It was autumn, but still the time when lucky people get to take off for country homes and cottages. Not me. I was bound for a high-pressure lecture at a big-city federation. I was set to leave for the airport at the crack of dawn, land by 9, and be whisked away by private limo to do my stuff.
The plane arrived on time, but the limo didn’t. I called the car service and demanded my missing driver. “She’s entering the airport,” I was told.
But she wasn’t. She was on her way to the wrong airline terminal and, in addition, would get to me only after a drop-off elsewhere. When the limo finally arrived, the driver turned out to be a substitute who didn’t know how to open the nearly empty gas tank for the fill-up we needed. I felt my anger bubbling over like volcanic lava.
With nothing to do but wait as we made our way, I mentally reviewed the talk I was to give. It drew on Psalm 27, but, rattled, I had forgotten the exact quotation. I called home. “Give me the exact wording of Psalm 27,” I requested, “the one we’ve been reading all Elul in preparation for the High Holidays.”
And then it happened.
“Psalm 27!” said my driver. “You mean ‘David’s psalms?’”
“Uh, yes,” I responded.
“I use Psalm 121,” she offered. “See, I work in the office — I’m not a regular driver — but the company makes me cover for drivers who don’t show up. It’s not my car or even my job. The passengers get angry, even though I try my best. Psalm 121 calms me: ‘I lift up my eyes to the mountains…. My help comes from God.’”
My inept driver had become my adept spiritual teacher.
Come to think of it, the help we all require comes only from “the mountains,” that mysterious place beyond that we call God. We are all victimized by the unexpected: limos coming late (no big deal), diseases coming early (incomparably worse), tragedies coming ever (beyond description). Who am I to think I can avoid life’s “stuff”?
The words of Yom Kippur flooded through me. “Chatati”: “I have sinned.” Yom Kippur barely behind me, I thought, and already, here I go again. We are all just flesh and blood, humans who struggle through the day. My driver struggles a hundred times more than I. Why should I get so angry over being a bit late for a talk? If my audience doesn’t understand, they should.
There’s more. In her evening hours, my driver told me, she volunteered as a counselor for troubled teens and was about to become a foster parent for one. Arriving, finally, at my destination, I handed her some money for her soon-to-be-adopted daughter. “I am Jewish,” I said. “We call it ‘tzedakah,’ ‘charity’ — it helps make up for our sins. Tell your daughter that this is a gift from someone who loves her and doesn’t even know her.”
* * *
I try to recall that story every year immediately after the Yom Kippur fast. My default is to pick up life in the fast lane the very next day. “What causes sin?” asks the Talmud. “The leaven in the dough — our overdeveloped egos that so easily puff us up.” How terrible, really, was it to arrive a little late? What was my talk compared to adopting a troubled child?
The most important word in this week’s reading is its name for God, Elyon: “Most High” — a word to carry into the sukkah as we look through the thatched roof at the infinite universe above and the metaphoric mountains beyond, whence ultimate help derives. Unlike God, says our tradition, we human beings are earthbound and mortal. Featured speaker that I was, I was not “elyon”; only God is that. Although, maybe, my driver came close.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.