Saturday, September 29, 2012

Spiritual Hangover: A post-#YomKippur dilemma

I'll be posting my High Holy Day sermons soon, but since a few of you on the Twitters wanted to see my words last night (the Shabbat after Yom Kippur), here you go. Shavua Tov:

I can’t shake this feeling that there is something missing.

Maybe it is the weight of a laptop bag missing from my shoulder.

Maybe it is the way I can casually walk by Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf without the anxiety of finding an outlet and an empty table.

Maybe it is  the dining room table that is no longer a temporary workspace, overrun with sermon drafts and notes.

There is a strangeness to these days, the days immediately after Yom Kippur and before Sukkot. And I don’t think I am just saying that because I am a rabbi, because these are our “Superbowl Sunday” or “New York Marathon.” I believe that all of you felt it, feel it, as well. There is something special, even magical, that happens in those moments—our cantors’ majestic voices, the quiet contemplation of Yizkor, the anticipation and excitement building through Ne’ilah. There is this sense, this beautiful, meaningful sense that we are all in it together, that we are not alone, that we can and will make a difference in our lives and in the world.

My colleague, Rabbi Sharon Brous, unknowingly summed up just what I felt as I looked out over the crowds on Wednesday morning. I realized it was, maybe, inappropriate to the day, but I kept smiling as I saw your faces. In her Kol Nidrei sermon this year, she wrote:

It’s that I love that for all of your cynicism, skepticism, discomfort, alienation, marginalization -you still come.  Trying to find something – holding out the possibility that maybe, just maybe something will happen.  So you fight for parking and stand in line and come and sit here on our crummy rental chairs, no idea if the AC will blow out mid-service turning this into a sweat lodge or some kind of bikram davening experience.  You come pretty much knowing it’s not all going to feel good – the day is long and the liturgy is challenging and I’m going to, in some very loving way, kick your spiritual a$% over the course of our time together…But you show up – with your questions of imminence and transcendence, your struggles over life’s meaning and your purpose in the world.

And we do. We struggle, and we strain, we are bored, we are inspired, we are moved, we are “utzy.” We are here. We are together.

And then….havdallah. We separate, literally and figuratively. We all go our separate ways, carrying memories and moments and melodies. We go back—to the emails, the voicemails, the piles that we left on Tuesday afternoon. We go back:

--into a world where rabid anti-Islam fanaticism is plastered in the New York City subway, claiming to speak for me as a Jew.

--into a world where the vision of Israel’s existence as a Jewish, democratic, and physical state is unclear, and something to be debated by diplomats and dictators alike.

--into a world where the problems I had, we had, before Yom Kippur, are still there, looming…maybe just a little bit smaller.

It feels jarring. Each year, the day after Yom Kippur feels surreal—even without the exhaustion. I think of it as a spiritual hangover; there’s so much, there’s TOO much in these first 10 days of Tishrei. And so, waking up without it—I felt—maybe we feel—a bit adrift. A bit lonely. Even a bit sad. To say nothing of the ache in my knees!

But, of course, our tradition is wise to the challenge. Our tradition recognizes that, like Moses coming down from the mountain, it is too hard to simply jump right back into the every day. And so, tradition teaches us that—while one can build a sukkah beginning 30 days before the holiday itself, the ideal time to do it is the night after Yom Kippur.  Have a bagel, grab a hammer.

I want to suggest tonight—as we look ahead to Sukkot on Sunday night, that there are two reasons for this. One is traditional, one experiential. Traditional commentaries suggest that we build a sukkah immediately after breaking the fast in order that we go from mitzvah to mitzvah. In other words, we stave off the inevitable—creating this artificial space in which our behavior remains spotless. We don’t give ourselves the time to slide back into old patterns, we move from one thing to the next, barely giving ourselves a chance to reflect on what was before we turn to what will be. It’s a smart tradition, if a difficult one.

But there is a deeply experiential piece of Sukkot, and therein, I think, lies the answer to my dilemma of how to re-enter the world.
Sukkot is, more than any other holiday, a holiday of vulnerability. We are required to be open—open to the elements of wind and rain, of cold or blistering heat. We are expected to be uncomfortable—to not have all of our “stuff,” to live without some of the creature comforts. We are enjoined to leave our homes and possessions and to go out to the sukkah, protected only by the wings of the Divine presence. It’s scary, just like the world. But it is also a space for growth, and for incredible potential.

The High Holy Days are, among other things, a chance to live in the world as it could be. They are a chance to imagine our best selves, and with it—imagine our best world. Cocooned within these walls, it all seems real, it all seems possible. Sukkot is a chance—a requirement—to live in the world as it is. A world where not everyone has comfortable, permanent housing. A world where the custom of ushpizin—of inviting guests—can be an exclusive, hate-mongering experience. A world where the very structures in which we ground our lives—are fragile, impermanent. But, we get to do it surrounded by the Divine Presence, sure only of ephemeral comfort and protection. And it is with that Presence, with that protection, that we can ease ourselves back into life—back into our task of transforming the world as it is into the world as it could be.

