Parshat Mishpatim—Shabbat Shekalim
February 22, 2020 — 27 Shevat 5780
Do you know somebody, or are you somebody, who walks around carrying a heavy weight? It could be a secret. It could be a regret. It could be a mistake. It could be a broken relationship. It could be a rift in the family. It could be some small thing—the Yiddish term is faribble—that grows into a big thing. And you don’t know quite how to deal with this heavy weight. You don’t know how to get rid of this heavy weight. You don’t know how to travel light. So you carry it around with you. Weeks turn into months turn into years turn into decades.
If you know of such a person, or if you are such a person, I have something just for you. It is a pod cast called Heavy Weight by Jonathan Goldstein. Each episode tells the story of a person or of a relationship beset with a heavy weight which lasts for a long, long time, until Jonathan Goldstein, with a microphone in hand, initiates an attempt to bring peace and healing to a historically fraught situation, and to allow all involved to enjoy a fresh start.
I bring up this pod cast because here is the paradox. When it comes to the heavy weights we carry, it sometimes seems hopeless. It is too awkward, too complicated, too much time has passed, too much water is under the bridge, for it to ever be made right. And yet, it turns out, that in episode after episode, the solution is simple and clear. And this simple and clear idea can help you at last lay down your heavy weight and travel light.
I will share just two of the more evocative episodes.
One is called Buzz. It is the very first podcast. Buzz is Jonathan Goldstein’s father. Buzz is 80 years old and lives in Montreal. He has one member left from his nuclear family, his older brother Sheldon, who is 85 and lives in Florida. These two brothers are deeply estranged. They no longer talk to one another. They are no longer a part of one another’s lives. When Sheldon’s wife passed away, he did not even bother to tell Buzz. Buzz did not learn that his sister-in-law had died until years later. Sheldon lives alone with his cat.
Enter Jonathan Goldstein. Jonathan talks to his father. Dad, you are not getting any younger. You are 80. Your brother is not getting any younger. He is 85. If he would take a meeting with you, I’ll fly with you, and we’ll see him together in Florida. His Dad says yes, I would like that. Jonathan has the same conversation with his uncle Sheldon. Would you take a meeting with your brother? I will be there too. Sheldon says yes, I would like that. Buzz and Jonathan go to Florida to visit Sheldon. That is one podcast.
The other podcast is entitled the Marshes. The Marshes are a family in Minnesota. When Jean and Pete were young, they met, had a fling, and Jean got pregnant. She brought the baby to term, named her Alisha, held her, loved her, and then realized that as a young teen, a single mom, she could not raise her daughter, so she gave her up for adoption. Jean and Pete were both in great pain over giving up their daughter. What began as a fling evolved into love. Three years after the adoption, Jean and Pete get married. They go on to have three more children, Keven, Steve, and Lisa. 48 years go by. Their own family life is complicated. Each of their children have struggled with drug or alcohol issues, they drop out of school, they work to find themselves. They are a close and boisterous family that all live near one another in Minnesota. The parents hold the secret of their fourth child, their oldest child, for 48 years. They never tell their younger three children that they have an older sibling. Both parents tell Jonathan Goldstein that they think about their older daughter all the time. At last, the secret comes out, and now the two parents and the three children wonder: should we try to make contact with Alisha? Enter Jonathan Goldstein.
The entire premise of this series, in some ways a radical premise, is that what was, need not determine what will be. Just because some relationship or some dream has been broken for a long time does not mean that it has to stay broken. In particular, he believes that the secret to healing and helping is having an honest conversation. Talking to the other person, not about the other person.
In this way Jonathan Goldstein role models a teaching from Hillel in Pirkei Avot: Be a disciple of Aaron—oheiv shalom v’rodeif shalom, loving peace and pursuing peace, oheiv et habriot u’mekorvan la’torah, loving all human beings and bringing them closer to the Torah and its central teaching that we should love our neighbor like ourself.
Aaron accomplished his peace-making and his bridge-building through the power of conversation. He would talk to both sides and encourage them to talk to each other. And when they talked to each other, they got to a better place.
Likewise Jonathan Goldstein believes in the power of words, the power of an honest conversation. When we talk about the other, nothing changes. But when we talk to the other, things can really change for the better. If you want to put down your heavy weight, if you want to heal a broken relationship, if you want to increase the peace, talk to.
The example of Aaron and the power of healing words animate these pod casts.
Jonathan Goldstein and Buzz go to Florida to see Sheldon. It’s been years since the brothers talked. It is predictably awkward at first. After some small talk, they start talking about more consequential things. And then they come to the heart of the matter, the source of their estrangement over the years. It turns out that their parents’ marriage had been a hot mess. Their father was physically and emotionally abusive. When Sheldon was nine, and when Buzz was four, their mother packed up her stuff and walked out. She left her abusive husband. And then, she came back to get Sheldon. To get Sheldon, but not to get Buzz. At four years old Buzz experienced the trauma of not only his mother leaving, but of her passing him over and picking his older brother to take with her—a double abandonment. This sense of being passed over, and his jealousy of his brother who was picked by their mother, he held onto for 76 years. This core wound resulted in all kinds of anger, hurt, acting out, that would ruin the brotherly relationship for the next seven plus decades. Each brother talked about the other. They never talked to each other. And they never talked to each other about this central trauma of their childhood.
But on the podcast, they did. Sheldon was able to share his perspective that the reason his mother came to pick him up was that their father was hostile to Sheldon. Their father preferred Buzz. Their mother was trying to protect the son who would have been more vulnerable to the abusive father. All of this was news, and helpful and healing, to Buzz.
After the brothers talked to each other, they decided that they wanted to begin again, and they wanted to spend the remaining years of their lives being loving brothers.
Jean and Pete cannot at first connect with Alisha directly. They have to write a hand-written letter to a social worker, who is the conduit between Alisha and her birth parents. The social worker shares the parents’ letter, and that prompts months of exchanging letters between Jean and Alisha. It turns out that Alisha, who goes by Natalie, has lived her whole life twenty miles from her birth parents. Her adoptive parents went to the same high school as Jean. She lives now twenty miles from the whole Marsh family. At last they meet in person. They talk to one another. They share their stories. They share their feelings. Natalie and her birth parents feel a natural connection. Natalie and her three younger siblings feel a natural connection. Talking to made possible new and beautiful relationships.
What was true for Buzz and Sheldon, what was true for Jean and Pete and Natalie, is true for us. We sometimes think we are stuck carrying our heavy weights, the secrets, the regrets, the mistakes, the rifts, the shame. The weeks turn into months turn into years turn into decades. It feels hopeless. We feel helpless. But it is hopeless only if we always do what we always did, so that we always get what we always got. It is not hopeless, we are not stuck, if we change it up.
What heavy weight have you been lugging around for far too long? Put the heavy weight down. You can do this. It starts with talking to. Shabbat shalom.