Posted tagged ‘Changing for the Better’

The Middah of Anavah

October 20, 2016

As I stated on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I have dedicated this year’s High Holy Day sermons to an exploration of the teachings of the Mussar Movement.  For the sake of those who have not had the opportunity to hear or read my earlier sermons, I will offer you a very brief introduction to Mussar and why the lessons of Mussar have so much to offer us, especially during the High Holy Days.

The Mussar Movement was started in the latter part of the 19th century, in Lithuania, and primarily is an ethics based approach to Judaism.  While Halachah – Jewish Law – focuses on the behaviors which can draw us closer to God and make us better people, Mussar focuses on the attitudes which, if we incorporate them into our life perspective, will automatically, if not instinctually, drive us in the direction of performing proper, God-desired behaviors.  While Halachah presents us with a discipline of Mitzvot – sacred behaviors which result in sacred living, Mussar presents us with a collection of Middot – sacred character traits which lead us to sacred living.  If we can incorporate the Middot – these sacred attitudes – into the way we approach how we interact with the world, then we can grow as more decent human beings and the performance of the Mitzvot will become all the more natural to us.

As I explained in an earlier sermon, Mussar views our attitudes as existing along a continuum where both extreme ends are equally destructive to our character.  The example I gave then was of a continuum extending from extreme greed to extreme generosity.  In that case, one extreme would cut us off from any sort of healthy relationship with our fellow human beings while the other would make it impossible for us to physically survive.  The Middot guide us to finding a spiritual “sweet spot”, so to speak, somewhere along such a continuum; a place where both extremes meet in a very healthy and positive manner.  In the case of the continuum between greed and generosity, the Middah takes us to that place where we are greedy enough to retain sufficient means to support ourselves and our families, yet generous enough to make a real difference in the lives of those less fortunate than us.

This morning I wish to focus our attention on a very important Middah.  It is the Middah of Anavah; the Middah of Humility.  For Anavah – Humility is a foundational Middah for both Mussar and the High Holy Days.  Without a true sense of Anavah, all that we do here today is absolutely meaningless.  Without a true sense of Anavah, we can have no spiritual life.

It has been said that the two most difficult words for a human being to utter is “I’m sorry.”  We are so ready and willing to accuse others of having wronged us, yet we are so resistant to apologizing for our actions, accepting the possibility and the responsibility for having wronged others.  Why is that so?  Because we lack a sense of Anavah; we refuse to believe that there are times when we just might be less than we think we are.  So often, we can be like the man who is about to receive a high honor and is dressing for the presentation banquet.  Gazing into the mirror as he ties his tie, he says to his wife, “Honey, how many great men do you think there really are in the world?”  To which she immediately responds, “One less than you do, my dear.”  There is just something about us which, while all too ready to raise up our strengths, is all too eager to cover up our shortcomings, as if, if we were to admit to them, we would somehow shatter completely and be no more.

In an earlier sermon, I quoted the Hasidic saying, “There is no room for God in those who are too full of themselves.”[1]  But our tradition recognized that basic human flaw long before the Hasidim came on the scene.  The Torah itself warns us about it, for as it says in the book of DEUTERONOMY. “Take care lest you forget the Eternal your God…  When you have eaten your fill and built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied and your silver and your gold have increased… then your heart will grow haughty and you will forget the Eternal your God…  And you will say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have won this wealth for me.’  Then you should remember the Eternal your God, for it is God who gives you the strength to amass wealth…”[2]

One of the basic principles of Mussar is Halachta BiDrachav – Walking in God’s Way.  In other words, living a life in imitation of God.  Trying to be more like God in our behaviors.  The mystics tell us that if it were not for God’s own sense of Anavah – God’s own humility – the universe itself would never have come into existence.  How so?  Because some of the basic, classical beliefs concerning God would have made it impossible.  First among them is the belief that God is Omnipresent; that God exists everywhere.  If God fills all existence, then there is no room left for us.  So, according to the mystics, what did God do?  They call it Tzimtzum.  God contracted God’s self in order to make room for Creation.

If we are going to live our lives in imitation of God, then we, too, have to be willing to contract ourselves.  We have to suck it in and draw ourselves back from thinking that we are everything and that the universe centers around us.  We have to make room in our lives for God and room in our lives to realize that we still have space to grow; that we are not all that we can be.  That is Anavah – humility.  As Susan Freeman puts it in her book, TEACHING JEWISH VALUES, “Being clear about what we are not is the first step in moving toward what we want to become.”[3]

When it come to the Middah of Anavah, humility, like the other Middot, it, too, seeks to find a spiritual “sweet spot” along a continuum; the continuum spanning from absolute arrogance to total self-denigration.  Somewhere between the two is true Anavah.  Unfortunately, all too often we resist seeking that sweet spot because we mistakenly confuse humility with humiliation, and nothing could be further from the truth.

