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In Praise of Smallness: Gathering Stones

Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson
Shared at the Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Program Alumni Institute
February 17-20, 2019

 Walking away from a big, important project, a project that required a good deal of time developing and funding, is hard. E-mails flying too fast, it was clear that a zoom call was required so the leadership could speak face to face across time zones and escalating emotions. Again, a flurry of emails, dates and links. I proposed, yes, in an email, that we work through one person to set up this call. The next email came from the President of a university. He kindly moved us all to bcc and detailed a process for scheduling our conference call. I wrote to thank him for using his time and expertise – to micro-manage a zoom call – and we joked about the singular importance of micro/macro managing flexibility. He wrote: Big Decisions/small decisions. Huge decisions/tiny decisions. Approve million-dollar purchases/question the cost of a desk chair. “All appropriately” he adds in caps with a smiling emoji. And this PS: speaking to thousands/speaking to one (the latter being every bit as important/maybe more).

Pursuing mind-blowing ideas, actualizing transformative projects, landing a grant for the next big-thing can be intoxicating professional pursuits. Just think of all the ways we describe that activity: Pie in the sky, game-changing, silver bullet, go big or go home, BHAG. We read about Jewish organizations and inventive individuals exercising leadership in big and ah yes, innovative ways. We have heard here, from this podium, Wexner colleagues, courageously share in divrei Torah their insecurities about falling short of Wexner’s entrepreneurial expectations of not discovering, incubating, stewarding, leveraging or scaling that breathtaking dream initiative. Kol hakavod to all of those strengthening, transforming and driving transformative change in Jewish life. 

Maturity is a mighty source of learning. I look around this room and can say without a doubt, we are maturing. Taking the candle from Sue, this is the first Alumni Institute when I am in a year of aveylut. Well, the first time in my life. I have been mightily blessed to reach this stage of maturity with two living parents. That changed in late autumn when my father, Al, died peacefully. It was, in fact, at the Alumni Institute two years ago that what I was awoken by a middle of the night phone call from my mom telling me that what my dad first assumed was heartburn brought on by her chili was, in fact, a serious heart attack. He would be lucky to make it through the night. It has been a slow decline since then, but my dad was relatively aware and lived almost to the very end at home, enjoying my mom’s care and home chili. Since that November day, I have been overwhelmed by the brilliance of Judaism’s prescribed journey for mourners, so much of it lived out in the smallest of ways. We sometimes lose the power of the quiet, the micro. We lose the impact of the little. We forget the strength of a few, of just enough, the sacred act of speaking to one, not thousands and the sheer beauty of a room full – full with 10 and not hundreds.

Ten people are required for kaddish, for me to say kaddish. This number, our sages determine, is how we define an edah, a congregation. The word edah is used in the book of Bamidbar in reference to the 10 spies who rendered a negative report on the suitability of Canaan. HKBH asks:
עַד־מָתַ֗י לָעֵדָ֤ה הָֽרָעָה֙ הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר הֵ֥מָּה מַלִּינִ֖ים עָלָ֑י 

How long will this evil congregation [the spies (whence it is derived that a "congregation" is ten)], stir up complaint against Me? 

Hence it was established that a “congregation of God” as the Psalmist writes, consists of at least 10. Note that they need not be 10 complaining Jews, as easy as those might be to find. L’havdil, I have found the eidot, the minyanim I enter to be welcoming, elated even to have me join them. If you want to feel seen, walk into a morning minyan during a polar vortex. Those of you who are lifelong minyan attendees might be thinking – should be thinking – where have you been? I understand that reaction. And seven months from now you should be asking, now what? Also, a fair question. Will I pay forward the simple yet powerful act of showing up to make it possible for the next person to say her kaddish, his kaddish? You will have to attend next year’s institute to find out what I do not yet know. 

What I do know is gratitude for the many, many clusters of Jews gathering in shuls early each morning, afternoon and every evening. 

Imagine if daily Jewish worship did not exist and a few hipster Jews in Brooklyn had this amazing idea to invite 10 Jews to gather in the morning and again in the evening to pray together in synagogues everywhere, across the denominations. That’s it. And let’s say it worked and it took off and it had a cool name like SusTENance or OmnipoTENs or Table of ConTENs. Some shuls serve coffee, some include meditation, some use guitars and others add a little learning. Low bar of entry, few expectations, minimalist. Short-term commitment and consistently available. Open Ten-t Judaism. Seen through the lens of today’s innovation culture, think what genius this small, daily cross-denominational gathering represents. It’s unlikely t’fillin would sell, but the fundamental idea would be perceived as brilliant, accelerated, evaluated by Wendy, funded and scaled. 

My dad was a minyanaire for as long as I can remember. He started attending when his own father died and it stuck. He liked being counted and being counted upon. Early in my own involvement in Jewish organizational life, way back in my USY days, when I would worry about how many would come to an event, he would say matter of factly, “You just need 10.” Only now do I fully understand his perspective. Maturity is a mighty source of learning.

