Sign In Forgot Password

Real World Judaism: Rosh Hashana, 5772, 2011

04/06/2015 08:14:00 AM


“Rabbi,” he said, “you just don’t know the real world.”

I was speaking to a gathering of young business leaders – entrepreneurs and executives. They asked me to speak about building a life that matters, about making moral choices in a difficult world, about character and meaning and community and faith. They listened with polite deference, but dismissed me quickly. Responding to my talk, one young man spoke up for his comrades,

“Rabbi,” he said, “you just don’t know the real world.”

He wasn’t disrespectful. On the contrary, he said it with affection and understanding.

“Rabbi, you have no idea what it’s really like out there.”

I knew what he meant. You, Rabbi, live in the world of books and ideas and abstract ethics. You don’t know business. You don’t know the world of unrelenting, ruthless competition. You speak of character, of ethical choices, you don’t know our daily diet of betrayals, the incessant pettiness, jealousy and suspicion. Yours is a world of soft hearts and kind words, of forgiveness and second chances. There are no second chances in our world. It’s eat or be eaten. There is no second-place in this game, only winners and losers. And I’m no loser.

What could I say to him? I don’t live his reality. My days are not filled with deal-making, litigation, buying and selling. My success is not about winning. I know little of the ferocious competitive energies that drive him by day, and the worried anxieties that keep him up at night. Is that the real world?

The Book of Genesis is filled with stories familiar from childhood. But when we go back and read them again, we discover in Genesis a book about the human condition, the definition of the real world.

26And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” 27And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

We are created in the image of the Creator. We are created to share the power of the Creator – to rule and control and master the world. Power is a divine blessing. Because power allows us to be responsible. Power raises us above nature, above passivity in the face of nature’s destructive might. Power enables us provide for the ones we love, to shelter and protect them, to shape a world shielded and removed from chaos and darkness and absurdity and death.

My first position as a rabbi was in Dallas, Texas. The synagogue there celebrated its hundredth year soon after we arrived, but its cemetery was even older. One afternoon I was at that cemetery waiting for a service to begin. I strolled over to the old section, and I noticed a line of tiny graves along the walkway. Tiny graves with single names, and all of them dated the same month. When I returned to the synagogue, I went to gift shop, where the Sisterhood ladies hung out, and found Tillie, who was one of the oldest members of the shul. I asked her, Tillie, I was out at the cemetery today, in the old section….what happened in October, 1925. Her eyes filled with tears, and she replied, Rabbi, it was the flu. A flu epidemic took all the babies. I lost my first daughter, a sweet child.

The flu. And in the course of three weeks, a whole class of children died. Every family in the community lost a child that October.

You hear people disparage modernity, and long for the simplicity of the past, for old fashioned values and age-old ways of life. They are nostalgic for a time before technology.  I wonder if they remember tuberculosis, smallpox, diphtheria, typhus, cholera, whooping cough, yellow fever, measles? Do they remember a world where women regularly died in childbirth and children before their third birthday? Do they remember not being allowed to swim in the summer for fear of the dreaded polio…a disease that could strike anyone, including the President of the United States?

God blessed us with creative power. Power lifts us from the vulnerable station of the brute to reshape nature, to predict its destructive whims and respond to its threats, and to protect the ones we love. And that brings dignity. There is holiness in science. There is Godliness in technology. Judaism has never opposed or inhibited the advance of science, because science is an expression of the divine commandment to rule the world and master it.

I recognize my young friend in the Bible’s account. His world of business is the fierce natural world God gave us to rule. His ferocious competitive energy is his share of God’s blessing of power to shape that chaos into a livable world. He is what the philosophers called, homo faber, Creative Man, a creature uniquely endowed with God’s creative spirit. He glories in his capacity to bring order out of chaos; to bring the disparate pieces together into a deal, a project. To build up a city from a wasteland, to bring a dispute to a settlement, to find the treatment that stops the disease, to see a plan to realization. He is driven to succeed, to master his world. That is the mitzvah, the divine mandate. And the pride he takes in his possessions -- his car, his house, even his physique – I don’t begrudge him. These are the tokens, the chips that reflect his mastery, his rule of his world.

But if that’s all he is, if that is the totality of his real world, then his life is sadly incomplete. The Torah has not one, but two stories of the creation of human beings. They are two very different stories, because we are complex and paradoxical creatures.

When the Lord God made earth and heaven—5when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil, 6but a flow would well up from the ground and water the whole surface of the earth—7the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.

In this second account of creation, human beings are made of the lowest, most humble substance – the dust of the earth. Man is Adam, he comes from Adamah, from earth. God breathes into the human being, nishmat hayim, the breath of life. God breathes into each of us a soul. Soul is a religious metaphor for a very human phenomenon -- that part of us which recognizes our being as small, vulnerable, finite, lonely, limited, and seeks be more; the part of us that reaches beyond the tightly bound circumference of self to connect with that which is more than the self.

