“Keep on Punchin’”

While listening to a bat mitzvah student practicing her Haftarah, she sang the phrase: “Oy Lanu- Woe is us”. I asked her if she had recognized what the phrase she had just sung meant and she replied: “What phrase?” When I told her she had just said “Oy!” she replied: “I did? Like Oy Vey?” I nodded and she laughed saying: “I didn’t know Oy was Hebrew- I thought it was just said when something bad happened to you!”

She was so focused on her chanting, that she wasn’t even aware that she had said Oy!

How many of us are the exact opposite of this young bat mitzvah student: focusing on the Oys! in life and never seeing anything else? Rabbis are sometimes accused of living in isolated Towers of Torah, removed from the ugly realities of life while advocating Pollyanna approaches to life. Though there might well be cases of that, the majority of rabbis that I know teach: “When the Oys! Of life happen, remember the Ahs! as well.”

As a follow-up to my session with the bat mitzvah girl, I tried an experiment at my synagogue. Showing the Shabbat congregation of about 100 people a large poster board on which I had placed a black spot, I asked what they saw. Without any hesitation, the vast majority pointed to the black spot, ignoring the larger white board upon which it appeared.

Many years ago, on the Ed Sullivan TV Show, appeared a performer whose claim to fame was balancing and then rapidly spinning dinner plates on long skinny rods. Why and how he came up with that idea, I haven’t a clue, but I can still visualize him lining up one, two, three, four and five plates all spinning like crazy! Within a few seconds, however, the first plate would inevitably start to slow down and he would frantically run back and attempt to start it spinning again as number two then the others would begin their teetering as well. Up and down the stage he would run spinning this one and rebalancing another.

Once in a while, however, an Oy! moment would happen and a plate would come crashing to the stage floor, accompanied by a loud moan from the live studio and TV audiences- but not from him! What did he do? Started spinning another plate- no moaning, no kvetching, no Oy Veys!!

One very dark night, long long ago, the stars began to fall from the sky! The people of the town, seeing stars streaking across the heavens, panicked and assumed that the world was coming to an end. (Most definitely an Oy! moment)!

They ran to and fro crying: “The sky is falling, the sky is falling; the world is coming to an end,” until one of them remembered the wise ones who lived just outside of the village. The entire town ran to this wise couple in search of answers. They cried: “The stars are falling onto the earth. What will happen to us?”

The wise ones, who had been observing the changing skies for some time, asked the villagers to look up at the sky one more time and as they did so, said to them: “Yes, stars are falling, but take a moment to look at the stars that are not falling, but are still shining in the sky above.”

Stars do fall and Oy! moments do happen. Black spots appear on white backgrounds and spinning plates fall and break. Nevertheless, the majority of stars do not fall, there are more white spaces than dark spots in our lives and though many of our spinning plates may teeter, not all of our dishes shatter.

To paraphrase the late actress Bette Davis: “Life is not for sissies” and as my Great Uncle Max, z”l, used to tell me, in his heavily Yiddish accent whenever I would complain, kvetch or have a personal Oy! moment: “You got to keep on punchin!”

And so must we.