Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Business of Busyness - Rosh Ha-Shanah Morning 5773

SEPTEMBER 17, 2012
The Business of Busyness
Jonathan E. Blake

It’s hard to believe this is now the tenth Rosh Hashanah that I have wished this beloved congregation a Shanah Tovah, a good year, a year blessed with renewal, joy, and peace.

Kelly and I think of WRT as home and for all of us this is our annual homecoming, whether you’re coming from Myrtledale Road, Manhattan, or Michigan.  It is not lost on me that many of you have made great efforts to be here, summoned to this sanctuary by powerful ties that bind home to home and heart to heart. 

Why, just two weeks ago, an 84 year-old man who lives in Hartsdale called his son who lives in Chicago to announce, “Your mother and I are getting a divorce and I want you to be the first to know!”

“Have you lost your mind?” he says.  “You and mom have been married for over 60 years!”

“Your mother told me, ‘Enough is enough!’  She’s throwing in the towel.  Call your sister in Denver and tell her.”

“Dad, please put Mom on the phone.”

“She’s already told me that if I call you she won’t talk,” and at that the father hangs up!  

Twenty minutes later, the phone rings again:  “Dad, don’t worry.  Sis and I have already booked flights with the grandchildren for the High Holidays.  Together, we’ll get to the bottom of this.”

Again the father hangs up, but this time he turns to his wife and says, “Okay, Lois, they’re coming for Rosh Ha-Shanah and paying their own airfare.  Now what do we tell them for Passover?”

So, welcome home – no matter what it took to get you here.

Because we really are very busy.  You had to choose to come here instead of going to work, finishing that homework assignment, putting the house back together after last night’s dinner, or staying on your college campus.

And many of you who could not make this homecoming in person because of disability or distance have nevertheless chosen to join us via our live webcast.  So thank you, each of you, for choosing to spend your precious time at WRT this holiday.  

“It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing,” observes essayist Tim Kreider:  “‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy busy.’ It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.”  
“Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities. They come home at the end of the day as tired as grown-ups.”  (New York Times, June 30, 2012, "The 'Busy' Trap.")

The pace of life, the urgency of the iPhone era, has so tethered us to our work obligations and civic commitments and electronic communications that we now believe that family dinners really are no longer attainable; that e-mails require immediate attention; that to find time to read a novel we have to take a vacation.  

At the same time, I’m reminded of today’s Torah reading about the Binding of Isaac, and one midrash in particular that teaches that Isaac was not a helpless victim.  He went willingly up that mountain and even fastened the cords himself (Bereshit Rabbah 56:3).
Moreover: picture not a defenseless boy but rather a 37-year old man.  The convolutions of interpretation and imagination that led the Rabbis to this improbable conclusion do not matter.  The enduring message does:  that we have bound ourselves and our children to the altar of our own busyness.  Indeed, “[t]he present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life,” writes Kreider; “it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.”  (Ibid)

I like reading even when I’m not on vacation.  At any given time my list includes a recent non-fiction work, a professional development book, a novel, and maybe a collection of poems.

Friends ask me, “How do you find time to read anything let alone four books at the same time?”  And I tell them, first of all, I never said that I finish them; and secondly, “Time isn’t lost and you don’t find it,” as my friend Rabbi Les Gutterman likes to say.  “You take time for those things that you really care about, that you really value, that you understand are precious and holy and life-enhancing.”

Speaking of books:  Do you know the two most important Jewish books in your home?  They are your checkbook and your datebook.  Each one is a statement of values, of spiritual priorities--of what really matters to you.

A dollar donated to tzedakah is a dollar that cannot go toward a child’s college fund or a vacation.  An hour spent reading is an hour I won’t spend at the gym or writing my Yom Kippur sermon.  An hour spent at Confirmation Class is an hour that a student cannot spend on homework or sports practice.  An hour spent in a deep conversation with a friend on a park bench over iced coffee on a gorgeous day like today is an hour that cannot be spent returning e-mails or meeting with a client or buying groceries. 

