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The Tao of Judaism

04/06/2015 08:19:00 AM


The Tao of Judaism
Rosh Hashana 1996
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

When God contemplated creating the human being, according to a Midrash, He consulted all the angels of heaven. The angels of compassion said, "Let him be created, for he will perform acts of loving kindness." And the angels of peace said, "Don't create him! He will fill the world with contention, conflict and strife." The angels of justice said, "Let him be created, for he will pursue the right." And the angels of truth said, "Don't create him! He will be false and deceitful." So what did God do? He threw the angels of truth into the earth, and created the human being.

The rabbis of the midrash understood that there is some incompatibility between human beings and truth. For human beings to exist, truth must be buried. It must be repressed. There are certain truths we cannot know, dare not discover, if we are to live normally. So it is most of the year. But on these holidays, we are commanded to unearth the truth and face it. We are commanded to know, what the rest of the year, we'd rather not know.

These are, after all, Yamim Noraim, not High Holidays, but Days of Awe, a time of fear. These are not happy, easy holidays. That will come, with Sukkot and Simchat Torah. But for now, there are important, even painful, things we must discuss. Everything about these holidays conspires to force us to face truths we'd rather neglect and ignore. We spend the time here in shul, away from the distractions of the home, the workplace, the marketplace. And we spend a long time here -- so that there's really time to think, to meditate, to pray, to consider, to wonder. We blow the shofar -- in ancient times a signal of emergency --as a symbol of awakening, coming to attention.

Together we read these words, these chilling, terrifying words: (p. 147) "B'rosh Hashana yi'katayvu U'v'yom tzom Kippur y'chataymu. On Rosh Hashana the decree is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who will live and who will die. Who will achieve the measure of her time, and who will die before his time."

When my great-grandfather read this prayer, he trembled with fear before a God, the Judge of all life, by whose judgment all beings live and die. I also tremble with fear. I don't believe in the God who judges in this way. I read the prayer differently. I read in this prayer the agonizing truth these holidays come to communicate: How terribly fragile life is. How short and finite our days. How limited our security. The awesome mystery of what one year can bring. How everything can turn around, so very quickly and without warning.

I have a friend who went to the doctor for a relatively minor problem and came home with a diagnosis of cancer. An airplane falls out of the sky and an entire family perished. No one left to say Kaddish. A young rabbinical student from Connecticut boards a Jerusalem bus with his fiancee and are blown to bits. Two kids take a camping trip in celebration of the end of high school. They never come home.

Of all the things we think we control, what do we really control? Of all the protection -- the walls -- that we erect around ourselves, how much can we really shield ourselves from life? You don't decide when you're born. You don't decide when you'll die. You don't decide to get sick. You spend twenty years working loyally for a company, and then one day, there's a pink slip waiting on your desk. To live normally all year, we must pretend that we're in control. But once a year, we must face the truth. And the truth is that we control so very little.

And if you don't get it on Rosh Hashana, we return for Yom Kippur. And on Yom Kippur, we do the strangest, almost un-Jewish thing: we rehearse death. On Rosh Hashana, we'll talk, but on Yom Kippur, we'll do. We'll fast and refrain from all the bodily pleasures of life. We'll recite Viduy, the prayer one says before death. We'll remove our shoes and don a white Kittel -- a death shroud, what we'll one day be buried in. Monks in medieval Europe used to sleep each night in their coffins, to remind them of the nearness of death. That's morbid. But once a year, for one day a year, we face death in order to wipe away all the defenses, the rationalization, the dodges. Once a year, we are reminded viscerally of the truth about the human condition.

"B'rosh Hashana yi'katayvu U'v'yom tzom Kippur y'chataymu. On Rosh Hashana the decree is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. U'tshuva, U'tefila, U'tzedaka, ma'avirim et roah ha-gezayrah. How is it translated? "But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree."

