“Everything is rent.” – Rent, by Jonathan Larson
This week our Jewish high school put on a production of Rent, a rather bold choice for a religious institution. I was very proud of the kids. Their performance was spectacular, but better, through dialogue with teachers, rabbis, surviving families and friends of people who lived and died of AIDS, they understood the message, and it’s a core, it’s a Jewish one: Life is the most precious gift we have, so let us not waste it.
The message reminds me of a favorite story:
A few hundred years ago, a Jewish merchant came upon a shtetl he had never visited before. The times we difficult, many of the usual towns in his travels had been ravaged by plague, or abandoned after a pogrom. Thinking about all the people in all those places broke the peddler’s heart. It broke again at this new town as he wound his way along the path to the gates of the town that led past gravestones and markers through a sprawling cemetery. It was not the enormity of the graveyard that stuck him, he had seen the fields outside of Cracow, Prague, and even Warsaw. No, it was the numbers on the graves: 9, 25, 12, 13. Oy gevalt! My God, he thought, these were children. This is a town that is bereft of her young!
When he reached the synagogue, he was warmly greeted by a few elderly gentlemen who were just leaving the great building in the town’s central square.
“A gutn tag,” one said to the peddler.
“Good afternoon to you sir,” he replied. “Tell me, what calamity has befallen your lovely community?”
“It’s too awful to speak of. Please ask the rabbi.”
The peddler entered the synagogue and found the rabbi at the front of the hall, he was seated at a long wooden table.
“Yes, my friend,” the rabbi said over the brown leather volume he had been pouring over.
“Rabbi, I am a peddler, a visitor to your town. I have visited many towns and cities that have been afflicted by war, by plague, and even pogrom. Rabbi, I have seen and heard of many tragedies, but your town, what horrid thing has befallen your townspeople?”
“You have seen our cemetery?”
“I have, and I cried for your children and for their parents too.”
“ I see,” said the sage, “ You were right to weep, but you may have misunderstood. It is the custom of our town not to list on the gravestone a person’s age, but rather to list on the marker the number years a person really lived.”
As an encore, the players in the show invited the audience to sing along to one of the show’s signature songs; Seasons of Love was printed inside the program. “Five Hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes”. We reminded ourselves and each other to count the blessings of each minutes of every day, month and year we are privileged to share. Likewise, we reminded ourselves to make each and every minute count.
“I propose that you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency. A Marshal Plan for aid to negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” - Abraham Joshua Heschel, in a telegram to President Kennedy.
“A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. – in a 1967 Address, Beyond Vietnam.
January always renews my admiration for, and the inspiration I draw from, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and from his rabbinic friend, Abraham Joshua Heschel. January 15th was King’s birthday, and January 11th was Heschel’s.
In the quote above, King was speaking against the war in Vietnam as a distraction from the needs of our own citizens. How might it apply now? President Obama drawing down troops in Afganistan, perhaps on a quicker schedule than earlier planed (WSJ), might address the issue of war, but will it mean anything to improving the lives of our nations struggling middle class and the inflating number of working poor – the jobless rate is now down to 7.8% (Bloomberg), but the jobs are not paying the way they were before. I hear King’s challenge and ask: What are the programs that provide social uplift and secure spiritual vitality?
To my mind the answer lies in the 2008 Obama Campaign: Hope and Change. Upon his reelection, the President was right to say that “there is more to do,” and while I generally give him high marks, especially given the largely dysfunctional congress – what do they have against the UN passing guidelines that resemble our own to improve the lives of the disabled, I can’t help be disappointed. After all, where does hope come from? Hope comes from the belief that something better is possible. The soul, or spirit, is such an amazing part of being human. While the brain calculates probabilities of outcomes – what percent of kids born into poverty escape it; the soul can take merely “possible” and expand it into a dream, and under influence of a dream (“I have a dream”) the engine of hope roars to life.
