The Things We carry

I ran into Louise on the street; I was wearing a blue, pinstriped suit and black shoes. She asked me where I was going. I said that I had to officiate at a funeral in forty-five minutes. She asked me where the funeral was and I told her it was about twenty minutes away. She said, “Good, you have enough time. Go home immediately and change those shoes. You cannot wear those shoes to a funeral.” I asked why not. She said, “A navy blue suit must be worn with cordovan shoes.” I asked why. She said, “They say you must wear a navy blue suit with cordovan shoes.” I said, “Who’s ‘They’?” She said, “I am.” I said, “How long have you been ‘They’?” She said, “Since fifth grade.”

That’s Louise. She knows everything and is not afraid to tell you. I thought I knew about her problems, because we had talked many times about a family situation that eventually got resolved, to everyone’s happiness.

And then one day, out of nowhere, she told me that she had lost a brother a long time ago, when he was around twenty. A mugger killed him during a robbery. Her brother, she said, was one of the best, finest people in the world, a happy and caring person who would have done good and great things. And she talked about being notified by the police and of going home to tell her parents. And how they never were the same after that. And then she said the thing I’ll never forget: “There were three people who were destroyed by that murder, my parents and me. My parents are gone now. I’m the only one left in the world who has this grief. My husband and my children know about it but they don’t feel it. So when I die, the pain of my brother’s murder will go out of the world, and there will be peace again.”

At that moment I felt, just for a second, the pain she carries with her all the time.

I thought I knew her. I had identified her as the one who was ‘They,’ the self-assured fashion plate who had an opinion about everything.

We think we know people. We identify them based on our limited impressions. And we have no idea what they’re carrying around inside them. The popular word is “baggage”; people have baggage from their past. But that’s what they talk about. I’m talking about the heavy, heavy burdens that people never talk about, because it’s so inside them that they simply can’t talk about it, and the rest of us, they feel, could never understand if we tried.

Don’t think, like I did about Louise, that you know what’s going on inside another person. How many people have said to me, “No one knows what I have to deal with, no one knows what I think about when I try to go to sleep at night, as I lie there, wrestling with the demons that fly between my bed and that dark ceiling.”

When I think about the burdens we carry, the ones no one knows about, my mind goes to three references, one from the Beatles, one from a book on Vietnam, and the other, and the most precious one, from the Torah.

Two days ago, on Sept. 26th, those of us who are lifelong Beatles fans thought about the 40th anniversary of perhaps their greatest album, Abbey Road. Which means that some of the music and lyrics from that album have been revolving around in my head for forty years now. And one line in particular jumps around in my mind:

Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight

Carry that weight a long time

Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight

Carry that weight a long time

If you’re a real Beatles fan, you know that lines like this have inspired different interpretations. Some think that the writer of the song, Paul McCartney, is saying that if John Lennon allows the Beatles to break up over his relationship with Yoko Ono, he will be “carrying the weight” for the rest of his life. Others say that this lyric is an acknowledgement by the group that nothing they would do as individual artists in the future would ever equal what they had achieved together as The Beatles, that they would always “carry the weight” of their Beatle past. But the greatest comment came from John Lennon who said that McCartney was “singing about all of us.”

I like that a lot. That’s exactly what I mean. It’s not just this one or that one for this or that reason. All of us carry the weight and we have to carry it a long time, which really means all our lives.

The second quote I think about is from a book called The Things They Carried by a Vietnam veteran named Tim O’Brien:

They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear, Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases …. They carried the land itself. Vietnam, the place, the sod -a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity. …They carried their own lives.

O’Brien says that the routine actions that the soldiers had to perform turned them into creatures of habit. He says that “they all carried ghosts.” He says that the soldiers had to handle physical and emotional burdens and the psychological effects of war.

I’ve been thinking about this book for twenty years because each of us is a soldier in a war and each of us falls into routines and we are all creatures of habit but each of us carries his or her own collection of ghosts and pain and memories and we just keep slogging through the mud and sometimes we forget what we’re marching for.