Part of our resistance is a product of our modern culture.  We are constantly being told that we need the newest, the best, the biggest things if our lives are to be fulfilling.  People literally line up and wait for hours before the store opens in order to purchase the newest IPhone.  Go into a store like Best Buy and you will see bigger and bigger and bigger big screen TVs.  Somewhere along the line, we find ourselves identifying with all of that, and toxically so.  If we do not possess the newest, the biggest, the best, then we come to believe that we ourselves are not “the best.”  Enough never seems to be enough, as we find ourselves measuring ourselves by what items we own rather than by what type of people we are.  And when it comes to those possessions, the answer is always to be found on the extreme of the newest, the latest models.  To have less than that becomes humiliating.

Ironically, to attain a true sense of Anavah, is to realize that the answer is not to be found on the extreme, but rather somewhere toward the middle, and more importantly, it has absolutely nothing to do with what we own or where we live, but with who we are.  And if we can attain the Middah of Anavah, issues like what we own, where we live, what kind of car we drive, will neither humiliate us nor exalt us.  For they are no measure of the type of people we are, but only of what we have.

So when it comes to Anavah, we need to keep our eye on the ball.  Our embracing of humility should in no way disable our sense of self-esteem, bringing us to some lowly state of self-deprecation, but rather it should empower us to recognize that while we have much to be proud us, still we are not all that we could be.  There is yet some distance along the road of self-improvement which we have yet to travel.    That there is more that we can do.  More than we can be.  And we can make it, just as long as we keep trying.

Where is the Middah of Anavah to be found?  Perhaps the Hasidic Rabbi, Simcha Bunam, described it best.  He said, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending upon the need.  When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words:  ‘For my sake was the world created.’  But when feeling high and mighty, one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words:  ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”[4]

Far from humiliating us, Anavah can heal us.  It can empower us to shed the façade we present to the world of always being right, of always being perfect, of always being more than we actually are.  There is something truly uplifting in being able to admit to our shortcomings, as well as reveling in our strengths.  “I’m sorry” may be two of the most difficult words to say, but they can also be two of the most liberating words to say; two of the most healing words to say.  It can be wondrous to behold how the walls of anger and resentment can crumble before words of true repentance and an act of true atonement.  Weights can be lifted from the soul and the heart can be given wings when our Anavah leads us to resolving conflicts and rekindling love.

As embracing Anavah can clear the path to renewing and strengthening our relationship with others, it can also open the gates to Heaven.  For it is only through Anavah that we can make room for God in our lives.  It takes an attitude of Anavah to bring us to the point that we recognize that God is truly a part of our lives; that God is there for us, that God has always been there for us, but we, somewhere along the line, knowingly or unknowingly, have built a wall to keep God out, just like those people the Torah was talking about in that text from DUETERONOMY.  Yet, with Anavah, that wall, too can come down.  We can open ourselves up to the possibility of God being real, of God being present, and of God seeking us if we but seek God.  It is that spirit of Anavah which will bring life to our prayers.  It can transform them into more than meaningless utterances that may cross our lips as we wait for the clock to signal the end of this day.

There is a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, who one day, with his disciples, entered a town and went to the synagogue to pray.  As he got to the door, he suddenly stopped, refusing to enter.  He disciples were incredulous, and they asked him to explain to them what was the problem.  He said:  “The room is full and there is no room for me.”  Looking through the door of the synagogue, of course they saw plenty of empty seats, and they told him so.  He responded:  “You don’t understand.  The room is full of empty words, for the words of the prayers that are offered here have been given no wings with which to rise to Heaven.  Therefore they fall out of the mouths of the worshippers; dropping to the floor.  And there they have remained, filling this room from wall to wall and from floor to ceiling, leaving no room for me.”[5]

If we can embrace the Middah of Anavah, and in true humility, open ourselves up to the possibility of our prayers this day reaching out to God, and God reaching in to us, then the words of our prayers can fly heavenward, and God’s loving presence can be brought into this sanctuary and into our hearts and souls.  If only we can shrink our sense of self and make room for God, then God will rush to be with us.

AMEN

[1] Buber, Martin, TEN RUNGS:  HASIDIC SAYINGS, p. 102.

[2] DEUTERONOMY 8:11-18.

[3] Freeman, Susan, TEACHING JEWISH VALUES:  SACRES SOURCES AND ARTS ACTIVITIES, p. 8.

[4] Buber, Martin, TALES OF THE HASIDIM:  LATER MASTERS, PP. 249-250.