The book title, The Audacity of Hope, one of the books penned by our eloquent president, has always reminded me of the the famous quote that Rabbi Heschel sent by telegram to President Kennedy regarding the issue of civil rights, “The moment calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” The issue is no longer one of race, but of class. While race is certainly still an issue in this country, and a complication to the issue of class, people of the same class, regardless of race, have more in common than people of the same race but of different socio-economic class.
The key to unlocking the issues of class, and perhaps by extension the issue of race: Education – a gap between the rich and the poor is widening (New York Times: Education gap between the rich and the poor). The degree of education a person has is a greater predictor of success and of class in the United States. And what was true for the past several decades is still true – a good education remains a privilege, and not as it should be, a right. Technology, such as on-line classes and degree programs, has the potential to democratize access to knowledge and wisdom. Nonetheless, technology is not a panacea, by example the University of California Online program has not attracted many students outside its current student population (San Francisco Chronicle).
January ushers in a new year, but also a chance to calibrate our moral compass to those of Rabbi Heschel and of Dr. King. Among the many messages that need to be heard as the President’s inaugurations draws near (Jan. 21, 2013), I add the following:
- Free pre-school for the working poor.
- Smaller classes for our students, and therefore more teachers.
- Continuing education requirements for our teachers.
- Free high education all at public institutions of higher learning (we saw how the GI Bill lifted up an entire generation after WWII).
Mr. President, you believed that healthcare was a right, and you fought for it, remember that access to a good education should also be a right and that education is the key to unlocking this country’s potential and lift its citizenry with hope and “social uplift.” Without a serious plan to tackle the inequalities of education we risk “spiritual death.” I propose the you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency. A Marshall Plan for education has become a necessity. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.
I’ve always been suspicious of the “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” crowd. Generally, the eternally sunny scare me. When do they let it out? Also, what does the good-tripping type do with out-and-out tragedies such as 20 first and second graders killed for showing up to school; the murder of 7 adults who cared for them, one of them the mother of the murder. How do you make lemonade out of that?
That is the only honest response I have. “God, WTF?! Here we are, all of us, most of us, trying the very best we can in life – and where are You?”
Yes, “What The F***!” is a prayer. Sure Psalm 13 says it differently, but the sentiment is the same. The prayer asks God, ‘where are You when I suffer, when the the world’s pain echoes through me like a deafening roar?’
How long, O Lord; will You ignore me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long will I have cares on my mind, and grief in my heart all day? -Psalm 13:2-3.
When something troubling happens, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, I get angry, angry at God. Anger at God is one of the most potent prayers I know. My friend Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu alluded to this in yesterday’s Rabbis Without Borders blog.
Of course, anger, red hot accusatory anger at God is not the entirety of Psalm 13. It opens with the startling finger-pointing accusation of God’s indifference, but it ends:
I will sing to the Lord, for God has been good to me.
I love this prayer. It allows me the honesty I need for the healthy relationship with God that I crave. Please don’t ask me to hold on to blind goodness and blessing, because then I feel especially lost and scared and angry when real trouble comes. But let me rail about: Murder, bloodshed, hunger, homelessness, parents burying their children, young girls in Pakistan being shot for wanting an education, women in the Congo being raped, and mind-bogglingly re-raped, their bodies part of the battlefield, and more, so much more…
God, if you let me say all that, let me spill my heart’s ache, well, then there is a lot left, and it’s good.
God, I am thankful for the health of my children, the gift of my wife’s love, the appreciation of my students, the feel of the ocean when I swim, the tightening of my skin as it warms in the sun, smiles, laughter, my dog, Matzah’s birthday, and I can go on and on.
I am filled with gratitude. Above all the troubles and trials of being human is a deep thankfulness for all that I have. Sometimes the world is upside down, and the troubles pile over the goodness. Expressing both my frustration and my joy is the only honest way to right the earth’s axis and move forward once again.
“Start working on this great work of art, called your own existence”- AJ Heschel
A Life well lived is an art: with guides on perspective, scale, composition, ect.
