“How do I go on?” I was asked recently at a service following the death of a beautiful woman in our community. The neighbor asking had lost a good friend, someone with whom she shared culture and tradition, language and passions. My neighbor was bereft but she was also scared. This was not the death of an old person who had lived out a full life. This death at early age was a reminder to us all that we are not in control of our own mortality. Knowing this, understanding the power and potential of loss, how indeed are we to go on?
Most of us manage day to day by simply avoiding thinking about just how fragile life is. To live moment to moment with that level of uncertainty can indeed be incapacitating.
In trying to answer my neighbor’s question, I drew on the one of the central teachings of the holiday of Sukkot, which we are now celebrating. On a purely programmatic level the holiday is a drag, coming on the heals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur it can feel like too much. But the message of the holiday is profound.
On Rosh Hashana, we embrace the reality of life, in all its messiness, filled with missteps and unfulfilled dreams. On Yom Kippur, we simulate our own death, not eating, abstaining from sex, and wearing white to simulate shrouds. We confront our own mortality. If take it seriously, we too are left asking “How do I go on?”
Only days afterwards, our tradition has us sitting out in temporary booths looking up at the stars in the sky. In prayers, Sukkot is referred to as z’man simchateynu –the time of our joy. Having faced death, we feel life’s fragility. Our tradition knows this and prescribes a way forward. The structure of a Sukkah is a metaphor for life. It is temporary and while affording us some level of comfort it cannot protect us from all harm. Sitting in the Sukkah we are able see the grandeur of the universe in the rising and setting of the sun, the moon and the stars. And we are meant to be happy. It is precisely the recognition of just how fragile, just how temporary, just how grand life is that allows us to embrace the joy of the everyday.
I could not take away the deep loss or the fear from my neighbor. They are the painful reality of living. Try as we may, we cannot avoid the realities of mortality. Instead, I offered her the wisdom of Sukkot. Go home, kiss your boys, tell your husband you love him. Notice the splendour that is your life. Cherish the moments that are, because while they are temporary, they are also extraordinary. Truly value the time that we do have. Live life with joy.
Sukkot was never a big deal for me when growing up. Coming so soon after the pomp and circumstance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it seemed trite. After all, who needs a harvest festival in (then) 20th century America? Especially growing up in Southern California, where crops grow all year long? Worse yet, since I actually enjoyed my Day School, it meant taking numerous unwanted vacations when there was nothing to do (since the rest of the world, including my parents, were not on a Sukkot break). All this for some allergy-inducing palm fronds and an ugly lemon look-alike?
Recently, though, I have developed a completely different take on Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are extremely synagogue-focused holidays.They are, famously, the two holidays each year when most Jews show up to shul. Despite the profusion of new Jewish ritual practices and alternative paradigms for religious expression, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur unabashedly call on us to sit in the pews, for hours on end, just as our parents and grandparents did.
Then, a mere four days after Yom Kippur ends, comes this weird agricultural festival called Sukkot. Sukkot gets its name from the sukkah, a temporary structure we are commanded to build immediately after Yom Kippur ends. (Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 624:5). We are supposed to eat and perhaps even sleep for the duration of Sukkot in this flimsy dwelling. At home. Outdoors. Relaxing while dining under the stars. Sukkot thereby becomes the antithesis of the High Holidays. It is the Slow Food Movement Jewish holiday, meant to be enjoyed with leisure, in the company of family and friends, while simultaneously re-connecting us to nature, ecology, and God’s beneficence. The sukkah is built with simple materials and decorated with children’s creativity and relative artistic talent. There are no stained glass windows, no fancy chairs or memorial plaques. When we eat in the sukkah, which are we supposed to do for each day of Sukkot, there is no specific order to what or how we eat. Sukkot at home is decentralized, democratic, inviting us to take initiative. We can even invite ghosts (deceased great Jewish leaders) to hang out with us!
I think there is an important message to this symbolism, one we need to reinforce especially after the High Holidays: Judaism primarily is a religion to be lived organically, inextricably interwoven into our daily lives, not just performed in special places at special times. We limit the potency and potential of Judaism when we treat it as a part-time religion. Sukkot gets us to bring Jewish experience into our own backyards, into the normal rhythms of our day and night. That is why, to me, it is the ultimate Jewish holiday, truly worthy of the name “hag” (festival).