[5] Buber, Martin, TALES OF THE HASIDIM:  EARLY MASTERS, P. 73

The Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut: A Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon

October 5, 2016

Last night I announced that I planned to dedicate the remainder of this year’s High Holy Day sermons to a sharing of some of the potentially life altering lessons of Mussar.  And so I shall.  But before I can do that, an introduction to Mussar itself is in order so as to put these lessons into an understandable context.  If you wish to enter into a deeper exploration of Mussar – and I hope you will – then I cannot recommend highly enough the book EVERYDAY HOLINESS by Alan Morinis.  It has inspired me and I know it will inspire you.[1]

The word Mussar literally means “correction” or “instruction” and also has become one of the more popular words that is used today for “ethics.”  Back in the second half of the 19th century, in Lithuania, Rabbi Israel Salanter started a movement of Jewish study which centered upon examining our ethical values and how they can influence our behaviors and therefore our lives, especially our spiritual lives.  That movement came to be called the Mussar Movement, and it remains alive and well today.

Rabbi Salanter came to understand that Halachah – Jewish law – could only take us so far in our quest to develop healthy spiritual lives.  For Halachah addresses our behaviors; our actions and our restraint from actions.  It calls upon us to adopt a system of Mitzvot – a discipline of sacred behaviors – which can have the effect  of raising us up to a higher spiritual plain.  But the performance of Mitzvot, as he and all of us have observed, can easily devolve into become a mechanical and meaningless routine.  Therefore there needs to be something deeper within us, which drives the Mitzvot and keeps them alive, fresh, and meaningful.  And this is precisely where Mussar comes in, for while Halachah addresses our behaviors, Mussar addresses the underlying attitudes which inform our behaviors.  And for Mussar, our attitudes are fundamentally a function of our souls.

In order to better appreciate Mussar you need to understand Mussar’s approach to the soul.  First of all, in Mussar we do not possess a soul, as if it were something apart from us that could be surgically removed like a kidney, but rather we ARE a soul.  It is our soul which makes us into distinct individuals.  All our physical attributes can change, and many do.  My hair is growing gray.  I used to have a 28” waistline.  Yet we remain the same people.  Even identical twins possess their own individuality.  It is the soul and not the body that is the seat of our individuality.

While the soul is one, it does have three aspects to it.  That is just like us.  Each of us is one individual but still, there are many different aspects to who we are. For example, I am a rabbi, a man, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a teacher, a community volunteer, an American, a Jew, etc.  So it is with the soul.  The three aspects of the soul, as identified by our tradition, are the Neshamah, the Ruach, and the Nefesh.  The Neshamah is the inner core of the soul.  It is the very essence of the divinity within us.  Therefore it is inalterably holy and pure, and that can never change.  The Ruach is, for lack of a better term, the life force within us.  It is the Ruach that animates our body and impacts, and is impacted by, our physical condition.  Then there is the Nefesh.  The Nefesh is the center for our personality traits and our attitudes.  The nature and condition of our Nefesh can be altered by the choices we make and the actions we take.  It can be stained and it can be cleansed.  You could compare the relationship between the Neshamah and the Nefesh to that of the sun and the weather.  The Neshamah is like the sun, always radiating light and heat, and the Nefesh is like the weather, sometimes letting the holy light and heat of the Neshamah into our lives and sometimes blocking it out.

It is with the nature of the Nefesh that Mussar is most concerned, the goal of Mussar being to help us develop a healthy Nefesh, so that each of us can reside, so to speak, in the spiritual Sunbelt.

Mussar calls the character traits of the Nefesh, MiddotMiddah in the singular.  Middah literally means a “measure” and in this context, it is the measure of our attitudes.  It is our attitudes which inform our actions.  If we embrace one attitude we will act in one way but it we embrace another attitude, we will act in quite a different way.

Mussar envisions our attitudes as existing along a continuum, from one extreme to another, such as from greed to generosity.  Both ends of such continuums can be equally destructive.  So, for example, excessive greed can cut us off from all human relationships while excessive generosity can lead us to giving everything away to the point that we can no longer survive.  What we need is to find some sort of combination of both extremes, where they each moderate the other in such a way as to establish the ideal mix.  So, for example, that we become generous enough to make a real difference in the lives of the less fortunate yet remain greedy enough to restrain our altruism in such a way that we keep sufficient means to sustain and maintain ourselves and our families.  Achieving such ideal mixtures is the function of the Middot.

The principle which governs how we determine where along the continuum the Middah should reside is to be found in the Torah portion we will read on Yom Kippur afternoon.  It comes from LEVITICUS, chapter 9, verse 2, in which God states, “You shall be holy for I Adonai your God am holy.”  The proper mix – the Middah – is the one that leads us best to a high state of holiness; to spiritual self-improvement; to a cleansing of our Nefesh and a release of more sacred light into our lives from our Neshamah.

Now we are ready to examine our first Middah; the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.  This Middah seeks to help us grapple with the issue of trust in our lives.  Trust, like all the other attitudes as viewed by Mussar, exists along a continuum.  On one end of that continuum is a trust which is so absolute that how can we consider it anything other than gullibility?  Those individuals who live on that end of the continuum believe everyone they meet and everything they hear.  As such, they are forever ripe targets for those who seek to take advantage of them.  On the other end of the continuum is such an absence of trust that it is nothing less than paranoia.  Those people believe no one they meet and nothing that they hear.  So Mussar, tells us that somewhere in between those two extreme is the ideal balance of absolute trust and absolute distrust.  That meeting place is the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.

The Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut deals particularly with the level of trust we invest in our fellow human beings.  This is not just a challenge for the gullible and the paranoid among us.  This is a problem each and every one of us faces.  I suspect that for most of us, hardly a day passes when we do not find ourselves in situations which call upon us to make judgements about other people.   And if we were to be honest with ourselves, how often it is that we find ourselves all too ready to jump to our own conclusions, most of the time thinking the worst of others; we are so ready to embrace the negative.  We are so ready to ascribe an evil or selfish intent upon the actions of others.  “They wanted to hurt me!”  How we can savor a juicy piece of gossip!  The darker the rumor, the more ready we are to believe it and how ready we are to pass it on to others.  Our tradition even has a name for this.  We call it Lashon HaRa – “the Evil Tongue”, and of it the rabbis said that it is a sin worse than murder, for the murderer only destroys one soul but the purveyor of Lashon HaRa destroys three – his or her soul, the soul of the subject of the tale, and the soul of the one who listens to it.

But don’t feel too bad, don’t beat yourself up about it, for just this summer I found out that it’s not all our fault.  It turns out that there is a whole branch of psychology called Evolutionary Psychology.  Science Daily describes Evolutionary Psychology in this way:  “Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical approach to psychology that attempts to explain useful mental and psychological traits—such as memory, perception, or language—as adaptations, i.e., as the functional products of natural selection.”  In other words, there are certain aspects of the human psychological makeup which have become almost instinctual within us as a product of the process of evolution.  Our readiness to think the worst about people is part of that phenomenon.  Our brains are hotwired to expect the negative and that tendency can be traced back to the earliest days of human history when the world was a very hostile place and we always needed to be on our guard if we were ever to survive.  That is why, still today, it is part of our makeup that our anger tends to linger while our gratitude quickly fades.  We tend to cling to the memories of how others have hurt us and suppress those memories of how they blessed us.  We are so ready to forget and throw away all the good times because of one bad time.

That being said, our Judaism has always taught us that we are much more than our instincts.  There are times when we need to transcend our instincts – rise above them – in order to make of ourselves better people.  And this issue of trust is one of those times.  And that brings us right back to the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut, for that is precisely what this Middah calls upon us to do; to rise above our instinctual urges to assume negative intent in the actions and the words of our fellow human beings.  For Dan L’Chaf Zechut literally means “Judge others according to a scale of merit,” or in more colloquial terms, “Give Others the Benefit of the Doubt.”  In spite of our psychology, and maybe even our biology, we have to get over our instinct to rush to judgement and assume the worst of others.

We have to stop ourselves from automatically thinking negatively and say, at least to ourselves, and even better to others as well, “Wait a minute!  I know this person.  And knowing what I do know about this person, do I really believe that this person was capable of doing that or saying that?  Do I really believe that this person intentionally wanted to hurt others?  Could it be that this report is faulty or exaggerated, or some of the facts are missing?  You know, generally speaking there are two sides to every story.  I sure would like to hear the other side before I am ready to jump on the condemnation bandwagon.”

Overcoming this instinct of ours to generally think the worst is a real challenge.  In fact, there are very few people I have known who have ever become masters of it; who somehow inoculated themselves from such massive negativity.  One of them was my mother, and another was a person who lived in this community and has since passed away.  Many of you knew her.  Martha Stone.

For many years, our adult education program included a Wednesday morning book study group.  We called it “Sefarim” which is Hebrew for “Books.”  Among its members were Martha and Alex Stone.  From 10:00 to 11:30 every Wednesday morning we gathered in the Temple Library and seriously studied books of our choosing.  Of course, as is common in study groups that have met over time, and in which the participants get to really know each other more than just in passing, there were mornings when book talk was sidetracked by community talk, particularly about this or that hot button topic.  Invariably, when one person or another, in a fit of aggravation, complained, “Did you hear what so-&-so did or said?” and then went on to recount the offensive remarks or actions, Martha was always quick to jump in and say “Wait a minute.  Maybe that person was trying to say X instead of Y.  Maybe that person was trying to do A instead of B.”  She always gave people the benefit of the doubt.  She always assumed that their intentions were good, and not evil, and she always tried to make others see that as well.  She always chose to see the good in people rather than the bad.  She was the personification of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.  And how I admired her for it.  How I always wished that I could be more like her.

