L’shanah tovah; happy New Year. And — Hinee ma tov u’ma’nayim: how good and pleasant it is for us to be together. Truly. There is something so comforting, so reassuring, to come together once a year and remember, remind ourselves and one another, of what is important, of what we value, of who we are.
It has been quite a year since we last met, hasn’t it? In between the good and joyful occasions in our own lives, we’ve been living through a period that has been at times difficult, challenging, heart-breaking, unbelievable, confusing, and crazymaking. No matter where you place yourself on the political spectrum. Even if you no longer read or listen to the news, it’s hard not to be buffeted around by the latest scandal, the most recent inflammatory tweet, or new revelation. What a time it has been!
Do you know the expression, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going?” Well, for a long time I’ve joked— when things have gotten especially tough— that I just want to go to New Zealand and become a sheepherder. (Really!) In my fantasy, I’ll just hang out with sheep in some beautiful bucolic countryside and will no longer be bothered by upsetting politics or the dizzying and unrelenting assault of the daily news. What a respite that would be!
Well, my trip to Newfoundland this summer cured me of that fantasy. Newfoundland is on the easternmost edge of the North American continent. Go to Toronto, and drive 1700 miles east, and slightly north. It is very remote. There are some beautiful parts, and it was interesting to experience a different culture— one steeped for many generations in the fishing industry. It was really like stepping back in time a few hundred years—to a much simpler kind of life. Most towns we passed through were barely a cluster of houses; there were not even grocery stores.
Our trip made me realize: I really don’t want to live such an isolated life, whether in Newfoundland or New Zealand–no matter how beautiful and peaceful my surroundings. I like having coffee houses to hang out in, and restaurants with fresh, local food. I am more of an urban dweller than I thought. Besides: I don’t want to run away, as much as sometimes I think I might want to. I am philosophically committed to being engaged in the world, to being an involved citizen. Though I’ve never considered myself a particularly patriotic person, I do consider this country — in the end of it all — my home. And Jewishly, I am committed to doing what I can to make this a better world. Willful isolation, or simply running away, is not an option.
But this past year… It’s been so distressing to see what’s been happening — to innocent children separated from their parents, parents who were simply seeking a better life for their families; to our environment, to the orcas and the polar bears and vulnerable populations who are suffering and will suffer most directly from our poor choices around clean energy policies; to the honorable values that we thought were the bedrock of this nation’s foundation.
Over this past year, when I’ve felt especially distressed, I’ve had a visceral reaction, one more easily conveyed through an image than words. Do you know how, when you come upon a spider web, you marvel about how that web is at one and the same time so delicate and also so strong? You look at the spider in the middle, resting, perhaps waiting for its next meal, and as you marvel,you cannot help (or at least I can’t help) but gently blow on it, and then watch — in fascination — as both the spider and its web shake and tremble, sometimes violently, in response.
“Do spiders have feelings?” I’ve wondered, as I watch it tremble. Is the spider filled with fear, thinking that the elaborate world it has so carefully created over time will suddenly begin to unravel, one thin silken strand at a time? It is the experience of the spider and its web—the shaking and trembling, the fear that in my imagination it feels–that I’ve felt so many times over the past year, in my viscera, my gut, my being. Is this country, the one that has been created so painstakingly by so many over the past two hundred plus years beginning to unravel? Are all of the environmental regulations, all of the equal rights and
protections, all of the anti-corruption measures that so many have worked and fought so hard for in danger of being torn apart, dismantled by each new gust of wind?
There have been many times over the past year I have felt shaken, scared for what the future holds. Sometimes, it’s been more of a low-level anxiety, present just below the surface. I know that many of you also feel this anxiety, as do our children. During these times, I’ve wondered: what is the best way to respond–as an ordinary citizen, as a leader, as a Jew? Filled with uncertainty about what to do, I’ve prayed: “What do you want of me, G-d? What should I do?”
A few weeks ago, filled with this fear and trembling, some familiar words came to my mind.
Eternal Mystery, who may dwell in Your house? Who may dwell in your holy mountain?
Those who are upright, who do justly; who speak the truth within their hearts;
Who do not slander others, or wrong them, or bring shame upon them;
Who scorn the lawless, but honor those who revere God;
Who give their word, and come what may, do not retract it;
Who do not exploit others, who do not take bribes.
