Sunday, October 5, 2014

Yom Kippur Morning 5775: Mayday--Asking for Help

Please help me.

For many of us, these three little words are so difficult that we’ll go to absurd lengths to avoid uttering them.

Case in point: I once wasted an entire day driving in circles around greater Chicago because I was too stubborn to stop and ask directions.

And that’s the least of it.  People sometimes risk their very lives—and even end up dying—on account of their inability to request assistance.  Just consider:

The pilot whose refusal to turn to the rest of his crew crashes the plane, costing the lives of all aboard.

The man who won’t go to the doctor even after the chest pain becomes unbearable. 

The woman whose fear keeps her stuck in an abusive relationship.

And consider the rest of us, whose less catastrophic but still very real failures to ask for aid play out in a thousand smaller but still significant ways, every day.

Why do those words come so terribly hard to our lips?

Please help me.

Such a simple, straightforward phrase.  So easy to pronounce.

Please help me.

And yet so arduous to ask.





Perhaps this is part of why so many of us find it very difficult to pray during these Days of Awe.  So much of the lengthy liturgy for this season boils down to some variation of that same uncomfortable phrase, as we repeatedly beseech God:

Please help me.

This is about the last thing we want to say to anyone, ever.  And here we are, gathered on our most sacred day, with an ancient script that compels us to say it and sing it, over and over, beseeching an omnipotent God in whom many only half-believe:

Avinu malkeinu chaneynu v’aneynu ki ayn banu ma’asim—

the gist of which translates to:

Creator, Ruler, Parent of us all—Hear us, answer us, come to our aid, for we are utterly unable to get ourselves out of this mess we’ve made on our own. 

Or, in short, Please help me.


So what are we to do, assembled in Jewish community on Yom Kippur, constantly confronted on our holiest day with the most discomforting words we know?

We could, of course, stay home.  But we haven’t.  We are here, together, this morning.

We could take the easier road and change the liturgy, replacing the traditional prayer book’s incessant pleading with more palatable contemporary affirmations.

But I believe this season calls us to do something far more radical: to start to change ourselves.  Rather than evading the discomfort we feel in asking for help, we might, instead, recognize our resistance for what it so frequently is:  the place where the real work begins.

Today, on Yom Kippur, let us reflect on that endless litany of requests for assistance and ask ourselves: Why do we find it so hard to ask for help—and how can we get better at it?

M. Nora Klaver has written an insightful guidebook on this subject, titled: Mayday—Asking For Help in Time of Need.  As she inquires into why otherwise strong, capable people struggle so mightily to request and accept the aid of others, she opens by noting that this has become a decidedly counter-cultural endeavor.  She explains: “The iconic images of the United States celebrate the independent ideal: the lone cowboy, the business magnate who succeeds because of his own strong will, and most recently, the super mom who raises her kids and simultaneously seals the multi-million dollar deal.  The classic American archetype is one who finds his own path. . . As a nation and a culture, we’ve been living with and promoting the dream of independence since 1776.”

But this American icon of rugged individualism is, in fact, a destructive delusion.  Here’s a reality check: the folks who founded and built this nation actually needed other people so badly that they kidnapped and enslaved millions of them. 

The cowboys riding off into the sunset are entirely dependent on a massive infrastructure built and maintained by the federal government: water works and fire-fighting teams and power grids and price supports and bottom basement grazing fees.

And the billionaire CEOs would be penniless without their armies of workers and managers and stockholders. 

The myth that we can lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps is just that—a myth. No one can do it alone; we all depend upon each other.  We need help—every hour of every day of our brief and interwoven lives.

And far from being a weakness, our interdependence is, in fact, the key to our success.  New research indicates that it is encoded in our very DNA.  As psychology professor and Wall Street Journal columnist Dr. Alison Gopnik points out, human babies are much more helpless—much more dependent—for far longer—than those of any other creature—and this is the source of our uniquely human consciousness, our special ability to imagine and create and grow and love.  Our extended childhood gives us the opportunity to learn and play together, and in so doing, eventually assume our place in our intricately intertwined communities of adults.


Jewish tradition embraces this model of interdependence.  We proclaim: “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh—All of us are responsible for one another.”  While we do not always live up to this high ideal, we are obligated to aspire toward it.  For us, the oft-repeated cliché that God does not give you more than you can handle is an insensitive lie.  

For alas, as it turns out, God, or life, deals each of us far more than we can handle on our own—again and again and again.  But we’re not on our own.  As every twelve-step program wisely recognizes from the start, we cannot meet our challenges in isolation; that’s why God gives us one another.  For in caring community, in asking for, and graciously accepting, help, we are blessed with strength we cannot muster alone.

Consider the Talmudic story of Rabbi Yochanan.  When his friend, Rav Chiyya bar Abba fell ill, Rabbi Yochanan went to visit and inquired: “Are your sufferings welcome to you?”  Rav Chiyya replied: “Neither they, nor their reward.”  So Yochanan said: “Give me your hand” and raised him up.