Martha clearly understood what we all need to understand.  People aren’t throwaways.  Every human being is both precious and fragile.  Except for the relatively few truly evil people in the world, the vast majority of us are spending our lives, trying to do the right thing, or at least the right thing as we see it.  Granted that sometimes we get so lost in our pursuit of our version of the right, that we wind up doing the wrong thing; the wrong thing for what we believe to be the right reasons.  We all, every once and a while wander off the path.  We all can miss the mark.  That is why our tradition uses the word Chet as one of the words for “sin” for “Chet” literally means “missing the mark.”  But at the end of the day, right or wrong, we are trying to do the best we can.  This is why the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut is so important.  For in this imperfect world populated by imperfect people, if we are going to measure each other, we need to measure each other on the scale of merit rather than on the scale of demerit.  We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt or we will wind up tearing each other apart.  Only then can we raise ourselves up to a higher spiritual plain as we begin to heal the world rather than destroy it.

One last thought.  For those of you who have accompanied me for all or a good part of my 32 year Quad Cities journey through the High Holy Days, you know that it has been my tradition to focus my Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon on some lesson we can draw from the Torah portion – the Akedah – the attempted sacrifice of Isaac.  I would be remiss if I were to abandon that tradition this year, of all years, for my last Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon before you.  So consider this.

Today’s Torah portion presents us with an Abraham who also could embrace the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut, for even though he had to check and double check God’s instructions about offering Isaac up for a sacrifice, in the end he did not resist it nor did he turn his back on God and walk away.  He planned to go through with it.  Why?  Not because he was an unfeeling father and not because he did not love Isaac dearly.  But rather because, based upon his knowledge and experience of God, he trusted God implicitly.  Knowing the type of god God is – living in a world that was filled with those who believed in many harsh and brutal gods – when it came to his God, Abraham was trusting and faithful enough to embrace the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.  Knowing that his God is a God of justice and compassion, he gave God the benefit of the doubt, truly believing that everything would work out for the best.  And it did.  Maybe one of the reasons that we read this story as we begin the new year is because, perhaps in this coming year, we will learn to become more like Abraham, trusting in the good of others and every ready to offer them the benefit of the doubt.  Dan L’Chaf Zechut.

AMEN

 

[1]  So much of my knowledge of Mussar is drawn from my studies of Alan Morninis’ book, EVERYDAY HOLINESS, and the book TEACHING JEWISH VIRTUES:  SACRED SOURCES AND ARTS ACTIVITIES, by Susan Freeman, that I am no longer certain where their teachings take off and my “original” thought begins.  I share this with you in the spirit of the Middah, B’Shem Omro, “Giving Proper Acknowledgement of Sources of the Knowledge We Share With Others”.

