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09/18/2009 - The Most Important Part (Rosh Hashanah Eve, 5770)
September 18, 2009
1 Tishri 5770
Rosh Hashanah Eve, 5770
Who in this sanctuary has heard of the word besheret? It is an idea from Yiddish folk tradition. It teaches that the world is the way it's supposed to be. Things happen for a reason. Our partner, our spouse, is besheret. A job, an accomplishment, a position we achieve--it's besheret, it's meant to be. Besheret rests on the idea of fate. In some way, we have a destiny we are meant to fulfill. Our life is like a puzzle where we gradually fill in the pieces.
The idea of besheret is attractive in its simplicity. Yet, this view of life does not reflect Jewish tradition, or the reality of our experiences. While it can be comforting to feel that things are the way they were always meant to be, each of us knows that our choices matter. We know, in fact, that much of our life is contingent. The way our lives turn out depends on the circumstances we inherit, the decisions we make, the people with whom we live. Much is within our control. Yet, the contingency of life also means that much of what happens to us is unpredictable. Life can change in a moment. It can be difficult to live in such a world.
Our rabbinic sages recognized this truth thousands of years ago. They taught it in a commentary on the story we will read tomorrow morning, the akedah, the binding of Isaac. It is the story, we recall, of God commanding Abraham to offer his son Isaac at the top of Mount Moriah as a sacrifice. The sages note that the death of Isaac's mother, Sarah, occurs immediately after Abraham and Isaac come down from the mountain. They imagined that Sarah heard Isaac's cry from afar. And even though he lived, she despaired at the thought that simply one second--one second that it would have taken Abraham to lower his knife--stood between the life and death of her son. She dies from a sense of radical vulnerability and contingency. Indeed, one contemporary commentator, Aviva Zornberg, suggests that Sarah dies of the "unbearable lightness of being." She could not live in a world of where, as Jean Paul Sartre put it, "a hair's breath separates life from death." The fact that Isaac lived, as Zornberg puts it, "in no way palliates the horror of what might well have been." (127)
Each of us, I think, knows the reality of Sarah's feeling. If we have rushed to the hospital with a friend or relative--if we have ever driven by a car accident--if we have ever experienced a sudden health problem, we know that precariousness.
I had a terrific friend in college who taught me this lesson. We met sophomore year and were suitemates junior year. He was phenomenally bright, a great athlete, and a warm thoughtful friend. He was also intensely curious, having grown up in different parts of Asia with a father who was a diplomat and a mother who was a journalist. He persuaded me to take a memorable course in the history and culture of ancient Egypt. One evening we were out on the deck of our dorm with friends. It was late. I went to sleep. Others stayed up. The next morning at 7:00 am someone rushed into my room. Mike had been found with blood on his face below the deck. He had fallen. We rushed him to the hospital. I called his parents in Cambodia. He was in a coma for months, and eventually suffered brain image. Had he lain on the ground for another hour, the doctors said, he would have died. It remains unclear how he fell. Yet, the damage to this incredible friend with so much to give to the world helped me realize how fragile each of our moments are.
How, then, do we respond to this fragility? Do we give into that constant temptation of despair--that feeling which Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav called the greatest sin? It is easy to do so. Yet, rather than paralyze us, realizing our fragility can make life more sacred. It can teach us not to take life for granted. Rather, we can look at ourselves and our world with a sense of gratitude, wonder and recognition.
This recognition is much harder than it sounds. The late writer David Foster Wallace pointed this out in a beautiful prable he told in a commencement address. The address was actually published posthumously in book form. It is called This is Water. The parable begins with two young fish swimming in the water. They happen to meet an older fish swimming the opposite way. The older fish nods at them and says, "Morning boys, how's the water." The young fish swim off. A few minutes later, one of them turns to the other and says, "What in the world is water?"
The point of the story, as Wallace goes on to say, is that the most important realities are often the most difficult to see. What is most familiar is often what's least noticed. Growing as a human being, Wallace writes, is an ongoing tutorial in learning what is most important. In figuring out what to notice and where to place our attention. It is not easy. In the age of blackberries and 50-inch televisions, we have thousands of things competing for our attention--possessions, entertainment, frivolity. Yet, when we pray, when we study, when we listen to the wisdom of those who preceded us, we learn how to better focus it. Indeed, Wallace may have unknowingly defined the purpose of these Days of Awe when he said that true learning seeks "an awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us.”
One of the reasons we come to Solel on these Days of Awe is to remind ourselves of what is hidden in plain sight all around us. To express gratitude for our everyday blessings-for our friends, our spouse, our children, our parents, our home, our work, our skills. To remind ourselves of where we come from and the larger Jewish story of which we are a part. With this reminder, we gain strength in responding to the fragility and contingency of life. The whole world, taught Rabbi Nachman once again, "is a narrow bridge. And the most important part is not be afraid."
