Life on a See-Saw: Yom Kippur Morning 2016

From the big picture window in our living room, Don and I are blessed with a beautiful view of Reservoir Park. To the right are walking trails that lead back to the municipal pool and the roller-hockey rink from which, on a cool day with the windows open, we can hear the clank of skates and sticks, and the laughter of camaraderie.

In front of us is the reservoir itself. On sunny days, the surface is like antique glass, rippled from the wake of the resident ducks and bubbles from the fish for which they dive. And to the left, there’s the playground. When the weather turns warm each spring, and then cool again in the fall, parents and grandparents spend hours with the kids, helping them navigate the jungle gym, pushing them on the swings, and catching them at the bottom of the slides.

But one piece of playground equipment sits solitary, unused, its paint flaking. I never, ever see anyone on the see-saw.

It never occurred to me until very recently, when I read an essay by Carole Leskin, who recalled that, when she was a little girl and her father would take her to the playground, she loved the swings and hated the seesaw. The swings, she wrote, “were magic carpets for me . . . I could fly! If I wanted to, I could pump my little legs really hard and soon I was up in the clouds.” But, she wrote, when her dad took her to the seesaw, she was terrified. He’d put her on one side and he – tall and lanky – would sit on the other and tell her: “Here we go, Carole, Hang on!” She remembers hanging on for dear life as she was shot into space, afraid that she would come crashing down to the ground.

Carole Leskin is writing as a woman in old age. And when she thinks about the schoolyard now, she imagines that terror on the seesaw as a struggle between her, trying to keep a level head and her feet on the ground, and Father Time, trying to fling her into the air, where she has no control.

But when I see that lonely old seesaw in Reservoir Park, I think about it a little bit differently. And I wonder about the message it sends, not just to children but to all of us at all stages of life.

You see, when little kids first come to the park, they don’t know how to navigate the playground. They need the help of grown-ups: to push them on the swings, to catch them at the bottom of the slides. But slowly, they develop their own skills. They learn, as Carole Leskin did, how to pump their little legs so that they can propel themselves into the sky on the swing set. They learn how to climb up and down on the jungle gym without falling or getting bruised or scraped. They learn how to plant their feet at the bottom of the slide so they don’t go tumbling head-first into the dirt.

But you can’t do that on the seesaw. The seesaw is the one thing in the playground you can never learn to navigate all by yourself. If the goal is teaching children that they can learn to do everything without anybody’s help, then no wonder the see-saw sits alone.

Aye, but here’s the rub: You cannot go through life thinking that you can accomplish everything all on your own, without help from anybody to boost you up, keep you steady, or wipe off the dirt and dress your wounds when you slip and fall.

The seesaw, I would argue, is the single most useful and necessary piece of equipment on the playground. It should get the most use, not the least. Because it teaches us we ought to learn to navigate life like we do the playground – with help from somebody else.

It seems natural for little kids to want to be independent, and that’s a good thing. Don’s granddaughter Rachel visited our house when she was 18 months old, and the two phrases that came out of her mouth were “I do” and “I eat” – both with an exclamation point at the end. They learn, over time, to get on the bus by themselves, to navigate going from class to class with different teachers and different classmates, to keep their own schedules and their own checkbooks, to pay their own bills and make their own way in the world.

But I wonder if we do kids a disservice if we emphasize independence at the expense of co-dependence. Not in a negative, clinical sense, but in the sense that we create healthy lives for ourselves when we learn to trust and help others, and let others trust and help us.

Columnist David Brooks calls this “being in covenant” – just the language we use in Judaism. It’s language he draws from a new book by Marcia Pally of New York University, which I mentioned last week when I spoke on the binding of Isaac. In Commonwealth and Covenant, Pally suggests that what we really want in life is what she calls “separability amid situatedness.” That’s a fancy way of saying that we want to go off and do our own thing and explore the world in our own way – but we want to do all of that knowing that we can come home to healthy, loving, families and welcoming communities that give structure and meaning to our lives. And this, too, is fundamental to Judaism.