Putting the New in the New Year

October 30, 2014

There is a Hasidic story about how a student of Rabbi Mordecai of Nadvorna approached his teacher prior to Rosh Hashanah in order ask permission to be dismissed. Rabbi Mordecai asked him, “What’s your hurry?” to which he responded: “I am leading the services back in my home village and I need time to study the prayer book and put my services in order.” Rabbi Mordecai then said to him: “The prayer book is the same as it was last year. It would be better for you to study your deeds and put yourself in order.”
Well, if Rabbi Mordecai said that to me this year, I would say to him: “That’s what you think, Rabbi Mordecai! Obviously you have not had a chance to look at any of the pilot services from the soon to be published new Reform High Holy Day prayer book, MISHKAN HANEFESH!”
Whether or not Rabbi Mordecai has had a chance to take a look at MISHKAN HANEFESH, and I doubt that he did, considering the fact that he lived in the 19th century, you – the members of our congregation – will get a chance to look at it, and pray from it, tomorrow morning. I suspect that some of you may love it and some of you may loathe it and the feelings of many of you probably will fall somewhere in between. But this I can promise you: It will offer us a High Holy Day worship experience which will be dramatically different from what we are used to after years of praying out of GATES OF REPENTANCE.
What can I tell you about the book? Will the service be longer? I know that is a question on many people’s minds. To be quite honest, I just don’t know. The fact that this particular service booklet has over 190 pages is not encouraging. However, the format of this book is so different – in some ways, but not in every way, similar to our Shabbat prayer book, MISHKAN T’FILAH – that many pages does not necessarily mean a long service. What about music? This service definitely has more music than the Rosh Hashanah morning service in our current prayer book. Of course music is a matter of taste but personally I like the music that has been added. I also can tell you that there are some English alternatives offered to traditional prayers that are unlike any text you probably would expect to encounter on the High Holy Days. The book also offers some surprises like various opportunities for study sessions in the midst of the service and wait until you see what they have done to the Shofar service. Love it or loathe it, one thing is definitely certain. This book will provide us with a new High Holy Day worship experience.
Now I know that when we encounter something new, often it takes a lot of getting used to. There is some¬thing about human nature – not for all of us but for most of us – which instinctively resists the new. So many of us far prefer to wrap ourselves up in the warm, cuddly, familiar blanket of the old ways.
Many of you might remember, back in 1996, when Bob Dole was the Republican candidate for President. In his nomination acceptance speech, he framed his campaign around the concept of building a bridge to the past; to an era more familiar and, at least in memory, more pleasant. Many found that approach very appealing. However, his opponent, Bill Clinton, was soon to counter that ideology by stating that it was not his intention to build a bridge to the past but rather to build a bridge to the future. And we know who won that contest. The book from which we have prayed this evening is Reform Judaism’s bridge to the past. The book from which we will pray tomorrow morning is Reform Judaism’s bridge to the future.
When you think about it, as new and as different as tomorrow morning’s service may be, it is all very much in keeping with the essential spirit of this holy day. For Rosh Hashanah is all about that which is new and our committing ourselves to a process of personal and communal renewal. Indeed, one of the significant traditional greetings for Rosh Hashanah is the greeting of “Titkadeish! – May You Be Renewed!”
For our tradition looks at the New Year as just that – a new year. It is a time to start our lives anew; to embrace new experiences; to make of ourselves new and better people. It is a time for renewal. To renew old dreams which somewhere along the way may have been laid aside. To renew old relationships which, for one reason or another, we may have left dormant. To renew our energy, our lust for life, our joy in living. To renew our commitment to our positive values – justice, right over wrong, caring, love, responsibility. To renew our connections to our Jewish identity, the Jewish people, and most importantly to God. It is a time for us to say, “Today need not be a carbon copy of yesterday, and tomorrow need not be a carbon copy of today.” To say it and to mean it. What better gift can we give to ourselves on the New Year than to start to make of ourselves a New Me?
Yet change is almost always a challenge. Habits are hard to break. Habits – that is what we allow our lives to become. We tend to live our lives habitually; doing the same things day in and day out; thinking the same thoughts, responding in the same ways. Throughout our lives we gather and acquire certain attitudes and perspectives and behaviors and we transform them into what become almost instinctual responses. How many parents have said to their children, “Go ask you father! Go ask your mother!” rather than grapple with the request their child has placed before them? In our household, that is still the Cantor’s and my instinctual go-to position – actually more mine than the Cantor’s – and our youngest child is 21 years old! It is as if we have our own personal catalogs of multipurpose answers and reactions, and we draw upon them as we seek to respond to whatever life hands us. And the content of those catalogs remain the same year in and year out.
In the end, it is all about growth, or lack thereof. It is a fundamental part of human nature to grow. Little children grow into full size adults, some fuller than others. With years of education and life experiences, most of us grow more knowledgeable and perhaps a bit wiser. Everyone of us, if we don’t fall victim to fatal accidents or terminal diseases, eventually grow old. When it comes to our bodies, growth is a lifelong process. So also should it be with our minds, our hearts, our attitudes and perspectives. But too often, for too many of us, somewhere along the line that growth is arrested, and what once was evolving within us somehow or other becomes carved in stone. We may even justify it by saying such things as “I am who I am.” But would it not be better for us to say “I am a work in progress and I look forward to what I will eventually become.”?
So Rosh Hashanah calls upon us to actively engage in seeking out change in our lives; to strive to become a new and better self. How do we begin to accomplish this? First off, I suggest that each and every one of us think back and remember last Rosh Hashanah and honestly ask ourselves, “Am I in any way, significant or otherwise, a different person today than I was then? If I am different, then how am I different and is that difference for the better or for the worse?” There will be those among us who will acknowledge that little if anything has changed from then until now. There also will be those among us who will be able to note definite changes. Yet as they consider the nature of those changes, they will come to recognize that those changes were not a matter of personal choice but rather as a matter of circumstance. God willing, there also will be those among us who will be able to say of themselves, “Yes. I am a different person today and I am different because I chose to be different, and hopefully the differences are for the better.”
If we are among those who have not changed, or who have experienced changes as a result of circumstances rather than of choice, then we need to challenge ourselves to make it possible that come next Rosh Hashanah we will be able to offer a different response; that we will be able to say, “Yes, I have changed because I chose to change, and I have changed for the better.” Even if we are among those who have experienced positive change over the past year, we still need to challenge ourselves to continue that process of positive change, for none of us is perfect. There always lies before us more of this road to travel.
Now at the same time, we need to be realistic. True change, lasting change does not happen all at once. Crash diets never sustain themselves. Durable change is an incremental and a gradual process. We need to start small and slowly, carefully, build one change upon another. There is a book on teenage suicide, entitled WHEN LIVING HURTS, which, at times, we have used with our Confirmands. Recognizing that adolescent – parent tensions can certainly contribute to teenage thoughts of suicide, one of the suggestions that the author offers is that the teenagers try a 1 week experiment in dealing with their parents. In this experiment, they should seek out ways to compliment their parents and also opportunities to volunteer to take on even small household tasks without being asked. As the experiment progresses, they should note whether or not the way their parents relate to them also changes for the better. I share this with you to illustrate that the type of change we seek can start with simple acts such as finding nice things to say to and about the people in our lives or by offering to do simple but nice deeds for them even before they ask us to do them. We can choose to make small changes which we can find will result in big differences; big differences in our lives; in our relationships; in the ways in which we interact with the world around us and in the ways in which the world around us interacts with us. As we do this and reap the benefits that these changes will bring, we will find that one small change will lead to another and another and another, as our pleasure in life continually grows. And it will grow because people who make themselves better also make themselves happier; happier with their life and with the person they are becoming – the new person they are becoming.
Just as tomorrow morning we will renew the way we worship on Rosh Hashanah, so should we, today, tomorrow, and all the tomorrows before us, seek to renew the people we are and the lives that we lead. May we embrace the High Holy Day blessing of “Titkadeish!” May each and every one of us be renewed as we seek to renew ourselves.