The great artists know when to break the very rules they follow, it’s the breaking of pattern and expectation that creates interest, wonder, and awe.
Such is life.
So what is religion? Specifically, what is Judaism? What is Halacha, Jewish law, ”THE way,” “THE path?” To be sure, there is more than one set of rules to follow in order to make great art, just as there is truth to be found in more than one religion. Great art borrows from other great art. Similarly, ‘no religion is an island’ (again Heschel); we borrow and share, and are deeply influenced by the religion and culture that surrounds us. Halacha then, is “a set of rules” that gives life structure and meaning.
But we have to remember that rules, patterns, are appreciated more when disrupted, challenged. It is the disruption of pattern that makes us take note of both the new and the expected. Fundamentally, our psyche is trained to take for granted the expected and to pay attention to the unique, the surprising, the break in a pattern. Such is the excitement of new love (as described in a New York Times piece on marriage, “New Love: A Short Shelf Life.” The summary: exciting for 2 years, boring and expected for about 20, with a renewed excitement at empty nest. –I’ll simply disagree for now – there is so much more to blissful married life).
In any artform, including Life, including specifically Jewish life, the better you know the rules, the more masterful the impact in breaking them. An analogy: Consider the power of a well placed single word paragraph.
English teachers can’t teach you that.
Consider Spielberg’s girl in the red dress at the end of Shindler’s List. The color adds meaning both to the innocence preserved and to the ominous nature of the otherwise black-and-white film.
In the Bible, the law of primogeniture, the rule that says that the oldest inherits, is constantly overturned: Abraham is not the oldest, Isaac is not the oldest, Jacob is younger than his twin Esau and has to trick and steal to inherit. Even King David, the rightful king of Israel, is the youngest. Why does the Bible so often highlight the breaking of this rule? Because rules gain meaning when the possibility of breaking them also exists.
It is said that there was once a very pious Jew who when he would read the verse, “…and do not be seduced by your heart or led astray by your eyes,” he would start crying (Numbers 15:39, the third paragraph of the Shema prayer said twice daily).
“Why do you cry,” he was asked?
“Because,” the pious man replied, “my entire life I have done exactly what the letter of the law has required of me, and in so doing, I’ve never had the opportunity to fully understand this verse.”
Years ago I chose not to wear my kippa (head covering). I wear it everyday, just about wherever I go. I wear it as a reminder of God, as a symbol of humility, that God is above me, and as an identification with the Jewish people. Driving a U-Haul across the country almost twenty years ago, I pulled into a truck stop in Oklahoma. I decided to put my kippa in my pocket. I wondered to myself why I was doing that? Am I not proud of being Jewish? So, I was wondering about this as I approach the register inside the station. The man in front of me was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt – just like me! I’ve always wanted to be a long-haul trucker. I had this great sense of authenticity. I fit in – until he turned around. His shirt was open and revealed a giant swastika that covered the entirety of his barrel chest. I became very conscious of the kippa in my pocket. All of its symbolism was somehow all the more powerful in my pocket than it is day-to-day in my life in Los Angeles, or New York, where I was headed.
“Profane one Shabbat so that one can keep many Shabbatot” -Yoma 85B
It seems that our religion, so often associated with the strictures of laws, might be better described as teaching the artful breaking of laws.
I content that there is an essential paradox at the heart of a meaningful life: Breaking with tradition and law, has the very real possibility of strengthening tradition and the power of the very rules being broken.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, let me be sure to say that I am thankful for everything and everyone that I have – with the obvious exception of my debt. The natural and man made crises of Hurricane Sandy and the Gaza/Israel stand-off are all the reminder I need that my problems have the unique fingerprints of truly fortunate.
A Debt Ceiling to Call My Own.
