“Holding it all” Erev Rosh HaShanah October 2, 2016 1 Tishri 5777 Rabbi Zari Weiss
It was the end of a long day. I was unwinding by, I am embarrassed to admit—watching cute animal videos on YouTube. Actually, I was watching videos of human beings rescuing animals in all kinds of circumstances: a horse trapped in a raging river, a small kitten fallen off a ledge, a dog and elsewhere a moose that had fallen through the ice. I love those videos. I’m embarrassed to admit this too. The truth is, I am moved by the actions of some people who risk their own lives to save these vulnerable creatures of the animal kingdom.
“Listen to this!” David suddenly said, pulling his headphones out so that I could hear. The terrorist attack had just occurred on the beach promenade in Nice, France. The news was terrible. Listening, we both sat stunned—not only at the atrocity, but also at how close we had come to being a part of it. We had gone to France this summer for vacation. We had spent the day in Nice, and had been walking on the promenade just four hours earlier. If I had not agreed to David’s request to leave the crowds . . . If I had listened to the part of me that never wants to miss anything . . . . If . . .
How could anyone do such a thing? I simply could not grasp the reality of some human beings’ impulse to do something so horrible, so evil . . .
At that moment, I felt the sharp dichotomy of the realities of the world we live in. On the one hand, the YouTube videos had reminded me that some human beings try to listen to their Yetzer HaTov, the impulse to do good, to reach toward their higher, more godly nature, and on the other, that other human beings more readily listen to their Yetzer HaRah, the impulse to do bad, to fall to the lowest level of life possible.
Every day we are confronted by these dichotomies. There are so many examples of human beings acting according to their Yetzer HaTov, their good or godly inclination—as we saw just a few days ago with the train crash in New Jersey, when ordinary people rush to perform heroic acts to save others. At the same time, it seems that in this past year, or past few years, those examples are overshadowed by examples of people following their Yetzer HaRah, their bad or brutish inclination. Maybe the imbalance has always existed, and we just weren’t as aware. But today technology—video cams, digital photography that can be sent across the globe in seconds–has changed our relationship to the events of the world around us. In some ways for the good, certainly, but in some ways that are challenging, bringing the painful realities right into our homes, onto our computers and cell phone screens.
There is no denying it: this is a challenging world. It is also, at the same time, an exquisitely beautiful world, filled with much goodness and acts of kindness and selflessness— though sometimes these are harder to remember.
I have been, quite honestly, worried about us, about our emotional and mental health and well-being. I’m particularly worried about our children, many of whom seem to be living with such high levels of anxiety, anxiety that shows up in their school work and in their behavior.
Many of you knew one of our members, Jennifer Smith, zichrona livracha, may her memory be for a blessing, whose absence is palpable to many of us this evening, as is her presence. Those of us who knew Jennifer would often see her sitting in the sanctuary with a sketch pad in hand, capturing moments in the service with such sensitivity. Her drawings graced our walls a number of times during High Holy Days. One now hangs in the back.
Jennifer was one of those people with an exquisitely sensitive soul. She once told me that she couldn’t bear it if I ever said anything in a dvar Torah that mentioned any form of violence—it was just too much for her. Given the realities of the world, that was a hard request to satisfy.
Not everyone is as exquisitely sensitive as Jennifer was; some simply have thicker skins. I admit: I am an HSP—a highly sensitive person—a term made popular by a book in the 1990’s. There are times that I wished I did not feel the pain of the world so intensely. But I do. Perhaps, I’ve thought, it’s part of my DNA as a Jew, part of the legacy that has been passed down to me through the generations: to know the heart of the stranger, since we were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim.
But there are also times—just as many, in fact, that I love life—intensely. I wake up in the morning and as Jewish Tradition guides me to, I offer a blessing of gratitude that I’ve been given the gift of another day of life. I offer blessings throughout the day as I eat, breathe, see the changing seasons, taste a piece of fruit for the first time in its season. I hear the song of a particular bird that lives in my neighborhood, and its makes me sooooo happy. I don’t know why; it just does.