I believe that pulpit rabbis have an obligation to frame issues of the day in a moral lens even when truth can be found on either side of an issue. Between a healthy respect for a separation between Church and State, a fear of alienating either the Left or the Right in congregations, and genuine humility (after all, he or she does not have all the answers), a rabbi could be left with little to say about the most important events. Some people like it this way; “rabbi you should stick to issues of spirituality.”
Rabbi Heschel responded to the silence of religion in the face of moral need. He said, “If the prophets were alive, they would already be sent to jail by [people who hold this position]. Because the prophets mixed into social-political issues. And, frankly, I would say that God seems to be a non-religious person, because, if you read the worlds of God in the Bible, He always mixes in politics and in social issues.”
Says the Jew to herself, “On the one hand.” And she replies to herself, “Yes, but on the other hand.” Such equivocation is cultivated by the Jewish debate-style of learning, but it is not always laudable. Sometimes its dangerous.
It once happened that that an aggrieved Jew told Caesar to send the Jews a goat to sacrifice at the Temple, a goat that would seem perfectly fine by Roman standards, but that the Jews would find blemished, unfit as a holy offering at the ancient Temple. The Rabbis wanted to offer it, despite its disqualifying blemish, to preserve good relations with the Romans.
Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus said to them, “People will then think that blemished animals may be offered upon the altar.”
The rabbis then considered killing the person who brought the animal, so that he could not go and tell the Romans that the Jews did not offer the sacrifice.
Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus said, “We can’t kill that one person, even to save the rest of the people. People will say that anyone who places a blemish in a sacrifice should be killed.”
Rabbi Yochanan said, “The humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus destroyed our temple, burned our sanctuary and exiled us from our land.” [In this case his piety made it impossible to act at all.](Talmud, Gittin 55b-56a).
In this famous passage, Rabbi Yochanan laments “the humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus.” Why? What’s wrong with Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus? He’s pulled a classic, dare I say rabbinic, “on the one hand … on the other hand.” But, as Zekharya sees it, the sages are left with no ability to decide on how to proceed. At some point, as Tevye eventually discovered within himself in Fiddler on the Roof, “There is no other hand.” At some point, a position needs to be taken because real choices need to be made.
Consider today’s topic: What should the US do about Syria?
Rabbi Heschel’s words regarding Vietnam forty years ago are just as relevant when we apply it to Syria today. Of course it’s a religious issue. What does God demand of us primarily? Justice and compassion. What does He condemn above all? Murder, killing of innocent people. How can I pray when I have on my conscience the awareness that I am co-responsible for the death of innocent people… In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
I believe that there is a moral imperative for rabbis to speak about Syria, despite, no, because there is no clear right action. Who better to respond in a muddled issue than those who are specifically trained in the Talmud, a veritable encyclopedia of arguments from opposing moral positions. Even if the Yom Kippur sanctuary is not the forum for debate, it can be a starting place for thoughtful conversation.
As a rabbi without a pulpit, it is easy to say what my colleague should do. So, let me take it a step further and wade in myself: It is my opinion that America should make a calculated but limited strike against known chemical weapons caches within Syria. I acknowledge that such an American response to Asad’s use of chemical weapons could incite greater instability in the region, and perhaps freeze our already chilly relationship with Russia. Still, in the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation we find ourselves, I prefer the stance that says, at some point – and chemical weapons are that point – we can no longer ‘stand idly by.’
Sure some will call this naive- “Intervention in Iraq, in Lybia, in Egypt did not work. We should not insert ourselves into another country’s civil war, especially considering that those in Syria prepared to fill the power vacuum may be even worse that Asad.” Some will consider it hypocrisy – “So the US got to use Agent Orange in Vietnam, but now nobody gets to?” Feel free to agree with me or to point out where I’ve got it wrong in your comments below, but with that, a position is staked and our conversation has begun.
When the Temple stood, the rabbinic inability to take a difficult if principled stand caused “the Temple to be destroyed, our sanctuary to be burned, and us to be exiled from our land.” If contemporary rabbis fail to take difficult if principled stands, we risk not the Temple or the land of Israel, but something more: Relevance!
