As soon as we find out that we’re going to have a baby, we begin to worry. When the baby is born, what we want to know first is whether, as my father always put it, the child has ten fingers and ten toes, whether we have a normal baby. But the hard truth is that lots of babies have one disability or another, and that parents have to go through a process of adjusting to this fact and then have to do everything they can to make the child’s life everything it can be. The stories of our lives include adapting to the realities of our lives.
I think about these things all the time, but I’m especially focused on them because of what a lot of us go through with our children and grandchildren and because of a remarkable non-fiction book called The Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson. When he sees his first baby, Rupert says: “Welcome to the world, Rowan Besa Isaacson, with your blue, blue eyes. What adventures have you got in store us?” He and his wife Kristin, a psychologist, begin to raise Rowan at their home in Texas, but by the time he’s 2 1/2, they realize that he is autistic. Rupert says that when you learn something is wrong with your child, the feeling is like you’re hit across the face with a baseball bat. They try every method, every medication; they go to see every doctor and expert, including Temple Grandin, the autistic person who invented the Hug Machine. But nothing helps, and their lives are unlivable. They cannot find a way to toilet-train him, he is impossible to live with, they cannot go out with him, he doesn’t even speak to them, his tantrums are severe and can go on indefinitely; he has no friends; he makes no progress in any way.
But Rowan does like animals. And in particular he likes a horse named Betsy who lives on a nearby farm. The day he discovers her, he begins to speak. Rupert is a writer and has had contact with shamans, and he develops the truly bizarre idea of traveling to Mongolia where horses seem to have originated. His wife thinks it’s nonsense, but she’s at her wit’s end; she doesn’t know what else to do. And so they go on the journey to Outer Mongolia, literally to the ends of the earth, in search of a miracle. They climb four thousand foot mountains and go through four-hour rituals with shamans. They travel, they camp out, and then something happens: Rowan starts laughing and giggling and they start to be another kind of family. They visit shamans and it’s all bizarre healing rites and there are leaps forward and regressions but they see their son change dramatically and permanently.
The question is: How far would you go to heal the one you love? And the answer is: To the ends of the earth.
What I get out of this story are two themes: the profound effect of parental love and the interesting possible power of alternate, non-medical kinds of healing which may, in the end, be what I’m going to call community love. What I get from the first theme is something that every parent will agree with. Where I’ll get controversial is how I’ll talk about concerning non-medical healing. So let me start with the easier theme.
If Freud taught us anything, it was the simple truth that our relationships with our parents are keys to our emotional houses. If you grow up without a parent’s love, you seek it, one way or another, the rest of your life; you try to find what you missed in some other way from some other person. On the other hand, if you had sustained and positive parental support as you were growing up, that love is part of you, more than you can even measure.
And so the boy Rowan changes because of his parents’ love and attention.
The Horse Boy is about the Isaacsons, and on Rosh Hoshanah we see the story of Isaac son of Abraham. The Torah tells us about a journey, not to Mongolia and the ends of the earth but to an unknown mountain in Israel. Abraham is commanded by God to take Isaac to the mountaintop and sacrifice him on an altar. It is the story of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. When people read this story, they always seem to question how G-d could have commanded Abraham to do this horrible act. But the whole point of the story, and of the command in the first place, is to show what a parent must not do.
People ask: “How could Abraham be willing to do it?” The historical answer is that other religions commanded child sacrifice. Child sacrifice was part of the culture, a sacred ritual in other religions for many centuries in that area. You took your first son and sacrificed him on the altar to the pagan god. But Judaism came to say, through this story: “Don’t you dare hurt your child!”
Have you ever heard of Gehennom? It’s the Hebrew word for hell. Gei Hinnom is a valley in Jerusalem; it’s one of the two principal valleys surrounding the Old City. It was the site where idol-worshippers sacrificed their children to the god Molech. So when the prophets screamed about child sacrifice, and the story of Abraham and Isaac became so famous and prominent in our tradition, it was with the awareness that people actually were doing these barbarous acts.
