From the Valley of the Shadow of Death

On Leadership, Gentile In-Laws & Recovery from Loss

For Congregation Ner Shalom ~ January 17, 2014

(A shadowed road. Hampstead, London. Photo: IEK)

It's good to be home I think. Although I am suffering from performance anxiety tonight, wondering how to even form words at this moment. Because I am freshly back from shiva, having dusted and vacuumed and locking the door behind me on the house I grew up in, a house only ever lived in by Kellers, standing now without occupant for the first time since 1958. A house that, like me, has undergone a great loss but doesn't yet feel that way.

After the cascade of events of these past 8 weeks, I ought to have something of value to say, or so I suppose people to think. But my head is aswim, and it's not clear to me that I have gained insight. I expect that insight, if it arrives at all, will come only in the long haul.

And besides anxiety about content, I have anxiety about topic. Because I have already delivered two drashot and a eulogy about my mother. Who really wants to hear more? Her death is painful to me, but it doesn't objectively constitute tragedy. She lived a long life full of love, including the love of many people here. She affected people for the good. She died at a reasonably ripe age, even if her youthfulness made it seem oddly premature. No, not tragic. Whereas our community here and my own circle of friends have in fact seen tragic deaths in the past weeks. People dying young, leaving behind spouses, children and parents too. Deaths happening in an order that they should not happen; in a way that I suspect is not strictly necessary in the divine scheme of things, unless it's to teach some lesson about noticing the preciousness of life. But if so, it's an awfully high pricetag for mindfulness.

So instead, I imagine, what I should do is get on with business. The sermon business. And do what is done universally in the Jewish world when at a loss and talk about this week's Torah portion. And it's a good one, culminating in the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

But it begins with a visit to Moshe by his father-in-law, Yitro, the High Priest of Midyan. Yitro tracks down Moshe and the Children of Israel in the wilderness, where they have just escaped the slavery of Egypt. Yitro praises God by name, a name and worship which some scholars speculate we got from the Midyanites to begin with. Yitro offers gratitude for God's benevolence. And then there follows much hugging, feasting and weeping.

Then the next day dawns and, surprise, it turns out to be "Take Your Father-in-Law to Work" Day. Yitro watches as Moshe spends every waking hour sitting and adjudicating the disputes of the Israelites, and there are many, considering that they are all displaced and disorganized and facing unprecedented difficulties. Moshe sits from dawn till dark and Yitro, his father-in-law, is appalled. He appeals to Moshe, explaining that this locating of leadership within a single individual is not sustainable. Moshe seems to know this but doesn't know how to break the cycle. Yitro presents him with a new system in which there are judges over the tens and appellate judges over the hundreds and then the thousands, with Moshe as the court of last resort, never again to listen to a small claims matter.

Yitro's idea was one that perhaps Moshe could hear because it came from outside. It was new,  not an inherited idea. It didn't come from Moshe's parents or his priestly brother or prophetic sister. It came from his father-in-law. His non-Jewish father-in-law. And perhaps that's the function of the gentile in-law in the Hebrew mythos. They are a source of newness, of freshness. Yitro, like the famed Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, is not of the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob line. Instead, Yitro and Ruth represent the new idea. And they are beloved - their contributions lead to greatness. Yitro's advice to Moshe immediately precedes the moment of revelation at Sinai; it seems to ignite our people's ability to give (or receive) a system of law, that very Torah that has formed our identity and worldview for millennia. And Ruth, for her part, is depicted as the great-grandmother of King David and is, according to tradition, to be the ancestor of the Messiah. Naomi's gentle, gentile daughter-in-law, with her unexpected fount of kindness, becomes our people's source of future redemption.

In any event, Yitro's teaching to Moshe is about the sharing of leadership. And that, I can guarantee you, is a hot topic on the world's bimahs tonight. And, after all, it's New Member Shabbat here. How could anyone resist making a pitch for new leadership? Because as you might perceive, this community is growing - we have twice as many households as we did five years ago. But our leadership has not doubled. Instead, we largely see the same small group struggling to keep up.

And there are so many things we could be doing! Not just services. Not just classes or religious events. We could be streaming. We could be making a CD of our music. We could be visiting sick community members, fitted with songs and casseroles. We could be doing nice, easy stuff - bike rides or bagel brunches or bowling nights. Chances to just hang out as Jews, or mostly Jews, together.

