December 24, 2020


12.25.2020 Weekly Torah Portion

I was in a group with residents of Beit T’Shuvah earlier this week.  One resident said, “I’ve always not fit in with this group or that group – not enough this for these people or enough that for those people.  But maybe that’s a tired story.”  The Outsider.  How many of us identify as an outsider?  And if not the Outsider, what about the Victim?  The Hero?  The Hustler?

The ways we think and talk about ourselves become the ways we behave.  They become our identities that we’ll defend until, well, we can’t anymore – whether because of death or recovery.  Think of the Hustler: Their only goal is to get what they want from you.  It’s a kind of game.  If you saw the real human being underneath the hustle, the game would be over.

Years ago, when I was working as an organizer for a labor union, I was sitting next to my great uncle at a family event.  He asked me how work was going (he himself was not a fan of unions), and I said matter-of-factly: “No one says no to me.” And at the time, it was mostly true – only one person had chosen not to sign a union card.  Now, let me be very clear: I wasn’t using a Louisville Slugger to get people to join the union.  I was using words – words I generally believed in, yes – but I was more interested in winning over the person in front of me than in truly helping them.  Winning them over – that was the game.

We can and often do become trapped in these identities, these roles.  We reduce ourselves to Outsider, Victim, Hero, Hustler, or some other Role/Caricature/Identity.  We dehumanize ourselves, and turn every interaction into a transaction.  And we miss out on so much: connection, love, compassion, even heartache.

Jacob, even after his 130 years of living, tells the same story.  When Pharaoh asks him: “How many are the years of your life?”  Jacob responds:

“The years of my sojourn are 130.  Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the lifespans of my ancestors during their sojourns” (Bereshit 47:8-9).

Jacob knows he will die soon, and yet he still is stuck in the tired story: It’s never enough.  130 years is not enough.  Even discovering his son Joseph is alive and in a position to save his people is not enough.  God urges him:

“I am God.  God of your father.  Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation.  I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes” (Bereshit 46:3).

God says: Be content!  Your life is well-lived and your legacy shall be long-lived!  But even with the reassurance and presence of God, even knowing his death is near, Jacob can’t come into acceptance of his lot.  He is stuck in the same tired role of Victim.  And in next week’s parashah (spoiler alert), he dies stuck.  Even surrounded by his children, he is spiritually alone.

How will you tell your story?

Will you forever be the Outsider?       Marginal and apart from.

Will you be the Victim?                         Why does this always happen to me?

Will you be the Hero?                            Look at me and what I’ve done! Aren’t I great?

Will you be the Hustler?                       Using people for your own ends.

The only way the story changes is if you change it. 

Another resident had been telling her story the same way for a long time – if not to others, then to herself.  The story was short: I am a Failed Parent.  She realized recently that she could tell her story not as the shameful, Failed Parent, but as a faithful parent, who made life-saving parenting decisions even in active addiction.

How will you tell your story?  Of addiction and recovery?  Of 2020?

My story goes something like this:

I used to use people.

Now I care for them, with them.

Sometimes it hurts like hell to care as much as I do

Especially in a year like this

With so much death in our recovery communities.

But I don’t want to die disconnected

Like Jacob.

I don’t want to die not knowing the fullness of love

So I’ll stomach the hurt.

Or I can tell it differently:

I want to die knowing the fullness of love.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Kerry