Those who live in this way shall never be shaken.
These are the words of Psalm 15. The Psalm is often included in funerals, when laying to rest especially virtuous, honorable, people.
These words felt so relevant as I heard them in my mind. What guidance might they offer, I wondered, as we try to navigate our way through these challenging times? Might they help us not want to run away to some remote place, but rather, stay engaged in the world, continue to be actively involved in the country that is, in fact, our home? If these words have given solace and comfort to others for thousands of years, might they somehow calm our own anxiety and unease, and help us move forward in our lives with strength and clarity—regardless of what is happening around us?
So I studied the Psalm more deeply. I found it helpful to reflect on the words, the qualities of character they describe, and consider my own behavior in light of them. They reminded me what Jewish Tradition considers noble, ethical, honorable behavior. These are the qualities I hope to emulate in my own life, the words I hope might someday be recited when those who have known me say goodbye.
Tonight, I’d like to spend a few minutes highlighting some of the words, and the qualities they reflect. Because it would take too long for us to review the whole Psalm, I will highlight only a few phrases, as well the first and last ones. But I give the whole of the Psalm to you as a New Year’s present, to carry in your wallet or pocket, to take out and reflect on from time to time. Or perhaps, to read before you head out into the world each day. Maybe the words can help us all reflect on the qualities we hope to exemplify in our own lives. Or perhaps, you might just read and reflect on them for the next ten days leading up to Yom Kippur, in which case they might help you enter more deeply into the process of teshuvah—reflection, repair, and renewal—that is asked of us at this time of year. However we choose to use the words of the Psalm, each of us might consider: how have I done this past year? And, given that teshuvah provides an opportunity to change and become more of who we would like to be, we might ask: what qualities do I want to be known for by others?
Eternal Mystery, who may dwell in Your house? Who may dwell in your holy mountain?
The Psalmist begins by asking who will be able to enjoy the experience of living in God’s house. The Psalmist isn’t describing a physical place, of course, but rather, a state of being: an experience of inner peace and tranquility that one might feel if one were in the presence of the Eternal.
In our own lives, some of us may have touched, for just a brief moment, a similar feeling of peace and tranquility. Perhaps it was during meditation, or while being outside in nature, in a beautiful, serene spot, feeling connected to all of existence. Maybe it was sitting quietly by a dancing fire on a cold winter night, or listening to a sublime piece of music. In such moments, we may have experienced a sense of transcendence—a feeling of being connected to something greater than ourselves.
It is this kind of experience, I believe, that the Psalmist means when he referred to dwelling in God’s house, God’s holy mountain.
Who merits living in such a tranquil state for eternity? Who has earned such a reward? The Psalmist describes that person as:
“The one who is upright,” or “who walks uprightly.”
The word tamim, from the root tam, can mean “complete, or wholehearted.” Some say the word tam describes a person who lives an honorable life, a life of decency and integrity.
I have known just a very few people in my life whom I would describe in this way. And unfortunately, I myself have a long way to go. There have been many times in this past year when, in reaction to some of the terrible events happening–I have been filled with strong reactions: disgust, vindictiveness, even at times, though I am embarrassed to admit it, rage. While I know it is human to have such responses, it is not what I want to feel, and even more, not who I want to be. Maimonides taught that we must do teshuvah not only for acts, but also for thoughts: anger, hostility, jealousy, mockery. “These iniquities are more serious than those that involve an act,” Maimonides wrote, “for when one is accustomed to doing them, it is difficult to stop. . . .” (Maimonides Hilchot Teshuvah). If Maimonides were writing today, my guess is that he would have to write a whole new chapter on teshuvah for twitter and other social media use.
The Psalmist also describes the honorable or virtuous person as one:
Lo ragal al l’shono: Who does not slander others
Just the other day, someone said to me, “Can I engage in some gossip?” “No!” I replied immediately and emphatically. It’s not that I don’t ever slip and say things about others that I know I shouldn’t. It’s hard not to; gossiping, talking about others, seems to be such a huge part of our culture. But Jewish Tradition is clear; it is wrong to engage in LaShon HaRah—literally—bad or evil speech; it is even worse to engage in slander, which damages a person’s character or reputation. At the same time, in our modern world, where people have been silenced or threatened against speaking out, it is important to distinguish slander from reporting a criminal or a moral offense. While the Sages of Jewish Tradition compared slander to murder, they would no doubt have required truth to be spoken in the case of a crime.
