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Of Hells and Handbaskets – 3/23/2014

Some of you have heard me speak before about the mythical town of Chelm – a city that exists in the folklore of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. In the village of Chelm, said to be situated somewhere in what is today Poland or Ukraine, everyone is a fool, and their stories impart wisdom by counter-example. Sort of like that comic strip from the children’s magazine Highlights – Goofus and Gallant – except, all Goofuses.

In one of these stories, Yankel, the town of Chelm’s Hebrew teacher, and his wife Reshka were trying to save money for a special occasion. Specifically, they were saving up for hamantaschen, special cookies for the holiday of Purim – which in reality was observed last Sunday, but in this story was still several months away. The two were very poor, but they decided that if they put aside just a bit of money each week, they would have enough. They found an old trunk with wheels on the bottom, and agreed that they would each put one coin into it every Friday.

And that is exactly what they did – for the first week. But when the second Friday came around, Yankel thought to himself, “I have just this one coin left in my pocket – why should I put it into the trunk? Let Reshka put in hers this week; that will be enough.” But Reshka, at the same time, was thinking much the same thing about Yankel, and so that week neither of them put anything into the trunk, each thinking that the other had made their contribution.

This went on for several months, until the day that Reshka and Yankel had agreed to open the trunk. Together they threw back the lid, expecting to find a pile of coins inside. Instead, there were just those first lonely two. Reshka looked a Yankel. Yankel looked at Reshka. Each knew the other had cheated, and their anger had to burn twice as bright to cover their shame. They began to argue, and then to shout, and then Reshka grabbed hold of Yankel’s beard, and Yankel took hold of Reshka’s wig. They pulled and struggled back and forth for a moment before toppling over together – right into the trunk.

The lid snapped shut with the two still wrestling inside. The trunk began to roll – it had wheels, remember – as their struggling jolted it across the room. Trapped together they slid out the door which was too simple and meager to have a threshold or any sort of step between the floor and the street. The trunk rolled out into the road and this is where it really began to pick up steam, because Yankel and Reshka lived near the top of a hill. Down, down it rolled, careening towards the center of town until the road flattened out and the trunk came to a stop – right in front of the synagogue. The street was crowded with people, who saw the trunk lurching back and forth with terrible noises coming from inside it, and knew at once that it must be haunted. When one brave soul finally ventured to open the lid, the townsfolk found Reshka and Yankel inside still quarreling with each other and arguing about the money they had not saved. Embarrassed by the incident and determined that nothing like it should ever happen again, the wise men of Chelm enacted three new laws: that no teacher of Hebrew should ever again be allowed to live on the same street as the synagogue; that all doors in the town henceforth should have thresholds; and that from that day, no trunk in Chelm should be permitted to have wheels.

Each year at our annual auction I offer one of my sermons for auction, with the winner getting to choose a topic, theme, text, or central question. Your next opportunity to bid on such an item is coming up in just a few weeks. This sermon is the one auctioned off in the spring of last year, and its winner was Ms. Carolyn Payne. When we sat down to discuss the sermon, Carolyn and I had a lovely conversation, rich and far-ranging, which left me with much to think about; but the particular topic of this service she left up to my own determination. Based on a moral puzzle that she had raised with me, I have arrived at this question: “What is it that we owe to one another?” What is our most basic obligation – not just to our families or our friends or to people we like, but to acquaintances and strangers, and to people we do not like?

The particular puzzle that prompts this question was outlined in our reading just a bit earlier. The first voice, in a song by Pete Seeger, invokes a quote attributed to the teacher Jesus in the Gospel According to John: “In my Father’s house are many rooms…”[i] Seeger’s song is about the desperate need for the space necessary to be ourselves – what Virginia Woolf literally called, “A Room of One’s Own.” This basic need for autonomy and non-interference – that we all might be free, to know and to grow – extends to individuals as well and to communities and nations, as tempting as it might be to meddle in the affairs of our neighbors.

The second voice, in Robert Frost’s famous poem undermines that idea, or a too-cute version of it, in the same way that the frost and cold topple the rocks of the broken wall. “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.” Our lives are formed out of our connections to each other. The more we cut the world up into fragments and parcels, the less human we become. Our very beings require relationship in order to cultivate and express what it is to be alive, and at the same time, we need separation enough to develop our own difference, rather than have who we are dictated by someone else. This seeming contradiction applies at every level: in our closest relationships, and in our most distant ones. In the space between siblings and cities, neighbors and nation states.

I should pause to say something here about the title of this sermon. Ms. Carolyn is, as many of you know, a person with a gift for conversation and storytelling and a knack for finding just the right turn of phrase to express a thought or feeling. And one of the many I have heard her use before is that old saw, that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. It names quite well, I think, that feeling you get when everything seems a terrible mess and you are at a loss – at least temporarily – as to what can be done about it. The tension between our common interest in each others’ lives and the space we need to make mistakes – a mistake being any choice a person makes that you do not like or agree with – that tension can certainly produce this hell-in-a-handbasket feeling. I know that it has for me.

The exact origin of the phrase ‘to hell in a handbasket’ is uncertain, but it is clearly an American saying with a likely connection to an earlier Britishism. ‘Going to heaven in a wheelbarrow,’ used to be a euphemism for going to hell – the implication being that getting into heaven required hard work and effort, while heading in the other direction was as easy as pie. The demons of the abyss would be all-too happy to carry you there themselves, hence the image in some religious art of devils toting poor souls around in handcarts and wheelbarrows.

