Sign In Forgot Password


04/06/2015 08:20:00 AM


Rosh Hashana 1998 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed-quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

"'What has happened to me?' he thought. But it was no dream."

Franz Kafka's tale, "Metamorphosis." When I read this story years ago, as a student, I thought it an imaginative piece of surrealism, a fantasy, perhaps a black comedy. Most of all I understood that it wasn't about me. It reflected Kafka's tortured, dark, anguished world. Not mine. Not my world of bright, shining dreams, ambitions, and possibilities.

Now I know better. Now I understand how one can awaken and suddenly find oneself terribly alone -- a stranger in one's own bed, an exile in one's own world. Lost, out of place, off the map.

Know that there is a line transecting life. On one side is the world of carpools and crabgrass and long lines at the bank, a lover's tender caresses and sloppy kisses from children, -- all the blessings and irritations, all the joys and aggravations of the daily routine that consumes our hours and days and weeks. And on the other, the cold reality that we are mortal, that our days are finite, our future uncertain -- the knowledge that tomorrow isn't assured. From that side, the world of daily routine reveals itself as terribly thin, fragile, and precarious. From that side, each tomorrow is a rare and precious gift.

And the truth is that all of us, at one point in life or another, are dragged to the edge of the line and forced to look over. These are our moments of metamorphosis.

Read your mahzor: "Mee Yi'chiyeh u-mee yamoot. Mee b'keetzo u-mee lo b'keetzo. Mee ba'esh u-mee ba'mayim. Mee ba'ra'ash u-mee ba'magefa. Who will live and who will die? Who will have enough time? Who will suffer the fires of anguish and who the deluge of fear? Who will be shaken? Who will be plagued? Who will be pursued? And who will be bereft?

Who? The answer is so painfully apparent...Each one of us. For this is the human condition. This is the strange paradox of being human: So exalted, so powerful and yet so fragile. Created in the image of God and formed from the dust of the earth.

"Verily, You as Creator know the nature of the human being for we are but flesh and blood. Our origin is dust and we return to the dust. We obtain our bread by the peril of our lives; we are like a fragile potsherd, as the grass that withers, as the flower that fades, as a fleeting shadow, as a passing cloud, as the wind that blows, as the floating dust, and as a dream that vanishes."

What do we do? We run and we hide from this truth. Hiding is a theme repeated again and again in the tradition. Adam and Eve, their eyes newly opened, hide in the garden from the Presence of God. Jacob, returning from Haran to face his murderous brother, sends the family across the river Yavok, but hides himself on the other side of the river. Jonah runs from the command of God; down to the port, down to a ship, down into the hold, down into a deep sleep, and finally, down into the belly of the whale. The Rhizener Rebbe studying holy texts is interrupted by the tears of his grandson. -- What's wrong my child? -- I was playing hide and seek with the other children, he explained. But when I hid, no one came to look for me.

We hide behind a sophisticated array of distractions, diversion, entertainments, escapes. We hide behind the demands of work and the demand of the family and the demands of the community. We hide in a cloud of busy-ness: I've got to go. I haven't time. I'm late. I've got to get moving. I've got to be somewhere. Someone's expecting me. I can't take the time right now. I'm sorry.

We seek escape to a world of fantasy. We submerge our own lives into the life of the TV character. Why put up with my own life, alternating between boredom and insecurity, when I can share the passion of the doctors of ER, or the intimacy of the gang at Friends, or the witty world of Dr. Frazier Crane? You saw "The Truman Show"? What's more pathetic -- the man who, unknowing, lives in the facade world of a TV show, where every moment of genuine emotion turns out to be a product endorsement -- or the millions who live through him -- whiling away their lives watching him?

In the film Moonstruck, a frustrated Olympia Dukakis keeps asking, "Why do men chase women?" Finally, at the end of the film, Danny Aiello gives her the answer: "Men chase women because they're afraid of death."

All of the Bible's stories, all the Talmud's stories, and all the Hasidic stories turn out the can't hide. God finds you. Life will find you. The Bible's first question is God's search for Adam and for us all: Ayecha? Where are you?

Why am I so surprised when these moments come? Isn't it clear from the beginning that someday the kids are going to grow up and move out? (Or worse, move back in!) Isn't it obvious that our loved ones will someday grow older, weaker, and pass on? That we will grow older and change? That jobs change, relationships change, we change. That no one is immune from time? Haven't we seen enough to know the chaos that looms just on the other side of tomorrow? Is there anyone who has ever lived on this planet who has not known this sense of dislocation and consternation that comes with these moments of metamorphosis?

