As a rabbi of an innovative global organization, it is important for me not just to be in my office but to also be on the road learning from others. That means I try to attend a handful of conferences each year—and today I’m a first-time attendee at the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly, known in shorthand as “the GA.” It’s a conference for volunteer and professional leaders of Jewish Federations and those with an interest in Jewish philanthropy.
At events like this, my hopes are that I will make connections to new friends and colleagues, that I will learn some new tools, that I will leave with just as many questions as answers, and that I will have a sense of optimism about what is possible in the Jewish community.
When I was flipping through the list of sessions, I realized there are two ways to view them, one more positive than the other.
There’s a long-standing tradition that Jewish telegrams were easy to recognize because they would say simply, “letter to follow. Begin worrying.” And, it is easy to read through a list of session topics at a conference like this, and to begin panicking: How will we fundraise? What will Israel’s future look like? How will we engage teens/young adults/aging adults/interfaith families/fill-in-the-blank? What will we do about rising anti-Semitism in Europe? How do we balance collectivism and individualism? Is Jewish education working or not?
Some people answer those questions with doom-and-gloom answers. But I don’t think that’s what this conference is about (otherwise I wouldn’t be here!). Conferences like this work when those in the room confront the realities of Jewish life and then figure out how to embrace opportunities for what could be rather than bemoan what is.
While there is some truth that worrying is part of the Jewish historical experience, it is also the case that celebration has long been an affirmation of a positive Jewish identity. We are a people of happiness and joy, laughter and humor. We are a people of hope.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a speaker at this conference, once said that “Judaism is humanity’s faith in the future tense; the Jewish voice is the voice of inextinguishable hope.”
Being at a conference with thousands of people who care about Jewish life and want to celebrate it – this gives me much hope. My telegram (now a tweet) from my time at the GA will say: email to follow, no need to worry—we are a people of hope.
To watch my Rosh Hashanah sermon on which this blog post is loosely based, please click here.
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It was January 2007, almost exactly six years ago. I was sitting in my office, reviewing a dense corporate document retention proposal, when I realized it was time for a career change. I had questioned whether I wanted to remain a lawyer for several years. On the one hand, the law firms where I practiced treated us like indentured servants. We worked extremely long hours, were yelled at, and spent most of our time toiling away at menial tasks like reviewing boxes of emails or proofreading our bosses’ work. On the other hand, the pay was great and the risk was low. All we had to do was sacrifice our time and our pride and we could do quite well. For years, the financial benefits of the job and the uncertainty about what else I might want to do held me in check. But by 2007, the drudgery of the work and the sense of how meaningless it felt became too much for me. I decided that the risk of switching careers—even to something as dramatic as becoming a rabbi—was worth it.
This dilemma of accepting an unpalatable status quo or taking a risk on an uncertain but potentially transformative new direction is basically what the Israelites confront in Parashat B’shalah. The Israelites have just fled from Egypt and have journeyed as far as the Sea of Reeds when God rouses Pharaoh to chase after them. God is looking for the big finish to the Exodus drama, a climactic battle in which God can once and for all establish supremacy for all to see (Exodus 14:4). The Israelites, however, are not amused. In fact, they are terrified. Whatever faith in God they might have developed from experiencing the ten plagues quickly evaporates in the face of charging chariots and alarming battle cries. They beg Moses to let them return to their former lives of slavery in Egypt. But Moses tells them to have faith, and God, through Moses, parts the waters of the sea so that the Israelites can pass through to the other side. We all know what happens next: the Israelites make it safely across the sea, and once they get to the other side, God causes the waters to crash down upon the Egyptians who are in hot pursuit, drowning them in the sea.
In a fascinating commentary, though, our Sages did not just assume that the Israelites had the courage to march into the parted sea. Even though this event, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, would become a seminal moment in Jewish history which we recount twice a day in our liturgy (in the Mi Chamocha prayer), the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 36b-37a) depicts the Israelites as being hesitant to take the plunge:
Rabbi Yehudah said: When the Israelites stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another. This tribe said. “I’m not going into the sea first.” And another tribe said, “I’m not going into the sea first.” [Finally,] Nachshon the son of Amminadav jumped and descended into the sea first.
Rabbi Yehuda reflects how we often feel when facing a life-altering challenge. The fear of making change can often be paralyzing. Inertia is a powerful force, as is the psychological comfort of predictability, no matter how unpleasant the predictable may be. We can—and do—come up with a multitude of justifications for staying right where we are. We are conditioned, both culturally and biologically, not to go into the sea first. But Rabbi Yehuda’s account also expresses the truth that it only takes one leap, one chance, one moment of action, and our whole world can change.