Now, I find a lot to reject in this metaphor. First of course, the premise of a place of ever-lasting torment where the damned spend eternity suffering for their earthly crimes. This is a theological mistake, an intentional misreading of scripture, and a slander against God so severe that it ought to offend you whether or not you believe in any God at all. It is a dangerous, soul-destroying lie which has been used to terrorize people for millennia – but this is just Universalism 101; you’ve heard me say all this before. One of my mentors talked about a lesson she received as a young preacher serving in the environs of Washington, D.C. She delivered a sermon that powerfully criticized then-president Ronald Reagan, taking him to task for the theological consequences of his policies, and calling him to account as sharply as if he were seated in the first row of her congregation. Afterwards, however, a wise elder pointed out that Reagan had not been there that morning. Had never been there before, and likely never would be. Best then, to focus your message on the people you have in front of you.

So here is my deeper interrogation of hells and handbaskets: it is far from the case that everything that is easy is evil, and everything that is difficult is good. It is possible to be kind and compassionate without over-thinking it, and at times to rescue someone’s day or even someone’s life through no great effort. At the same time, trying to do what is right will lead us into hard choices at some time or another. And denying the idea of hell as a literal place of future punishment does not discard it as a metaphor for the hells we make of life on earth.

All of these things – the challenge of being good, the conflict between individuality and connectedness, the question of what we owe to each other, and the seductive impulse to give up and let things just keep getting worse when it feels as though they are already headed there anyway – all of these elements are on display in a little French film of several decades ago called Madam Rosa. Ms. Carolyn – who among her many other qualities and interests is something of a Francophile – was good enough to point me in the direction of this movie, based on a novel by Romain Gary. The story is formed from the poor neighborhood of Belleville, in Paris, in a run-down apartment building populated by people living on the margins of the mid-20th century: among them gay men, religious and ethnic minorities, and sex-workers both trans and cis-gender. In one sixth-floor apartment lives Madam Rosa, a survivor of internment at Auschwitz, formerly a courtesan herself, now in her later years she acts as a freelance foster-mother for the children of other women whose business is sex. She takes pains to raise the children in her care, each of a variety of nationalities and religions, with some sense of their respective cultures and creeds. Among her charges is a pubescent boy named Muhammad.

As Madam Rosa’s health deteriorates and most of her wards are retrieved by their mothers, it becomes impossible to hide the fact that she no longer receives letters or money from Muhammad’s family. He tries to rescue her and contribute to the shrinking household budget, and she tries to teach him every lesson she has omitted or put off before her time runs out. All the while their fragile lives depend on their neighbors: the rich variety of people they are thrown together with by poverty and circumstance: the gangster who hires Madam Rosa to write letters home to father in Nigeria about the education he isn’t actually pursuing, the North African scholar who tutors Muhammad as his mind begins to fail, the transwoman from the lower floor whose silent generosity sustains them. Having once been deported, imprisoned, and almost murdered for being a Jew, Madam Rosa remarks at one point that she afterwards acquired forged papers to prove that she and her ancestors were not Jewish and never had been – in case there should ever come another knock at her door. Madam Rosa and Muhammad are both people whom their society never meant or expected to survive. That survival has required building up layers of secrecy, deceit, and doubt: the wig and heavy makeup she wears to an upscale café, the clumsy air of worldliness and maturity he tries to effect on the street. As Madam Rosa begins to die, she and her last adoptive son begin to tear down that wall enough to see each other over it. Being known and understood by others can be incredibly dangerous. It can also be a strategy for survival.

It is said that the teacher Jesus said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”[ii] Here he was quoting directly from Leviticus[iii], a reminder that there is much more to be found in that book than homophobic clobber passages and arcane formulas for a disestablished temple. All of humankind has always been neighbor to itself – we have only ever had this one world to share. But now in our era, we are packed in more tightly and bound together more thoroughly than at any earlier time in history. Like the residents of a tenement in some rundown quarter of Paris, we have always the freedom to pretend we are not neighbors to each other, but our fortunes are bound together just the same. Love is the standard, but for people on the other side of the world, or for folks next door, but beyond the boundaries of family or friendship or religious community, there must be some basic beginning point. That point, that most essential thing which we all owe to each other, is the truth.

I might hate how my sister drinks too much, how my coworker conducts himself at the office, how a stranger on the street treats their dog. But short of resorting to the law or some other authority, their choices are their choices, and not mine. I have a duty to intervene for anyone, in the most terrible scenarios: a little more for the people I love, a little less for the people I do not know at all. But truth is the universal obligation – it is the constant across all relationships. If your question is, “What can I do?” with regards to anyone else’s problems or choices, the first response is, “Have you tried telling the truth yet?” – do they know how you feel, what you’re thinking? Mark Twain’s advice is right, I believe. He said, “When in doubt, tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.” This is not always the last step – it almost never is. But it is a beginning.

In the story we began with, Yankel and Reshka got no particular help or comfort from the slate of new laws that were passed in the wake of their very public embarrassment. But when their neighbors found out what they had been fighting about, they sent over a whole big basket of cookies. The truth was, they lived among people who cared about them. And sometimes the truth is best expressed in actions rather than words.



[i] John 14:2

[ii] Mark 12:31/Matthew 22:39/Luke: 10:27

[iii] Leviticus 19:18


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