Perhaps there are aspects of life that make you so happy? What gives you great joy, or makes your heart sing?
As I prepared to enter into this New Year, I struggled to discern what words of Torah to share. There are so many issues that could and perhaps should be the focus of our attention and reflection during these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe. While writing these words, two more black men were shot by police in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Charlotte, North Carolina. And 213 shootings occurred before these, this year alone in cities around the country. In addition to these shootings, the many of us are worried about the millions of refugees who are fleeing their homes, anti-Muslim sentiment, the on-going war in Syria, and more. Each issue that we face calls out, demanding a Jewish response. This is the one time of the year that we gather together, as a community, to focus on what is important in our lives, individual and collective, and to examine our relationship to and responsibility toward the world. What should I speak about?
The question that stirred most in me as I prepared for our gathering here tonight was this: For those of us who care deeply about the world and all of its inhabitants, who care about justice and lovingkindness, how do we hold it all, the good and the bad, and still live our lives fully, as our Tradition guides us to do? Alongside the sorrow and brokenheartedness we may feel about what is happening in the world, how do we also hold hope that things will change for the better? Is it true, as Martin Luther King Jr., once said, that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”?
Brokenheartedness and hope. Can we learn to hold them both, so that we can live our lives as fully as possible?
I’ve thought about this question a lot, and I’d like to offer a few teachings from Jewish Tradition that may be helpful. More than anything, perhaps my words can stimulate a conversation amongst us, about how we can hold both brokenheartedness and hope in this challenging and beautiful world.
The first teaching is based on a midrash, or story, about Moses after he had received the tablets with the 10 commandments written on them. If you recall, Moses goes up to Mt. Sinai and is gone for 40 days. The people grow restless. Finally, after 40 days, Moses descends. He sees the people dancing “b’rey’o”—boisterously–around a golden calf. Moses is so angry at the people for having reverted to idolatry, so soon after entering into a covenantal relationship with G-d. So Moses takes the two tablets he is holding in his hands and hurls them to the ground, shattering them into many pieces. We can just imagine the silence, as the people stopped their boisterous dancing, and looked up at their leader, uncertain what would happen next.
We read a little later in the Torah that after this incident, Moses carved a second set of tablets, just like the first. The Talmud asks: Whatever became of the broken pieces of the tablets-the ones that were ma’aseh elohim . . . michtav elohim—G-d’s work, G-d’s writing? The Talmud answers: The broken tablets were placed in the most sacred place, the Holy Ark, alongside the second, intact set [luchot ve’shivrey luchot munachim be’aron”] (Talmud Bava Batra 14b). Broken, whole, side-by-side. Why? Some commentators say it is to teach us that brokenness and wholeness coexist, side by side, in the chambers of the heart, our own Holy Ark. There is something holy about the brokenhearted side of ourselves. It too is a part of the human condition, an important and yes, holy part of our experience as human beings. It is what allows us to feel rachamim, compassion for others. Both brokenheartedness and wholeness have a necessary place in the Holy Ark of our own hearts.
The second teaching comes from something spoken by a man, Micah, who lived approximately twenty two hundred years ago. He was from a little place called Moreshet, in the foothills of the Judean mountains. What he uttered then is powerful guidance for us, living today, hundreds and hundreds of years later. Given all that is happening in the world around us, how are we to live our lives? Micah answers us: “Hagid l’cha adam ma tov u’ma HaShem doresh mimcha: ki im asot mishpat, v’ahavtah chesed, v’hatznia lechet im eloheicha.” “It has been told you, O mortal, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you: only this: to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your G-d.” (Micah 6:8).
