By Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel
Like the ladies of the last five days, I am writing with the themes listed by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer for the month of Elul.
I hung up the phone with my dad earlier this week after sharing with him some relieving news about my work. I could now be a bit less stressed and breathe a sigh of relief. He has always told me that things somehow work out. “One day”, he told me before we hung up, “tell your grandchildren that your father taught you that even when everything seems so tough…you never know what.” I paused, touched and smiling, told him that he didn’t teach me that. My favorite childhood book did – “A Fish Out of Water.”
“A Fish Out of Water” is a children’s book by Helen Palmer, Dr. Seuss’ first wife. A boy buys a goldfish at the pet store and received one instruction from the shop owner – “Feed him only pinch, so much and no more, or something may happen, you never know what.” Of course, the boy looked at his hungry, sad fish and fed him more than a pinch and the fish grew so much that he outgrew the bowl, all the pots in the kitchen, the family’s bathtub, and eventually almost outgrew the town’s swimming pool. Mr. Carp, the pet store owner, saves the day, and restores Otto, the goldfish, to his original size. “What? You fed your fish too much? I’ll come at once!” When the boy is scared and unsure of what to do, he makes one call, and Mr. Carp is on his way. As a kid, I loved the feeling that someone would drop everything at once to help you. And your fish.
Ever since I first read that book, my family has used that phrase around the house – “something may happen, you never know what” to touch on those raw moments of uncertainty that can be so hard. I never saw that book as a book about faith. It’s about a boy who feeds his fish too much.
But after hanging up with my dad, I changed my mind. The ability to hope and dream and believe that things will work out, even if you can’t imagine the specifics of how or when they might work out – that’s faith. אמונה. Looking back, I can say that there was a divine spark in the way things unfolddd. In the moment, though, it can be so hard to believe in the yet-unimagined future and the role that God may have in shaping it. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or even alone as you stare into that vast expanse of possibilities.
Rabbi Wendi Geffen, in the last blogpost, discussed trust and faith together, and I am going to take the liberty to do the same but with a different spin. The root of emunah א.מ.ו is about believing. Ani ma’amin she’machar yavo. I believe that tomorrow will come. But one of the roots for trust? ב.ט.ח – depending on the context or the conjugation, it’s security. promise. insurance. It brings safety. Faith might just be the best security blanket out there. It’s also relational. When I make a promise, I promise something to someone. If I were a security guard (איש בטחון), I would not just being working to maintain security as a value. I’m trying to keep someone, or a group of someones, safe.
As a chaplain, I am awed by the faith of my patients. Early yesterday morning, a patient found out that she would be getting a liver transplant in a few hours. She had been praying for that liver for months. Soon after that fabulous news, she was told that it wasn’t viable. When we spoke, she said that she was disappointed, but didn’t miss a beat before saying that she knows she’ll get one soon – God wouldn’t have brought her this far and kept her this relatively healthy, as she glanced around the ICU, otherwise. In a moment when she might have instead been angry and deeply upset about not getting this liver, she saw the positive elements of it and she saw it as a moment of checking in with God and checking in with her hopes and her deep faith that those hopes will come true. She felt safe and protected even though, factually, she has no idea what may happen. But deep in her heart, I heard her saying “you never know – I might get my liver tomorrow” with a bittersweet smile.
So here’s my hope for Elul. I hope that we can keep hoping. I hope that we can discover faith in ourselves to achieve our goals and faith in God to meet us in doing so. If you, like me, have moments where too much seems up for grabs, can you grab onto a sense of believe? Maybe it’ll ground you. We say that Elul is an acronym for Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. Sometimes we need our partner to have faith in us before we can wholly have faith in ourselves. And sometimes, our partner is calling out, lonely, wondering if we have forgotten about him or her, because we have been feeling so silent and hopeless about our own situations. On those days, we try to remember that we’re not alone.
Shabbat Shalom. May it bring us renewed hope and faith - ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will.