I imagine that most of you are familiar with the High Holiday story meant to highlight the challenge of teshuvah, the intentional return to all of those we have offended. Briefly, a teacher instructs her students to go out and return to the classroom with three boulders, six medium-sized rocks and finally to fill up a large basket with pebbles. Next, she tells her students to go and return each rock, stone and pebble where it was found, easily making the point that it is hardest of all to recall our smallest transgressions. And yet there are so many. These last weeks I have turned that story on its head. One essential truth I have learned from grief is that the indescribably emptiness of loss is filled up slowly and even unexpectedly, one tiny pebble at a time. Each e-mail and card, every text and phone call, every expression of condolence quietly and slowly began to fill this hollowed-out void in my neshama. I am certain I am not the only one who sometimes feels woefully inadequate when writing a sympathy message. Perhaps I can ease your anxiety by sharing with you that for the most part the words themselves are far less significant than the act itself. Though a micro-managing editor by nature, not once did I pause and think, “what kind of note is this?” Not once did I wonder what took you so long? or that the note came too soon. Not once. I have repeatedly paused to ask myself who I failed to reach out to over the years? Whose sadness or suffering did I miss? If any of you are among them, I hope you will accept this public pebble I gently place into your spaces of emptiness, may those spaces be small, and I wish you continued healing. In a way I never quite did before, I now understand the impact of even a word, even a word of care contributes enough. And may we all know only simchas

Remarkably, long-lost friends, neighbors and acquaintances took the time to share memories of my dad. People I have not spoken to in years, God bless them. And these short recollections are like shiny golden nuggets in the basket. This note, among my favorites, came from a high school friend. He wrote: 

About three years ago, your dad and I were walking through the JCC parking lot to enter the building at a very slow, deliberate pace. His first comment to me was “go ahead,” since he did not want to slow me down. I replied there was no rush to leave a friend. We both smiled. He laughed and said, “I remember when the walk was much shorter.” I told your dad that I remember his competitive handball days, when he did not have to think about the distance from his car to the door. It was a bittersweet moment for me, watching a vibrant, athletic person who had relied on his physical presence for work and enjoyment for decades now having to face the reality of aging. Each subsequent time we saw each other in the JCC we avoided talking about his health and instead, we just took our time getting from here to there, side by side.

How do I thank Ken, someone I had not spoken to in 40 years, for this rich image he took the time to send?

Closer to home, Jon Spira -Savett recalled attending a men’s Torah study group with his dad and with mine. Jon wrote, I was asked to give a talk about "Age-ing and Sage-ing" for a local wellness brought me back to all these people in the generation just above my parents, as well as my grandparents' generation, who took me into their lives when I was in junior high and high school. Your father was one of those, as he always, always talked to me. He talked to me not as cute little Jonnie, but as a peer. I never felt like a small thing (even though I'm a small guy and your dad wasn't!) and I always felt like I fit right in. He was among the guys at the Torah study table that really shaped me, helped initiate me into the world. 

Thanks, Jonnie.

No matter our age or stage, any one of us is new at our time of mourning, all learning how to carry it as we move back into the fullness of living. In the newness of my mourning I turned to some of you, including Ami, who lost his dad this year. Ami and others who have recently experienced the death of a parent, some far too early, generously shared their practice and also struggles with finding the best ritual path forward. Precious pebbles - holy stones of raw truth. 

The small ways we can demonstrate concern for each other is, as we heard from Sue so beautifully this morning, monumental. Let those of us who think so often about the boulders of Jewish life, about the mountains we hope to move, lift up the stunning little brilliances woven into our tradition. I know how much you all cherish the privilege of being in this eidah. In the spirit of our Alumni Institute theme, never underestimate the collective, the monumental healing power of ְעֵ֖ת כְּנ֣וֹס אֲבָנִ֑ים, of gathering stones together. 

Have you noticed that there has been an exquisitely consistent response to the question posed by our planning committee: [How] Do we need each other? I have heard it from a particular place this year and it is this: We need one another in thousands of small ways. In thousands of small ways.    
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wrote a poem to capture this answer for us:

Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
For some there are more pieces.
For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble.

Some seem to be born with nearly a completed puzzle.
And so it goes.
Souls going this way and that
Trying to assemble the myriad parts.

But know this. No one has within themselves
All the pieces to their puzzle.
Like before the days when they used to seal
jigsaw puzzles in cellophane. Insuring that
all the pieces were there.

Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
Many pieces to someone else's puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don't.

And when you present your piece
Which is worthless to you,
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High.
And so, I charge each of you, my Wexner colleagues, teachers and friends, go forth into the world, back to your eidot…and do small things. Fearlessly micro-manage your ability to matter to someone else just a bit. It is plenty; a sacred act of exercising leadership even, perhaps especially when nobody else is looking, when only one person will ever know.