One of the images found in the High Holiday liturgy is ‘The Book of Life’. The traditional language makes it sound like a kind of ledger, with accounts being recorded, added and subtracted. At the end of the accounting, God decides if we’ve enough credit in the bank to make it to the next year. If you grew up being taught it this way, as I was, you may be mightily put off by it all. All these invitations to engage more deeply in the High Holidays may be falling on resistant ears.
A number of years ago I arrived at the belief that if my experience of life and my way of understanding the world around me didn’t correlate with an ‘idea’ of God that I thought my tradition had conveyed through its liturgy and the philosophy of rabbis from centuries past, it was the old ideas that had to go. They were, after all, only the putting into human language of a God too ‘other’ to truly grasp, and so carried with them the limitations of the humans who wrote them. To truly have a relationship with God, I had to be present to my experience and trust it.
And so, I could no longer believe in a God filling out a ledger, at least not in a literal sense. But I liked the image of the ‘Book of Life’ and the pages that were filled. But I am the only one holding the pen. Whether I like what has been written, and whether what is still to be written will be worth reading is up to me. Sometimes we can be harder on ourselves than the God we imagine is forgiving us and erasing the bad lines and paragraphs to give us the chance for a re-write. But when we recognize our agency in writing our own Book, it can be incredibly freeing and empowering. For sure, we do not get to write every twist and turn in the plot. There are many things that life brings to us that are not of our design or our asking. But we write the response. We are always able to write the response.
This soul work begins with the ancient Greek dictum, “know thyself”? Or, to put it more rabbinically, “know before whom you stand?” I ask myself: What am I afraid of? Deep down, what are my real hopes?
An investment of time and focus in anticipation of the holidays elevates the experience. Without the prep-work, is there any doubt that 5 hour services could be a drag? It’s like showing up to the Olympic marathon having not stretched, not worked out, and perhaps not having run in an entire year (or more). The results won’t be good.
I base my approach on practices of the Penn Resiliency Project, of Positive Psychology – this soul’s accounting tackles our fears and hopes for the coming year head-on and in a practical way. Here are the steps:
For each of the categories of your life (friends, relationships with each family member, work, personal health, etc.) do the following:
1) List 3 things that you are most afraid will happen in the coming year. (I encourage you to be honest with your fears – just get the realistic and unfounded flow out of you).
2) List 3 things that you deeply hope will happen in the coming year.
3) List 3 things that are most likely to happen this year.
You’ve just put pen to paper about your worries and your hopes as well as what is most realistically going to happen – Reality is most often found in that middle ground between worst and best.
Now, list steps to take:
A) For each of your fears listed, give yourself 3 simple steps to take to prevent the worst from happening.
B) For each of the things you hope will happen this year, give yourself 3 simple steps that would help make that happen.
Having the opportunity to be honest about our hopes and fears, and creating realistic steps about how to prevent or coax them along, has a tremendous empowering effect on our spiritual preparation for the New Year. It leads to greater joy and to greater optimism.
Many Jews say that Passover is our favourite holiday. And why not? On Seder nights, we gather for food, friendship, discussion, and intergenerational activities. Food – both ritual food and just plain tasty food – sits at the centre of the table.
Passover can also be an exciting project, involving creativity and problem-solving. Some people couple it with spring cleaning. Some host a Seder and creatively adapt tradition in new ways each year. Some try out unusual gluten-free recipes.
Passover falls just six months before everyone’s other favourite holiday: Yom Kippur.
Yes, Yom Kippur, the holiday on which more North American Jews attend synagogue and stay home from work than any other. On which people gather in order not to eat. And to engage in 25 hours of self-reflection, stimulated by the poetry of the prayerbook, set to haunting music.
Who would have thought self-reflection could be so popular?
Nowadays it seems people will do almost anything to avoid being alone with their thoughts and feelings.
Years ago, my fellow commuters and I would sit on the bus, watching the passing scenery and musing about human nature. Now we sit staring down at our smartphone screens, playing, reading or texting.
