Thursday, September 20, 2012


The sermon which I wrote and which MWB delivered at Congregation Etz Chaim in Ramona CA on Rosh Hashanah:


            The word “test” causes a visceral reaction in us.  Are we prepared?  Will we pass or fail?  How well will we do?  So we can expect to have a visceral reaction to this morning’s Torah portion which begins, “And after these things, God tested Abraham…”
            Are there any words in the Torah which have been studied, argued, defended, attacked, explicated, justified and agonized over more than those of Chapter 22 of the book of Genesis? The God that Abraham has worshipped and loved for decades, and who finally fulfilled his and Sarah’s desire for a son now tells Abraham to take that son to Mt. Moriah for a sacrificial offering.  And without hesitation, Abraham complies.  Is this a statement of Abraham’s faith or of his zealotry?  When does enough become too much? Did Abraham pass God’s test, or did he fail it?
            “And it came to pass, after these things…” What things?  A Midrash says that God was bragging to Satan about his faithful Abraham.  “Why shouldn’t he be faithful”, said Satan, “You have given him land and position and sons.  Test him, and see if his faith holds.”  “And after these things, God tested Abraham”.  Another Midrash suggests that it was a conversation between Ishmael and Isaac that spurred the test.  Ishmael says that, at the time of their circumcisions, Isaac was an infant, and could not choose to partake in the mitzvah, but Ishmael, being thirteen years old, was able to submit willingly.  Isaac replies, “You are talking about one organ, one foreskin.  If God wanted my whole body, I would gladly offer it.”  “And after these things, God tested Abraham.”  When dealing with God, perhaps it is best to be careful with one’s words.

            Although we are told at the outset that God is testing Abraham, isn’t Isaac also being tested?  By the time he asks his father where the lamb for the sacrifice is and receives Abraham’s cryptic reply, we can assume that he might suspect that he is the sacrifice, and yet he gives no complaint or struggle, neither on the way to the mountain, nor as Abraham builds the altar and binds Isaac to it.  Abraham, too, seems unnaturally calm.  The Zohar, a medieval mystical text, suggests that as Abraham built the altar, he had a vision of Jacob, Isaac’s son, and knew that, somehow, Isaac would live to fulfill God’s promise of a line of descendants.  And the commentator Malbim reasons that Abraham was so closely spiritually connected to God that he sensed that this command, to sacrifice his son, was not truly God’s desire. 
            The denouement comes; Abraham’s hand is stopped at the last possible moment by the urgent voice of an angel.  Isaac is released from the altar and a ram with its horns caught in a thicket becomes the sacrifice instead.  God reiterates His blessing upon Abraham and his descendants and the whole thing is over.  Or is it?
            Everyone walks away from the binding of Isaac, but they each walk in different directions.  Abraham goes back to his servants and on to Beersheva.  We are not told what happens to Isaac, but it is clear that he did not go to Beersheva with his father and the others.  One midrashic tradition has it that Abraham sent him to the school of Shem and Eber to study Torah.  In any case, this episode is the last time that the Bible in which Abraham and Isaac exchange words.  At the outset of the next chapter, we are informed of Sarah’s death, and Abraham must go to from Beersheva to  Hebron, a considerable distance, which would seem to indicate that she and Abraham had not been living in the same place.  And even though Abraham lives for some years longer, remarries and has several more children, the Bible records no further evidence that God and Abraham ever spoke to each other again.  And every year, when we read this portion on Rosh Hashanah, I ask myself, “What can we gain from this story?  What can it teach us about dealing with God and with humans?  When we are facing a choice between what we want and what God is calling us to do, how can the story of the binding of Isaac give us any clarity?
            I gained some guidance thinking, not about people, but in the way some gifted people train some very gifted animals – guide dogs for the blind.  The dogs, of course, are taught to guide blind people to walk without human assistance to give them greater mobility and independence.  They are taught to avoid obstacles and they are taught to follow the commands given them by their trainer and by the guide dog user.  But they are also taught something that it is remarkable an animal can understand.  They are taught intelligent disobedience.  They are taught that, if they have been given a command to do something unsafe because their blind person could not see the danger, that they are to refuse to follow that command.
            How might it have been if Abraham had responded to God in the language of intelligent disobedience?  How would this story have worked out if he had said, “God, I know that You have given me everything that I have.  I know that I owe everything to You.  I know that parents sometimes see their children die and somehow survive it, but do not ask me to sacrifice my beloved Isaac by my own hand, even for Your sake.  That is too much.  It will cause irreparable harm to him, to me, to my wife and to my relationship with You.”  What kind of a model would we have then?  Would it be better to follow God’s perceived will to our own destruction, or to speak up and give the story a different ending?
            There is no better or worse in this case.  Each of us must act according to our own nature, in our own time and in our own culture.  There are some tests that are neither passed nor failed.  Some tests simply take the measure of who and what we are.  Abraham was a man of perfect faith, and his decision to follow God’s will with a whole heart brought him whatever consequences it did.  If I were faced with such a situation, I would want to take all my knowledge, my experience, my faith and my questions together and, if necessary, use intelligent disobedience.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Poem For The Day

