Holding on and Letting Go: Yom Kippur 2016/5777
Rabbi Joshua Hoffman
Summertime in our family has been filled with the tunes from the Broadway musical, Hamilton. Plays and replays have etched the lyrics of the show into my mind, sometimes waking me up even before the first cup of coffee or stepping onto the exercise machine. “Look around, look around! How lucky we are to be alive right now!” These are the words of the 18th century players as they take to the streets of New York City and feel the pulse of the American Revolution synchronizing with their hearts. The talented creator of the show, Lin Manuel Miranda, knows how this refrain speaks to his audience 240 years later. “Look around, look around! How lucky we are to be alive right now! History is happening...”
It’s our time to look around. Another year is passing and we’re invited to see how lucky we are to be alive right now. History is happening and for a few moments, nothing is stopping our show from becoming a blockbuster performance too.
It’s why we delight in seeing the very same Broadway genius, Lin Manuel-Miranda, pitching for Yeshiva University’s fundraising campaign this year. We love him even more because his mom taught students at the YU medical school. It’s why we delight in watching the AJWS super video from a few years ago, when the world’s most recognizable faces speak out in support of a relief organization founded and supported by the Jewish community. It’s our delight when the United States has pledged the largest amount of support in its history to Israel. The Jewish people and our State of Israel is taking on a central role in global politics. Tikkun Olam is the clarion call of world culture and we are actors on the world stage. “How lucky we are to be alive right now! History is happening”...and we are playing our part.
It is easy to forget the good fortune we have while we have it. The Torah has cautioned us about this from the beginning. The book of Deuteronomy cautions us, “Don’t say to yourselves, ‘my own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me. Remember it is the LORD your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case.” (Deut. 17-18) The generations that survived the Shoah, that built the State of Israel, those who fought for political freedom and influence in this country have made great sacrifices in their lives to create our world today. ‘Our good fortunes are the realized dreams of generations past.’
The Torah isn’t prophetic here. It’s prescriptive. We’ve come to a land flowing with milk and honey and we’re learning that we cannot take for granted the goodness our living can bestow upon us.
Gratitude implies holding on to everything we have. It even implies humbly bringing a part of ourselves, the best of ourselves, forward to express allegiance to God and the Jewish people, to ourselves and others. It why the instruction for entering the Land isn’t complete until we bring the bounty of our produce forward as an offering to be shared with the community.
So we hold on tightly.
We hold on to our children - a generation has been raised with the steadfast belief that our children are our future. We watch them grow, delight in their achievements, bite our nails as we prepare them for higher education and productive careers. We’ve been counseled year after year to hold on to them tightly, because they’ll head out into the world by themselves far too soon.
We hold on to our influence in the American and Jewish world communities. Barely one generation after the Shoah, we cannot forget the shuddering fear of standing just steps away from annihilation and oblivion. Today, we balance on the precipice of possibility and it’s only natural to be afraid knowing what our people have endured throughout recent history. So we hold on to our power, secretly preparing for the threat of it being taken away from us too quickly.
We hold onto so many daily moments so severely, we even fabricate the slightest change in our lives to capture the sense of meaning and purpose of our lives. It’s astonishing to note that in the world of You Tube, 400 hours of unique video clips are uploaded every minute. Just for some perspective that means by the end of this talk, some 8000 new videos will appear online!
This phenomenon is in the words of Andrew Sullivan who wrote the piece, “I used to be a human being.” recently in the New York Magazine, “a constant stream of things to annoy, enlighten, or infuriate; a niche in the nerve center of the exploding global conversation; and a way to measure success — in big and beautiful data — …[it is] a constant dopamine bath for the [writerly] ego.” Can we grasp the truth that just 5 years ago, 30% of the population owned and used a smartphone and now today that number is reach 70% and higher? Or, can we truly fathom that 85% of our children now identify that they cannot LIVE without some tool for connection?
We’re holding on so tightly.
We hold on to Jewish tradition too - we’re holding on to calcified practices of a culture that at best served the idyllic 1950’s Jewish world. We’ve built magnificent institutions to hold on to the treasures of our heritage. They have become curated, like museum exhibits, of what Judaism was and who some feel so passionately we should return to. We suffer from, in the words of some, an “edifice complex.” We’re holding so tightly to the idea that if we simply create a ‘classier’ social life in our communities, somehow our religious expressions will follow behind. And we’re disappointed in our rabbis when they cannot be there for us, as poker player, beer drinker, confidant, shopping buddy, walking partner, or the religious model when we need them to be.
