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Leaving Never Never Land

04/06/2015 08:17:00 AM


1. He comes to see the rabbi, because we're supposed to possess life wisdom. So he sits in my office and describes his problems.

He's 38 years old. Good looking, well-educated, successful, and desperately lonely.

He's been dating for 20 years now ... how many women? ... mostly Jews, but even a few non-Jews recently ... and he can't find a mate.

Have you ever had a sustained relationship? Yes, two maybe three lasted more than a year, but always fell apart.

So, tell me, what are you looking for in a women?

Hmmm, good question. Well, someone kind and gentle, intelligent, educated, cultured, witty, fun-to-be-with, a professional, independent, but interested in traditional things, Jewish, I want Yiddishkeit in my home, ... and thin, tall, attractive, blonde.

As he continues, I realize I know him. He's my three-year old. The open mouth of the infant, I want, I want, get me, buy me, take me.
One of these people whom instant gratification isn't quick enough. I know what he wants: he wants a Barbi doll who cooks like his mother: someone to adore him, entertain him, cater to his needs, but make no demands on him. And despite his silliness, I see in his eyes a terrible sadness; and I know he is destined for a long life of boredom, loneliness and sadness.

He isn't alone. He belongs to a whole culture of childishness.

2. My kids come home from the video store with a new favorite film:

"Hook", the Peter Pan story, as told by Steven Spielberg.
Premise: Peter fell in love with Wendy, and left Never Never land.
The boy who said he wouldn't grow up, has grown up.

As the film opens, here is Peter portrayed by Robin Williams, as the consummate grown-up: driven work-aholic corporate executive, chained to his cellular phone working on the next big deal, with no time for his wife, his children, particularly his sad-eyed son, or his humanity. He is the adult Peter Pan always feared to become: stripped of all imagination, playfulness and love.

Then suddenly, his children are kidnapped by none other than Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman), and held captive back in Never land.
Peter is challenged to return for one final battle.

So he returns, to save his children ... but more importantly, to save himself.

He is powerless against Captain Hook, until he recovers that part of himself denied these many years ... the child within: his spontaneity, imagination, capacity for play, sensitivity to enchantment. Taught to him by Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts), who still loves him.

He beats Captain Hook -- eaten by the Crock with the Clock. Recovers and reconnects with his children, earning their love and forgiveness. And in the last scene of the film, throws away his cellular phone to share his children's fantasies.

Beautiful film, moving, touching, enchanting film.
And it's dead wrong.

3. The problem of our civilization is not that we have lost touch with the child within. Our problem is that too many grown-ups refuse to be adults.

Our problem is not that we have lost touch with the sources of enchantment. Our problem is that too many have lost touch with the wisdom of maturity.

Listen to the voices of this culture:

3a. What is the quality of political discourse in this country? A concoction of bullying, name-calling, scapegoating, lying, and pure fantasy. It is a cartoon. Looney Tunes.

Who's at fault for all our problems? It's the immigrants who pour into our cities and steal our jobs! It's the Japanese who take advantage of our gullibility and force Lexus's and Accura's and Sony's on us! It's the bureaucrats in Washington and Sacramento who waste our taxes on million-dollar toilet-seats!

Federal Deficit? Get tough: cut spending. But not the defense contracts that employ our neighbors, and not the Social Security and Medicare benefits that support our parents and grandparents, and not the school funds or the highway funds, or the bailout for my neighborhood bank, certainly not foreign aid for Israel, but by all means, cut spending!

Not just nationally. What are the solutions to our Urban problems: Put more cops on the street; improve the schools; rebuild the infrastructure; how? don't ask me how! but certainly without raising taxes! Read my lips.

If a candidate were to stand before us, and speak to us like mature, thinking, informed adults, and tell us the truth, and say to us, look folks, this is a complicated world, and these are complicated problems, and there are no easy and simple solutions to these problems, and there are certainly no inexpensive solutions, I cannot promise anything, but if solving these problems is important to us, then we'll accept the sacrifices and we'll pay for the solutions. Do you think that such a candidate would stand a ghost of a chance in any election today?

