Monday, September 21, 2015

Why I Love Yom Kippur

The Mishnah in Taanit says that Yom Kippur is one of the two most joyous days in our calendar (the other is Tu b’Av, a little known summer holiday). Is Yom Kippur joyous? It is the Day of Judgment when we confess our sins and communally acknowledge just how rotten we’ve been all year. Why is this a day of joy?

First, because it feels good to acknowledge your imperfections. I heard the other day on the radio a young man speaking about his depression, and he said that the turning point came when he admitted out loud what was bothering him -- the problem was the need to appear perfect in the world. It is a tremendous relief to acknowledge vulnerability and imperfection, for one day to be wholly honest about who we are. And an even greater relief to do so communally – to say – yes, I have done this wrong and that wrong, but I am not alone. Ashamnu -- we are all guilty. We all stand before God, supremely conscious of our shared imperfect humanity. This connects us to God, yes, but it also connects us to each other, reminding us that every one of us, no matter what perfect public face we put on, has struggles.

Second, there is joy in cleansing. I have been doing a lot of house cleaning lately and finding, to my surprise, that I enjoy it. There is something so satisfying about watching a dirty sink turn clean, seeing the pile of dust removed from the floor. It is a very basic human need – cleanliness and a sense of order. Yom Kippur is a Day of Atonement – a day when we see the dirt and get to watch our slates, no matter how dirty, get wiped clean. There is a feeling of catharsis – like the feeling after a good cry or a particularly intimate fight and reconciliation – the air is cleared and we feel exultant, alive, hopeful and ready to try again.

Third, there is joy in passing through a trial together with a team. Yom Kippur is hard – physically it is hard to fast and stand all day, and emotionally it is hard to concentrate and pray and think about one’s misdeeds all day. But it is this very suffering, this inui , which also makes it joyful . We suffer together with a community and so it becomes a point of connection and intimacy among us, a shared trial. And we suffer for a cause – we are involved in something meaningful and it is okay if it is hard – that’s what makes it enjoyable. People like to do hard things. They enjoy the challenge and the sense, at the end, of fulfillment and completion. The exultant kaddish at the end of a long Musaf on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is an example of this.

Finally, and perhaps most basically, Yom Kippur is a day of joy because it is the day of greatest intimacy with God. It is a day of judgment, yes, but it is also a day of mercy and love, a day of connection, a day when we become aware of just how permanent our connection is to the Holy One. Ki anu amekha ve’atah elokeinu. That is the bottom line – We are Your nation, and you are Our God. Yom Kippur is not like Shavuot – a day of perfection when God gave the first Tablets. No, Yom Kippur is the day we celebrate God’s continuing commitment to and love of us even after we sin. It is the day when we heard that we were forgiven for the Sin of the Golden Calf and received the second tablets – a covenant built out of the fabric of our imperfection. There is great comfort and great joy in such a covenant – no matter that we can’t seem to ever get it quite right – we can move forward secure in the knowledge that we are still wrapped in God’s eternal love.

Some Post Rosh HaShanah Thoughts on Judgment

Ever since Rosh HaShanah I have been thinking about judgment. Not God’s judgment, but our own human judgment.

On Rosh HaShanah we read the story of Hannah’s prayer for a child. I have always thought this story is related to Rosh HaShanah because it is an example of someone who cries and whose prayer is answered by God. This year, though, what struck me was the theme of judgment – the High Priest Eli falsely judges Hannah. He sees her praying silently, her lips moving but without a sound, and he judges her – wrongly – to be drunk. One can almost hear the self-righteous thoughts going through his mind – Imagine the nerve of that woman, to come into this holy place so drunk! Who does she think she is!

But the truth was otherwise, of course. The truth was, and often is, that this person we see acting strangely and often irritatingly before us, this person is suffering. We judge them harshly; our blood pressure goes up as we feel the anger mount – the nerve! How could they! But the truth is – they’re simply in pain. Like Hannah, what makes them act in this unusual way is an inner suffering that only God has access to.

Which is why, this time of year we remind ourselves that there is really only one Judge, and it isn’t us. We are all humans, limited and wrong-headed in our judgment of one another. We are faulty judges.

We are faulty judges because we don’t really know what is going on for another person. Our first response is often not to be curious or open to hearing the truth – we are quick to assume the worst.

We are faulty judges because we judge from our own self-centered vantage point. Perhaps Eli was particularly sensitive to slights to his honor as a priest and considered drunkenness in the sanctuary to be a personal affront to his own honor. We know this scenario. We are engrossed in our own tallying of personal honor and shame and see everyone else’s actions through this prism – we feel hurt and therefore we judge, without being able to get out of the blindness of this self-centered perspective to see the reality of the person in front of us.

But the Hannah and Eli story has a happy ending. Eli is humble and open enough to hear Hannah when she explains herself, to allow his first impression to be corrected. And once he hears her, he blesses her – go in peace and may God grant your request. And, after she leaves this encounter, the verse says that Hannah was no longer downcast. Where there was judgment, there is now understanding, compassion, and the ultimate antidote to judgment – blessing.

