It can be hard to ask for help. When we do, there is a social contract that develops between the asker and the helper. One has to be willing to help, and the other has to be clear with the request.
Some time ago, in a Temple not unlike this one, the rabbi goes to the parking lot after services. He sees Mrs. Mendelsohn hunched over staring at the ground and pacing. She goes back and forth. The rabbi calls out to her, “What on Earth are you doing Mrs. Mendelsohn?” Without even looking up, she tells the rabbi not to worry. She couldn’t possibly bother him. Mrs. Mendelsohn, who is getting up in years continues to pace, her head pointed down. Clearly something is wrong. The rabbi knows he can’t leave Mrs. Mendelsohn alone in the parking lot, on Shabbat. He approaches her again, “Dear Mrs. Mendelsohn, what is bothering you?” Whatever it is, let me help you. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that,” she says. “You have a family, you are busy, you need to get home. I’ll be okay.” But the rabbi knows, he would not be much of a person, let alone a rabbi if he just leaves her there in the parking lot. So, he insists. “Please, whatever it is, you must let me help you.”
“Fine,” she says. “The ring from my late husband Saul fell off my finger.”
The rabbi immediately dropped to his knees, in his suit, crawling on the ground inspecting every of the pavement. But to no avail. The told Mrs. Mendelsohn how sorry he was that he couldn’t find it. “Are you sure you lost it here?” he asked.
She said, “Actually it fell off over by the bushes.”
The rabbi was stunned, “Then why are you looking over here?”
She said, “Ach, you want me to look over there where the light is terrible?”
It is a silly story, but there is much to unpack. Mrs. Mendelsohn was embarrassed about losing her ring and did not want to admit she had limitations. She failed to understand that some people genuinely want to assist out of benevolence. It does not have to be a rabbi. It could be a cantor. Or it could be any one of us, any single person with a caring heart. More often than not, a person’s desire to help is truly benevolent, and furthermore free from judgment. It is something we can only learn when we allow for help, as Mrs. Mendelsohn finally did.
Then she had a hard difficulty instructing the rabbi about her needs, letting him search in the wrong place. She just could not bring herself to give in completely.
Let’s face it. People just don’t like to admit they need help.
The great hero of the Torah, Moses, was no different. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro, Moses behaves very much like Mrs. Mendelsohn. His father in law Jethro comes to meet him in the wilderness. Following the Exodus from Egypt and the events at the Sea, he sings the praises for God and then observes what Moses is doing. What he sees is a man overwhelmed by responsibility. Moses spends all day attending to the concerns and disputes of the people. He listens and makes judgments meanwhile handling all the other responsibilities of leadership. He tells his son-in-law, “the task is too heavy for you. You cannot do it alone.”
To Jethro, it is plain to see that Moses needs help but does not know how to ask.
Social psychologist Heidi Grant believes this human tendency not to ask for help is hard wired into our evolutionary DNA. It comes from our need to be social creatures, to be accepted, to be seen as capable and useful, and thereby not to be rejected. So, asking for help can trigger “psychological responses akin to pain.” Our stomachs tighten. Our muscles tense. Our heads ache. This is all supposed to protect us from being vulnerable to loss of social standing.
Dr. Grant points out “[It is] No wonder… that we avoid asking for help like the plague…. The plague might seem less dangerous in comparison.”
So, we clam up. And say nothing. The Rashbam, points out that the Torah uses the same language to describe Moses’s stress as is used to describe the builders of the Tower of Babel. The translation says worn out, but what it really means is paralyzed by fear to the point of being rendered speechless
The Catch 22 is, without help, you might not succeed in a task or you may not fulfill a need, and that too can inflict our social standing. So, it’s usually better to get help than to flail and fail. The commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra writes about Moses that, without help, he is like a leaf, removed from its tree as it withers and falls to the ground.
The good news is, the negative outcomes are rare. In fact, a study determined that, when asking for help, positive outcomes are two times more likely than people expect. As leaves, we can count on our community to be a tree that nurtures us and helps us to thrive.
In the Torah, Jethro, is such a tree, an unsung hero of the Jewish people. For if not for him, Moses may have caved under the weight of responsibility. He overcomes his fears and allows Jethro to devise an efficient leadership plan. Not only do the people thrive under this plan, but it makes Moses an even better leader than before. It is an example of how, although we think of getting help as a weakness, it is actually a strength. As a leaf, connected to Jethro, Moses flourishes.
Fortunately, Jethro knew just what to do. As I said at the outset, help is a social contract between asker and helper. The helper must pay attention to the needs and respond accordingly. In the story of Mrs. Mendelsohn’s ring, the rabbi made the wrong assumptions. In his eagerness to show how menschy he was, he never actually asked where to look. He just dove to the ground.
To truly be one who helps, it demands that we respond with more than kindness. We must also be sincere, detailed and thorough as well. The follow through is even more important than the offer. It ensures we will genuinely provide for our fellow man in time of need. And the more we do for others, the more we diminish the stigma of asking.
Every single one of us has times in our lives when we need help. We must know, especially in sacred communities such as ours, that it is a strength to turn to our neighbor and ask them to make us even stronger. We also must be willing to step up for our neighbors in their time of need, to be attentive and caring, sensitive and kind, so that they will be glad they turned to us for help. Even better if we are like Jethro, who saw Moses so burdened that he could not even articulate his needs and stepped forward to see him through.
So, when Federal Workers go without pay, we step up. When our friends get hurt or fall ill, we come to their aid. When someone in our community loses a job or falls on hard times, we say, we are there to comfort them and aid in their time of need. The list goes on and on.
Let us conclude with this prayer:
May we all, as members of this congregation, and as citizens of our city, state, and country, in these difficult times for so many in their work and in their personal lives, establish an environment where we are strong enough to ask for help, and where we are also wise enough to give it.