And on this Yom Kippur, we come, each of us, to face G-d and to face ourselves, each with the burdens that we carry inside us all year. And we come to think about our lives and what things mean.

What are our burdens? What do we carry, quietly, on our lonely march, in the knapsacks of our minds and hearts?

It’s okay to say it today. It’s okay to say what you never let yourself say.

It’s okay today to say to G-d that sometimes you’re just overwhelmed, that you think you don’t have any more patience or resolve; you feel weak from the weight that you carry.

It’s okay to say that you go to that job every day and take whatever is dished out because you have to make a living somehow and it’s tougher than ever out there and so you have to stay but you can’t stand the boredom and routine and the way you’re treated.

It’s okay to say that providing care for a loved one, day and night, is a burden.

It’s all right to say that watching someone decline and die is unbearable, that while you do the right things and say the right things you can’t stand what’s happening to them.

It’s okay to say that these children you love so much are disappointments, or to admit that their lives are not what you hoped for and not what you sacrificed for and not what you gave up your life for and that either their inabilities or just plain laziness or the traps they’ve jumped into have ruined their lives and ruined yours.

It’s okay to be honest, for at least this one day, and say that these children you have done so much for have not paid you back in kind and sometimes are downright mean to you.

On this day it’s okay to say that you’ve found that divorce is harder than you thought it would be, that you couldn’t live with that person but it’s hard to live without anyone.

On this day it’s okay to say that while you’re married, your spouse is difficult at worst and tolerable at best but either way unsupportive, cranky, humorless, a person who doesn’t even understand the meaning of the word “spontaneous,” and that you want to stay married but this is not what you signed up for.

It’s okay today to open up within yourself and admit that your father abandoned you, physically or emotionally, or that your mother always cut you down, never allowing your self-esteem to grow as you did.

It’s all right to admit that you are constantly upset about the spouse or children or grandchildren that you never had or don’t have or never will have.

It’s okay to say that once upon a time you thought you were meant to do great things and that your life would follow a golden path and that you’re disappointed in yourself and the world.

It’s all right to say that not having enough money is the worst weight for you at this point, that the strain of watching every penny and still somehow not having an extra dime, of saving so carefully only to see your savings dwindle or be wiped out through no fault of your own, it’s all right to say that you don’t think you can carry the weight of financial problems one more day. And you know that others depend on you and the burden is so heavy.

It’s okay to admit that like Louise you have a grief that no one else knows. But remember that only those who truly love, truly grieve, and so the weight of your grief indicates the depth of your love.

If your burden is based on things that you have done wrong, feel guilt; because only people with a conscience feel guilt, and only good people have a conscience.

These are just some of the burdens we carry. There are many others I could list. We carry these things but the fact is they weigh us down.

McCartney and Lennon were right; we have to carry these weights a long time.

The soldiers in Vietnam carried their burdens and we carry ours.

We carry these weights, quietly, on our lonely marches, in the knapsacks of our minds and hearts.

Which brings me now to my third reference, this one from the Torah, from the book of Numbers.

There are three kinds of Jewish people: priests, Levites and Israelites. The priests were the religious leaders and performed the sacrificial rites and healed the sick. In ancient times, the Levites carried the Tabernacle; they were porters, they actually carried the Ark and the poles and the furniture from camp to camp in the desert.

And there’s a verse in the Book of Numbers that talks about the Levites and says,  “Each one to his burden and each one to his service.”

That’s my message today, each one has a burden but each one has a service.

I talked to Louise recently about her grief for her brother. Louise is a good person, responsible job; pretty good marriage. And I told her about the Levites, how each one had a burden to carry but each one also had a service to do for others. And I told her that there was no question what her burden was; the burden of grief for her brother will always be with her, and I could only be sorry for the pain. I tried to discuss our Jewish way of remembering, of talking about people who have passed on and cherishing their lives, but Louise couldn’t hear it.

So I asked, “What’s your service? Now I know your burden, but what’s your service?”

“Well,” she said, “I’m busy, you know, job, golf.” In other words, she does not do anything for others.