What is clear to me is that nobody thinks that I’m “too big to fail”. Be that as it may, but as of late it feels like I’m going over Niagara Falls without even the protection of a barrel. Worse, it feels like the soon to be met (again) National Debt Ceiling (12 Trillion) and the expiring Bush Era Income Tax cuts are of such monumental concern, that the citizens who make up the nation, and yes, our debt, can easily be forgotten. So, I’m going over the cliff alright, and like Wile E. Coyote fifty feet beyond the edge of the abyss, I’ve finally looked, and there is no where else to go but down. This wasn’t the American Dream I signed up for.
“However, there will be no poor among you, since the LORD will surely bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess” -Deut. 15:4
Between my wife and I, we’ve got graduate school loans in the six digits. I remember the loan officer at my school saying, “don’t worry about it, your congregation will eventually take it over.” They did not. After the economy tanked, they could not. I bought a house in 2005 which is worth just over half the amount of the loan I took out on it. The mortgage broker said things like, “Let’s just see if we can get you into that home, and then we can refi later.” The value of the home was suppose to go up enough to pay off the student loans. Instead we were forced to work with the bank to modify the mortgage – but it’s still more than 50% of my take home pay from a good job that I love. The extra work that I used to have, that helped us get by, has dried up and gone the way of everything extra. Then there are the medical bills. Even with relatively “great” insurance, I’m in payment plans with a small handful of M.D. Sometimes patients have to teach their doctors patience. On top of all that, I’ve got to figure out how to pay for college for my four kids, so they can keep this cycle going – I guess.
“For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’ – Deut.15:11
Talk about a “debt ceiling”, I’m the epitome of a twenty-first century millionaire, I owe a million dollars, the ceiling of debt that by working hard every day every dollar I make can go to servicing that debt. Every month is dedicated to paying bills, not paying off bills, just keeping them current. Will John Boehner and Paul Ryan work something out with Nancy Pelosi, the Senate, and President Obama? I believe so. Will it help me? I know it won’t. Maybe if I was “too big to fail,” but I’m afraid that I’m too small to notice. Although I’m not innocent in this whole picture, I don’t believe the my situation is all my fault. There is something seriously wrong with a system that can allow well intentioned, well educated, hard working people, fall so deeply and so completely. On every front, student loans, housing failures, medical bills – I know I’m not alone, but it sure feels like it some times.
While the government tries to keep the country from going over the fiscal cliff, will they notice the tiny plumes of dust rising from the valley floor. Some of us have already gone over.
It’s not over until…
When the Simpsons go to see Carmen at the Springfield Opera House Homer asked Bart when the show will end. Bart replied, ‘it’s not over till the fat lady sings.’ To which Homer then points to a zoftig soprano on stage and says, ‘is that one fat enough for you, son?’
If you are glad that it is finally Election Day because you think that ‘it will finally be over’, then you’re wrong. “It” being the mind-numbing, ping-ponging Romeny-said-then-Obama-said twenty-four hour news cycle and the billion dollar ad campaigns. And the idea of it being over is wrong. As it stands right now, even in a country where 25% of us are clinically obese there isn’t a fat lady large enough to end this show. The Infotainment industry will not allow it.
My fear is that regardless of who is elected the division created and divisiveness employed in the last two elections have created a powerful schism in the fabric of our country. Regardless of the results of this election, we will remain a country divided. See Thomas Friedman’s piece, ‘The morning after the morning after,’ in the Sunday NYTimes.
Rabbi A. J. Heschel taught, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
Rabbi Heschel’s insight should remind us that we must put pressure on our elected leaders, in control of government or in opposition, that we demand action on the 99% of issues where there is agreement. We will not tolerate inaction for the sake of political point scoring or posturing for the next round. As a nation we are above that.
In the Talmudic academy of old, as hot and contentious a place as the US Congress can be, rabbis of diametrically opposed view rallied hard against the other’s position. But there are rules for such a machloket, such a disagreement. First and foremost, the two sides must list everything regarding the issue at hand on which they agree. The Talmud might use the term “chulei alma” – ‘the entire world agrees’, even these two seemingly opposing rabbis about 99% of the issue at hand. Than, ‘mai benaihu’- ‘what is between them’. It is on the minutia of the tiny 1% of a problem that rabbis might agree to disagree.
