In the Pocket

A few days ago, my grandson, Caleb, asked me a question. We weren’t on the phone. We weren’t on Facetime and we weren’t Zooming. He and his parents and little sister were visiting me and Liza at our home. Well, not exactly at our home – they were parked in front of our home.

I set up two lawn chairs on the sidewalk, and settled in, about 10 feet from the open car windows. I peered in at my precious son and daughter-in-law and my precious grandchildren inside  their red Toyota. Liza did not sit down next to me. She was being ineluctably drawn, ever closer, to the open window. All she wanted to do was to reach in, not even for a hug – but just to pet Sylvie’s hair for a second. I watched with bated breath, remembering how moths really are drawn to flames.

“Social distance”, I said, and Liza took a step back. No one cried or protested. It was business as usual in an alien world that defies belief. Don’t touch another human whom you love more than life itself. Ok, I won’t.

That’s when Caleb looked at me from the back seat, and asked, “Hey Bebop (my grandfather name – cool, right?), “When will I be allowed to come inside your house again?” I was struck dumb. I wanted to answer his very simple question. I could’ve said something like, “Soon, Caleb – really soon.” Or, “I can’t wait for that day to come.”

I couldn’t bear to answer his question directly, to say, “Sweet boy, I don’t know when. I just don’t know.” Instead I threw my doctor under the bus: “I’ll have to ask Dr. Klein for permission.” Can you believe it? That we live in a time where grandparents push our grandchildren away, to protect the grandkids —and to protect ourselves?

The other day I received an email request. A temple mom explained that her daughter requested a conversation with her rabbi. So, I called, first catching up on  the latest family info with the mom, who then handed over the phone. There was no time for pleasantries; my young congregant got right to it: “Did God send this virus to kill people because She’s mad at us?”

First: I loved her assumed gender pronoun for God. But second, and primarily: Where are we? On what planet does an almost six-year-old feel compelled to discuss theodicy with her rabbi? Shouldn’t we be talking about something else, something slightly more age appropriate?

I told her that image of God the Destroyer is not one we use anymore. God is not a punisher. God is not in the pain; God is in the healing. But this almost six-year-old lives in a moment when such a question does not seem abstract or theoretical. And it broke my heart.

There are days, some brighter than others, some warmed by the early spring sun, others grey with the dark clouds of spring rains. There are times in the course of a month, a week, a day – when confidence and hope and determination fill my resolute heart. I know that we will get to the other side, that I will be able to answer Caleb’s question, and tell him, “Come into our house any time you want; now give me a hug!”

And then there are times of despondency like I’ve never known. A helplessness driven by the cold brutish truth, that, as of this moment, there are no answers to when or how we come out the other side. Those moments are hostile and dark.

We are all a complicated construction of opposites, of up/down, yin/yang, happy/sad, light/dark. Not one or the other; we’re both and more, living lives in the wake of infinite duality.

 As Rabbi Simcha Bunem once taught:

Everyone should have two pockets and then put a note in each pocket. When one feels invulnerable and infinite one should reach into the left pocket and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.” But, when one feels sad and blue, discouraged and alone, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.”

This is our sentient, dualistic existence: simultaneously on top of the world and feeling down so long, it looks like up. We are not either/or. We are far more than that.

These days we must do a lot of reaching, for more than just Kleenex or our masks or gloves or whatever. Check your pockets, both of them. It’s ok to be sad and it’s ok to be hopeful. We can afford to be optimists and pessimists all in the same hour – or minute. Because that’s us – that’s how we’re built.

The secret of it all is to be patient, loving and kind with ourselves. We need to practice forbearance and forgiveness, not only of others, but of ourselves. This is a long road, and we have to pace ourselves – it’s the only way to get to the other side: with all of our sides.

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