September 19, 2018 — 10 Tishri 5779
This past year I had an experience in jail that really shook me up.
I did some research to learn that in the House of Corrections in Boston there are immigrants who have been living in our country for years who are in jail pending judicial proceedings. Immigrant detainees are entitled to visits from clergy. While I cannot solve their immigration woes, perhaps I could make them feel a little less alone. I committed to visiting detained immigrants on Mondays, which is my day off.
I make my first appointment with the jail administrator to pay a pastoral visit to a detained immigrant.
I get to the House of Corrections, check in, go through security, climb a bunch of stairs, and am led to a surveillance room, with two chairs and a light bulb, like you see on Law and Order. The guard tells me he is getting my inmate.
At last, the person I am going to see comes in. The guard closes the door. It is just the two of us in this surveillance room. But it was not who I was expecting.
He was a native English speaker. I had asked to see an immigrant. I asked him where he was born. He said Boston. He was born in Boston and lived in Boston all his life.
And he had tattoos. Fierce tattoos. Tattoos of lions, pit bulls and skull and bones. All over his body. What am I doing here, in a room just him and me, I start to wonder. I asked him why he was here. He says I asked to meet with you. I wanted to meet with a rabbi, and they told me you are a rabbi.
I said yes, I am a rabbi. Why did you want to meet with a rabbi?
I want to convert to Judaism. My girlfriend is Jewish. We have a son who is two. His middle name is Ari Naim, nice lion. We want to get married. But I don’t want to get married until I am Jewish.
What draws you to Judaism, I ask?
He says the purity of Judaism. I like how according to Judaism when you wake up in the morning, you are supposed to wash your hands, and say prayers and blessings, that make your soul pure. I would like to be pure.
Looking at his fierce tattoos, and hearing his gentle words, I could only think that people are complicated.
We talk a little bit about his history. He shared that he had done hard time in the state penitentiary on two occasions. Here I was a little bit flummoxed. The question I really wanted to ask him was, hard time? In the state penitentiary? For what? But can I ask that question? Twenty-one years of meeting with congregants at Temple Emanuel had not prepared me for this moment. Finally, I asked. He told me that whatever the charges were, he was innocent. I asked him what he was doing in the House of Corrections now. I could not quite get a clear answer. But again he affirmed his innocence. Unjustly imprisoned three times? I didn’t have a great feeling about this.
At a certain point I thought it might be nice to bring our time together to a close. So I said to him that I hoped to come back next Monday. I was seeing him in the spring, a week before Pesach. I told him that next week I will bring you a Haggadah and a box of Matza.
That’s when things got really interesting.
Oh, he said, I’m not going to be here next Monday. I’m getting out tomorrow.
You’re getting out tomorrow? That’s wonderful, I said.
He said, do you have a synagogue?
Where is your synagogue?
I said…my synagogue is in Newton.
Newton? I know Newton, he said. My girlfriend’s family lives in Newton.
Where in Newton? Which synagogue?
I said…Congregation Beth El…561 Ward Street.
Not really, just joshing. I was frightened and unsure of myself in that moment. But I knew the right thing to do, and I did it. I said Temple Emanuel, 385 Ward Street.
He said when I get out, can I study Judaism with you?
I said yes. Yes. By all means come and see me.
I asked if I could offer a prayer for him? He said yes.
I asked him: Do you have a Hebrew name? Not yet.
Which character in the Bible do you admire the most?
The name I like best is Melech, King, he said. I said you also like lions. You have lions on your arms. Your son’s Hebrew name is Ari Naim, nice lion. What about Melech Ari, King Lion. He liked that. So I offered a prayer for Melech Ari ben Avraham v’Sarah, King Lion, the son of Abraham and Sarah, that he should soon be free, and use his freedom to build a life of love and peace, of meaning and purpose.
Now why do I share this odd sui generis story with you on Yom Kippur? What does it possibly have to do with you?
While the particular facts are odd and sui generis, the larger challenge of this story is not. The larger challenge is universal. What happens when we have a plan, but life does not follow our plan? This is a microcosm of life not following the plan. I was supposed to meet with immigrants who were stuck in detention before being sent back to the countries from which they had originally come. Instead, I saw an American, who had served hard time, twice, if not a third time, who kind of scared me, who is getting out tomorrow and wants to see me at Temple Emanuel to convert to Judaism. There was a plan, but as the old saying goes, life is what happens after we have made other plans.
Every person here has some version of this. And today, Yom Kippur, is the day we think about the plan we had had for our life, and how life turned out different.
I never thought, at this point in my life, that I would still be single.
I never thought, at this point in my life, that I would be divorced. Or widowed.
I never thought that at this point in their lives my adult children would still be searching, would still be finding themselves, would still be looking for their passion, their work, their life partner. I would have thought they would have settled down by now.
I never thought that our finances would be this tough.
I never thought that my work would be this tough.
I never saw these health challenges coming.
I never thought he would say this.
I never thought she would do that.
I never thought I would be here.
When we have made plans, but life does not follow the plan, we feel off balance. Off kilter. When that happens to us physically, experts in physical therapy often advise us: strengthen your core. When you strengthen your core, your core will strengthen you.
The same is true in our spiritual and emotional world. When we are spiritually, emotionally off kilter,we have to strengthen our core. Core people. Core principles. Core faith in something larger than us. When you strengthen your core, your core will strengthen you.
Who are your core people? Who are your go to people?
When I got back to the shul, the first thing I did was call Michelle. Michelle is on my speed dial. We have been working together, 7 days a week, for going on 20 years. When it comes to shul stuff, we can finish each other’s sentences. I called her up and I said Michelle, I am really shaken up. I told her the story. She was totally reassuring. This is not a problem. This will be for a blessing. I said Michelle, you are so good with conversions, you just have a gift with conversion candidates, would you like to own this? She laughed. She said we’ll get through this together. We did not have a particular plan in place, but just knowing she was with me made me feel deeply okay.
Do you have a go to person to get you through it?
Here is the second question. What are your core principles? The facts may evolve in surprising, unpredictable, even discomfiting ways. But do you have a core set of principles that define who you are? When I called Michelle, I said I feel like I really messed this up. I am not sure what I did wrong, but the outcome takes me well out of my comfort zone. She said no, these are our values. Trying to help a bal teshuvah like this man change his ways, we should do that. Trying to teach Judaism to somebody who wants to become a Jew by choice, we should do that.
When you are confused by the difference between your life according to the plan, and what is actually happening, what do you learn when you consult your core?
And here is the third question. What do you believe in that is larger than you? Can you summon faith in the invisible other, call it God, call it karma, call it humility before that which we can neither control nor explain, that can put us at peace. In psalm 27 that we pray in this season, David says Adonai ori v’yishi, The Lord is my light and my help. David does not promise that our life will be perfect or that it will go according to the plan. To the contrary, David promises that when life is not perfect, when life does not go according to plan, you are not alone, because God is with you. If God is with you, you will have more strength and more hope to get you through it.
When we strengthen our core, our core strengthens us.
When we strengthen our relationships with people, that strengthens us.
When we strengthen our commitment to our finest principles, that strengthens us.
When we deepen our faith, that strengthens us.
When life throws you off balance, go back to your core.
I saw King Lion the son of Abraham and Sarah in March. He has not called or come to see me yet. But if he does, my colleagues and I will be happy to teach him Judaism. That is our core.
In this new year, when life does not follow the plan, may the people we love, the principles we live by, and the faith we summon, allow us to celebrate the life we have, because the life we have is real, and we have the power to turn the life we have into a beautiful blessing. Gemar chatimah tovah!