@MaryWalkerBaron 2012

Here we are again at this narrow bridge
Ready to begin our annual crossing --
Returned to this moment by ancient migratory
Patterns mapped in stone.
For a month we’ve wondered
What to bring – how best to pack and what to wear -- .
Difficult preparations even though
We try to make them every year.

I always over pack and now at this
Pre-crossing liminal moment I wonder –
Will I really need a flashlight?
If I haven’t yet read that issue of ‘Scientific American’
I bought on impulse last year at the Jet Blue
Terminal of JFK maybe I should admit
That I’ll never read it
And leave it behind.

I open my pack for a final inventory before
Stepping on to the bridge.  Does my Zip Lock
Bag of anger weigh too much?  Is my Nalgene
Bottle of tears absolutely necessary?  Did I pack
Enough hope and forgiveness?  Where is that
Stuff bag of patience I meant to take?  Is there
Time to repack before I cross to the other side?
Is anyone less prepared than I?

Rav Nachman -- our tour guide – said that
The important thing is to not be afraid.
I just heard a scream.  No wait.  We’ve heard
That sound before -- our shrieking
Hollow filled with awe horn
Reminding us to watch our steps.
This bridge between our sunsets is, indeed,
Narrow.  Each year we journey together we

Become better packers.  We learn to travel
Lightly.  The anger was too heavy.  Tears once
Shed are gone forever.  Maybe the flashlight is
Still a good idea.  We make these crossings
Together to steady and prepare for the moment
We must cross the bridge alone – comforted by
Our yearly migrations to sacred moments at this
Fearless time.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

If You Read About This Cart

All I wanted to do was go down to the hotel lobby, eat some breakfast, and return to my room in time for an eleven o'clock telephone interview with a Florida based magazine.  And yet, as so often happens in my life, someone interrupted that quest to tell me her story.
"I'm sixty-two years old," she said without provocation from me.
I stopped.  No words came from my mouth.
"And I am so sick of this cart that if you read one day that a hotel employee pushed her house keeping cart off the roof you'll know it was me."
"Okay," was all I could say.
"I've been at this, I've been pushing this damned cart from room to room in this damned hotel, for twenty-five years.  I've had enough.  My children are grown.  I put them all each and every one of them through college pushing this damed cart.  My husband says I can retire now so I'm gonna do just that.  Today is my last day here."
"Okay.  Congratulations on your retirement."
And then she stopped and looked at me.  Her angry expression softened.
"I'm sorry.  You're a guest at this hotel.  I shouldn't be telling you my miseries."
Whereupon she pushed her cart down the hallway, turned a corner, and was gone.
Of course she shouldn't have been telling me, a guest of the hotel where she had worked for twenty-five apparently miserable years, her miseries.  Not me the guest.  But of course she had to tell me, the not guest but the person to whom these things so regularly happen, her miseries because that's what people do.  To me.
At this point I'm used to it.  It's been going on most of my life. Generally I don't pay that much attention to this phenomena.
However, should I one day read of a hotel employee pushing her house keeping cart off the roof of a hotel I will definitely think of her and the toll twenty-five years of cleaning up the messes left by others can take on anyone.
However, this day is her last day of pushing that particular cart and cleaning up these particular messes.
Congratulations to her on her retirement.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

So Many Brave Souls

And we remember them and we honor them.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A New Line Of Supporters

First of all I need to confess that I know nothing about professional football.  I don't follow it except on Super Bowl Sunday when the national mandate is to care and to put money in the office pool.  However, driving home this evening I heard a news report that left me a new fan of the NFL.  A couple of players have come out in support of same sex marriage -- Brendon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens and Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings.
I never heard of either name before my drive home.
At least for today, though, they are my heroes.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