We each face these crossroads in life. For some, it might be whether to remain in a relationship that has gone stale or whether to endure the pain and anguish of ending the relationship with the hope of finding a better one. For others, like myself, it might be whether to remain in a job that lacks fulfillment but provides a steady paycheck, or to pursue a dream job that might not work out.
We even experience this crossroads at national levels. As the Israeli election on January 22 showed, Israel is almost perfectly split between center-left and right-ultra Orthodox parties (each bloc received approximately 60 out of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament). Israeli leaders, in picking a new government, will have to choose between retaining the status quo coalition of the past few years or forming a new coalition that embraces socioeconomic reform, equal treatment of Haredi and Hiloni Israelis, and an engaged peace process. Will a Nachshon ben Amminadav emerge to lead Israel into a new, dynamic, and possibly redemptive future, or will Israel’s leadership remain entrenched on the shore, arguing among themselves and unwilling to take the first pivotal step forward?
Change is always hard. We yearn for stability, structure, and continuity in our lives. Yet the wisdom of our tradition is that God will support us if we are willing to take the plunge into uncertainty. The narrative of the Israelites standing at the Sea of Reeds offers us more than just an historical/mythical account of our people’s origins. It empathizes with the difficulties we face, today, between taking risks on an unknown but potentially meaningful future versus remaining mired in an unpleasant, yet known, present. And it offers us hope if we are only bold enough to claim our own redemptive path.
After the Israelites realize their freedom from the Egyptians, they break out into raucous celebration. The people unite in a triumphant and jubilant song, known as Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, which we recount each year during the Torah reading for Parashat Beshallah. May each of us be blessed with the courage to follow our own paths of meaning in life. And may our decisions enable us to sing with joy about the lives we create for ourselves and our people.
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?”
“Humans make errors. We make errors of fact and errors of judgment. We have blind spots in our field of vision and gaps in our stream of attention. Sometimes we can’t even answer the simplest questions. Where was I last week at this time? How long have I had this pain in my knee? How much money do I typically spend in a day?”
Thus begins Gary Wolf’s New York Times Magazine article “The Data-Driven Life.” As our lives converge with machines, data, in mass amounts, becomes the new wisdom.
Here is a bit of satire for those of us who approach that future with a bit of trepidation.
…The Lord is my Shepherd, I have zero needs.
We gather here in a moment of great sadness to mourn the passing of someone close to us all. The actuaries were right. What can we say – the numbers tell the story.
In health: His numbers were not so good. His blood pressure was 140 over 90 with a resting heart-rate of 72. His cholesterol was 330, with a frighteningly low HDL of 19. As many of you know, chromosomally he did have a few recessive abnormalities on chromosomal pairs 4, 23, and 24. But did they do him in? Unlikely, everyone could see that his BMI was well over 33!
…Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Asymptote Limit of Negative One, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.
His high school GPA was 3.7 (3’s and 4’s for his AP scores), 2110 for his SAT score, 3.4 at a 3rd tiered college, no GRE score to speak of (this technical mystery will be corrected in time for the obituary). He graduated without honors from a 2nd tired Graduate School. Such was his education.
… Your staff and Your rod, they comfort me.
Of course his consumer habits have been readily searchable. He shopped mostly at Mega Shopping Grocery. He accounted for approximately $95 of weekly average purchase they with a slightly elevated purchase quotient in the salted Snack aisle. Google reports that his interests were roughly evenly split between on-line fantasy games, sports, especially Indonesian Cricket, and Googles’ own World News Digest. Sadly, he had three outstanding bids for collectible Disney watches on eBay. He would have won. Nonetheless, those watches have already been sent to the next highest bidder. His digital life is otherwise unremarkable, with the exception of a single visit to a porn site. Google Notes suggest that it is statistically possible that he reached the site by searching for Morgan Spurlock’s documentary film “Super Size Me,” and by then clicking their search feature “Feeling Lucky.”
…You set before me a table against my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.
He was married for 34.6 years and had 2 girls and 1 boy. His favorite song was Bob Seger’s “Feel Like a Number.” His combined FICO score was 678. The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, kindly make a digi-donatation to their favorite cause, IRS Approved Non-Profit Mobil Code XH35G. That code number is now being broadcast to your phones and also appears on the screen above the casket. Please use this moment of silence to transact now.
… Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, as I dwell in the Infinite Loop of the Lord forever.
So it is that we bury Social Security number 456-89-9987. Let me add, unorthodox as it may be in our data-driven life, and at such an intimate setting no less, that he was my closest friend. I will always remember him. Bit by byte, he will be missed.
Yitgadal V’itgadash Shemei Rabbah …