Yizkor Yom Kippur 5779

Reclaiming Mechayeh Ha-Meitim

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, September 19, 2018

Mechayeh is one of those great Yiddish words that occasionally comes up in casual conversation among Jewish people in the know.  If, after a day schvitzing in sweltering heat and humidity, you walk into an air-conditioned room, or dip your feet in a swimming pool, or take the first sip from a glass of ice water, you might say, “Ah, what a mechayeh.”  When you taste the kugel tonight after more than 24 hours of fasting, or when you finally take off your heels after coming home from your in-laws’ break-fast in Great Neck, you might say, “That’s a mechayeh,” literally meaning, something that has brought you back to life after having died, or, colloquially, anything refreshing or revitalizing.    

Rabbi Julian Sinclair observes that the phrase may reflect a Jewish penchant for “dramatic self-expression, where others might simply say, that was nice.”  We say, “What a mechayeh.

Mechayeh derives from the Hebrew chai, meaning life (as in “L’Chayim”).  It’s a verb form of chai – something best translated as “to give life” or “to enliven.”  The Hebrew pronunciation is מחיה.  It’s actually a word that comes up a lot in our prayers, specifically in the Gevurot prayer which, in our Reform Jewish tradition, concludes, Baruch Ata Adonai, mechayeh ha-kol, Blessed are You, Adonai, who gives life to all.  

However, that’s not how the original prayer goes, and if you grew up in a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue, or if you’re paying attention to the words in parentheses in our Reform prayer book, you’ll see:  Baruch Ata Adonai, mechayeh ha-metim, Blessed are You, Adonai, who gives life to the dead.  

It comes as a surprise to many modern-day Jews—Reform Jews especially—that the doctrine of resurrection of the dead is actually part of the Jewish tradition.  In fact, no less an authority than Maimonides codified a belief in techiyat ha-metim, that eventually the dead will be resurrected, as the last of his Thirteen Articles of Faith.  

The reason many of us remain unaware of the whole idea of bringing the dead back to life is because the Reform Movement officially spoke out against this belief more than 150 years ago, deeming it a superstitious relic of a less enlightened era.  Early Reformers worked diligently to expunge such language from our prayer books and religious school curricula.  But in many cases they couldn’t get rid of it entirely—so widespread and well-known were these prayers—so instead they altered the wording of the second prayer of the Tefilah so that the phrase mechayeh ha-metim, “…who gives life to the dead” becomes mechayeh ha-kol, “…who gives life to all.”

This service is called Yizkor, Remembrance, a fixed ritual that the Jewish calendar gives us four times a year in order to keep our dead before us long after they have died.  The Yizkor of Yom Kippur, in particular, seems a good time to reflect on the meaning of mechayeh ha-metim, this curious and, at least in a Reform Jewish setting like ours, controversial phrase that has stirred up such strong feeling, that Jews have both embraced and rejected.  Over the past year or so, I have found myself increasingly drawn to the language of mechayeh ha-metim and have restored it to my personal prayer practice.  And I want to show you why.

On her travels with the National Tour of The Sound of Music three years ago, Kelly picked up a bonsai plant of a Persian Desert Rose that was more than thirty years old and had been meticulously cultivated and nurtured.  While driving home from a performance in Florida, with the plant safely nestled in the back seat of her Toyota, she stopped for a few hours and left the bonsai in the car.  By the time she got home, she discovered that the leaves had turned brown, burnt by the Georgia sun and withered by the greenhouse effect.  

Over the coming weeks, Kelly did everything in her power to nurse the bonsai back to life, but within days, the predominantly brown leaves turned dry and brittle and many of them fell off the branches, leaving the bonsai denuded and altogether sad, as were we.  I, for one, was ready to say Kaddish but Kelly insisted that with proper care, there was cause for hope and we should not give up so easily. 

PersianDesertRose

The photograph above was taken earlier this summer.  It is one of the reasons I now say mechayeh ha-metim, because I want to acknowledge that in God’s world, regeneration is possible, new life and growth is possible, and everywhere in Nature we can see life and death not as a finite line but rather as an infinite circle, one leading to the other and back again—forever.

Mechayeh ha-metim has other metaphorical meanings, too.  The Shulchan Aruch, the most extensive code of Jewish law, instructs us to recite Baruch Ata Adonai, Mechayeh Ha-Metim when we are reunited with a dear friend after twelve or more months without contact.  I imagine some of us, without even knowing, have had cause to recite this blessing upon entering the sanctuary these Holidays, as we reconnect with members of our extended WRT family whom we haven’t seen since last year.  And how beautiful is that?  I love that the Jewish tradition likens the experience of human connection and re-connection to the resurrection of the dead.  How powerfully it reminds us that human contact is precious, that welcoming people back into your life after a long time apart is a kind of rebirth, that renewing a relationship gives life and sustains life.

We have spent these High Holidays grappling with the terrible realities of life and death—coming to terms with a year that, for reasons beyond our ken, took more than it gave, sundered us from so many.  In our congregation, we have laid to rest not only the aged, sated in years and crowned with blessing, but also the much too young, claimed by insidious disease, self-inflicted harm, accidents and just plain bad luck.  Every heart in this room beats with love and longing for our own family members and cherished friends with whom we can never share a long-awaited reunion.  Every heart in this room is heavy, carrying the shared burden of our congregational family’s losses.

