Exclamation Mark

Parshat Shoftim
August 26, 2017—4 Elul 5777

I recently came upon a fabulous children’s story called Exclamation Mark.  Once there was a grammatical marker unlike all the rest.  All the rest were periods. But this was a period that had a vertical line growing out of it.  This marker was not comfortable in its own skin.  It tried to repress and suppress the vertical line, to no avail.   That vertical line was part of its identity.  This confused marker could find no peace until one day it met a question mark.  The question mark started asking all kinds of questions—what is your favorite color, what is your favorite food—until this marker exclaimed: stop it!  The exclamation mark was shocked at the power of its own voice.  It tried again, this time a little louder. Hi!  Again a little louder. Howdy!  Again, a little louder still. Wow! This marker realized that it was not a simple period after all, but an exclamation mark.  Its purpose was to add energy and gusto.  It went back to its community of periods now comfortable in its own skin.  It would exclaim to all those periods: Look out! Bravo! Congratulations! Home run! That’s great!  When the marker at last realized it was an exclamation mark and not a period, that it had a special mission as an exclamation mark, it could finally be at peace.

How do we become the exclamation mark we are meant to become?  There is nothing easy or inevitable about it.  Becoming that exclamation mark is a choice.  We could also choose to remain a period with a vertical line growing awkwardly from our head, not at peace with who we are.  How do we choose to become the adult we are meant to be?

The word for choice in the Hebrew Bible is bachar.  Our classic sources use this word bachar in three important ways that help us find our voice.

The most famous comes from Deuteronomy.  Moses says:  “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity…choose life, u’vachartah ba’chayim.

Can we choose an attitude of resilience and the ability to adapt creatively to whatever life throws our way so that we approach every day with positive energy?

Did you see the story in the Times wedding section about the recent marriage of Gertrude Mokotoff and Alvin Mann?  The title of the story says it all:  “She’s 98. He’s 94.  They Met at the Gym.”

Gertrude Mokotoff had been married for 61 years to her first husband until he passed away.  She was a professor of biology at a local community college while raising their four children.  When she retired from academia, she decided to enter politics.    She was twice elected an alderwoman in her local town, Middletown, New York, and then she became Middletown’s first female mayor, serving back to back two year-terms.

Now her first husband had passed away.  Her four children were all out of the house.  She had retired from her first career at the community college.  She had retired as Mayor.  What to do?  Uvacharta bachaiim, choose life.  She went to the gym to work out.

There she met a younger man, Alvin Mann. His wife of 45 years had passed away. But instead of surrendering to despair,  uvacharta bachaiim, he chose life.  His neighbor for the last 20 years, a man named Keith Schuler, was quoted in the Times:

This man is 94 years old, and I see him outside chopping down trees, dragging logs out of the woods with his old Ford tractor, stacking firewood and cutting the grass.  Then I see him and Gert running around like two high school sweethearts, holding hands and kissing, and driving to New York City on weekends.  If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it.

Gertrude and Alvin dated for eight years.  Alvin said “I kept getting teased about dating a cougar. But the age difference never really bothered me because we just hit it off, and I wasn’t about to let her go.”

They got married on August 5.  On August 20th Gertrude turns 99.  “So I’m 99, 98, it’s just a number.  But today, I’m still 98, right?  So let’s not rush things.”

If we want to find our voice, if we want to become the adult we are meant to become, the first choice we have to make is: u’vacharta ba’chaiim, choose a life-affirming, resilient attitude.

Keeping this attitude of resilience is a choice, and sometimes it is very challenging to make this choice, because of a second use of the Hebrew word bachar, which means to test.  The prophet Isaiah says bechartich bechur oni, God tests us in a furnace of affliction.  If life were always happy and easy, it would be only natural to have that life-affirming spirit.  But can we muster that resilient spirit when we are tested in the furnace?  If character is destiny, what character do we reveal in the furnace?

Which brings me to the author of the children’s story Exclamation Mark.  The author is Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who came to embody the ultimate exclamation mark of resilience when she wrote a piece in the New York Times this past February that went viral called “You May Want to Marry My Husband.”  She wrote about how she had been fabulously happily married to her husband Jason for 26 years when she received a fatal diagnosis.  She knew when writing this piece that her days were numbered.  Indeed she would pass shortly after she wrote it.  But she  believed in love.  She believed in marriage.  She believed in Jason’s right to be happy in the future, and for that to happen, she wanted him to marry again. Amy Krouse Rosenthal wrote 26 children’s books.  She wrote 4 adult books.  She wrote innumerable journal and magazine articles.  But this prolific author wanted her last published words to be this plea:

I want more time with Jason.  I want more time with my children. I want more time sipping martinis at the Green Mill Jazz Club on Thursday nights. But that is not going to happen.  I probably have only a few days left being a person on this planet.  So why am I doing this?

I am wrapping this up on Valentine’s Day, and the most genuine, non-vase oriented gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins.

I’ll leave this intentional empty space below as a way of giving you two the fresh start you deserve.

With all my love, Amy

We cannot control what happens to us in life.  We can only control what we do about it.  When we are tested in the furnace, what does the heat of that furnace do to our character?

If the character we reveal in the furnace is one of grace and love and strength, that itself leads to a third resonance of the Hebrew word bachar, which is inheritance.  Psalm 47:5 tells us yivchar lanu et nachalateinu, God chose our inheritance.  How we live, how we respond to the heat of the furnace, becomes our legacy.  It has the power to inspire others in ways that we cannot even predict.

Which brings me to a young man named Malcolm Mitchell who was a college football player at the University of  Georgia.  He was in the midst of his own furnace.  Much of his identity was wrapped up in football.  But he sustained a serious injury—he tore his ACL—that  caused him to miss 16 games over two seasons.  It looked like his dreams of playing football might well become derailed.  It was just then that he came upon a certain childrens’ story called Exclamation Mark.  This short story had a profound impact upon him.  First it gave him the courage that he could still yet become an exclamation mark in his chosen field of football.  He needed to persevere, to rehab to regain his physical strength, but he could and would make his mark.  But the book had a second impact as well.  He realized he loved reading.  As he rehabbed from his injuries, he joined a reading group at the local Barnes & Noble.  He was the only male in the group. He was younger by 20 years than anyone else.  He was the only football player in the history of the group.

Roll the film forward. He becomes a wide receiver for the  New England Patriots.  He stars in the Super Bowl against Atlanta, catching 6 passes for 70 yards.  The day after the Super Bowl, Mitchell hears that the author of Exclamation Mark was very sick.  Now Malcolm Mitchell and Amy Krouse Rosenthal did not know one another. They had never met.  But he knew her words. He knew her work.  He knew her courage in the furnace. And he was truly inspired by her example.  That day he sends her the following video:

Hey Amy, this is Malcolm Mitchell of the world champion New England  Patriots. I just wanted to spend some time and tell you…thank you.  Your book  Exclamation Mark…changed my outlook on life.  It taught me that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from—there is a place in this world for you. You just have to stay strong and keep moving forward.  So I just wanted to credit you for having an impact on my life…I want to thank you …for pulling for us, and I want you to know I’m definitely pulling for you.

Can we become the person we are meant to become?  In a world of periods, can we become a proud exclamation mark?  If we can, it is not because life is easy or without pain. If we can, it is only because in the face of life that can be hard and painful, we made a choice.  We could have chosen to give up, to give in, to wither, to withdraw, to shrivel, to shrink, to die while we are still alive.  Instead,  uvachartah ba’chayim, we chose to live, and that has made all the difference.   Shabbat shalom.