In the Torah, God creates man and places him into the Garden. And then God recognizes a critical error in Creation. Man has been created alone. Lo tov he’yot adam l’vado. Teaches Torah: It is not good for man to be alone. Everything in creation received the divine blessing, ki tov, it is good. Only one thing in all of Creation did God ever say, lo tov, it is not good – human loneliness. So God began to search for a companion for the Man. God created every animal and brought them to the man, but no companion was found.

I once taught this to a class in the school. I asked them, Why couldn’t God find an animal to be the man’s companion? Who couldn’t fall in love with a cocker spaniel, Or a Siamese cat? Or a dolphin? Or for that matter, why doesn’t God come be his companion? Why wouldn’t that work? The kids came up with all the right answers: They don’t communicate the way he does. They don’t share his life. They couldn’t know what makes him happy. And then one kid, sitting in the back, one precocious ten-year old, shouted out an answer I didn’t expect.

He said: Rabbi, they don’t need him.

What did you say? I asked him.

He repeated: They don’t need him. Look, Rabbi, I love my dog, and he loves me. But if you took my dog and gave him to some other kid, he’d love that kid. He’ll love anyone who feeds him. My dog doesn’t need me. And God…well, God created this man; he could always create another one. He doesn’t need this man.

What the soul wants most is to be needed. We want to know that someone needs us.

So God puts the man to sleep, and takes his tzela, not his rib, but his half. God divides him, and creates woman. And when man awakens, he speaks for the first time in the Bible. Zot ha-pa’am, he says, this time God, You got it right. She is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. She is the one I needed, and she needs me. Only with his companion is his creation complete. So it is only at the wedding, not at the bris, not at birth, that we recite the blessing, Baruch yotzer ha-adam, praised is God who creates the human being.

There are two stories of Creation, because we are creatures of two natures.

In the first story, we are commanded by God to master the world, we are driven to quest for power, the ability to control and shape nature. In the second story, the soul within seeks something different, not control but intimacy, closeness, surrender. The soul knows this intense need to be needed. The soul pushes us beyond the tightly drawn bounds of self to bond with the other in love.

In the first story, as partners of the Creator, we enter into partnerships – communities of interest – to achieve what no individual can achieve alone. In the second, the soul seeks more than functional relationships, working partnerships. The Soul seeks friendships, community – to share hopes and fears, to share the song of life, its laughter and tears, to be at home. The soul finds satisfaction in caring, in healing and helping and nurturing.

Created in the image of the Creator, according to the first story, we are driven to conquer nature, bringing order and rationality to the chaos and absurdity of nature – to harness nature’s energy, to manipulate its elements. In the second story, the soul recognizes that the ultimate chaos in human existence is the passing of time. The fact that we live so briefly in eternity is the ultimate absurdity. So the soul seeks eternity in sacred moments – moments of closeness, of beauty, inspiration, insight, wonder.

As Creative Man, Creative Woman, we see life as never-ending contest. We are out to win. We will not be losers. But the soul sees life differently. It’s not about winning or losing. It is about attaching the self to a narrative of transcending meaning and purpose, of ideals and visions.

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

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

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

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

And so too for those care for the abandoned and those who performed acts of hesed, of kindness and love. You who opened your hand and your heart, and did hesed, you may enter God’s gate.

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

We walk the world with pride in our success, we feel the glory of power. Then comes death, and teaches us that we are humble, fragile, creatures, who inhabit this world for a minute span of time. And at that moment, we gain wisdom. At that moment, all the conventional measures of triumph and personal success and winning are abandoned. They are hollow and empty. Confronting death, we suddenly understand that we are a soul. And the soul measures life by a different set of values.

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

It takes the presence of death to awaken us to the life of the soul.

The Hasidic master, Yakov Yosef of Polnoye taught that the human being is a ladder, planted on the earth with its top reaching heaven. The ladder suggests a dynamic, like the angels, the soul is always ascending or descending. The soul is always either growing or shrinking. In the course of life, we nurture the soul or we starve it. A soul that is starving leaves us listless, bored, aimless, depressed. Nurturing the soul yields a sense of purposefulness, meaningfulness, personal significance and courage. Life is not about winning. Life is about being able to say, I matter. I am needed. I belong. I am loved.

There are two stories of Creation in Genesis because to be fully human is to live as a creature of two natures. We are blessed with power, charged by God with the task of mastering nature and carving out a rational and livable place in the world. And at the same time, we are souls, seeking connections of closeness, building lives of meaning and eternal significance. Both are holy. So we are commanded to alternate between the two. “Six days you will work, and accomplish all your tasks, and the Seventh Day you shall make Shabbat.” Shabbat is the name the Torah gives to soul-time. Six days we wrestle with the chaos of nature. On the Seventh, we turn inward to nurture the soul and the capacity to love, to heal, to sing.

My young friend tells me, Rabbi, you don’t live in the real world. He hasn’t yet learned wisdom. He hasn’t found his soul. He will. But something is happening at this particular moment in our history that makes his predicament particularly troubling.

Every year since 1950, we Americans have experienced a rapidly growing economy. We’ve grown so accustomed to this growth, it has become part of our culture, part of what we expect from the world. We’ve enjoyed a steadily rising collective standard of living. So we measure our personal success by the growth of our material wealth. We expect each generation to surpass the previous generation.   We have projected that prosperity into a tenet of faith that ours is a universe of ever- expanding opportunities, ever-opening possibilities, ever-inviting new frontiers. That optimism is at that heart of the American character.