As we approach the closing of the gates, the exquisite Ne’ilah service suffused with the light of the setting sun, as we gather at this Yizkor hour, with empty bellies and heavy hearts, with eyes that have done their share of weeping, might we yet be moved to acknowledge the possibility of life after death, life in the face of death, life for the sake of our dead?  

Could we say, Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, Mechayeh Ha-Meitim:  Blessed is the Power that fills the Universe, that brings life into the world, that gives us the power to live even when we mourn our dead?

Blessed is the Source of Life, that gives our dead the power to live every time we share their words, every time we are reminded of their kindness and generosity of spirit, every time we remember how the world was forever changed because they were here….

Blessed is the Source of Life, that carries the DNA and the wisdom of our ancestors inexorably forward….

…That implants the power of life within the seed, that falls to the earth encased in the dying fruit, that itself nourishes the earth, that gives rise to a new tree….

…That brings us light from distant stars long after they have met their deaths in a supernova of energy, an explosion that sends forth into space all the elements of the known universe, among them the hydrogen and oxygen and carbon that comprise all that lives and breathes on earth….

…That gives hurting human souls the power to heal, to turn our wounds and our losses and all our sources of pain into gifts of love….

…That gives us the ability to give life to our dead by championing the causes they cherished, and cherishing all the more the living whom they so loved in life….

For all these, we say Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, Mechayeh Ha-Meitim:  Blessed are You, Eternal Source of Life:

Who renews hope and possibility where once we felt only despair and yearning; 

Who renews us to life even when we grieve our dead;

Who renews our dead unto life, in our hearts, in the world, and in eternity.

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Escape, Pause, and Return: A Look at Jonah

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Yom Kippur Afternoon 5779, September 19, 2018

I never entertained the idea that I would be standing before you on the afternoon of Yom Kippur to introduce the Book of Jonah.  Every summer, when I would approach our congregant and teacher Rabbi Aaron Panken with the invitation, he would humbly accept, and then warn me, “Just so you know, I’m accepting for this year, but I never know exactly where I may be next year.”  

I never really took him seriously, and, more to the point, I never read into that statement anything other than a reasonable comment about the many demands on the schedule of the President of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, one of the foremost Jewish leaders of our time.  

Now, in hindsight, his disclaimer “I never know exactly where I may be next year” takes on new meaning.  We are all missing our friend, his wisdom, his humor, his joy in teaching, his love of the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people and the human family.  We are all with Lisa, Eli, Sam, and Aaron’s extended family in our prayers and memories on this Yom Kippur.  And we are all still illuminated by his inextinguishable light, as a human being and as a guide on the often tortuous pathway of life.  

May he rest peacefully.  And may we continue to learn and study Torah in his name.  Indeed, there could be no more poignant and potent way to perpetuate his life’s work and his legacy.

And that, of course, is why I look to Jonah, this text that, here at WRT might as well be synonymous with Rabbi Aaron Panken—his ability to draw out new insights with each successive Yom Kippur was nothing short of astonishing.  It almost became a game:  what’s Aaron going to say this year?  So today, as Aaron would have, let us find something new in this ancient book. 

I’ve been looking through the Book of Jonah, and I happened to notice that one word appears three times, and that is the Hebrew verb livroach, which means “to escape.” 

It comes up twice in the first chapter and once in the fourth or final chapter, and each time it announces a central plot point:  Jonah’s attempt to escape—livroach—from God’s command, to go to the sinful people of Nineveh with God’s warning of impending doom.  Jonah thought he could escape from God, which may be the ultimate fool’s errand.  God told him to go to Nineveh in the East; instead Jonah attempts to escape to what was the westernmost point in the known world.  

The first time, the narrator tells us Vayakom Yonah livroach Tarshisha, that Jonah, upon hearing God’s word, started to escape to Tarshish (Jonah 1:3).  Later in the chapter, when the sailors of the storm-tossed boat interrogate Jonah, he confesses his purpose, and we learn Ki yad’u ha-anashim ki-mi-lifnei Adonai hu voreach, that the men learned that he was escaping from God (Jonah 1:10).  And finally, in the fourth chapter, after the Ninevites repent and God retracts the punishment, Jonah says in utter exasperation … “Al ken kidamti livroach Tarshisha,” “This is the the reason I tried to escape to Tarshish in the first place!” (Jonah 4:2) — in other words, he’s upset that God’s prophecy of destruction will now not come true, and he would have been better off going to Tarshish.  

According to the Rabbis, the Scripture cannot contain even one extraneous word, so any time a word is repeated, it must mean something.  

So I’ve been thinking about this threefold mention of Jonah’s escape, and I’ve decided that it probably has something to say to us on this day of Atonement.

At the same time, over the last year or so, I’ve become something of an enthusiast on the subject of mechanical timepieces—watches in particular.  Not quartz watches, in which a  battery sends electricity to a sliver of mineral quartz crystal through an electronic circuit. The quartz crystal oscillates—that is, vibrates back and forth—at a precise frequency:  exactly 32768 times each second, which makes quartz watches much more accurate than mechanical timepieces.  

