Erev Rosh HaShanah 5776 --- Boiled Seeds
Rabbi Rachel Ackerman


There once was a King who had no children. One day he decided it was time to think about who would become heir to his throne. The heir to his throne, he decreed, would be selected amongst the children in the land, through a contest. The children were very excited, crowding around the king’s palace, eagerly anticipating the contest instructions.

As the children gathered around, the king handed each child a seed.

“Take this seed. Bring it home. Plant it, care for it, nurture it. And one year from today, bring back what you have grown. Based on what you have produced, I will select an heir to my throne.”

The children returned home, excited and ready to get to work. They each got a pot and decorated it to make it beautiful. They filled each pot with soil, placed the seed in it, and nurtured it.

One little girl, Allison, cared for her plant every single day. She woke up early and watered it, talked to it, even sang to it. Yet, as the days and weeks went on, Allison was sad. Her plant didn’t grow.

She watched as all of the children in her neighborhood had seeds that sprouted, grew, and flourished. Flowers bursting open, plants growing two, three, even four feet high. But Allison’s seed didn’t sprout. And yet, she didn’t stop caring for that plant.

After the year finally passed, all the children brought their plants before the king. They were some of the most beautiful plants people in the land had ever seen. The children were clearly proud of what they had grown.

Allison, however, stood there with tears in her eyes, holding a pot, beautifully decorated, well watered, with rich soil…but no plant.
The king walked slowly past each child and his or her plant. While the children beamed with pride, he, himself did not look happy.

Then he spotted Allison.

“What is your name?”

“Allison,” she whispered.

“And, Allison, where is your plant?”

“I...I don’t have one.”

“Why not?”

“I tried, your Majesty, I really did. I watered it every day. I talked to it. I even sang to the seed. I cared for it every morning before school and every afternoon when I came home, and every night before I went to bed. But nothing grew.”

The other children stood uncomfortably whispering to one another as Allison cried.

The King smiled at Allison, patted her on the head, and proclaimed, “Allison, you will be the next queen!”

“What?!” exclaimed all the children in unison.

“But she didn’t even grow anything!” shouted one boy.

“All of us have these beautiful plants! But she has nothing! How can she be the next queen?!”

The king replied, “That is true. All of you brought me beautiful plants. And they are indeed some of the most beautiful plants that I have ever seen. But, one year ago I gave each of you a seed to plant, nurture, and care for. What you didn’t know was that I boiled those seeds. They were never going to grow. When your seeds didn’t grow, most of you replaced it with another. But Allison did not. She cared for that seed every day even though nothing grew. She didn’t replace it with another. She tried her hardest, even when faced with a challenge. She was honest and true. And these are the qualities we need for the next ruler of our land.”

What does this story teach us?

Honesty pays off in the end?

Sure.

You should try your hardest even if there is no immediate reward?

Absolutely.

But, I think there’s something more to it.

Many of us are in possession of boiled seeds from time to time—more often than we would like. We try to nourish those seeds, plant them, give them water and sunlight, even sing to them. And yet they don’t grow.

We struggle with these boiled seeds every day, trying our best to tend to them, but not always letting others in to help us: illness, stress, job loss, financial hardship, strained relationships, separation, divorce, death of a loved one, caring for our children, caring for our parents, abuse, questioning our identity, infertility, miscarriage, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, academic struggles, addiction.

All the children were given boiled seeds. How alone they all must have felt—tending every day to something that wasn’t showing any progress when everyone else was able to see the fruits of their labors… or so they thought.

So what did they do?

They tried to make it appear as if they were doing okay.

Just because, they thought, it wouldn’t be so lonely.

Just so they wouldn’t be the only ones who couldn’t do it.

They didn’t share their struggle with others, instead they walked around with something that looked beautiful, but wasn’t true. And as they all looked at and whispered about Allison’s empty pot, they all must have felt just as alone, perhaps even more so, than she did.

Imagine how different it would have been if, when at first their seeds didn’t grow, they told their friends.

Imagine if they had turned to someone else who understood, and perhaps even shared, their struggle.

And imagine if we had the courage to do the same.

It is so hard to expose our boiled seeds, our imperfections, our vulnerabilities. It is uncomfortable to ask for help. Sometimes, we resign ourselves to loneliness because the thought of reaching out to, and being embraced by, others is overwhelming.

