Give Away the Woes of the World

Kol Nidrei - 10 Tishrei 5778 - Friday, September 21, 2017
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

G’mar Chatimah Tovah - may we be sealed for goodness in the Book of Life.

A fortuneteller was walking between town fairs. On the road he met an old man driving a noisy cart. The cart-driver stopped and said, “We seem to be heading in the same direction, rest your feet and join me on the wagon.”

The fortuneteller considered the caring eyes of the older man, and said, “Thank you! I have little to spare to pay you for your trouble, and I don’t want to take advantage of your generosity.”

With a smile the driver replied, “Maybe you have something to trade?”

“I can tell your fortune.”

After a pause and a deep look at the fortuneteller, the older man smiled again, and agreed, “Done. A fortune for a ride.”

The fortuneteller gazed deep into the light gray eyes of the stranger and was drawn in, seeing depths and mysteries - he saw no glimmer of the futures that normally came so easily to him.

“I see nothing, no fortune at all. I can’t accept your ride.”

“I have no fortune that you can see, good enough. Join me. You’ve earned your spot.”

They rode together. The hooves of the donkey keeping time with a sound that emerged from inside the wagon.

“That sound, what is it?” asked the fortune-teller.

The old man sighed, “The woes of the world, my friend.”

They made good time and reached the town’s fair. Setting up next to each other, the fortuneteller saw that the old man was a peddler of precious stones. White, pink, blue; brilliant and pale, polished to perfection. The old peddler kindly kissed each stone before placing it into a buyer’s hand.

The fortuneteller saw clearly. Through his clients’ eyes he sampled despair.

The peddler sold amethyst, “a regal stone”, to a mother for her newlywed daughter.

The fortuneteller looked into a young woman’s eyes and saw her heartbreak on the horizon.

The peddler sold fiery opals, “a stone of the heart,” to a young man for his first love.

The fortuneteller looked into a father’s eyes, and saw his loss around the corner.

The peddler sold topaz, a gift to lift a friend’s spirit.

The fortuneteller looked into a well-dressed woman’s eyes, and saw the betrayal before her.

“It’s been a good fair,” the peddler said as he packed his booth. “Let me give you a stone for my future. Perhaps you will see more this time.”

“Why should I see more this time than the last? Why should you lose a stone?”

“I cannot lose a stone. I can only give it away. Which will you take?”

The peddler spread quartz, sapphire, and topaz before the fortuneteller. It was a green tourmaline with striations of anguish that held the teller.

“It is yours,” the peddler said. He kissed the tourmaline and placed it in the fortuneteller’s hand. “Now, what is my fortune?”

The fortuneteller gazed into those kindly grey eyes, seeing depths, mystery, and beyond them only light. “I see no future, only the present,” was all he could say.

“Such a gift you have, to speak the truth. Well worth the stone. Shall we ride to the next fair?”

The teller wondered, “We seem to be going the same way, to the same places, and still I have never seen you.”

“We’ve been traveling different circles,” the peddler said. “My path now seems linked to yours.”

As they rode on, the peddler asked, “How long have you been traveling?”

“Two years now. Two years since my family died.”

The fortuneteller didn’t intend to say so much.

The noise from within the wagon was louder this time, and again the fortuneteller asked, “Such noise back there. What is it?”

“The woes of the world. How did you lose your family?”

In two years, he had never spoken of it.

“In a fire. I was a broker of land. We had a wonderful home. I traveled to close a deal. When I returned, my life was ablaze, my family trapped inside.”

The continued on in silence.

After the next fair, the noise from within the cart was louder than ever. “The woes of the world”, again explained the peddler, and asked, “How did you come to be a teller of fortunes from being a broker of land?”

“The loss of my family opened my eyes. Before I could see only happiness. At weddings I used to rejoice for the bride and the groom. Bur after the loss of my family, I saw not only the happiness, but also the pain and the sorrow. I saw one dying first and the broken heart of the other.

“It used to be when a child was born I would rejoice. But after the loss of my family, I saw the joy the child would give, but also the heartbreak.

“No longer could I see only happiness. I saw the other side as well, and what I saw was what would be. I saw the truth. So I went on the road to speak the truth. My friend, it’s easier to sell stones than to speak the truth. You get repeat customers, I do not.”

The peddler made a turn away from the next town.

“The fair is the other way,” the fortuneteller said.

“We have a stop to make first.”

The wagon climbed the hills into the night. Dark as it was, the peddler did not stop.

Where were they going?

“Here,” the peddler said, answering the unspoken question.

He stopped the wagon, lit a lantern, drew the cover back from the wagon bed. Within was machinery the likes of which the fortuneteller had never seen. A contraption turned by the power of the wagon wheels to do some work within a closed box. The peddler opened the box, removed polished stones, each glowing its unique color in the lantern light. He added them to his inventory, one at a time, each with a kiss and a thank you. “Thank you,” he said to the agate. “Thank you,” he said to the amethyst. “Thank you,” he said to the aquamarine.

When the box was empty, he handed the fortuneteller a shovel, and took a strainer for himself.

“What are we doing?” the fortuneteller asked.

“What is necessary,” the peddler said. He walked to the side of a hill, held out the strainer, and motioned to the fortuneteller. The teller drove his shovel into the side of the hill, the grating of metal against rock echoing into the distance. He struck again and again. Sand and earth sifted through the strainer leaving behind a pile of jagged rocks.