But, mechanical watches—whether the old-fashioned manual-wind kind, or the more modern automatic models, which translate the movements of your wrist into energy for the watch’s mainspring and therefore do not need to be wound, so long as they are worn regularly—well, these watches, while less precise, tend to be more desirable, more collectible, and more valuable, or at least more expensive. 

In any case, it turns out that every mechanical watch features a part called the “escapement.”  The escapement is the mechanism that transfers energy to the timekeeping element and allows the number of oscillations, those essential back-and-forth vibrations—to be counted.  The escapement takes the energy supplied by a tightly wound mainspring and causes the watch’s gear train to advance or “escape” with that energy by a fixed amount, which in turn moves the clock’s hands forward at a steady rate.  It’s not as accurate as a quartz watch, but a well-made escapement can keep time to within plus or minus a couple seconds a day, which is pretty amazing, when you remember that no electronic parts are used.  

The escapement—this part that allows the energy held in the spring to escape, to be released steadily and thereby power the watch—can be thought of as the “beating heart” of the watch.  Right now, I’m actually wearing a watch with a cutout in the dial that reveals the escapement, so I can watch my little watch heart beating even as you are also counting the seconds until it’s time to break the fast.

Escapements, it so happens, are used elsewhere as well.  Manual typewriters used escapements to move the carriage as each typewriter key was pressed.  The ancient Greeks used escapements to power the basins that would wash their clothes, and the medieval Chinese used liquid-driven escapements in water clocks.  In a piano, the escapement is the mechanism that enables the hammer to fall back as soon as it has struck the string, so that the music won’t get stuck on a single held note, and the next note can resound distinctly.  

In all these settings, we see “escape” as a way of moving things forward—driving the action.  The same is true of Jonah.  Without Jonah’s escape, there is no book of Jonah—had he not attempted to flee to Tarshish, had he dutifully headed off to Nineveh, there’s no plot here.  

It does seem to me that escape is an important theme to consider on Yom Kippur, because even as an escapement drives a watch, and Jonah’s escape drives the story, so too does the theme of escape—and, critically, of return—drive these high holidays; indeed, it drives our human endeavors.  

After all, what are these holidays but an invitation to return following escape?  There is, in each of us, a Jonah—a part of us that wants to defy and deny the inevitable.  Over the course of a Jewish year, we escape our plans and priorities and call it “procrastination.” We escape our responsibilities and relationships and only on the brink of estrangement do we sometimes recognize how distant we feel.  Like Jonah, we escape our obligations to our fellow human beings, rationalizing that they’re not really like us, that they are “other.”  We even attempt to escape the inevitable, hard realities of life—through emotional detachment, diversion and distraction, self-medication (they don’t call all of these “escapism” for nothing)—only to realize that, when it comes to reality, there really is no escape.

We are all called to the one and only life we are given.  What has happened, what we must now endure, no one can change.  We must meet what life gives us with courage and affirmation even when it is excruciating.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.

To this end, the Book of Job uses the verb livroach in a revealing way:  “My days fly swifter than a runner,” says Job.  “They escape without seeing good” (Job 9:25).

The beauty of the Jewish tradition, I think, is that it proposes a return for every escape, a way back home, no matter how far we’ve strayed.  Jonah’s escape was dramatic but short-lived.  Our escape, enacted over the last year, from our truest selves, from our innermost divine spark—need not be irreversible.  Yom Kippur says:  Come home.  You can always come home.

My watch—which is more charming than precise—says about ten minutes have elapsed since I started my talk.  In that time, the escapement has been releasing all that energy to move these little hands forward.  But for every push forward, there’s also a momentary pause, when a tooth catches on a little pallet, returning the escapement to its “locked” state.  That’s what generates the characteristic constant “ticking” sound in a mechanical watch—think of the “60 Minutes” clock.

Escape, pause, and return—the energy that powers the story of Jonah also powers a watch, and above all, it powers our spiritual lives.  

Escape, pause, and return—the dynamic that keeps us moving forward toward our best possible selves and a world made better—one tiny tick forward at a time.

  

Yom Kippur 5779: Grasshoppers and Giants

September 18-19, 2018, Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake

This story goes back to when Kelly was preparing for her conversion to Judaism, back in our graduate school days. 

One Shabbat after services at Cincinnati’s Rockdale Temple, Kelly introduced herself to one of the “regulars” and happily explained why a Kelly McCormick was hanging out at a temple on Shabbat.  Now if you know anything about people who go every single week to services—and this is true at any synagogue I’ve ever attended—or, if you know anything about… Jews, you know that they tend not to hold back in expressing their opinions, so Kelly was treated to one elderly woman’s unvarnished, if well-meaning, response to her news:

Why on earth would you ever want to become Jewish?  Don’t you know how much the Jewish people have suffered throughout history?  How much we have endured prejudice and discrimination, torture and genocide, just for our beliefs?  Aren’t you aware of how a small minority we are?  Why would you want to be a part of… that?

For Kelly—who had come to Judaism by way of the joyful prayer and music and wisdom and community of friends and teachers she had found at Hebrew Union College, singing in the choir of the late Bonia Shur on Shabbat mornings—the well-meaning lady’s warning was jarring and bewildering.  What wasn’t great about being Jewish?  Kelly wondered.  Why would anyone wish to frighten away an eager newcomer?  