Several years ago our Chai School, 8th and 9th graders, watched Praying with Lior, a documentary about a boy with Downs’ Syndrome preparing for his bar mitzvah.

After the film, one student shared, “In some ways I think it’s easier for Lior. He has a disability that everyone can see, so people know to help him. But for those of us who struggle with disabilities you can’t see, people don’t always know that we need help, too.”

It was a brave and bold statement. And, we, the teachers, held our breath. Waiting to see if, hoping that, someone would respond.

And one by one they did.

With their struggles.

With anxiety.

With depression.

With learning disabilities.

For the first time that year, the voice of one courageous student who was willing to be exposed, who was willing to be like Allison, to show boiled seeds, created a space where students felt safe being vulnerable.

Students realized that we all, from time to time, need to ask for help.

Students realized that others shared their struggles.

Each student, I hope, realized that a true kehilah kedoshah, a true sacred community, exists only when we are willing not only to help, but to open ourselves up to the possibility of being supported.

To do so is increasingly difficult in a world that not only allows, but encourages, us to show beautiful plants instead of our boiled seeds.

In May, ESPN shared the story of Madison Holleran, a freshman on the UPenn track team who died by suicide in January 2014. In the article and interviews, friends and family spoke of Madison’s struggles—and how Madison perceived everyone as happy and adjusted, except herself. The article delved deeply into the use of Instagram, a form of social media where users post pictures, often edited through some sort of filter.

The article reads [and I quote]:

“Young women growing up on Instagram are spending a significant chunk of each day absorbing others’ filtered images while they walk through their own realities, unfiltered...

No image captures the paradoxes of Madison’s Instagram account more than the one she posted just an hour before [she died]. Holiday lights are twinkling in the trees of Rittenhouse Square, and Madison put a filter on the image that produced an ethereal quality, almost as if the night is underwater.

She seemed acutely aware that the life she was curating online was distinctly different from the one she was actually living. Yet she could not apply that same logic when she looked at the projected lives of others…

She and Ashley Montgomery, a friend and track teammate, followed a group of Penn upperclassmen on Instagram. They would scroll through pictures and say to each other, “This is what college is supposed to be like; this is what we want our life to be like.”

Madison’s high school friends had told her they were also struggling…They had all shared some form of their struggles with Madison, yet in her mind, the lives her friends were projecting on social media trumped the reality they were privately sharing….

Instagram is passed off as real life…”

Not only do social networking media afford us the opportunity to selectively post the “best-of’s” of our lives, they encourage us to make life look even better than it really is. The self we portray to the world is so radically different than the way we actually live in the world. And as we scroll through beautiful image after beautiful image, happy post after happy post, how can we do anything but feel alone—like everyone else’s life is being lived more fully?

Filtering our lives does not do us—or our loved ones—any good.

Now, as we embark on a new year, let’s begin to turn off those filters.

And let’s start at Temple Shalom.

After all, if we can’t stop filtering our lives in synagogue, where can we?

Recently, one of our members pointed out that when something was wrong or someone needed help, the first phone call used to be to the synagogue, to at least alert us as to what is going on. But most of us don’t do that anymore.

It’s not in our nature to want an entire community to know what boiled seeds we possess. But this is something we must to re-teach ourselves to do.

It is not just letting our clergy know that we are struggling; it is about allowing the community in. As clergy, we can offer pastoral care, but the Temple Shalom community can offer more than just support. Our members come from diverse backgrounds and offer a wealth of experiences, both personal and professional, which may be intimately related to our current struggles, be they physical, emotional, or interpersonal.

Sadly, and in a way that is also comforting, it is likely that someone in this community, someone in this room tonight, has walked a similar path before you, you just haven’t yet had the opportunity to meet.

The Talmud teaches that Rav Yossi said:

I was walking on a pitch black night when I saw a blind man walking in the road with a torch in his hand.

I said to him, ‘My son, why do you carry this torch?’

And he replied, ‘As long as I have this torch in my hand, people see me and save me from the holes and the thorns and briars.”

