Parshat Ki Tetze
September 17, 2016—14 Elul 5776
I recently read a story about a misunderstanding that took place in the marketplace. It involved a woman who went to an unnamed office superstore to buy a shredder. She tells her story in an email that went public. She relates how she took home the shredder, but it did not work. She fiddled with it, she turned it on and off, she plugged and unplugged it. Still it did not work. She packs the shredder back in the box. She lugs the box back into her car. She drives back to the store. She lugs the recalcitrant shredder into the store whereupon she tries to tell her story to the Assistant Manager. As she relays the details, turning on, turning off, plugging, unplugging, repacking it, schlepping back to the store, the Assistant Manager could not have been less interested. He does not look at her. He does not show any particular interest in hearing her story. He does not apologize. He does not offer to show her other shredders. Without saying anything, and without seeing her, he hands her a refund. This customer happened to be Chinese, and she suggested that perhaps he did not see her because she is a Chinese American, noting that racism in the marketplace sometimes takes the form of invisibility. She had been a loyal customer for more than twenty years, but in this email she affirmed that she would never shop at this office superstore again.
We can see the whole High Holiday project in this troubled encounter. Why?
Because the question is not whether at some point we will inadvertently hurt somebody. We will.
The question is not whether we will disappoint somebody who is counting on us. We will.
The question is, when we hurt somebody, can we make it better? When we disappoint somebody, can we make it right?
I was reading the Machzor to prepare for the holidays in light of this hurtful encounter, and I saw something I had never before seen.
Namely, both the Torah and Haftarah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah begin with people who felt not seen, not heard, not respected by God. How does God respond?
Now Sarah and Hannah both lived before the advent of email. But one can easily imagine both of their anguished emails. From Sarah:
I write this email with some trepidation. I know that you are the creator of the universe. And yet, if I can be honest with you, I do not feel well served by you. You tell my husband: Go, leave everything behind, and go to some place that you will show him. He goes. You also specifically promise my husband and me children as numerous as the sands of the sea.
God, I am not high-maintenance. But I must point out that not only do I not have many children, I have no children. All I ask for is one child. I would be happy with just one child. Yet I am denied even this modest prayer. Abraham has to consort with a concubine to have his child. You can imagine how that makes me feel.
Your promises to us were great. We believed in you. We moved. We based our life on you. We counted on you. And still no child.
In deep disappointment,
On the day that God gets Sarah’s email, God gets a second email. This one is from Hannah.
I am told that you understand the human heart. Good. I hope that is true. Because then perhaps you can understand how I feel. I am one of two wives to my husband Elkanah. His other wife, Peninah, is pregnant all the time. Feels like every year she has another baby. At the Friday night dinner table, before Kiddush, Elkanah blesses child after child after child that Peninah has borne him. And yet none from me. As much as we try, as hard as I pray, none from me. God, if you have a heart, please grant me a child, and if you answer my prayer, I promise to devote my child to you all the days of his life.
Begging for a child,
In other words, both the Torah and the Haftarah on Rosh Hashanah deal with the theme of disappointing expectations, and the party doing the disappointing is none other than God. If God can disappoint, it is inevitable that all of us will disappoint.
What is the point of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
There is an important Mishnah in the tractate Yoma that spells out the point. It says that if there is a troubled relationship between us and God, prayer and repentance can make it right. But if there is a troubled relationship between us and another person, we have to make it right with that other person. Prayer alone is not enough. Fasting is not enough. Beating our chests is not enough. We have to go the other person and make it right.
The High Holidays come with a message and a gift: that we can make it right. The story is not over. The story is never over. It is never too late.
It’s not too late for God and Sarah. After disappointing Sarah for so long, God makes it right, remembers Sarah, and she gives birth to Isaac.
It’s not too late for God and Hannah. After disappointing Hannah for so long,
God makes it right, hears her, and she gives birth to Samuel.
The main message of our readings is that if God can disappoint, we will disappoint; but if God can make it right, if God can finally hear, then so can we.
Which brings us back to the woman whose shredder did not work. After getting her email, in which she related her saga of not being heard, and not being cared about, the customer service people at that store reached out to her right away. We are so sorry. Tell us your story. They spent a lot of time listening to her. It became clear to them right away that this was not about the shredder. It was about her not being heard. She wanted somebody to hear and to care about all the aggravation and wasted time she had been through.
When the customer service people talked to the guy she had met with, he said: what’s the problem? Her shredder didn’t work. I gave her a refund. They said: You don’t get it. It wasn’t about the shredder, it was about not being heard.
I think that happens a lot in human relations. One person is talking about refunding a shredder, the other is talking about not being heard, and they cross like two ships in the night. There are no villains in this drama. Just hurried and harried human beings who sometimes don’t get one another. That is why we have the High Holidays, to give us a chance to start over.
In the end, a number of customer service people talked to the customer and very intently heard her story. They apologized sincerely. They also gave her a gift card, which did not hurt. But even that was less about the value of the gift card than a symbolic gesture: I hear you and I care.
The guy who gave her the refund for a new shredder came to understand that his job is not just about shredders, it is about people and all the emotional intensity they bring on an ordinary day, and he vowed to do better next time.
The woman who wrote the email felt heard. The man who at first did not hear her will now hear others. This resolution reminded me of a beautiful teaching of Ernest Hemingway: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” In the mystery of life, sometimes the fact that we can recover after a failure makes the whole project stronger and more memorable than if everything had been seamless and smooth to begin with.
After being heard, the woman wrote a second email in which she said:
Please know that the follow up…has not only saved my relationship with [your store], but solidified it for years to come.
Thank you so much for taking what was a terrible event, and resolving it beyond what I could have imagined.
What should we be doing in the next two weeks? When we were thinking shredder, and another person was thinking you didn’t hear me and did not care, let’s do what God does in our Rosh Hashanah readings. Add a new chapter, a better chapter, to the story.
What does true success look like after our High Holidays are over? Sarah and Hannah are reconnected to God, this shopper is reconnected to the office superstore, and we are reconnected where we were disconnected, and in being reconnected, we are stronger at the broken places. It is never too late. Shabbat shalom.