Words from Under the Table: Yom Kippur 2016/5777

A famous story told by the Hasidic master, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav.

Once a family was cursed, and their son, their pride and joy, became convinced he was a rooster. He removed his clothes, and sat clucking beneath the family table. He refused to eat human food, only chicken food. He refused to speak.

The parents were beside themselves. The called in doctors, healers, therapists, wizards. No one could help. Finally, they invited the rabbi. The rabbi assured them he could cure the boy, but it would be unconventional. The parents agree immediately. “Just heal our boy.”

So the rabbi took off his clothes, descended down under the table, began clucking like a rooster and eating rooster food. And now the parents are truly astonished, they now had a pair of roosters in the house.

The rabbi and the boy spend the day together, clucking and eating chicken food. And at one point the rabbi turned to the boy and said,

“It hurts my throat to speak this way. Wouldn’t it be better for us to speak like people?”

“But we’re roosters!” exclaimed the boy.

“So we’ll be roosters who speak like people,” responded the rabbi. And the boy agreed. So they spoke.

The rabbi said, “it’s cold here with no clothes. Wouldn’t it be better for us to dress like people?”

“But we’re roosters! Roosters don’t wear clothes” exclaimed the boy.

“So we’ll be roosters who dress like people,” responded the rabbi. And the boy agreed, and he dressed. And the rabbi said, “I don’t really like rooster food, wouldn’t it be better to eat like people?” And the boy agreed.

Finally, the rabbi said, “My back hurts. Wouldn’t it be better for us to stand and walk the world like people.” And the boy agreed. They rose from beneath the table, and the boy was cured.

I know this rabbi. I am this rabbi. I have sat under the table with so many people who have forgotten who they are. They sit crumpled, bent over, under the table, under all the expectations and demands of life, naked and unprotected from the tragedies that come with adulthood, and starving from the spiritual chickenfeed fed them by contemporary culture.

She comes to me and shares that she’s just exhausted – dried up by the endless demands of being wife, mother, daughter, professional (or the guilt and regret for giving up her profession to be a mom). She can’t figure out what he wants, what might make him happy. She’s worn down by the endless car pools to school, soccer games, gymnastics practice, dance rehearsals, orthodontist appointments and Bar Mitzvah lessons.

Somewhere amid all that, she is still being trying to be a human being with a soul.

He comes when a crisis arrives. His dad dies. His best friend has a heart attack. His job gets downsized. His kid is in trouble. He can’t handle it. This isn’t the life he was prepared for. He meets an attractive woman on a business trip, and barely resists the temptation to compromise his marriage, or doesn’t resist. He feels like he’s a stranger to himself.

These men and women aren’t failures by any means. They have reached mid-life having achieved all the aspirations of their youth. From the outside, you’d call them very successful. They enjoy all the material rewards our culture metes out to clever, industrious, shrewd, effective people. The homes, the vacations, the cars, the clothes. They have it all. But they sit with the rabbi and confess that something is missing, something is lacking. They were so busy winning, they didn’t notice what they lost. Now, there is an emptiness within, an emptiness that no new acquisition, no vacation adventure, no make-over can satisfy.

They sing the anthem of our times:

I have climbed highest mountains

I have run through fields

I have run, I have crawled

I have scaled the city walls

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

What am I supposed to say to them? We don’t speak the same language. I live in a world of tradition; a world which values the careful reading of very old books, and the conscientious practice of very old disciplines. The most precious object in my life is a scroll, handwritten with a goose quill, on parchment, containing very old words, words which are precious to me. My world values what is permanent, eternal, and lasting.

They come from a different world. The language of their world is change, innovation, the new. The icon of this world is Steve Jobs who prided himself not for any particular invention, but for initiating what he called, “a culture of disruption.” Google insists it is not a tech company or a search engine, but an engine of change. The emblem of this world is the smartphone. You know that whichever phone you happen to own, it will be replaced in six weeks, and obsolete in six months. Whatever ap’s you’re running, there will soon be a 2.0 which is better. We worship the new, the young, the original. We have little patience with all that was yesterday. What can I say to this world?

I climb down under the table, and try to get through: There is much to be valued in new technologies, and the social changes they have brought. The products of innovation and revolution are miraculous. But something valuable is lost in all this -- something deeply important to being human. What is lost is a wisdom that is old and unchanging. What is lost are ways of looking at the self and at life that cannot be conveyed in ap’s and tweet’s and instagam’s.

This what my old books and my old words teach. Father Jacob left home running from his brother. He spent that first night alone, sleeping with a stone for a pillow. That night he dreamt of a ladder, reaching up into the heavens, and the angels of God ascending and descending the ladder. The Hasidic master, Yakov Yosef of Polnoye taught that the dream was a message: The human being is a ladder, planted on the earth with its top reaching heaven. Like the angels, the soul is always ascending or descending. The soul is always either growing or shrinking. In the course of life, we nurture the soul or we starve it. A soul that is starving leaves us empty, listless, bored, aimless, depressed. Nurturing the soul yields a sense of purposefulness, meaningfulness, and significance. Ultimately, life is not about winning. Life is about growing the soul so we can say, I matter, I belong, I am needed, I am loved.