The godfather of adult developmental theory, psychoanalyst Erik Erikson made a grievous error when he called the movement of life transitions "crises." The word crisis connotes an emergency that drops on us from ceiling. A sudden, unexpected, out of the blue, abrupt life change that passes momentarily. But we know that life is full of such moments. Life is made of such moments. Who told us otherwise?

And as if life itself isn't bewildering enough, the world is changing around us. The sociologists tell us that we have experienced more change in the last 100 years than in the previous 10,000 years of human civilization. And it isn't just the magnitude or pace of change. "Change..." writes British management guru Charles Handy, "isn't what it used to be." The change we experience today isn't incremental, evolutionary. It is discontinuous change.

Consider for example, the kid going off to college this week. Born in 1980, six years after Nixon resigned and two years after "Star Wars" premiered, he or she has never lived in a world without personal computers, AIDS, CNN, VCR's, microwave popcorn, or voice mail. He's never poured milk or Coke from a glass bottle. She's never owned a phonograph, a typewriter, a phone with a dial or a clock with hands. He doesn't remember the Bell Telephone Company, the Beatles, full-service gas stations, the Fonz, or the Soviet Union.

We live in a world of discontinuity. Web site, e-mail, cell phone, Bosnia, sexual harassment, multiculturalism, CAT scan, sound bite, HMO, DVD, NAFTA, HIV -- these words simply didn't exist until ten years ago.

The job that will occupy our college freshman has likely not even been invented yet. How do we educate toward a world discontinuous and dissimilar to our own? What is the meaning of knowledge and what is the true role of teacher if tomorrow promises to be as substantially different from today as today is from yesterday?

For that matter, Charles Handy argues, the whole notion of "job" is disintegrating. Wide-spread corporate downsizing and restructuring has decimated what was once our shared concept of the working life -- steady, loyal service to a company, rewarded with promotions to higher levels of responsibility and compensation, through an honorable retirement, a gold watch dinner and new set of golf clubs. It is more likely that upon graduation, our freshman will move through a series of positions, occupations, and situations much like an artist building a portfolio of works. The question to our freshman is no longer, what do you want to be when you grow up? But rather, what sorts of experiences would you like to include in your life portfolio?

It isn't the technological, political and economic revolutions that shake us, but their impact on personal identity.

Men typically define their place in the world by their work. Career functions as the supporting backbone of personal identity. When men meet, their question, after exchanging names, is "What do you do?" What happens to these men, and their sense of belonging in the world, when that question can't be answered? ...when the job is insecure, the economy unsteady, and the whole idea of career becomes obsolete?

Can you understand the anxiety that underlies the "Million Man March" and the millions of men who have responded to the call of Promise Keepers? Suddenly the map that guides his life is ripped apart. Mipnay chata'eynu galeenu me'artzaynu vnit'rachaknu may'al admataynu -- "Because of our sins," teaches the prayer, "we were exiled from our land and removed from our sacred soil." And so he sits in the rabbi's study, out of a job, out of place, out of his mind, and begs me to tell him what undisclosed, hidden sin, is he being punished for.

In studying social change, Handy points out that it is often small, unnoticed events rather than momentous political milestones that have the greatest impact on daily life. Consider the birth control pill. Invented in 1960, the Pill separated sex from reproduction and led to a revolution in our attitudes toward sex, sexuality, and marriage. The Pill gave women control over their reproductive cycle and invited them to gain control over the rest of their lives. The Pill ultimately revolutionized the place, the status, the role of women in our culture.

But with this change, and I welcome these changes, but with the change comes another wave of dislocation. Who is she? Woman, daughter, wife, mother, professional? Which one comes first? How does she negotiate these roles and demands? So she goes to work and has to listen to Dr Laura sermonize that child care is no substitute for loving parenting. Or she leaves her profession to stay home with the kids and quietly harbors a growing resentment that, while her husband is out in the world, an important part of her soul, her life has been left fallow -- uncultivated, underdeveloped, stifled, strangled. Or she tries to do it all, work, kids, home, caring for elderly parents, participating in community and she collapses exhausted from infinite demands on her time and strength. Where does she belong?