Some of our gentlewoman’s emotional plea may be explained as a function of her generation:  if you are old enough to remember the Shoah, to remember the precarious first many days of the newborn Jewish State, to remember armies invading Israel on all sides, then the theme of survival in the face of victimhood may reasonably comprise your primary orientation toward Judaism.  Tevye the Dairyman summarized this view in his exasperated plea to God:  “I know, I know, we are the chosen people.  But once in a while, can’t you choose somebody else?”   

In my experience, the Jewish youth growing up here in Westchester and, in many cases, their parents, do not embody the same anxieties about Jewish identity that their parents and grandparents and Tevye do or did.  If anything, growing up here, in the nexus of Jewish success, they feel pride, joy, and belonging, and an unshakable optimism about the future of the Jewish people.

Still, it seems to me that the classic narrative of victimhood has curiously long arms, and a strong grip that still exerts an outsize influence on our outlook.  

To understand the Jewish victimhood mentality, we might go all the way back to the Torah, to the Book of Numbers, Chapter 13.  Moses has sent twelve Israelite spies on a mission, to scout out the promised land and report their findings:  What kind of land is this?  Are its towns walled or unfortified?  Is the soil rich or poor, the produce abundant or meager?  The spies dutifully report back, and while all twelve agree that the land does indeed flow with milk and honey, that its natural resources abound and its fruit is lush, fully ten of the scouts return in a full-blown panic.  “We saw giants there,” they exclaim, breathlessly.  “The land we explored devours its inhabitants.  All the people we saw were massive.  We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have seemed to them” (Numbers 13:1-20, 33).

We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes and so we must have seemed to them.  This tells us everything we need to know about victimhood. The perception creates the reality.  The way we choose to see ourselves shapes our identity.  

Please do not mistake my meaning:  people have endured abuse and betrayal.  Their lives have been forever marked by physical, emotional, and psychological trauma.  Families have been torn apart, flesh afflicted, friendships broken.  Every marginalized and oppressed people across the world and throughout the ages has a legitimate claim to victimhood.  

The question is, what then?  

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “The answer is that uniquely—this is what makes us Homo sapiens—in any given situation we can look back or we can look forward.  We can ask:  ‘Why did this happen?’  That involves looking back for some cause in the past.  Or we can ask, ‘What then shall I do?’  This involves looking forward, trying to work out some future destination given that this is our starting point’” (“On Not Being A Victim:  Re’eh 5778,” Covenant & Conversation, available online at http://www.rabbisacks.org).

Liberated from Pharaoh’s enslavement only recently, the ten spies who entered the promised land and came back looking like grasshoppers were irretrievably stuck in an Egypt of the mind.  They could not envision a future that did not perpetuate their ingrained sense of victimhood.  Only Joshua and Caleb—the two spies who dissent from the majority report, who say, “we can indeed overcome” any obstacle and take the land as our inheritance—only they can see themselves not as objects acted upon by forces outside their control but rather as subjects, human beings imbued with the power to choose their way forward.

This summer, I visited Israel and the West Bank with a delegation of twenty American rabbis under the auspices of the American Israel Education Foundation, the educational charity affiliated with AIPAC.  In the Ramallah offices of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, we met with Dr. Khalil Shikaki, a respected Palestinian political scientist and pollster who spends several months each year teaching at Brandeis.  Among the most interesting findings of his recent polls of both Palestinian and Israeli society, Dr. Shikaki asked us to consider these:

1.  That over the last twenty-five years, there’s been significant erosion in support for a two-state solution.

2.  That mistrust between the two peoples has never been higher.

3.  That each side predominantly thinks that it wants peace, but that the other side does not.  

What exerts a stranglehold on the peace process?  Is it Palestinian terrorism?  Corrupt and failed leadership?  The threat of jihadist Islam from Gaza? Israel’s omnipresent security apparatus across the West Bank?  Its right-wing government?  Its policies on hot-button issues like settlements and the status of Jerusalem?  

I would like to suggest that something more potent than all of these has deflated hopes for peace between Israelis and Palestinians:  a pervasive mindset of victimhood.

The Palestinian side gives evidence of this mindset everywhere.  Israeli scholar and peace negotiator Dr. Tal Becker, who addressed our group the next day, goes so far as to describe a mindset of victimhood as the defining characteristic of Palestinian identity.  That is to say, Palestinians cannot conceive of themselves, cannot present their narrative, without rooting it in their conflict with Israel.  If a Palestinian leader were to emerge today saying, “What we need more than anything is to live in peace with Israel,” that leader would not be taken seriously by his own people, so pervasive is the mindset of victimhood, the self-image of “grasshopper.”

And, to a lesser but significant extent, Jewish Israelis continue to embrace a grasshopper mindset of their own.  As Becker memorably put it, “Israeli Jews are a majority with the mindset of a minority”—they see themselves surrounded by a sea of Arab nations ever seeking to eradicate them—“while American Jews are the inverse, a minority with the mindset of a majority.”  In other words, American Jews may represent only 2% of the population—grasshoppers, statistically speaking—but possess a giant’s self-confidence.  

As for Israelis, the “victim mindset” seems to me at least partially responsible for the controversial and needlessly provocative “Nation-State Bill” which passed by vote of the Knesset in July, and which forcefully asserts the Jewish character of the Jewish state—to little actual effect, other than an unprovoked black eye to the one in every five Israeli citizens who is not Jewish.

