Please, Come Pierce My Shell

Rabbi Jared H. Saks

Yom Kippur 5778. September 30, 2017 – 10 Tishrei 5778.

Relationships are hard. They take a lot of work. I would venture to say that few if any of us in this sanctuary this morning would say that we have even one relationship that is perfect, one without strife, conflict, or struggle. So, why do we pursue relationships with one another? Why do we build the relationships in our lives? Some of our relationships are our own creation:  those with our friends, our partners, our fellow congregants, to some extent, our children. Some were handed to us without much input from us:  those with our parents, our family, even our coworkers. But regardless of how we acquired the relationships we have, most of us take meaningful action to deepen our connection to others in spite of the hurt and pain that often accompanies any relationship.

When I was a peer sexual health educator in college, one of the workshops we offered was on healthy relationships. In that workshop, one of the takeaways we’d offer our peers was that relationships are like sharks, they must keep moving forward to stay alive. As it turns out, science has shown that not all shark need to swim to move water and oxygen through their gills, but moving forward is critical for our relationships. Every healthy relationship is marked by a cycle of harmony, disharmony, and growth. Every relationship goes well until it doesn’t and whether or not it remains vibrant depends upon whether or not those involved in it are committed to its growth.

In the second creation narrative in Genesis, after God has created the earth, God creates the first human being. God surveys creation and declares, “It is not good that the human being should be alone; I will make an ezer k’negdo for the human being.”[2] An ezer k’negdo. What is this? Well, first God creates the animal world and the first human being names them, but God still observes a loneliness in this solitary human being. No matter how much love and comfort our pets provide us, it seems, they cannot replace the richness of a relationship with other people. So, God causes the first human being to fall into a deep sleep and removes something from him to fashion a partner for him. The Hebrew text says tzela, which is usually translated as ‘rib,’ but some texts, including the Zohar, understand it to be half of the first human being, his side. It is in this interpretation that we see what an ezer k’negdo is, a term I haven’t defined just yet.

Ezer means help. K’negdo is more complicated. Neged, its root, bears the meaning of opposition:  a helper in opposition to him. What an ezer k’negdo really is is a fitting helper, one who completes the parts of him that are missing. This is where the Kabbalistic interpretation of tzela is helpful; it is not the first person’s rib that is used to fashion his partner; but rather, it is his other half, the pieces he needs to be complete. Still, as we know, the first two human beings did not have a perfect relationship. One is duped into eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil and feeds its fruit to the other. The two are then cast out of the Garden of Eden. Later, one of their two sons slays the other. Hardly a perfect relationship. How can they possibly be an ezer k’negdo, a fitting partner for one another? It seems, that despite what is challenging in their relationship, they pursue relationship with one another, nonetheless.

Behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley, in his work at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, has done some study about human relationship and why we engage in relationship with one another. He conducted an experiment on the subway system on the south side of Chicago, dividing volunteers into three groups to gauge their happiness after interaction, or lack of interaction, with strangers on the train. A third of the participants were instructed to behave as they normally would on the subway. The next third were told to keep to themselves on the ride. The final third was charged with striking up a conversation with whomever sat down next to them on the train.

Many of us, myself included, do not enjoy talking to strangers. I would have assumed that those who kept to themselves might have turned out to have experienced greater happiness on those rides than those who were instructed to talk to their fellow passengers. But this is not what Epley found in his research. Instead, the third group, those whose task was to talk to others, turned out to be the happiest. People are social animals, as Aristotle noted some time ago. There’s a huge amount of research suggesting that connecting with others is critical both for happiness and for health.

But, as I’ve said, being in relationship with others can be so challenging. Every relationship is marred by disharmony, but if this day teaches us anything, it teaches us that the path of teshuvah, our return to others and to God, is always open to us. How do we move from disharmony to growth in our relationships with others, so that we can cycle back to harmony in a richer, more developed connection with others? Recently, I picked up a copy of David Rakoff’s last novel, published posthumously, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. It recounts, in rhyming couplets, the story of characters whose lives span the 20th century, who are linked to each other by acts of generosity or cruelty.