“What are these?” the fortuneteller asked.

“These are beryl and chalcedony, citrine and emerald, garnet and jade. All the precious stones of the world. All exist everywhere at all times if you just know where to look.”

“All I see is rocks.”

“You are a teller of fortunes,” the peddler said. “Look more closely and see again.”

The fortuneteller looked into the rocks and saw - buried within - moonstones. And opals. And turquoise. He saw the tumbling each would endure to allow its beauty to shine. He saw that some would shatter and never emerge, but others would be polished to perfection.

“A stone for my fortune,” the peddler said. In his hand was a shard of rock. The fortuneteller saw within it the stone it would become.

“Why should I be able to see a fortune where I never saw one before?”

“Because you’ve tumbled to this place,” the peddler answered. He kissed the stone, and placed it in the peddler’s hand.

Deep in the eyes of his friend, the fortuneteller looked into the light and saw a man, once in pain, a man who had lost his own family decades before. A man who ever after knew the truth and wandered from place to place until he encountered his own vendor of precious stones. He saw the eyes of a man who had risen from despair to beauty and hope.

“Yes, you see,” the peddler said. “I’ve been waiting for you quite some time. Quite some time. Thank you for receiving my stones. They and the wagon are now yours.” The peddler smiled as he surrendered his burden.

The fortuneteller saw his friend buckle at the knees. He reached for him, embraced him, kissed his cheek as his life expired.

The fortuneteller cried for his friend. He cried for his family. He cried for the woes of the world. He buried his friend by the side of the hill. He said Kaddish, for his friend, and then, at last, for his family.

The rough rocks he put into the box in the wagon bed. As he drove on he heard tumbling behind him all the woes of the world. Ahead was the fair and the customers waiting for polished stones, each stone to be given with a kiss and words of comfort.

This is a story inspired by one of my favorite teachers and mentors, Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz [from his book, The Curse of Blessings, “Polished Stones”, pp. 29-37]. I have taken his words, adapted them, rethought them, and tumbled them to make them my own. Mitch tells us to do this with all stories.

On Rosh ha-Shanah we make t’shuvah - we return and make amends.

On Yom Kippur we confess and atone.

The list of our transgressions is long, but we are more than what we have done, We are also our feelings about what we’ve done and what has been done to us.

We are people who have been rumbled and tumbled, sometimes not so kindly, by and through the world.

We focus so much on our guilt. And then our tragedy, anger, and resentment remain in our vision.

We are transgressors.

But we are also heroines and heroes, the protagonists in our stories. It is only natural for us to feel more as if we are wronged than the wrongdoer.

On this day of all days we are more than one thing.

And so are the woes of the world.

The entire world seems to spiral with suffering and misfortune, resentment and alienation. We see tragedies befalling people everywhere, divisions that erupt in our country and in our families, the deep hurts of understandable outcries, the simmering and pent-up resentments, offenses taken, blames assigned. More misfortune than anyone deserves, dragging us deeper each of us into our own isolated selves.

Can we climb out?

We see so clearly all the problems. Can we see the goodness too?

Everyone has suffering, how do we overcome the woes of the world?

We must remember that we are more than either wronged or wrong-doer. We repeat our confessions so many times to remind ourselves that no matter how wronged we feel, no matter how heroic we are, we are all together in doing good and doing wrong.

john a. powell, who writes about the roots of racism, wrote: “We must begin to work for a new set of arrangements that will support a new way of relating, a new way of being.” [Racing to Justice, pages 158-159]. In this he echoes the great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, who teaches that only by encountering every person as a fellow teacher, will we truly relate to one another. Both scholars are asking us to remember that we live in a world filled with main characters - each of us is deserving of being a hero in a story that we all share together.

Each of us must recognize that we are not alone in our troubles. That by remembering that we are all wrong-doer’s we can also encounter everyone else as fellow travelers. That by remembering what we can do, what we can give, instead of what can be taken from us, we empower ourselves and overcome our impotence and silent suffering.

Our sages give us a Jewish answer to suffering, to resentment, to the loneliness of a world filled with personal and communal hardship. This answer is simple and difficult: give.

Give until the world feels a little bit more like we hoped it would. Give until we feel a little bit more like the person we hope to be.

Everyone must give tzedakah - no one is too poor to fulfill the obligation of giving to others. We are taught that even the poorest person must still give something. We are taught that giving is for the giver.

When we focus on the action, the doing of something kind, the giving generously, we can begin to cope with the harshness that we cannot solve. Our response to unfairness, from bad fortune or the hurt we feel, instead of turning inward to blame, anger, and resentment, must be turn outward, foster kindness, create sympathy, connect with generosity.

Find something of value, share it with a fellow traveler.

We do not need to find forgiveness for people who have not apologized, and, we must not cope with all the woes of the world by trying to find someone to blame. These are both dead ends.

Easing the weight of trouble must be our goal, not just for other people, but for ourselves. We ease the burden, see past the trouble, when we give.

Giving is for the giver.

May our Yom Kippur be one where we find kindness within ourselves the most valuable thing we each have, in limitless supply, hiding in plain sight, and share it with one another, those in need, all of our fellow travelers.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah - may we be sealed for goodness in the Book of Life.