So we have two societies deeply committed to their own narratives of victimhood.  The dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians is playing out on college campuses all over the US where we are witnessing a kind of “Oppression Olympics”—pro-Palestinian activists promulgating propaganda intended to highlight only the suffering of Palestinians, while the response of the Jewish community typically points out the Palestinian embrace of terrorism, and down the spiral we go, until inevitably someone says, “And what about the Holocaust?” and any hope for a productive conversation goes out the window.  

How can we administer group therapy to two entire societies?  Rather than focusing on borders and security, embassies and settlements, policies and policing, we might want to start with mindsets, helping Israelis and Palestinians to become more receptive to the possibility of change.  

Becker suggests this could happen by reframing the conflict not in terms of “justice” but rather in terms of “fairness.”  The difference is more than semantic.  In a “justice” paradigm, your side is trying to win, trying to make up for what you perceive to be the wrongs and harm inflicted by the other side.  In a “justice” paradigm, you actually need the other side to continue to oppress you in order to feel that you’re winning!  You need to be a victim to be a victor—and that’s a paradox where no one wins.  Pursuing justice keeps the narrative focused on historic injustices.  It roots the dynamic between these two societies in their grievances over the past, each convinced that the other has perpetrated the greater wrong. 

An alternative narrative would need, rather, to look to the future.  A paradigm of “fairness” rather than “justice,” says Becker, could do this.  Such a narrative would validate each side’s legitimate claim to the land, but would also insist that each side ought not assert its claim to all of the land, in the shared interest of peace.  The conflict would then become about “what’s fair” going forward, as opposed to “how does my side get justice” for what happened in the past.  A “fairness” paradigm could break the victim mindset, allowing both sides to feel less “grasshopper” and more “giant.”

In ways simultaneously different and yet no less consequential, we see similar dynamics playing out today in our country.  We’ve heard much about the polarization within American society.  We might benefit from exploring how mindsets of victimhood perpetuate and widen the divide.  

In the last year we have seen a dramatic rise in the phenomenon of “wokeness” — a word that signals one’s awareness of systemic injustices and willingness to call them out.  People and communities that are “woke” are attentive to America’s ongoing racial injustices [of the sort Rabbi Levy detailed in his sermon last night] in policing and incarceration, to the indignities visited on people of color all over the world, to the abuse and discrimination experienced by the LGBTQ community, and so forth.  

The phenomenon does not belong exclusively to the left or the right.  On one side we have “wokeness,” and on the other we hear narratives of victimhood as well, which inform Americans’ views about the potential dangers that immigrants pose to jobs or neighborhood safety or the economy, and the perceived threats posed by diversity or dialogue or “political correctness.”  It seems that a vast number of Americans these days are single-mindedly obsessed with how someone else has screwed them over. 

The phenomenon of “wokeness” illuminates how many people and groups have endured abuse, physical, emotional and psychological torment, the deprivation of opportunity and the kinds of traumas that persist from generation to generation.  The ongoing marginalization of minorities; the hopelessness felt by working-class Americans; the helplessness felt by families touched by addiction, spiraling debt, wage stagnation and skyrocketing healthcare costs—these are all real.

But it’s not enough simply to identify all these injustices.  David Brooks recently wrote that “The problem with wokeness is that it doesn’t inspire action; it freezes it. To be woke is first and foremost to put yourself on display. To make a problem seem massively intractable is to inspire separation—building a wall between you and the problem— not a solution.” 

Observing that “most great social reforms have happened in moments of optimism, not moments of pessimism, in moments of encouraging progress, not in moments of perceived threat,” Brooks goes on to urge that we confront the great sins of society as opportunities for meaningful change, not as chronic wounds, lesions of endless pain and indignation.

He’s talking about a shift in mindset, from victim to victor, from grasshopper to giant, from merely calling out great and historic injustices to working constructively on fair and forward-thinking solutions. 

“We can ask:  ‘Why did this happen?’… Or we can ask, ‘What then shall I do?’”

Where even to begin?  The work ahead seems daunting.  Maybe we can identify with those spies who said it would be better to go back to Egypt, or die in the wilderness, than to enter the promised land.  Maybe we don’t feel ready, just yet, to go out from this sanctuary and change the world.

Maybe all we can begin to do today is work on changing our mindsets—and maybe, for today, that will be enough.

It feels like the right work for Yom Kippur, doesn’t it?

Let us, then, in the spirit of this holiest day of the year, take a little time to reflect and ask ourselves:

      • Where in my life do I see myself as a victim?
      • How much time do I spend rehearsing my own unhappiness? 
      • Can I validate hard events in my life while committing to forward motion in my own growth?

I’ve heard it said that most of us are driving through life holding on to the rearview mirror, thinking it’s the steering wheel.  What would it feel like to let the past be the past and turn the wheel toward the future?  

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neuroscientist who survived Auschwitz and went on to write Man’s Search for Meaning, insisted that even in the death camps, where the Nazis took everything we had, there remained one thing they could not take:  our freedom to choose how to respond.  “When we are no longer able to change a situation… we are challenged to change ourselves,” he said (Man’s Search for Meaning.  Boston:  Beacon Press, 2006. p. 112).    

