February 24, 2005
Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)
I met Bob and Susie at the end of a float plane trip deep in the Alaskan wilderness. Most of the year they live on a 40-foot boat surrounded by nothing but forest and water. There are no roads and it's 100 miles by plane to the nearest neighbors. Occasionally, fisherman will fly in to spend the day halibut fishing.
During the fishing season, Bob and Susie never know on a given day whether or not they will have company. Most days they are alone with nowhere to go but 40 feet of boat.
Bob is tall and wiry with leathery, sunburned skin and hands scarred and rough as wood cut against the grain. He smells like halibut and diesel. Susie is thin with dirty blonde hair streaked with gray and sparkling blue eyes. She has a kind smile with lines of weather and age cut deep in her face. She smells like halibut and diesel, too.
After an hour or so of uneventful fishing, I can't help but ask Susie and Bob the obvious question: "How do you guys make this work, just the two of you alone for months with only 40 feet of boat? How do you stay married?"
"There's just one simple thing we cannot do if Bob and I want to stay on this boat and stay married," Susie said. "We can't keep score. You can't have a relationship, you can't live in the present, you can't have love if you keep score."
I think about Susie's answer as I ponder this week's Torah portion. After all God has done for them -- plagues, a splitting sea, manna from heaven -- Moses is a few hours late coming down from Mount Sinai and the Israelites lose faith in him and in God. Frantically fashioning a golden calf they proclaim, "This is your God O'Israel."
I don't know about you, but if I were God, I'd be pissed. And, of course, God is. But it doesn't take long for God to forgive. Before we know it, Moses is back up there on the mountain receiving a second set of tablets. After all, this week the Torah reminds us that God is "compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness...." Apparently, God doesn't keep score.
It's hard not to keep score. We all do it. In his book "The Scorecard: the Official Point System for Keeping Score in the Relationship Game" (Owl Books, 1997) author Greg Gutfield makes fun of how couples keep score. For example:
On her birthday you surprise her with:
A. Beautiful diamond earrings (+75 points)
B. A bread machine (-25 points)
C. Your new girlfriend (-400 points)
It's a funny book, but in truth there's nothing funny about keeping score in a relationship. I see it in my office all the time. Husbands and wives who argue by pulling old grievances off the dusty shelf of memory to hurl at each other like emotional grenades. Brothers and sisters who cannot forgive each other for simply leading different kinds of lives. Grown men and women who act like little attorneys, each providing evidence from months, years, even decades past, for why they were the wronged party, how they were dealt the greater injustice, why they are right. Sound familiar?
Maybe you are right. Maybe your brothers or sisters have hurt you more than you have hurt them. Your children are ungrateful. Your parents are too demanding.
When I was 15 years old and my father was teaching me to drive, he told me something I have never forgotten. He said, "Always remember that you can be dead right." What he meant was that even if I had the right of way, even if the law was on my side, I could end up dead if I wasn't careful. It's true on the road and it's true in our families. If we keep score, we lose even if we win. Do we really prefer being dead right over having a relationship with the people we love?
Then there is the world at large to consider.
Two merchants in a large town were fierce competitors. Their shops were across the street from each other. The sole method each man had of determining the success of his business was not daily profit, but how much more business he had than his competitor. If a customer made a purchase at the store of one merchant, he would taunt his competitor when the sale was complete. The rivalry grew with each succeeding year.
One day, God sent an angel to one of the merchants with an offer. "The Lord God has chosen to give you a great gift," the angel said. "Whatever you desire, you will receive. Ask for riches, long life or healthy children and the wish is yours. But there is one stipulation. Whatever you receive, your competitor will get twice as much. If you ask for 1,000 gold coins, he will receive 2,000. If you become famous, he will become twice as famous."
The angel smiled. "This is God's way of teaching you a lesson," he said.
The merchant thought for a moment. "You will give me anything I request?" he asked.
The angel nodded.
The man's face darkened. "I ask you then to strike me blind in one eye," he said.
Israelis and Palestinians, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children: Is life about winning by wounding -- winning on points but losing peace and love in the process? We who know the score so well ought to know, too, that Susie and God were right. It's best to live in the present -- compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness.
Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of "The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things" (Behrman House, 1999) and "More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul" (Bonus Books, 2004).