There’s a little story that I think about all the time. It’s a simple story but it means more to me than I can say. A woman suffers a terrible tragedy and she goes to the rabbi and he hands her a cup and tells her that she’ll be okay if she fills the cup with water.

And she asks, “But where can I find this magic cup of water? And he says, “Take this cup and go to a house that has never known sorrow and fill the cup with water from that house.”

So that’s easy, she thinks, and she goes immediately to a mansion at the top of a hill and rings the doorbell and a butler comes to the door. And she asks if she can fill her cup with some water from the house and he says “Certainly, but why?” And she explains that she needs to fill her cup with water from a house that has never known any sorrow. And he says to her, “This is not that house, but you’re welcome to come inside.” And she talks to the family; they are going through a terrible crisis.

A few months later, the woman runs into the rabbi on the street and he asks her how she’s doing. She says she’s ok. And he asks what ever happened to his cup. And she looks at him and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The rabbi says, “I sent you to find a magic cup of water from a house that has never known any sorrow.” She apologizes and says that she forgot all about it. And she says that she’s sorry but she has to run because there’s a woman in trouble and she needs help. And as she runs off, the rabbi just smiles.

The woman still had her burden. Her grief was her grief and the rabbi didn’t change it. But her purpose, running around for others, the fact that her experience, as bad as it was, enabled her to help others, gave her a life that meant something. Service is the magic cup of water.

And sometimes I wonder if Louise, and so many of us, want to maintain stylish and carefully organized outward appearances as a kind of brilliant disguise (as Bruce Springsteen would say) so that no one will see what we’re carrying, how just as Louise has never recovered from the pain of her brother’s murder, we need to provide cover for our pain.

There is such a cover, but it has nothing to do with matching shoes with pinstriped suits. The only way to survive our pain is to give to others. Each one of us has a burden, this is all too true, but thank G-d each one of us can do a service.

I’m called on to officiate at a lot of funerals and sometimes it’s a burden, because the grief wells in me and I take the grief of others into my heart and it’s really hard. But when I can stand there and with pride talk about the person’s life and say that this was a life well spent, that this person truly did for others, then as hard as it is, it is also my honor and my privilege just to be there.

Every Shabbat, I listen carefully to our synagogue’s announcements for the week. There are announcements about religious services, and about a discussion group, and about a couple of meetings, but there are an equal number of announcements about the Soup Kitchen and helping a family in distress and other social action projects. And I like the symbolism and the reality of those announcements, because it says something about who we are, that we’re about spirituality and education but just as much about doing concrete things for others. I want to tell you that I’ve found in my life that when my burdens are the heaviest, when I’m sinking under the weight of my burdens, it’s drinking from the magic cup of water, it’s doing something for someone else that enables me to go on.

And so what I want to say to you on this most sacred day of the year is that unfortunately, we are all Levites, each one to his or her burden, but that, thank G-d, each of us can be a Levite, each one of us can have a service.

And I think about the fact that the Levites were not just the porters, they were also the singers in the Temple. The Levites were not only the porters but also the singers who sang our prayers.

And maybe that’s why we sing, all together, on Yom Kippur. For one moment, we’re not alone with our burdens; we’re in a community of people who might not have our burdens but certainly have their own. That too was part of the Levites’ service, to participate in the service of G-d.

And most of us, unfortunately, don’t get it, and don’t think about it except on the High Holidays, but we’re all supposed to be singers who praise G-d all the time, despite the hardship and sorrow and pain, because this life is what we have and we have to deal with it and sing anyway.

That’s why, ladies and gentlemen, you should come to services more often, because what we do is sing out our troubles and think about what we can do for others. We come together and we know that each of us has a burden and that we have to carry these weights together.

But since I do have all of you here right now, I declare all of us Levites for the day, each with our burden but each with our service. We’re going to carry these weights a long time. But we can bear our burdens if we help others, if we drink from the magic cup of water, and if we sing together. So I hereby declare us a chorus that sings in the service of a people who believe in service.