Sunday, October 13, 2019

People, Needed by Other People

People, Needed by Other People ( Kol Nidre 2019)

            Our Torah reading for Yom Kippur day is a bizarre one for moderns. Two goats are selected, one is sacrificed in the Temple, and the other is sent out into the wilderness, to be unceremoniously destroyed, thereby, symbolically, carrying off the sins of an entire nation. He goes off to what is called” eretz gezerah”, the land of the decree, but also, the land of cutting off.

            Gezerah, the Talmud tells us, is a land of steep cliffs, where the scape-goat is hurled down. Gezerah is a land cut off, a land of no return. That is the feeling of being in the wilderness. Ishmael, who featured in our first day Torah reading, was left to die in the wilderness.

That wilderness is described, in Jeremiah(2:6) as “ eretz tziyah v “tzalmavet” אֶרֶץ צִיָּה וְצַלְמָוֶת , a land of drought and utter darkness,   a land where no one travels and no one lives. The word for darkness here is itself a composite of tzel and mavet “ the Shadow of death”, a phrase you well know from the common translation of the 23rd Psalm. Being alone in the wilderness, where no one travels and no one lives, isolation, is to be in the shadow of death.

            I sympathize with the goat. He is a very contemporary personage; all the sins of the world are pressing down on his twisted horns and his is left, abandoned, in the wilderness, where no one travels and no one lives. We feel, ourselves, often, alone, in the midst of the crowds, in a land where no one travels, even while surrounded by many. So, if last week, I spoke of us being frustrated pigeons, tonight, we are forlorn goats.

 It turns out that we feel part of a tragedy, which, according to its Greek roots, is, aptly enough, the song of the goat, a very weak, poor “ba-a-a”!

            Alone in the wilderness. The modern condition, the song of a poor goat.

 The goals of society over the last two centuries has been to free us from social pressure, to free us from the imposition of the expectation of others. But as our society,  economy and technology  give us the tools to live as we choose, we find ourselves very much on our own, out on a limb. The price of the breakdown of neighborhood, community, and family is very steep.

            Last week, I went into Psychology 101 with my story of pigeons and racoons. Today, I will go into Sociology 101. There truly is nothing new under the sun, at least in the past centuries. The father of the study of society, Emil Durkheim, coined a word for us, “anomie”, a state of having no norms, no guidelines, that society used to provide us. Durkheim used the term "the malady of the infinite" because desire without limit can never be fulfilled; it only becomes more intense.

To borrow from Durkheim, “Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free him from all social pressure is to abandon him to himself and demoralize him.”

Do you need proof? Think of a Jerry Epstein, who denied himself no pleasure, violated all social norms, and ended miserably hanging in his cell. This is our “ goat” par excellence, off, on his own, in the wilderness.

When we are cut off from our fellow human beings and at the same time, cut off from our moral and spiritual anchors, we are the forlorn goat in the wilderness.

There is nothing new under the sun.  We feel ourselves, in the words of an ancient Persian poet, “Into this Universe, and why not knowing, Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing;
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste, I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.” ( Ruba’iyat attributed to Omar Khayyam).

It is picked up in modern sentiment by musicians of my heyday, such as Jim Morrison, Into this house we're born, Into this world we're thrown Like a dog without a bone,An actor out alone.

So we clutch at straws. We do anything to be remembered.

Some forms of getting noticed are benign, like getting into the Guiness Book of Records for eating the most hot dogs and buns at one sitting. Others, often our most creative and talented, in the midst of adoration and adulation, simply burn out, their bodies and minds spent at a young age. Then , there are those who want the world to take them seriously, like the Unabomber or the mass shooters who have plagued us in recent times.

So, do we have the cure? Remember the poor goat? He is sent off to the wilderness. But we are not that poor goat, with his goat song, his tragedy. We are the people standing in the ancient sanctuary, who have unloaded on that goat our shortcomings and are seeking to turn ourselves around.

So , we have needs, deep set physical and emotional needs and we come here, on Yom Kippur, to address those deep needs:

            A great humanistic psychologist, Abraham Maslow, spoke of us as seeking to fulfill needs, the highest of which is self-actualization, achieving our highest and noblest aspirations. That is something we wish to achieve on this day. But we can’t get to it if we don’t fulfill some very elemental needs first. Those that deal with our simple survival are first, but , for us, moderns, for most human beings, in the past century, survival is less of an issue than it was for the preceding 5700 years or so since Adam. Some of the other needs, that are considered higher needs, may actually be easy for us to meet in modern life, the need for knowledge and understanding. I think where we all get stuck is in the middle- we he called “ belongingness.” It is finding ourselves in our friends and family, in our loved ones, in our close-knit communities, such as we have at our temple, when we participate regularly.