Regardless of my fear that the battle is done but the war that divides us politically will continue, I pray and hold out hope.
Based on the wisdom of the Talmud understanding of how we go about disagreeing, we must demand two things after this election, regardless who wins the Presidency and who controls Congress: A) Left and Right must publicly and honestly debate the 1% of issues upon which they disagree. B) Right and Left must not use the 1% of issues upon which they disagree as hostage to acting upon the 99% that they do agree upon.
“Too long have I dwelt with those who hate peace. I am all peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” (Psalm 120:6-7).
On Sunday (10/21/12) the New York Times reported that Iran and the US would enter into bi-lateral talks after the US election. By Monday, the report was denied by both sides. So the question remains, and it remains effectively the same regardless of who wins the US presidency: After unprecedented economic sanctions, and threats of war against the West and particularly Israel, can we make peace with Iran?
“Even if the messiah tarries, nonetheless, I believe and wait for him, but peace with Iran? Impossible.” When I asked a group of twenty well educated religious Jewish adults the question, “Can you imagine Iran and Israel making peace,” their unanimous answer was, “No.” Can you imagine peace in the Middle East in your lifetime? Call me crazy, but I can. What can I say, I’m a rabbi, I’m all about faith. I asked the group about Iran because they are largely seen as the most power negative actor in the region (by no means the only one, just the most troublesome). What to do about Iran? Like our congress, I have no idea, still, I believe we will eventually find peace.
Almost a year ago the US Congress considered an increased oil embargo of Iranian oil, to teach them a lesson, to isolate them even further. Even as the Senate voted 100 to 0 to freeze the assets of Iranian Central Bank, they decided against an oil embargo against them. Why? Because even if the intension was to hurt Tehran, the result could very well be a rise in oil prices which actually helps Iranians instead. How to navigate around such a dangerous, crazy, and powerful foe? Again, I have no idea.
So why be hopeful? Again, I am a rabbi, I have a strong proclivity toward faith in a better future. But beyond that, there is a little known secret that keeps me going – pistachios. Israel and Iran have a long history together. I live in Los Angeles, with a large and proud Farsi community. The Tehrangelinos that I know, both Jewish and non-Jewish, religiously observant and not, all take great pride in the the Purim story. The story of Esther and Mordechai draws parallels, if not direct connection to, King Cyrus allowing the Jews back to Israel, and to rebuild the Temple. There is a connection. In fact, there is a tradition that there is a tunnel from Hamedan, Iran, the site of the Persian claimed
tomb of Esther and Mordechai, all the way to Israel (some claim their burial site to be in a forrest near Safed, Israel). Before the Revolution, and into the early 1980’s most of Iran’s weapons were American sold via the Israelis. See, we can play nice together (see Iran-Contra). Have the Israelis broken ties with Iran? They’d have to be nuts, and they are, for pistachios (In fact, there is really fun rumor that the payment for some of the arms were transfered via cheap pistachios). According to an LA Times article, Israel has the largest per-capita pistachio consumption rate in the world. And their greatest supplier? Via third parties, Iran.
Do I really think that Middle Eastern Peace can be settled over nuts? Not really. But here is what I take from the lesson: Be it oil, or pistachios, or major arms deals, or even the even more potent concept so desperately sought by Iran’s majority of young people, freedom – no amount of Government intervention can shut down the back doors to what what people really want. It can take time, it can be difficult, but if it’s not impossible, well, that makes it possible. My concern is that we suffer from a lack of hope. Hope in a human future which is greater than today is perhaps the greatest by-product of a religious outlook on life.