Many modern commentators and pop psychologists say that Isaac was traumatized, that he was a mess the rest of his life. But Isaac grew up and explicitly followed in his father’s footsteps because what Isaac remembered was that his father loved G-d and that G-d saw such a sacrifice as obscene and horrible. Isaac knew, despite the bizarre ritual on the mountain, that his father loved him. Isaac realized what the whole ritual was about. Instead of merely commanding, “Don’t do child sacrifice,” G-d, the greatest storyteller of them all, knew that He needed a dramatic story so that no one would ever forget that this isn’t how we think,
that we don’t send our children to their deaths no matter what,
that our children’s deaths would be the worst possible thing for us,
that we would rather die than do such a thing.
We want life. And as much as we want life, we want life for our children and grandchildren. If Abraham would have been asked to jump off a cliff, that would have been easy compared to the idea of hurting his child.
When I’ve participated in funerals where parents have lost their children, every single time, the parent has said, “I wish it were me in that casket instead of him. Why couldn’t it have been me instead of her?” To lose a child is the worst possible thing.
G-d forbids us from hurting our children.
But some of us indeed have sacrificed our children to gods we have made,
We have sacrificed them to our own egos, to our own needs,
To our own unfulfilled dreams
To our egos because we want to be able to brag that our children have done this or own that.
As a parent, you must teach values
You have the duty to teach morality and ethics
You have the right to expect loyalty in return for everything you’ve done for the child
But you must be certain that what you push and pull for is values, not yourself
Make sure that the journey of their lives is not about the journey of your life.
Rowan Isaacson and Isaac son of Abraham knew that what their parents did was for them, no matter how bizarre everything seemed to be.
So the first theme of The Horse Boy is that parents will do anything for their children but that what they do for their children must be for the sake of their children.
Now let me move on to the part many of you will disagree with.
A number of years ago, there was a young woman, an important person in our shul, who got very sick. She was very dear to many of us; people used to come to the shul kitchen and cook meals for her and her family. She fought cancer for a long time, heroically, bravely, but the cancer ravaged her and eventually things drew near the end. There was nothing left to do medically. And she found out about an experimental treatment out in Baja California, in Mexico, something that was not considered scientifically legitimate in this country, and she thought that in the process of going to Mexico she could fulfill a special dream of hers, of seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time in her life. After everything they had gone through, the family was strapped and couldn’t afford the trip or the treatment. And she asked me to help. And I did, and a lot of people around here got on the phone and raised money.
A very fine man in the congregation, a doctor, was disturbed and angry at me for what I was doing. The treatment was quackery, he said, and was nothing more than a scam. How could I, as a rabbi and a relatively rational person, be involved in this? I respected his opinion, which I thought was absolutely valid. But I had thought out what we were doing; we were giving a wonderful woman her last wish, and even if it gave her hope for a few days or weeks, I wanted to try to give her that. I wasn’t there when her husband literally carried her down the beach, but I will always have that image in my mind. I will always see him carrying her ravaged body down to the Pacific Ocean. She came back to Connecticut and passed away here at Hospice. The treatment had not done a thing as, I think, we all, including her, had known all along.
The doctor was, of course, correct. I’ve talked with him several times about this over the years, and I have shown respect for his view.
But if I had to do it all over again, I would do exactly the same thing.
I don’t believe in snake oil and I don’t believe in mumbo-jumbo and I think that nonsense is nonsense.
But in the face of tragedy or in the face of desperation, we have to provide support, and if we can give comfort or hope, that’s what we need to do.
All I know is that this community did what it was asked to do and provided someone her last wish.
Just as a family went to Mongolia with their autistic son, the community went to the Pacific Ocean with our friend. The Horse Boy was, miraculously, cured; our friend was not.