Some time later, Rabbi Yochanan got sick and another friend, Rabbi Chanina bar Chama visited him.  Chanina asked the same question that Yochanan had posed earlier: “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” and like Rav Chiyya before him, Yochanan replied, “Neither they nor their reward.”  So this time, Rabbi Chanina took Yochanan’s hand and raised him.

This is where the Talmud’s anonymous editorial voice interjects, to ask the pertinent question: Since Rabbi Yochanan had lifted his friend Chiyya out of illness, why, in his own time of affliction, could he not raise himself? 

To which the text replies: “The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.” (Berachot 5b)

The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.

Now matter how powerful and talented we may be, when we are down, we cannot raise ourselves.  We must, instead, learn to request assistance.


How often we forget or ignore this lesson, to our peril!  When I asked you, via email and Facebook, to share your stories of why it is so hard to ask for help, so many of you returned to this fear of being perceived as a failure.  You wrote: “The reality is I don’t ask for help because I’m afraid they will see me as the flawed, not all together person I really am.  My goal and my prayer is that by letting others know the real me does not mean I am being weak, but a sign of me being part of my community, letting my community see my weaknesses and my strengths so I can use them both to the betterment of the group.”

Torah reassures us that our struggle to ask for help is understandable, for even Moses must be reminded to request relief.  As the book of Exodus tells the tale, Moses is burdened to the breaking point, exhausted from hearing cases and settling disputes from sunrise to sunset.  He can find no way out of this bind—until his non-Jewish father-in-law, Yitro, arrives on the scene to offer the kind of sage advice that only an outsider can bring.  He tells Moses: “What you are doing is not good.  You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you.  For the task is too heavy for you.  You cannot do it alone.  Now listen to me.  You should look for able leaders among all the people. . . and let them sit as judges. Every important case can come to you, but let them decide the minor ones themselves.  So it will be easier for you, as they will bear the burden with you.  If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.”  And Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he said.

When my father was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, he was reluctant to tell the congregation he had served for almost forty years.  He didn’t want to be a burden, didn’t want them to see their rabbi looking sick and weak and powerless.   He did not want to speak those terribly trying words, Please help me.

That’s when I did something I had rarely done as Dad’s adult son: I challenged him.
I told it was not his place to deny his community the mitzvah of bikkur holim, of caring for him, just as he had cared so long and well for so many of them.  I reminded him that his congregation loved him, and when people love us, the opportunity to offer assistance is not a burden but a blessing.  I insisted that he owed it to them, as a rabbi and as a Jew, to let them help. 

Eventually, he did.  He shared his diagnosis and his community rallied, tending to him with kindness and compassion until the day he died.

Dad taught me a lot.  And I re-learned this lesson from you, my own community, in the wake of his death, much as I had after my own divorce, when you were so fully and generously present for me and my family, lovingly nurturing us, despite my own stubborn, stupid and very un-Jewish reluctance to ask.  Looking back now, I can attest that it was in those tough times, blessed by your devoted care, that I believe I really became your rabbi.

For here is a profound truth at the heart of our tradition: if we seek to fulfill the essential mitzvot that God has given us to sustain sacred community, we must not deny others the opportunity to perform those same mitzvot for us. We cannot visit the sick or welcome guests or rejoice with wedding couples or console mourners unless we are willing to let others visit us when we are sick,  let them welcome us when we are estranged,  rejoice with us in our times of celebration, and console us in our seasons of loss.  To be a Jew is to affirm that we need one another to live Jewish lives.  This is why, throughout this Yom Kippur day, we rise to confess our failures collectively.  Think of that confession as a reminder that none of us are self-sufficient.  All of the people around us, recalling their sins together with us, require a great deal of assistance, just like us.  Consider all those al chayts a communal lesson in asking for aid. 

Al chayt. 

Please help me.

It is hard to ask for help because it is countercultural, because we continue to fall for the delusion of self-sufficiency.   But that is not all that impedes us from requesting aid.  In Mayday, Nora Klaver offers a detailed list of factors that stand in our way, and in your responses to my electronic postings, you pointed to still more: 

We’re not taught how to ask. 

We’re so overwhelmed, we don’t know where to start. 

Or we’ve grown so accustomed to fixing things ourselves that this becomes our automatic, default response to any crisis. 

We worry about losing the respect of the people closest to us when our once-proud ability to hold things together starts to fall apart. 

Or we believe that if we receive help, we’ll be obligated to return the favor in ways we are not prepared to take on. 

Some of us, lacking self-esteem, cannot shake the nagging feeling that if we are in trouble, we somehow deserve what we’re getting and are therefore unworthy of others’ assistance.   

But by far the biggest obstacle to asking for help, the focus of most of Ms. Klaver’s book, and the vast majority of your responses to my post, is fear.  We fear rejection—what if we ask and the response is “no”?  Or even if they say “yes”, we worry that the assistance they’ll give won’t be what we really need. 