Under the table I whisper to them: I admire your success. I deeply respect your accomplishments. I do not belittle or begrudge for a moment your hard-earned material prosperity, or the accolades and achievement you’ve reached in your life. I respect your accomplishments. But it seems to me that the success you’ve been reaching for is too small, too ordinary, too superficial. The success you’ve earned leaves you starving for something deeper; because it leaves your soul undernourished and underfed. There is another way, another kind of success.

The Book of Psalms sings: “Pitchu li sha’arey tzedek, Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter and praise God. This is the gate of God, the Righteous may enter therein.” The Rabbis of the Talmud wondered when one would make such a request? So they create a story as a context for these verses. When a human being dies, the body is buried in the earth, the soul ascends to heaven. There, the soul is met by the angels who guard the gates of heaven.

The angels ask: What was your occupation in the world?

If you say, In the world, I was a lawyer or a doctor or an executive, in the world I amassed a great deal of power, they will tell you: that’s irrelevant here. But if the souls says, In the world, I fed the hungry; they will say, Zeh ha-sha’ar la’Adonai This is the gate of God, you who fed the hungry may enter.

If the soul says, In the world, I protected the vulnerable, they will say, This is the gate of God, you who protected the vulnerable may enter.

And so too for those care for the abandoned and those who performed acts of hesed, of kindness and love. You who opened your hand and your heart, and did hesed, these gates of God are open to you.

It’s a beautiful midrash. But the truth is, the rabbis have no idea what really happens when we die. The midrash really isn’t about that. It is, instead, about a transposition of values that happens in the face of eternity. From the vantage of eternity, what really matters, what is success?

Isn’t it interesting that no child ever rises at the funeral to eulogize a parent and says, I’m proud of my Dad for all he earned. Or I’m proud of Mom for what she controlled. No. What do they say? I’m proud of all my father gave, the way he reached out and helped others. I’m proud of way my mother loved and cared and nurtured. There are twenty-thousand graves at Mt Sinai Memorial Park. And not one of them says, “Graduate of Harvard.” Not one says, “Corporate Giant.” All the descriptions are relational: “Loving Father, Gentle Mother, Loyal Friend.” No child ever says, I love my parents for all they owned. They say, I love the moments we shared. I loved the times we were together. I wish we’d had a little more time, a few more words with one another, one more hug. It’s tragic, but sometimes it takes the shocking presence of death to awaken us to what really matters.

I remember a Bar Mitzvah we celebrated a few years ago, right here on this bima. The young man got up to give his talk, and announced that today he is a man in the eyes of the tradition, and he looks forward to the day he’ll be a real man. And what does that mean? His own Ferrari, a condo in Mamouth or Maui, and a supermodel girlfriend. Thirteen year old kid. I remember getting angry for a moment at his insolence. And then wondering, who taught him this? Who taught him that this is the meaning of adulthood, of manhood? And then sadness, because I know exactly where he will end up. He’ll end up under the table. Empty inside. Addicted. Depressed. Lonely.

I got up to give him his charge, his blessing. “I hope you get all that you wish for. I really do. Someday, I hope you have the car, the condos, the beautiful companion. Someday, I hope you’ll come and show me your fabulous professional resume with all your accomplishments, achievements, accolades, awards. I’ll be proud of you. All that’s important. But know this: There is more to you. There is another side of you, and I don’t want you to leave the synagogue today without learning this. So take that fabulous resume and turn the page over, and on the other side, I want you to ask yourself some simple questions:

(1) Who is with me in life? Who knows me and cares for me, who do I know intimately, and care for deeply? Is there someone you could call at 3 am and say, I need you, and they’d say, I’m coming. That’s wealth beyond measure.

Martin Buber taught us that the greatest truth in life arrives only when we move from a life of I-It relationships to a life of I-Thou relationships. When we see beyond the functional – what someone does for me – and embrace and cherish another for who they are, in all their uniqueness. Someday, you will open the tightly drawn circle of your self, and discover a deep need for an Other – a soul mate, a friend, a partner who offers the opportunity to learn to love and to be loved. Not someone who fulfills your desires, (that’s not a partner, that’s called a housekeeper), but someone who propels you to become the person you are meant to be. It is a strange existential fact that not one of us can see his or her own face unaided. It’s also true that we cannot see our own soul, unaided. Only in relationship, in intimacy, will you come to know who you really are.

(2) What are the causes and purposes that inspire me? What vision of the world do I believe in, have I worked for, and struggled for? What commitments have I sacrificed for? What ideals define me?

Around the self, we carry a circle of concern, a circle of caring. Right now, kid, your circle ends at the tip of your nose. But someday, you will come to recognize that the bigger your circle, the wider your circle of concern, the more human you become. Right now, you prize your independence. No one depends on you. But one day you will understand that life’s greatest dignity comes from recognizing that you are needed, that something is asked of you. The question, wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel, is not what you get out of life, but what life gets out of you. You earn significance in your readiness to respond, to be response-ible, to care, to give, to engage, to help, to heal.

