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Icebox Symphony

Cantor Adam Kahan

February 25, 2022

 A riddle for you: When not cold, this quickly gets really old.

Answer…..Defrosting food that begins to rot...also known as anything that was in my basement freezer last week.

 Okay, fine. It’s not the most tantalizing riddle, or really, most tantalizing beginning of an article, but it is where I found myself this past week. Back when we were anticipating becoming parents, Michelle and I purchased one of those standing chest freezers for our basement. And while our now-actual children have been going strong, our Whirlpool apparently wasn't. After consulting a repairman, I now needed to determine whether to replace the possibly-faulty part, or just replace the whole freezer. 

You may have found yourself at this junction. The repairman said it could be one part's fault, but if we replace that part, we may then find the problem is really much bigger, requiring more expensive repair steps…and this would quickly add up to the price of a new freezer.  

Armed with all this information, I got into action and quickly sought a solution. Just kidding. Instead, I sat on my couch and overthought all the possibilities. 

After far too many minutes of this contemplation while at home on my day off, I knew I needed to get in action. I am not always good at getting into action. The couch is really comfortable. I thought it would be rallying to have a good song playing to get me going, so I could head out from the warmth of my house and into the cold, all to fix the lack of cold within my warm house! 

“Alexa. Play ‘Born to Run’ by Bruce Springsteen.” Alexa immediately began playing the song. When it was done, I still hadn’t left the house. Let's try another song!

“Alexa. Play ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ by The Verve.” 

“‘Bittersweet Symphony’ by The Verve is only available through Amazon Music. Would you like to sign up for the subscription?” 

“No, Alexa, thank you.” (I always feel uncomfortable telling Alexa what to do. I feel so bossy.) I was a bit disappointed that the "Bittersweet Symphony" wasn’t available, but it was alright. I asked for one other piece of music, and then I headed out on my freezer repair mission. 

I was delighted to find a repair shop just a few blocks from my house. The independent shop felt like an auto mechanic’s garage, but for appliance parts. The guys behind the counter definitely knew their stuff, and I was sure they’d be able to guide me well.  

I have to tell you about the gentleman who helped me. He was soft-spoken and knowledgeable, all while emitting that “salt of the earth” vibe of someone who worked a hard row in life. His face showed signs of the rough road, a thicker skin that had been in proximity to many a smoked cigarette. As I looked closer, I saw that he no longer had the aid of any bottom teeth. He moved in ways of gentleness, but also with a timidity to what life may bring.

He asked me questions, looked up parts, and joked around a bit with his coworkers. As we talked through the possibilities for the freezer, and his consult helped me realize we best just buy a new unit, rather than fix our broken icebox. Even thought our conversation was wrapping up, I had this sense there was something more in the air to share. 

And then he gave it to me…that little conversational strand, dangling and waiting to be pulled. He said:“Yeah, I’m getting ready to retire, anyway. You know, I didn’t always do this.” 

“Really.” I said, “Tell me a bit of your story.”

He proceeded to tell me how he used to be an operating room technician. He spent a large part of his career working in pediatric oncological surgeries, but it just got too emotionally rough. He noted this was made all the more difficult due to the PTSD he endured since his time in the Service. 

He told me stories of the times that stuck with him, of not reaching the desired outcome of a child’s cancer surgery. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for him, let alone the parents involved, or the surgeons. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I just kept listening. And then I listened some more, and some more. All in all, it was just a few minutes, but it was an amazing journey of growing closer to someone and getting to know them at a deeper level…at their core. In a way, I felt and I hoped, that I was easing his burden, if only slightly. 

“You’re a good listener. Are you a therapist?”

“No, clergy, actually.”

“Oh, that makes sense. Yeah, I’m not really religious. Actually...not at all."

“Yeah, sometimes I’m not sure I am either.” I quipped. (Note to reader: Please don’t read into that too much.) I went on, “I have never been one for dogma that tells you ‘Do this’ or ‘Do that’ so that you’ll avoid being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Rather, I look at religion much in the same way as I look at philosophy…wonderful insights and guidance to help us consume and digest this experience of life, and then in turn, be able to be contributions to our friends, families, and communities in a way that makes the world a better place.” 

We went on to talk about the whole “God” thing, which is often a sticky point for most people, and we shared…and he said, “Huh, that’s a really good way to look at it.” 

“Thanks,” I said….and then I rapped my wedding ring on the counter to make a little click-click noise, stood up, looked him in the eye and said, “Hey, thanks for the conversation. I really appreciate it. And thanks for sharing with me your story and for making a difference in the world.” And with that I headed out into the cold, and back to my car.

As I walked the short distance, I thought to myself, “This is why I do what I do. This is my work.” Sure, there are study sessions with my wonderful students. There are magnificent classes with our congregants, and services, and song sessions. All of that is in pursuit of one thing, for me….getting closer to our “Oneness”. Getting that we are all in this together, and we are here as a unit, a family who can get each other, and help each other. I felt so honored, so deeply moved, to have been blessed to have experienced that moment in my day. What good fortune.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, focuses on the artisans and community bringing their skills and materials to build the inner sanctuary of the Mishkan. That MIshkan was the temporary prayer space/tent that traveled with the Israelites through the desert. We focus on how the people brought what they could, and crafted what they could, such that they could dwell in a space and be present to God. 

I feel I was given that same honor through that conversation. This man brought the artistry of his life, and most beautifully for me, his vulnerability to share his experience even after years of trauma. I, in turn, was clear-minded enough in that moment to bring a listening, and a curiosity about the other. That isn't always the case. Sometimes I'm just too distracted by the pressures of life, but in this moment, I was blessed to be calm and aware. What often drives me, and tickles me, is a curiosity to see what will happen if we try “this”…In this particular situation, what will happen if I ask the question, “What’s your story?” 

With us both bringing our art, we got to experience a bit of God’s presence….oneness. 

So I got back in my car, and powered up my vehicle as I prepared to drive off….and, I kid you not, as the radio turned on, what song was playing? “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve. The very song I was unable to listen to earlier, but now was given the chance to hear in its full glory. 

I paused...and then I said out loud, “I see what you did there!” Was God sending me a sign? I have no idea, but it gave me a chuckle….and my truth be told, I didn’t need any more signs of God’s presence. I had already been served a big helping just moments before through my interaction with that lovely man.

Life is, quite accurately, a bittersweet symphony…but if we all hold together, listen, and learn from one another, we will build this sanctuary with the most beautiful artistic expressions of our being, and in this inner sanctum, we will be present to God and to more of the sweetness, and less of the bitter. 

I hope for you moments of closeness, of curiosity, and of deep meaningful conversation.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Cantor Adam 

Sun, December 4 2022 10 Kislev 5783