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09/27/2009 - Recalculating (Kol Nidre, 5770)
September 27, 2009
10 Tishri 5770
Kol Nidre, 5770
One of the most popular features of contemporary automobiles is GPS--global positioning system. Many of us here probably have one in our car. They make getting to unfamiliar places very easy. You type in the address, start driving, and follow the directions. In 200 feet, turn right. At the stop sign, turn left. Now what happens when you don't follow the directions? What happens when you miss the turn? In most systems, the machine pauses and then a very soothing voice says..."recalculating." The GPS then figures out a new route to your destination. How brilliant and wonderful! We get lost...we miss a turn...we can recalculate.
Tonight, Kol Nidre, is a time for recalculating. It is a time for us to look at ourselves. To see whether we are on the right route. The challenge here is that we are both the driver and the machine. We have to drive and recalculate at the same time. Perhaps that is one of the reasons we fast. The task of recalculating is so important that we have to focus our bodies and minds on it.
When we are driving, we usually have a concrete destination. We have an address. For our personal GPS, we don't have such a concrete address. What we do have is Torah. We have a vision of our best selves. We have the accumulated wisdom and teachings of our Jewish tradition. The Torah is many things. It is wisdom, it is laws, it is history, it is ethics. I think, however, that above all, it is a blue print for creating a life of meaning and purpose. Winston Churchill once wrote that "We make a living what we get. We make a life by what we give." The Torah teaches us how to give of ourselves in order to make a life.
Now for much of this year, we probably thought more about making a living. From Bernie Madoff to home values to job security to fractured nest eggs, this year was one of disruptive and disorienting uncertainty. Even though, perhaps, things are not as alarming and uncertain at this moment as they were last year, we are still living through challenging times. At these times--at times of uncertainty and difficulty--at times when making a living seem to be all we can think about--it is even more critical to step back and focus on making a life.
What does Torah teach us about making a life? How do we give of ourselves? Part of it, I think, is cultivating our capacity for wonder. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the prophetic rabbi and theologian, wrote that "our world will perish not for lack of knowledge but for lack of wonder." What is so important about wonder? Wonder cultivates awe and humility. We stand in wonder at the love we feel for our children or grandchildren, at the way a musical melody touches us, or the way we feel after solving a complex problem. Wonder can imbue us with a sense of responsibility. If the the mountains and seas didn't inspire wonder in us, we wouldn't be concerned about their maintenance and our environment. Wonder, love, appreciation, awe, and responsibility are interconnected. They weave a pattern of emotions that imbues life with meaning and purpose.
Now children have an endless capacity for wonder. Over time, however, as we grow and have to face the real world, we can lose it. This truth was conveyed to me in a story I came across recently. It concerns a young man in a Washington DC metro station. He wore a jeans, a long sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. It was Friday morning He held a violin in his hand. An case lay open at his feet. A few coins and dollar bills lay in the case as seed money to stimulate contributions. At 7:50 am, he began playing. He continued for 43 minutes. Over the course of that time, he played through six classical pieces, including the stunning Bach Partita in D minor. His playing resonated through the entire metro arcade.
Over those forty three minutes, about a thousand people passed by. The vast majority walked straight ahead, up or down the stairs. A few dozen turned their eyes and momentarily waited. Seven people stopped to listen for more than one minute. He collected a total of thirty two dollars and seventeen cents.
The violinist playing in the Metro was Joshua Bell. As many of us probably know, he is one of the great musical virtuosos of our time. He sells out concert halls. He plays to a capacity audience here at Ravinia. There he was, in the Washington Metro, playing an 18th century Stradivarius violin, and 7 people listened for more than one minute. Interestingly, the Washington Post, who had concocted this experiment, noted that every single time a child walked by the performance, he or she tried to stop and listen. And each time, a parent swooped them up and kept walking.
What can we make of this experiment? If we were in the Metro that morning, what would we have done? Would we have stopped and listened? Would we have put down our cell phones or ipods? It's difficult to say. What we can say, however, is that we often fail to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. Part of the function of these days of awe is to cultivate that spiritual sensitivity, to see, as poet William Blake put it, "the world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour." What prevents us from doing so? Often it is the business of making a living. Our work never ends. While blackberries and cell phones were meant to save time and improve efficiency, they often mean we are tethered to our office every hour of the day. The pressures of the economic recession make our need to work harder even more acute.
This trend is not unique to our age. One of the great hasidic rebbes looked out of his window one afternoon. He saw crowds of people rushing as they went about their business. He leaned out and asked one of them, "Why are you rushing?" The man replied, "I'm running to work to make a living." “Are you sure,” asked the rabbi, “that your living is running away from you and you have to rush to catch it. Perhaps it's running toward you, and all you have to do is stand still and let it catch up to you."
