Love Is Its Own Reward – October 3, 2014
I’m walking into Walmart, and I hear a man shout, “You’re welcome!” I don’t know what’s going on. Then I realize a man had held the door open for me, and I had not thanked him. A little embarrassed, blaming myself for having my head in the clouds as usual, I thanked him, and he said, triumphantly and smugly, “You’re welcome!”
I went about my business, which took the usual five or ten minutes I spend in any store, and as I was leaving, I saw the same man shouting, “You’re welcome!” to each person coming into the store who, like me, had not thanked him. He was not a store employee; he was just a man who, for whatever reason, was conducting an exercise or an experiment.
The incident stuck with me because I think that sometimes, we’re like him: we do what we do for the gratitude or the praise or the credit.
I don’t want to be like that man. Ideally, I want to do what I do because it is what I believe I should be doing. Practically speaking, if I do what I do because I hope to be rewarded in some way, I’m in big trouble. Because in this life, in the real world, we usually don’t get what we deserve. There is very little gratitude. There are very few real “thank yous.”
On these High Holidays, this time of introspection, this time of taking inventory of what we have and who we are, we think a lot about the people in our lives.
And very often, when we’re honest with ourselves, we find ourselves disappointed.
We give them so much, and all too often, we don’t get much back.
We give everything we‘ve got, with all our hearts, and we receive a little, but nothing compared to what we give. And it doesn’t feel very good.
When the Beatles said that” the love you take is equal to the love you make”
It was a pretty line
But unfortunately, it’s not like that very often.
Many parents I know, when they talk about their disappointments with their loved ones, refer to The Giving Tree, the very controversial book by Shel Silverstein about a tree that gives and gives to a boy who takes and takes and gives nothing back. At the end of the book, the boy, now an old man, sits on all that is left of the tree, just the stump, and the tree is happy.
When I was younger, I never understood why the stump was happy despite being treated so miserably by that ungrateful boy. I understood what Silverstein was saying about a parent’s unconditional love. But part of me could not quite believe it. That stump was so selfless, so unconditionally loving, that I was just stumped.
But now I think I get it.
You can love someone so much that nothing matters. Sure, you want everything back
Sure, you want love
Sure, you want gratitude
But you’re not waiting at the door waiting for the thank you
Who are we, the man at Walmart or the Giving Tree?
Waiting for gratitude or not caring at all about gratitude?
We don’t want to be either one.
If I love someone and give him or her everything I have, and I get nothing back, or even, to my disbelief, I get spite and anger in return, I have every right to stop giving. The person does not deserve what I’m giving.
But if you’re a loving person, the only way to be happy is to be a part of your loved one’s life. You need to be involved, even though the whole thing tears you up inside.
Still, I think we can do better with our own feelings.
There’s a scene in a movie called Adaptation that helps me with my feelings. There are twin brothers, Charlie and Donald Kaufman, both played by the unspeakably handsome Nicholas Cage. Here is their conversation:
Charlie: There was this time in high school. I was watching you out the library window. You were talking to Sarah Marsh.
Donald: Oh, God. I was so in love with her.
Charlie: I know. And you were flirting with her. And she was being really sweet to you.
Donald: I remember that.
Charlie: Then, when you walked away, she started making fun of you with Kim Canetti. You didn’t know at all. You seemed so happy.
Donald: I knew. I heard them.
Charlie: How come you looked so happy?
Donald: I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.
Charlie: But she thought you were pathetic.
Donald: That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That’s what I decided a long time ago.
All I can say is “Wow.” When I feel hurt about loving without getting anything in return, I go back to this dialogue. I love her. That love is mine. I own it. I love her enough for both of us. Even she doesn’t have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.
You are what you love, not what loves you.
So this is my goal, to be able to say that, “Love is its Own Reward.” This is not as unselfish as it sounds. If love is its own reward, then lack of love is its own punishment. I am what I love. If I don’t love, what am I? We are here on this earth to grow in love as best we can. We were made so that nothing else can make us happy.
Now let me apply this idea, that love is its own reward, to some of the other themes I’ve talked about on these High Holidays.
We Jewish people love the world. A lot of the world does not love us. We have been the whipping boy of the world, punished for things we never did. Despite this, through the centuries, Jewish people have tried to love every country we have lived in. German Jews loved Germany. Russian Jews were at the forefront of trying to change Russia and bring freedom to the masses. Wherever we went, all we wanted was equality and respect.