Micah’s words are simple but straightforward. You know what is good, he says, what G-d requires of you: do justly in all your dealings. Don’t cheat on your taxes, pay fair wages to the workmen you hire, help redeem those who are captive. The call to pursue justice is a part of who we are as Jews. The Torah tells us that when G-d calls to Avrahm to go forth from his land, where Avrahm and Sarai will give birth to great nation, G-d tells Avrahm that he is to “la’asot tzedakah u’mishpat”—“extend the boundaries of righteousness and justice in the world.” Generations later, when G-d speaks to Moses, G-d tells him that the Jewish People are to be “mamlechet kohanim and goy kadosh”–“a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The Jewish People’s dual purpose in the world is not just to feel the suffering of others, but do something about it. Micah is a descendant of both Abraham and Moses, and so are we. Asot mishpat: Act justly.
But Micah continues: v’ahavtah chesed: Love chesed—kindness, mercy, goodness. Why love? Isn’t it enough simply to do acts of chesed? Micah seems to be stressing that we not only perform acts of chesed, but love the very experience of doing them. Perhaps he knows that though we don’t do acts of chesed for the reward they bring, being kind to others and caring for the world around us in fact bring their own rewards. It feels good to be kind to others. If given a chance, Micah seems to be saying, manifest your Yetzer HaTov, your godly inclination in the world.
And . . “hatznia lechet im eloheicha”–be humble as you walk through this world. Remember how small and insignificant you really are relative to this vast mystery of life. You are one small speck in the universe and in time. At the same time, remember: you walk with G-d. You are not alone; there is Something Greater, a Great Wellspring of Wisdom and Truth, for you to draw upon as you make your way through the world. What is required of you in this lifetime? “Only this: do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with G-d.”
Finally, the third teaching is something that we read during these High Holy Days, on Yom Kippur afternoon. It was also in yesterday’s Torah portion, Nitzavim. It is an important teaching for all of us, I think, as we navigate our way through these challenging times:
“Ha’idoti vachem hayom, et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz; ha’chaim v’hamavet nattati lifanecha, habracha v’haklala. U’vacharta bachaim, l’ma’an t’chi’yeh atah v’zarecha. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have placed before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—so that you and your offspring will live. . .” (Deut. 30:19).
Choose life. We read these words year after year, but how often do we really take them in? Choose life. Choose–for it is a choice how we live. This is a lesson that I need to learn better in my own life. Let us live life fully, each and every moment. Let us recognize the miracle that exists in our very existence, and in the existence of each and every human being in this room. I know it’s so easy to dismiss what I am saying as trite, or simplistic—but let’s not let cynicism or sarcasm rob us of wonder at how the breath of life flows through us, every day without your effort. Let’s not look at the world around us and see only what is wrong; let us take time and appreciate what is right and good: the blessing we have, in this country, yes, with its problems, to live in freedom; the progress that has been made, yes, though there is still much work to be done. Let us acknowledge and honor how fortunate we are to be part of a tradition that is old and rich and will continue to evolve with our help, a tradition that offers opportunities like this one to come together and reflect on Life, on our lives, a tradition that gives us the possibility to make changes as we go forward.
And let us recognize what is here in this Mishkan, in this sacred space that we’ve created this evening, simply by bringing who we are and what we have to offer and opening our hearts. The blessing of being part of a community of people who care deeply about the world and want to make it a better place for the generations yet to come. The blessing of the amazing creative energy that inspires human beings to write poetry and prayer, to make beautiful music by blending voices in harmony; the gift of voices that can lift spirits and touch something deep inside. The blessing of hands that have sewn beautiful wall hangings and Torah covers to add beauty to our worship, or have baked delicious challot and honey cake that we will soon get to taste. The blessing of so many hands and feet and bodies and souls that have worked hard over these last days and weeks and months to assign readings and honors and carry boxes and arrange flowers and make sure that all of the necessary details were in place so that we could all come and celebrate this day, this beginning of a New Year.
Life, my friends, is precious, a precious gift. U’va’charta bachaim: Let us choose it—each and every moment that we have.
ֽ בוֹ׃ ְוִנ ְש ְמ ָ֣חה נִִ֖גי לה ְיה ָ֑וה ע ָ֣שה ֶזה־ַ֭ היּוֹם
This is the day that the Eternal has made— let us exult and rejoice in it.
L’shanah Tovah U’metukah; May it be a good and sweet new year.