On the see-saw of life, it’s the comfort of knowing that there’s somebody on the other side who’s there to keep you balanced and safe.

As Brooks points out, we live in a world where autonomy and individuality reign supreme, where people are increasingly separated and isolated by social and economic forces, yes, but also by new technologies like the internet. People spend more time alone, either because they’re forced to or because they choose to. Individuality was supposed to empower people, but Brooks sees the opposite happening. “People are often plagued by a sense of powerlessness, a loss of efficacy,” he writes. “It turns out that people can effectively pursue their goals only when they know who they are – when they have firm identities. Strong identities can come only when people are embedded in a rich social fabric. It’s hard to live daringly when your very foundation is fluid and at risk.”

That’s where covenant comes in. And it’s a different type of relationship than we are accustomed to in our society, where the art of making a deal can be a best-seller but the craft of creating covenant is relegated to the back of the bookstore, in the more obscure realms of sociology and religion. As Brooks puts it:

“People in a contract provide one another services, but people in a covenant delight in offering gifts. Out of love of country, soldiers offer the gift of their service. Out of love of their craft, teachers offer students the gift of their attention.”

Living in covenant with other people is, as it turns out, as important in the secular parts of our lives as it is in this sanctuary. It’s just more obvious when we are in a religious setting, overtly talking about commitments of faith.

This morning’s Torah reading – “Nitzavim,” from The Book of Deuteronomy — re-emphasizes the spirit of the covenant by challenging us to stand up for what’s right and just. The Torah deliberately uses the plural in the Hebrew: Each of us has a responsibility, but we fulfill that responsibility in community. And in the afternoon reading from the Holiness Code of Leviticus chapter 19, we are challenged to see covenant in all of our relationships – faithfulness to family; support for the disabled, the poor, the hungry; justice in judgment. Not because we have contracts with these people but because we have a covenant with them through God:

קְדשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם

You all shall be holy, as I, Adonai Your God, am holy.

Once again, the command is to each of us, but the Hebrew is in the plural. Twice over, the Torah brings us this “separability amid situatedness.” As Marcia Pally writes, “God’s spirit of righteousness and care is given to the nation through the gift of the commandments to help it carry out what God knows it can (be righteous and a means to the blessing of humanity).”

Torah’s repeated message of “separability amid situatedness” is fundamental to the way we live as Jews. Not just here in this sanctuary, where we speak the language of covenant most openly – but, most importantly, when we leave this overtly holy space and time and create holy space and time the rest of the year, in the rest of our lives.

As Marcia Pally notes, a contract protects interests, but a covenant protects relationships. That’s exactly what the prophet Isaiah expressed in the Haftarah of consolation and hope just a couple of weeks ago, in the lead-up to the Days of Awe:

For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall the covenant of my peace – the b’rit sh-lomi – be removed, says the Eternal who has mercy on you. (Isaiah 54:10)

Isaiah’s message prepared us for the commitments we make today. That’s the thing about a covenant: you can always count on it in a way that you cannot with a contract. Contracts can be broken, dissolved, nullified. But covenant stands fast. When you are in covenant with the person on the other end of the see-saw, you know he or she will be there to keep you balanced and safe.

It is covenant, David Brooks notes, that “preserves individual freedom while strengthening social solidarity.” Today, we Jews reaffirm the covenant with God that is reflected in our behavior toward others. But for the world to be redeemed – for the world to be a better, safer, more peaceful place like that playground across the street – we must be challenged to create covenants with others that stretch across the ties of family, community, religion, race, and income.

If we are to be the holy people that God commands us to be, we must understand that it does not matter that the person on the other side of the see-saw is a family member, a close friend, or just someone who relies on us to see to their sense of safety and balance.

When I was a kid, I used to see other kids sitting on one side of the see-saw, waiting for somebody else to come and play. And we always did, whether we knew them or not. It was a way we met new people, and build new relationships – based from the beginning on mutual trust. We didn’t understand the language of covenant when we were five years old. But that’s what we were doing. Maybe it’s time to put a fresh coat of paint on the see-saw, oil the squeaks out of it, and make it important again.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin


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