The inability for religiously minded people to believe that there can be peace in the Middle East is to fly in the face of the great Prophets of Israel, and even for the non-religious, it is a stance so defeatist that it is no wonder there is such apathy around the cause of peace. Religious or not, faithful or pragmatic, there can be no progress without the idea of hope. That idea does not reside only with the Iranians, or the Israelis, or the Senate, or any single person. Hope is of the mind and of the soul. I am not so foolish as to imagine that just believing will make peace come (I’ve clicked the heels of my ruby slippers and nothing, so, It’s not like that route hasn’t been tried). I understand it takes work. My contention is with a mindset that says “we have to accept things the way they are.” A lack of hope is a poison.
To my mind, lack of hope accounts for the epidemic of anger, depression and loneliness that we have become accustomed to in the fast paced age of the 21st century. Regardless of one’s religion, regardless or one’s religious observance of his or her religion, regardless if one even has a religion or not, I believe that hope, a move from darkness to light, is always possible.
It seems that the uncertainty of the Middle East, with the fruits of the Arab Spring still unripe, that all we can do is manage our stand-off with Iran, but I still believe that in my lifetime we will reach a better moment, an enduring peace. Without the little bit of light that hope for peace provides, we will sink into the darkness of accepting only the status quo – “war and rumors of war”. Hope and prayer for peace keep within us a grander dream, one more befitting creators created in the image of God.
“Too long have I dwelt with those who hate peace. I am all peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” (Psalm 120:6-7).
This blog is adapted from an earlier post.
“When Did I Say That?”
Countless times I’ve stepped off the bima, and a congregant has come to me puzzled.
“Nice sermon, Rabbi.”
“Thanks,” I say, waiting for the but. There is always a ‘but’.
“But, a few weeks ago I though you said the opposite.”
I scan my memory. Nothing. Who is this lady? Who asked her to pay attention? I thought our tacit agreement was that rabbi talks and people politely sit, and then the service continues.
Finally, I ask, “What did I say a few weeks ago.” After being reminded, I say, “And I meant that too.”
We often say contradictory things… and politicians, as the word suggests (representing the polis – the people, citizens), and for better and worse, are no different from the rest of us. We change what we say from moment to moment for a number of reasons. We’re all flip-floppers. First, most conversations we have are not about conveying a truth or a fact. If human conversation was that simple, we would speak almost exclusively in lists and bullet-points. In fact, most of human conversation is about making a connection, or at least something more elusive than “truth”. This is an idea gleaned from Kamran Nazeer’s remarkable book, Send in the Idiots: Stories from the Other Side of Autism. This is why a teenager, in describing a surprising anecdote to her friend, can string together twenty sentences in a row without taking a breath and at breakneck speed pepper in between the question, “…You know what I mean?” a few times, and her friend, “Like, totally does.” Conversation may very well be more about tone and intension than content. If you know the other person well enough, even if they say the wrong thing, you know what they mean.
In the Talmud (Berachot 42b) Rabbi Abaye was seen saying a blessing over each cup of wine he drank at the Shabbat table – implying that he held the opinion that one blessing at the beginning was not enough (which is the general practice). So Rabbi Isaac ben Josef asked him about this, “So I guess you don’t hold by the rule that one blessing covers the blessing for Shabbat and any subsequent cups of wine during the meal?!” To which Abaye replied, “ I changed my mind.”
“I changed my mind…” From the context it seems that Abaye simply changed his mind about wine, first he planned on only having the one cup, but since he then latter wanted a second cup with the meal, and therefore didn’t have that second (or third, or fourth) cup in mind, he needed to say another blessing. Flip-flopper!!
This seems to be a question of personal preference but not of law… Can one simply change one’s mind in more substantive things?
Second, context changes everything.
One of the most common phrases in the Shulchan Aruch, the great compendium of Jewish Law is the phrase of the introduced in explaining changes in law and practice between the basic text, and the Ashkenazi variations: B’medinot Elu, U’Bazman H’Zeh, “In these land, and in this day and age, we do things differently.” And with that the idea of context, the reality that is lived and is understood to be fluid takes a guiding role in shaping Jewish law. Bob Dylan sang that “the times they are a changing,” and he was right. If you haven’t read his most recent Rolling Stone interview, you’ve gotta try – He argued that ‘you can’t change your present, nor the future, but you could change your past,” (bizarre, but provocative). Nonetheless, context, especially time, especially time, changes everything.
