Over the last quarter of a century (!), I have become an inveterate knitter. Scarfs, hats, mittens, Afghans, baby blankets — all these I have made, and made in abundance during the pandemic. My closet overflows with matching hat and scarfs that I have not yet found a place to donate. The colors shimmer: deep purple, sea blue, black, orange, and even self-striping rainbows. I imagine a family with a new baby opening the welcome basket from my shul and finding the soft, multi-colored blankets, made with love and care for all those in our community.
And, like most who knit or crochet or, I imagine, even embroider, I have a stash. A back-load of yarn sits in my closet, in a drawer, waiting for me to use it. Sometimes, I have bought excess yarn because of a good sale; other times, the softness and/or the amazing hues have grabbed me and I simply must have this or that skein. And, of course, part of prepping for travel — be a short jaunt or a longer trip — is making sure I have enough yarn and a good project to see me through.
On the other side, as it were, once I have completed any given project, I usually have yarn left over. Not always much, not enough to knit a new hat with, for example, but too much to throw away. And so, as my daughter teases me, I make patches. Pairing mismatched hues and different thicknesses of yarn, I endeavor to create something with my scraps.
In Pirkei Avot (4:20), Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi teaches us:
רַבִּי אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּסְתַּכֵּל בַּקַּנְקַן, אֶלָּא בְמַה שֶּׁיֶּשׁ בּוֹ. יֵשׁ קַנְקַן חָדָשׁ מָלֵא יָשָׁן, וְיָשָׁן שֶׁאֲפִלּוּ חָדָשׁ אֵין בּוֹ:
Rabbi (Yehudah HaNasi) says: Do not look at the jug but rather at what is in it. For there are new jugs full of old, and old that do not have even new within them.
It is so easy to look at the mess in front of me and dismiss it. Only a half skein left? Toss it. In another context, it is easy to dismiss people, for what seems like their obvious flaws: this one, too young and hasn’t lived enough; this one, too old and slow and forgetful. I have illnesses, physical and mental, and too often, I underestimate what I can do, concentrating on what I can’t.
But when I peer into my drawer of yarn and the various shades reflect back upon me, I see not useless left-overs, but potential. A bit of this, a bit of that: put together, the remains of other projects seem suddenly rife with possibilities. I cast on with one skein, using one pattern: stripes, boxes, checks, and the like. My goal? To make with these cast offs a square of 12 inches by 12 inches. Patches.
When I run out of one skein, one color, I move to the next. The patch will be, if not uniform, colorful. I knit on the diagonal; I knit a basket-weave; I make pom-poms and small ties: each patch gets its own pattern. Knitting these squares is easy and portable, fitting in my purse or bag so that I do not miss a chance to knit while waiting for someone or something. A 12″ x 12″ project is quickly done, and I move on to the next. And, as Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi taught, there is so much potential we overlook because it is not obvious.
So, what does that mean as an ethical teaching?
The sum of parts is greater than that of the individual pieces counted separately.
This reminds me of an internal realization I had several years ago. I was at a conference, and the speaker was emphasizing how we should embrace our gifts — notice them, pursue them, glory in them. Good advice, this. But it suddenly occurred to me that the converse is also true: we should, if not delight in our deficits, at least not be embarrassed of them. No one does everything well. No one. And when we expect ourselves to, we set ourselves up for failure. This can lead to being down on ourselves, feeling inadequate and as though we have to hide our shortfalls. I know that when I have been asked to do something for which I have no skill and little insight, rather than asking for help, I hide my struggles. I tell myself I should have talent, or at least competence, to do it all.
This was particularly true early in my career. I was a young assistant rabbi at a large congregation, and my duties were diverse. I preached, I taught adult ed, I worked with potential converts, and I offered pastoral care. And more.
My downfall, however, was the Confirmation class. It was my job to create a curriculum for ninth and tenth grades, and actually teach the 10th graders. Oy. The woman I hired to teach the ninth graders was so much more competent in both the teaching and the planning. (A few years later, when I was at a smaller, solo pulpit, I hired her to run the religious school!)`I liked the teens, but I was also, to be honest, afraid of them. I had no innate talent for this part of my job.
And so, 20 years later, it occurred to me that maybe that was acceptable. It is good to stretch ourselves, to learn new skills, to practice until we get better at a given task. But… it might also be acceptable — or even preferable in certain circumstances — to admit that some things are just beyond our ken.
A leadership team, and a community for that matter, might be seen as I see my yarn drawer. Many colors and texture and yarn weight, but no one ball of yarn sufficient to make something. But if I combine the skeins, there is enough for a quilt of patches, of bits of yarn combined with others to suddenly become something useful, something unique and beautiful.
People, too, are often not “adequate” for a particular project. But we each have gifts. Combining them, weaving them together with our various traits, our strengths and our needs: well, together, we can manage a lot. We can fundraise and run programs, preach and offer pastoral care, teach our children and adults, create a vibrant davening community across the ages and skills of the shul or organization.
The mess of people gathered for any given event might seem just that way: lots of individuals and so much need. But let us look what is inside: skills, passions, ideas, wishes. As we unravel ourselves before one another, and then knit ourselves back together, using each person and her gifts, we can create a sacred community.
Rabbi Sandra Cohen works with religious communities to help them become more welcoming and inclusive of those with mental health challenges and their families. She preaches, teaches, offers workshops, and works as a Scholar-in Residence. Rabbi Cohen is also a teacher of rabbinic texts, and offers pastoral care in Denver, where she resides with her husband.