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ON ONE FOOT

04/06/2015 08:19:00 AM

Apr6

ON ONE FOOT
Yom Kippur 1996/5757
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

There's an old story we all learned as children about a stranger who came to the two teachers of the first century, Hillel and Shammai, with an odd request. "Teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot."

First, he came to the sage, Shammai and he makes his request, "Teach me the Torah, Rabbi, as I stand upon one foot." The Talmud teaches that Shammai picked up a builders rule, a piece of a two by four, and smacks him along side of the head, and the man left him.

Then he came to Hillel and made the request, "Teach me the Torah as I stand on one foot." So Hillel taught him: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary. Zil u'gemar, now, go and learn it."

The tradition embraced the answer of Hillel because it is loving and it is kind and it is generous. But I have become convinced that Shammai was right. Not that you should never hit anybody. But there is deep wisdom on Shammai's side.

Consider the request and consider the answer. The man comes and demands: Give me your Torah. Teach me all your wisdom, all your tradition, all of your insights, all you've learned from a lifetime of reflection and study and meditation and observation and experience and suffering, and teach it all to me NOW! Give it to me quickly and simply. Don't bother with details. Don't bother me with nuance. Give me it's essence. Make it easy. Make it quick.

He doesn't understand what wisdom is. He thinks that living and loving and surviving is all a matter of technique. Life in 10 easy lessons.

"Give me the secret", he says. "You're a Rabbi, you must have a secret. Give me your secret." People look for secrets all the time. Give me the secret to happiness. Give me the secret to spirituality. Give me the secret to a happy marriage. Give me the secret to raising good kids. Give me the secret to success. Give me the secret to inner peace and tranquility. Give me the secret to weight loss. Give me a secret. Go to any bookstore and there are shelves and shelves and hundreds and hundreds of books by psychologists and psychiatrists and physicians and mystics and actors and millionaires, each one of them offering you the secret. And what do you think they're worth? Because life isn't about secrets. Wisdom isn't a technique. It's a way of being. It's in the character of the human being. It's in the soul.

He doesn't understand Torah. He thinks that Torah is something that can be easily handed over. Torah, in its deepest sense, is intensely personal. You go to a teacher to learn her Torah. You find a mentor to master his Torah. Torah is life-wisdom -- the truths gained over a lifetime of struggle and suffering and celebration and reflection. A Torah learned over a lifetime takes a lifetime to master.

There are certain things that can be taught quickly. There are certain things that I can teach you by telling you or by showing you -- certain facts, certain skills. But the deepest truths, the most important truths of life are the ones you've got to find on your own. The most a teacher can do is lead you into a situation where you can discover truth. But you must step up and find the truth on your own. It's what the philosopher Soren Kierkegard called "indirection." The kind of life-truth that I can't explicate but only allude to. The truth I can only point to.

Sometimes I think that Shammai actually did give him an answer. Smacking him was the answer. This student was expecting something simple, a maxim, a proverb, an allegory. He expects a sound-bite, something that can fit on a bumper sticker. Some little bit of wisdom like Hillel gave him, so he doesn't understand that Shammai gave him the answer. You want to know the Torah on one foot? You want the whole Torah in one shot? Here it comes.

WAKE UP! That's Torah in one foot. Wake up! Wake up to what's inside of you. Wake up to the world you live in. Wake up to your possibilities. Wake up to the miracles in your life. WAKE UP! But you see he didn't get it because he was expecting something so much simpler. He wouldn't take the next step and understand that that was the truth. WAKE UP! Now you go discover how to wake up.

But the real meaning of the Shammai's answer lies in the question. The man comes and asks for Torah on one foot. He wants a Torah that's monaural. One voice, one truth, monolithic, doctrinal, catacism. Do this. Believe this. This is truth, capital T.

But Judaism never comes that way. That's not how Jews think. There is in our tradition a distinct pattern, a texture of thinking. You find it in the Bible. You find it in the Mishna. You find it in the Talmud. You find it in the Midrash. You find it in Halacha. You find it in the meditative literature. You even find it in the prayer book. It's never on one foot. It's always dialectical. In argument, in tension, in polarity. Truth is too big to put into simple maxims. It's too important to set down in simple discursive rules. It always comes in contradiction.

