Parshat Mishpatim — Shabbat Shekalim
February 10, 2018—25 Shevat 5778
505 yards. Not only did he break his own Super Bowl record with 505 yards, he is in the record books for another reason as well, a dubious reason. The NFL has been around for 98 years. Tom Brady is the first and only quarterback ever to throw for 505 yards, 3 touchdowns, zero interceptions and lose the game. That stat line has always been a guaranty of victory. But last Sunday night, we have the painful exception to this rule: 505 yards in defeat.
In Patriots parlance, Tom Brady did his job. On the biggest night, on the biggest stage, in the biggest game, he was brilliant. But our defense did not step up and make a play. Our defense could not stop them when the game was on the line. And so it was 505 yards in defeat.
It’s not fair. It’s not right. It just is.
Life is often a lot like that.
All of us have our own version of 505 yards in defeat. We are doing our job. We are doing what we are supposed to do. And for reasons that are out of our control, our best is not enough, and we have to contend with a hard reality that is more painful than losing a football game.
We are living our life, and we come down with some persistent health challenge that we have to manage, that always flares up at the most inconvenient time. It’s not fair. It’s not right. It just is.
We have a financial or professional reversal. It’s not fair. It’s not right. It just is.
Somebody we love, and will love forever, dies, leaving us bereft. It’s not fair. It’s not right. It just is.
This is universal. This is all of us. This is every one of us. The good news is that our religious tradition equips us to handle this problem.
What is the key, driving fact behind the Israelites? That they were slaves. Slaves for 430 years. Generation after generation were born as slaves, worked as slaves, died as slaves, knowing their children would do the same. It’s not fair. It’s not right. It just is.
The fact that we were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt—avadim hayinu l’pharoh b’mitzrayim—is not something we hide from. To the contrary, we feature this fact prominently. It’s in our prayers every day. It’s in our Kiddush every Sabbath and holiday. It’s the basis for the Passover seder which is the most broadly observed Jewish ritual. It’s the foundation for any number of mitzvot in the Torah.
It’s as if the foundation of Tom Brady’s career were not the five Super Bowls he won, but the time that he threw for 505 yards and lost. That is what the Torah makes front and center.
In making the fact that we were slaves front and center, the Torah gives us three pieces of spiritual homework.
One, our slavery in Egypt was the beginning of the story, not the end of the story. It was the foundation for a story of redemption. There was a trajectory, Martin Luther King Junior’s arc of history that bent towards justice. We went from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light.
Here is your first piece of spiritual homework. Take your hardest fact. Take the most brutal part of your life. How can that be part of a redemption story? How can that be part of a narrative from which you emerge into an ever greater wholeness?
Two, our slavery in Egypt made us more resilient. If we could withstand the taskmaster’s whip, we could withstand anything.
Which leads to your second piece of spiritual homework. How can your pain make you more resilient?
Three, our slavery in Egypt made us more compassionate. The 36 times the Torah reminds us that we were slaves is always connected to a command to be compassionate towards others who are enslaved. You know what it means to suffer. Therefore, have an extra dose of compassion, so something to help, others who are suffering.
That is the message of our Torah for those parts of our lives that are not right, not fair, and just are. Do not run away from the pain. Do not deny the pain. Feel the pain. Own the pain. And then let the pain be part of a narrative, where you grow from the pain, onward and upward, ever more resilient and more compassionate, because of the pain.
Which leads me to an NPR story I heard this week about a woman named Shannon Leone Fowler. The story begins with the arresting premise: what is the place where you most become you? What is your happiest place? Your healthiest place? Shannon Leone Fowler relates that she grew up in California, on the coast, and was always in love with the ocean. She dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. Her happiest place was deep in the ocean, listening to the sounds and seeing the splendid colors in the ocean depths. Until her mid 20s, it was the ocean that, in her words, “filled her up.”
And then she met a man named Sean, who grew up in Australia. They fell in love, they were in their 20s footloose and fancy free, traveling throughout the world. They had no money. They could not afford to take a taxi. They had two oversized backpacks that contained all their worldly possessions as they traveled throughout Asia and Europe. Poor. But young, healthy, and madly in love. They were so happy.
He proposes. She says yes. Sean is Shannon’s fiancé. She realizes now that there are two things that fill up her up. The ocean fills her up. And Sean fills her up.
One day they are at a beach in Thailand, celebrating their engagement. They decide to go for a quick swim before dinner. They are in the ocean, hugging and kissing.
Just then, Shannon feels something brush past her. Before she knows it, Sean collapses. He was stung by a box jelly fish, which is one of the most poisonous creatures in the sea. He dies. The NPR piece was entitled Betrayal. The ocean that Shannon loved took the life of the man that Shannon loved. Not fair. Not right. It just is.
She was 28 at the time. She is now 43.
After a loss like that, after the ocean betrayed her, one could imagine Shannon giving up on the ocean. But she did not give up on the ocean. She got her PhD in and is a professor of marine biology.
After a loss like that, after the love of her life died in a freak ocean accident, one could imagine Shannon giving up on love itself. Maybe she would become a lifelong hermit. But she did not give up on love. Several years later she married. And while that marriage did not last, that marriage did give her three children whom she is raising as a single Mom.
After a loss like that, maybe she would repress it, suppress it, deny it, put it in the attic of her soul, not to be looked at again. Too painful. But she did not repress it or suppress it. Instead, last year she wrote a book called Travelling with Ghosts which tells the story of how she grieved her unimaginable loss and went on to rediscover meaning and purpose again. In addition to teaching about the ocean, and raising her children, she is a motivational speaker whose personal testimony is that the most painful parts of our life do not break us. They launch us. The title is so evocative. Travelling suggests movement, living, doing, engaging. With Ghosts suggests that she is doing all that living with some shadows in her soul, but who does not have shadows in their soul? If you’ve lived, if you’ve loved, if you’ve lost, if you’ve been hurt by life, you have shadows. You have ghosts. Now the question is can you still live, can you still travel?
Judaism says yes. We were slaves. Let’s build a whole festival of freedom out of this fact. Let’s build a whole approach to life, a whole mitzvah structure of compassion, out of this fact. We were slaves. Fine. That did not break us. It launched us.
We all have our own version of 505 yards. We all have our own version of not right, not fair, just is. May the Torah’s wise insistence on making our most painful chapter the driving chapter of the Jewish story inspire us to build lives where our hardest parts do not defeat us but inspire us to be ever more resilient, ever more compassionate, to be ever more. Shabbat shalom.