That's not how the prayer originally ended. Originally, the prayer said, "U'tshuva, U'tefila, U'tzedaka mevatlim et ha-gezayrah. Repentance, prayer and righteousness, cancel the decree. The Rabbis who authored our tradition corrected the prayer, because they realized that ultimately, the decree never changes. We can't undo the human condition. We can cure diseases. We can bring comfort to those in pain. We can lift up the fallen. But ultimately, the human condition doesn't change. Life and death, sickness and health, the finitude, the limitations of being human, this is the permanent reality of what it means to be human.

So the rabbis changed two words. Instead of mevatlim et ha-gezayrah, cancel the decree, they affirmed: ma'avirin et roah ha-gezayrah. Ma'avir, from the root o'ver, to pass, to get us through life, to overcome, to transcend, to transform roah ha-gezayrah, not the decree itself, but the evil, the pain, the hurt of being human.

We cannot change the human condition. So, how do we live life, love life, affirm life, bring children into the world, how do we celebrate life, knowing the truth about being human, aware of the fragility of human life? The answer is: Tshuva, tefila, tzedaka. This is the way Jewish tradition teaches for getting through life, for overcoming and transcending the anguish of human existence, for transforming the human condition. These are not three separate acts, three distinct moments, but rather three steps along one path -- the way of Jewish wisdom. Tshuva, tefila, tzedaka are, what in Eastern traditions, might be called the Tao of Judaism --the pathway of enlightenment. Let us follow the path.

In moral sense, Tshuva means to repent. Literally, tshuva means to turn. To turn inward. To return. To come home. It also means to answer -- how we answer the human condition, the terrifying fragility of life.

What's ironic, of course, is that we have so much. No generation in all of human history has known the kinds of material comforts we take for granted.

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye dreamed of being a rich man. It occurred to me once -- actually, it was the first night in our new home some years ago -- that everything he dreamed of, I have. I have a big, tall house with rooms by the dozen right in the center of the town. A fine tin roof -- well, its composite -- with real wooden floors below. There would be one long staircase just going up, and one even longer coming down, and one going nowhere just for show. We had the same contractor.

We have more than Tevye. Could Tevye had imagined the degree of personal freedom, of political security, of cultural and social acceptance that we enjoy? We are the first generation in two thousand years of Jewish history to grow up not fearing the knock at the door in the middle of the night. If you had any question about our place in American cultural life, consider that on Independence Day, this past summer, Jeff Goldblum and Judd Hirsch saved all of humankind with yarmulke, a Siddur, and a laptop computer.

Could Tevye have imagined the existence of the State of Israel? Could we have imagined an Israel -- so prosperous, so strong, facing the real possibility of peace with its neighbors and accepted within the community of nations? And around the world, Jews are free. Today, for the first time since the Bible, there is no population of Jews anywhere in the world suffering political oppression.

So with all of this, why am I left with the feeling that something is missing? My enchantment with Tevye is more than sentimental, more than nostalgia. There's something in him that I envy. Certainly, the shtetl was no wonderland. Tevye knew starvation and plague, superstition and cultural suffocation. But he had a sense of his place in the world, a sense of purpose, of significance. He had a certain balance in life -- knowing who he was and what God expected him to do. And I miss that. I think a lot of us miss that.

We go to seek help. We go to the healer, our culture's shaman, the source of wisdom: We go to a therapist. The therapist listens carefully as we describe our depression, our sense of the pointlessness of so much of life, of the sheer boredom that accompanies so much of life. We talk about the constant state of insecurity, the vulnerability, the precariousness of life -- of job insecurity, the prevalence of crime, even earthquakes.

We talk about our stress -- the sense of constant rushing. And in all the pressure, the rushing, the anxiety -- to get to work, to get home, to take children here and there, in all the exhaustion of trying to keep up is born a nagging questions: "What for?" "Why am I doing this?" "Why do I live this way?"

We talk about the loneliness, even within marriage, especially within marriage. Of the inability to connect, to get close -- maybe because of our exhaustion, our distractions, or maybe we've just forgotten how. We talk about the insensitivity of the spouse -- he doesn't listen to me, he won't express his feelings, she just doesn't understand, she shows no support, no nurturance. We talk of the intimacy that we miss.