Rev Naftali, the Rapshitzer Rebbe, told his Chasidim that before he was born an angel appeared and showed him a tablet divided into two columns. On the right side it quoted Talmud Taaneet: "The learned man should be a fiery furnace." On the left side it quoted Talmud Sanhedrin: "The meek and lowly shall inherit the world to come." On the right side from Talmud Brachot: "Man should be wise in his fear of God." And on the left side from the Mishnah Yalkut, "You should be simple-hearted in your love of the Lord." On the right side from the Midrash Tehilim: "Be satisfied with the minimum." On the left side from the Mishnah Taaneet: "He who pledges himself not to drink wine and forswears the pleasures of the body shall be called a sinner." On the right side from the Talmud: "Rachmana liba baey, God wants the heart." And on the left side, from the Prophet Jeramiah: "The heart of His people is corrupt and wayward." And the Rebbe pondered the contradictions. Until he heard the voice of the angels announcing, "You are now to be born." Whereupon he resolved in his heart to follow the rules of both columns no matter the contradictions.

To be Jewish is to live both columns. It is to live life's contradictions. To live with all of the tension and the ambivalence and the ambiguity and the paradox, what Heschel called polarity. Polarity, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish philosopher, wrote, "Polarity is at the heart of Judaism." Every morning we say this bracha, "Baruch Ata Hashem, Alokaynu Melech Hayolum, Yotzer or u-vorey choshech, oseh shalom u-voray et hakol", Blessed is God who creates life and darkness, peace and conflict.

Ours is not, taught Heschel, ours is not a monism, reducing all experience to one, to one principle, to one idea, to one path, denying the contrast, denying the differences and the existence of the tension. But nor are we the dualists who break everything into two with disjunctions between good and evil, light and darkness, religious and secular, and us and them. We are monotheists which means that we acknowledge the contrasts in experience because we can affirm that beneath them there is a basic unity of experience.

Alu valu devray aloheem chaim. The Rabbis came to their teacher Rebbi Yahuda Hanasee, the codifier of the Mishnah in the second century, and they said, "How can you write a book like this? How can you put down in a code of law in a book of spiritual wisdom both the opinions of Hillel and Shammai, of Rebbi Akiba and Rebbi Yishmael, of Rebbi Eliazer and Rebbi Yoshua? How can you have them both, side by side?" And he answered them, "Aloo valoo, these and these are the words of the living God." You need both because you can't have one without the other, because truth is not found in either one, but in "aloo va'aloo", in this one and that one, in the tensions between the opposites. You can't have Torah on one foot.

What is the nature of human being? What does it mean to be a human being? The Torah contains six statements about the creation of the human being, according to the accounting in Talmud Hagigah: "In three of them, the human being is regarded as an angel. And in three others, the human being is regarded as a beast." In Perkay Avot, Akavia ben Malchalel taught: "Ponder three things and you will avoid falling into sin. Know your origin, your destination and before whom you will be required to give an accounting. What is your origin? A putrid drop. What is your destination? A place of dust and worms and maggots. And before whom will you be required to give an accounting, before the king of kings, the holy one, blessed be He."

There's an old Chasidic teaching that each of us should walk around with two pockets. In your two pockets there are two slips of paper. On one of the slips of paper it says, "Bish'vee'lee nivra ha-olam," for my sake was the whole universe created." And on the other slip of paper it says, "Anee afar va'efer," "I am but dust and ashes." What does it mean to be a human being? It means to live with two pockets. Divided between the pull of heaven and the pull of earth. A little lower than the angels, on the one hand. A beast of the earth on the other. The image of God, the epitome of creation, the center of the universe, on the one hand, and a dust of the earth -- a humble, limited, finite, small, creature on the other.

Any ideology or philosophy, that embraces one side of the paradox without the other violates the human being, and leads to disaster. To say that human beings are, at heart, good, righteous, lofty, overlooks the evil that we are capable of. It is that philosophy which leads us to the denial of responsibility. We look for the extenuating circumstance, the root cause, the hidden compulsion that would explain away the evil. The perpetrator, we proclaim, was really the victim. Forced by circumstances out of his control to destroy the which, deep down, he really loved dearly.

No. Human beings do evil. And when they do they must be held responsible. Otherwise, there is no society, no civil order.

But if you say that human beings are motivated solely by the lowest, the basest, the most animal of urges within, then you lose whatever meaning may be had in life, you lose the very best in human experience. You lose sensitivity, tenderness, love, compassion, charity, artisitic creativity. You define youself and your world as a state of nature, lock the doors and live each day in fear.

