Thursday, July 25, 2013

Summer Musings on Parashat Ekev and the Philiosophy of "Whatevs"

I decided to try adopting my son Medad’s new favorite saying, “whatevs” (translation: “whatever”) as a way of life. I noticed he says it when things don’t go exactly as he had planned or hoped: “whatevs,” meaning, “It doeesn’t matter that much. I’m just going to let it slide. I’m not going to let it bother me.” Essentially: No big deal.

I could use some of this attitude. I frequently wake up in the middle of the night with a worry that in the clarity and optimism of the morning light seems not to really matter all that much, certainly not to be worthy of lost sleep. I’d be happier and healthier if I just said “whatevs” more often.

At the same time I’ve been holding in my head a Rashi that my father pointed out to me this year, the first Rashi of this week’s parsha. Ekev, says Rashi, means that “If you keep even the mitzvot that you would normally trample on with your heels (Hebrew: ekev), then God will take care of you. “ The point is to be careful with a mitzvah kalah, a seemingly trivial mitzvah, just as you are careful with a mitzvah hamurah, a more serious one (to put in Pirkei Avot terms) – in other words, to take what seems to be exactly the opposite attitude of “whatevs” ; here everything matters, even the small stuff.

This careful, sincere attitude seems equally compelling – as my father pointed out to me, often it is indeed the small gestures in a relationship that make an impact, the daily acts of care, and in relation to God, the daily acts of devotion. Judaism, with all its intricacies, is based on this idea – you have to be careful how you act, not take things too lightly.

Both these ideas seem compelling to me; they both seem to hold a piece of the truth; and I’ve been trying to work out how to reconcile them. Here are some attempts (I’m open to others – please comment):

Maybe they each occupy a different realm. In relation to yourself, when things happen to you that you are unhappy or uncomfortable with for some reason, that is the time to say, at least most of the time – “whatevs.” It’s the ego that’s getting in the way here, so letting it slide is a good habit; it’ll gradually help us get out of our tiny individual shells and see the larger picture. On the other hand, in relation to others – people, animals, the earth, God – “whatevs” is a form of laziness and disloyalty, a lack of caring. You should never expect someone else to say “whatevs” in relation to something you do to them or fail to do; you can only do that for yourself; for others, you have to take the more careful, activist approach.

Or maybe the two ideas exist side by side in us and are meant to form some healthy tension. It may not always be easy to tell which side of the balance is called for. It is the old question of knowing which things in life can be changed and which cannot – some we need to dive into with all our attention to every detail, and others we need to simply accept with a shrug: “whatevs.” And maybe some situations and especially relationships require us to somehow maintain a posture of both at the very same moment – deep engagement with a light carefree laugh. It matters both a great deal and very little in the scheme of things. Life is both unbearably light and incredibly weighty at the same time.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Post Tisha B'Av Reflections 2013

I’ve noticed that when I’m sick or when I’m fasting there is a certain calm clarity that comes over me. My energy level is very low and I expend it only sparingly. It is suddenly clear to me what matters and what doesn’t. The emails can wait. It is right to just sit with my children and watch them eat. Only simple things are really necessary in life. I walk slowly and notice the flowers. It is like the world has suddenly become slow motion. I pray to take this perspective with me into my normal energetic detail-filled life.

Why fast and mourn on Tisha B’av? Why have Tisha B’av at all? Why not just focus on the light, on the joyous side of life – the Purims and the Hanukkahs? Because this, too, this deep sadness that is a part of our history, this heritage of suffering and pain, this, too is a part of God’s world. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Shma statement, and how we say all the time (twice a day) that God is one. What does it mean to be one? It’s all His. You can’t only want the good moods and the laughs. You have to somehow learn to embrace the crying. Not just to survive it. My oldest son Medad fasted the whole day for the first time this year, and that last hour, he said something about how he just wanted it to go fast, to get through it. I understood, but at the same time, I wondered – Shouldn’t we somehow embrace this, too? There is no hour in our lives that is not a part of God’s history, our precious gift. In one of the Tisha B’av kinot, lamentations, alternating lines end with Betzeti Mimitzrayim and Betzeti Miyerushalayim, “When I left Egypt,” and “When I left Jerusalem.” The one was a joyous leaving, the other a sad one, and the poet juxtaposes them to show the contrast, but at the same time, one gets a sense of the similarity, even in the way the two phrases sound. Tisha B’av comes to remind us to embrace all of our history and all of our lives, the ups, the downs, the joys and the irritations. Somehow they are all one.