We talk about the crises we have weathered. How many friends discovered cancer this year. The death of men and women my own age -- the chilling reminder that this is it, this is the life we're given. There is no second chance. It is finite and passing quickly. What does it mean, this life? What's worth pursuing? What's real?

The therapist listens attentively and wisely. He helps us put our feelings into words, he nods knowingly. And when it's his turn, he offers the magic elixirs of modernity. He talks about building a strong self, about self-esteem, about overcoming self-defeating behaviors and patterns of thought. He offers ways of visualizing our potential and becoming all that we can be. And it's all very valuable. But it's not what we came for. Because it's all about the self.

Modernity knows only the self. And the self is the problem, not the solution. I want more than just the self. I want connection to something bigger and more real. I want a basis for my values. I want a sense of my place in the world. And no therapist can offer that. I don't want more self-esteem. I want more holiness. I don't want a bigger, stronger, more beloved self. I want something beyond the self

The answer is not to be found in another vacation, a better work environment, or an easier carpool schedule, or a little more help at home. Because ultimately the pressure of work and the tension of home is not the real problem. The real problem lies deeper. While we were so busy pursuing the careers, the success, the lifestyle, the comforts, we've starved something within, we've eviscerated the soul, we've strangled the inner life.

It's not only the impossibly long hours of work, the demands of children, the freeways and the pace of life in this city, the stress and exhaustion of our lives also comes from the heroic task of bearing the weight of our values and choices, without the support of a tradition like Tevye's? How exhausting is it to uphold a lifetime of moral decisions without the faith that one's principles are somehow rooted in the universe?

The simple decisions come easily. But how much does it take out of us deciding to put an elderly parent into a nursing home, or deciding to remove the resuscitation order from a mother or father slowly dying in the hospital, to deciding to leave one's spouse or conversely, to struggle to make a marriage work, to deciding to accept a child's homosexuality and love him or her for being honest with us? How do we decide? Based on what? Where do we get the faith to have confidence in those decisions? In the 19th century, the philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche celebrated what he called the "death of God" and demanded that we become source and ground of our own morals. Do you suppose he understood how thoroughly draining it is to be so weightless in a vast universe of choices?

We crave some connection with eternity, a rootedness in something bigger than the self. Tshuva means turning toward that craving. In every generation, God calls to us, as He did to Adam, Ai'echa? Where are you? Tshuva means we are ready to offer an answer. He'neyne. I am here. I am ready.

We come to the synagogue. And it feels good. It feels good to be among our people. To sing old melodies and recite familiar words. To feel a tallis on the shoulders, and hear the sounds of davening. The synagogue offers community, fellowship, support. And it's good. But it's not enough. Because somehow it doesn't satisfy the yearning to be rooted in the eternal. Years ago, Rabbi Schulweis spoke of theimbalance in contemporary Judaism between reshut ha-rabim, the concerns of the community and reshut ha-yahid, the concerns of the individual Jew -- the neglect of the human being within the Jew.

I treasure the sense of community, but I want more. I want more from the shul than the Havurah. More than belonging, joining, participating. I want a way. I want Tshuva. I want a way home.

Don't let the synagogue become just beit knesset, a place of gathering. Let it become beit midrash, a place of inquiry, of searching, of discovery. Let it be beit tshuva, a place of turning. Let it be a sanctuary of hope, a home for the soul.

Tshuva, T'fila, Tzedaka ma'avirim et roah ha-gezeyra. Tshuva is the resolution to turn, to answer. T'fila is the way. T'fila offers two gifts: time and words.

Let me try and experiment: How many people have a computer in your workplace? Does that save you a lot of time? How many have a fax machine...cell phone? How many have a microwave oven at home? Does that save you a lot of time? Well, you people must have an awful lot of time on your hands! Look how much time you've saved! Why don't you have that time? Where did all that time go?