Genesis has not one but two stories of the creation of the human being. In the first, we are created in the sublime image of God. In the second, from dust and ashes. In the first, we are invited as the God's honored guest, into the completed, pristine and glorious world. In the second, the world is yet crude and unfinished, and we are handed a hoe and told to till and work and cultivate the land. Which is true? They are both true in their paradoxical, polar, juxtaposition, because we are complicated creatures, because the nature of human being is a paradox. The physicist Niels Bohr once remarked that the opposite of a simple truth is a simple falsehood, but the opposite of a great truth is always another great truth.

It is this paradox, after all, which lies at the heart of this holiday. I acknowledge that I am part beast. Possessed of a dark side --urges, desires, inclinations that poison my relationships, and sully my soul. I am competative. I am vengeful. I am petty. I am vain. I am envious. I am egotistical. But that's not the whole truth. I am also part angel. Which means I recognize my dark side, and I regret it and I resolve to do better. To change myself means that there is a better self which yearns for purity and goodness. In the wonderful description of Adin Steinsaltz, in repentence, I thrust through the ordinary limits of the self in quest of the true self that lies waiting within me. Repentence is a paradox because being human is complex. I am not angel. I am not beast. I am human. And you cannot be human on one foot.

Consider this image, from Abraham Heschel: A pendulum, swinging back and forth, the arc described by the pendulum is truth. If you stop the pendulum anywhere along the arc, and you say, this point here, at the zenith, say, right here, that's truth, or if you stop it down here at the midpoint and say, that's truth, you're wrong. You'll always be wrong. Because the truth is the pendulum. Because life is a pendulum, and you know this because you've lived and you've experienced life and all of it's struggles, and you know that it is always a pendulum, and it is always in motion.

Consider the things we do in life. Consider raising children. We protect them, we defend them, we nurture them, we shelter them, we smother them with love, we hold them to ourselve tightly, and at the same time we must learn to give the child freedom and room to develop independence and spontaneity and creativity and personality and uniqueness. We need to do what a great rabbi, Milton Steinberg, once taught, we need to learn how to hold with open arms.

Long before the kid is born, I have images of who he's going to be, what she'll be like. A friend wrote a beautiful little poem shortly after her first child arrived:


No child of mine, I used to cry
Before the stork had fluttered by
Will ever throw a temper fit
Or whine or bite or scratch or hit
Or wear a diaper til he's three
Or sit for hours and watch t.v.
Or dawdle so he makes me late
or leave his spinach on his plate.
Or act, in short, like other kids
who've made their parents flip their lids.
But with the patter of baby feet
are forty million words to eat.


The process of becoming and being a parent is to always a struggle between the image we have of the kid -- who we want the kid to be -- who the kid really is. You are always going back and forth. You should never relinquish the image and the expectation, but nor should you relinquish the reality of the child. And it's always an adjustment, and a struggle, and a tension, "Why can't you be?", "But this is who I am. Why can't you love me the way I am?" And to be a successful parent is not to give into either side, but to hold them both, to hold the image and the reality of the child together. To expect and to accept, all at the same time. You can't raise children on one foot.

Truth is a pendulum. And if you stop the pendulum at any one point, and if you say this is truth, then it's not just false, it's idolatry. That's what idolatry is. Idolatry is the worship of a part as if it were the whole. There's a wonderful Mishnah in Tractate Avoda Zara where the gentiles ask the Rabbis of Rome, "If your God so hates idolatry, why doesn't He destroy the idols?" And they answered, "What is it that idolaters worship? They worship the sun and the moon and the earth. Should God destroy the whole world because of the worship of a few fools?"

Maimonides took this one step farther. He said, "How did people become idolaters? In the beginning all human beings worshipped the one God, the creator of all. But they reasoned that when a king sends a messenger, sends a minister to a foreign land, the king expects us to show reverence to the messenger as if he were the king. And people began showing reverence to the sun and the moon and the stars and soon they forgot that they were the creations of the God of all the universe." And so idolatry comes to the world.

Idolatry is not the worship of evil. Idolatry is the worship of good, but only a part, only a piece, a segment instead of the whole. Even a mitzvah, taught the Kotzker Rebbi, even a mitzvah taken as the whole can become idolatry. So when you say God is here, the truth is this, or this is all, that's idolatry.