Mipnay chata'eynu galeenu me'artzaynu -- "Because of our sins," teaches the prayer, "we were exiled from our land and removed from our sacred soil." V'ayn anachnu yecholim la'alot v'lay-ra'ot oo-li'heesh'tachavot lifanecha v'la'asot hovataynu. "And now we are helpless to rise up and be seen, to share of ourselves, and to fulfill our responsibilities."

"The present age," writes psychiatrist and novelist Walker Percy "is possessed by a sense of dislocation, a loss of personal identity, [and] an alternating sentimentality and rage which, in an individual patient, would be characterized as dementia."

In desperate search for a sense of their place in the world, people run to fundamentalist religion -- evangelical Christianity, rigid Islam, or Chabad Judaism which all promise an escape to a simpler way. They embrace cultural conservatives who call for a return to mythical time of simpler, traditional values. They seek the magic of Bible codes, psychic phenomena, angels, primitive readings of Kabballah or Buddhism which offer to restore control over life. Or simply switch on the TV and look at people whose tzuris is much bigger than my own.

The irony is that compared to our ancestors, we live so much longer and safer. During this century life expectancy in America has almost doubled. In 1996 alone, the life expectancy for American adults was extended by 6 months. At the Jewish Home here in Reseda, the average age of admission is 86 and the mean age of residents is over 90. We get to live a lot longer. But not smoother. Not easier. Because the longer we live, the more transitions we experience, the more changes we endure.

So they come to speak with the rabbi. With 3000 years of Jewish wisdom and tradition, surely we have secrets to life. After all, who knows more about being a stranger, about surviving exile than we Jews? What peace, what comfort, does my religion offer me when my life is turning upside down?

What do I tell them? Honestly, I've searched the books and texts of Jewish tradition, and I don't know the answer.

Were we Buddhists, it would be clear. For Buddhism teaches, in the first of the Four Noble Truths, that all life is suffering, because all life is evanescent. Like a rose that is beautiful today but will wilt tomorrow, everything of value in this world soon evaporates. So separate, detach, disengage, from the world, and you will find equanimity and comfort. This is the great attraction of the Eastern traditions.

But Judaism teaches me the opposite truth: Embrace the world. Take responsibility for the world. Choose life. Hashamayim shamayim ladonai vi'ha'aretz natan li'vney adam. The heavens belong to God, teaches the Psalmist, but this world is given to the human being. But if you embrace the world, it's going to break your heart.

Judaism is not about equanimity. It's not about peace and comfort. Serenity is not a Jewish emotion. The Talmud offers a beautiful depiction of the virtue of peace: "The Holy One, blessed be He, found no vessel but peace which could contain all blessing." And the scholar Adin Steinsaltz draws this remarkable conclusion: "Peace is a vessel which can contain blessing, but it can also contain nothing at all, it can be an empty vessel... Peace with no content, meaningless tranquility, rest without sanctity -- all are empty vessels...In all too many cases, the empty vessel becomes a repository for whatever comes along...rubbish and abomination can fill the void...A life of vain struggle can be relieved of pressure and anxiety and yet remain as vacuous and meaningless as before. ...An equilibrium from which stress has been eliminated can be a terminal state, a condition from which all further development is excluded -- in short, the peace of death."

Judaism is not about peace. It is about the struggle for a life of significance, a life of purpose, a life of importance. While the Buddha sits beneath the bodhi tree in sanguine, tranquil, stillness, having achieved his enlightenment, Israel wrestles with the angel of death through the night, until we wrench from him his blessing at daybreak.

Judaism will not protect you from life and its dark moments. Judaism will teach you how to grow in those moments. In Rabbi Schulweis's phrase:

Awareness of death may bring courage to live.
Knowing our mortality, how dare we be afraid?
Before whom, and of what afraid?
Before what choices do we tremble?
What questions are we afraid to ask?
What doubts will we not seize with both hands?
The wise counseled
that each of us should live as if this day were our last.
And if it were
each breath would be deeper,
each step would be firmer,
each dream would be bolder.
Standing in the shadow of death,
a brave new light shines.

Again, the question is posed: does our tradition have nothing comforting to offer in these moments of painful dislocation, no wisdom to guide me, no support?