Sometimes we need to put down the beautiful plants that the children in Allison’s community carried and stop portraying a life of filtered images. Instead, like the man in Rav Yossi’s story, we need to carry a torch, shining a light before ourselves so that others can see, saying, “I’m here. I’m struggling. Please help me navigate around the holes and away from the thorns.”

Someone might step forward and take your hand.

Someone might take your hand and say, “I once went down this path when I couldn’t see, but I eventually made it through. Let me help you.”

And perhaps, you might bump into someone who is holding a torch before them as well. And by joining your torches, you realize that you can actually see just well enough to walk the path together.

What does this mean for us practically, as a community?

It means please consider sharing your struggles with us. And, although it is difficult, allow us to do our best, whenever possible, to make connections within our community with those who can help and support you. Whether it is allowing Mitzvah Corps to arrange meals, allowing us to connect you with a professional in our community who specializes in the challenge you are going through, or connecting you with a congregant who went through a similar experience.

Please consider sharing your story.

In community organizing, one of the questions often used to start a one-to-one relational conversation is, “What keeps you up at night?”

That’s a tough question to answer.

It means being brutally honest with the person sitting in front of you.

It means exposing your boiled seeds, putting the filtered image aside, and holding up that torch.

But it also means opening up to the possibility of finding someone who empathizes with, and even shares, your experience.

Many of us are familiar with the words of Rabbi Hillel, “Im ein ani li mi li? Uchsheani l’atzmi mah ani? V’im lo achshav, ematai.”

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And, when I am for only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when.”

The pshat, simple meaning, of this text is that we must first stand up for ourselves, we must stand up for others, and we must not wait to do so.

But let’s read the text with a slightly different emphasis. Instead of, “Uchsheani l’aztmi mah ani.” “And when I am only for myself, what am I?”,

we might read it as, “Uchsheani l’atzmi mah ani,” “And when I am only for myself, what am I?”

We can’t be the only ones for ourselves. We need to allow others to be for us, too.

Judaism challenges us over and over and over again to perform mitzvot, give tzedekah, and engage in gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness). And we heed the call. But how often do we let others be for us? How often do we ask for help? It’s not as prevalent a concept in Judaism, but it is there, hidden a little bit deeper in the text.

16th century Jewish scholar Joseph Caro even went so far as to say, when we are greatly suffering we are required to accept aid from others, and that to not accept help makes us guilty of hurting ourselves.

We are not only encouraged, but obligated to accept help from others.

And in order to accept help, we must hold up our torch and let others know we need it. Asking for help is rarely easy. But, when understood in this context, it is a mitzvah. And, it is a mitzvah that allows others to perform mitzvot in response.

And one day you may need help, but another day you will be helping others.

In fact, our emeritus Rabbi Bruce Kahn has taught that Mitzvah Corps at Temple Shalom was developed with the understanding that one day you will be the beneficiary, the next the benefactor.

Rosh HaShanah commemorates the creation of the world. And in God’s infinite wisdom, God realizes that Adam cannot be alone, but that he needs an ezer knegdo, a helpmate.

The word neged means both “opposite” and “close to.”

Accepting help from others often feels like the opposite of what we want, but there is much healing that can result from the closeness of that helping relationship.

God realized that at times when we most feel like we don’t want people close, that is when we need it most.

We all need helpmates—

It is time for us to reengage with this concept.

On Erev Simchat Torah, we will have one of our Kehillat Shalom Adult Learning opportunities before dinner and services. During that time we will have an opportunity to engage with the study of Torah in several different capacities—from tachlis, the details, to the theological, and I’d like to offer a session that is more metaphorical.

Simchat Torah is the holiday when we renew our study of Torah, beginning again from the start. We all have our own Torah to share and to teach, and so I would like to offer a session on how to begin to have those conversations, to learn to have one-to-one relational conversations. To begin to learn how to ask the question, “What keeps you up at night?” and to, perhaps more importantly, explore what it means to be vulnerable enough to answer the question.

It will mean getting rid of the filtered images.

It will mean exposing our boiled seeds.

It will mean holding up a torch.

And it will mean allowing us to be ezer knegdo, a fitting helpmate, to one another.

May we, in 5776, perform the mitzvot of

telling others about our boiled seeds,

showing true images of ourselves,

holding our torches up so others can see that we are in need,

and becoming fitting helpmates for one another.

Shanah Tovah