I would humbly amend Rabbi Nachman one bit. Sometimes, we are afraid. The most important part is not to let that fear paralyze us. Rather, it is to let it broaden and strengthen us. Indeed, it is only after Isaac comes down from the mountain that his life truly begins. Until that point, he was referred to as boy and son. Afterward, he leaves his family home, marries and builds his own life. That is not to say the experience on the mountain was in some way good for Isaac. Rather, it is to say that we can learn from how he responded. When we experience moments of profound difficulty and fear, we can respond in a variety of ways. We can resign ourselves to cynicism. We can simply let it be. Or we can persevere and let those experiences broaden us an and make us into different and, perhaps, more thoughtful people.
The author and physician Richard Selzer illustrates this truth in a profound story. A woman has just been wheeled out of surgery. Her husband is waiting in the corridor. He is terribly nervous. The surgeon goes to speak with him. We removed the tumor, he said, the surgery went well. Something in the surgeon's eyes suggests that it did not. He continues, "We had to severe a facial nerve to get the growth. The nerve controls the muscles of the mouth.” There is a pause. A realization sets in. The husband then asks, "But otherwise she'll be okay?
“Oh yes,” the surgeon says. “Other than that, she’ll be fine.” The husband’s eyes light up with joy. “Thank God!” he cries. “I was afraid she….Thank God!” Later the nurses wheels her into the room. She is awake. Her husband gazes down at her. He sees that her mouth is twisted into a palsy. She leans forward and asks him “Will my mouth always be like this?” He leans toward her and says very gently, “To remove the tumor in your cheek, they had to cut the nerve.”
She nods and is silent. Tears well up in her eyes. But then he leans down and kisses her, twisting his own lips to accomodate hers. He smiles and gently tells her that their kiss still works.
No one would wish this experience on another, and it was probably not what this man and woman imagined when they first married. Yet, an extraordinary experience transformed and, perhaps, deepened their love for another. I've seen similar examples of this love by a parent when a child suffers debilitating illness. We might say this is simply biology. Yet, examples of the opposite reaction abound. We have profound resources inside of us. Sometimes we use them. Other times we don't. The choice is ours.
But our Jewish tradition can, I believe, give us strength in choosing. We are part of something larger than ourselves. We are part of a people that has experienced suffering, uprootedness and persecution. Yet, we have continued to seek to live by an ethical code and commitment to learning and passing on our traditions from generation to generation. Times of crisis were our times of greatest creativity We are like Abraham, forced to make tough choices, and, like Isaac, trying to grow from the painful experiences. Part of our task on these Days of Awe is look inside of ourselves--to find our own Jewish story--that can give us strength through the journey of life.
There is a marvelous short story by the Yiddish writer Shalom Asch. It was shared with me by a rabbinic colleague, Edward Feinstein (whom I quote with his permission). It is about an elderly Jewish couple in Russia forced by the government to billet a soldier. This was not uncommon. In the 19th and early 20th century, teenage boys were taken from homes and forced into the army for 20 years of service. As Rabbi Feinstein recounts, "This eldery couple move out of their bedroom, and the young man, all gruffness and glares, moves in with his pack and rifle and bedroll. It's Friday night, and the couple prepares to sit down for Shabbat dinner. The soldier takes his place at the table. Only now is it apparent just how young he is. He sits and stares with wide eyes as the old woman kindles the Shabbas candles. And he listens as the old man chants the kiddush and motzee. He quickly devours the hunk of challah placed before him, and speaking for the first time, he asks for more.
His face is a picture of bewilderment. Something about this scene -- the candles, the chant, the taste of the challah. It touches him in some mysterious way. He rises from his seat at the table, and beckons the old man to follow him, back into the bedroom. He pulls his heavy pack from the floor onto the bed, and begins to pull things out. Uniforms, equipment, ammunition. Until finally, at the very bottom, he pulls out a small velvet bag, tied with a drawstring. ‘Can you tell me, perhaps, what this is?’ he asks the old man, with eyes suddenly gentle and imploring.
The old man, takes the bag in trembling fingers and opens the string. Inside is a child's tallis, a tiny set of t'fillin, and small book of Hebrew prayers. ‘Where did you get this?’ he asks the soldier. ‘I have always had it...I don't remember when...’ The old man opens the prayer book, and reads the flyleaf, his eyes filling with tears: To our son, Yossel, taken from us as a boy, should you ever see your Bar Mitzvah, know that your mama and tata always love you.
We carry with us a pack, filled with life's painful truth -- the lonely truth of death, of vulnerability, of finitude -- and all our fears. Year after year, as we get older, the pack gets heavier and more clumsy."
Often we don't want to look inside the pack. It can be too difficult or painful. We may want to just dump it out in cynicism or let it weigh us down in resignation. Yet, inside that pack, inside our hearts, is a gift. It is the gift of faith, of love, of hope. It is the gift of our ancestors.
As this New Year begins, let us unpack it. Let us pull it out, and wrap it around our arms and hearts. With it, we can say, kol halom, kulo, gesher tzar ma-od...the whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important is not to let fear stand in our way."
Copyright © 2009 Rabbi Evan Moffic. All rights reserved.