolish to give the con man the money. He is a bumbler who spills orange soda and everything else in his life.

The end of the story is poignant: What is our responsibility to each other? If you’re Pete, how far do you have to go? He comes to rescue Donald from himself, to bring him home, but then makes fun of him for being incompetent and naïve.  The pattern of their lives is that Pete will help his brother to show that he’s better, but can’t stand the fact that Donald needs help. He is caught between going to help him and driving away. To use a term I hear from people just about every day, Pete doesn’t want to be an ‘enabler’; he doesn’t want to contribute to Donald’s incompetent approach to life. But Donald is not going to change, so what can Pete do but help him? If he goes home without Donald, it’s not just his wife who will ask, “Where is your brother?” This question, which ends the story, is, of course, the question that G-d asks Cain after he kills Abel: “Where is your brother Abel?” And Cain says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This is a play on words; Abel is a keeper of sheep and Cain disdains his occupation. But Pete hears that question in his head: “Where is your brother? Have you hurt him? Have you hurt him by not helping him? Have you left him on the highway because he blew a hundred dollars, which is chump change to you, because you were irritated with his stupidity?  He’s still your brother.” And so Pete turns around.

Most of the people in this room are not Pete and are not Donald. We are not Pete, a mean and selfish person, but some of us are in Pete’s position, giving to our loved ones; we never expect to see the money again, but we wish that the money we were giving would put our loved ones in a position never to need our help again. Still, we know that they will always need our help. And we don’t know what to do, so we drive away, but then we come back.

We’re not like Donald, we’re not weak and naïve, but some of us find ourselves needing a Pete to bail us out; we need the help of others. And we hate asking others for help. It is humiliating. It makes us feel like two cents. But we just can’t seem to make a go of it. We can’t make enough money to survive. We try, we try as hard as we can, but things never seem to work out. And we want to repay them, and we say that we will, but we don’t know if we’ll ever be able to.

But that humiliation should not stand in the way of doing other things we can do. Life changes; those on top don’t necessarily stay there.

I’m thinking about someone who came to me with a problem about her sister. We’ll call my friend Pearl and her sister Denise. Pearl said that she’d always been generous with Denise. When I told Pearl the story of Pete and Donald, the story of the mean rich brother and the ineffectual needy brother, she said that her sister Denise was a version of Donald, a woman who floated from place to place and relationship to relationship and never had roots or security and always needed a so-called loan. And now Pearl was sick, and needed concrete help, and she asked Denise to come and help, and Denise came for a day and a half and left because, she said, “I’m just no good at this.” And Pearl is so very hurt, and very angry, and says to me, “Why did I do all that for her? This is what I get back?”

To which I said, “But that’s not why you gave her money all these years. You never imagined yourself in this position. You never said, ‘Someday she’ll help me. Someday she’ll pay me back.’”

Pearl agreed but said, “Still, now that I’m in this position, why isn’t she helping me?”

And I said that Denise is who she is, she never changed and, G-d help us, she probably never will. Denise never had responsibility because, like Donald, she simply couldn’t handle it. This is not an excuse and it is not a defense; it’s just reality. I didn’t defend Denise for one second; she was morally and emotionally wrong.

But then I started thinking that this was the opportunity for Denise to do something. Pearl had been her sister’s keeper, and now Denise could finally give back, and I couldn’t stand how she had come for one night and left. So being the obnoxiously proactive rabbi that I am, I asked Pearl if I could call Denise, not to ball her out but to try again to get her to come and stay with her sister in this crisis. Pearl was grateful, and I called Denise, who did not get her back up and really talked to me for a few minutes, trying to explain why she left, how she loves Pearl and can’t stand to see the rock of her life sick in bed, and then, then, all of a sudden, Denise began to wail. I don’t mean cry; I mean wail. She wailed about her whole life, about her inability to do anything for anyone, and that if anyone deserved help it was Pearl, who had never asked for anything or rebuked her in any way. And so I asked Denise again if she would come back. And she agreed.

But she never came back. She calls Pearl more often, but she has not come back to help her, or even just to visit. Pearl was Denise’s keeper all those years, but Denise refuses to be, or can’t be, her sister’s keeper now.

As I was saying on Rosh Hashanah, I keep thinking about that novel My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.  It’s about a girl named Anna whose parents brought her into the world to save her older sister Kate’s life. Kate has a terrible disease and Anna is a genetic match and from an early age donates bone marrow and so on. Now Kate needs a kidney and Anna takes her parents to court for control over her own body.

The novel has its own twists and ultimately avoids an answer to the tough question: What are the limits of our responsibilities to each other? Is Anna her sister’s keeper? Is she right to protect herself and not give her sister a kidney?

So in the first story Pete and Donald are both unsympathetic; Pete is an angry donor and Donald is a naïve and helpless recipient.

In the second story, Pearl is a willing donor but also wants to be a recipient in her time of need, only to find that her sister will not be her keeper. I bring these two stories to show that both a donor and a recipient can be morally and emotionally wrong.

But in the third story of Anna and Kate, it is not Kate who is asking for a kidney, both people are good, it’s the situation that’s impossible, it’s because the lives and bodies of the two sisters are so intertwined that there is a very real dilemma.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m talking about. This is not just about money or nursing a sick relative or donating bone marrow. It’s about our responsibilities to each other. It’s about what we should do for each other.

We need to be godbrothers or godsisters. You’ve heard of godfathers and godmothers; now I’m coining some new terms. What we need, in our families and in our society, are godsiblings, who, because they know deeply that G-d loves all of us, have love for and patience with everyone. Because in the end, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, by which the Bible means that we are responsible for each other no matter what.  A godbrother knows that all people are made in the image of God and none of us are saints, none of us are so perfect. A godsister is not so arrogant or proud and tries to do things for others.