In a way, the story can be conceived then as story of Eli’s teshuva, his repentance from the sin of judging another harshly. This is the task then --- to turn our feelings of judgment into compassion and blessing, to learn to see the suffering inside those whom we would naturally judge, and find it in ourselves to bless them with peace and good wishes. To feel their need for blessing in place of our need to judge them. We will feel better about ourselves as well as others in the process and all be blessed with peace.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Parashat Nitzavim and Rosh HaShanah: On Stability and Repentance

Atem Nitzavim Hayom. You stand today. Rashi says these words are meant as words of comfort. The people have just heard all the possible curses and terrible outcomes if they don’t keep all of God’s laws and they say, with despair – How can anyone do this? We are not capable. Moshe responds – Here you are standing today. “Today,” like the “day” itself which has both darkness and light and yet still exists. You still exist. You have angered God before, you have failed many times already and yet here you stand today, still standing, still in existence. You have and will always have the darkness and the light and yet you still stand. And yes, there will be changes – the people are going through a transition of leadership right at that moment, from Moshe to Yehoshua – so yes, changes will occur, but always remember --- atem nitzavim hayom, you are like a matzevah, a statue – you stand and remain.

The Zohar says that this hayom, this “today”, refers to “the ultimate day,” which is the Day of Judgment, Rosh HaShanah. It was on this day all those years ago that Moshe gave this comforting speech to the people of Israel as they entered into a second covenant with God.

That is the nature of covenant, of brit, itself – it is a contract we make with God that is permanent -- God swears He will be our God and we swear we will be His people, no matter what happens. Rashi also says that God gives them all these curses precisely because of the permanence of His agreement with them – God can’t get out of it; He is stuck forever, and so He has to find ways to get the people to obey, because, the bottom line is – God is in it for the long run.

This is a comforting message as “the day” of Judgment approaches. That feeling of despair is familiar – life often feels simply impossible – it is impossible to fulfill all of one’s obligations and ambitions and all that life and Torah seem to tell us we ought to be doing and accomplishing. Some days one simply feels overwhelmed by what one has not done or by what one has done not quite in the right way. This time of year we take stock of our imperfections and fallibilities. And so it is this time of year that we also need to be reminded that atem nitzavim hayom -- you/we are still standing here, before God, still in the covenant, stable, permanent, continuous, no matter what happens. Light and dark, good and bad – it’s all part of the parcel of the being human, and in spite of it all, we are still standing.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t work to improve ourselves. But there is an important balance here between despair and repair, between the feeling of hopelessness that one simply cannot succeed and the sense that it is still worth trying. And I think that what fuels an attitude of repair and repentance is not just awareness of what is wrong, but also and perhaps even more essentially, a sense of security about the relationship. We will always stand here before God – God promises to remember His covenant no matter what we do, and it is out of this relationship, in the context of this relationship that we have the security and the confidence to try harder.

Like a good marriage or a good parenting relationship, our relationship with God can provide just such security – a loving safe space in which to grow and transform ourselves. Atem nitzavim hayom -- we stand stable today and every day, secure in the knowledge that though we, like the day, will have darkness and light, God will continue to sustain and love us.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Parashat Ki Tavo: Simcha (Joy) Squared

Samahti veSimahti bo (Rashi on Devarim 26:14). “I have enjoyed it and caused others joy through it.” The “it” here refers to the gifts of a bountiful harvest out of which one was to give certain tithes. After the completion of these tithes, the farmer had to declare that he had done “all that God had commanded him” to do with his produce. Rashi comments that what the reciter means is: Samahti veSimahti bo. “I have enjoyed it and caused others joy through it.”

Maybe that’s the bottom line. So simple. We are given many gifts – life, health, family, food, shelter, a beautiful world, gifts of talent and intellect. This time of year we are thinking of the reckoning we are to do with God – maybe that’s the account we must give – all those gifts we were given – did we enjoy them? And did we use them to serve others, to bring others joy?
This concept of enjoying the gifts God grants us is not as simple as it sounds. There is some hesitation, some sense of ascetic guilt which stops us from fully enjoying what we are given, stops us from jumping up and down with joy at the sight of our children growing, our dinner plates bountiful. We hold back. We don’t notice.

The message here is that it is a religious obligation to enjoy the gifts God gives us. God is like any other gift-giver: When you give someone a gift, when you go to the trouble of actually thinking what that person might like and spend the time and the money and/or the energy to obtain the gift, what return do you want for your gift? What you most desire, what is most gratifying, is to see the receiver of your gift truly enjoying it – wearing the necklace or using the bowl. So it is with God – God wants to see us enjoying His beautiful world, being happy in the life bestowed upon us, knowing how to celebrate.

Often even our “blessings” come with aggravation and stress – it’s as if we are overwhelmed by “blessings” -- too much good work to do, too much food to cook, too many children to drive around and attend to. One of my mother’s friends has a policy – she never complains about something that is essentially good, no matter how stressful. To see the negative, to complain and feel down-trodden is a kind of affront to the Gift-giver. Strange as it sounds, we have to remember, in all the stress and turmoil of our every day lives, to actually enjoy our gifts.

The second part of the obligation – causing others joy through our gifts – only enhances the first, our own joy. We see how we are like an overflowing cup, with gifts to spare and share, and we feel the bounty and joyousness of our own gifts even more so. The Torah speaks often of the simchah, the joy of the worshipper who comes to Jerusalem to eat his tithed produce, and the joy is always communal – you will enjoy this produce, you and the Levite and the poor in your gates. Together the joy is magnified. Samahti ve’simahti bo. The words sound like simchah squared. Like the noise and energy of children put together in a room, joy is something that grows exponentially when shared.

And so, in this time of serious, guilt-ridden heshbon nefesh (self-accounting), we should remember the bottom line – what we owe God is primarily joy – our own and that of others. May this be a year of great joy for us all.