Posted tagged ‘Self-indulgence’

Traveling the Road to Sinai

April 1, 2013

Our Pesach Seder, or S’darim, are behind us.  In just a few days, Pesach itself will be concluded as we gather for Yizkor.  Now, as our tradition tells us, we are in the period of the counting of the Omer.

But what is counting the Omer?  In the book of LEVITICUS, our people were instructed that on the second day of Pesach they were to bring to the Temple a sheaf of barley as an offering.  The Hebrew word for “sheaf” is “Omer.”  In that same passage it states that starting on the second day of Pesach, it is a mitz­vah to daily count the Omer; counting the 50 days from Pesach to Shavuot.  Since Shavuot is the festival of the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai – and as our tradition expanded upon that, the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai – the counting of the Omer is literally marking the days between the time we were liberated from our slavery in Egypt to the time God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.  In counting the Omer, we are in our own way participating in the journey across the wilderness from Egypt to Sinai; from slavery to Torah.

From the first Pesach and Shavuot to this very day, by counting the Omer, we Jews make that very same jour­ney.  While Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, and all of their followers physically traveled the 50 day journey from Egypt to Sinai, we, on the other hand, spiritually travel it.

But how does one spiritually travel from Egypt to Sinai?  To answer that question, we have to ask ourselves, “What does Egypt spiritually represent?” and “What does Sinai spiritually represent?”  For in finding the spiritual meanings of Egypt and Sinai, we discover the true path of the spiritual journey which each of us, as modern Jews, must take.

What is the meaning of Egypt?  We hear it stated over and over throughout our Pesach Seder.  Egypt is slavery, and therefore the journey from Egypt is nothing less than freedom.

What is the meaning of Sinai?  For Jews throughout the ages, Sinai has always stood for Torah.  So what is Torah?  Torah is our guide book to becoming a good Jew and a decent human being.  It tells us what we need to do in order to achieve those goals.  In other words, it lays out for us our responsibilities as Jews.

For us, the counting of the Omer should not only remind us of that journey our ancestors took some 3,500 years ago, from Egypt to Sinai, but also the journey that each of us as modern Jews need to take; the journey from freedom to responsibility.  For freedom is a wonderful thing, a blessing, and we American Jews enjoy a great deal of it, but freedom without responsibility is nothing other than license, and that is not a good thing.  It most certainly is not a blessing.

As Americans we are well aware of the fact that freedom has a price; that sometimes it even requires a sacrifice.  We know that freedom does not mean “I’ll do whatever I damn well please and the heck with you!”  While freedom is a gift, it is not the gift of absolute selfishness.  It is the gift of living in a community of people equally free, and doing whatever is necessary to protect the freedom of others as well as our own, and to protect the integrity of the community and all that it stands for.  In order to do so, we have to exercise our freedom to choose to do the right thing and not just the selfish thing.  We have to choose to be at one with others rather than only looking out for ourselves, at times placing above ourselves the values and principles that keep freedom alive and vibrant.  Hillel put it so well 2,000 years ago when he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, then what am I?”  With freedom comes responsibility.

For us as Jews, our Omer counting journey places its focus on some very particular freedoms and some very particular responsibilities; the freedoms and responsibilities of what it means to be a Jew today.

There is something sadly telling in the fact that most modern Jews celebrate Pesach – celebrate freedom – but far fewer celebrate Shavuot – celebrate responsibility – and even fewer still count the Omer – give serious consideration to what it means to make the journey from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility.  Yes, we know that we are free to be Jews, but too many of us interpret that as merely meaning that we don’t have to convert to another faith to be considered equals in the land we live.  Too many of us think that being free to be Jews means being free to choose to do nothing Jewishly with our lives, and if not nothing, then to choose to keep our Jewish activities at a bare minimum – attend a Pesach Seder of sorts which often is significantly abridged; perhaps go to a High Holy Day service or two; light some candles and give gifts on Hanukkah; or even take on the expense of joining a synagogue but rarely attend or participate; while never publicly denying being a Jew, at the same time never really publicly proclaiming it either.

