The following sermon “Less is More” was delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5779 at Congregation Beth El:
My daughter threw up two weeks ago. I know. That’s not really the best way to begin a sermon or to reel you in. But, my daughter threw up two weeks ago. And my wife and I hesitated. Not because we aren’t used to vomit. With three kids, we have seen our share. But it was our seven-year-old’s vomiting last January that led to six months – a winter and spring – full of hospital stays and infusions. It seems that her end of summer virus was just a bump in the road. But as I reflect on this past year, I can’t help but hold my breath with every deep chested cough, slight limp, low grade fever, or sense of exhaustion.
If this sermon sounds somewhat familiar, it’s not déjà vu, although it sort of felt that way to me. Last year, I stood on the bima on Rosh Hashanah, while four-year-old Noah was in the hospital. Days later, he was diagnosed with HSP, an auto-immune condition that caused an inflammation of his blood vessels, and as a result, in his case, inflamed joints and an inflamed abdomen.
By November, thank God, he was off medication and back to his crazy four-year-old self, training for American Ninja Warrior on our living room furniture.
I remember when Cayla would complain that her legs hurt. “They’re growing pains,” I’d say. “Stop being lazy,” I thought. “You have to walk. You’re seven. And I need to carry your brother.” The complaints would continue, as would the extended rests on the couch. “Let her rest,” I thought. “Let her watch tv. That will occupy her while I tend to her brother.”
It would be months before she noticed purple splotches on her legs. We were convinced it was bug bites and we even sent her to school the next day. By midday, I picked her up from school and carried her, because her joints were too swollen to walk. She too was diagnosed with the same auto-immune condition, HSP, that Noah was. Hers was a much more severe case, that caused inflammation of her kidneys, eventually leading to a Spring of chemotherapy infusions to reduce the inflammation. And now, for the most part, she is back to herself. She is still on a lot of medication, and still immunosuppressed, because of that medication. But she is back to doing cartwheels in the backyard, or making videos on my phone, pretending to be a YouTube star. But every time she gets sick, like that virus two weeks ago, we hold our breath.
With every hospital stay, blood test, infusion, or follow up doctor’s appointment, I couldn’t help but to have it in the back of my mind. Did I ignore her? With each stomachache, or complaint or leg pain, or exhaustion, I questioned if I ignored her symptoms? Was I too focused on one sick child, that I ignored the other?
The funny thing is, in February, during one of Cayla’s lengthier hospital stays, Noah complained that we were spending all our time in the hospital with his sister, completely ignoring him. Again, focusing on one child’s needs and ignoring the other. And when we explained that we wouldn’t leave his sister’s bedside, just as we didn’t leave his bedside when he was in the hospital only months prior, he looked at us and responded in perfect four-year-old fashion: “when was I ever in the hospital?!”
I was so focused on the needs of one child, that I completely ignored the needs of another. And when Cayla was sick, I was so focused on her, that I completely ignored the needs of Noah. And poor Hannah, all of 18 months. I’m just glad that she doesn’t talk yet. She can’t complain that I’ve been ignoring her this whole time. Maybe that is reality. In fact, a friend joked when we had our third child, that we are doing it right as long as one of the three is crying or mad at us at all times.
I was hard on myself. How could I not give of myself to all my children. How could I ignore one child for the sake of another? Didn’t I have enough love for them all? But of course, the answer was no – not in those moments. I couldn’t give of myself to all of them. And maybe that is true for all of us. We cannot give all of ourselves to everyone, all the time. We do not have enough love to give. We don’t have enough of ourselves to give. And that is okay. There is no secret to how to do this. We just get up each day anew and try to live life.