Many of us are running, running, running. I confess that I am all the time. It's hard to stop and let our life catch up to us. Part of the reason is that we often think that satisfaction or happiness is just around the corner. If we only get this job or this car, we will be content. The wisdom of those who came before us can help from fallling into this endless pattern. We can listen to the wisdom of parents and grandparents who lived through the Depression--and developed values that sustain them.
My grandfather was an extraordinary doctor. He spent his entire career as a general practioner in Milwaukee in the same office with the same hospital. I was fortunate to grow up just a few blocks from him, and whenever we went out to dinner, it seemed he knew or even delivered as babies half the people in the restaurant. He had many favorite sayings, some of which were original. Most were not. We called them nuggets of wisdom. One of them was that “the grass is always greener on the other side.” I didn't understand this idea for a while, and when I did so, I saw the way he exemplified it in his life. He had opportunities to be a professor at the medical school; he had chances to go to another clinic and set up a more profitable practice. He could have opened more offices or charged more than $5.00 for housecalls. Yet, he loved spending time with patients. He loved making housecalls and staying for a steak or beer. He loved being the urban equivalent of a country doctor. He never confused wealth or status with happiness.
That is not to say that we should not be ambitious, that we should not work hard, or that we should not achieve the highest station in life we can attain. Far from it. Rather, it is to know how to distinguish between what is important and what is secondary. To understand what brings us true satisfaction--to find it, and treasure it.
My grandfather actually told me a story about this lesson. It is about a rabbi named Isaac. He lived in Crakow in a small home with a wife and four children. He made little money. One night he had a dream. In it he travels to the great city of Prague. In Prague he comes to a bridge, and under that bridge is buried a great treasure. The dream persists. Finally, he decides he has to go. He leaves his home and travels to Prague. Soon he finds the bridge from his dream. It is guarded by a group of soldiers. He waits and waits yet, the guards do not leave. Finally, the captain of the guards goes up to Isaac and asks him what he is doing there. Isaac tells him his dream.
The captain laughs. Then he saus, "Foolish man...We can't follow all of our dreams. If I had followed mine, I would have traveled to Cracow. I dreamt that in Cracow, there lived a poor man named Isaac, and under his stove was buried a great treasure." Isaac immediately understood. He returned home, and indeed, he finds a great treasure.
The treasure we seek is not in a faraway city. It is not just around the next corner. It is within us and around us. It is in our homes, our hearts, ourselves. We can only find it, however, when we look closely. That is the challenge of these Days of Awe. It is sharpening our vision so that we can find and nurture the treasures we have. To do so, we have to look at and inside ourselves.
This is difficult. The anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss once pointed out that astronomy developed as the first science among human beings because stars are far away. Anthropology and psychology—the study of human thought and culture--came much later. To study what is distant is easy. To explore what is close takes time and effort. (see David Wolpe, Making Loss Matter, p. 90)
Yet, the time and effort is worth it. When we fail to do so, we sell ourselves short. We lose sight of the possibilities inside of us. F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the most talented yet depressed writers of his time, conveyed this in a beautiful story. He wrote it 79 years ago, and titled it Babylon Revisited. It was actually adapted into a movie called The Last Time I Saw Paris.
It's about a man named Charlie Wales. He had lost his family and fallen a gambling addiction and other pursuits during the boom years of the 1920s. In the unforgettable closing scene, he is sitting at a bar in Paris. It is now the early 1930s. The bartender said to him: “I heard you lost a lot in the crash.” “I did”, Charlie said, and he added grimly, “but I lost everything I wanted in the boom.” “Selling short?” the bartender asked. Charlie replied, “Something like that.”
Charlie did not loss money selling short stocks. For Charlie, it was selling short the values that give meaning and purpose to our lives. It is much more devastating to sell them short, and he was experiencing a very different type of bankruptcy.
Here in this sanctuary, we can defend ourselves from such a bankruptcy. We are surrounded by the people we love and by the ancient traditions and teachings that imbue our lives with value. Yet, we cannot sell them short. Rather, we can let the lilting melody of the kol nidre--and the clarion call of the shofar--serve as our spiritual GPS, a reminder of what we lose when we do so.
On this Yom Kippur, this day of turning, we turn toward ourselves and toward one another. We turn with wonder and with eyes focused on the treasures within us and within the walls of this synagogue. That is never a wrong turn, and it will lead us to the place we are meant to be.
Copyright © 2009 Rabbi Evan Moffic. All rights reserved.