Shuvah and Tshuvah 2014
Our season, from Rosh Hashanah through the end of Neilah tomorrow night, is identified as the Ten Day of Teshuvah, repentance. We are now, at Kol Nidre at our last lap in the race of this season, of the idea of being Jews, of our Jewish identity, and of rerighting our wrongs.
I was driving in heavy traffic, just behind a truck, close enough to read the words on the bumper sticker. You know, there is one bumper sticker that says" If you can read this, you are too close." Other bumper stickers often have jokes, like "Mafia staff car", or stupid insults, but this one was unique, especially for a bumper sticker on a truck. It said.
“If you are heading in the wrong direction, God allows you to make a U-turn."
I couldn't have thought of a better slogan for this season, because if I take the word" Teshuvah", the word U-turn is probably the best translation for it.
Can we really make a u-turn in life? If I do it on the street, I may get a ticket? Can I make a u-turn if life, and not only not get a ticket, but be praised for it?
There is an old quip, recorded by one of Rashi’s grandsons in the tosafot--There is a statement in the Talmud" Everything is in the hands of heaven--hakol biyday shamayim- hutz meyirat shamayim-except for the fear of heaven" The commentator adds--Everything is in the hands of heaven, except for hot and cold.
The commentary then continues—you can open the window if it’s hot, you can light a fire if it’s cold.
What great philosophy is this?
That whatever happens to us, fortune, wealth, health, success--all that may be in the hands of heaven, all that may be beyond us, yet there is one thing we can do--If it is too hot, we can open a window, and if it is too cold, we can light a fire.
It is profound. We go through life complaining about everything, and none of it, we claim, none of it is our doing.
Oh No! The sage tried to tell us—it’s not just the simple task of opening a window or lighting a fire, changing the thermostat. It is a metaphor for all of life itself. You can open a window in life, you can light a fire in your hearts, and you can make a U-turn in life.
Life is hard, and we are sometime tempted to throw up our hands and say, in the Yiddish, es ist bashert--it is fated- it had to be- and thereby, we give up. The word Mazel is a reference to that--what happens to us is the result of mazel, --we translate as luck, but it means a constellation of stars, simply a term borrowed from astrology. It goes back to the belief that all that befalls us has been dictated by the stars long before we were born.
Even the Talmud says" Hakol taluy bemazal- afilu sefer torah baheichal--All depends on the stars, on fortune, even the Torah scroll in the ark.! How can that be? When you have a well-established synagogue, there are many scrolls, and some scrolls just have all the luck------they get read while others are ignored.
This is a great idea--I never have to take the blame for anything. It's all my mazel.
But fate, or destiny, or astrological signs, or mazel, doesn’t go over well with a sophisticated audience.
Today, we pride ourselves on being modern. We have eliminated the word fate, but we have replaced it with modern versions of fate.
First of course, we are sophisticated, we don’t believe in astrology any more—so we check the Feng Shui in a room. It’s no longer the stars that are so far away—of course they can’t influence us. But the doors facing the wrong point on the compass.? Ah, that’s something else.
But there is more. There are new things to blame.
Hakol taluy bagenim--Everything depends on our genes. This is the newest fashion--our behavior is determined by our genetic composition--patient or irritable, quick or slow, honest or dishonest, it is all a matter of genetic makeup. It's not my fault. I was born that way.
Then, we have the excuse of hakol taluy bakalkalah-- everything is in the hands of socio- economics. It is not my fault.
I was born into the wrong ethnic group—I was born black, I was born white, I was born brown—or the economic grouping—I was born in the 99%, or the newest one, I was born in the 1% and so never learned life. I was born a man- I was born a woman
We say, Hakol taluy ba psychologiah-- everything depends on psychology, on environment and upbringing.
The newest thing today is to blame your family. My family was dysfunctional, it s not my fault. My mother didn't understand me as an infant, my father made me dependent, they both gave me the wrong genes. All that we are, all that we have been, we throw off on our past, on everything around us--just not on ourselves.
What is the Jewish answer?
At this season, we have the famous prayer unetaneh tokef
-- It too begins with that theme, a sad one, that we await our fate passively--mi yihyeh umi uyamut. It is very painful and poignant, Life, death, health, illness, wealth, poverty--all of these are none of our doing. It is biydey shamayim-up to heaven.