Excuse me, but I'm late. I'm late for work. I'm late for an appointment. I'm late for a date. I'm late for the carpool. I've got to hurry and pick up the kids. I've got to get a move on and get dinner on the table. If I don't finish this sermon soon, you'll be late getting out of here. And the folks in the next service will be late getting in. What kind of way is this to live a life?

Do you realize what we've done in the last generation?

Time, as we know it, was invented in only in the last century. A century ago, people go up and went to bed with the sun. If they measured their day in any other way, it was the factory whistle or the bell in the town clock. Arriving somewhere 20 minutes one way or the other didn't matter much. And time was local. Two o'clock in San Francisco had no relation to two o'clock in New York.

All that changed with the railroad. Railroads run on schedules. And schedules demand standardized time. So the country was divided into "time zones" and time was made uniform. The concept of an "appointment" was invented only in 1880. So was the concept of "you're late." The advent of radio brought uniform time into the home as families rushed to finish dinner to hear their favorite program. Relative to human evolution, fifty years is a remarkably short period. But in the fifty years from 1880 through 1930, our sense of time was completely overturned.

And so it has again. A friend who works as a business lawyer describes his stress: Once, a contract, a letter, a proposal came in the mail. You thought about it, drafted your response, and sent it off. Total turn-around: about a week. Then came express mail. The proposal comes FedEx by 10:30 AM, and the response is expected the next day. Then came fax: The response is expected by day's end. Then came E-mail. Now the response is expected instantaneously.

Just yesterday, I called a fellow whose voice mail has voice mail. There's no break. No retreat. We carry cell phones so we can be reach everywhere, at any time. Call waiting breaks into whatever conversation we're having to bring us another. We even have phones installed in the toilet.

We live in what writer Michael Ventura calls "the age of interruption" when there is a felt discord between "inner time" -- our personal sense of the rhythms of time -- and the regimented time society imposes upon us. What happens to human beings when the rhythms of life speed up so drastically? The faster we go, the more empty we feel. The more we get done, the less it seems we've accomplished. The more contacts we make, the more shallow we become.

"Hurry up!" I shout at my son, "Stop playing! Put your shoes on! Don't you know we're late!" And then something shocks me into awareness. Is this really what I want? To slam the child into my adult rhythm? To stop playing?

Here is the first step in the reconstruction of your soul. You take one day a week. 25 hours. To slow down and breathe. To do nothing. To accomplish nothing. Except to reacquaint yourself with the people you love, and the parts of yourself left behind in the rush. To purposely turn your back on the urgent and the pressing, and think about the eternal. To renew your search for what's true, what's beautiful, what's good, what's important. We call this Shabbat.

You don't have to be Orthodox to make Shabbat. You don't have to know all the rules, you don't have to keep all the traditions, you don't have to keep a whole day, you don't even have to do it on Friday night and Saturday. You just have to be tired of being tired all the time. Tired of the fatigue. Tired of the emptiness. Tired of the loneliness. Tired of the feeling that there must be more to life than this. I don't keep Shabbat because God commanded me. On the contrary, it is my Shabbat-keeping that brings me closer to God.

How would your life be different if you spent one day a week devoted to the cultivation of your inner life? Or let's put it differently: How many of you think that your spouse, your partner, could benefit from a day a week devoted to becoming a little deeper, a little more sensitive, a little more connected, a little more appreciative, a little closer?

Time is the first thing we must recover. The second thing is to recover the words. Buddhists meditate in order to find a deep silence within. Jews meditate with words. For us, words mediate insight. Words reveal. We need to come back into contact with holy words. But there are so many words. Look at this book, 500 pages, who can get through it? Torah, Talmud, Midrash, Kaballah. So many words. Where to begin?

You begin with yourself. This Yomtov, I want you to do a project: I want you to write a letter. If you have children, grandchildren, write to them. If not, write it to the people you love, the people you care about. I want you to put into this letter what you have learned about the meaning of your life. What you've learned from your upbringing and education, from working in the world, from marriage, divorce, raising children, saying goodbye to loved ones. What has life taught you?

