March 11, 1999
The Only Choice We Have
Parashat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20)
Sometimes the same thing that got you into trouble can get you out of it. Take for example the fact that in last week's Torah portion, our ancestors used their gold jewelry to fashion a golden calf. For this act of idolatry and faithlessness, thousands were killed as God's anger poured down upon them like a river of fire.
This week, just one parashat later, the people donate more gold jewelry, this time for building the Tabernacle; the act and the place that ultimately lead the people to a true sense of religious faith. Last week, it was gold; this week it was gold. Last week, disaster; this week, triumph. It's not the gold itself that determined the outcome for our ancestors, it's how they use it.
The same is true for a lot of things in life -- especially sorrow. I see a lot of pain in my line of work; all rabbis do. Sometimes it's a lost job, sometimes a marriage, sometimes a life. What I've learned time and time again is, like gold in the hands of our ancestors, it's not the tragedy itself that determines the outcome, it's how we use it. For some, adversity marks the end of joy and meaning; it makes them hard and cruel. But there are others to whom trouble comes just as sharp, deep and dark, but who somehow find a way to turn their ache into sympathy, their sadness into love.
Here is a true story about just such a person. It was a miracle witnessed by a clerk in a cemetery office.
Every week, for several years, the mild little man received an envelope from a woman he did not know. The envelope always included a money order and note instructing him to put fresh flowers on her son's grave. One day, a chauffeur came into the clerk's office to speak to him.
"The lady outside is too ill to walk," he explained. "Would you mind coming with me to speak with her?"
The shy clerk walked over and looked into the car where a frail, elderly woman with sad eyes sat in the back seat. A great bundle of flowers was in her arms.
"I am Mrs. Adams. Every week for years I've been sending you a money order."
"For the flowers!" the clerk exclaimed. "I've never failed to place them on your son's grave."
"I came here today myself because the doctors have told me I have only a few weeks left. I'm not sorry really. I have nothing left to live for. But before I die I wanted to take one last look at my son's grave and to put the flowers there myself."
"You know, ma'am, I was always sorry you kept sending the money for the flowers."
"Yes, because the flowers last such a short time and no one ever gets to see them or smell them. You know there are thousands of people in hospitals and nursing homes that love flowers, and they can see them and smell them. But there isn't anybody in that grave. Not really."
The old woman did not answer. She sat for a while and left without a word. The clerk was afraid he had offended her. But a few weeks later he was surprised with another visit. This time there was no chauffeur. The woman sat at the wheel, driving herself.
"I took the flowers to the people myself," she said to the clerk with a smile. "You were right, it does make them happy. And it makes me happy. The doctors don't understand what's making me well. But I do."
It's a simple, true story about the same woman using the same money to buy the same flowers for a different purpose, not unlike our ancestors and their gold. It's a simple, true story about the fact that sooner or later tragedy, sorrow and error come to us all -- it's part of what it means to be human and alive. Often, we have no choice but to experience pain. The only choice we have is how to use it.
Steven Z. Leder is rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.