I am not ranking the intrinsic value of any of these pursuits.  I am saying only, we don’t find time; we take time; and we make choices about the time we take.

But given our over-programmed lives I worry about us making choices that lead to fulfillment and joy, choices that affirm something sacred and meaningful in our lives.  So today I propose a three-stage antidote to the soul-draining business of our own busyness.  The first is Slow Down.  The second is Stop.  And the third is Stay There.  Slow Down.  Stop.  And Stay There.

I know that most of us believe that we are much too busy to study the Babylonian Talmud, but how about just the very first line?

The Talmud opens with a question about time.  Me’imatai korin shema b’arvin, “How long does one have to recite the Shema in the evening?”  Because the Torah instructs reciting the Shema “when you lie down and when you rise up,” the Rabbis wondered:  how much time, exactly, does that give us?  In Talmudic fashion, a debate ensues.  Rabbi Eliezer says, from dinnertime until the end of the first watch, about 9:00 PM; the other Sages say, “until midnight”; but Rabban Gamliel proposes, “Until the first light of dawn" (Bavli Berakhot 2a).

Better, Gamliel believes, to perform a paramount religious act slowly, intentionally, than to dash through it; even worse, to use today’s word, to “multitask,” mumbling the Shema while brushing teeth or putting on PJs.  You gotta slow down, give your bedtime prayers their proper place and pace.

The Talmudic Rabbis elsewhere stipulate that we should not eat while standing (Derekh Eretz Zuta, Ch. 5).

No more multitasking when it comes to mealtime because in Judaism there is no more sacred, life-affirming act, than to eat.  So slow down, give your meals their proper place and pace.   (You know, like they do in Europe.)

No one knows more about multitasking than moms.  For the first time in history, IQ tests now show women surpassing men and the jump in women’s intelligence is attributed to the multitasking that women do, balancing childrearing, careers, and civic commitments.  Any exhausted parent knows that multitasking can make life stressful and deprive special moments of their special meaning.  Even short car rides have become a cacophony of:  a conference call over Bluetooth, Bar Mitzvah practice in the back seat, and a DVD playing on the overhead minivan screen.  

And what does multitasking teach our children about how to manage their time?  One friend of mine, a working mother of four, says, “Let them play in the dirt, enjoy lazy summer days, and be sure to tell them they can do and be whatever they imagine.  And then leave them be!  They’ll find their way to greatness.”

Sometimes we don’t get the choice to slow down before life chooses it for us--in the form of a broken bone, a broken heart, a heart attack, a lost job, the death of a loved one.  Have you ever been forced to slow down?  What did you learn?  How did your setback change you?

I recently started a great new book by Frank Partnoy called Wait:  The Art and Science of Delay.  (Notice I didn’t say I’ve finished it.)  Taking my sweet time actually corroborates the author’s point.  Whether one has milliseconds or minutes or months to act, people who take their time and slow things down as much as possible make better decisions... and enjoy a better quality of life, too.  “If you watch Albert Pujols hit a baseball in really slow motion,” Partnoy observes, “he looks just like Warren Buffet buying a stock:  study the pitcher, watch the ball carefully, and don’t respond to any opportunity until you have taken time to decide if it is a good one.  Wait as long as you can so you’ll have a better chance of swinging only at fat pitches" (Kindle Edition, loc. 599).

Taking one’s time produces better bedtime prayers, better meals, better investments and better baseball.  It improves quality of life.  “People today read less, take fewer museum trips, and attend fewer concerts,” Partnoy notices. “...The decline in the number and quality of our cultural experiences can be traced, at least in part, to unconscious stimuli that make us live faster.” (Ibid) 

Albert Einstein theorized that for a particle moving at very high speeds--like the speed of light--time slows down. Carl Sagan elaborated on the strange consequences of this premise.  “This is sometimes described as the twin paradox:  two identical twins, one of whom goes off on a voyage close to the speed of light, the other one stays home.  When the space-traveling twin returns home, time hasn’t dilated for him or her, that is, he or she has aged only a little, while the twin who has remained at home has aged at the regular pace. And here we have two identical twins who may be decades apart in age" (Nova transcript, “Time Travel.”  PBS Air date:  October 12, 1999).