But something is changing.

Consider some hard economic facts:

Since 1980, real per capita income has increased 65%.  That means, the average American is 65% richer now than 30 years ago. The average American is 31% richer now than 20 years ago. And 6.4% richer now than 10 years ago. But, while we are on average richer, there is a pronounced skew in the distribution of income – the rich are becoming richer than the rest of us. In actuality, the typical person's income has declined in the last 10 years. For the whole economy, the rate of income growth is falling fast. Growth in average per capita real income is less than 1/3 of what it once was. During the recession, growth went negative.

This recession will come to an end sometime toward the end of the decade. But we’re not going back to the way things used to be. The jobs that have been shipped overseas are not coming back. The kind of rapid and dependable economic growth we grew up with, is not coming back. Limited world resources and international competition, now set a limit to how much income growth there can be. The future is going to be much more narrow than we’ve ever known.

What happens to young people who grow up, not in the universe of expanding possibilities but in a world of shrinking opportunities, dwindling possibilities, declining prospects? How will they define their lives? How will find fulfillment?

What happens to young people who will never reach their parents’ standard of living? How will they measure their success?

What happens to a culture that is always seeking more, in a world that can provide only less?

That, my dear friend, is your real world. That is why cultivating the life of the soul is more than just a rabbi’s ethereal concern, it is a matter of your survival. Life is not about winning any more. It never really has been. And now, the world is going to teach you that lesson in a way much more painfully than I ever could. My dear young friend, only in the life of the soul will you find the resources to live well, fully, happily, in this new world. Any other way is a dead-end.

I look at him again, and now I recognize him. We are not the first to have this conversation. In the Talmudic tradition, there is a legend.

Somewhere in the north of Israel, sometime in the second century, two men met on a narrow bridge that crossed a rushing stream. Simon of Lakish was strongest, fiercest gladiator to ever fight in the arenas of Rome. Simon was an orphan born of a Jewish family taken by the Romans and raised to be a killer. He was in a hurry to get to his next contest. Across the bridge he rushed, bearing the tools of his brutal trade. At the center of the bridge, he met another man, a very different kind of champion.

Rabbi Yohanan was a small man with fine features and gentle eyes. The leader of the Jewish community in the land of Israel, he was renowned for his deep love of Torah. The rabbi wore no armor and carried no weapons.

Simon was in terrible hurry, so he demanded that the rabbi move aside and let him pass. But the rabbi would not budge. He shouted, “Move aside!” But the rabbi would not move. So he bellowed and stomped and reached for a weapon.

As the gladiator raised his sword, their eyes met. And something remarkable happened. Simon was accustomed to seeing fear and terror in the eyes of his adversaries. Not this time. This time, he saw something in the eyes of the rabbi he had never seen before --a man with absolutely no fear. He saw a man who knew exactly where he fit in God’s world, who knew exactly what he was sent into the world to do. He saw in the rabbi’s eyes a strength and power he had never seen in all his opponents, in all the battles, in all the arenas of Rome. The power of the rabbi’s eyes shook the gladiator to his soul. He stood for a long time staring, and then dropped his sword and all of his rage.

For his part, the rabbi saw something he didn’t expect. There was more to this gladiator than his fury. Beyond the rage and the violence the rabbi saw a ferocious power to love and deep longing to be loved. Behind the armor was a heart, a soft, human heart, a soul waiting to be touched, to be warmed.

The rabbi spoke softly to the gladiator, “My brother, where are you going in such a hurry? To kill or be killed in the service of Roman glory? My brother, there is another way, a better way.”

“There is no glory greater than Rome! Rome is eternal! I serve Caesar!” the gladiator repeated the oath he had sworn so many times.

“One day soon, Rome will be gone, its Caesars forgotten and all its arenas reduced to rubble,” explained the rabbi. “But the glory of God is forever. And you, my brother, are created in the image of God. You carry God’s light. Come and join a greater cause, my brother. Come and master God’s Torah!”

“I know only the arts of battle. How can I sit with a scholar like you?” the gladiator retorted with embarrassment.

“Your heart is stronger than your sword, and that is all God requires. Come, my brother,” answered the rabbi.

Perhaps it was the rabbi’s truth. Perhaps it was his voice. Perhaps it was that the rabbi was the very first person in his life to call him “brother.” The words broke through the gladiator’s armor and reached his heart. For the first time in his life, the gladiator began to cry. Tears covered his face and his sobs filled the valley. He dropped his weapons into the stream. He unbuckled and cast away his armor. He turned and followed the rabbi.

Simon became Rabbi Yohanan’s most devoted student, until in time, the gladiator too became a rabbi, the great Reish Lakish. He married the sister of Rabbi Yohanan and became his brother. They fought and wrestled over the words of Torah for the rest of their lives, as they led the Jewish people with love and with learning.

My dear friend, maybe I don’t live in your real world. Maybe it’s time you come to live in mine.

Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780