I ask you to do this for three reasons: First, I think it is important, especially at this time of the year, for you to know what your life is about. And there is something about actually writing it out that gives it reality. Second, God forbid anything should happen to you, but if something did, wouldn't you want your children, your loved ones to know what your life meant? Who knows what could happen tomorrow, or next week? Don't wait. In the next ten days, from now until Yom Kippur, write the letter. The third reason is that this is the best way to grasp what we mean by holy words, by sacred text.

Every holy book, every sacred text, the Bible, the Siddur, the Mahzor, the Haggaddah, is a collection of these letters from your ancestors. Each text represents their passionate desire to share what they learned about life. That's what all these prayers are, once you decode them.

You don't need new words. You don't need secret mantras, or near-death experiences or past-life regressions to suddenly vault you into the presence of God. You need the old words. You need the old prayers, the old rituals. But you need to read them differently. Now they become personal. I don't want you to read Abraham and Sarah, Miriam and Moses as if they were historical characters. This is not about them-back-then. This is about you-right-now. You are Abraham, you are Sarah, smashing the idols of your culture in search of some higher truth. You are Moses on the journey. You know you will not see the Promised Land, but maybe my children will. Maybe they will inherit the promise. And for them, I'll continue.

These holy words are your ancestors' gift to you. They are the signposts on the pathway toward God. Take them home. Take them to heart.

Tshuva, T'fila, Tzedaka maarivin et roah ha-gezayrah. Tshuva is the resolution to turn inward. T'fila is the way. Tzedaka is the goal.

Life is fragile and we are vulnerable. "Life is suffering," teaches the first truth of Buddhism. Most of the time, we turn away from that truth. We deny it. We repress it. We fill our days with so much busyness, so much to do, so much to accomplish, so many places to get to, so much to acquire, so much working, so much shopping. We invest heavily in distraction. TV, VCR, stereo, Internet, Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Universal City, Las Vegas. But soon it bores us. It is so shallow. So empty.

And then, something forces us to face the truth, and we respond in fear. We defend -- close the circle around me and mine. Protect what we have. Horde our treasures. We project our fear onto an Other, and push the Other away. It's an election year, you'll hear this: You'll hear all about the swarm of immigrants pouring over the boarders to take away all that we've worked for. You'll hear about the Chinese and the Japanese and the Koreans and the Mexicans who exploit our loose trade laws and take away what's rightfully ours. You'll hear about affirmative action laws that give away to minorities what we've worked so hard for. So much fear!

If you have any doubt about the central role of fear in our daily lives, go out to the parking lot and count the number of safari vehicles, all terrain land rovers with bullet proof glass, parked out there. There are no rhino's running wild in Encino. There are no stampeding wildebeest in Tarzana. But there is so much fear.

It's a moral tragedy. And it's a spiritual tragedy. Because we know that path leads nowhere. Holding tightly, closing the circle around the self-- around me and mine -- pushing away the Other, doesn't extinguish the fear, and it leaves us empty, purposeless, and bored.

"Life is suffering," teaches Buddhism. And if you would escape the suffering, you must recognize that all is impermanence. Everything in our experience that seems so real, so solid, of such consequence, is in reality, fleeting and transitory. Like the breath, everything comes and goes. Reaching enlightenment, we come to see that even the self, the most real of all experience, is only an illusion. Human suffering is the product of our attachment to that which is fleeting. To be released from suffering, the Buddhist tradition teaches, one must learn to let go. Disengage. Cut the attachments. Learn to experience life, its joys and sorrows, accomplishments and failure, with the same effortless detachment, as one experiences the flow of breath, in and out.

Jewish spirituality is exactly the opposite. For Judaism, the world is not impermanent, it is broken. Human suffering is our experience of the broken-ness of the world. Even the self is broken -- divided, conflicted, ambivalent. But beneath our experience of the world's broken-ness, there is yet evidence of the presence of the One and the promise that the world can yet be rescued. Far from disengaging, the Jew is taught to embrace the world and seek to bring it back to wholeness, to one-ness.