Context is Everything…
The late PLO leader,Yaser Arafat, was once caught on tape saying something impolitic about Israel. “That’s not fair,” he suggested, “I said that in Arabic! To an Arab audience!”
The Daily Show has turned the “you said this, but then you said that” into an art form that “real” news organizations are using competing video clips more and more. Where once the subtleties of context was understood, maybe even celebrated, now it’s the political kiss of death, and context is most often left on the ‘news’ room’s cutting room floor. No wonder political punditry so often feels so homogenized and bland.
If You Never Change Your Mind, Why Have One?
The Observer Effect, whether applied to Physics or Psychology, or Politics, or Economics, suggests that mere fact of observing an effect has an effect on that which is being observed. The truth about a specific economic sanction, or a large stimulus, or a large scale public health policy, is that we don’t really know until we try it, and the likelihood is that tweaks or a change of direction altogether will be needed. The idea that a person’s words have to be spoken like the Book or Proverbs, or the Art of War, each sentence a golden and impermeable ‘Truth’, is impossible. There were Hassidic masters who forbade the printing of their talks. Sure facts matter, and so is honesty, but something about the power of context dies a little when it can be fact-checked.
Changing what one says because it’s expedient is disingenuous and usually people can tell. So, that’s not what I’m thinking about. Politically speaking, I am less concerned about a modification of one’s position on a specific topic – changing times and changing context require it – I am more concerned about a consistency of character, and honesty about why a person changed position. Let the reporters ask, “Why did you say ‘X’ this week and ‘not X’ before that?” Let us hear them when they explain the change of context and the necessary development of their ideas.
If in a fit of honesty a politician says, “I changed my mind,” let us not freak out. Let’s just ask a question.
“You know what I mean?”
Do people change? As human beings, are we not the sum of our unique genetic make-up and the equally unique combination of experiences, good and bad, that have brought us to this present moment? And, if the above is the case, than what is the point of the Yom Kippur fast? What is the point of this long day of introspection – the synagogue liturgy peppered with calls for Teshuvah (repentance or return) – if in the end we are who we are, and that’s it?
Some will answer that the meaning of Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, also called a Shabbat Shabbaton (the Sabbath of all Sabbaths) is to bring about contrition in our short-comings and strive to make the next year better. There might be something to it. It’s good to try. My view of Judaism has a focus of human perfecting, getting incrementally better and better, rather than the unattainable goal of perfection.
Nonetheless, isn’t it ridiculous to expect that this will be there year you finally get it right? Didn’t I really try last year? And, in fact, what expectation is there that this year will be better than last if the dates for next Yom Kippur are already set on the calendar?
I could no longer expect to really change who I am than I could radically alter my own genetic code or build a time machine that would take me back and tinker with the specific events of my past, especially my early childhood, both good and bad, that shape my personality. After all, Nature and Nurture have shaped me into who I am, and, well, that is that. Isn’t it?
I think not. All of the above misses a powerful trope in Judaism, namely that, while we have free-will, making all of our own choices, nonetheless, our soul has a trajectory.
According to the Talmud (Niddah 30b), every soul is specifically chosen to live the life of every specific person. Every soul is guided by an angel who teaches the soul everything it will need to know in the world. Then, upon birth, the angel touches the upper lip, leaving a tiny dent, confounding speech, and a bit of amnesia. The soul cannot simply come into this world from the realm of God, Infinity, and mystery. As a rabbi I have come to understand my calling less at teaching people Torah, but rather helping them uncovering what they’re soul already knows. I call it Holy Remembering. It accounts for those moments of epiphany when our life’s events align, life makes sense, when disparate pieces of knowledge show us a clearer lens with which to see the world. “I thought I knew it, but now I understand”.
The challenge of Yom Kippur is to consider your soul’s trajectory.
