When I arrived in Los Angeles, I dove right in to the Jewish leg of my religious explorations by walking into synagogues at the appropriate times. Carrying out my goal of reconnecting with old pals was a bit trickier. Lisa, my friend who had acted as a lifeline to the old gang, tried to get everyone to meet up after the sun set on my first Sabbath. She sent out a group email and made reservations at a restaurant on Main Street. Becky and Deb replied that they couldn’t come, but Nina RSVP’d she’d try to make it.
Of all my high school buddies, I was surprised Nina’s the only one to accept as ours was always the relationship with the most friction. At times we acted like we were in a battle for who could be the biggest jerk. Last we had gotten together, 15 years earlier, she had stormed out. Her mother had died of cancer a year or so earlier and she seemed to be milking some residual neediness that irked me. Everything I said and did that afternoon communicated that I would not indulge her emotional fragility. When she scooped up her car keys and fled, I was officially the valor in our little war. We hadn’t spoken since—not even when her boyfriend was killed a few years ago.
Thinking about the afternoon I last saw Nina, I feel the hot burn of shame. What had she needed from me? To be hugged and fussed over a bit? Could I not offer my friend these small gestures of comfort? No, I couldn’t; as I see now, I was too terrified. I could not fathom that Nina’s mother had gone from vibrant to dead in a matter of weeks, the brain tumor that first made itself apparent on a trip to Israel, of all places—when her disorganized thinking alarmed her travel companions—metastasizing uncontrollably seemingly overnight. It was like Nina was a balloon and her mother had been her tether to the ground. After her mother’s death, Nina seemed to float aimlessly. I didn’t want this tragedy to be something that could happen and, if it had to be, I wanted proof that a speedy recovery was possible. I needed Nina to be regular Nina, not devastated Nina. I was so desperate for her to be okay that I refused to reach out and pull her to earth, even for a few moments.
I’ve beat myself up about it. I could not be there for my friend because I could not get past my own fear and anger. It’s no different from what motivated the behavior of the people Moses left at the base of Mount Sinai. They were terrified at having been left alone, so they reached for the quick-fix to soothe their anxiety. They did this forbidden thing because they were only human. After his initial fury, Moses calms down. He understood because he was human too. God is less sympathetic. He wants to smite them all and start over with a fresh group of people. Moses talks him out of this rage. New people would have the same faults. Moses comes back down from the mountain with another set of commandments; the people get a do-over. This list of guidelines from God represents the crux of the faith: behavior, not material things, should be your source of comfort. Your actions, doing the right thing, what you think and feel as you interact with others and the world around you, these are what God cares about; this is all anyone can know for sure. As I waited to see if Nina would actually show, I nervously hoped for my own little do-over.