Struggling with this realization, my mind turned to Torah. In Parashat Toldot, when we learn of the sibling rivalry of Jacob and Esau, rabbinic tradition paints Jacob as the righteous one and Esau as the villain. However, the text tells us:
Vaye’ehav Yitzhak et Esav ki Tzayid b’fiv, v’Rivka ohevet et Yaakov. Isaac loved Esau because he was a hunter, he had a taste for game, but Rebekah loved Jacob more. (Gen. 25:28)
In reality, Jacob and Esau were not hero and villain, or vice-versa. They were simply children, yearning for their parents love. And neither Isaac nor Rebekah were able to give of their love to both of their children. The infamous narrative ends with Rebekah devising a plot to deceive her husband. On his death bed, with eyes too dim to see, Isaac sends Esau out to hunt for a meal. Rebekah in turn, dressed Jacob up in Esau’s clothes, and Isaac blesses Jacob as he approaches in disguise. When Esau returns with a prepared dish of hunted game, his father is confused. Esau and Isaac realize that Jacob had masked his identity to receive a blessing. But despite rabbinic attempts to paint Esau as a violent man seeking revenge, his first instinct isn’t to hunt down his twin. Instead, he sits and cries.
Vayitz’ak tzeaka gedolah u’mara at meod vayomer l’aviv baracheni gam ani avi. Esau bursted into wailing and bitter sobbing and said to his father, ‘bless me too’. (Gen. 27:34)
But Isaac explained that Jacob took his blessing.
Halo atzalta li beracha. Don’t you have a blessing for me too?,” he asked. (Gen. 27:36)
Habracha achat hee lecha avi, baracheini gam ani avi. Don’t you have one more blessing, dad? Bless me too, father. (Gen. 27:38)
This heartbreaking biblical tale is not about deception or the art of the con. It is an acknowledgement that we can’t give all of ourselves to everyone. We do not have enough of ourselves to give. We are finite. And that is okay. I am admitting that I too cannot give all of myself to everyone at all times.
And I am asking for forgiveness, from all of you, from friends, from my wife, and from my children, when one need, or one person, takes up all of myself and I neglect other things as a result.
And this isn’t only true for the individuals whom we love and want to be there for, but can’t always make the time for. This is also true for the causes that we care about, the issues that define us, the values that are at our core. It this era of activism, we can’t make every rally, attend every march, or show up to every protest. But that doesn’t mean that we do not care. It doesn’t mean that our hearts are not present. It just means that we cannot give of ourselves to everyone and everything all the time. And that is okay. We are enough.
Each and every year we try to focus on being better. But what does that mean? We tend to think being better is about doing more or being more. We tend to think that being better is about make more time for family, for friends, for community, for those in need.
But in doing so, we end up judging ourselves and our actions based on others. We need to do more because we see how much someone else is doing. We need to be more present because we see every other family’s happily together all the time on our Instagram feeds. But we don’t strive to be better. We just strive to be the best version of ourselves.
The Hasidic master Reb Zusya once came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him, what’s the matter? He replied, “I learned the question that I will be asked by God’s ministering angels when I leave this world.” “But you are a scholar,” they answered. “And so pious,” they said. “What possible question could you be asked that would have you in tears.” Zusya replied, “I will not be asked ‘why weren’t you more like Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ I will not be asked ‘why weren’t you more like Joshua leading your people into the promised land.’ They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you more like Zusya?’”
We may be flawed individuals. But that is what makes us beautiful. We are beautiful in our imperfections. So stop trying to be perfect. When we try to be perfect, we try to be somehow else. In the new year, let’s try being more like ourselves, imperfect and finite, with not enough of ourselves to go around, and not enough time to do all that we want to do. Flawed. And beautiful. And holy.
We read in the Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16b, of the three books that God supposedly opens on Rosh Hashanah. The book of life for those who are perfectly righteous, the book of death for those who are fully wicked, and the beinonim, the book for those who hang in the balance. It is said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that we all are written in that third book, for we all are imperfect. We are not expected to be better. We are just expected to be the best version of ourselves. And sometimes, the best version of ourselves means that we need to focus more time or energy on work, or a meeting, or on a specific child, or on a relationship.
And sometimes that means that at that moment, we don’t have time, energy, or emotion to give to others. The best version of ourselves means that we cannot balance everything. Even if it looks like we are, we are not. Even if we are able to juggle all the balls in the air for a moment, we eventually drop them. Because a life in balance is impossible.