We firmly hold on to opinions and beliefs. There is no mistaking the morass of our political climate right now. There is a desperate grasp onto whatever values seem to be sacred, while the tidal wave of influence forces us to retreat in a passive, emotionless fear. We’re seizing the moment and don’t even realize what we’re holding on to.
In our efforts to ‘catch up’ to all this change, we are holding on to more content, more knowledge, more truth at breakneck speeds. Writer Andrew Sullivan captures it again, “...The insanity [of writing and dwelling online] is now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.”
Videos and photographs. Take a snapshot, shoot a clip, and we capture moments to hold on to forever. Photographs of people, stars in the cosmos, mountains and oceans, we know exactly where something was. Peering into eyes of faces or into picturesque landscapes, we imagine what was and what might have been. Recent estimates have us taking approximately 25,000 pictures of ourselves over our lifetimes, and collectively billions of pictures of everything else. What are we looking for? What can’t we see that a picture reveals to us? Each click of the camera is a miniature death. It is a moment that passed and is now gone forever. The photo gives us the chance to hold on just awhile longer. Think again before the next snapshot. Are you living in the moment, or letting the moment die?
A new responsibility of clergy at weddings is to announce to the wedding guests to put the cameras away, so they can truly enjoy the precious moment they are privileged to witness. Dance recitals, walks in the park, loading up the car for a vacation. Do we feel that the paid photographer or our momentary feeling isn’t going to capture the moment sufficiently?
The saturation of the moment is so overpowering we cannot hold on to the past and the present and still long for a future. We’ve become the tragic character, Lenny, of John Steinbeck’s novel, “Of Mice and Men” whose softness for holding on to something precious brings him to strangle pets and people in his fearful attempt to grasp onto something he cannot control.
There is a Talmudic dictum - T’fasta M’rubah Lo T’fasta - take hold of too much and you take hold of nothing. We hold on and we let go - of so much - that we don’t even notice what is being left behind.
The sacred wisdom of the Torah urges us to let go of our tightly held gifts, our treasured possessions, even our beliefs for a higher purpose. We know that we must let go of some things in order to hold on to what is precious to us.
So we let go.
How many people have we left behind in our lives, some by our design and others by our resignation that they need to change? Or, how many ideas, dreams, and fancies have we let go of to grasp hold of the next best idea or possibility? A generation ago, there was no such thing as ADD, and now it’s a rite of passage for our children and even adults in our community. Letting go and forgetting have become synonymous.
We let go of authenticity in our lives for a manufactured, compact, easily digestible existence. We readily sell purpose and utility for expediency. It’s astonishing to think so many of our children now grow up in a world with the inability to change a tire, cook a meal, wash their clothes in the laundry, or balance their finances in exchange for the convenience of living for now. We can simply load up one of those 400 videos a minute and learn how to function in the world instantaneously.
Take one more small tidbit of news. This time last year, factions within our Jewish community were torn over an agreement struck between the leaders of Iran and several leaders worldwide to halt the development of nuclear capabilities which posed a threat to the security of Israel and other free societies. The soreness of such a decision left the community wary of alliances in support of the State of Israel. And we missed that a long-standing scientific partnership between Israel, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries is producing a subatomic particle accelerator in Jordan. (it’s aptly called Sesame, like the Arabian Nights code word for opening up the treasures of the ancient Near East). One breath is nuclear annihilation and the next is international nuclear collaboration. Are we enemies or friends? We’re letting go without any thoughtful deliberation for what we’re holding on to.
If only we know where we are so we can hold on to what is necessary and let go of what is not! Our generation chooses not afford this luxury. Yet, we must hold on and let go to make sense of our world around us. We know this. And now, we can make this choice on purpose. Where we are paralyzed to hold on and let go purposefully, there are paths we can take from here to recover our aimlessness and replace it with conviction.
And, it was Benjamin Franklin who quipped, “Lost time is never found again.” We don’t need a retreat into tradition or into wisdom of the past. We’re more prepared to move forward than ever before. Today/Tonight the journey begins anew.
Holding on and letting go. These are words Rabbi Schulweis penned for us to read in the quiet moments in the presence of death, especially of a loved one. More than a eulogy for loss, this is a philosophy for our time.