How To Not Feel Overwhelmed

Do something.  That's all there is to it.  When we feel overwhelmed we get stuck and the more we feel stuck the worse things appear.
When I was a child the Jeep or pick up truck in which we rode sometimes got stuck in the sand.  There's a way to get out of that situation and there's a way to dig yourself in deeper.
I don't often drive in sand washes even though I do still ride around in a Jeep.
However, I do often feel overwhelmed.
Here's what I've learned and what I've learned about not feeling overwhelmed is quite a bit like not digging deeper into the sand.
The best way to feel un-overwhelmed is to do something.  Doing nothing just allows the stuff to pile up more and more until pretty soon we feel buried alive under our stuff.
Here's the funny thing about that doing something notion.  It doesn't matter what we do.  Action is the remedy to feeling stuck and overwhelmed.  As soon as we start doing something we feel better because we see that we aren't stuck.
Next time you feel like you are being buried by all the stuff you have to do, try just doing one thing.  You'll feel better.
Okay.  Maybe this isn't anything like getting a Jeep stuck in the sand.  At least, though, beginning to write about that got me started on what I really meant to say.
See how simple it is?
Now try it.

Friday, September 7, 2012

When People Offer To Help

Let them.  Take them up on the offer.  I recently sent a friend out to buy toilet paper and aluminum foil.  She was happy to run the errand and I was happy to have the supplies.
In a home of recovery pride and the American spirit of "I can do it myself," have no place.
Besides.  People feel good when they are needed and when they can serve a purpose greater than themselves.
Give the gift of asking people for help.  Especially when the help is already offered.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Wake up.

There are mountains to move.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Life Swirls Around Us

While my life shrunk to a room or two over the long holiday weekend life outside our home of recovery carried on.  While we set alarms for middle of the night medication and before medication snacks other lives began and, on our street, other lives ended.
Monday evening I decided it was time for me at least to step outside and take a walk.  Once outside, it took me a second to realize that the street was packed with cars -- blocked with cars.  There was no more room for parking and so vehicles were left where they were.  My only assumption was that somewhere on the street was one really big party.  I thought all that while I chose my music to walk with on my iPod and didn't even notice the woman, weeping, approach me until she stopped in front of me.
"I'm sorry the street is a mess," she said but because my mind was still on music choices I didn't hear her.
When I asked her to repeat her statement she said, "I'm sorry the street is a mess.  My father just died and our house if full of family."
I took my walk weaving through mourners and still more cars all the while marveling that most neighborhoods hold far more than the eye can see.
As I was about to return home another woman, weeping, approached me and again apologized for the clutter of cars on the street.  I extended condolences and added that it felt strange to be getting exercise in the middle of such sorrow.
The woman looked at me, smiled, and said through her tears, "Well, it's all part of life, isn't it."
And so it is.

Monday, September 3, 2012

I'd Hate To Be A Gallbladder

Or at least I'd hate to be a gallbladder in these times of what we currently call medical phenomenon.  Back in the day gallbladder surgery was a huge undertaking.  These days its almost out patient surgery.  But that's not the reason I'd hate to be a gallbladder.  I'd hate to be a gallbladder because, if I were a gallbladder, no one would miss me when I was gone.  As far as that goes, no one would even know my purpose while I was around and that's way too much of an existential dilemma for anyone to bear.
More information you ask?
Take for instance the Whipple Procedure named after a guy named Whipple out of Slone-Kettering.  His procedure is the number one surgical approach for pancreatic cancer.  It involves removing part if not all of the pancreas, the duodenum and possibly more of the intestinal tract, the common bile duct and with an almost apologetic tone the gallbladder.  Removal of the gallbladder seems like such an afterthought to all of the other seemingly more important stuff.
In terms of removal I think I'd rather be an appendix.  If I were an appendix I could at least take comfort in knowing that parts of very important books were named after me.
Small comfort you say?
Well, just how many times do you flip to the gallbladder in the back of the book?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Don't All Have To Be Kept In The Air

One thing I've learned over the past several weeks is that when it becomes impossible to keep all the balls in the air it's okay to let a few of them drop.  Not only is it okay, it sometimes becomes essential.  It's also okay or even necessary to ask for help locating the dropped balls.  It's also okay or necessary to ask for help keeping the essential balls in the air.
In families illness doesn't just happen to the person with the diagnoses.  Everyone suffers and everyone lets things drop and slide.  We're human.  Sometimes it takes an incredibly serious illness to prove it to us.

It Must Be Noted

It must be noted that miracles happen.  One might argue that a miracle is nothing more than a positive outcome beyond our ability to comprehend.
However, even the most skilled surgeon must at times marvel at the human body's ability to withstand trauma, reinvent its pathways, and heal.
Such has been our family story for the past almost one month.
Even if the positive outcome is because of a surgeon's skill the miracle becomes, then, that hands have such talent.