So let me apply all of this to two concrete institutions, the government of the United States and this synagogue.

First, the government has to be a godbrother or sister. The current economic crisis has brought most of us to the point that we believe change is necessary. But there should be a legitimate argument, a real debate about how to make these changes, and we should have that debate without one side being so superior and the other side being so angry.

There is an elite in this country, an economic elite, the rich brothers and sisters represented by Pete in the story, who say that there have to be limits to what we give the Donalds. The Petes are resentful of people like Donald and Denise, people who do not contribute, who do not pay back, who take and do not give. Like Anna, they say, “Look, it may sound cruel, but enough, I’ve given and given, my bone marrow and my blood, but I’m not giving you a kidney, I’m not going to let this country go bankrupt providing health care or mortgages for those who can’t fend for themselves.”

I’m not just talking about money, but about attitude. By “rich siblings” I mean those who lack love, charity, compassion, and a sense that all of us are in this mess together. They always seem to be looking down at the rest of the country in a condescending way. Some of them, as we know only too well after the last couple of years, are willing to do anything, cheat anyone, for their own financial gain. As much as we might be afraid of big government, nothing else can stop the rich brothers from exploiting the poor ones. If some of us want “social justice” for our poor sisters, and want to change laws and policies so that everyone can eat and have health care, the rich siblings talk about how there are people who do not change their lives because government checks allow them to keep destroying themselves. The Petes, the rich brothers, like the late somehow now-sainted President Ronald Reagan, wax sarcastic about wastrels while they overlook the truly needy.

Their accusations forget that there are those who, for whatever reason, cannot make it in life. Rich brothers tend to forget that even though part of what they are saying is true, truth without love is like sodium without chloride: Poison, not salt.

On the other side, poor siblings are also angry and sarcastic. It’s clear to them that government regulation of the financial sector is absolutely necessary. But they think that the government bails out institutions and not people, that the rich brothers who got us into a terrible mess are the very people profiting from the mess they got us into, that maybe the Petes keep on winning no matter what and keep stepping on the heads of the Donalds.

But it’s easy for the poor brothers and sisters to be angry with the people who have responsibility and who are trying their best. It’s easy to criticize as long as you don’t have to come up with one positive idea or fulfill one objective yourself or go out and provide for others.

So we’re given this false choice: Do we want our country to protect the interests of the Petes, or do we want to let the Donalds sink under the weight of their own failures?

There will always be Donalds and Denises who don’t do their part or are too good or unlucky and there will be people who are sick like Kate through no fault of their own.

The question is: What are the limits? Should we not be concerned about bankrupting the country? And if we are going to hurt the country, are we sure that we’re making the sacrifices for the right people?

The answer has to be that we stop worrying about the future of the Democratic and Republican parties with all their posturing and work on the never-ending process of adjusting government to meet the problems of the people it serves. Thinking like a godbrother means to get past condescension and anger and think about every citizen as a human being who may need some help.

This is true for a government and it is true for a synagogue, including this one.

Since I’m going to be very frank, let me just tell you one more story.

Beatrice has a thing against synagogues. When she was a girl, her family had been members of a congregation in New York. And she remembers her father, sitting on the couch of their living room on Yom Kippur, with his head in his hands, and when she asked why they weren’t going to shul, he didn’t answer, he just cried. That was the last time she went to services until she had children of her own. And so she grew up angry at all synagogues and all boards and all rabbis.

Well, Beatrice, I don’t know what happened when you were a kid. I don’t know if there wasn’t another side to the story. I don’t what your father didn’t tell you, which may have been that in his embarrassment, he didn’t tell the people of that synagogue that he didn’t have the money and they thought he just refused to pay his dues. Maybe the people were not kind; I don’t know.

But Beatrice, this is not your father’s synagogue. We try very hard to be godbrothers and sisters. Most of us are not exactly bakers rolling in dough and we understand how hard it is to provide, especially these days. We are a family. A lot of us are hurting. People who never needed before, for decades, are hurting or scared now. I don’t find anyone around here callous or mean in any way.

And Beatrice, you are very sensitive, to a phone call asking about dues, to a letter or a bill.

All I can tell you is: we’re trying as hard as we can to maintain a synagogue, give to others, take care of our family. But all of that does take money. And if you won’t tell us, in a confidential way, what’s going on, we can’t read your mind.

We want every Jewish person to be affiliated with a synagogue and we’d like it to be this one. To be affiliated with a synagogue means to identify yourself with Judaism, the Jewish people, and Israel. To be a member means that you connect yourself to the education of both children and adults. To be affiliated means to provide a context for the elevation and the comfort of the spirit.

It means that if you cannot find time to do good things for others, you are supporting an organization that does good things for others, both in the congregation and the outside community, every single day.

Tonight is Kol Nidre, the night of vows. We think about our obligations to each other. We are very clear about our obligations.

We are not Petes who look down on others and we are not Donalds who are so weak that we are not part of our community and society.

We are Pearl who gives but who also expects to receive when we are in need ourselves.

We want to encourage a government to be like Anna, constantly struggling to figure out how to maintain a just and fair society.

And we want to be a shul that tells Beatrice that she has a home, no matter what, but that she needs to drop the anger and the embarrassment, because we’ve all been there, and we want her to be a part of a family that will understand any situation as long as she tells us something’s going on.

Because we’re not rich and poor, or strong and weak. We should all be trying to live in the ways of G-d, trying to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

Sometimes, when a young couple comes to see me about getting married, one of them will say about the other, “Yup, this one’s s a keeper.” Wouldn’t it be great if G-d could judge you on this Yom Kippur by looking at your life and saying, “Yes, that one is a keeper.”