But does the freedom to be a Jew really include the freedom from living Jewishly?  Many years ago, when I was a rabbinic student intern in a wonderful congregation in Scarsdale, New York, one of my responsibilities was to teach the Confirmation class.  Our Confirmation program centered upon a series of guest speakers, each addressing a topic of significance.  In one section of the course, over three weeks we explored the differences between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism.  While all three speakers were excellent, the one that really stands out in my memory is the Orthodox rabbi.  Why?  Because of an exercise he conducted with my students.  He simply asked them, “What does it mean to be a Reform Jew?”  One student replied, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to keep kashrut.”  Another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means you don’t have to wear a yarmulka at services.”  Yet another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to fast on Yom Kippur.”  Still another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to go to services on Saturday, or even on Friday if you don’t want to.”  And so the students went on, that is until he stopped them.  Then this Orthodox rabbi turned to them and said, “Don’t tell me about what you don’t do as Reform Jews.  Tell me about what you do.”  The students were stumped.  For them, being a Reform Jew was all about not having to do this and not having to do that.  It was all about their freedom and little or nothing about their responsibilities.  That Orthodox rabbi challenged those students to tell him, “As a Reform Jew, I choose to do this or I choose to do that” and they were hard pressed to respond.  For them, Reform Judaism meant a lot of free­dom but little, if any, responsibility.

Those Confirmation students are far from alone when it comes to Jews today, nor are their responses just restricted to Reform Jews.  Just count the empty seats in any synagogue on Shabbat.  Just count the empty chairs in any Jewish adult education class.  Just compare the number of those who attend syna­gogue and Jewish community events to those who belong to the synagogue and to the community.  Just examine how most Jewish institutions languish for need of volunteers and especially for leaders.  Even Tikkun Olam activities which, at least in our synagogue, are the most popular, pale in support when compared to our population.  Today so many Jews are just too busy to be Jewish.

This is precisely why the counting of the Omer journey is so vitally important for our people.  We need to come to grips with the fact that being Jewish does not end with our freedom to be Jewish.  Our journey is not just a Pesach journey.  It is not just about our liberation from Egypt.  It is also a Shavuot journey.  It is a journey toward Torah; toward the taking on of Jewish responsibilities.  It is about imbuing our Jewish freedom with Jewish life and Jewish meaning.  It is about bringing our Judaism to life in our lives and in the lives of our families and our community.  We need to journey from Pesach to Shavuot.  We need to journey from Egypt to Sinai.  We need to journey from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility.  The 50 days of the Omer stretch before us, offering us the opportunity to explore, to ponder, and ultimately to decide how each of us, making the decisions that work best for us, can travel that path from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility; from being free to live as Jews to living meaningful Jewish lives.

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Room With a View Into the Soul

October 1, 2011

So there I was, laying in a bed in a hospital room at the Mayo Clinic.  When I woke up that morning, it was all still kind of a blur.  I had driven to Rochester the morning before in order to have what I expected to be a cut-&-dry post surgical follow-up appointment that afternoon.  Take a quick x-ray.  Have a consultation with the surgeon.  Receive the good news – or the bad news – concerning the success or failure of my surgery.  If necessary, make plans for any future work.  Check into my hotel.  Go out for a nice dinner.  Relax in my room, and be on my way back home the next morning.

But that was not how the day before shook out.  Honestly, I had expected to be told that some of the stitches of the surgery had given way, for I had been experiencing increased breathlessness, in two instances very seriously, which surprised me considering how well my recovery had been going up until just a few days before.  But the x-rays were golden.  The surgery had been a complete success.  So why the breathlessness?  This concerned the surgeon enough to rush me to the emergency room where I was admitted ahead of all those other folks in the waiting room.

There was a lot of lying around and poking, prodding, and sticking before they took me for a CT scan.  They wanted to get a better look at my lungs.  I cannot say that they filled me with confidence as I lay there in radiology, for from the conversation I was overhearing it was quite obvious that the radiologist considered the nurse to be totally incompetent, and she returned the sentiment.  Then it was back to the emergency room and more laying around until a doctor I never met before arrived to inform me that I was being admitted, and then accompanied me to my room.  He told me that I had some blood clots in my lungs but that I should be out of the hospital in a day or two.

Once in my room, I found myself engaged in some heavy negotiations with the staff.  For I have sleep apnea which requires that I sleep with a breathing machine or I cannot sleep at all.  Now I had brought my machine with me, but had planned to use it in my hotel, not in a hospital room.  So it was sitting safely in my car, in the hospital parking structure.  You would think that it would be a simple matter of saying, “Here are the keys to my car.  This is where I parked it and this is what it looks like.  So would you please send someone to get me my cpap machine?”  But it was not, for it seemed that no one had the authority to go into my car; that is until they located a security guard who was willing to brave the dangers of the garage.