Years ago, a person would take a walk “to clear my head.” Now, when we walk, we stick earbuds in our ears, and listen to tunes or a podcast as we stroll.
These are popular habits. But they don’t represent a shift in the needs of the human psyche. In fact, our love of self-reflection is alive and well.
Recently, the idea of “Happiness” has been dominating the “self-help” psychology book market. Most books echo a single general theme: Happiness begins with self-reflection.
Gretchen Rubin is the author of the best-selling, down-to-earth book The Happiness Project. Rubin’s website tells you how to begin your happiness project: Ask yourself some questions. “What makes you feel good?” “What gives you joy, energy and fun?” In other words, reflect and begin to know yourself.
Robert Holden is an inspirational speaker and veteran of the Oprah show. His latest book on happiness, Shift Happens, hits you with its message right in the first chapter. To find your “Unconditioned Self,” observe yourself, identify the layers of hurt and grievance that obscure this self, and learn to lift them. In other words, reflect, get to know yourself, and understand how you can grow.
Martin Seligman, a research psychologist, directs the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania. His website invites you to participate in his research on happiness. You can fill out a questionnaire assessing your emotional makeup, character strength, or work-life balance. The questions start you thinking, “How do I approach life, and how does that contribute to my happiness?” You reflect, you get to know yourself, you understand, you begin to make a plan.
Aristotle’s ideas are back on the best-seller list. In the 4th century BCE, he wrote, “Happiness is contemplation.”
The ideas of Kohelet, author of the Biblical book Ecclesiastes, are making a comeback. Kohelet found that, among life’s ups and downs, “wisdom is a stronghold.”
Often we talk about “finding” meaning, as if we can look outside of ourselves and stumble upon it. Perhaps we should talk more about “making” meaning. Because happiness seems to come through the activity of knowing and growing ourselves.
Ancient and modern teachers agree: Happiness is not a product, it’s a process. A process of reflection, forgiveness, self-assessment, and growth. One that we do over and over again.
In spite of all our habits of avoidance, we can’t help but reach for happiness.
Image: robservations.ca; cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet
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?”
On Sunday I read a very moving Op Ed in the New York Times by Larkin Warren entitled, “I Was a Welfare Mother.” I was brought to tears by her story about being a single mother trying to complete college and get back on her feet. During those difficult years, she needed government aid to help her get basic supplies and food for herself and her young son. She describes how without food stamps and a monthly check rom the government she never would have made ends meet. After graduating college she got a job in her college’s English Department and went off welfare. She went on to be a writer and editor.
She concludes by saying, “Judge-and-punish-the-poor is not a demonstration of American values. It is, simply, mean. My parents saved me and then — on the dole, in the classroom or crying deep in the night, in love with a little boy who needed everything I could give him — I learned to save myself. I do not apologize. I was not ashamed then; I am not ashamed now. I was, and will always be, profoundly grateful.”
Judge and punish the poor in not an American value, and not a Jewish one either. Jews are required to give tzadaka, charity to help the poor. Time and again the Bible admonishes us to take care of the poor, widowed and orphaned in our midst. Many laws were created to ensure the poor got communal support. Farmers were instructed to leave the corners of their fields unplowed so that the poor could come and harvest the grain for themselves. Everyone was expected to give one tenth of their income to support of the poor.
The highest level of giving to the poor according to Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, is to help a person help themselves. In the story Larkin relates, the American government serves this purpose. The money she received from welfare helped her to help herself. There is no greater mitzvah than this, and no better use of our tax dollars. I found this story to be particularly poignant this week of Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur liturgy clearly states that “Repentance, Prayer, and Charity will avert Gods severe decree. “ Charity, supporting those in need, is just as important as personal repentance and prayer. Think about the import of that for a moment.
According to Jewish law, we have a responsibility to take care of one another. And as Larkin’s story demonstrates, you never know when just a little bit of help will allow someone to survive and then flourish later on. We all need help of some kind at some point in our lives. For some it may be financial, for others emotional, or physical. We do not live in isolation. We cannot always lift ourselves sup by the bootstraps and be independent. We need people around us to support us in our lives.