That's why we find fundamentalism so repulsive. It doesn't matter what kind -- religious fundamentalism, political fundamentalism, ever Jewish fundamentalism. We are intensely uncomfortable with the true believer, the fanatic, ultra-anything, ultra-conservative, ultra-liberal, ultra-Orthodox. We don't just object intellectually, we respond viscerally, because fundamentalism violates the deepest quality of being a Jew. Whatever reduces truth, reduces life, reduces the world to simplicity, reduces us.
The most powerful and vicious idols are made not of gold or stone or wood. They are made of history. Judaism is a scream of protest against constructions of history promising certainty, simplicity and control -- constructions that deny the complexity of human existence, the freedom of the human imagination, and the sanctity of the human being. So neat. So elegant. So simple. So tyrannical. So cruel. So murderous. National Socialism. Dialectical Materialism. Social Darwinism.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin quipped that for every difficult, complex problem, in politics, in life, in thought, there is always a simple answer. Which is always wrong. Not just wrong, deadly. And we know that from our kiskes because throughout human history, we Jews have always been the exception to somebody's rule. We have always been the anomaly to someone's absolute. And we have suffered for it.

What is it that makes me so anxious about Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition? It's not the Christianity. I actually think America would be a better country if more people studied the Bible and practiced their faith seriously. It's not even the positions they take on issues. I disagree with them on most issues, but I think it's a good thing that someone in the political arena is talking about the morality of American culture and the moral dilemmas that underlie political decisions.

What scares me is the seductive temptation of simplicity. In the statements of the Christian coalition, in their tone and language I catch an echo of romantic nativism. Come back with us to a simpler time, an easier time, a time of less confusion, less complication. Life has become so complex, so fraught with conflict and tension. Let's go back to a time when authority was respected, and everyone knew their place. Enough of this multi-cultural pluralism that divides us. Let us erase the differences among us. Let's simplify our national life. One common land, one common language, one common faith, one common culture.

To my Jewish ears, those sentiments are terrifying. Because I know what's coming next. Whenever cultures dream of returning to their golden age, we -- and all the others who are different -- we have no place. When so many in the majority cultures long to return to simpler times, we get pushed out. Or worse. Because we are the anomaly. We complicate matters. We spoil the uniformity. We don't fit the formula. Pluralistic democracy demands a high tolerance for tension and a appreciation for diversity. Beware of those who would simplify. You can't have democracy on one foot.

In old jokes there is great wisdom, and in one of the oldest of Jewish jokes is about this wisdom. It's about a rabbi who sits in his study over his holy books and comes before him two men for the adjudication of conflict. The first one begins and explains his case with much passion and much vigor, and the rabbi says, "You know something? You're right." And the other one says, "Hang on, listen to my side of the story." And he explains his case with passion and vigor. And the rabbi says, "You know something? You're right." And at that moment his wife comes running out of the kitchen with an apron and a challah all over her hands and says, "Wait a minute rabbi, it can't be that he's right and he's right." And the rabbi says, "You know something? You're right, too!" And you know something? He's right.

For 2000 years we endured exile. And we internalized exile. It has become part of us. Exile is not just a matter of physical distance from homeland, but a state of mind, a way of perceiving and living in the world. Exile had bread in us a high tolerance --even an appreciation, a taste for the elusive quality of truth, for ambivalence, for tension. And this has become part of the Jewish character. In Talmud study, good questions are prized far above clever answers. We are a contradiction -- God's chosen people living, for so many centuries, outside our land, at the periphery of history, on the margins of power, we are a contradiction, and so we've come to relish contradiction.

To be a Jew is to live in the world as it is, but to dream of the world as it could be. We live in the tension between the real and the ideal.

My favorite section of the Talmud asks this question: What do you do if you're planting a tree, and you hear a declaration that the Messiah has arrived? What do you do? Answer: You finish planting the tree. Then go see if its true.

We live fully in this world -- in the world where trees must be planted, and work must be done, and children must be raised -- the world of day-to-day struggles. We refuse to deny the facts of human existence. We also know this world's evil -- its callouness, its blindness, its corruption, its deceit. We refuse to be deluded or distracted. But neither are we despirited or deterred. Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me'od. Life in this world may be a narrow, rickety, unstable bridge, taught Rabbe Nahman of Bratslav, v'ha-eekar lo lefached. But one must not be afraid. And so over the door of the Bratslaver shul are the words, "Jews must never despair!"

The central metaphor of the Torah is a journey -- from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to Canaan, from the house of bondage to the Promised Land. Each week, reading the Torah we get a bit closer, we overcome another obstacle, we cross another threshold. But as we reach the end of the yearly cycle of Torah reading, we realize that we'll never arrive. Just as we're about to cross over, we roll the Torah back and begin again at Breshit, at Genesis. To be a Jew is to be caught between....in the struggle to turn the real into the ideal, to bring the world from slavery to freedom. But never to reach the end. To get closer, maybe even to catch a glimpse of the Promised Land, of what might be, but never to reach the end.

