Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story? (Rosh Hashanah, 5777, Day Two)


Rosh Hashanah, 5777, Day Two
October 4, 2016—2 Tishri 5777

            As some of you know, I love Hamilton. I have been preparing for the High Holidays by thinking about Hamilton.  There is a point of deep contact, and creative tension, between Hamilton and the next prayer we are about to experience together, unetaneh tokef.

            The deep contact is that both Hamilton and unetaneh tokef see our life fundamentally as a story.  Hamilton’s phrase is narrative.  The word narrative recurs in at least three songs.  Unetaneh tokef uses the language of sefer zichronot, a book of deeds.

            But the creative tension centers on the question:  who drives the story of your life?  Is the story of your life fundamentally what you do, the choices you make, the path you chart, the relationships you forge, the work you do that is either meaningful to you or just a paycheck, the health you do or do not take care of,  the family ties you do or do not nurture?  Or, is life what happens to you?  It’s not primarily about your choices, which dictate only a small part of the trajectory of your life. Rather, there is just a lot of mazal, good luck and bad luck, that can and does have a decisive impact on our life story.

            Hamilton takes the point of view that you drive your own story.  Hamilton is famously and frequently described as, and I’m quoting here, a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore.”

His parents were not married.  He came into this world as a result of a transaction, not a relationship.  His father abandoned him. His mother died young. So he has no family. He comes to America at the age of 19.  He has no family. No protection. No money.  “I walk these streets famished,” he says.  But what he does have is his character.  He is, as he says over and over, “just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry And I’m not throwing away my shot.”  He is fearless. He is a soldier who fights the Revolutionary War.  He is wise, a counselor and advisor to George Washington.   He is charismatic, with eyes that were apparently mesmerizing beyond compare.  His wife Eliza falls in love with him instantly when she looks at his eyes.  He is brilliant.  He works non-stop, churning out the vast majority of the Federalist papers in support of the new fledgling US Constitution.  He is visionary, coming up with the idea of a national bank to fund our growing country.  How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore rise to such heights?  The power of his character.  We write our own story.

            And that goes not only for the good, but also for the bad.  Hamilton makes three huge mistakes that bring endless heartache and heartbreak to himself and to his wife.

            He cheats on his wife.

            He does not discourage his son Philip from a duel but unwisely counsels him to raise his gun to the heavens at the climactic moment, assuming that his antagonist would do the same. Instead the antagonist killed his son.  He and his wife mourn the unimaginable pain of losing their son.

            Remarkably, he makes the exact same mistake when he has a duel with Aaron Burr, pointing his gun towards heaven, assuming that Burr would do the same. Instead Burr kills him, leaving his wife Eliza a widow for the next 50 years.

            The good in Hamilton’s life?  It is due to Hamilton.

            The bad, the sad, the tragic in Hamilton’s life? It is due to Hamilton.

            Hamilton wrote Hamilton’s story.  Hamilton drove Hamilton’s life.

            Who writes our story? We do. For good and for bad. Who tells our story? We do. For good and for bad.

            Not so fast, says unetaneh tokef. Not so fast.  Unetaneh tokef also talks about our story, a

sefer hazichronot, a book of deeds.  While we do sign this book with our own hand, the prayer admits, there sure are a lot of things that happen to that book that we have no control over.

            Who will have a long life and who will come to an untimely end?  We’ve all been to funerals, too many funerals, for young people.  We all know people, too many people, with so much life yet to live, who get grim diagnoses.  They did not deserve it.  It happened to them.

            Who will perish by fire?  In our time, the very word fire is so fraught. The people who went to the wrong holiday party in San Bernardino died by fire.  The people who went to the wrong nightclub in Orlando died by fire.  We recently marked the 15-year anniversary of 9/11.  Those in the towers, those in the planes, that dreadful day, died by fire. It happened to them.

            Who by earthquake and who by plague?  How many natural disasters do we read about  where houses are leveled and lives are disrupted or lost? Tsunamis and floods happen to people.

As we sit here today, hurricane Matthew is churning its way across the waters to America.  If Matthew barrels into some town in Florida, that town, and its residents, did not deserve Matthew. They did not write Matthew into their story.  Matthew happened to them.

