A story from Morris Treibitz, Alone, but not lonely, with commentary from Rabbi David Benjamin Fainsilber
Erev Rosh Hashanah
September 20, 2017 // 1 Tishrei 5778
I want to share a story with you
as told by a man named Morris Treibitz.
He is someone that Alison worked with over 10 years ago
while she was running programs in a correctional facility.
Morris is someone we are both close with.
It is a striking story from his past
about overcoming the dark feeling
of being alone and in despair.
It is one story that speaks to
the power of the cry of the shofar.
Here are his words.
Alone, but not lonely
By: Morris Treibitz
“It’s 1999, two days before Rosh Hashanah,
and I can’t think of anything positive
to look forward to in the coming year.
Rabbi Shalom Leverton is coming to see me
and bring some supplies to celebrate the Holiday.
I know that he’s going to try to lift my spirits.
He’s going to tell me
what a beautiful soul I have or something like that.
Although I am eager to get my hands
on some of the food he will be bringing,
I am not too eager to be around this upbeat man.
His unbending optimism is contagious,
and today I don’t feel like being happy.
At this point I am 23 years old,
and I have been in prison for two years
with eight years to go,
serving a term for armed robbery.
The Rabbi is a member of the Aleph Institute,
a program designed to reach Jews in prison and the military
and help advocate for their religious rights.
I am waiting for the officer to come unlock my cell
so I can go to the chapel and meet him.
Finally, 30 minutes past the appointed time,
the officer comes and lets me out.
He tells me that my “priest” is at the front gate,
and they are waiting to hear from the administrator
for approval on the items he brought.
I am directed to go to the chapel to wait.
Walking the long corridors of the prison,
I start to get angry,
assuming that they will not let him in.
Or even worse, maybe they won’t let the food in.
Maybe the chaplain forgot
to submit the special request to the administrator,
and it would be too late to do so at this point.
Maybe the officers were giving the Rabbi a hard time.
Assuming all of these things
and feeling as though I have no recourse,
my eyes begin to burn with tears that I fight back.
This is not a place to let people see me cry.
Suddenly, the door swings open,
and Rabbi Leverton is standing there
with the biggest smile a person could muster.
As if I am the only person in the world,
he shouts out my nickname as loud as he can, “MOE!”
I am so happy to see him that I forget my tears
and decide to forgive him his cheerfulness.
I see he’s empty-handed
and I ask him if they denied the food.
As I ask the question two guards step into the chapel
each carrying huge boxes.
I should have known that nobody gives this Rabbi a hard time.
His very presence commands respect.
He brought me all of the traditional New Year foods
along with a shofar, a Holiday prayerbook,
and a new Aleph calendar.
Although I am wearing a happy face,
he can tell that something is wrong.
When he asks me what’s wrong,
I let him know that I’m feeling hopeless.
I explain that I can’t even fathom what eight more years will bring.
The Rabbi looks at me and starts to compare me to an onion.
He’s saying something to the effect that
I am like the layers of an onion
and that each time the onion rots,
a layer is peeled and a newer fresher one is underneath.
While he’s saying this, all I could think is that onions stink.
The Rabbi asks me if I know how to blow the shofar.
I tell him that my father had taught me years ago.
He hands it to me and I try to blow it.
I don’t do very well.
He takes it from me
and proceeds to blow the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard.
I could hold back no longer.
Without warning, the tears that threatened me earlier
started streaming down, staining my cheeks.
I was reminded of walking with my father to shul
to hear the shofar.
It made me realize how much I missed my family
and they were missing me.
My body racked with sobs akin to a hysterical child.
After I collected myself, the Rabbi explained to me that
one of the sounds of the shofar, Shevarim,
represents the crying of the Jewish heart.
He explained that we are crying
for the missed opportunities of the past year,
our misdeeds, repentance and most importantly,
the yearning to connect and grow.
At the moment the shofar is blown
he said all the Jewish people are standing
in front of our creator as one.
No walls or barriers and certainly no bars or barbed wire fences.
My family and I will be together.
I began feeling like a new person,
cleansed of sorrow and grief,
free of pain and the walls that surround me.
I explained this, telling him how good it felt to cry.
He then told me that from now on,
whenever I need to cry and can’t, due to my environment,
I should just let the shofar do the crying for me.
He told me to just close my eyes
and remember what it sounded like,
and I will feel the same way I feel right now.
He gave me a hug and left.
As he walked out I thought how much I love that man
for his words, his kindness and especially his optimism.
On Rosh Hashanah that year,
alone in the chapel,
I prayed for forgiveness.
I prayed for my family
and I prayed to be a better person and a better Jew.
I was not miserable, but I did feel lonely.
Until I blew that shofar.
Or at least until I tried to.
I am sure that it didn’t sound majestic or mystical,
but to me, in my head, it sounded just the way
the Rabbi blew it two days earlier.
Just like my father blew it for me so many years before.
I was not alone anymore.
I was standing as one with my family, my friends, my people.
I was connected, happy and free.
It was at that point I knew that
although there may be times that I would feel lonely,
I would never be alone again.”
Here is a story about the depths of pain and being alone
and rising above.
Most of us have not served time,
or even heard stories directly from life in prison.
It is striking to hear these particular
words of connection to our own heritage,
to the shofar, to the foods of this holiday,
from someone who served many years in prison.
Yet, what might be shared with Morris
is the humanity of the struggle of feeling alone,
and of connecting to this holiday and to others.
At this season, as we think of the year that has passed,
as we think of lost loved ones,
as we think of the times we ourselves were lost and lonely,
as we experience more fully the resonance of our hearts,
we too might find ourselves entering dark places.
What are we to do when we touch upon despair?
For Morris, the memory of his father
walking him to shul and hearing the shofar
brought him to a place where he could rise above that darkness,
where he could feel connected to his family and people,
and in light of his personal past, where he could seek forgiveness
and pray to be a better person and a better Jew.
Each of us carry those memories within us,
those moments that bring us that sense of connection,
that can help lift us out of the darkness,
out of that feeling of being alone in the world.
In those places where we feel alone, what memories can we turn to
that bring back the spark of connection within us?
So too, there is still the possibility
of creating new experiences that help us rise up.
This is the possibility that arises out of the cry of the shofar.
As the shofar blasts, we can unlock the cry in our own hearts.
May we use these precious days of our High Holy Days
to unlock the cry within, that we might never feel alone again,
so that in those moments of deep connection,
we can open to seeking forgiveness,
seeking to be better people.