It was early autumn, but still the time when lucky people dress down and take off for country homes and cottages. Not me. I was on the road, bound for a high-pressure lecture at a big-city Federation. I would leave at the crack of dawn, land by 9, and be whisked away by private limo to do my stuff.
The plane was on time, but the limo wasn’t. I grabbed my cell phone, called the car service, and demanded my missing driver. “She’s entering the airport,” I was told.
But she wasn’t. She was going to the wrong airline and, in addition, getting round to me only after a drop-off elsewhere. When the car finally arrived, the driver turned out to be a substitute whose gas tank was running on empty, and who didn’t know how to open it for the fill-up we needed to get moving. I felt my anger bubbling over like volcanic lava in formation.
With nothing to do but await my eventual arrival, I mentally reviewed the talk I was to give. It drew on Psalm 27. But rattled as I was, I forgot the exact quotation, and called home to get it. “Give me the exact wording of Psalm 27,” I requested, “the one we’ve been reading all Elul in preparation for the High Holidays.”
And then it happened.
“Psalm 27!” said my driver. “You mean David’s Psalms?”
“Uh, yes,” I responded.
“I use Psalm 121,” she offered. “See, I work in the office. I’m not even a regular driver, but the company makes me cover for drivers who don’t show up. It’s not my car or even my job. Then passengers get angry, even though I’m trying my best. Psalm 121 calms me. ‘I lift up my eyes to the mountains. … My help comes from God.’”
My inept driver had become my adept spiritual teacher.
Come to think of it, the help we all require comes only from “the mountains,” that mysterious place beyond that we call God. We are all victimized by the unexpected: limos coming late (no big deal); diseases coming early (incomparably worse); tragedies coming ever (beyond description). Who am I to think I can avoid life’s “stuff”?
The words of Yom Kippur flooded through me. Chatati: “I have sinned.” Yom Kippur barely behind me, I thought, and already, here I go again. We are all just flesh and blood who struggle through the day. My driver struggles a hundred times more than I. Why should I get so angry over being a little late for a talk? If my audience doesn’t understand, it should.
There is more. In her evening hours, my driver volunteered as a counselor for troubled teens, and was about to become a foster parent for one of her charges. Arriving, finally, at my destination, I handed her some money for her soon-to-be-adopted daughter. “I am Jewish,” I said. “We call it tzedakah, ‘charity’ — it helps make up for our sins. Tell your daughter that this is a gift from someone who loves her and doesn’t even know her.”
I try to recall that story every year in the immediate wake of Yom Kippur fasting. My default is to pick up life in the fast lane the very next day. “What causes sin?” asks the Talmud. “The leaven in the dough — our overdeveloped egos that so easily puff us up.” How terrible, really, was it to arrive a little late? What was my talk altogether compared to adopting a troubled child?
The most important word in this week’s reading is its name for God, Elion: “Most High” — a word to carry into the sukkah as we look through the thatched roof at the infinite universe above and the metaphoric mountains beyond, whence ultimate help derives. Unlike God, says our tradition, we human beings are earthbound and mortal.
Featured speaker that I was, I was not Elion. Only God is that, although, maybe, my driver came close.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.
Shabbat Candles: 6:04 p.m.
Torah: Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52
Haftorah: II Samuel 22:1-51
Havdalah: 7:03 p.m.