Then we drop to the conclusion: utshuvah utefilah utsedakah maavirin et roah hagezerah
“Repentance, prayer, and acts of righteousness avert the evil decree. “
We can't change the laws of physics or medicine, but we can change the world around us, we can change ourselves, we can make our choices. Whatever may happen, come what may, we can change its impact, it import, its lasting effects on us.
Ultimately, our Rabbis narrowed down the list of what is predetermined: Hakol –everything-- taluy bashamayim,- hutz me yirat shamayim--everything, in deed may be determined outside of us, but one thing, the most crucial,--only we determine--yirat shamayim--our moral and ethical, as well as spiritual values, that which ultimately define us a human beings, upon which we shape our actions- only we can control that.
On this one fundamental question of human existence—God the Almighty- is powerless.
Do you remember having to study Shakespeare in high school. If there was one sentence in all of Shakespeare that was worth learning, it was this one line, in which conspirators look at Caesar and then one of them states: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars , but in ourselves, that we are underlings”. That’s it—don’t blame the other—take a look at yourself. That is what Shakespeare meant.
Around the time that the real Brutus was plotting against the real Caesar, the Rabbis declared "Ain leyisrael mazal". Translated literally, it would seem, The Jewish people don’t have “ mazal”. What? Did they mean we don’t have any luck?
No, it meant that the Jewish people don’t have a constellation controlling them. The Jewish people do not depend on the stars. It’s just between us—and God. We are either righteous—or not, and the fault, dear Baruch, is not in our “mazel”, but in
Is that so bad!? Is it blame? Is it overwhelming guilt thrown on us? Or is it a new chance—Is it a new opening—A U-turn in life.
In that, we are the freest of the free--that choice is ours, and ours alone to make. Not our astrological signs, not our genes, nor our social class, nor our childhood can force us to make our ultimate choices. In that we find our freedom.
I want to turn to one other aspect of this season, in our High Holy Day liturgy, one which is at the center of our purpose of being, as Jews.
Both one Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we recite the Alenu prayer in the middle of the Amidah..
The aleynu tells us why we are here, why there is to be a Jewish people. It is the original La Marseille or Star Spangled Banner of the Jewish people..
Are we to be a people of bagels and lox, a nation of check writers, and purveyors of Jewish humor?
The opening of alenu tells us something quite different.
It tells us Aleynu leshabeach l’adon hakol- We are here to give praise to the lord of all that exists, creator of the universe.
Why is that so?
Because we have been given a task that sets us apart from the hoi polloi--from the nations of the earth- she lo asanu kegoyei haaratzot-- He has not made us like the nations of the earth-- not like the ancient Roman imperialists, nor the crazed mobs of the middle ages, nor murdering Nazis.
In what way are we different?
Va ananchnu korim umishtahavim u modim lifnei melech malchei hamelachim hakadosh baruch hu. –
we bend the knee, bow down, and acknowledge the king of kings, the holy one , blessed be he--
As Jews we are to recognize the reign of God in the Universe. This is a critical issue. It is from this point that we derive our concept of the worth of the world around us, of the value of humanity, of ethical and moral behavior.
It is at this Alenu , that we do something we do at no other festival or Shabbat worship. A great teacher of Jewish wisdom, Franz Rosenzweig, noted that this distinguishes this High Holy Day period from all other festivals. We Jews refused to bow down to all the emperors and rulers in history, and we do not even bow fully before God on other days of the year, or at any crisis during the year—yes, we are a stubborn and stiff-necked people. But we do it at this season. We, or at least the Cantor and Rabbi on our behalf, kneel, not to confess faults, or ask forgiveness of sin, which we might expect during the Ten Days of Repentance, but rather to acknowledge the immanence and transcendence of God, to recognize, to feel, to sense that which is greater than us, beyond our ken, yet also present to us.
It is in this sense of the awe of the presence of God that endows us with the sense of eternal value, that we are part of something infinitely greater than our 24/7 lives. It is that which gives us our freedom and the ability to move beyond the stars, beyond the “mazal.”
May we feel that inner freedom to overcome the burden of events that we feel weigh on us so that this Yom , this Day, truly becomes on of “ Kippur”, of atonement, of “ at-one-ment”, of cleansing, and of new ness.