Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons
פרשת וישלח, תשפ״א
Parshat Vayishlah, 5781
by Rabbi Sydni
Saturday, December 5th, 2020
To Seek and To Offer - Worth the Trouble
In pastoral counseling classes, especially those classes about offering care in periods of sickness and mourning, we were taught to offer specific help before it is asked - a glass of water, a trip to the grocery store, or just someone to walk the dog. Chances are, I was taught, if I don’t offer that suggestion, I probably will not be asked. While that rabbinical school advice is important for all of us who offer spiritual care, the fact remains that there will be things needed that I will overlook or that I will never know were needed in the first place. For many of us, whether in cases of clear tragedy or in cases of every-day nuisance, the last thing we want to do is ask for help. We don’t want to be a bother; we’re not worth the trouble; we don’t want to expose our flaws. But often, the best thing we can do is ask for that help; each and every one of us is worth the trouble.
Jacob, our patriarch, the father of Israel, believes he is not worth God’s effort - קטנתי מכל החסידים ומכל האמת אשר עשית את עבדך - he says to God, I have been much too small for all of the kindness and faithfulness that you have enacted for Your servant, for me. We may ask - How can Jacob not be enough? He is the father of the people Israel. He wrestles with an angel and prevails. Keep in mind, Jacob is also the one who takes birthright and blessing from his brother, who stands by while his daughter is attacked, who favors one wife and one son over all the others. Even Jacob, even one who has all the flaws of any other human, and perhaps, more than that, has a history of being worth it, of receiving help from God. Knowing his history, Jacob asks for help one more time, for God to help him survive his encounter with his brother Esau.
If the flawed Jacob is good enough to ask for help, any of us are good enough. If the great patriarch Jacob can be modest enough to ask for help, we can too. And if even the Almighty, Omnipresent God has the time and patience to reach out and help a singular human being like Jacob, then there must be a human being out there who has the time and patience to help us, too. We all need help at one time or another; we cannot live life alone. We exist in community in order to lend each other assistance, to share our strengths and our weaknesses. And while we can guess the assistance our friends and neighbors may need, we often cannot offer ourselves until they provide an opening. So often, we cannot be helped unless we ask for that help.
Our weekday prayer book offers words with which to practice the vulnerability it takes to ask for help. Right after the Amidah, in the weekday morning and afternoon services, Tahanun begs God for the strength to move forward, with a series of statements that alternate between stating our imperfection and pleading to God. “Be gracious to me, God, for I am weak.” “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are turned to You.” Or the well-known Avinu Malkeinu - “Our father, our King, be gracious to us and answer us, though we have no worthy deeds; act with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us.”
We speak in the first person plural, in the “we,” because we know that we live in a world of people who share our tendency towards imperfection. But asking for help cannot end at practicing, at asking just God. I am here this evening to lead a prayer service, but I am also here tonight to remind you that you are worth the effort; you are worth the time and the energy. You have people in this world whom you know will reach out the second you make a phone call or send an email. And if no one comes to mind, you have a rabbi who can be there to offer a listening ear, resources, and connections where they are necessary. Shabbat Shalom.