Carrying It All (Rosh Hashanah 5781)

Posted on September 19, 2020

by Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis

In my house these last six months—alongside social isolation, concerns about family, running out of our favorite salsa, and managing full-time professional responsibilities while also parenting—the major themes of the pandemic have been Legos, monsters, and fantasy books. 

My children have spent much of this pandemic time building elaborate creations that have taken over entire rooms of our house, filling volumes with drawings of fearsome beasts, and listening to the audiobooks of the Percy Jackson series—on an endless loop since March.  Our home often feels like we’re living in Where the Wild Things Are, with the wild rumpus about to start. 

Among the magical tropes of the books and movies that we inhabit—destiny, coming of age while fighting demons, and so on—there’s a running issue for the characters of things needing to be hauled around. 

We all know Mary Poppins’s magical carpet bag, for instance, from which she pulls out everything she owns including a wall mirror and a floor lamp.  Meanwhile, in the Percy Jackson series, Percy has a ballpoint pen that turns into a full-length monster-fighting sword when you take the cap off, and this ballpoint pen is impossible to lose; if he throws it away, it will always end up—lightweight and capped—back in his pocket.  In contrast to these things that are easy to tote around even though they should be weighty, in The Lord of the Rings books, Frodo is responsible for carrying a small ring that can fit onto someone’s finger, but that gets heavier and heavier the closer it gets to its place of destruction.

In each case in these books, the characters need to carry things that should be bulky, but end up manageable, or that should be light but end up almost too heavy to bear.  You can imagine the author, in each case, knowing that it will be necessary for the characters to bring items with them from point A to point B, and then having to make a decision about how to convey what the load of those burdens actually feels like, separate from their physical size and weight.  The handy thing about fantasy literature is that you can always create the object you need to suit the metaphor.

As we go on our own journeys, what we carry, too, is always connected to the weight we feel as we carry our load, which is only rarely about its actual physical bulk.  I remember being on a weekend trip with my family when I was in high school when my parents joked that we had more with us for that one weekend—changes of clothes and shoes, books, binders, board games, craft projects—than their grandparents had with them when they first sailed to America.  In our time, we are used to being able to carry around a lot.  We’ve gone in the past few decades alone from lugging bags by hand to now having ultra-lightweight suitcases with expandable compartments and 360-degree spinner wheels. 

However, during this time period when most of us aren’t going anywhere that requires a suitcase—many of us are finding that the small or even invisible burdens we are carrying hold an enormous amount of weight.

In the last week or so, I’ve had several different people, from totally different parts of my life, tell me about how much they are currently trying to carry without enough hands to do so.  One friend wrote—

There was this time a few years ago I stepped off the train and onto the platform; it was raining, and I couldn’t carry my lunch, my umbrella, and my coffee.  So, I had to put down the coffee.  It’s what life feels like all the time right now.  Juggling my kids—their schooling, social/emotional needs, their food intake and just all the general stuff—and my job and my marriage and my household and my self-care and my relationships with everyone—but, unlike the day in the rain, there’s nothing I can put down and leave behind. [Adapted from Rabbi Rena Rifkin][1]

Another person was telling me about the queue of podcasts on her phone, filled with moving stories about racial history, the environment, personal tales of pain and transformation, all of which she knows should influence the choices she makes in the world:  “I know I’m supposed to absorb all of these things,” she said, “but how can I carry them all?”

The transformation of luggage over the past decades, along with the added speed we’ve come to rely on through phones in our pockets, movies and goods orderable online, everything rememberable in our electronic files on our laptops and tablets, has meant that we are all used to being able to carry a lot with very little added weight.  But, this pandemic and all the crises brought to light within it, reveal that we still only have the same number of hands we always had.  There is a lot to carry right now, and 360-degree spinner wheels don’t always help. 

Whether what we are carrying is—

the burden of loneliness of many months sustained without others’ human touch,

the burden of grief over loved ones we have not been able to properly mourn,

the burden of concern for those we love who are not reachable from across town or across the country,

the burden of jobs that fill too much space or not enough in this current model,

the burden of caring for our children and supervising their education while still carrying other professional responsibilities,

the burden of worrying about every sneeze and fever,

the burden of worrying about the state of our country—of what is happening to people in the world we don’t even know,

the burden of feeling our own places of privilege in society,

 the burden of worrying what will happen in November and beyond,

the burden of not being able to fix it all—

we are carrying so much, and every day there is another thing to carry, without feeling like it’s possible to put anything down.

In the story from the Torah that we will read during the main morning service tomorrow, we hear about Hagar, who did put something down when she could carry no more. 