It isn't easy to read the last chapters of the Torah. Moses, who has battled and strained and struggled to carry this people toward holiness, Moses is going to die. Without setting foot in the Promised Land, without achieving the dream. (Each year I hope it will turn out differently. Maybe this year, God will relent and give him an appartment on the boardwalk in Netanya, let him be one of the old guys who plays chess by the sea and reads old Yiddish books. But no. It always turns out the same.) God allows him to go to the top of the mountain and see the land. And then God takes his life. With a kiss, explains the midrash. Does he fail? Is Moses ultimately a failure? Or is the Torah's ulimate lesson, its last word and wisdom, that to be a Jew is to learn to live with dreams and visions and hopes bigger than our capacities and broader than the span of our years? To live a life of hope, but unresolved, unfulfilled, unrequited.

There is a story I tell the children about the wise fools of the town of Chelm. Of all things, the people of Chelm loved the moon. When it shone brightly in the night sky, there was joy and celebration in the town. Everything in the town was brighter: Homes would glow with happiness...lovers would walk through the town slowly, staring into one another's eyes...kids listened to their parents and their teachers...the old, the young, even dogs and cats were kind to each other. But when the moon waned and disappeared, a gloomy sadness came over everyone.

"If only we could capture the moon!" one Chelm genius pondered. Then we could let out a little light on those dark, gloomy nights, and bring happiness to the world!

"But how do you capture the moon?!" they wondered.

"Well," offered Shmerel, the tailor, "once, I was eating a bowl of borsht. And as I ate, I looked into the bowl. And in the bowl was the light of the moon. If we had a big enough bowl of borst...we could capture the moon!"

And so it was determined: Build the world's biggest bowl, fill it with borsht, and the moon is ours!

In the town square, the bowl was constructed. And one night, as the moon shone brightly in the sky, the whole town came forth with borsht. Jars of borsht, pots of borsht, vats of borshts, bathtubs full...and filled the world's largest bowl. As the bowl filled up, the moon's brilliant light was reflected..."There it is!" they shouted.

Stealthfully, they snuck up on the moon .... and suddenly, slammed the top on the bowl. At that very moment, a cloud covered the sky, blotting out the moon's light.

"We own the moon!" they shouted. "Right here, in the world's biggest bowl of borsht...We own the moon!"

And there was dancing and rejoicing all night long in the town of Chelm.

But the next night, as the sun went down, and darkness covered the land...there was the moon...bright as ever, shining high in the sky.

"How can the moon be in the sky? We captured it, right here in the town square, in the world's biggest bowl of borsht!" they wondered sadly.

"Someone must have let it out!"

"But who? Who would do such a terrible thing?"

And so, and investigation was launched. Everyone in the town was interrogated:

"Did you let the moon out of the borsht?"
"Did you?"
"Did you?"

Everyone had to account for his or her whereabouts all during the day...no one was spared. Except, of course, the rabbi. No one suspected that the rabbi -- beloved, wise and learned -- would ....
no, it couldn't be....not the rabbi!

But the investigation came up empty. Everyone had an alibi. Everyone was in school, at work, in the fields, in the shops, at home...Everyone, but the rabbi.

And so timidly, they approached their beloved rabbi. "Learned rabbi, did you let the moon out of the borsht?"

"Yes," he sighed. "It was me."

A shock ran through the town.

"But why?" they persisted.

"Why?" he looked at them through his bushy white eyebrows and his long white beard. "Why?" ... Why?

Why? Because life is not something you grab and hold and own and
control. Because we cannot arrest the tensions of life: we are complex creatures and we are fated to live with ambivalence, with both light and darkness, with both joy and sadness, somewhere between, between this world and the world as we would have it, between the reality we know and the dreams we will not surrender.

How do you live with that tension, that constant state of irresolution?

The people of Chelm asked the rabbi, "What do we do now? With no moon, we will live again in the dance between celebration and despair, between light and darkness."

The rabbi nodded knowingly. "Yes, as we always have. We will find a way as we always have. At least now, we have borsht. Lots and lots of borsht."

You cannot have Torah on one foot, you cannot have truth on one foot, you cannot have life on one foot. But you'll find that a bowl of borsht often helps.


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Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780