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You Just Never Know

Rosh HaShanah Morning 5781

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona

L’shana Tovah. Hayom Harat Olam, today is the birthday of the world, a wonderful time of new beginnings and exciting possibilities. It is a day to celebrate birth. It is in our liturgy and in our minds and hearts: a new year has been born, fresh and clean and bright with possibilities.

But, you know, sometimes even exciting new births can be problematic.

There was a wild story in the news a little whole back, not a story about Coronavirus, a kind of situation you read about in novels but assume never really happens in life. It seems that on a morning in May in a small town hospital in eastern Oregon in 1953 two baby girls were born, Kay Rene Reed and DeeAnn Angell. Their families were thrilled to have healthy baby girls, and doted on them.

The two girls grew up and got married and raised families, and in the course of time became grandparents themselves.

And then one day one of their brothers got a phone call…

An 86-year old woman who knew his mother called Bobby Reed, one of the girl’s brothers, to get something off her chest—something she had suppressed for more than five decades years.

Apparently the hospital made a huge error, and the babies were actually switched at birth. The woman told him that one of the girl’s mothers, Marjorie Angell, had insisted back in 1953 that she had been given the wrong baby after they returned from bathing the two newborns, but her concerns were brushed off. The nurses shushed her, attributing it to post-partum confusion. I certainly hope times and hospital practices have changed since then…

This bombshell news of switched identities hit the two women pretty hard, as you might expect; after all, it’s quite a shock to realize that your life should have been someone else’s, and hers should have been yours, that your parents weren’t really your parents, and your siblings aren’t really your siblings. Of course, they didn’t just take the revelation as fact without checking it out. So the two women met for the first time and underwent DNA testing. And it confirmed that they really are each other… definitively.

In fact, the results showed that their likely probability of being related to their brothers and sisters was zero, while their likelihood of being related to each other’s brothers and sisters was 99%.

As Kay put it, "I cried. I wanted to be a Reed — my life wasn't my life."

DeeAnn, the other one-time baby involved, said when she learned of the half-century old switcheroo, “Does this mean I’m not invited to the family reunion?”

Or as the Talking Heads sang in a song back in the 1980’s, “this is not your beautiful life.” In this case, it really wasn’t.

The two ladies are now friends, and recently celebrated their shared birthday together. The hospital involved offered to pay for psychological counseling—rather the least they could do, no?—but the women refused. At this stage in life it’s probably not worth the time. Or as DeeAnne put it, "I'm trying to move forward and look at the positive. You can't look back. It just drives you crazy."

While I do recall often telling my little brother that he was not related to me—I think I used to say that he was left on our front porch by a herd of marauding gorillas—we always think that this switched-at-birth story is not something that happens in real life. I can imagine it as a reality TV show, though, probably on Fox—babies switched at birth without their mother’s knowledge, and we get to watch the results. Although in truth we have been thinking about this kind of event for a very long time.

The first story of this type that I know of goes back about three thousand years to the Hebrew Bible, and the book of Kings. King Solomon is asked to determine whose child a baby is, who the real mother is. He holds up a sword over the baby, offering to divide it in half and give half to each mother. Recoiling in horror, one of the women insists that he give the baby to the other woman rather than kill it, while the other woman seems content with his arrangement. Solomon decides that the baby should go to the more solicitous woman, who turns out to be his true mother, and the tale has long been considered an illustration of King Solomon’s great wisdom.

I always sort of figured that if that famous baby had been a teenager when the mothers were fighting over him Solomon’s sword threat would never have worked.

There are lots of fictional versions of this story of traded identities, especially switched at birth babies. Usually in those stories, like the Man in the Iron Mask, one kid is the future King of France while the other is a pauper, or the switched children are from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas like HMS Pinafore or the Gondoliers, or Mark Twain novels about race, like Pudd’nhead Wilson. But this time the tale is quite real, and both normal women will now have to come to terms with the sense that their identities are not what they thought they were, and that everything they thought they knew about the world was not at all what it seemed.

Well for lots of us 5780 was a year in which we all learned a great deal about how little it is that we really know. It was a kind of switched-at-birth year, arriving with stories of a new virus in China back in January, then tales of widespread deaths and lockdowns, progressing to shocking stories of disastrous infections by March, and moving on to 200,000 American deaths to date. So much of what we thought we knew 12 months ago now seems to have been proven wrong—and so much that we didn’t know now seems to have been fact. A switched-at-birth year.

For example, in the category of what we think we know and don’t, how many of you planned to be working from home all the time back in the winter? Or getting all of your entertainment from Netflix and Amazon Prime? Or figured you would be watching professional baseball and basketball games played in front of empty stadiums and arenas?

Often in our lives we figure we know how things work in the world, and we plan and act and focus on what we are quite sure we will achieve. And just as often it turns out that we really didn’t know nearly as much as we thought. This year we learned that all over again—and boy did we learn that…

As comedian—and ordained rabbi—Jackie Mason puts it, ‘My grandfather always said, “Don’t watch your money; watch your health.” So one day while I was watching my health, someone stole my money. It was my grandfather.’ This year we feel a little like that.

The truth is that if you had told me—or anyone—just what the past year would bring I wouldn’t have believed you. Every year has its surprises, but last Rosh HaShanah we thought our biggest issues were the coming presidential election and maybe global warming. Instead, the problems we needed to address were the largest public health crisis in a century, and the worst recession since the 1930’s. Last Rosh Hashanah no one had heard of COVID-19, and Coronavirus was not in the lexicon or the reality of our lives. Our world was a very different place. Perhaps a few pandemic doomsayers had inklings of serious trouble ahead, we didn’t have any idea of the scope or severity of the challenge. Oh, and no one predicted 18% unemployment, or the shocking feeling of malaise that permeated our culture—and the intense politicization of public health issues. Wow. What a year.

