The Spirituality of Hot Chocolate

06.04.2017 – From Shavuot

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and the author of Lean In. Two years ago, her husband David Goldberg died suddenly at the age of 48 of a massive aneurism. His death left Sheryl in a state of shock. Her children were 8 and 10 at the time. It was a devastating loss. And, she has written a book about her experience called Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy.

At the end of the book, Sheryl Sandberg includes an excerpt from the eulogy she gave for her husband. These are some of her words:

Dave, I have a few promises I make to you today:

I promise will raise your children as Vikings fans even though I know nothing about football and I’m pretty sure that team never wins.

                I promise to take them to Warriors games and pay attention enough to cheer only when the Warriors score.

                I promise to let our son play online poker even though you let him start at eight years old and most fathers would have discussed with the mother whether it was appropriate for such a young child to play online poker in the first place. And, to our daughter: when you are eight—but not a moment before—you can play online poker,too.

Of course, Sheryl talks about the bigger things, too. But, when we hear the story of a person’s life, it’s often the little things that make the most impression on us. Many people can be described as being good fathers, or people of integrity, or kind. But, I’ll bet that only Dave Goldberg allowed his son to play online poker when he was eight. When we hear that little detail, we know that someone is talking about him, and not some generic version of him.

My friend Jack Babani died suddenly a week ago. Jack is the husband of Betsy Frankel, the daughter of Cantor Frankel from our congregation. Jack’s death was not expected. He was only 69 years old and until recently, he was the picture of health. Jack was a fanatic about exercise. He was biking to his job as a math teacher forty years ago, long before it was the thing to do.

When Janine was describing to Betsy her memories of Jack, it was the little things that came to mind. She had called him only a few days before and he had greeted him with his trademark cheerfulness: Janiiiiiiiiiiiiine……

Jack had many credits to his name. Jack taught math in the public school system for 25 years to inner city kids, a lot of them really tough kids, and they loved him He was a wonderful father to his three children. But, when his daughter Sarica recalled the special way he used to encourage her to have ‘patienza’, it was a moment we could visualize, especially those of us who knew him—and it made his fatherhood very real in a way that just saying he was a good father could not.

Similarly, when Rabbi Hassan gave his eulogy, he told a story that reflected Jack’s iron self-discipline and his incredible passion for detail. Jack used to be the go to guy when it came to precise pronunciation of Sefardic prayers and Torah reading. He knew the rules better than anyone and he had a fine ear.

So, once after Rabbi Hasson had finished reading aloud a very difficult passage, he asked Jack: “How did I do? Did I make any mistakes?” And, when Jack heard the question, he smiled and put up two fingers.

Rabbi Hasson told this story with affection. He knew that Jack only caught two mistakes, this was actually a great compliment. But, when I heard this story, I smiled. This was the Jack I knew. I could visualize him putting up those two fingers. No one else but Jack would have done it exactly that way.

Years ago, there was a teacher I knew who gave his students the assignment to write a prayer of gratitude to God. But, he insisted that they be really specific. He didn’t want them to say, “I’m grateful for my family,” as much as that might be true. So, he got students to write things like “Thank you, God, for creating a world where there is hot chocolate with whipped cream on top which melts slowly into your mouth while you drink the chocolate.”

Sheryl Sandberg says in her book that when we look for joy, we often focus on the big moments: graduating from school, having a child, getting a job. But, happiness is the frequency of positive experiences, not the intensity. That means that the small everyday moments of joy are the ones that most determine the quality of our lives. And, she quotes Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”

I think this is the meaning of the saying in our Tradition that we are required to say 100 blessings a day. We could take that on a literal level. If we add up the blessings in the daily liturgy and we include the blessings we say when we eat, that already comes to close to 100. But, I think that misses the point. I think what the rabbis were really saying to us is that there is value to us in being aware of the 100 times a day we experience some small degree of happiness.

Sheryl Sandberg actually suggests we try writing them down, the way my teacher friend coaxed her student to write about the experience of drinking hot chocolate and how much she appreciated a life that made that possible.  I think this is worth trying. It could bring a whole new dimension to our experience of prayer. What are our hot chocolate moments?

One of my happiest memories as a child was going to Jones Beach on a hot summer day. I remember the feeling of the hot sand on my feet and how great it felt when I first put my feet into the cold water. I remember the feeling of digging my feet into the cool muddy sand. And, I especially remember the almost indescribable feeling of being gently lifted by the waves. It felt like I was flying. I looked forward to that feeling all year. The whole experience was a sensual feast.

More recently, I receive daily photos and videos of my granddaughter Daniella who is now six months old. There is an intensity about her that I love. There is one photo in which she is in some kind of a donut that allows her to stand up and reach for toys and pull at them at the same time. And, the expression on her face in this photo is one of intense concentration. I love that expression. I get a lot of pleasure out of seeing her face look like that. I don’t know why. I just do.

When I’m in my car, I sometimes like to listen to music. When I was in Israel this past summer I discovered a Persian Jewish singer named Maureen Nehedar. She has a song called Ashrecha Yisrael which she sings in a mixture of Farsi and Hebrew. I’ve listened to this song about 40 times.

Something about this song is very soothing for me. Ashrecha Yisrael means “you are beautiful, Jewish people.”  Many times in my life, I have been made to feel that the Jewish people is ugly. Something in the music and the words of this song was healing for me. It’s hard to explain, but every time I hear the song, it makes me happy.

What are the little things about the people we love that make us happy, that remind us that they are them, and there is no one quite like them? When my father laughed really hard, he opened his mouth really wide and he was so happy that he couldn’t get the sound out of his mouth. What came out sounding like wheezing. My sisters and I always thought it was so funny when he laughed like that. It made us happy.

Each time my father in law, Victor Guttman, left the house he would say “To see you!”  No one says that in English. It’s a literal translation of the Hebrew “L’hitra’ot” and the French Au revoir. Something about the way Victor literally shouted out these words was uniquely him. And, sometimes in our family, we say it the way he said it because it brings him back into our lives for a brief moment.

The things we remember most about our loved ones are not necessarily the most important things, but maybe it’s for that reason that they’re the most real. Because, to paraphrase Annie Dillard, it’s the way our loved ones brought joy to our days is the way they brought joy to our lives.

So, on this day of Yizcor, when we remember our loved ones once again, let’s bring those small moments to mind. Let’s share them with each other at the Kiddush table and beyond. And, when people ask us what are we grateful for—think of those two fingers in the air; think of the lift of the wave on a hot summer day; think of the dad who taught his son to play on line poker at the age of eight. And, smile.