            Who will be impoverished and who will be enriched?  We all know that it is not only merit, but also mazal, that has a real impact in determining our professional and financial trajectory.  I remember when I was a first year law student in the mid-80s talking to two graduating law students who were taking jobs at Boston firms.  How much can you really know from the interview process? You get a feel, a vibe.  But you don’t really know.  One friend goes to firm A, the other goes to firm B.  Both go on to make partner.  But firm A goes on to declare bankrupty, and that lawyer was held financially accountable as a partner, leaving him with debt for years to come. The person who went to firm B joined a firm that turned out to be super prosperous, and he prospered along with it. 

            Who drives your story?  You can call it the fates, you can call it good luck or bad luck,

you can call it God if that happens to be your theology, but it is clear that stuff happens, the vicissitudes of health and wealth and career, happen to you, and that has a decisive impact on your story.

            So it seems like Hamilton and unetaneh tokef are in opposite places on who drives your story. Hamilton says we do. Hamilton the orphan became Hamilton the founder of a nation and also a very troubled husband and father.  Unetaneh tokef says we don’t, really, because too much random bad stuff happens to all of us.  The play and the prayer are in opposite places for all of the prayer, until the last line.  The last line tells us that for all the stuff that can and does happen to us, there is one and only one thing that we do get to control.  What we do about it.  How we react to it. 

            When I think about unetaneh tokef, I think about getting caught in a rain storm.

            If you are walking and it starts raining out, it’s not realistic to think that you won’t get wet.  It’s not realistic to think that you can dance your between in between the rain drops.    It’s not realistic to think that everybody else is going to get wet but you.  If it rains, and if other people get wet, you get wet too.

            That is the message of unetaneh tokef.

            It’s not realistic to think that all you get is health, and no sickness.

            All you get is thriving, and no struggling.

            All you get is happiness, and no sadness.

            All you get is living and no dying.

            All you get is clear direction and no wandering in the wilderness.

            All you get is warm happy people with you all the time, and no loneliness.

            No, that’s not realistic. When it rains, everybody gets wet, and you get wet too.  Nobody is unscathed. Everybody is scathed.  That’s why unetaneh tokef is such a somber, scary prayer: because it promises us that tough times, either they are here already, or they’re coming.

            But, it also tells us that while tough times don’t last, tough people do.  We cannot control what happens to us, but we control what we do about it.

            Which brings me to the story of Sheryl Sandberg, after the unexpected death of her husband Dave Goldberg, in May, 2015.  In a certain sense, Sheryl Sandberg may seem perhaps unrelatable. She is a big name, the chief operating officer of Facebook.  She is a big-time writer, the author of Lean In.  She is a big-time speaker, whose Ted Talks are viral sensations. 

            But at the same time, she is totally relatable.  She was happily married to her husband, and they were raising their two children together, lovingly, when he suddenly dropped dead while running on a treadmill on a Friday afternoon of a family vacation.  We all know too many families who are happily living their lives when somebody in the family suddenly dies.  That is real. That is life.  That is unetaneh tokef.

            Thirty days after his burial, she shares a Facebook posting marking the end of sheloshim, where she quoted a one-line prayer:  “Let me not die while I am still alive.”

            How do we do that?  How do we not die, when we are dying inside?  How do we not die, when we are dying inside?

            She tells the story that she was talking to a friend about a father-child activity that her husband used to do with their children, that he can no longer do.  They came up with a plan to fill in for Dave.  She cried to her friend:  “But I want Dave. I want option A.”  Her friend put his arm around her and said: “Option A is not available.  So let’s kick the heck out of option B.”

            Here is how she ends her sheloshim post:

Dave, to honor your memory and raise your children as they deserve to be raised, I promise to do all I can to kick the heck out of option B.  And even though sheloshim has ended, I still mourn for option A.  I will always mourn for option A.   I love you, Dave. 

            After that posting, two significant things happened.

The first is that Sheryl Sandberg is writing a book called Option B.
The second is that Sheryl Sandberg is living a life called Option B.

            Which means that even though she is not living the life she wanted most to live, even though she is not telling the story she wanted most to tell, the pen is back in her hands, and she is still writing her story.  It is a story of dignity and strength in the face of loss and pain.

            We know that story. We live that story. We write that story.

            Who writes our story?  After life happens to us, we do. We write our story.  Please rise.