The Undiscovered Country

September 18, 2012

My memories from high school are scattered and few.  In fact I am sure that if my daughtes, Shira and Helene, were here, they would be quick to say, “Well, Dad, that explains why you tell us the same stories over and over again!”  Anyway, my high school memories are scattered and few, yet come to think of it, so are my college memories, but I suspect that there is a reason for that.  Nonetheless as scattered and few as my high school memories are, some do stand out.  One centers around when I was studying Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

For some odd, and perhaps even mystical, reason, “Hamlet” touched me in ways far more profound than any of my other studies.  Indeed, I literally absorbed the play.  As I read it, I instantly memorized it.  If someone recited to me just three words from its text, I could not only complete the quote but also identify the act and the scene in which it appeared.  Trust me, I could not do that with any of my other studies but I could do it with “Hamlet.”  I can not do that now with “Hamlet” but in those days, I could.  There was just something about that play that seemed to resonate with my youthful imagination.

Not surprisingly, my favorite part of the play was the famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy.  That being said, the part of that soliloquy that grabbed my imagination the most was not the opening “To be or not to be” lines but rather the following text: “The Undiscovered Country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.”[1]

“The Undiscovered Country.”  What was the undiscovered country Shakespeare was talking about?  I wondered about that then and I still puzzle over it now.  When we discussed the question in class, all those years ago, my English teacher was quick to share the standard interpretation that the “Undiscovered Country” was death.  After all, death is main focus of the soliloquy – “To be or not to be” – to live or to die.  But even then, I was not satisfied with that answer, for there was a certain inconsistency in the text.  For if death indeed was the “Undiscovered Country from whose bourn (whose boundary) no traveler returns,” then how do you explain the fact that earlier in play, the ghost of Hamlet’s father does in fact return and speaks with him?

Nor was that inconsistency the only aspect of the quote which troubled me.  For if the “Undiscovered Country” was death, then why would the knowledge of our own inescapable death “make us rather  bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of”?  One would think that if we know we are going to die no matter what, then that knowledge would liberate us to break with our everyday trials and tribulations – “those ills we have” –  and experiment with the unknown; indeed to “fly to the others that we know not of.”

Pondering this text, eventually, I came to the conclusion that perhaps the “Undiscovered Country” was not death, but rather the future.  For unlike Hamlet’s father, who returned from death, no one returns from the future – except of course Michael J. Fox and and Christopher Lloyd.  Our lives are lived linearly and mono-directionally; past, present, future.  Nor is it fear of death that drives us to “bear those ills we have” – to lock ourselves into the established patterns of our lives; to live our lives unchanged and un­changing.  Rather it is our fear of the future which leads us to fear to “fly to others that we know not of” – to fear change; more precisely to fear how change may alter our future, perhaps for the better but maybe also for the worse.

So why do I speak to you of Shakespeare on Rosh Hashanah, rather than of Torah or Talmud or Midrash or the teachings of our great theologians?  Because Rosh Hashanah is all about the Undiscovered Country and how we will face it.  It’s all about the future; our future, both as individuals and as we live our lives in the company of others.

When considering the Undiscovered Country, Shakespeare cannot help but wonder – it “puzzles the will,” to use his own words – what it is about the Undiscovered Country that leads us to resolutely cling to the established patterns of our lives, even if they do us harm, rather than open ourselves up to the possibility of making changes in our lives.  Granted that with change comes the risk that new ways merely may be a matter of exchanging one set of ills for another, still, on the other hand, they may also lead us to living better, happier lives and becoming better, happier people.

These are the exact same challenges that Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days present before us as Jews.  This day calls upon us not to cower in fear of the future; not to permit our fear of the future to paralyze us so that we run to the comfort of the familiar patterns of our lives but rather to march bravely into the future, insightfully understanding that in the Undiscovered Country of the future, there is the prom­ise and potential of a better life and a better self if we are but willing to overcome our fears and risk changing our ways; if we are but willing to grasp that promise and potential and work at making our lives better and transforming ourselves into better people.  Let not our fears of the unknown keep us as prisoners of the past but let our dreams of a better tomorrow, of becoming better people, of living in a better world, liberate us so that we can build that better tomorrow, that better person, that better world.