We desperately need a serious national discussion about the role of government and the responsibilities of individuals, about the cost of government and the limits of government, about the degeneration of American civic values and the disintegration of our sense of community. In the late 18th century, they established a Bill of Rights, protecting the citizen from government. In the late 20th century, we negotiate a Bill of Responsibilities, protecting the government from the expectations and desires of the citizenry.

We desperately need a discussion about urban life: about the consequences of long-term exposure to ubiquitous fear, about what it means to live in a place where you can't walk the streets, you can't even drive in the streets, without being afraid. You can never let your children out of your sight, and shootings in public schools are commonplace ... what does that do to the soul? and how do we protect, not just the body but the spirit in an urban landscape polluted with the fear of violence.

But can we have that discussion? Not in an election year! Because only adults can carry on such a discussion. And in election years, we seem to be locked into a perpetual cycle of childish fantasies and electoral temper tantrums.

2b. (Lest you think I play favorites) consider religious life.
Do you have friends, as I have, who suddenly become devotees of Chabad? [Freeze-dried instant frumkeit.] Yes, I too enjoy their spirit, their total commitment, their sense of mission, and the warm acceptance of their community. There's nothing like a Shabbat lunch at Chabad: Cholent washed down with Chivas.

But that's not why my friend goes. He goes because he's found that in those Dalet Amot, in those four parsects, there is no ambiguity, there is no ambivalence, there is complete, absolute authority, certainty, truth...the pure, clear, and valid word of God. All day long -- at home and at work -- he must make judgments. All day long he lives in a world of complexity and compromise. Except in his religious life...The rebbe says, the rebbe demands, the rebbe talks...and he listens.

He comes to hate me. Because I represent what in his eyes is the wishy-washy, rationalized, lazy, religiosity of compromise he came from. "Do you or don't you believe that Hashem wrote the whole Torah?" he demands to know. "Of course, I believe God wrote the Torah," I respond, "but He didn't use a quill on parchment, He used the hearts and minds and hands of human beings as his instruments." "Argh!" and then he mutters something unkind about Reconstructionist and Schulweis.

The story in the Talmud about the stranger who approaches Hillel and Shammai demanding that they teach him the Torah on one foot. Shammai hits him with a builder's rule and sends him away. Hillel patiently offers the Golden Rule: that which is hateful to you, do not do to another, all the rest is commentary, now go and learn. The tradition embraced the love and patience of Hillel......
I've come to think Shammai was right.

I'm suspicious of anyone who demands Torah on one foot, of anyone whose religious philosophy fits onto a bumper sticker. I don't trust anyone who claims an absolute grasp on certainty and truth. Mine is a religiosity of complexity and nuance, because that's how life is lived, once we leave the bonds of mommy and daddy. Outside the boundaries of Never land, evil and good, truth and fallacy are always judgments, to be pondered and re-thought.
Only a child asks for Torah on one foot.

2c. But don't go so far from home. The part of all this that worries me the most is what it means for our own children. Wander into their rooms, and consider: who are our children's heroes? Sports stars, rock stars, movie stars? Whose pictures do they have up on their walls? Who do they idolize? Is there any one of them you'd feel comfortable saying to your kid ... be like him? I hope you grow up to be just like ... who? Magic Johnson? Madonna? Arnold Schwartenegger? Michael Jackson? Luke Perry? These are all children, in blown up adult bodies. Self-centered, impulsive, amoral, children. And these are the moral heroes of our children's generation! Do you know who died this year? Superman. And Batman had an affair with the Catwoman. Yes, we too had rock stars, and athletes on our walls. But we also had Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, and our parents had Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Keller.