One of the narratives struck a chord with me and I began thinking about its wisdom in mending the disharmonious relationships in our lives. It tells the story of Nathan, former best bud to Josh and former boyfriend to Susan, who have just been wed. Josh and Susan have invited Nathan to give them a toast at their wedding reception. It’s a daunting task for most of us, to get up in front of a room and speak in public. But in this instance, Nathan is faced with the pain of his relationships with Josh and with Susan. This is how David Rakoff tells their story:

Nathan, from one of the outlying tables,

                        His feet tangled up in the disc jockey’s cables,

                        Surveyed the room as unseen as a ghost

                        While he mulled over what he might say for his toast.

                        That the couple had asked him for this benediction

                        Seemed at odds with them parking him here by the kitchen.

                        His invite was late—a forgotten addendum—

                        For Nate, there could be no clearer referendum

                        That he need but endure through this evening and then

                        He would likely not see Josh and Susan again.


                        That he had said yes was still a surprise,

                        And not just to him, it was there in the eyes

                        Of the guests who had seen a mirage and drew near

                        And then covered their shock with a “Nathan, you’re here!”

                        And then in silence, they’d nothing to say beyond that.

                        A few of the braver souls lingered to chat

                        They all knew, it was neither a secret nor mystery

                        That he and the couple had quite an odd history

                        Their bonds were a tangle of friendship and sex.

                        Josh his best pal once, and Susan his ex.[3]

How many times have we been faced with a situation in which we must engage with someone who has hurt us and sometimes, even, do them a kind gesture despite how they’ve made us feel? In Pirke Avot (4:1), Ben Zoma teaches, “Eizehu gibor? Hakoveish et yitzro. Who is strong? The one who exhibits self-control.” The first step in moving from disharmony to growth in our relationships is to exhibit self-control. Strength comes not in having the last word, but in knowing when it’s time to move on. In Rakoff’s tale, Nathan teeters on the edge of self-control:

He’d pored over Bartlett’s for couplets to filch

                        He’d stayed up ‘til three and still came up with zilch

                        Except for instructions he’d underscored twice

                        Just two words in length, and those words were,

                                    “Be Nice!”

                        Too often, he’d noticed, emotions betray us

                        And reason departs once we’re up on the dais.

                        He’d witnessed uncomfortable moments where others

                        Had lost their way quickly, where sisters and brothers

                        Had gotten too prickly and peppered their babbling

                        With stories of benders or lesbian dabbling,

                        Or spot-on impressions of mothers-in-law,

                        Which, true, Nathan thought, always garnered guffaws

                        But the price seemed to high with the laughs seldom cloaking

                        Hostility masquerading as joking.[4]

Many of our mothers probably taught us that if we don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all, but not saying anything is often not an option. When we struggle in our relationships with others, especially those closest to us, silence is a death knell. Two of my favorite texts in our liturgy open and close the Amidah. The first line of the Amidah, “Adonai s’fatai tiftach, ufi yagid t’hilatecha, Adonai open my lips that my mouth may declare Your praise.” The last text of the Amidah, the silent prayer, begins with words, “Elohai n’tzor l’shoni mei-ra, u-s’fatai m’daber mirmah, my God, guard my tongue from speaking evil and my lips from uttering untruth.” As we begin the Amidah, we ask God to open our mouths to say kind, honorable, and praiseworthy things. As we conclude the Amidah, we ask God to keep our mouths shut when we might say something we ought not say. I think we ask God for guidance here not because God needs the right words from us, but because we know that we need guidance in when and how we open our mouths with others.

I don’t think that these bookends to the Amidah are about only opening our mouths to utter praise and closing them when we don’t have something nice to say. I think these words also guide us in how we speak our words, even when we’d rather not be speaking at all. Nathan could have refused the invitation to give a toast at the wedding reception of his ex and his former best friend. Rakoff doesn’t tell us why he accepts the invitation, but I think the tale offers us some guidance on how to handle things when our relationships become disharmonious and we don’t have the option not to engage.

In Rakoff’s story, Nathan still sits at the table waiting for his turn to speak and these words run through his mind:

I won’t wish them divorce, that they wither and sicken,

                        Or tonight that they choke on their salmon (or chicken)

                        I’ll stay mum on that time when the cottage lost power

                        In that storm on the Cape, and they left for an hour

                        And they thought it was just the cleverest ruse

                        To pretend it took that long to switch out the fuse.

