By Anthony Elman, November 1, 2014
Shabbat shalom everybody!
Some of you may not know me, though I’ve been a member for more than 9 years. But almost immediately after joining Beth Am and the Library Minyan with my wife Miriyam Glazer, I deserted her on the pews. I joined the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging, first as acting rabbi, then full rabbi (on my ordination at AJR in 2007), then Spiritual Director.
Now I have retired! Very recently! In fact today is the first day of my new life. Discovering some months ago that this would be Shabbat Lech Lecha, how could I resist asking for the chance to explore here both what that call may have meant to Avram, and what this period at the Home has meant in my own life. This has been a major time of reflection, and I want to tell you how I got to the Home, and what I have got from the Home, for my nine-year sojourn at the Jewish Home has been so special to me – a highlight of my life!
So what was the path that led me to serve as rabbi at the Home? So many places I could begin. Shall I tell you about the gently Orthodox home I grew up in a town some 40 miles east of London?
How I spent a year teaching in India between school and university, and how that perhaps – who knows? – gave me an injection of compassion?
Or maybe how, after studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University (a period in which I embraced the rational and turned my back on religion), I entered one of those professions beloved of Jewish parents – the law? (I hastened to add that it was not my parents who urged me into that profession, it was my own decision based on a belief in the importance of financial security and social respectability (aspects of life that I soon came to realize were really my parents’ values, rather than mine.)
I think my preferred start is how I left the law, and the successful firm I had started with a friend six years before. The words I uttered were: If I am going to spend my nights worrying, I would rather worry about something more worth-while than how much money my clients make from their contracts. I didn’t at that stage have biblical or “God-language” to understand that move, but now I would see it as a “lech-lecha” moment, as though God were tapping me on the shoulder and saying: time for a journey into the unknown.
My next step was to retrain and work as a social-worker – certainly a worth-while profession, but one in which I never really felt at home.
Along with my professional story, I also need to add in my health story, for it was around this time that I had my first diagnosis of – and treatment for – cancer in my eye.
Eight years after entering social work, I was off on my journey again, this time to a holistic centre for cancer patients, and a training in transpersonal (or spiritual) counseling. I was deeply affected by my work at the centre, but the major spiritual lesson was in my being fired by the medical director who experienced me as a rival. It was a colleague, a wise healer, who helped me trust that what appeared to be a nasty blow was in fact the right path, and I needed to trust that path.
This became a central principle for me, and has been a teaching of mine at the Jewish Home: when something bad (or apparently bad) happens, then, with an attitude of trust, we can make or find the positive we need in our new situation. In terms of the High Holy Day liturgy, it is our attitude that can lessen the severity of the decree that life has handed us. This has guided me through the ups and downs of my life.
What did happen to me after having to leave the cancer centre was indeed for the good. I undertook a psychotherapy training and entered a long period of private practice as a psychotherapist. Also during this period I felt a pull back to my Jewish roots, joined a synagogue (an orthodox one, not unlike the shul of my childhood), and eventually became president of it.
There were also, over a short span of years, three bad experiences (ones which after the initial shock, I could once again accept as for the good) – the return of my cancer, a divorce not of my own choosing, and the loss of my eye.
These events took me on a new journey, to aliyah (at the age of 60) and a new life in Jerusalem where I immersed myself in Torah study – until the real purpose of my aliyah became clear. (After all, if we follow a journey not by preconceived plan but by following where we are led by God, we do not know what surprises God has in store for us.) I met Miriyam, came to Los Angeles with her, married her, entered the Academy for Jewish Religion (thinking I was going to continue learning for its own sake – Talmud Torah lishma) and found that the place God had in fact led me to was a beautiful rabbinical training – not something I had ever intended.
I want to pause in my story a moment to ask: Who was this Anthony who was now studying to be a rabbi? The answer, I think, is much the same Anthony who had studied law 40 years before, though with different interests, knowledge and skills, and with a pleasure in Torah study that hadn’t developed when I was young.
I ask that question, because when I came to the Jewish Home a year or two later, I believe a more profound change in me began to take place. If there is one word that can sum up that change, it is love.
I had certainly known love before – I had loved, and been loved by, parents and brothers, wider family, the women and the children in my life, dear friends…. But the person who served the residents of the Jewish Home over the 8 or 9 years leading up to yesterday, found a whole new, and unexpected, part of himself – a gift from residents and a gift from God.
I have come to realize that what opened up in me, particularly at some of my services and classes, was a love that (I believe) made space for God. I had never before known such joy as I felt in this work, which I think of as holy work. I learned that God’s Presence comes about within the connections of a group praying or singing or learning together; and that there have been times when I may have had a role in helping to allow this Divine Presence.
But it is not just in those holy moments of prayer or learning that I discovered something new in myself: I felt a great love nearly all the times I was with residents.
People like to say to me that my previous professions of law, social work and psychotherapy prepared me for this work. I might nod in agreement, but in truth, I wonder how much this was true. My time in law may have aided clear thinking and an attention to detail (something that certainly came into play when I had to ensure the smooth running of nine simultaneous Pesach Sadarim). More importantly, psychotherapy taught me how to listen.