We are engaged in a gigantic social experiment: raise children with no moral heroes, no adult role models worthy of emulation. Only grown up children....raise them with no heroes and see what happens. They are indeed a generation, Home Alone.

3. This is the wisdom of our tradition: We love children. Alles fur der kinder. All of our festivals -- Pesach, Sukkos, Simhat Torah, Purim, Hannuka -- put children at the center.

God wakes up each morning, relates the Talmud, takes one look at the world, and decides to destroy everything. Then He hears the sounds of children learning, and children playing, and children laughing, and He decides to let the world go on one more day.

Our tradition loves children, but we revere adulthood.
Our tradition adores the spontaneity and imagination of children, but we revere the wisdom of maturity.

What does it mean to be a grown up? What are the lessons of maturity? Where does one learn wisdom?

This yom tov, as you sit with family and friends over dinner, I
want you to discuss this: What did you learn in growing up?

And I want you to share this with your children and your grandchildren. Our educational system teaches so much, and yet there is so much more that is left unsaid, untaught. Every seventh grader knows the names of all the current sexually transmitted diseases, that's taught, but it is our job, as parents and grandparents, as mentors, to teach them about relationships of depth and commitment. Schools teach skills of computation and calculation, but we must teach them to make moral choices.

And don't expect this to be one of those things "taught by example". Our kids live in the age of MTV. There is no subtlety in this generation. This yom tov, talk to your children, your grandchildren about the meaning, the lessons of adulthood.

4. When did you first feel like you had grown up? When did you first feel that you had crossed from childhood into maturity?
It's a long process of growing and learning, but there are special moments along the way --moments that challenge, moments that teach, moments that change us. The Jewish tradition surrounds these transcending moments with a rich symbolism, transforming these intensely private moments into communal celebrations, [look at the Chuppah: once the private chamber of the new husband and wife. We tear away the walls, and open it up, so that this private, intimate moment is now a shared Simcha.] The tradition frames each moment, interprets it and draws out its meaning. Each ceremony has a story: but it is no longer just my story, my life, my family, my struggle, my coming-of-age. Over the private story, the tradition lays the Covenantal story. At each ceremony, you play a role. It's not just you and your kid, anymore, now you're Abraham and Isaac, your Adam and Eve...And each ceremony offers a vision of the paradoxes of adulthood:

4A. Let's begin where adulthood starts, with Bar Mitzvah.

He stands at my Bimah, all of four-foot-seven, in his sharp new Italian suit, which you know he'll outgrow in another three weeks, and all his friends from seventh grade giggling in the back row, and in his cracking adolescent voice, he proclaims: "Today, I am a man!"

No, Bubbelah, today you are just beginning the long process of becoming a man. If there is anyone here who has a claim to becoming a man, and adult today, it's your parents, who sit in the first row over there, finding it hard to believe that they're really here -- me? the father, the mother of a bar mitzvah?, when did I reach middle age?

No, this is not the end of your maturing, it's just the beginning.
You see, today, we're not here to confirm or ratify your status as a Bar Mitzvah, we're here to ask you the question: Are you a Bar Mitzvah, the bearer of Mitzvot? Are you prepared to accept responsibility for who you are, and what you are? Are you ready to be accountable for the choices you take, the decisions you make, the values you hold?

One of the leading industries in this country is the manufacture of evasion. Pass blame, pass the responsibility:
It's my mother's fault that I'm neurotic;
It's my father's fault that I'm fat;
It's my spouse's fault that I'm frustrated;
It's the government's fault I'm not successful;

Or better yet, become a victim. It's our new al het, our litany:
Rodney King is the victim of the brutality of the police -- excuse his behavior, pity him, Amen.

The policemen are the victims of an impossible social confrontation
between blacks and whites, rich and poor -- excuse their behavior, pity them, Amen.

The mobs burning the city are victims of years of social and economic injustice -- excuse their behavior, pity them, Amen.