And so John McCain emerged, bent and broken, from a Hanoi torture camp, and established a second career as a public servant.  Malala Yousafzay survived a Taliban ambush that put a bullet in her skull and dedicated her life to female education.  Nelson Mandela endured twenty-seven years in prison before negotiating the end of apartheid rule and presiding over South Africa’s transition to a multicultural democracy.  

In his dank cell, night after night, Mandela took comfort in William Ernest Henley’s 1875 poem “Invictus,” which concludes:  

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul. 

There could be no more relevant or consequential message for Yom Kippur!

To be a Jew is to be the captain of your soul.  

To be a Jew is to exercise your freedom of choice to rise above fate.  

To be a Jew is to choose a life of holiness no matter what life hands you. 

And to be a Jew on Yom Kippur is to harness the power of forgiveness to move forward and not stay stuck.  

Forgiveness of your past.  Forgiveness of the people in your life who have hurt you.  Forgiveness of God for not handing you the life you always wanted, the life you felt you deserved.  Forgiveness of your dead, who now cannot atone for their own shortcomings, who left you alone with ragged wounds and memories, inadequacies and unmet needs.  And forgiveness of yourself, for all the ways you have not yet become the person you want to be—not yet, but still could.  

Forgiveness isn’t giving the other guy a free pass.  It’s releasing our burden.  Forgiveness is deciding to loosen the stranglehold that we allow what this person said, or that person did, or this person failed to do, or say, to exert over our thoughts and our lives. 

No one knows who said this first, but whoever did, said it best:  “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.” 

So here we are:  human beings, flawed and fallible, scared and scarred—but still capable of greatness.

Will we see ourselves in the year to come as grasshoppers or giants?  

Of all the things out of our hands in this mad and mixed-up world, that one choice is ours, and ours alone.  

ROSH HA-SHANAH MORNING 5779 / 2018 TO FEEL THE QUESTIONS THAT HAVE NO ANSWERS

The battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, fought in the winter and spring of 1945, were among the bloodiest in the Pacific Theater of World War II.  

Among the US infantry sent to the front lines of these hellish campaigns was the First Marines Division, nicknamed “The Old Breed.”  

And among The Old Breed was a 30-year old Jewish combat medic born in the Bronx, educated as a pharmacist at Rutgers, and hailing from Trenton, New Jersey, named Harry Garb, but everyone called him “Acky.”  After surviving the war, Acky would return to Trenton, to the pharmacy, to his wife Edna, and to his daughter Jane who was born during the war.  Two years later, along would come Marjorie—my mom.

My Pop-Pop Acky never really talked about the War.  He certainly never thought of himself as a hero.  The real heroes, he would have told you, were the ones who never came back.

Acky loved his family, the New York Yankees, a warm bagel toasted almost black, cold brisket with Gulden’s mustard, and golf.

When Acky was 74 years old, after an afternoon golfing in Pompano Beach, Florida, while walking at twilight, he was struck by a passing car and died of massive head trauma. 

Frederick Beuchner, a 92-year old American writer and ordained Presbyterian minister, is famous for having said that “[all] theology… is essentially autobiography.”  In other words, what we come to believe about God boils down to personal experience.  Even professional theologians—that is to say, religious philosophers, people whose job is to think about God—cannot help but be molded in their views by personal experience.  

Over the years I have come to believe that all theological writing, all our prayers, our midrash and Talmud, our law codes and folklore—even the Bible, even the Torah itself—are, in the final analysis, just creative attempts to put into words a personal encounter with the sacred.  

Some words, to be sure, get it better than others.  Some personal experiences come to us filtered through unhealthy minds, warped perceptions, and backward social mores.  One of the authors of the Bible perceived the image of God within every human being.  Another author declared that God had a problem with boiling a kid in its mother’s milk.  One called God “endlessly patient, loving, and true.”  Another called God “A Man of War.”  One had God describe to Abraham a promised land and a multitude of descendants.  Another wrote of a God who told Abraham to sacrifice his son.  Oh well.

But in the end, all theology is autobiography.  

The sudden and brutal death of my grandfather, and the cruel irony of it—that this veteran, this soldier who had braved historic battles, would meet his death so haphazardly—taught me a lot about God, and it is probably no coincidence that around that time, at the age of 15 or so, I became a professed atheist, a condition from which I am still recovering, having, over the last thirty years, made my peace with the fact that the God who filled my childhood imagination with fantasies of a world governed by a just and compassionate ruler who cared intimately about me, and everyone else, would now have to give way to a God no less transcendent but considerably less concerned with my feelings.

So this morning is about the haphazardness of life, and about where God fits in, or does not fit in, to the picture.  And because all theology is autobiography, while this is a conversation about God, it is even more about you, and me, and about how we fit in to the big picture.  

On Rosh Ha-Shanah it is written

On Yom Kippur it is sealed:

How many shall pass on

How many shall come to be

Who shall live and who shall die

Who shall reach ripe age and who shall not

Who by fire and who by water….

We do not know who wrote this prayer or what experiences may have prompted it.  Legends ascribe it variously to Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn, who chronicled the massacre of the Jews of the city of York, England, in 1190, or to the 11th-Century figure Rabbi Amnon who was given a choice by the Archbishop of Mayence:  convert to Catholicism or have your limbs amputated.  After three days, the legend goes, Rabbi Amnon was sent home, with his severed extremities, on a knight’s shield.  