So perhaps the people who wanted to point to my previous professional experiences, as being the ideal antecedents which made me what I became as rabbi for my residents at the Home, did in fact have some truth on their side. But only partially so; and what I got from these professional antecedents did not go near the heart of what I became.
What interests me, particularly in the light of this parshah, is the urge to build, or elaborate, a pre-history to make sense of the present. (I smile at myself for saying this, as it does a little bit like what I used to do as a psychotherapist.)
So what was Abram before he got the call? Vocare, as Latin scholars among you will know, is to call, and a person who, like Avram, responds to the call, is following his vocation. Well, we all know he had been the young man who smashed idols in his father’s idol shop; he was the thinker who puzzled out that there must be an ultimate creator and master of the universe. But of course, these stories are nowhere to be found in the Torah.
Mainly I love what the Rabbis do to Torah. I love the story of Nachshon striding into the Red Sea. I am fascinated (and heartened) by the Rabbis softening some of the harshness of Torah law – and of God. On the other hand, I get irritated when Esav becomes Esav ha-rashah, when in the Torah story Esau is certainly not evil (yes I know the rabbis had their own reasons for showing the Edomites to be evil).
As for this added pre-history for Avram, yes of course this was a heaven-sent opportunity to fill the apparent gap with some teachings about monotheism and idolatry. But I also want to suggest it is a shame, as it twists the story of Abraham away from what may have been the more subtle intention of Torah. We may find a clue in the famous words of God in next week’s parsha, Va’yera. Very soon after Abraham has gained his new name and lost his foreskin (surely both signs of a new beginning) (this is 24 years after the original call of Lech Lecha), God says (to himself and to us) Ki yedativ l’ma’an asher y’tzaveh et banav v’et beito acharov v’shamru derech Adonai la’asot tzedakah u-mishpat… (part of Gen.18:19)
For I have made a loving relationship with him (isn’t that the best way of understanding yedativ?) in order that he may instruct his children and descendants to keep the way of Adonai and act with righteousness and justice…
A key word in this is le’ma’an, in order that. It’s a word that looks forward. Torah does not tell us of any prior reason why Abraham is chosen as God’s man. What it tells us is about the future; I suggest Abraham will be able to fulfill this mission precisely because God has entered into this loving relationship with him. There is no hint that Torah wants a prior story (as put forward by the Rabbis).
Rather, Torah finds something new starting to manifest in Abraham, which we see immediately after God’s words about righteousness and justice: Abraham’s famous protest to God to uphold justice. Never before have we seen Abraham (or anyone else – certainly not Noah) argue for justice.
It is true that through our lives, we develop new skills, new capacities, new attitudes. We do this while remaining basically the same person as we always were.
But also in our lives we may discover that wholly new aspects of ourselves have come to the fore that we were never aware of before, that we had never allowed to develop, that we had never imagined in ourselves. Because some aspects of ourselves lie hidden, in the shadows, in potential, perhaps waiting to be allowed to emerge, perhaps never to emerge. (The Ishbitzer Rebbe, author of Mei HaShiloach, saw the call of Lech Lecha – to go to an as yet unknown place which God would show him, as a call for Abram to find that potential.)
This is my sense of what happened to me at the Jewish Home. For the love that I felt there is unlike anything I have felt before, and the person I was, leading services or other events, or teaching classes, or talking with residents, was a person I don’t recognize at all from my previous life – or even from my concurrent life outside the Home!
This way of being has given me such joy, such a touching of the divine – and I hope allowing others to touch the divine – that it is no wonder I have spoken sometimes about my feeling of being blessed and my gratitude for this opportunity to be more than I have been before, and more than I had ever dreamed of being.
I want to ask you a question: how often have you ruled out some new activity or study or practice or music, with the words: that’s not me. I’m embarrassed to admit I do that sometimes, though I am trying to let go of that habit. I now believe that “who I am” – “who each of us is” – is much less limited and narrow than we tend to think. There are all sorts of possibilities in us waiting to emerge, if only we choose not to think of ourselves as narrowly defined, and allow ourselves to discover the hidden aspects of who we could be.
In my work at the Home, I never accepted that residents, just because they are advancing in years, or have some disability, or simply by reason of their living in an institution, are stuck in their progress through life. Far from it! Pages of our personal book of life remain to be written, new chapters remain to be discovered. Rather than choose what should come next, I invite you (just as I used to invite my residents) to be open to allowing all sorts of possibilities. We can want and plan what we know about. But allowing is about letting aspects of who we are emerge that we may never have dreamed about.
I am going to paraphrase two popular figures in the Jewish story: God and Al Jolson.
First God, at this moment he selects Abraham to have a special role in the development of God’s scheme for humanity: Lech lecha, God said (and I say to you), don’t be locked in by what is familiar; go to a new place in yourself which you do not yet know but I will show you.
As for Al Jolson, he virtually ended the silent movie era and ushered in the era of the talkies, when he called to the orchestra, on screen in “The Jazz Singer”:You ain’t heard nothing yet!
Well, you tell your families and everyone who treats you as though you had stopped growing: You ain’t seen nothing yet!
Good luck on your journey!