During our infancy and early childhood and then again in our senior adulthood, we are dependent creatures. We rely on others to care for our most basic needs, food, shelter, cleanliness, and clothing. Between the first and last years of our life, we create a different self-image. During our adolescence and into adulthood we live with the myth of independence and autonomy. The myth suits us at the height of our powers of achievement. But, it remains a myth even for the most powerful among us, those people who are physically strongest, intellectually most capable and financially wealthiest. None of us is truly independent. When we are at our best we are interdependent, relying on others at the same time as others rely on us, trusting as well as trustworthy. Nevertheless, the myth of self-sufficiency is as common as it is misleading. We may very well live in the most highly individualistic, entrepreneurial culture in human history. We seem to worship, or come very close to worshiping, beings that were created in the image of God, but are not God. Consider how the mighty have fallen throughout history, how every Napoleon has his or her Waterloo, how every record set is a record to be eclipsed, how every rule created is a rule to be broken, how instead of learning from history, we seem destined to repeat it. We should be humbled by our past. Instead, we revise it; we rewrite it until the narrative suits us. However, the Jewish story offers a unique narrative—one of interdependence and community. No person is an island. We need each other, and at certain times in our lives we need each other desperately. We are responsible for one another and we need to care about and for each other.
During the last year, I have learned this lesson through my own experience. One of the leading educational thinkers alive today, Nel Noddings, has written compellingly about the need for everyone to have a teacher who is crazy about him or her. I have been incredibly fortunate in my life to have many teachers who were crazy about me, and only recently have I come to realize their significance. One of those teachers, Rabbi Dr. Ezra Spicehandler, עליו השלום, died this year at the age of 92. Ezra was the dean of the Jerusalem school of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion when I was a first year rabbinical student. I am not sure what possessed me to do so, but I had the chutzpah to walk into his office one day and in my then halting Hebrew, I asked if he would be willing to have a Hebrew relationship with me. I was asking one of the great teachers of Hebrew literature to care about me in a way that made no sense. He agreed and as a result, my life changed forever. I took classes with him in which the language of discourse was Hebrew. Since I was ordained as a rabbi our communication was primarily in Hebrew. A few weeks before Ezra died, I visited him at Cedar Village, the Jewish retirement community in Cincinnati. Ezra was physically and mentally diminished, and yet when I spoke to him in Hebrew, his mind awakened. He smiled at me and responded to me. We had come full circle. He had cared for and about me, and I was able to express my thanks for his blessing in the language that had solidified and sanctified our relationship. He had cared for me, and I had the gift of being able to care for him.
On June 10th, just after Shavuot, the day that celebrates the blessing of Torah, my mother Amy died –יהי זכרה ברוך– May her memory be a blessing. Her death was not a tragedy. She lived more than 92 years, and I am confident she would agree with the characterization that her life was not only long, but also full, and therefore, grief is tempered by comforting memories. Nevertheless, after speaking with my mother almost every day for many years, usually between 6:30 and 7:00 pm, when she died I found myself empty, sad, stressed, and most importantly and ironically, loved. My mother’s last words to me were “Jan, I love you, and I am proud of you.” I am a rich human being because I know I am loved. What I did not realize or fully appreciate for the first 58 years of my life that I have learned in the last 3 months is what a blessing it is to be cared for, to feel the loving embrace of family, friends, teachers, colleagues, students and other people whose paths cross our own.
About a year ago I had asked my colleague and friend, Rabbi Todd Markley, perhaps the finest student I have been privileged to teach, to serve as the rabbi at my mother’s funeral. I share this with you because it is personal, I hope just personal enough to make it clear that all of us can plan to be cared for. Todd was nothing short of transcendent, rising above the dysfunction that is part of our family, honoring my mother’s memory and allowing me to be a mourner, a son rather than a rabbi. Especially perhaps for people who are used to caring for others, whether by character or profession or both, we need to allow ourselves the beauty and the power of being the recipient of caring. To be cared for is a blessing, a gift from God expressed through human agency. I learned since my mother died how absolutely essential it is that every person has the experience of being cared for.
My partner in life and love, Lanie, knows me better than I know myself sometimes and never was this truer than after my mother died. Although by dint of circumstance and culture, training and personality, I have almost always assumed the role of one caring for others, it was time for me to allow other people to care for me. Instead of being the trusted one, it as time for me to put my trust in beings divine and human. Instead of being in control of my emotions, my emotions were in control of me. Instead of being the leader, I allowed myself the luxury of following.
A few days after shiva ended for my mother, a shiva that taught me how fortunate I am to be cared for, our daughter and son-in-law called and told us that they were pregnant. I know that this is not a unique experience. I know that such timing can be considered to be coincidental or fortuitous, but I chose upon hearing the wonderful news a different interpretation of that day. God was and is an intimate and ultimate part of human life. For me (not that I needed proof), hearing that our daughter was pregnant just after my mother died was a sign of divine providence. I had learned through death how much people care and through our daughter’s voice, I had learned how much God cares. If we listen, I believe we can hear God’s voice when people who care about us speak to us.
We are not in control, but that does not mean we are passive. It means that we can choose to accept the responsibility of being dependent on each other and on God. We all need to be cared for, to be taken care of, to receive love, to give up control, and to trust other people and God to be the ones who care for us.
Rabbi Jan Katzew, Ph.D. is the director of The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati Fellows Program, an advanced sacred service-learning curriculum hosted at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Cincinnati campus of which this journal is a product.