Dameon Williams and Henry Watson are victims of neighborhoods filled with drugs, devoid of hope, schools filled with violence, excuse their behavior, pity them, Amen.

And Reginald Denny. Oy. Just pity him.

Is no one responsible?
To declare yourself a Bar Mitzvah is to step into the light of this community, and say, I am responsible for who I am and what I do.

Maimonides taught that we should think of our lives as a balance, with all our sins on one side, and all our mitzvot on the other: and they balance exactly. Your next act, your next choice determines your fate. A radical and dangerous thought: you are your own creator. You are the author of your own destiny.

But more: You must imagine, Rambam taught, that all the world's sins are on one side of the balance. And all the world's goodness on the other: and they balance. And your next act, your next choice will determine the fate of the world.
You are responsible, not just for yourself, but for the world.

We call you up, out of your seat in the congregation, to stand before the Ark, as Moses stood before the burning bush. God said to Moses, I need you. I need you to go and challenge the Pharaoh and save My people. You remember what Moses says: Mi Anochi? Why me?
I have a good life. I have a successful career, a wonderful wife, two beautiful kids, here, I'll write you a check...
No, says God, I need you.

And so says God to every Bar and Bat Mitzvah, I need you.
You are responsible for My world. You cannot cower in your privatism. You cannot run away and proclaim the world is not my problem. You cannot retreat into your self-absorbed fantasies, and say AIDS is not my problem, or poverty is not my problem, or racism is not my problem. To become Bar Mitzvah is to hear God say, I need you. Save My people. Save My world.

And paradoxically, as heavy a burden as that responsibility is, there is no greater honor and no greater. In the whole world, there is nothing a growing adolescent wants more than to hear, I need you, We need you. We need your energy, your imagination, your brains. We need your idealism. We even need your arrogance, and your chutzpah and your big mouth, and your insolent demand to re-build the world from scratch. We have failed our young people in failing to give them a sense of mission. Kids don't leave Judaism because we ask too much. They leave because we ask too little. You will never persuade kids to be Jewish because it's fun, they won't come to shul because it's interesting, they won't commit their lives for quaint customs and ancient ceremonies. We must offer them a sense of mission -- the ancient mission of the Jewish people. L'taken olam b'malchut shaddai. To save the world.

In America, the coming of adulthood is marked with new toys and new privileges: driving and credit cards, and R-rated movies. We offer something so much more valuable...the honor, the joy, the exhilaration of being responsible for the world.

4B. The second moment in growing up, is the moment of marriage.
At that moment with the bride and groom standing beneath the Chuppah, recite the blessing,
Sameah T'samach...

Grant complete joy to these loving friends, O God, as you did to the first bride and groom in the garden of Eden. Blessed are you God who brings the joy of bride and groom.

You are Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Each bride and groom reiterates the story of our beginning:

Adam, created from the dust of the earth, is placed in the Garden, to tend it and to enjoy its fruits. But something is wrong: Adam is lonely. Even in paradise, man alone is incomplete. Lo Tov Heyot Adam L'vado. For everything God creates, He says, Ki Tov, it is good. This is the first Lo Tov -- the first and only thing condemned in all creation is human loneliness. God creates the animals -- puppies and giraffes -- and gives them to Adam, but that doesn't satisfy him.

God creates woman and shares her with man. Midrash: they were married under a Chuppah of stars with them angels as witnesses. And God braided Eve's hair.

In the Garden, Adam and Eve are naked. Open, exposed to one another -- everything is shared, there are no secrets from one another, nothing is hidden.

Then Eve has the conversation with the snake. By herself. Apart from Adam. And she is tempted to eat from the forbidden tree. She takes the fruit, and bites in, and hands it to Adam.