What are the moments of your life, good and bad alike, that have shaped you? What career path you are meant to take, the people you are meant to love, the causes you are meant to champion, the good deeds you were chosen to accomplish—these are all very specific things that you were meant to do; you were designed for these specific things. People often try to turn away from doing the thing they’re meant to do, or are most naturally gifted at. Some events were no doubt simple chance. There is a bit of randomness in the world, but there is order too. Your soul knows what it needs to do in this world, it knows too the experiences you need to help it fulfill its calling. What if your soul chose your parents? What if your soul chose to lead you to those powerful turning-points in your life?
Your soul cast “you” in the role of (your name here) to accomplish some very important things. Sometimes we fight against what our soul wants for us – in those moments, life is a bit of a drag, we feel trapped by circumstance, powerless to overcome our lot in life. The Bible is filled with characters who run away from their soul’s trajectory, Moses feigns a speech impediment, and Jonah, whom we read about on Yom Kippur and whose soul’s trajectory was aimed at the big city of Niniveh, avoids his calling and finds himself inside the bely of a whale instead. But, when we understand, when we honor our soul’s calling, our life has flow – the abundance of life becomes obvious to us, as if it has always been there but now we feel it.
So, Yom Kippur… Introspection – yes, definitely. But, not simply to uncover your particular foibles. You know what they are already and so does God. Rather, ask, “In all those moments, at those touch-points of my life, good and bad, was my soul guiding me to experiences that I needed to have, to help me fulfill my soul’s calling?” “What kind of a caretaker have I been to my soul’s journey.”
The message of the holiday can be: Your soul has chosen you for a reason. Your soul needs you (imperfections and all) to carry it along a unique path, that only you can carry it. Yom Kippur is not really about the past, where you’ve been, but rather, the future, where all those moments have been leading you to. This Yom Kippur, and throughout this new Jewish year, ask, “What roles or tasks am I running away from via distraction that my soul wants me to pursue?”
“There is nothing new under the sun.” -Ecclesiastes 1:9.
A High Holiday Prayer, as I imagine it, of a beloved, longtime member of my synagogue…
“In time for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I am thankful for so many things: The gift of health, for me and my family, that we live in relative security, that we do our best with what we have – but thank the Lord -God knows that nobody’s perfect. This year, again I will try to be a better person. It’s important to try, so I’ll sit and I’ll listen, and I’ll pray, but thank the Lord – God understands that in reality I’m not so different than I was last year. -Amen.”
This is my third high holiday season off the pulpit, and frankly, the only time I really miss it. I miss that guy, and every synagogue has one, who comes early, one of the last to leave, but in fact seems to be going through the motions. I perfectly aware of the lesson that to recognize these qualities in another suggest something similar in myself? Sometimes he’ll cross his arms over his gut, as if to say, “go ahead, rabbi, try and inspire me.” Honestly, I always enjoyed the challenge and if unsuccessful, I would consoled myself with the tantalizing idea that perhaps there is a genetic predisposition for religiosity, ‘so what could I do if he’s not interested?’
The way we approach the High Holidays is completely in our control. That’s what I should remind him. It’s a matter of perspective. A late rabbinic colleague of mine, Rabbi Eddie Tennenbaum (z’l) would say, “If you feel distant from God, who moved?”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “(There is a) statement from the book of Ecclesiastes ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ And I disagree with that statement! I would say there is nothing stale under the sun, except that human beings become stale.”
If you have been approaching the high holidays every year, and it’s become stale, consider this perspective, and hopefully it’s new for you, and might add meaning to the holiday around the corner:
At this time of year we are not only accountable for our mistakes and need to seek forgiveness for them, but also, and just as importantly, we are accountable for all the moments of joy and celebration that came our way and we failed to take part.
Consider this: What moments of joy were out there and I was too busy? It’s missing the joy, the extraordinary within the ordinary, that makes man stale. Let this be the year you see the forrest AND the trees.