The Psalmist goes on to say that the honorable person:
V’cher’pah lo nasa al k’rovo: does not bring shame upon them
As some of us know, shame is very different from embarrassment, or from the healthy sense of guilt we may feel if we’ve done something wrong. Shame is toxic; when we feel it, we judge not just our actions as bad or perhaps even reprehensible, but worse, ourselves. Shaming others, even in private, Jewish Tradition teaches, is prohibited; it is compared to murder.
There is a well-known story that is often told at this time of year. Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pzhysha, of the early Hasidic masters, used to carry two kvitel, or
notes, around with him, one in each pocket. On one was written, “I am but dust and ashes” (from Genesis 18:27), while on the other, an excerpt from a Talmudic saying, “for my sake the world was created.” When Simcha Bunam found himself in a situation in which he was feeling pumped up with pride, he would take out and read the first phrase; when he felt small and unworthy, he would take out and read the other.
It is interesting how Judaism understands our sometimes fierce attachment to our sense of self, our ego, in a paradoxical way. There are times that we should
diminish our sense of importance in our own eyes, but we do not ever have the right to diminish another person’s sense of self or significance in their own or others’ eyes. It might be helpful for each of us to carry such a kvitel, a note, in our pocket as well.
And finally, the last verse of the Psalm:
Eleh lo yimut l’olam: Those who live in this way shall never be shaken
In Hebrew, the word yamut means to totter, shake, or slip, to deviate from the right course, be shaken, moved, or overthrown. This phrase is often translated,
“Those who live in these ways shall never be shaken.” The Psalmist asserts that those who conduct their lives in this way can feel an inner confidence and trust.
They know, deep in their hearts, that whatever happens in the world around them, they have done their best to move through the world with integrity, and as a result, will stand firm, and not be shaken.
Integrity: “the quality or state of being of sound moral principle; uprightness, honesty, and sincerity.” In the end, that is, I believe, what Psalm 15 lays out: the
steps toward living a life of integrity. This, I believe, is what God, and Judaism, wants of us. Striving toward a life of integrity. Nothing more, but also, nothing less.
The Psalmist holds out an ideal of behavior that may or may not be within our reach. The reward of such behavior—inner peace and tranquility–may also be an ideal, something that we may not literally be able to attain. And yet, both offer a goal toward which to strive, a way to try to behave regardless of what is happening around us.
It is that simple, and of course, that difficult.
As much as I know how I “should” behave, I slip up over and over again. We all do. We have the best of intentions and then . . . . we forget. That’s what teshuvah is all about. Reflect, repair, re-commit to do it better next time. Jewish Tradition teaches that it—teshuvah—is built into the very fabric of the universe. Into what it means to be human.
The fact is: being aware of how we should act is a moment-by-moment spiritual practice. One we get to work on for the whole of our lives. Friends, we are so blessed to have inherited a rich tradition full of moral guidance to help us navigate our way through life, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how challenging the times. Psalm 15 is just one of 150 psalms. There are many other texts, teachings, and practices that can help us live noble, ethical, honorable lives. Lives of integrity.
As the season begins to change, I have been discovering spider webs everywhere. I have a newfound appreciation of them, and their ingenious architects. Did you know that even though spider webs look so delicate, that spider silk is actually five times as strong as steel? And that spider webs can withstand huge forces, even hurricane-force winds, without breaking? Or, that if a light wind blows on the web, the silk softens and becomes more flexible, and as a result, the spider is able to sway in the breeze without its web breaking.
What a hopeful, and reassuring thought, with which to enter into this New Year. Nature is resilient, and so are we—perhaps more resilient than we think. As we move forward into the future, whatever it may be, may we remember: to walk uprightly, to act justly; to speak words of truth, to be sincere; to not slander or bring shame on others; to conduct our business honorably; to challenge those who break the law, and honor those who honor Creation; to keep our word, to not exploit others, nor take bribes. To strive, as best as we are able, to move through the world with integrity.
Nothing more, but also, nothing less.
Ken Y’hi Ratzon. May it be so.