(3) Where is my creativity? What can I contribute to the world that is precious, beautiful, and mine? You have a story to tell. Your eyes have seen the world in a way that is unique. So find a way to share what you know, what you’ve discovered. Tell your story. Make music. Make art. Touch the world in some special way. You were created in the image of the creator; there is creativity in you, and there is great joy in creativity.

(4) Am I growing? Am I becoming wiser, deeper, more compassionate? Am I becoming a better person than I was?

Know that there is another kind of success. It is not the success of achievement, advancement, or acquisition. It’s not about gaming the marketplace or conquering the world or making a killing. It’s not about winning. The journey toward this kind of success doesn’t follow linear logic of economics, of investment and return, but a moral logic, which is paradoxical:

You give in order to get;
You sacrifice in order to gain;
In empathy for the suffering of the other you learn the power of the self to heal;
Only in losing yourself will you ever find yourself;
It is only in the selfless act will you ever discover the true nature of the self, who you really are.

This kind of success often begins, ironically, in defeat, in failure. When the self is displaced from the center of the universe, and we discover humility. We become painfully aware that we are not the sole authors of our destiny. You are not self-made. You are the product of myriad acts of self-sacrifice by others who created your world, assured your opportunities, sustained you, protected you cared for you, and asked nothing in return. Suddenly we break out of self-absorption and feel indebted. We are suddenly grateful. From that point of humility and gratitude, everything grows.

It’s not easy. It takes time. A soul grows once choice at a time, one decision at a time. It takes devotion, commitment, persistence. And one more quality, the most rare quality. It takes courage. Because each of these gifts – humility, love, purpose, creativity, growth – involves vulnerability. They demand that you accept risk, that you give up control. The first time you look into the eyes of another and say, I love you. You will wait and hope and pray, they will say, I love you too. But there is no guarantee. You can’t control that. There is no certainty in love. Someday, you will have children, and you will come to know the vulnerability of investing your heart and soul into an other, an other you cannot control. And someday, you will take the one you love and together sit with a doctor, who will say, “This is cancer.” And the chill you will feel at that moment, that’s the vulnerability of love. It takes courage to love.

It takes courage to care. Dedicate yourself to a cause, to a purpose, but know there is no guarantee you will succeed. The life of cynicism and pessimism and self-absorption is so much safer. No risk there. No chance of failure. But also no moral imagination, and no growth. It takes courage to care. According to the midrash, someone had to jump into the  

Red Sea before God would open it. Before we could be redeemed, someone had to say, I’ll go first. His name was Nachshon. And he didn’t know if the sea would split, or if he would drown, but he jumped in. Because this he did know – no redemption ever comes if we stand in fear and wait. You jump in, and you hope you can swim. It takes courage.

Growing takes courage. Because growing only happens when you step in the vulnerability – into the discomfort of something new, something challenging, something unfamiliar, something that upsets the equilibrium of the status quo. The definition of a slave is the person who insists that every tomorrow be exactly like yesterday. That’s why we needed to leave slavery to meet God. God is michadesh, the author of the new, the creator of beginnings, the shaper of souls.

What are the reward for cultivating a soul? Nothing material. No honors or accolades. Only what we call the deep sense of security we call redemption. Only the intimacy of love, the warmth of community, the confidence of integrity, a sense of abiding purpose, and the assurance that your life matters. Only the resilience to meet the inevitable failures and tragedies of life with courage and perspective. The Psalmist expressed it this way:

Od yenuvun b’say-vah, d’shayneem v’ranaanim yehihyu
Li’hageed ki yashar Adonai, Tzuri v’lo avlatah bo.

The righteous shall bloom like the palm tree, and thrive like a cedar of Lebanon,

Planted in the house of the Lord, they flourish in the courts of God.

In old age, they shall still be fruitful, full of life and renewal,

And will testify that the Lord is just, my Rock in whom there is no wrong.

What are the rewards of cultivating a soul?

To live each day, up until one’s last day, with ideals, inspiration and creativity intact.

To meet one’s finitude, without bitterness or anger or regret, only gratitude for the gifts and blessings of life.

To possess a life well lived.

We Rabbis are strangers in a world that worships innovation, disruption, revolution. Ours is a wisdom that is old, rooted in the shared experience of generations of ancestors. And so we come and sit under the table, whisper gently:

This culture you’ve imbibed, these values you so prize, they’re chickenfeed. They will not nourish you. You will starve. But there is something more substantial at hand, come and share it.
The images of success you aspire to -- they leave you naked and vulnerable against the cold disappointments of a harsh world. There is a wisdom that will warm and protect you, come and share it.
The way you’ve defined yourself, the path you’ve set for your life, has confined you, bent you over and made you small. It has lowered the horizons of your possibilities, limited your aspirations. You’re bigger than this and better than this. You are no rooster. You are a soul, a neshama, you have divinity within you, and the promise of joys you have never tasted. Rise up now and celebrate.

Date: 
Wednesday, October 12, 2016 - 10:00am