The Unetaneh Tokef prayer is, in all likelihood, many centuries older, and God only knows what originally moved the author to imagine a Book of Life and an all-knowing God who “writes and seals, records and recounts” every human deed.  

What we do know is that the prayer gained popularity in the Middle Ages, following the massacres of Jewish communities during the Crusades, the wholesale expulsion of Jews from Medieval European communities, and the various atrocities visited upon our people during that period.  It makes sense that a prayer acknowledging that death can, at a moment’s notice, just drop in, would become popular in such precarious times. 

Who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst…

Who by his own hand and who by another’s

Who by cancer and who by heart attack

Who by stumbling down and who by slipping away

Who by gunfire and who by airplane crash…..

We demand a certain reasonableness from life and death.  From earliest childhood we learn what’s fair and what’s not, what should and should not happen.

And we project onto God those selfsame attributes of fairness, of should and shouldn’t.  We imagine a God who is “judge and arbiter, counsel and witness,” the ultimate standard-bearer of what’s right and fair.  

And we do so, I think, in utter defiance of how the universe actually works.  That is to say, all our life experience teaches and re-teaches us that God’s world is not calibrated to human notions of fairness.  We wish for fairness, and even sometimes comfort ourselves with a belief in a God who is keeping it all in order.  But look at things.  That can’t be so.  Day in, day out, year in, year out, over a lifetime, we encounter a randomness Hamlet would have called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”  

What I say is no heresy.  The Book of Deuteronomy proposes a simple formula for life and death, blessing and curse:  live by God’s law and God will reward you.  Disobey and face God’s punishment.  The righteous will prosper, the wicked be damned, and all the rest is commentary.  Doesn’t this sound like what, as children, we all learned from grownups?  

A little while later, along came a Biblical author with a very different perspective, a different literary agenda, a different autobiography and a different theology.  “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job,” his story begins.  “That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.  He had seven sons and three daughters, 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 donkeys, and so many servants that this man became the wealthiest and most powerful in the East” (Job 1:1-3).  Every day, Job praises God with sacrifices and offerings and, above all, by keeping far from sin and wrongdoing.

On a whim, God accepts a dare from an angel named “Ha-Satan,” the Adversary or the Satan as he’s better known, and strips Job of everything.  His wealth vanishes, his herds perish, his children are murdered, his robust health gives way to chronic sickness and pain.  He suffers without warrant or recompense.  His friends insist:  “You must have done something wrong to invite this torment.”  For thirty-seven chapters, Job maintains his innocence and demands God answer him.   

The Book of Job gives a black eye to the theology of Deuteronomy, arguing that blessing and joy, life and health do not necessarily correlate to a person’s righteousness; that death and suffering do not necessarily correspond to moral waywardness; that God’s motives are not so easily fathomed.

“What did I ever do to deserve this?”  Job demands.

Finally, God answers, materializing out of the whirlwind.

The answer is not comforting.

“Who is this who speaks without knowledge?” God thunders.

“Stand up and carry yourself like a man.  I’ll do the asking now, and you’ll tell Me the answers.”

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” God roars at Job.  “Speak, if you have understanding.”

“Have you ever commanded the day to break, assigned the dawn its place?”

“Have you penetrated to the sources of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?  Have the gates of death been disclosed to you?  Have you seen the gates of deepest darkness?  Have you surveyed the expanses of the earth?  If you know of these—tell Me” (Excerpted from Job 38:1-18). 

In the end, God restores Job’s fortunes and resurrects his family but the message is permanently shattering:  You want to know why good people suffer and die?  Well, what do you know of how God’s world actually works?

Job is a brutal book.  Parts of it seem designed to disturb—I mean, a God who bargains with Satan?  Who blithely rips apart an innocent man’s life?  Really?  

Much has been made of the cruel and capricious God of the Book of Job.  But what if the Book’s theology is just a window into an autobiography, one human being’s reckoning with the universal human condition? 

Job speaks true in reminding us that we human beings are so small and our universe so vast.  Job speaks true in its recognition of how unreasonably we suffer.  Job speaks true in realizing that life has no upper limit to the pain it can inflict.  

No logic can explain this seemingly relentless law of life, that would exact the price of sorrow for each of its joys, the penalty of loss for each of its gifts.  

Why does life hurt so much?  Why would a human being die before her time?  How to account for the tsunami and the earthquake, leukemia and lymphoma, suicide and genocide, the air crash and the car crash?  How reconcile these with the mountain and the sunset, the ocean and the wind, the mystery of consciousness and feeling, the love of family and the joy of friendship, the glory of nature, the marvel of civilization?  

Well, where were you when the foundations of the earth were established?

In the end, some questions echo back only a silence as deep and ominous as the grave.  

And yet, it is human—maybe the most human thing of all—to ask why, anyway. 

One of my favorite films is A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers.  I first saw it at an advance screening with, of all people, Rabbi Aaron Panken, of blessed memory.  

The movie is basically a modern retelling of the story of Job.  Larry Gopnik is a mild-mannered physics professor—that is to say, someone whose job it is to figure out how the world works—who has thrust upon him all manner of suffering.  His wife leaves him for another man; a disgruntled student blackmails him over a bad grade; his bar-mitzvah age son is definitely smoking reefer; and why is his doctor asking for him to come in right away after a routine checkup?  