We did not get it, but we loved the world anyway. And we still do. Like the whipping boy in the movie, we just want to be part of the family.
These last few months have been a tough time for the Jewish people. Israel fought a defensive war and there were civilian casualties and people lost their homes. The world screamed and there were riots and demonstrations. But don’t be fooled. The world doesn’t really care about the deaths of innocent civilians or about people losing their homes. If it did, there would be demonstrations on the streets of Europe and on the college campuses of America against the barbaric war crimes of the Islamic State. There would be marches on the embassy of Syria for killing 200,000 people. There would be demonstrations against one embassy after another for the persecution of women and Christians in so many Muslim countries. There are innocent people being killed right now and no one says one word. American bombs kill civilians by mistake. It’s terrible, but that’s what happens in any war.
Why does the world only scream at Jewish people? That screaming is based on an astonishing double standard, one standard for Jewish people, another for everyone else. The world cannot stand that we’re not playing the whipping boy anymore.
And yet, and yet, despite all that, we still love the world, we still love humanity, and we will wait for the world to love us back. Despite everything, Israel will continue to reach out to the world and continue to help humanity.
We’ll wait, because if you love someone, you must have patience. The picture of an Israeli audience singing to the singer Leonard Cohen when he could not sing to them is a model. When our loved ones cannot sing, we must sing to them.
Can we love another for what they want, rather than for what we want for them or think is best? What we call “love” is often no more than an attachment to our own needs and desires or something that will enhance our own egos.
If you are going to truly love someone, then you have to make sure that you demonstrate sensitivity to their fears. If they’re afraid of rollercoasters, don’t be so smug when they tremble at the thought of them. Be patient. Be sensitive. Especially when you don’t understand.
Love is its own reward. If our lives are truly bound up in the lives of our loved ones and our people, then we can smile at the crocodile and stop being so afraid of the tick and the tock of the clock in our lives. If we fear time, our love for our people and the people in our lives will transcend all limits.
Here we are at Yizkor. And we remember the people we loved. If there is one thing drawing us here at this moment, it is paying honor to, and loving the memory of, the people we loved.
But the hard truth is that some of them were limited in what they gave us. For everything we gave them, if we’re willing to remember how things really were, they often fell short.
They were often ungrateful.
They often looked for thanks and credit and praise and only loved us when we did what they wanted.
I ask you, at this sacred hour, to have patience with their memories. They were just flesh and blood people, with their own backgrounds and limitations. And they were afraid. They had lots of fears and sometimes they didn’t do the right things because they were so scared. Please remember them for the good they did and not for their very human faults.
And I ask you to come, as if you have today, to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for them on their yahrzeits, once a year on the anniversaries of their deaths. I will never understand why so many of you don’t do this. Frankly, it’s beyond me.
But I want to say something to the people who do come to shul. When you hear the name of someone who you cared about, even if the person is not a relative, I want to encourage you to rise at your seat and say the Kaddish for the person. You may have the impression that only close relatives are allowed to say the Kaddish for their loved one. Those close relatives are obligated to say the Kaddish. But the truth is that anyone is allowed to say Kaddish for anyone. This is not just me talking: Jewish tradition states that when there is no loved one present who is fulfilling their obligation, it is wonderful if someone else does it. So if you’re in shul and you hear me read the name of someone you cared about, please stand and say the Kaddish for them.
And another word about the Mourner’s Kaddish. In the last two years I’ve said the Kaddish for a year for my father and a year for my mother-in-law, may they both be remembered for blessings. And expressing that love really has been its own reward. I might have thought I was doing it for them, but the love it allowed me to express has, without exaggeration, changed me. Doing this mitzvah has been its own reward. That’s the real secret of living a Jewish life: Doing a mitzvah is its own reward.
But most of us don’t understand this. We are all here on Yom Kippur, out of love or out of fear. We’re here talking to G-d. But some of us just show up once a year to have this conversation. We need to ask G-d to love us even when we don’t love Him, even when we disrespect Him all year long.
G-d created us to communicate with Him, and we don’t.
G-d created us to be moral examples, and we’re not.
G-d created us to care for others, but we’re too busy thinking about ourselves.
So as we approach Yizkor and Ne’ilah, and as the gates are closing, we ask G-d to love us as much as the giving tree loved the ungrateful boy. And we hope that G-d will forgive us, and write us in the Book of Life for another year.
And in the next year, we pray that we will do what we do, not because we want something in return, but because love is its own reward.