Freeze the frame at that moment, and consider the choice he must make. He knows this is the forbidden fruit. He knows that God promised death if he were to eat it. But she has already eaten from the tree. So if he eats, he dies, along with her. And if he doesn't, then he lives, she dies, and he is returned to the world of cold loneliness. If he eats, he loses God. And if he doesn't, he loses her.
This is a paradox:
We need one another. We need to love, to bond, with one another. That's the way we are wired. Alone, single, we are ontologically incomplete. I and Thou. Without Thou, I am not I.
We need one another. But to love another is to become vulnerable. To love is face risk. To love is to open the circle of the self expands to the other. Pain of the other is felt more sharply than the pain he feels it himself. To lose her is worse than losing life itself.

Adam eats the fruit. Because loneliness is worse than death.

And what's the first thing they do? They realize they are naked, they hide, and they create clothing. He will have his life, and she will have her life. And for all their lives together, they will struggle to understand one another and communicate.

What's the last thing we do at the wedding? We break a final reminder that the world is broken, and in a broken world, love is a struggle. Love is never without its risks, its vulnerabilities, its pain. And then they kiss. Because with all its pain, we need to love.

4C. The third moment is childbirth.
Listen to the Torah: Lech L'cha m'artzecha...

"God said to Avram: Go, go from you land, from the place of your birth, from your father's house; Go to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you."

To stand at the bris of your child is to assume the character of Abraham, and absorb the words of God to Abraham, : Lech L'cha, Go.

It is only with the birth of a child that you really leave home. You are no longer your parents' child, you are now your child' parent. You are no longer just a descendant, you are now an ancestor. And you will never return home in the same way. [if for no other reason, than everytime your kid fingerpaints your new wallpaper, or pours chocolate pudding on his head, or beats on his little sister, and you complain, your parents get this smug smile. Justice finally served.]

And if you thought you understood responsibility from your Bar Mitzvah, now you understand the meaning of total responsibility. And if you thought you understood vulnerability from your marriage, you now understand what it means to be completely exposed. And if you thought you understood the Bible, only now will you understand God's pathos, God's frustrations: Like God, You have created something that you can't control.

Go, say God to Abraham. Where?, asks Abraham. Just Go, I'll show you. But Where? Just go.

You leave the hospital, driving 20 miles per hour home with the new baby bundled into the back seat...and you realize that this thing doesn't come with an Owners Manual. No matter how many books you read, no matter how many expert lecture you hear, you come to realize that every child is an exception.

There once was a child psychologist who traveled the country making a fortune giving a lecture called "The Ten Commandments of Parenting". And then he married and had a child, and changed the lecture to "Ten Suggestions for Parents", and then he had another child and the lecture became, "A Few Good Hints for Parents", and with the third child, he gave up the lecture altogether.

Go, say God, I'll show you where.

There is no map. There is no plan. Living with a child is a lesson in living with ambiguity and with ambivalence. You love and you care and you try not to make mistakes. But there is no certainty, no sure-thing, just hope and faith.

With all the training I've had in philosophy and theology, I learned the most about God from my kids. My daughter Nessa...when Nessa was three, we had this routine. I would put her to bed. Tuck her in, sing the Shema, and say good night. And then three minutes later, she would appear, Abba, there are monsters in the closet...there are alligators under the bed, there are spiders on the ceiling. So I brought her back to the room, turned on all the lights, and showed her: no monsters, no alligators, no spiders. Then I tucked her in again, and said, Go to sleep. Everything is OK now. We be together in the morning.

After a year of this, it suddenly occurred to me one night, what I had been saying. Who's right? Empirically, she is. Consult any newspaper: She doesn't know the names, but we do: AIDS, random violence, toxic waste, terrorism. But we put our children to bed -- every parent, even the most hard-boiled atheist -- with these words of faith: go to sleep, you'll be all right, tomorrow will be better. To have a child is to live with uncertainty, and to become a believer.

4D. Finally, the fourth moment, is the moment we learn the reality of death.

There is no louder sound, more thunderous, more frightening, more wrenching, than the sound of clods of earth falling upon the cover of a coffin in an open grave.