All this is not to say that the Undiscovered Country does not contain reasons for fear.  Of course it does.  There will always be lurking in the unknown valid causes for our fears.  As we welcome the year 5773, none of us can know of a certainty what that year will hold.  Some may think they do, but they really don’t.  None of our expectations for the year to come are etched in stone, and they most certainly are not yet sealed in the Book of Life.  They are nothing more that hopes, plans, and expectations.  They not givens.  For some of us, this may prove to be a wonderful year, filled with love and laughter and joyous surprises, health, happiness, and perhaps even material success.  For others of us, this may prove to be a disastrous year, filled with pain and failure and tragic loss, personal suffering, the suffering of loved ones, and perhaps even death.  Which will it be for us?  We gather here this evening, and none of us can truly know the answer to that question.  It may be one.  In may be the other.  And it can be anything in between.

And the truly frightening part is that so much of it – for good or for ill – probably will be beyond our control.  There is so much of our lives which simply is out of our hands.  Just ask anyone who has been the victim of a natural disaster.  We can no more stop or change the course of a tornado or a hurricane than we can alter the phases of the moon.  I suspect that there are many among us who have known people who have seriously striven to live physically healthy life styles, being meticulous about their diets and disciplined in their exercise regimens, yet in spite of it all, one day they collapsed of a fatal heart attack or were diagnosed with terminal cancer.  As the old Yiddish saying goes, “Man plans and God laughs.”  There can be no denying that the Undiscovered Country is just that – undiscovered, uncertain, and therefore filled with uncertainty.  Out of uncertainty can easily be born fear.

Yet with all that being said, our fear is no excuse for our stubborn refusal to consider change in our lives.  Yes, there is so much that is beyond our control, but yes, there is still so much that is within it.  At the end of the day, we have to accept the fact that we cannot control what we cannot control.  But what we can control is how we choose to live in the face of that frightening reality.  Perhaps one day we will be planting in our garden and strike gold.  That would be wonderful, but it is out of our hands.  Perhaps one day we will be driving along, obeying all the rules, and some moron will run a stop sign or a traffic light and demolish our car and perhaps its passengers as well.  That would be horrible, but it also is out of our hands.  Those types of things we cannot change, so there is no point in worrying about them.  Knowing that such things can happen at any time, still we must live our lives, acting as though we possessed no such knowledge.  We must live our lives focusing our attention on those things that we can control and not wasting a moment’s thought or an ounce of our energy on those things we can’t.

When it comes down to it, where do we possess the most control?  We possess it over ourselves.  We choose what we will do, what we will say, where our values lie, how we will interact with others; we choose the type of people we are and the type of people we will become.  That is our power.  We cannot control other people but we can control ourselves.  We are the people we are today in great part – maybe not in all but in great part – because of the choices we have made.  We will become the people we will be in the future – as we journey forward into the Undiscovered Country – because of the choices we make today and tomorrow, and everyday afterwards.  If we think that we can be better, and we want to be better, then we must choose to be better.  We must choose to change; taking chances by following paths until now untrod by us and therefore unknown to us, hoping and praying that they will lead us to rewards that outweigh their risks.

Rosh Hashanah does not just call upon us to do this.  It begs us to do this.  It weeps, pleading “Please!  Don’t come to this holy day, read the words of the prayer book, listen to the sounds of the shofar, and then leave this sanctuary the very same person you were when you entered.  Please don’t come and sit and close yourself off to the possibility that there can be a better you, and with a better you, a better life.  For there can!  It’s in your hands!  No one else’s.”

Rosh Hashanah is all about change.  The year is changing.  The seasons are changing.  And it calls upon us to change as well.  It is so easy for us to enfold ourselves in the warm and comfortable blanket of “I am who I am.  This is who I have always been.  This is who I will always be.”  But Rosh Hashanah knows, as we truly know in our heart of hearts, that we can be so much more; that it can be within our power to make of ourselves better people – kinder people, gentler people, friendlier people, fairer people, more caring, more giving, healers of body and soul, and not just our own bodies and souls but the bodies and souls of others, both near and far, friend, stranger, and even foe.  And Rosh Hashanah challenges us to make the change.  Yes, it is frightening to leave behind familiar ways and strive to do things differently, but the benefits far outweigh the risks.  For as we change, we become bearers of light; light into our own lives and light into the lives of others.  We can make our own lives better, and believe or not, in our own small, and not so small, ways, we can make the life of the world better as well.

So let us this day choose to leap into the Undiscovered Country, with a resolve in our hearts to transform that Undiscovered Country into a Paradise – a Gan Eden – filled with love, caring, justice, and grace.  And let us all say:

AMEN


[1] Shakespeare, William, “Hamlet,” Act III, Scene 1.