But the point is very simple, and the point is support and comfort.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am astounded by what the medical field has done in my lifetime, how knowledge and methods have progressed into the realm of what seems like science fiction to me. Medicine will continue to learn and progress with every passing day. And if our government and our country really placed the correct emphasis on medicine and gave the field the resources it needs, and didn’t make our best people spend half their lives writing grants and worrying about funding, we’d do even better even faster.
And just for the record, I don’t think that doctors get the proper credit from some of us for the kind of human beings they are. If they try and fail, we blame them unfairly. We are too quick to criticize, as if everything bad that happens to us is their fault.
But having said that, I also believe in the power of the will, in a positive attitude, in resilience and, most of all, in the power of hope.
In Judaism, we have a blessing for healing that we usually call a mishaberach, a prayer to G-d that He will help heal the person who is sick. Now you could ask, how is asking the rabbi for a mishaberach different from going to a shaman or a witch doctor?
I’m sensitive to this question because of a story that happened to me thirty years ago.
Dr. Gerson Cohen was the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, a very great, very intellectual, very modern man. And he came to give a speech at the shul where I was in New Jersey. He looked terrible; he had a very rare nerve disease. I asked him, “What can I do? Can I drive you across the bridge back to New York?”
“No,” he said, “I can make it.”
“Can I make a mishaberach?” I asked. He looked at me with intellectual scorn, “Are you kidding? We don’t believe in magic. Now you want to be my witch doctor?”
This was Chancellor Cohen and he was like a father to me and I adored him. So I felt embarrassed and chastened. I could have crawled into a hole.
He called me the next morning, ostensibly to congratulate me about something, but then went on to say that when he had been driving across the GW Bridge the night before, the lights went out for a second, and he thought he was going to fall off the bridge. He said that he should have accepted my offer to drive him back. “So,” I said, gulping, ready to be chewed out again, “Can I say a mishaberach?” And he said, “Yes, that would be fine. I’d appreciate it.”
Now of course, he changed his mind about the mishaberach because he was terrified. But I like to think that he had called to tell me that he had responded badly to my offer, that I was showing concern to pray for him and that he had reacted by putting me down. And that he had come to understand that a mishaberach may not change a nerve disease, but it may make us feel that someone or even a community cares, and feeling like someone or a community cares when you’re sick and scared can only be a positive thing.
Many of you who are not so religious will call me to make a mishaberach, a blessing in which we ask G-d to help in the saving or the healing of the person.
How important this is to many of you became crystal clear to me one day last year. Before going to Israel on a synagogue trip in March, I sent out an email, asking if anyone would like me to take a prayer to the Kotel, to the Western Wall in Jerusalem which is sort of like G-d’s Post Office; you can put messages in the cracks of the Wall. The moment that I sent out that email, I mean within a minute, my cell phone started shaking and pinging with all of the messages. Within a couple of days, I had eighty-something messages to take with me. Those messages became so important to me that if I had taken that plane ride, gone to the Wall and taken the plane back, it would have been enough to make the trip worthwhile and memorable.
I will never forget the beautiful and powerful and heart-wrenching and heart-warming messages I took to the Wall on your behalf.
Picture me, reading each message and then putting it in the Wall.
Now you can say, “This is ridiculous! This is making the rabbi into a witch doctor.”
Well, I went to the witch doctor and he told me what to say, that what he says is nothing like a mishaberach. The witch doctor wants to use magic to maneuver the universe. A mishaberach calls on G-d to help in the healing, but very humanistically, a mishaberach is the effort by the community, in this case represented by the rabbi, not to do oo-ee-oo-ah-ah but to add my prayers and our prayers to your prayers.
Saying a mishaberach creates a network of you and G-d and the community in the fight against disease or emotional problems or distress.
Saying a mishaberach harnesses the strength of our interaction; we become a family united in creating energy and will and resolve to cure and to heal.
I figure: It can’t hurt.
I figure: Even if I didn’t believe in G-d, I would believe in the power of prayer.
And I have scientific research on my side.
Listen to these statistics about what participation in a religious community does:
Active church and synagogue members have a 60% less chance of a heart attack.