This week of Yom Kippur, while you are reflecting on your year and the things you want to repent for; Think too of the future and the way you can support someone else. Make plans to give of your time, money, or expertise to help another. You can have a profound impact. As the Talmud teaches, “To save one life is to have saved the world.”
In the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah, for our pre-Selichot service study and discussion, I presented the animated shorts of Hanan Harchol, found at www.jewishfoodforthought.com Not only are these charming, they are wonderfully thought-provoking, and generated a great deal of conversation. We watched ‘Forgiveness’ first (Click here to watch).
I will speak for myself when I say that, despite my understanding that forgiveness is creating an internal change that allows another person’s acts to no longer keep a grip on my thoughts and emotions – to, as we hear in the animation, no longer let someone ‘live rent free in my head’ – it is an incredibly difficult thing to do in practice. At times, often unexpectedly, I find myself replaying painful scenes from my life when someone’s words hurt me, or I felt wronged, or someone acted in a way that was dismissive or condescending toward me. I have no desire for these scenes to occupy space in my memory banks. But they seem to have an uncanny ability to maintain their grip.
Mindfulness practices can help combat the power of these thoughts. While I may not be able to neutralize them completely, a greater self-awareness can at least enable me to notice when my mind is in that place, and I can then consciously let it go and try to clear the picture in my head. Sometimes that is as good as it gets. I don’t believe that forgiveness is a one-time thing. It is a process that we need to repeat over and over when a particular moment of our past swims back into view, churning up old emotions with it. And then, perhaps, over time, the more we find ourselves able to notice and dismiss the memory and observe rather than be drawn in by the emotions, the more we are able to neutralize the intensity of the memory when it arises the next time.
Why is it so important to forgive? I’ve been thinking a lot during my preparations and sermon-writing for the High Holydays, that our entire orientation to life – our outlook, our motivation to engage in purposeful acts in the world that make a difference to the community we live in, and the ways that we engage with others on a day-to-day basis, are all driven by the things that we marinate our minds in. There are many ways that we can marinate the mind in something that is burning with negativity. Painful memories from the past are some of the ways. And I know that, for me, when those memories arise, I feel myself get tense and my teeth grit, and my brow furrows, and I’m more likely to be sharp with someone or impatient, and I’m more likely to want to shut myself off from interactions and just hibernate in my own, private space.
But when I do those things, how can I make a positive difference in the world? How can I contribute in a meaningful way to the life of my family, friends, or community? How can I be open enough to give and receive love, to act compassionately, to create space for a different kind of interaction next time around?
Forgiveness is the key. When we read Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon, that is the message. Jonah wants to see strict justice applied to Nineva. When we dredge up past scenes of hurt, isn’t that what we want? We want to know that person got their comeuppance. We want to know that someone gave them as good as they gave. We want to see them fail at something. But what does that achieve? If we recognize that when we feel miserable we are less likely to do good in the world, why would we hope for someone else’s misery? Yes, there are times when acts are committed that require societal justice to be done. But, on an individual level, forgiveness and legal justice are compatible and can co-exist, because one is an internal state of mind, while the other is a social system for maintaining some controls over the worst excesses of human behavior.
Forgiveness is the key.
This piece was originally published at Rabbi Gurevitz’ blog, ‘Raise it Up’ at http://shmakoleinu-hearourvoices.blogspot.com
This is real and you are completely unprepared!
This is probably the best title of a book ever. Written by Rabbi Alan Lew, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared takes the reader through a journey of personal transformation which begins with the holiday of Tisha B’Av commemorating the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem and concludes with the joyous holiday of Simchat Torah where we celebrate finishing the year Torah reading cycle. He argues that Tisha B’Av which we just observed yesterday, Sunday, July 29th, marks the start of the Jewish high holiday season. The high point of which is Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rabbi Lew asserts that in order for someone to be properly prepared to do teshuva, repentance, and start over with a new slate in the New Year, we need to start a period of self reflection now. Today!
You have seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah. Seven weeks to reflect on the past year. Think about those things you did well, and those not so well. Identify those people you need to ask forgiveness of and begin the process of asking. This is real. The time starts now. Do not wait until Rosh Hashanah to start this spiritual process.
May your time of reflection uncover new realizations. May you be strengthened by your process. And may you be written in the Book of Life.