Column by Mary Lee Talbot
Rabbi Ed Feinstein began his sermon at the 9:15 a.m. Tuesday morning in the Amphitheater with a story from Rabbi Nachman of Bratislava. His sermon title was “Truth From Under the Table,” and the scripture reading was Psalm 92:1-8, 12-16.
A family came under a curse. Their son thought he was a rooster. He undressed, sat naked under the table, refused to eat human food, refused to talk as a human, and refused to engage at all as a human.
The family was frantic and called in all kinds of specialists. They finally called the rabbi who said, “I can heal him, but it will be an unconventional method.” The family agreed and the rabbi took off his clothes and sat under the table with the son. They ate chicken feed and the rabbi clucked along with the son.
They spent the day together under the table and at one point the rabbi said to the young man, “It hurts my throat to speak this way. Could we speak like people speak?” The young man objected, “But we are roosters.” The rabbi said, “Yes, but could we speak like people?” And the young man said yes.
A little while later the rabbi said, “It is cold under this table. Could we dress like humans?” Again the young man said, “But we are roosters.” The rabbi said, “Yes, we are roosters, but we could dress like humans and be warm.” And so they did.
Next, the rabbi said, “I don’t like chicken food. Could we eat human food?” Again the young man said, “We are roosters.” The rabbi said, “Yes, we are roosters but human food would taste good.” And so they ate human food.
Then the rabbi said, “My back hurts. Let’s stand and walk like people.” So they stood and walked like people and the boy was cured.
Feinstein said, “I am this rabbi. I have sat under the table with people who have forgotten who they are. They are starving from eating spiritual chicken feed.”
He gave two examples. A woman came to see him, exhausted with trying to balance her life: work and being a wife and mother. She felt guilty leaving her daughter and being at work, and she felt guilty when she was home, not advancing her career. She cherished her husband, but was not sure what he really wanted. She was trying to be human, to have a life with a soul.
A man came in, facing a crisis that shook his self-sufficiency. His father had died and his best friend had a heart attack. He compromised his marriage with a one-night stand and felt like a stranger to himself.
“Neither of these people are failures; they have achieved the aspirations of their youth and would be called successful by society,” said Feinstein. “But something is missing. They are so busy winning they don’t know what they have lost.”
Feinstein quoted lyrics from U2: “I have climbed highest mountains, I have run through the fields… I have run, I have crawled / I have scaled these city walls… But I still haven’t found/ What I’m looking for.”
He continued, “I live in a value system of old disciplines, in books and rituals. Their world is the new one of Steve Jobs and the culture of disruption, or Mark Zuckerberg and move quickly and break things. Their emblem is the smartphone.”
Feinstein’s world values what is eternal. “Their world is young and new,” he said. “Has anyone ever tried to sell you something that will age you several minutes a day?” (Then he added as an aside, “Yes, children!”)
What can a rabbi say when he or she climbs under the table with people who are lost? “There is much to be valued in the new, but the something that is lost is wisdom, the old and unchanging that cannot be conveyed in a Tweet or TikTok video. Success is too small, too artificial and it leaves the soul underfed. These people have been sold chicken feed.”
Their lives have been balanced on the self, on the belief that you are what you do. “Our value is conditioned by our accomplishments,” Feinstein said. “Two men meet at a cocktail party and after exchanging names, what is the first question? ‘What do you do?’ And the answer puts you on a social grid. The next time someone asks you that, tell them you garden, you collect teacups, you are a platypus. When you find out someone is a lawyer, your esteem goes up; if you find out someone is a nursery school teacher, not so much.”
Happiness is always something for later — after you get the promotion, after you get the raise, after you win the big contract — you will be happy later. “Our time is traded for productivity,” he said. “The structure of success is built on the fragile foundation of the self.”
The rabbis tell a story that when humans die, after the body is buried, the soul goes to heaven and meets an angel. The angel will say, “What was your occupation in life?” If the soul responds, “a doctor” or “a lawyer,” the angel will say, “That is irrelevant.” If the soul says, “I fed the hungry,” or, “I protected the vulnerable,” the angel will say, “This is the gate of God, the gates of heaven are open to you.”
“The truth is the rabbis have no idea what happens after we die, but I can tell you in all the funerals I have done, I have never heard a child say ‘I was proud of dad for making so much money,’ or ‘I was proud that mom gained so much power.’ None of the graves in our cemetery say ‘Graduate of Harvard,’ or ‘Beat the market every year,’ ” Feinstein said.
He continued, “It is all about the relationships. The children talk about the moments they shared, how much they would like more time with mom or dad, to get just one more hug. The gravestones say ‘great father,’ ‘loving mother.’ It takes death to show us what matters.”
There is another kind of success under the table that is not about winning, that is not guided by the logic of economics. “Under the table is moral logic: We have to give in order to get, we have to sacrifice to gain, that it is only in losing oneself that you will find yourself, only in a selfless act will you discover your true nature.”
The founder of the Chabad Movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, said that at the moment you lose faith, one act of selfless giving — like feeding the hungry — will allow you to feel the power of God in your fingers.
In another story, a young man goes to see a rabbi. The young man says, “I don’t believe in God,” The rabbi asks why. The young man replies, “Look at all the suffering in the world.” The rabbi asks, “Do you care?” The young man replies, “Of course I do, how can I look at the world and not care?” The rabbi asks again, “Do you care?” The young man cries, “I have no choice but to care.” The rabbi said, “If you care that much, God lives in you.”
For homework on Tuesday, Feinstein told the congregation to choose a favorite charity and give a small donation. “Don’t give it from your donor-advised fund or your family foundation, give just a small donation from your credit card. And in the place where it asks where to send the thank-you note, put the name and contact information of a young person you love.”
When the young person gets the thank-you letter and if they ask about the donation, he said to tell them, “ ‘Now we are partners in healing the world together.’ Teach them the joy of giving, let them get all the brochures. Teach them that Starbucks is not a charity. Ask them to surrender one macchiato a week, or one frappuccino a month and tell them you will match it.”
Teach the next generation that the source of happiness is in giving, caring, healing and helping, he told the congregation. “What is at stake? Only the resilience to meet life’s travesties, to find redemption, to have a sense that they are significant.”
Psalm 92 says “the righteous will flourish like the palm tree, they will thrive like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. In old age they still produce fruit; they are always full of sap and freshness …”
Feinstein asked, “What is the reward of a life of giving? We can live with our ideals, we can live with finitude without bitterness, we can live in gratitude for our blessings of a life lived well. Ours is wisdom that is old; the culture you have imbibed is chicken feed that will not nourish. You need something more substantial; come and find it with me.”
He continued, “There is wisdom that will warm and comfort you; come and find it with me. You know you are bigger than this culture. You are no rooster. Your soul was created in the image of God. Come, rise up, celebrate life with us!” The congregation gave him a standing ovation.
Renee Bergmann Andrews, treasurer of the Ecumenical Community of Chautauqua and former president of the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, presided. Esther Northman, the current president of the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, read the scripture. The prelude was “Prelude on Slane,” by Craig Phillips, played by Nicholas Stigall on the Massey Memorial Organ. The Motet Choir sang ”Open to Me the Gates of Righteousness,” music by K. Lee Scott and text from Psalm 118: 19-22, 24. The choir was under the direction of Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and accompanied by Stigall. For the postlude, Stafford played an anonymous piece, “Introduction zur Thodenfeier.” Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Daney-Holden Chaplaincy Fund and the Samuel M. and Mary E. Hazlett Memorial Fund.