Moments ago, we read from the Torah about the biblical narrative of Abraham’s challenging relationship with his family. It’s not great. And it gets worse. Spoiler alert: tomorrow, we read about him trying to kill his son Isaac. In today’s reading we read of Abraham being pressured to kick his firstborn son Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mother Hagar out of his home, because of his wife, Sarah’s, jealousy. He doesn’t love Ishmael any less than he loves Isaac. Our rabbis even suggest that Abraham deeply loves Hagar. Some commentators conclude that Ketura, whom he marries after Sarah passes away is even Hagar whom he abandons in the wilderness in this morning’s Torah reading.
This is not a pleasant story. It’s a story of a flawed person. The patriarch of our people. The one who inspired us to put our faith in Hakadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One, Blessed Be God, who we turn towards on this holiest of days. And what do we read? We read of an individual who at times failed his family, who made his children cry, who couldn’t find a way to give all of himself to everyone, who at times chooses one family member over another. We read of a flawed individual. But we do not celebrate the individual’s actions or inactions. We celebrate the biblical character’s imperfections, and celebrate our own imperfections as a result. We celebrate that we are far from perfect, that we can’t do it all or have it all.
In Tractate Kiddushin 39b, the Talmud teaches that one who performs a single precept is well rewarded. But for one does not perform a precept, good does not come to that person. We understand how difficult it is to balance the scales. Even a balanced scale slightly shakes back and forth. Rabbi Shemayah explains that even if there is equal balance, the scales are still tipped. This means that balance is impossible, that perfection is impossible.
This summer’s story of Serena Williams is a remarkable one. She had already etched her image into Tennis’ Mount Rushmore, but a year ago, following the birth of her daughter Olympia, she had a near death experience. The emergency c-section delivery of her baby caused a pulmonary embolism, leading to five surgeries and months of bed rest. The fact that she made it to the finals in Wimbledon this summer on sheer grit was the comeback story we were all waiting for. The fact that she made it to the finals of the US Open only days ago, is an exclamation point on that comeback story. But in between, she was ousted in the opening round of a tune up tournament in San Jose to someone no one has ever heard of. And she spoke about how training to get back on the court meant spending less time with her daughter.
Her trainer concluded that to get physically fit again for competition meant that she had to stop breastfeeding. Her coach told her she needed to put tennis before family to return to form.
On the cover of Time Magazine last month, she acknowledged that in her struggle, failing to balance being a parent and being an elite athlete. She said, “there is nothing about me that is perfect. But I am perfectly Serena.” And she is right. We are imperfect. That is who we are, so that is whom we should strive to be.
So in the new year, may we stop trying to balance everything. May we stop trying to fit more unto our overflowing plates. May we stop committing to do more or to be more. May we do less. Yes, in the new year, let us do less. We can become the best version of ourselves by doing less. Because when we only have so much of ourselves to give, less is more.
I’ve learned to forgive myself, to not feel guilty for the blessings I give to one person instead of another, for the time I spend focused on one activity and neglect other responsibilities, for the cause that I dedicate myself to and the others that I care about, but don’t make time for. So in the new year, do not try to be better. Do not try to take on more.
In the new year, become a better version of yourself by doing less, by refocusing on the areas that we do not give enough attention to, by appreciating the blessings that we give and receive to all, by making time for all of our loved ones, by creating a true work-life balance, by reconnecting with the world and at times disconnecting with the world.
I try to focus more time on each of my children now. And maybe that means that I spend less time with my wife, or at work, or with each of you. As the imbalanced scale of life constantly shakes back and forth, may we embrace the shakiness of life, understanding that we cannot be everything for everyone all the time. Let us just be. Because that is enough.
In the end, Esau finally got his blessing. It may not have been the blessing he wanted, or the blessing that Isaac intended to give, but the dying parent still found a way to bless his beloved child. May that be a lesson to all of us. What we are able to offer is enough. The love that we can give is enough. Who we are is enough. Instead of trying to be better, just be. Shana Tova.