Applying a scientific theory to a spiritual theme:  moving too fast deprives us of the beauty and splendor of a life lived at a sensible speed.  Only by slowing down do we ensure that life won’t pass us by. 

Okay.  A cop pulls a man over for running a stop sign and the subject gives the cop a lot of grief explaining that he did stop.  For several minutes, the cop insists that he didn’t stop, he just slowed down through the intersection.  The driver says, “Stop, slow down, who cares, what’s the difference?”

So the policeman says, “Sir, step out of the car,” and proceeds to hit the man with his nightstick for about a minute, at which point he says, “Now would you like me to slow down or stop?”

So there is a need to slow down, but there is also a need to stop from time to time.
Jason Fried runs 37Signals, a software company that develops web-based productivity apps for workplace collaboration.  To improve his own staff’s productivity, creativity, and collaboration, Mr. Fried made some big changes around the office.  Every year from May to October they switch to a four-day workweek.  And not 40 hours crammed into four days, but 32.  “We don’t work the same amount of time,” he says.  “We work less.”  The results?     “[B]etter work gets done in in four days than in five.  When there’s less time to work… you tend to focus on what’s important.  Constraining time encourages quality time" (“Be More Productive.  Take Time Off,” New York Times.  August 19, 2012).

Of course the Jewish tradition has known this all along.  Before construction begins on the biggest labor project in Israelite memory, the building of the Tabernacle, the Torah announces:  “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Shabbat of complete rest, holy to Adonai; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death” (Ex. 31:15).  

This Shabbat business is serious business.  

The Jewish way is:  You get six days on, one day off.  That’s the pace.  It’s not 50 weeks on, two weeks off--the average American vacation time (of which the average American uses only nine days, resulting in 175 million unused days left over for the US workforce, every year).  It’s not forty years on, twenty years off.  It’s six days on, one day off!  

Of all the things we modern-day, non-Orthodox Jews need in our lives--need from our spiritual heritage--the most important is Shabbat.  The word Shabbat means STOP and like the red octagon at the end of every street we should be taking it far more seriously than most of us do.  When I ask kids--or for that matter, adults--to name the Ten Commandments, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” often gets forgotten.  But we need Shabbat now more than ever!  

Taking time on Friday or Saturday for Shabbat dinner and services can really balance out your week.  But this is about so much more than candles, Kiddush, and challah.  Don’t confuse the ritual with its meaning.

We need a set time at the end of the week to STOP.  Take a deep breath.  Remember the past week.  Let go of the nuisances that drive our stress levels through the roof.  Capture a memory of something that made us laugh or fall in love or feel inspired.  Contemplate the week ahead and focus our intention on what we’d like it to hold.  Honor our loved ones who have died.  Pray for those struggling with illness.  Learn from the wellspring of Torah and marry the learning to our lives.  Sing out loud in a setting where no one will tell you to pipe down.  Connect and reconnect with the people in our community.  Have an extra mini-éclair where no one will judge you for it.  That’s Shabbat at WRT.  It’s joyful, spiritual, communal.  A Friday night service is about an hour, maybe 75 minutes, of your time.  A good, fulfilling--dare I say it, even fun--time. 
And Shabbat doesn’t happen just in temple.  Shabbat is, Heschel reminded us, “a sanctuary we build, a sanctuary in time” and there are lots of ways to take that time and make Shabbat special, different.  Shabbat is more important than even the High Holidays--that’s why the Jewish calendar gives it to us every single week while Rosh Ha-Shanah need take our time only once a year. 