Judaism's first and last word is Ehad, one. When we seek God, when we seek spirituality, it is always in the direction of unity, of bonding, of the Ehad, of oneness, of wholeness. It's in the language we speak: The word in Hebrew for holiness is Kedusha. Where do you find that word? When a family, a community of friends share a Shabbat meal, a yom tov celebration, we lift the wine and say Kiddush. When two people bond together in love and responsibility and support, the ceremony marrying two souls into one is called Kiddushin. When someone we love dies, we come to the community, rise and recite Kaddish. Holiness is in the bonds that hold us together, the bonds that make us ehad, one. I have Kedusha when I am one with my spouse. When I am one with my family. When I am one with my community and my people. I have kedusha when I am one with the homeless stranger who begs on the street corner, and the kindergartner in the dilapidated school in South Central, and the immigrant worker who picks my vegetables, and cleans my yard and goes home to a filthy tenement. When I bring one-ness to the self, when I bring one-ness to the world, am I one with God.

The Hasidic master Shner Zalman taught that the best therapy for one who is grieving, one who feels desolate and alone and abandoned by God, is to go and heal another. Help another, lift up another, nurture another, and you will be lifted up. "Even when one is unable to love God," he wrote, "one may know God's compassion by feeling it in oneself, and for oneself and the world."

In this way, Tzedaka is the goal of Jewish spiritual life.

But the truth is that the Buddhists are right. Engage the world -- attach oneself to others, with such passion, with such love, and in the end, you will be left with a broken heart. That is true. That is the reality Judaism is prepared to accept. That's why, as opposed to Buddhism, Judaism doesn't offer an escape from life's suffering. It offers, instead, a way of living significantly. The Jewish idea of happiness is not the detached equanimity of the Buddhist. It is, rather, the life of the Tzadik -- one who has learned to fill every moment with one-ness of purpose, with limitless passion, and deep love. It is to live a life with a sense of the presence and the purpose of God, so that facing one's own finitude, one is able to say with the Psalmist: Ki Yashar Adonai, Tzuri v'lo avlatah bo. It is to live such a life so that at the end, I can say to my children: God was good to me. Life is good. Choose life.

There is a marvelous story told by the Yiddish writer Shalom Asch, about an elderly Jewish couple in Russia forced by the government to billet a soldier. They move out of their bedroom, and the young man, all gruffness and glares, moves in with his pack and rifle and bedroll. It's Friday night, and the couple prepares to sit down for Shabbat dinner. The soldier takes his place at the table. Only now is it apparent just how young he is. He sits and stares with wide eyes as the old woman kindles the Shabbas candles. And he listens as the old man chants the kiddush and motzee. He quickly devours the hunk of challah placed before him, and speaking for the first time, he asks for more.

His face is a picture of bewilderment. Something about this scene -- the candles, the chant, the taste of the challah. It touches him in some mysterious way. He rises from his seat at the table, and beckons the old man to follow him, back into the bedroom. He pulls his heavy pack from the floor onto the bed, and begins to pull things out. Uniforms, equipment, ammunition. Until finally, at the very bottom, he pulls out a small velvet bag, tied with a drawstring. "Can you tell me, perhaps, what this is?" he asks the old man, with eyes suddenly gentle and imploring.

The old man, takes the bag in trembling fingers and opens the string. Inside is a child's tallis, a tiny set of t'fillin, and small book of Hebrew prayers. "Where did you get this?" he asks the soldier. "I have always had it...I don't remember when..." The old man opens the prayer book, and reads the flyleaf, his eyes filling with tears: To our son, Yossel, taken from us as a boy, should you ever see your Bar Mitzvah, know that your mama and tata always love you.

We carry with us a pack, filled with life's painful truth -- the lonely truth of death, of vulnerability, of finitude -- and all our fears. Year after year, as we get older, the pack gets heavier and more clumsy. Most of us rarely open the pack, and never look inside. But should you look, there at the bottom is a precious gift given my the One who created you. There at the bottom is your Jewish soul. Unpack. Reach down. I promise you, it's there waiting.

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

Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780