And yet, our tradition demands that we hear that awful sound, especially upon the death of those we love the most, because we need to know that death is real, that death is final. But when we finish, we hand the shovel to another, who continues the work. You never lay the shovel down. Because, though death is real, and the pain of loss is nearly unbearable, we are never alone. Not in grief and not is dying.

At the funeral, at the Shiva, we are King David, who lost his soul-mate Jonathan, who lost his son Avshalom,
Gam, Ki elech b'gay tzalmavet...

"Though I walk in the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me."

I remember coming home from school as a kid, and finding my mom cooking a huge pot of spaghetti. I wondered who could possibly eat that much spaghetti. She told me we were going to a home of Shiva, where a family had suffered a loss. I remember: the crowds of people, mountain of food, the tears, sense of pain, but pain shared. Weight of the pain born by a community of family, friends, co-workers. Whenever I saw that huge spaghetti pot, I knew where we were going. If you want to find God, that's a good place to go: home of shiva, friends and community gather to bear the pain of grief.

The tradition wants us to know the reality of death, because only that we do we come to grasp the precariousness of life. "Teach us to number our days," says Proverbs, "to get us a heart of wisdom."
That's a remarkably morbid number one's days. But only then, in the light of death, do we finally learn that life is finite. There aren't an infinite number of tomorrows, or later, or it-can-wait's.

Do you need to say "I love you" to someone...before it's too late. Go now. Do you need to say "Thank You", "I'm sorry"...go now.
You have dreams yet unfulfilled, go, pursue them now! Because the saddest, most devastating words in the world, are the words, You're too late. If only you'd come sooner.

"Death closes doors," a sage once wrote, "but it opens windows." Only in the light of that window, are we forced to set priorities for our lives. Only in that light, do we have the strength to dismiss that which is trivial, and inconsequential, and childish. Only then, do we truly recognize why every simcha, every moment of loving togetherness, every opportunity to share life, is infinitely precious. Only then, do we truly grasp the power of that most profound of all Jewish words, Baruch Shehechianu, v'kimanu, v'higianu lazman hazeh. Blessed be the one who has brought us this moment.
I set before you this day, teaches God, life and death...choose life.

5. I would suggest that these are the four moments of life that teach maturity, the four paradoxes, the four lessons of adulthood: responsibility, intimacy, faith, and the preciousness of life. Please sit with your children, your grandchildren, and share your moments, your wisdom, the lessons of your adulthood.

6. I leave you with a story, a strange and powerful fable from our folklore. A story about Adam and Eve.
Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden. And they lived together, east of Eden, tilling the earth and raising children, and struggling to stay alive. After the years of struggle, when their children were grown, they decided to see the world. They journeyed from one corner of the world to the other. In the course of their journeys, wandering from place to place, they found the entrance to the Garden of Eden, now guarded by an angel with a flaming sword. They were frightened and they began to flee when God spoke to them:

"Adam, you have lived in exile these many many years. The punishment is complete. You may return now to the Garden."
And suddenly the angel disappeared, and the way to the Garden opened. "Come in, Adam. Come in, Eve."

"Wait," Adam replied, "You know, it has been so many years. Remind me, what is it like in the Garden?"

"The Garden is paradise!" God responded. "In the Garden there is no work. You need never struggle or toil again. In the Garden there is no pain, no suffering. In the Garden there is no death. Day after day, life goes on forever. Come Adam, return to the Garden!"

Adam listened to God's words -- no work, no struggle, no pain, no death. An endless life of ease. And then he turned and looked at Eve. He looked at the woman with whom he had struggled to make a life, to take bread from the earth, to raise children, to build a home. He thought of the tragedies they had overcome and they joys they cherished. And Adam shook his head, "No, thank you, that's not for me... Come on Eve, let's go home." And Adam and Eve turned their backs on Paradise and walked home.

Shana Tova.

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Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780