Maybe Shabbat will become your day to power down the cell phone, the computer, the television.  Sometimes restrictions can liberate us.  Or maybe you’ll spend Shabbat in a concert hall, a grassy field, a meditation class, or a living room full of great people.  Because the bottom line is not whether you prayed in Hebrew or English or at all.  The bottom line is, six days on, one day off.   

Slow down.  Stop.  And stay there.

Each step is harder than the last.

“Staying there” is the hardest of all.

Because even the most uplifting and relaxing Shabbat comes to an end.  Because even a four-day workweek means the alarm going off… on Tuesday morning. 

The Torah tells us that God summoned Moses up Mount Sinai with an unusual phrase:  Alei eilai ha-hara, v’heyeh sham.  Come up the mountain to Me, God says, and be there (Ex. 24:12).

The phrase “and be there” puzzled the Rabbis who believed the Torah to be perfect and therefore incapable of carrying extraneous words.  I mean, where else would Moses be after coming up the mountain?  Would he not already “be there?”

Examining the phrase, the Kotzker Rebbe taught that even if a person strains to reach the summit of a mountaintop, it is nevertheless possible not to be there. “Even standing on the very peak itself, one’s head may be somewhere else.”  Scaling the mountain is often the easy part.  The hard part is staying there, not being distracted away from that place and that moment.  

“In the 60’s, there was a famous slogan, ‘Be Here Now,’” recalls the beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  “Today, with the cellphones, the fax, the Internet, the whole schmear--the slogan you have today is ‘Be Somewhere Else Now'" (“Questions for Lawrence Ferlinghetti:  The Beat Goes On,” New York Times.  November 26, 2005).

  How many of us can’t even make it through dinner without checking our cell phones, our e-mail, the stock market?  Do we realize that by so doing, we are really saying, “something is more important to me right now than you are, than this dinnertime moment together?”

The time has come to ask ourselves:  why do we stuff our lives so full of stuff to do?  What emotional need, what hole in our lives, does our busyness fill?  Why do we sometimes feel self-conscious or even stigmatized when we have leisure time?  Tim Kreider nails it:  “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day" ("The 'Busy' Trap").
So many students setting out from college think the important question is, “What am I going to do?” when in fact it is, “Who am I going to be?”  Remember, the goal of life is not to fill a schedule, a résumé, but rather to let these fill you, to choose how we spend our time so as to reflect our innermost priorities.  What it comes down to is mastering the art of Staying There.

I know a rabbi who says a little prayer every time he enters a hospital room or a house of shiva.  He says, “God, when I get there, let me be there.”  

We need this prayer.

God, when I get home at the end of the day, let me be there for my wife, my husband, my children.  God, when I get on the phone with my parents, let me be there… no matter what meshugas they decide we need to talk about.  God, when I get to temple, let me be there and not feel the need to leave immediately after the rabbi’s sermon... and miss the sound of the shofar… the sound that summons us to slow down, stop, and stay there.  

Ultimately, these holidays, are about being rather than doing, about working to live rather than living to work, about transforming who we are from the inside and not just behavior modification.  These holidays are all about mastering the art of staying there, of being fully present in every moment of life.

Our precious little time on earth flies away so fast.

My God, I don’t know where it goes!

How will you spend yours?  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Nitzavim 5772: The last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah

Shavua Tov Everyone! Below is my sermon from last night on Parashat Nitzavim, to help get us ready for the High Holidays!

I remember when I was a kid, I had a bad habit.  My mother, who is probably watching this from afar, might not have known this, but take this as a cautionary tale for all parents.  You see I was lazy.  Every day I would come home from school, and have a snack.   That was usually my first step, I’d grab something good from the fridge and plop down on the couch, and watch TV as I did my homework.  Now the laziness was most evident in what I did with the food wrapper when I was done. I knew that if I left it on the table, my mother would admonish me. So, in the quiet house, all alone, I’d stuff the wrapper in between the couch cushions.   