It was sometime around 2:00 in the morning when they woke me and took me back to radiology to do an ultrasound of my leg.

So there I was the next morning, laying in my hospital room when yet another doctor walked in.  He was either the fourth or fifth I had seen since coming to the hospital, each one wanting me to tell them my story.  So I asked him up front:  “Am I going to see you again, or am I going to have to go through more doctors before I get out of here?”  “No,” he said.  “I will be the doctor who says good bye to you on the day you are released.”  “Great!” I responded.  “Now tell me.  What’s the story here?”  “You have some clots in your lungs and your leg, so we are going to put you on blood thinners and keep you here another 4 or 5 days.”  “4 or 5 days!” I responded in utter disbelief.  “No one stays in a hospital any more for 4 or 5 days!”  He simply shook his head and said, “You don’t seem to understand.  You are very sick.  You almost died.”

Those words struck me like a hammer.  I hadn’t thought of it that way, but there was one attack of breathlessness which I had experienced just a few days before, while visiting Shira in Louisville, when I wasn’t sure I’d ever catch my breath again.  Now I knew that small nagging doubt was not just the product of panic but actually an accurate assessment of my situation.  I almost died.

As you can imagine, almost dying gives one pause for thought.  I know it gave me pause for thought.

I suspect that you will think it mere bravado when I tell you that personally, I am not afraid of dying.  But I mean it.  I really am not afraid of dying.  For this was not the first time that I almost died.  There was another time, when I was about 14, 15 years old.  My sister, who was six years my senior, had a very close friend by the name of Essie Hochstein, and Essie had a sister my age named Rosie, with whom I was very close.  The Hochsteins left New York and moved to Florida.  One time, when they returned for a visit, Rosie and I went swimming in their hotel’s outdoor swimming pool.  While in the pool, swimming in the deep end, I found myself getting tired, so I started to swim for the side.  I did some strokes and reached for the side of the pool but it was not there.  So I swam some more and reached out again.  Still, no pool to grab.  That was when I realized that for all my stroking, I was going nowhere.  So I panicked and started to drown.  I went down once, twice, three times, only to discover that going down for the third time was more than an old wive’s tale.  It was a fact.  I had had it.  There was no more fight left in me.  All I could do was surrender to my fate.  So I let go and waited for the end, lying in the water in the classic position of the dead man’s float.  I have to tell you.  I never felt better in my entire life.  I was completely relaxed, both in body and mind.  It was a sensation of absolute peace and tranquility.  Then I started seeing things that logically I shouldn’t have been seeing.  I was looking up from below as I watched my body floating in the water.  Then the next thing I knew, I was floating way above the pool, looking down.  I was struck by the fact that the pool was built in the shape of the letter “R”, which stood for the name of the hotel, the Riverdale Hotel.  It was only momentary, for then I found myself on the side of the pool, on my back, having been rescued by the life guard.

The whole incident took place in just a matter of a few minutes, but they were life changing minutes for me.  For during that short span of time I learned two very important facts – not theories but facts:  1 – Death brings with it profound peace and tranquility.  When we “shed this mortal coil,” with it we shed all the angst and pain and worry and doubt; all the discomfort which is so much a part of living that there are aspects of it that we do not even realize are there until they are truly gone.  Death brings with it an indescribable healing of the soul.  And 2 – That there is a soul; that there is a part of us apart from the body.  I had what is commonly called an out-of-body experience.  You will never convince me that it was an illusion or a fantasy.  It was real; as real as any “in-body” experience which I have ever had.  Having had such an experience, I was privileged to possess, at least for myself, indisputable evidence of the existence of the soul; a spiritual, incorporeal entity in which our consciousness and identity reside, and continue to reside, even when outside of our bodies.  It is the actual energy of who we are.  As the physicists have taught us through the Law of Conservation of Energy,  energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  It simply exists, it always has existed and will continue to exist forever.  Therefore the soul – the energy of who we are – also will continue to exist, long after our bodies have ceased to be.