As the story of Adam has it, “ Lo Tov He-yot adam levado”- the human being is not happy alone. We don’t want to be the lone goat in the wilderness. We want to get to the top, but we are stuck in the middle.

Do you remember the popular song by Barbara Streisand (Funny Girl, written by Bob Merril).

“People, People who need people, Are the luckiest people in the world.”

Well, no, not really. Everyone needs people, even the unluckiest. But, too often, we feel, as the philosopher, Sartre, put it, “ Hell is other people.” So we hide, or run away from this essential need.

So what is the solution- if we need other people, then we musty make ourselves needed. Other people need us, and that is where we solve our essential need.

If our illness is that we are alone, the cure is to make ourselves needed

Abraham, when he sets out on his new venture, to go to a land that he had never seen and never heard of, gets this one great promise:ְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְגֹ֣וי גָּדֹ֔ול וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃ Gen 12:2. “ I will make you a great nation , I will bless you and make your reputation great—and you shall be a blessing.” What is it “ heye brachah” – to be a blessing?

Rashi, the father of all commentators explains — Blessings are entrusted to you; hitherto they were in My power — I blessed Adam and Noah — but from now on you shall bless whomsoever you wish (Genesis Rabbah 39:11), As the Ramban added,  that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him, and not just the people of his land.

So what does it mean “to become a blessing’? Proverbs tells us “A generous person enjoys prosperity; He who satisfies others shall himself be sated. He who withholds grain earns the curses of the people, But blessings are on the head of the one who dispenses it. ( 11;25-26)

You want to gain a blessing- gain it by giving it.

If I were rewriting Funny Girl, I would reword the song” People” to say, People, needed

By other people, are the luckiest people in the world.”

So how can I become “ needed.” How can I become a brachah. Chasing others pushes them away. Helping others, giving of ourselves, brings them neigh.

It can take many, many forms. Obviously, people who have close family and friends, have and hold them by virtue of making themselves essential to their loved ones: support, care, compassion.

But, in truth, many of us live as singles, or in some form of isolation, what is sometimes called a singleton. One and only, but it doesn’t have to be lonely. There are so many ways we can make ourselves a blessing and be wanted as well as needed by others.

I was in contact with one of our members, Yuri Sokolow, and I asked him what projects he knew of that you here today could involve yourselves in. Make yourselves needed.

He had mentioned that here in West Hollywood, we have a good number of home bound elderly. Why not ask our people to volunteer to deliver food, Meals on Wheels.

We know that in the midst of plenty, there are people who are hungry. We do have the SOVA box outside, but someone has to stand at the SOVA counter and hand out the food. Why not that?

We know that social scientist have been warning us that the greatest danger facing youngsters growing up today is the absence of a strong family. This is especially true of young males who lack a positive father-image and whose mothers struggle with giving them guidance alone. Why not volunteer with Big Brothers and Big Sisters. There is a specific Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters, but it doesn’t just have to be with members of our Tribe. Here is a chance to make a difference, be a blessing, make yourself needed.

Finally, we are a community here. You do not have to feel alone. Even if you feel miserable, and down and out, just sitting down with us on a Shabbat morning, joining in on breakfast and study, worship and more food is a healing of the human condition. Like they say, “Support your local Sheriff” and “ Support your local shule.”

            In the end of all ends, a Jewish soul may never be a lone goat and forlorn, cast off into the wilderness. Everyday, in our early morning prayers, we are reminded, even when we may feel down, we can feel  “ashreinu u’ Mah tov Helkeynu”- We are happy, for our portion is good, and our destiny is pleasant, and our heritage is so beautiful.

As Jews, we are privileged to be part of history’s oldest club and fellowship, we have in it our path to the highest of needs, of finding our true selves, of lifting ourselves about the mire of daily life, and becoming a blessing,  to lift others up out of the mire as well.

When we keep that in mind, we have our true Yom Kippur, Our True atonement, our true “at”one-ment.”


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