Some might argue that the true measure of a person is how they act when they think no one is watching. Those secret moments where we don’t feel as if there are consequences, but that we are simply having fun even if it isn’t the way we would want to be portrayed to the world.  Clearly alone in my house I believed that to be true, that I was secreting away my food wrappers with no one being the wiser.   
However our Parashah delves into the challenge of hidden things. In this weeks Parasha, Nitzavim we are told:
29: 28. The hidden things belong to Adonai, our God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever: that we must fulfill all the words of this Torah.
כח. הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַי־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת:

The hidden things.   What could this mean?  The medieval Commentator Rashi suggests that this is to delineate two forms of justice.   Human justice which will be meted out to all people based on their public actions, and Divine Justice for those things that are done in secret.   
However the challenge that I have is even greater.  Based upon this text, the talmud teaches us a blessing for a particular situation: One who sees multitudes of Israel recites:
Ba-ruch a-tah A-do-nai
E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech Ha-o-lam,
cha-cham ha-ra-zim.
Blessed are You, Adonai,
our God, Ruler of the Universe,
Knower of secrets.  
Our blessing and Torah suggests something that is hard to fathom: God knows our secrets.  G-d knows that I stuffed these food items in my parents couch.   God knows that I was speeding on the Hutch earlier today.  I wonder: What does it mean to believe in a G-d who knows our secrets?
Scholars in the world have tried to determine what it means for us as humanity to believe in God.  There was a provocative NPR series entitled “The Human Edge” that came out a few years ago.  The series discussed anything from opposable thumbs, to walking upright.   One of the articles in the series was entitled “Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?” by Alix Spiegel.   Within the article, Spiegel provides the same reason that Rashi gives.  That G-d is there to ensure that the bad people would eventually be punished, in this world or the next, and that we could manage our own society by ensuring that the rules had a basis in something larger than ourselves.
This particular view of G-d is a view. It has it’s basis in Jewish tradition and modern scholarship.   However, G-d is not one-dimensional this is only one view of many. Yoram Hazony, a biblical scholar, argues that G-d knowing our secrets, knowing all of us, allows us to develop into a better version of ourselves.   He claims that, having “... a power in the world that is able to hear you, and that is going to allow you to develop your understanding of what's right, and of the way the world should develop.' All of human history has proceeded from that first spark of hope that appears in the Hebrew scriptures."  (http://www.npr.org/2012/09/04/160388922/an-individualist-approach-to-the-hebrew-bibleAccording to Hazony, having G-d there allows us to accept our own humanity and push ourselves to be a better person.   

Having a G-d who knows our secrets isn’t just a G-d who knows our foibles.  It is a G-d who knows our aspirations.   A God that looks out at us and takes us for all that we are and encourages us to become a better person. It is this particular relationship with G-d that I have tried to cultivate over the past few years.   It feels so antithetical to my rationalist mindset, I always think of the movie Dogma, where Alan Rickman playing the Metatron says: Whenever someone is talking to G-d they’re really talking to me, or they’re talking to themselves.”  It is that cognitive dissonance that always strikes me whenever someone suggests that they are talking to G-d, the back of my mind shouts out, well they’re probably talking to themselves. However, really that dissonance is most profound when people say that God is talking to them, versus the other way around.  To speak to G-d can be a natural and easy process, but often requires practice, and opportunity, and a suspension of the hyper-rationalism that can override our thinking at times.    
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, was a chassidic master of the 19th century.   One of his memorable teachings was the act of hitbodedut, which translates to self seclusion.  The activity he encouraged was to be alone with G-d. According to Rebbe Nachman, we are to find a quiet personal place, with no other distractions and to just talk.  To allow the stream of consciousness that is welling up within you to come out.   To address G-d as you would someone sitting right there, listening to your every word. Sometimes a friend, sometimes an adversary.  If you begin with the operating assumption that G-d already knows all your secrets it can be incredibly freeing.   There is no need to worry about what G-d will think of this idea or that, or the need to hold back. Rather it provides space to feel free to say whatever is on our minds.   I began this practice months ago, and while it’s often hard to find that private space with an infant at home, the power of sharing with G-d aloud the prayer of my heart was staggering.  To put into words what had only been thoughts concretized some of my hopes, and gave me strength when planning on how to tackle my foibles.   
G-d is everywhere, we simply need to be receptive to the opportunities to relate to G-d in our lives.  We call G-d Avinu, our parent, scolding us like the young version of me shoving food wrappers in the couch.  We call G-d malkeinu, our sovereign who sits on high judging us for the right and wrong actions. Yet we also call G-d Dodeinu, our beloved friend who we can lovingly talk with, and share our hopes and our weaknesses with. As we enter into the High Holidays, we shouldn’t our relationships to G-d to be one dimensional, but to challenge ourselves to interact with G-d in new and different ways.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Reflections on Israel from A Congregant in Israel!