And again, as a rabbi, I feel so inadequate. I have no mantra to soothe your fears. No catechism that will explain your doubts away. I have no amulet to protect your house and your children. My house fell down in the earthquake. State Farm sent over a lovely fellow, who spent five hours inventorying the damage. And then he sat down with Nina and I to get our list of lost possessions. Six sets of dishes, we told him. Six sets? Sure, milchig, fleishig, good fleichigs, peshach milchig, pesach fleishig, good pesach fleishigs. He's writing like mad trying to copy it all down....How do you'all spell "good pesach fleishigs?" So why six sets of dishes. We're a religious family. Well, he shook his head, for a religious family, your house sure took a hell of a beating. Why didn't God protect your house? He did, we smile, He sent us State Farm.

The truth is that the tradition does provide an answer to the darkness, the insecurity we experience. But it is not in the form my friend wants to hear. For it isn't in any one single, easily acquired bit of wisdom, or ritual, or custom. It is found in the totality of a rich Jewish life. The tradition's response to galut, to the experience of exile in life, is woven into a fabric of small acts of meaning that form the texture of traditional Jewish living. The holidays structure the weeks and months -- providing what Abraham Heschel called, an architecture of time. And Shabbas is our palace in time -- a welcome peaceful reprieve from our struggles. A bracha makes every meal, no matter where it's eaten, a moment of conscious reflection on our blessings and our place in the world. A prayer life, cultivated slowly over time, provides deep words and deep moments. Study of Torah opens the eyes to possibilities of life. Acts of tzedaka keep us from bitterness; they bring us close to God. For, as the Hasidic master, Shnuer Zalman of Ladi, taught, "Even when one is unable to love God, one may know God's compassion by feeling it in oneself, and for oneself and the world." And a community of friends, a havurah, comes to hold my hands in the terrifying moments of darkness. This is what the Talmud means when it teaches that the Shechina, the Presence of God, accompanies Israel in exile. And wherever Jews gather for study, for prayer, for celebration, for fellowship, the Shechina is present.

My friend grows agitated. You have so many rites and rituals, so many customs so many symbols, have you nothing for someone who feels lost in life, who feels the cold touch of mortality?

There is a ritual, for life transition, for a passage, a life crisis. It is a ritual often debased and derided, but upon refection, reveals itself to be remarkably deep and wise. When a child approaches adolescence, beginning puberty, reaching from childhood toward adulthood, we sit with him, with her, and learn Torah, haftorah, prayer. Not just to perform a ceremony in public, but because these texts provide models of maturity, of adulthood, of moral vision and courage. We ask the child to prepare a few words of drasha, of teaching. Because teaching the community is the preeminent act of a Jewish adult. And because in preparing these words, the child must bring together conscience, imagination, intellect, character, and express his or her deepest convictions. When you think about it, it's a wonderful ritual.

But the tradition stopped too soon. And the reason was simple: in Talmudic times, the life span was only 35 or 40 years. No one lived long enough to have a mid life crisis. Let us extended this tradition:

You had a Bar Mitzvah at 13? Now at 26, at 39, at 52, at 65, at 78, at 91, or whenever we feel life is shifting, I invite you to become a new kind of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Come and study with me, with a rabbi, with a teacher, with a mentor, and with Jews of a variety of ages and background. Come reflect and share your own spiritual autobiography -- how you've come to this point in your life. Who were your mentors and guides? What were your triumphs? what were your failures? What are the lessons of your experience? Come reflect and share the journey stories of Jewish heroes, of Joseph, of Jeremiah, of Akiba, of Rebbe Nahman. To bring your life into focus. To recover the driving vision of your life. What is religion, after all, writes theologian James William McClendon, but a life focused, a life lived out under the governance of a central image." The central question of theology, he argues, is this: "Are our convictions mere abstractions, or are they in vital, developing continuity, with the living witness of persons of our own time?"

Victor Frankel was a Viennese psychiatrist when he was taken to Auschwitz in 1941. And as he struggled to survive the tortures of Nazi slavery, he carefully studied how it was that certain prisoners survived and others were broken. He writes, "Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging argument was, 'I have nothing to expect from life any more.' What sort of answer can one give to that?

"What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves, and furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life -- daily and hourly.
"It is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. Life does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete just a life's tasks are very real and concrete. They form man's destiny which is different and unique for each individual."

We all know moments of metamorphosis. We all know trial, tragedies, transitions, the dislocation and anguish that comes with loss, separation, and all the adversities of just growing older. The danger of denying this reality -- the tragedy of treating them like sudden and passing crises -- is that we fail to prepare. We can't understand, we don't reflect, we don't cultivate resources, we have little to hold onto for support and for strength, and we are too numb to stand in awe at the mystery of life.