These are legitimate fears.  Some people will inevitably decline our requests for help.  And others will respond with proposals that are sincere and well-meaning but ultimately not very useful—or even counter-productive—to us.  Yet this should not scare us away.  If we ask, graciously, most people will extend their support, in a manner that really does help, at least a little.


And then there is the greatest fear of all, the one that most commonly and completely stifles our inclination to ask for assistance: the fear of surrender.  We’re terrified of losing control—or, more accurately, our illusion of control.  For most of the time, despite all evidence to the contrary, we manage to deceive ourselves into thinking we are entirely in charge of our circumstances.  Requesting aid shatters that illusion and lays bare our vulnerability.  To ask, Please help me is to acknowledge that life is terribly fragile and deeply unpredictable.

Our challenge, then, is to muster the courage to relinquish the crippling fantasy that we are masters of our fates.  As Nora Klaver asks her readers: What if instead of exerting control, we just let go?  What if we accepted the very thing our egos tell us to fear?  What if we embraced surrender as a blessing?

Or—as our tradition would say—what if we can set aside our debilitating, false pride, bow low before the open ark, and submit ourselves to the tug of God and gravity, declaring, as if we really meant it:

Avinu malkeinu chaneynu v’aneynu ki ayn banu ma’asim—

Creator, Ruler, Parent of us all—Hear us, answer us, come to our aid, for we can’t do it on our own. 

Creator, Ruler, Parent of us all—Grant us the strength and faith to turn to this community, gathered in your name, and ask of them: Please help me.

This may be the hardest thing we ever do.  It can also be the most rewarding.  Anne LaMott describes the experience in her beautiful book on faith called Help.  Thanks. Wow.  She writes:

 When we have run out of good ideas on how to fix the unfixable, when we finally stop trying to heal our own sick, stressed minds with our sick, stressed minds, when we are truly at the end of our rope and just done, we say the same prayer.  We say, “Help.”  We say, Help, this is really all too much, or I am going slowly crazy, or I can’t do this, or I can’t stop doing this, or I can’t feel anything.  Or, Help. . .  I have no life, or I hate the one I’ve created, or I forgot to have a life, or I forgot to pay attention as it scrolled by.
When we cry out Help, or whisper it into our chests, we release ourselves from the absolute craziness of trying to be our own—or other people’s—higher powers.

Things get a little better when we ask for help.  People help us.  Most astonishing of all, people forgive us, and we eventually forgive them.  Talk about miracles.

Things get a little better when we ask for help.

We, the Jewish people, experience this en masse at a critical point in our history.  Just after we leave Egypt, as the initial rush of liberation starts to fade, Amalek—the ISIS of the ancient world—attacks our rear guard.  At first, the situation seems grim.  How can a ragtag band of newly-emancipated slaves defeat these experienced and ruthless warriors? 

But Moses does not despair.  As we read in Exodus 17, he summons Joshua, his second-in-command, and lays out the battle plan:

 “Pick some troops for us, and go out and do battle with Amalek.  Tomorrow I will station myself on top of the hill, with the rod of God in my hand.”  Joshua did as Moses told him and fought with Amalek while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill.  Then, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed.  But Moses hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set.    So Joshua overwhelmed Amalek. . .

Forty years later, as Moses prepares to die and a new generation is poised to inherit the Promised Land, Moses delivers the words of this morning’s Torah portion.  He begins by acknowledging the presence of the entire community, proclaiming:

You stand this day, all of you, before the Holy One—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, the men, women, and children and the stranger within your camp, from the woodchopper to the water bearer. . .

And then, after recalling events of the past four decades, Moses lays out the choice the people will face in the coming days—a choice that still confronts us, time and again, over the entire course of our lives:

I call heaven and earth to witness this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life. . . that you may live and long endure on the good land that God is giving you.

We have much to learn from these two passages, which bookend Moses’ remarkable tenure as leader of the Jewish people.  Taken together, they remind us that choosing life means living in community with one another, from the wood chopper to the water bearer, or, as we might say, from the CEO to the night watchman. 

To choose life is stand side by side with our neighbors, holding their hands, as Aaron and Hur supported those of Moses, for when we raise the hands and hearts of those around us, victory is ours.

To choose life is to acknowledge when our own hands and hearts falter, and then to let others lift them in return.

To choose life is to summon the faith to say: “Please help me.”

To choose life is offer and accept aid with gratitude and grace.

My friends, on this most sacred day, I urge us to do more to help one another.  In the coming weeks, we will be setting up an electronic forum for CABI members to ask for and to offer assistance.  I hope that for some of us, this new platform might make the daunting task a little easier.  Meanwhile, you can still do it the old-fashioned way.  Send a note, make a phone call, take someone out for coffee or tea—and ask.
For this is our highest calling as a synagogue community.  Let us strive to help one another more, and more deeply, in 5775.

Avinu malkeinu chaneynu v’aneynu ki ayn banu ma’asim—

Creator, Ruler, Parent of us all—Help us to help one another, for in our asking and our offering, there you are.

Ken y’hi ratzon

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