Dear Friends,

Periodically throughout the coming months we have the special privilege to read reflections shared with us from our congregant Sarah E. Friedman who grew up at WRT, graduated in 2010 from Kenyon College, and who is presently living in Israel as part of a program of graduate study.

I have invited to be a "voice on the ground" and it seems fitting to note here that her first reflections come in symmetry with the weekly parasha, Nitzavim, which emphasizes the promise God made to our ancestors to inherit the Land of Israel.

You can follow her personal blog about her Israel experience here:  http://sarahefriedman.blogspot.co.il/2012/08/first-days-in-arava.html 

Her first WRT blog posting follows.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake


Sarah E. Friedman
WRT Blog – September 2012

Living Social(ist)

On the kibbutz where I’m temporarily living, everyone contributes and everyone collects. Unlike many kibbutzim that have gradually embraced capitalism in most aspects of formerly communal life, this kibbutz has adhered remarkably closely to its socialist roots. Members hold all kinds of jobs – some take care of the kibbutz cows, some are academics, some do IT work. Members have all kinds of salaries, too – but they never get a paycheck. That goes directly to the kibbutz. As the Marxists say: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

As a product of a well-worn Scarsdale track – from Scarsdale public schools and WRT Hebrew school to a private college to a job and apartment in New York City – now in my mid-twenties, I am alternately experiencing shock and delight at this surprising system in the Jewish homeland that I’ve been raised to revere and have independently learned to struggle with and love. This will be my first blog post describing interesting or complex social and political topics I encounter in Israel over the next year.

I see the appeal of the kibbutz. It’s ease and an automatic community. Everything is included in membership: forget about filling out a 20-page application so you can shell out $30K for preschool, à la New York City – you don’t even have to cook your own food. All meals except Saturday breakfast are served in the communal dining hall. Laundry is done for you. There’s day care for babies and toddlers, there’s a pre-school, and there’s a bus to grade school. When your kids finish army service, if they return to work on the kibbutz for one year the kibbutz will pay 100,000 shekels for their college – and in Israel, that covers full undergraduate tuition plus living expenses. The kibbutz pays for computers for members and sets up pension funds for them. The kibbutz pays for one class a year at the local community center – something like pilates or music appreciation. At the kibbutz store, many items are 100% subsidized – that’s free – including toiletries and basic foods (even though, again, meals are provided). When you want to travel off the kibbutz, you can take one of the free shuttles to nearby locations, or you can sign out one of the communal cars. Many members don’t have bank accounts – just credit cards linked to the stipend the kibbutz provides (which is divided into non-transferable categories like clothing, furniture, and pocket money, and the amount of which depends on the number and age of their children). In exchange, members contribute their full salaries, regularly perform some community-serving task – such as nighttime guard duty – and fully embrace a way of life that seemingly can be both limiting and rewarding in extremes.