Active church and synagogue members have a 55% less chance of being in a one-car accident. (Don’t ask me, I do not know why!)
Active church and synagogue members live an average of 5.7 years longer.
While only 30% of the unaffiliated say they are very happy, 70% of the highly committed church and synagogue people say they are very happy.
The National Institutes of Health has now developed five protective factors that help fight coronary disease. The leading one is weekly attendance in a house of worship.[i]
There is something scientifically verifiable about this whole prayer and community thing.
And so a mishaberach is the whole community pulling for you at the moment when you may feel more isolated and lonely than any other time in your life.
I come back to those prayers I put in the Wall.
Whom do you think most of those prayers were for?
Most of them were from parents asking G-d to help their children. It’s all about our children. If only they understood how much we love them.
I remember when I was a teenager having a terrible fight with my mother, and my father took me out for a drive and just said one sentence: “That woman would walk through the fire for you.”
In the forty years since that moment, my mother and I certainly have had our ups and downs. But from that moment on, I never have had that kind of anger against her again.
And I look at the people in my life that I would walk through the fire for or take a bullet for and I wonder sometimes: Why can’t they see the simple goodness in my heart? How can they ever get mad at me when I put their lives ahead of my own?
Isaac’s father took him up a mountaintop and his son trusted him. Why can’t our children trust that our guidance is only meant to help?
I am not saying that children must agree with their parents about everything or even trust that they’re right about most things.
I am saying that children, young and adolescent and adult children, should trust in their parents’ love, that it is real, and always well-meaning, and one of the most precious gifts that anyone will ever have.
And they should trust in that love so much that at the very least, they will not be angry for the mistakes their parents have made and will make.
I’ve talked about what seem to be very different journeys, one to use bizarre rituals to try to improve a boy’s life, one to teach that no parent should ever hurt their child, not even for G-d and especially not for their own sake, one about a community helping a dying woman to fulfill a last wish.
I celebrate the Isaacsons, who went to the ends of the earth, against all hope, for their child, and whose child responded because of their incredible love.
I believe that the cure for their son was achieved through the power of interpersonal healing. Not the shamans, but the togetherness, the focus and the concentration, the strength of human interaction.
And I celebrate the religion of the sons of Isaac, who believe that a religious community is a family of the will, who through mechanisms like a mishaberach or a prayer at the Wall or their helping actions, give people a reason to hope or at least to feel that they’re not alone.
And I celebrate the parents sitting here today who have gone or are now going on their own parallels to a journey to Mongolia, who have devoted all of their heart and soul and might to their children’s lives, who somehow find the patience and the strength to survive more bad days than good. Millions of children who wrestle with autism and other issues will not go to Mongolia, but their parents' love will be manifest by working on ways to help the child communicate, gain social skills, get an education. I don’t know how they do it, but I respect and admire these parents more than I can say.
When Abraham and Isaac went up the mountain, the Torah says, they went up yachdav, together. And when they came down the mountain together, they had learned, once and for all, what we should do for our children and what we must not do to our children.
And I think about Rupert Isaacson looking at his new baby, asking what adventures he’s got in store for them.
I think about the crazy adventures of our lives, and I pray, that whether we have to go to Outer Mongolia or Mount Moriah or Baja California, that you’ll let the power of the community help you, that if we have to go on crazy journeys, that we can go and come back together.
[i] The churchgoers were only half as likely to have elevated levels of interleukin (IL-6), a protein involved in a variety of infections and age-related diseases. One theory is that as people age, their bodies lose the ability to regulate IL-6 and they become more vulnerable to disease. A Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance “Survey of the Values of the American People” reflected that the single most important variable in the health-promoting lifestyles was religious affiliation.
Duke University researchers have shown that going to a house of worship may be not be only good for the soul, but it also may be good for the body.
In a study of over seventeen hundred older adults in North Carolina, as reported in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, doctors found that people who attended a religious service at least once a week had a healthier immune system.