So as I stated earlier, I am not afraid of dying for I know that dying is not the end but rather a transition into what appeared to me to be a better and higher realm of existence.  So when my time comes, I will welcome that eternity of the blissful tranquility I briefly tasted in that swimming pool so many years ago.

But still, laying in that hospital room, being told that I almost died, did give me great pause for thought.  Those thoughts did not center around any fear of death but rather upon the urgency of life.  For even while death is nothing that I fear, still it constitutes a very real sense of loss.  For in order to enter into the blissful spiritual realm of the afterlife, one has to surrender the realm of this life, with all that we cherish of this life as well as all that we will gladly shed of it.  There is where the urgency lies.

Are we ready to surrender that which we cherish?  Have we left things undone or unfinished?  Have we maximized the expenditure of our time and energies, both physical and emotional, on those things which are truly important to us or have we squandered our time and energies on matters which, at the end of all things, really mattered little?  These are the questions I found myself asking myself, and these are the questions which each and every one of us should be asking ourselves, even if we do not believe we have been confronted with the imminent possibility of our own demise.

If I had died in that hotel room in Louisville, Kentucky, or in that hospital room in Rochester, Minnesota, or anywhere in between, would I have died with a life fulfilled or with regrets of opportunities missed and opportunities squandered?  For you see, while I do not fear dying, what I do fear is living a life in which I have wasted too much of myself and my energies on things which, in the long run, really do not matter or at least do not deserve the amount of time and energy I have invested into them.

There are those who easily could choose to interpret such thinking as selfishness and self-indulgence, and indeed, one could turn such thoughts in such directions.  They easily could fuel the drive to a totally self-centered and self-important life.  But for anyone who would take them in such a direction, they would have missed the point all together.  For one to live a life that is solely centered upon oneself is not only to live a life which is meaningless but also, in the final analysis, lonely.  For people who are too full of themselves, leave little if any room for others.  And usually others find in their own lives, little room or patience for those who focus only on themselves.

Of course there is a part of all of us which would love it if we immersed ourselves in self-indulgence.  No one would deny that a certain amount of self-indulgence is not only nice but actually necessary if we are to fuel our own sense of self-value.  Yet while self-indulgence should have a place in the creation of a meaningful life, it should not capture the center stage.  There is both a time when we should center our lives upon ourselves and a time when we need to center our lives upon others.  Indeed, this is what our own great sage, Hillel, tried to teach us when he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?”

Laying in that hospital room, being told that I almost died, drove home for me the message we all need to hear:  Time is short for we do not know how much time we have.  Therefore let us turn our attentions to striking that balance in our lives.  How much for ourselves?  How much for others?

Of course, the issue should go far beyond questions of “How much?”   There is also the question of “What?”  What are the matters that we should hold as important, and what are the matters that we should place on the back burner, if not in the trash?  What are the things that we really would be proud of having accomplished during our time on earth?  What pursuits that seem to have the ability to capture our attention are really in and of themselves either vain or meaningless, or both?  What we choose to do with our lives – what directions we choose to take; what battles we choose to fight; what causes we choose to champion; what relationships we choose to raise up; what goals we choose to pursue; what ideals we choose to uphold; what people we choose to make of ourselves – these are what make all the difference between a life well lived and a life which is wasted.

Make no mistake about it, making such choices and living such a life is not just a matter of the big picture.  It is not just big issues and big choices but it also is small issues and small choices.  The devil is truly in the details of our lives.  These are questions both of massive import and of day-to-day living.  You can make yourself into a hero in the war against cancer or poverty or prejudice, but what does it all mean if you are a nothing or a failure, or even a villain in the struggles to build a family or nurture a friendship or be a good neighbor or be respected in your place of business?

To live a good life is to be able to die with little or no regrets and with a true sense of pride in the person we have made of ourselves.  We will always die with some of that left unfinished, for when it comes to such efforts, there will always be more we can do.  Personal perfection is always at least a step ahead of where we are today.  Yet our hunger should always be to draw as near to that goal as possible.  Every night, we should strive to be able to go to sleep feeling and believing, “If I do not wake, I will leave this world with little, if any, regrets.”

Laying in that hospital room, being told that I almost died, was a difficult and harsh reminder that there are no guarantees that we have all the time in the world to get our lives in order.  The end can come at any moment.  If that be the case, then we need to make each moment count.  We need to invest ourselves totally in the task of closing the gap between the person who we are today and the person we truly wish to be.