When the original kibbutzim were founded, the members were thinking about survival. They banded together, often not knowing anything about agriculture but figuring it out as they went along – or dying or leaving Palestine. This kibbutz was founded well after the establishment of the State of Israel and its security, and it was more about community than survival. Still, life is pretty basic. Until 1985 or 1986, the members didn’t have personal phones. There was no TV on the kibbutz until after the Gulf War. At first, members weren’t allowed to have personal bank accounts, and if they received an inheritance it went straight to the kibbutz. Now, whatever concessions to modernity have been made, the success of the kibbutz still depends both on complete communal cooperation – no taking advantage of the commons. (I expect its success is also supported by the mensches who work in lucrative careers but remain committed to the socialist concept.)

I didn’t realize how thoroughly capitalist my own mindset is until confronted by one fact, a reality that fits comfortably with the kibbutz ideology but struck me as absolutely insufferable: for members with parents and children living abroad (I’d guess that applies to about half of all members), the kibbutz will pay for a family’s plane tickets to leave Israel once in four years. The stipend is not high enough to cover a visit to the US – which averages about $1,300 for Economy – so if you want to see your parents or children more than once every four years, you better hope your parents or children are raking it in in their non-kibbutz existences. Then, if someone else buys your plane ticket, the kibbutz clock resets and you have to wait another four years before the kibbutz will pay for a trip. Not having money to visit my family abroad, no matter how hard I worked, would be a torment great enough to fully outweigh any benefits of kibbutz living. It’s a reflection of submission of your own needs to the communal good, a concept that doesn’t square well with the individualism and freedom-worshiping ethos of the United States. 

I have traveled widely and I came here with an open mind (though also with a return ticket to New York), but I never expected to feel so incredulous at a way of life I found in Israel, the most familiar of the places I’ve been. I am grateful to have a more unusual experience than I planned on. I must emphasize that the experience of living here is terrific. In describing kibbutz life and outlining the ways in which I am not cut out for it, I’m making not a value judgment – just a value assessment that I hope will be interesting to WRT members. I am open to a discourse about the merits and drawbacks of kibbutzim and about any other future Israeli issues I will write about, so please leave comments and let’s have a dialogue.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

D'var Selicha - A Meditation on Authenticity

D’var Selicha 5772
Jonathan Blake

A story is told of the famed 5th-Century-BCE Greek sculptor, architect and painter named Phidias who was commissioned to make a statue for one of Athens’ temples.  The statue was to be set against a wall inside one of the rooms of the temple.  Phidias used only the best and most expensive tools for the task and gave exquisite attention to every inch of the statue.

An apprentice in his workshop asked the master, “I can understand why you work so hard on the front side of the statue, for that will be seen.  But why must you work so hard on the back?  After all, it will be up against a wall and no one will see it anyway.”  The artist answered, “The gods see everywhere.”

His answer should resonate with artists everywhere because real artists do not create in order to impress others but to express their innermost selves.  Therefore their art must be right, inside and out, comprehensively true to the artist’s vision, reflective of the artist’s innermost longings.

As it goes in the realm of Art so it goes in the realm of the Spirit.  Our spiritual pursuits must also be true to a vision; right, inside and out.  I offer you this reflection tonight, on the cusp of a new year, because it seems to me that one important spiritual aspiration that we might renew at this time of year is our ongoing quest to become our most authentic selves.  

Authenticity is commodity much in demand in our world; there is nothing more obnoxious than when we see others straining to present themselves as something they are not:  authors who invent quotes and even pseudo-biographical experiences in order to impress the reader and buy credibility with false credit; social climbers who cover up their own insecurities and unique charms by attaching themselves to the wealthy or powerful; politicians whose promises reflect what they think voters want to hear rather than their own core convictions; children who so crave fitting in that they betray their own happiness to be part of the crowd.  