How often do all of the things we ought not say run through our minds before we figure out what we can possibly say when our relationships have caused us such pain? Elohai n’tzor l’shoni mei-ra. God, shut my mouth. What is striking in Rakoff’s story, to me, is that what Nathan ultimately chooses to share is, I think, a lesson for him, not for the bride and groom. And I think it’s a lesson for us, as well:

I was wracking my brains sitting here at this table

                        Until I remembered this unsuitable fable.

                        Each reptilian hero, each animal squeal

                        Serves a purpose, you see, because they reveal

                        A truth about life, even as they distort us

                        So here is ‘The Tale of the Scorpion and Tortoise.’


                        The scorpion was hamstrung, his tail all aquiver.

                        Just how would he manage to get ’cross the river?

                        ‘The water’s so deep,’ he observed with a sigh,

                        Which pricked at the ears of the tortoise nearby.

                        ‘Well, why don’t you swim?’ asked the slow-moving fellow.

                        ‘Unless you’re afraid. Is that it, you are yellow?’

                        ‘That’s rude,’ said the scorpion, ‘and I’m not afraid

                        So much as unable. It’s not how I’m made.’


                        ‘Forgive me, I didn’t mean to be glib when

                        I said that, I figured you were an amphibian.

                        The error was one of misclassification

                        I mistakenly figured you for a crustacean.’


                        ‘No offense taken,’ the scorpion replied.

                        ‘but how ’bout you help me to reach the far side?

                        You swim like a dream, and you have what I lack.

                        What you say you take me across on your back?’[5]

I’m sure you can imagine where this is going. The tortoise doubts the scorpion’s trustworthiness and asks how he can be sure that the scorpion won’t stab him. The scorpion, then, assures the tortoise that no such thing would happen, because then they’d both drown, ruining the scorpion’s plan to get to dry land on the other side of the river. Of course, that’s not how the fable ends. The scorpion stabs the tortoise and, as Rakoff writes, “The tortoise expired with one final quiver/And then both of them sank, swallowed up by the river.”[6] The tortoise takes a chance on a stranger, one whose reputation indicates he’ll do harm. He offers help, nonetheless. We, too, go back to painful relationships, re-engage with people who have caused us harm before, sometimes only to be hurt again. Why? Why would we open ourselves up to such pain? I think it is because we need to exist in relationship with others, so we take a chance, even when we might get hurt. And more often, I hope, than not, we find those relationships to make us happier, healthier, and better people.

Nathan examines the parable about the scorpion and the tortoise and sees in it this lesson, one that I think is especially important on this day when we contemplate more seriously, perhaps, than on any other day of the year, our relationships with ourselves, others, and God:

So what can we learn from their watery ends?

                        Is there some lesson on how to be friends?

                        I think what it means is that central to living

                        A life that is good is a life that’s forgiving.

                        We’re creatures of contact, regardless of whether

                        to kiss or to wound, we still must come together.

                        Like in Annie Hall, we endure twists and torsions

                        For food we don’t like, and in such tiny portions!

                        But, like hating a food but still asking for more

                        It beats staying dry but so lonely on shore.

                        So we make ourselves open, while knowing full well

                        It’s essentially saying, ‘Please, come pierce my shell.’[7]

“Central to living a life that is good is a life that’s forgiving.”[8] Contemplate that for a moment. Are our lives good if they are not forgiving? On this Day of Atonement, can we sincerely say that we live a good life if that life isn’t one underscored by forgiveness. Albert Einstein wrote, “From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know:  that we are here for the sake of each other – above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends.” Our existence, our health, happiness, and well-being, all depend upon others; and they depend upon us. This year, let us be more forgiving and, dare I say it, be more open to our shells being pierced, because, “It beats staying dry but so lonely on shore.”[9]

G’mar chatimah tovah. May you be sealed for blessing, health, and happiness in the Book of Life.

[1] Title derived from David Rakoff’s “Nathan,” Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. New York:  Doubleday, 2013, p. 82.

[2] Genesis 2:18.

[3] David Rakoff. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish.  New York:  Doubleday, 2013, pp. 75-6.

[4] Ibid, pp. 77-8.

[5] Ibid, pp. 79-80.

[6] Ibid. p. 81.

[7] Ibid, p. 82.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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