This morning, I was involved in a messaging chain as my family tried to set up plans for our kiddo with a couple of our friends. The texts proceed: What time, oh that’s during nap, maybe she’ll nap in the car, that is a complete fantasy, she never naps in the car…and so forth. This is for plans with our daughter, Ravi’s first friend, a little boy named Elior. They were in the womb at the same time and we love them, and so even though they moved to Long Island, we really do try to get together when we can.
So we’re trying to schedule a play date, and the timing just isn’t working, and one of Elior’s dads writes: Elior has his first swim class that day at 10:30am. Jocelyn, my wife, texts back. Oh yeah, we really want to start Ravi in swim class. And soccer. And interpretive dance. And Mandarin. Correcting herself, she wrote: Well, Mandarin calligraphy. To which our friend responded: Oh yeah, we want Elior to take up Competitive Ribbon.
Besides the fact that I could not stop laughing, this is actually a thing we talk about. What are the extracurriculars Ravi will take up? How can we enroll her in a team sport to help her learn team work, guitar to make sure she is really cool in college, a second language to develop her brain, art to give her creativity freedom, dance to teach her beauty and stage presence, a martial art to guide her focus and discipline…she’s two and a half.
We do this throughout life, though. In lots of different ways. How I can decorate myself so I can have and be and do all the things that make for a whole life. It’s not a bad question in essence—but it can be a distracting one, and it can tip over into a risky space. “What should my extracurriculars be” can turn into what do I need for my college application so I look good enough for them, to how can I pump up my resume, to what should I wear or eat or say to look like, to appear as, if I am the person everyone wants me to be.
With all of this pressure and all of these options, how do we get clear on what is indispensable. How do we quiet the noise to understand who we should be—not what makes us more saleable, or who we are expected to be, but really, at the heart of it, what is essential?
Our Torah portion this week, hammers it home for us with three little words: Lo tuchal l’hitalem. We’ll come to their meaning in a moment. They come at the end of a paragraph which instructs us what to do if we find our neighbor’s ox or sheep has gone astray. We are told that we are required to return it to her or him right away. And if your neighbor lives far away, you have to hold onto it until you can get it back to them. And not just their ox or sheep, but their clothing, or anything you find of theirs, you have to take care of it until you can get it back to them. Then it says: Lo tuchal l’hitalem—meaning: you shall not be indifferent.
So simple. What should I be? Oh lots of things. You can be anything you want. And do anything you want. But at the core, there is something you cannot be. You cannot be, our tradition tells us, indifferent. You cannot simply not care about someone else’s pain. They’ve lost their sheep or their ox or their shirt…or if we can translate this in a modern way…they’ve lost their job, or their parent, or their way. When someone else is in pain…all you have to be is THERE. All you have to do is care about that and try to help them through it, to heal, maybe to get back what they’ve lost.
You want to be an astronaut—amazing. You want to be a lawyer, a teacher, an artist, a trash collector, a scientist, a window washer— excellent. But no matter who you are, lo tuchal l’hitalem. Our text boils it all down for us. You can be anything you want to be. But when someone else needs you, you cannot be indifferent to their pain. It’s really something, when you think about it. From the old to the young, from the poor to the wealthy, from the most powerful to the least among us…no one is excused from lo tuchal l’hitalem. Whatever costume we put on each day, this is the one we are told we cannot take off. When someone else is in need or in pain…we cannot look away, we cannot pretend not to see it, or decide we don’t have it in us to help. We belong to one another. Simple as can be.
Of course, it’s not simple, it’s not easy to do, it’s not always obvious how. BUT, as we determine in our lives what is most important, it is, above all to which we might aspire, the greatest of aspirations.
As we approach these High Holy Days, we have a pretty big task ahead of us. We are asked to look at our actions and inactions and figure out if we are being or have been the person we hope to be. And it can get muddied and complicated to figure that out. Our minds will be busy with all kinds of details. Will we have time for a haircut, do we have something to wear, did I register our family yet, who will we sit with, how will I find time to cook the meal. Like our somewhat frenzied feeling about signing Ravi up for all the things—we need to clear away the brush, quiet the noise, to what is essential, what we really want for her.
So maybe this week’s Torah portion can help us clear away the noise and find clarity by simplifying the question asked of us. We are in the month of Elul, just two weeks away from sitting together in our holiest days. These are our days of preparation and our Torah is speaking to us through a spiritual megaphone, shouting at us to understand that question that is most essential: When someone needed us this year, were we indifferent? Did we look away? Did we not show up? And how can we fix that?
May we find these answers together as we make our way toward a sweet new year. Shabbat shalom.