And in our world, where anyone with Photoshop can smooth out every imperfection; where plastic surgery can mask the steady toll of time; where high school and college kids are often talked out of pursuing their dreams because they have to do something “practical” with their lives; is it any wonder that sightings of authenticity seem so rare and refreshing?

This past January, when we were interviewing candidates for the assistant rabbi job that would eventually go to Rabbi David Levy, I asked our Confirmation students, tenth graders, what qualities they would seek in our new rabbi.  I underscored that youth work would be a core component of this new rabbi’s portfolio and therefore I felt it important to invite their feedback into the process.  

One thoughtful and impassioned teenager implored me, “Please don’t focus on hiring someone cool.  Hire a rabbi who is real.  Kids are tired of adults thinking that what we want in our teachers, spiritual leaders, and role models, is someone cool and hip so that we’ll be impressed by them.  What kids really want, and really need, is someone real--true to him or herself and his or her beliefs.”  In that moment, I wanted to hire this student to be our next rabbi -- so wise and true did her words ring.

A favorite midrash, a Rabbinic lesson, asks a question about a peculiar feature of the Holy Ark whose construction is described in the Book of Exodus.  Moses receives instructions from God to have an Ark built of cedar wood, and then to have the Ark inlaid and overlaid with gold.  The overlaying we can understand as everyone could see it; but inside, where no one but God could know, why inlay the entire thing with precious gold?

From this detail the Rabbis deduced an important principle:  “Whosoever wishes to be considered a disciple of the wise has to be the same kind of person, inside and out.  One cannot be impressive and ostentatious in piety when people are looking and a scoundrel when no one else will know.”

Selichot--the word means “forgiveness”--prompts us to approach the people in our lives whom we may have hurt with our words, our ways, or our failure to act or speak, our inattentiveness.  

As we go about this difficult spiritual work we’d be wise to remember what our Sages teach, that there are two types of divisiveness:  between one person and another, and between a person and him or herself. 

Divisiveness between two people is easy to comprehend.   Of internal divisiveness, a state of conflict with oneself, the Rabbis use this phrase: “Echad B’Peh, Echad B’Lev,” that is, the mouth is saying one thing, but the heart is saying something else.”  

One Chasidic Master, Reb Yisrael, who founded the Modzitz dynasty, taught that when a person is not at one with oneself, when one’s speech betrays one’s true feelings, this internal divisiveness inevitably leads to discord with other people -- hence my astute teenage student’s harsh assessment of people who try to be cool instead of trying to be real.  
Put positively, one should strive to be “tocho k’varo,” with inner self and outer self in concord with each other.

In other words, authentic.

There is another word in the English language whose  meaning may point to the same idea and takes us back to where we started, the world of art and sculpture in particular.  

The word is “sincere.”  A folk tradition links the word sincere to two Latin words, “sine” and “cera” which means without wax.  When artists were commissioned to produce a work of sculpture, those who were honest would use pure marble.  Fraudulent practitioners would use good material in front where people could see but inferior material in the back and then patch the holes with wax--a shortcut often exposed by the first hot and sunny day.  

For this reason when a work was completed, the artist would attest to the quality of his work by signing that it had been done sine cera – that is, without wax -- sincerely.

The Chasidic Rebbe Zusya, who is celebrated for his emotional introspection and heartfelt piety, is credited with the quintessential teaching for the Yamim Noraim.  I imagine you have heard it countless times but  listen to his words again.  

“When I reach the next world,” said Zusya, “God will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’  The question will be, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”

It’s all about authenticity.  Why are you not the person you were meant to be?  Why are you not the most you that you could be?

As we prepare to enter the new year, I hope each of us will take some time to consider the following two questions and respond privately as a kind of spiritual exercise that will help us enter this new year in a state of wholeness and peace.   - JEB

I am my most authentic self when I am:

1. __________________________________________________
2. __________________________________________________
3. __________________________________________________

These things get in the way of my own most authentic self:

1. __________________________________________________
2. __________________________________________________
3. __________________________________________________