A reminder: as the prophet Amos said, lo navi v’lo ben navi, I am not a prophet and I am not the son of a prophet. And Amos was actually, a prophet… how much less are the rest of us able to predict the future with any accuracy!

The hard truth is that we cannot predict the future, not even a few months out. And if there is any lesson from the year 5781 it is that we certainly cannot control that future.

There is a most interesting book by a man named Leonard Mlodinow called The Drunkard’s Walk—How Randomness Rules our Lives. The title refers to a mathematical term for random motion, such as the way molecules move as they fly through space bumping and being bumped by their fellow molecules. He sees this as a metaphor for life, the paths we take from college to career, from single life to marriage, from event to event, moved as much by chance as by choice.

Mlodinow, the son of a Holocaust survivor, remembers watching the yellow flames of Shabbat candles dancing randomly on Friday nights, shifting and flickering, growing and shrinking, all without apparent plan or cause. Surely there must be rhyme or reason to the flames, some pattern that scientists could predict and explain with mathematical equations? But his father answered, “Life isn’t like that. Sometimes things happen that aren’t foreseen.”

He told his son of the time he was a prisoner in Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp in which he was imprisoned and starving, and he stole a loaf of bread from the bakery. The baker had the camp guards assemble everyone who might have committed the “crime” and line the suspects up. “Who stole the bread?” the baker asked. When no one answered the baker told the guards to shoot the suspects one at a time until either they were all dead or someone confessed.

Mlodinow’s father stepped forward to spare the others. He did not try to do so because he was a hero, he said; he expected to get shot either way. But instead of having him killed, the baker gave him the plum job of baker’s assistant.

“A chance event,” Mlodinow’s father told his son, “But had it happened differently you would never have been born.” It struck Mlodinow that he personally owed Hitler for his own existence, for the Nazis had killed his father’s first wife and two young children, erasing his earlier life.

“If not for the war, my father would never have emigrated to New York, never have met my mother, also a refugee, and never have produced me or my brothers,” Mlodinow concludes. Chance destruction, and chance survival, created him.

In truth, for all of our efforts, the outline of our lives, like the candle’s flame, is continuously coaxed in new directions by a variety of random events that help determine our fate. As a result, life is very hard to predict and even harder to control.

Of course, sometimes we do have the illusion of control, and that turns out to be good enough. The winner in a lottery contest—I think the prize was about $100 million dollars—was interviewed recently about how he chose the winning number, which ended in 48. His answer was nearly Biblical—nearly. “It was easy,” he said, “I dreamed of the number seven for seven straight nights. Seven times seven is 48—so that’s the number I picked!” Um, well, no. I’m pretty sure 7x7 still equals 49, even in an era when truth is under attack.

You see, even our good choices can turn out to be mostly the result of good fortune.

In truth, we control very little indeed. We like to pretend we do, of course, but in the end we are subject to the vagaries and whims of the universe, our lives shaped by forces larger than anything we can change for better or worse. We can strut and fret and pump ourselves up and pretend we know what’s coming next—but usually we don’t. And Lord knows we don’t control it.

We can’t control the Coronavirus. We can’t control the economy. We can’t control world politics. We can’t control other people’s actions. We can’t control the weather. We can’t control the randomness of the universe. We can’t control God’s plan, whatever it is.

We can’t even control our parents or spouses or children or friends.

There is however, one thing we can control: our own conduct, and our own actions. And Rosh HaShanah teaches us that truth anew every year.

In the spirit of this season of repentance, I have a confession to make: I don’t really believe that God sits in front of a big book on the High Holy Days and makes notes about what we did right and wrong, and decides if we are to be written into the Book of Life or not. I don’t really think that on Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die. In fact, I don’t actually think that the powerful prayers of our yomtov liturgy are meant to be taken literally at all.

I do believe that they are here to teach us just what it is we don’t control, and how little we really know about the future. And they are here to remind us to that God, or chance, which may just be another name we use for God, is in control of all the big, macro, overwhelming things in our lives.

But these prayers, this Rosh HaShanah liturgy and holiday, these Ten Days of Teshuvah, are here to remind us that it is we who control our own actions, we who need to take responsibility for choosing to live our lives openly, honestly, decently, and generously, we who can change our lives, if not our world, by learning to live meaningfully by the mitzvot. We can control how much we give to others. We can commit ourselves to learning how to change our lives for the better, how to act in ways that are more moral, more meaningful, more spiritual.

So what can you control in this still new year of 5781?

You can learn to control yourself. You can learn to act in ways that bring blessing, not curse, that bring growth and goodness, not damage and suffering.

You can choose to make your life holy.

There is a famous poem by singer-songwriter Portia Nelson which was originally derived from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying—sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Rather like the Sefer Hayim we sang about this morning—called an Autobiography in Five Chapters. It describes each of us, I think, at many times in our.

Chapter 1) I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in.

I am lost... I am hopeless.

It isn't my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2) I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don't see it.

I fall in again.

I can't believe I'm in the same place.

But it isn't my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3) I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in... it's a habit.

My eyes are open.

I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.

Chapter 4) I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.

Chapter 5) I walk down another street.

The great lesson of this poem is that we actually can change the things that really matter. For all of our powerlessness and ignorance, we can know and control the most important part of our lives: our own actions.

We can’t control the weather. But we can control ourselves.

After a switched-at-birth kind of year, a challenging and traumatic twelve months in which we felt powerless and learned anew just how much we don’t know, may we enter this new year with real awareness of what we truly know, and can actually control. May we learn to grow and to give, to act well and generously. May God grant us the ability to find our place in this world of chance and change, and to create blessing by our own actions.

On this new year’s day—and every day.

Ken Yehi Ratson—May this be God’s will, and ours.

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