Larry reacts as most of us would, utterly bewildered that his life is falling apart so absurdly.

Over the course of the movie, he seeks advice from a rabbi.  Three rabbis, actually, one of whom says, “Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry.  Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.”

Gopnik cries:  “But why does he make us feel the questions if he won’t give us the answers?”

And if ever there were a more heartbreaking and eloquent description of the human condition, well, I have not heard it.  

“Why does he make us feel the questions if he won’t give us the answers?”

The rabbi shrugs and says, “He hasn’t given me the answer to that.”  

How to give voice to that terrible human yearning, the way we feel the questions that have no answer?

Because in the end, there really is no good answer to the great and terrible why of human suffering, no adequate response to why bad things happen to good people—except to go on living as vigorously and beautifully as we can.  

We ask the wrong question. We ask why the world is the way it is when we should ask why we are the way we are, and how we can be the most fully realized versions of ourselves that we can be.  Rather than ask “Why?” of life, we might ask “Now what must I do?  Who must I become?” 

Of course we can give up on life, and sometimes people do.  Sometimes the weight and the agony of feeling overtakes the ability to live with hope or joy.  

And of course we can conclude that it’s all random; that life has no meaning; that there is no God.  The only problem is, to live by the nihilist’s creed also hinders our access to life’s immense potential for beauty, for joy, for purposeful action, for holiness.

The real answer is not that life is meaningless, nor that life is meaningful.  It is that life’s meaning is not inherent; we assign meaning to it. 

Life is not good or bad, right or wrong; there is no divine blueprint for each human life, no plan for what might befall us on any given day.  We make the meaning of our life.  We paint the canvas of our days with whatever brushes and colors we’ve been given, with whatever imagination and wisdom we can summon, with whatever help we can get, for as long as we can do it.  Life isn’t meaningful or meaningless.  We decide what meaning to give it.  Life’s meaning is not inherent; we assign meaning to it.

Now that we know that, we might find it harder to get out of bed in the morning.  Or, we can swallow the bitter pill of uncertainty and get on with our day, trying to fill it with as much earnest love, eager learning, honest labor, and healing mitzvot as we possibly can.  

When all is said and done, this is really the only choice. 

The celebrated Sages Hillel and Shammai had an argument.  Given the seemingly endless supply of human suffering, they asked:  “Would it have been better for humankind never to have been created at all?”  In the end, Shammai’s opinion prevails—uncharacteristically, because Hillel wins almost every debate—“All in all, it would have been better for humankind never to have been created,” Shammai says, where the Hebrew word for “better,” noach, literally means “easier” or “more comfortable.” 

Given the choice between existence and non-existence, between Hamlet’s “to be or not to be,” non-existence, “not to be,” is obviously the more comfortable option, the easier way. 

But Hillel gets the final word:  

“Now that we have been created, let each of us examine our deeds.”

So here we are, at the beginning of this ten-day journey of self-examination.  

Whatever our autobiography, whatever our theology, whatever doubt or certitude, whatever belief or unbelief we bring to the table, it belongs here, in this sanctuary, on this new year’s day.  

Because what unites us is Judaism’s insistence that our lives matter, and that because our lives matter, our deeds matter. 

So now that we’re here, we might as well examine them.

And as we embark on this ten days’ voyage from here to Yom Kippur, let me share with you a thought that might serve as our north star.  The phrasing comes from stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt, who, until 2016, was married to Michelle McNamara, author of a recently published best-selling book about the search for the Golden State Killer.

The worst day of his life, Oswalt tells his audience, is not the day he woke up to find that his wife had died in her sleep at age 46 of an accidental overdose of prescription medications.  It was the day after, when he had to explain her death to their seven-year-old daughter.  “I had to look at this little girl that was everything to me and take everything from her,” he says.

Over the past eighteen months, as he has had to rewrite the script of his life around this awful turn, Oswalt has ruminated on what it all means.  

In his latest show he explains that he and his wife used to have a debate.  He would say, “I don’t believe in an intelligent creator, per se, but I think that there might be a latticework of logic and meaning to the universe that maybe we’re too small to see.”

Now, having written at length about horrific real-life crimes, the cliché his wife hated the most is, “everything happens for a reason,” so she responded, “It’s chaos.  Be kind.  That’s all you can do.  It’s chaos.  Be kind.”  

Meaning, the randomness of life may just as well senselessly rip a loved one away from us as offer us success and happiness.  The only way to live with that terrifying chaos is to be as compassionate as we can, no matter what happens.

From time to time they’d go back and forth in this heated philosophical debate, Oswalt says, “And then she won the argument in the worst way possible!”

So maybe she was right.  Maybe it’s all chaos.  Maybe Shammai was right—it would have been easier never to have been created in the first place.  Maybe the God of Job was right—“What do you know of how My world works?

It’s true:  the universe is not calibrated to human notions of fairness.  Fairness comes not from out there, but from inside us.  It’s our moral imperative to bring human reason, human fairness, human compassion, into an unreasonable, unfair, often merciless world.  Kindness is the ultimate antidote to the chaos of the universe.  

That’s the most important thing we could affirm on this first morning of a new year.  

And even if I’m wrong—it couldn’t hurt, right?