Hold on and let go-
On the surface of things, contradictory counsel.
But one does not negate the other.
The two are complementary, two sides of one coin.
Hold on - for death is not the final word.
The grave is not oblivion.
Hold on - kaddish, yahrzeit, yizkor.
No gesture, no kindness, no smile evaporates.
Every gesture has an afterlife
In our minds, our hearts, our hands.
Hold on - and let go.
Sever the fringes of the tallit and
The knots which bind us to the past.
Free the enslaving memory which sells the future
To the past.
Free the fetters of memory which turn us listless, passive, resigned.
Release us for new life.
Lower the casket,
The closure meant to open again the world of new possibilities.
Return the dust to the earth,
Not to bury hope, but to resurrect the will to live.
We who remember are artists, aerialists
On a swinging trapeze
Letting go one ring to catch another.
Hold on and let go -
A subtle duality which endows our life with meaning,
Neither denying the past
Nor foreclosing the future.
This is a reading that speaks deeply to me. Could there be anything more real than the moments when we must choose what to hold on to and what to let go of? The moment we are faced with this choice is simultaneously comforting and unsettling. We cannot manufacture either holding on or letting go. The very same Torah that guides us to bring our gifts forward, to share them with the stranger, the widow, the powerless in our midst, is teaching us how to hold on and let go with purpose.
In our day, we can and must break the illusion of holding on or letting go that leaves us empty, even aimless. Can we make decisions for ourselves like our Torah prescribes?
Rabbi Schulweis, and the generation of greats with whom he stands, challenge us to move beyond the polarities of either/or. By embracing to both holding on and letting go, we may travel through the greatest complexities of our day, without desperately locating our presence in the abysmal grasp of the past. What is both holding on and letting go?
Your belonging to this community is more than the experience of rite and ceremony. Belonging expresses a demand upon all of us. It is the education of our children and ourselves. It is the loving passage of time with friends, it is the burden we carry to heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, feed the hungry, and hope for peace. Belonging in community is the profound claim that somehow our collective will can move the world around us for the better. It’s the wisdom of Jewish tradition that informs this will, and it’s the wisdom of tradition that guides us to choose what we must let go of so that we may hold on tightly to so much more.
Hear the words of Saul Goodman, author of the book, The Faith of Secular Jews, written now 40 years ago. He writes:
According to the psychological approach to religion - that the individual’s psychic experience is the essence of religion… [Instead] Judaism is a code which regulates the lives of Jews as belonging to a collectivity. Judaism...is essentially a way of life for the collectivity.(Faith of Secular Jews pp.20-1)
How true is this message, after so much history that our collective will makes Judaism relevant in our age. Belonging is your statement of this collective will. This is a home where choosing to let go and hold on are studied, argued over, expressed and comforted.
This act of asking ourselves how to both hold on and let go can be a daunting responsibility. And, at these times, I know for myself, I just need a hug.
Hugs are the gesture we express that, when practiced properly, is the ideal expression of holding on letting go. Holding on to the desire for safety and presence. Letting go of anxiety, of uncertainty, of the profound solitude that comes from holding on too tightly or letting go too quickly. A good hug can heal.
Our Torah shows us an embrace like this. We see it in Jacob and Esau, two brothers who have endured a lifetime of fear and resignation, of wrestling with demons and of trepidation in facing truth. When Jacob can no longer avoid his past, the two meet in a field. We expect a battle to unfold and their lifelong enmity to lay slaughtered on the battlefield. Instead the two embrace. They hold on tightly,
While turning to the people close to you right now and giving them a hug would be sweet, and perhaps a little awkward, I want to challenge us toward a purposeful hug during these holidays and in the year to come. Pay close attention to when you need a hug and when you feel others need a hug. Where the psychology ends and the spirituality begins is when the power of a hug is transformed from the warmth of physical contact into a willful act of connection.
The final words of the Rabbi Schulweis’ poetry are ones we hold onto tightly.
We are a part of the flow of life,
The divine process which gives and takes
Creates and retains.
We, too, must give and take, seize hold, and release.
The LORD giveth and the LORD taketh.
Blessed be the Name of the LORD.
May our journey this year be filled with holding on to the very precious nature of our lives and to live with these gifts responsibly. May our year bring us to sacred release, so that what remains is life filled with blessing and purpose. Shanah Tova.