Recovering a focused sense of purpose, a sense of our life mission, regaining our sense of responsibility to life is the only way to ready ourselves for the inevitable moments of metamorphasis.

Through a renew sense of purpose, we find a way to live without anger, without bitterness, without despair, without fear. Once we gain the why, we can withstand the how. Kol ha Olam kulo, gesher tzar meod. The whole world, taught the hasidic master Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav, all of our experience, all of life is a matter of crossing a narrow, shakey, rickety bridge. V'ha eekar, lo lefached. Just remember this: don't be afraid.

I shared this proposal with a friend. He laughed. What do you mean Jews have no ritual for mid-life? Of course we have a ritual for mid-life, it's called a heart attack. Is that what it takes? Must it take a tragedy, a catastrophe, before we awaken to possibilities, to the promise of our lives? Is that really what it takes to get us to stop and hear the question addressed to us by life? What would happen to your life if you spent six months learning in this way? What would happen to the synagogue if dozens of these journey groups met here nightly?

T.S. Elliot wrote of the journey of self discovery:
We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all exploring
will be to arrive where we started

and know the place for the first time.

At the end, we will share a simple ritual of celebration. We don't need a DJ, a catered meal, or video. But a chance to stand before those we love to tell our story, to share a statement of our convictions, to reveal the unifying vision of life -- to do what Jews have always done -- our most redemptive act: to teach the wisdom of our lives. To teach our children, our grandchildren, our friends, our community how to meet life, with all its passages, its transitions, its shattering moments with courage and with hope and with meaning. This is what we Jews call Torah.

There is a story I cherish about a man who gave up on life. He found no joy in his work, his family, his community. And so he prayed to God to let him leave this world.--
Show me the way to paradise!
God asked him, "Are you sure that's what you want?"
And the man replied, I am sure with all my heart.
"Very well," replied God, and showed him the way to paradise.
It turns out, it wasn't very far. Just a few days' journey from his village. So late one afternoon, he set out on his way. He walked until nightfall, and then decided to rest beneath a green, leafy tree. But just before he fell asleep, it occurred to him that in the morning, he might become confused and forget which was the way to paradise, and which the way back to the village. So he left his shoes by the roadside, pointing in the way of his journey. This way, in the morning, all he had to do was to jump in the shoes and continue.

Well, things happen in life. Shoes get turned around. Was it an imp? Was it an angel? Was it just a squirrel? Who knows. But the shoes got turned around. In the morning, the man rose, ate from the tree, and set about to continue his journey, unaware that he was in fact returning home.

By noon, he spotted a village on the next hillside, and his heart leapt, "I've arrive, it's paradise!" And he ran down the valley and up the hill until he arrived at the gates of the town.--

Doesn't Paradise look like my town, he thought. My town was always so crowded, so noisy. This is different.

He sat and he witnessed the town awakening. He heard the song children on their way to school, and the banter of adults on their way to work and to market. And for the first time in his life, he felt the vitality, the energy, the love that filled the village. He sat there, in the square all day.

As the day waned, he began to feel hungry.--

I wonder, he thought, since Paradise looks so much like my town, if there is a street in Paradise, like my street. And went to look. And he found it just where he thought it might be.
-- I wonder if there is a house in Paradise like my house. And there it was. Just as he was admiring this house, a woman came to the door -- a woman who bore a striking resemblance to his wife -- she called his name and told him to come in for dinner.--

They know me in Paradise! There is a place set for me here in Paradise.

The house here in Paradise was not like his house back in the village. That house was always crowded, congested, filled with commotion. This place, this was cozy and homey and filled with life. He sat and ate the best meal he'd ever eaten. And afterwards, he went up to the deepest, most restful sleep he'd ever known.

In the morning, the woman who looked like his wife handed him his tools and sent him to work.

Work? But of course, even in Paradise there are tasks. But this work was different. It was filled with a sense of purpose and service. And he returned to that warm and loving home.

Do you know that that old fool never learned that he hadn't really made it to Paradise. Because every day was filled with more wonder, more purpose, more joy and more life than the day before.

We cannot ask God to shield us from life. That prayer will not be answered. This Rosh Hashana, let us pray that our shoes get turned around.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.


Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780