Hagar was Sarah’s servant.  Not part of the special lineage that Abraham and Sarah were trying to start.  Just a side character.  And, when Sarah grew jealous of Hagar, she sent Hagar and her young son away.  Carrying only bread and water on her shoulder, along with the boy, Hagar walked in the wilderness until her waterskin was empty.  The lighter her possessions grew, the heavier her burden became.  In carrying that young child and the empty waterskin, she was carrying far more than her shoulders could bear.  At last, she could carry no more.  She set the boy down, her own small son, under a bush, and walked off to sit a distance away.

Because this is a biblical story—and because it’s the kind of biblical story that is focused on faith and trust and seeing the bounty that is right before you—of course, what ends up happening is that God hears the boy crying and sends a divine messenger to intervene.  The messenger (perhaps an angel, perhaps just a stranger walking by) asks, “What troubles you, Hagar?”  Hagar lifts her eyes and sees a well of water that she had been blind to before.  She is saved; the boy is saved.  The waterskin is full and heavy once again, and, with it, Hagar’s burden becomes light—and the boy grows up strong in the wilderness.    

I share this story tonight not because I think that we will open our own eyes and see a magical solution to the burdens we are currently carrying.  We do not have a Mary Poppins bag for our current loads.  I do not think there is a well that we are just too blind to see that will supernaturally, instantly nourish us and our society out from under our many strains.  But I do notice that in the Torah’s story, Hagar does not open her eyes all on her own.  There is a key to the story in the child crying and being heard, in there being another being there who asks Hagar to name her troubles.  There is a key in Hagar’s willingness to open her eyes and lift up the boy again even while she is feeling weak, hopeless, and afraid. 

We are each carrying tremendous burdens right now, and the hardest part is that so many of us are carrying them alone, unsure of what we can possibly put down.  We may feel that we shouldn’t burden others with our concerns, because we know that they have burdens too.  We may discount our own load, thinking that it is not as heavy as the loads being hefted by others, while meanwhile we are slowly being crushed under the weight. 

In a thousand-year-old text from medieval Spain, Bachya ibn P’kudah wrote the book of instruction Chovot ha-Levavot, Duties of the Heart.  In it, he expounds on how we can use the precept of v’ahavta l’reiacha k’mocha – Love your fellow as yourself, to help us “join with others for furthering the general welfare, such as plowing or harvesting, buying and selling, and other societal matters.”  He writes—

Let one apply in this the following analogy: A group of people travel to a distant land on a difficult journey. They need to stop at several stops along the way, and they have many animals loaded with heavy loads.  The men are few; each one has many animals he must unload and reload frequently. If they help each other in loading and unloading, and their desire is for the peace of all and to lighten each other’s burden, and so they equally share the load of helping each other, they will reach the best results.  But, if their opinions differ and they do not agree to one plan, and each one exerts to further only his own interests, most will become exhausted.[2]

It is on us now to share the load, not because we don’t each have a burden of our own, but because it is only by sharing in loading and unloading the burdens on us all, that we can manage all that we are carrying together.  The way not to have to leave your coffee cup at the train station in the rain is if someone passing by can shelter you under their umbrella while you take a sip.  Or, in a more physically-distanced example for our time, if we can be each other’s messengers, passing the work of being angels for each other back and forth—

Listening for when someone is crying out, and waiting with them, whether by phone or in mask, until they are ready to see the wells of water that can nourish them. 

Noticing in others—and in ourselves—what our burdens feel like they weigh, and honoring that their weight may be larger or smaller today than they appeared on first glance. 

Allowing ourselves to notice what we are carrying, and trusting that if we set it down for a time, that may be exactly what we need, in order for help to appear. 

Allowing ourselves to be patient with others, as they realize the burdens that they are carrying too, and looking for ways together to share in the load.

I would wish for each of us in this new year that the burdens we are carrying might shrink easily to the size and weight of a ballpoint pen in our pockets, and that it could be that easy to uncap them to fight off the monsters of our time with a gallant sword in hand.   But, instead, this Rosh Hashanah, it is truly my wish for all of us that we honor the fact that what we are carrying is indeed heavy, and that it is our burden to share.  May we increase in our capacity to understand our own load and the loads of others.  May there be blessings that ultimately come from this load—and may we, too, grow strong in the wild place. 

[1] Based on Facebook post by Rabbi Rena Rifkin, September 13, 2020.

[2] Chovot Halevavot, Eighth Treatise on Examining the Soul, Chapter 3, as found at https://www.sefaria.org/Duties_of_the_Heart%2C_Eighth_Treatise_on_Examining_the_Soul.3.172?lang=en&with=WebPages&lang2=en.