So let me tell you about how this conversation then goes at our Kavanah Committee, which is our spiritual life planning committee. It is this synagogue's most active and successful committee, because it meets monthly over breakfast, and breakfast makes all the difference. So at the table someone has or relates an idea for something we can do. Something brilliant; and sometimes super easy. Something we really think people would respond to. Then the question arises who can put this together? And we all look at each other, knowing that everyone at the table is spread too thin with their Ner Shalom leadership commitments. Most at the table are already on the Board or on the bimah.

So up comes the idea of calling the membership and asking who would be willing to take the lead on this idea. After all, we have "new member forms" for everyone - we know your interests and skills. Plus everyone knows when they join, that this community will need a little of their time. So we all smile at the certainty and relief that just the right person (or almost the right person) exists in our midst already. Then someone asks, "Who can make the calls to find someone?" And we all stare at each other, knowing we're all spread too thin to sit and make those calls. The panic slowly rises. A clock somewhere in the restaurant begins to tick loudly, until someone says, "This is why we need a Volunteer Coordinator. To make these kinds of calls." And again we're elated as we all agree that somewhere at Ner Shalom is a Volunteer Coordinator waiting to be plucked like ripe fruit from the tree. Then someone asks who can make the calls to recruit a Volunteer Coordinator. And we stare at each other some more, keenly aware of the spiral of self-pity now in motion, our tears dripping into the remnants of our French toast. Until the Kavanah meeting begins to look like Moshe's reunion with his father-in-law, characterized by hugging, feasting and weeping too.

So on this week of the Yitro visit, this week of the breath of fresh air that says, "Others can lead too," how can I not make a pitch, and say, "Please, share the leadership here with us?" Don't stand on ceremony. Don't wait to be called, because we might just still be stuck at a breakfast table trying to figure out who, if anyone, has time to pick up the phone. Just step up. We need you. Newcomers and old-timers alike. Not hard labor. Just gentle leadership. A single event. A single project. A single idea. Honor us with your wisdom and your sparkling skills. And if you notice it being hard for us to accept your help, forgive us and gently remind us of this night and of Moshe.

So there. A pitch for your leadership was just the right thing to do tonight. Both legitimate and timely. And it got me out of my sermon-writing bind. So that I wouldn't really have to report back on the way that my life is now different, and not different at the same time.

Because it is different and not-different. Surreal. As if I accidentally got sucked into an alternate universe, where everything is the same but my mother does not exist.

You know, over my life I've had thousands of opportunities to recite Psalm 23, the calming psalm, The Lord is My Shepherd, that one. Still waters, green pastures. I recite it almost daily, and I continued to do so at each shiva minyan at my mother's house. But I think I am now understanding in a way I never have, the bit about walking through Gey Tzalmavet, the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Gam ki elech b'Gey Tzalmavet lo ira ra.

"Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil," says the psalm. I used to think this passage was about the fear of dying or the fear of death. When I'm afraid for my life, God is with me. That's what I was sure the psalmist was aiming for.

But now I'm no longer certain. Because it is now, after my mother's death, not in anticipation of it, that I feel like I am walking in Gey Tzalmavet. I am shadowed by death. Death's shadow obscures the road ahead. It is not an evil road that I'm on. Just a shadowed one. And a strange one, because it makes the routine things seem out of place. If I sent a postcard from Gey Tzalmavet, it would say something like, "Everything here is just like at home, but the people are so perky."

Tzalmavet, the odd Hebrew compound word that means "shadow of death" could also reasonably be voweled and read as tzalmut - and it would then mean something more like "self-image" or "identity". From the root tzelem, that we use when we say that we are made in God's image. Walking the path, after losing parents, as many people in this room know, is a challenge of tzalmut, of identity. Who am I now? What does it mean for me to be me, now that none of being me can be about pleasing my mother or rebelling against her for that matter? Who am I now that I am on the front edge of the generations? Who will I become? How will I change? When I look at my reflection in the mirror, will I see more of her now, or less?

Gam ki elech b'Gey Tzalmut, lo ira ra.

But as I walk through the valley of this precarious new identity, I will not fear. Because it is not an evil road. Just a shadowed one, hard to see around the next bend.

So that's the report. When people ask, "How are you," I've begun to simply say, "The jury's out." I'm sad, I'm bewildered, I'm busy. But, lo ira ra. I'm not afraid.