Because it is possible. It is real. And we are in it together.

The old-wives tale says that the only cure for a hangover is the tail of the dog that bit you. My cure for the spiritual hangover of Yom Kippur? Sukkot. Come join us Monday morning, study in the sukkah next Saturday, shake lulav and etrog and samachta b’chagecha—rejoice in the Festival. Rejoice in the world as it is, and start building for the world as it could be.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

#BlogElul: Deja Vu, All Over Again

Really, according to the #BlogElul schedule, I should have posted this on Wednesday--as I suppose it most closely corresponds to the idea of change. But, this is the drash I gave last night--mostly on second chances, with a little wayward son thrown in there. It's also a little long for blogging, so, apologies.

Shavua tov.


It’s déjà vu, all over again.

Yogi Berra made this particular quip, he explains, when he witnessed Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris repeatedly hit back-to-back home runs in the Yankees' seasons in the early 1960s.

It began to play out, not as a quip but as a terrifying reality, to citizens of the Gulf Coast as they watched Isaac turn from a tropical storm to a hurricane, and turn from the Eastern Seaboard towards their homes. The nation, or—most of us at least—held our breath. Would the levees hold? Or would it be, in the most tragic of ways, déjà vu all over again—same day, same city….same results.

It was, of course, a combination of factors—environmental as well as reactional—that made this story different. The storm was weaker, yes, but the levees were stronger. The winds were lighter, but the preparations were heavier. The rain lasted longer, but the cleanup will be easier. The people of New Orleans, the government of Louisiana, and the President of the United States were determined that the story of Isaac would not be the story of Katrina. Instead, it was a second chance—a chance to learn from past mistakes and do better.

Seems like a good story for this time of year, this reflective season. As Rosh HaShanah draws ever closer, we come ever nearer to the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. And what is Deuteronomy if not, in its very name, a second telling? Scholars love to parse the differences between the laws as given in Exodus and Leviticus and those given in Deuteronomy, hanging theories on a single word. Differences in the recitation of the 10 Commandments have given rise to ritual practice; it is the reason we light two Shabbat candles on Friday nights—in Exodus we are told to remember Shabbat, in Deuteronomy to observe it; the two shining lights remind us of both.

And this week, as we read the litany of laws in Ki Tetzei—laws about wartime morality, sexual boundaries, and forbidden relationships, we find laws aimed at balancing the scales between the haves and the have-nots, laws designed to protect the most vulnerable, laws designed to create an ideal Israelite society. As we read them—well, déjà vu all over again. We heard many of them—in Exodus maybe, certainly in Leviticus. Heck, we heard some of them just last week in Parashat Shoftim. So, what makes this parasha different from all other parshiot?

First, the focus. Scholar Adele Berlin, in her introduction to Ki Tetzei in Torah: A Women’s Commentary, notes that:

Whereas Parashat Shoftim concentrates on public officials, most of the laws in Ki Tetzei are directed at ordinary individuals. What may once have been considered family matters—such as the rights of a lesser-loved wife, the punishment of wayward children, the finding of lost objects—here are matters of concern to the society at large.

And for a second reason that Ki Tetzei is different, is not just a repetition, I want to look for a moment at the wayward son, the ben sorer u’moreh, the text that parents read sometimes wishfully…but mostly in horror.

If a householder has a wayward and defiant son—ben sorer u’moreh—who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon his town’s council shall stone him to death. (Deut. 21:18-21)

Anyone who has parented—or been—a toddler OR a teenager knows that it’s sort of in the job description. Testing limits, psychologists call it today. Defining boundaries. And so what do we do with this text?

The rabbis of the Mishnah take the text and put all sorts of conditions on it. If he ate meat, but did not drink wine—he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. If he drank wine and did not eat meat, he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. If he ate meat and drank wine, but at a particular time or a particular reason, he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. If he stole something from his father but not his mother, he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. If he stole something from his mother but not his father, he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. If his parents cannot agree on his punishment, he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. And so on, and so forth.

And then, even if all of the conditions are met—first they must try to punish him at home. Then, before a Beit Din—a court of three judges. Then, before the High Court—a court of 23. And then, if they want to bring him before the village and have him stoned—the first court has to be present too. Are you following all this?

The Talmud cuts to the chase, however. Ben sorer u’moreh lo haya, v’lot atid l’hiyot. There never has been such a stubborn and rebellious son, and there never will be.

The obvious question is then asked—lamah nichtav? Why was this law written? That you may study it…

I think that this teaching—this terrible, unimaginable teaching—comes to teach us about second chances. And third chances. And fourth chances. It is there precisely to challenge us, to make us ask: what are the unmovable boundaries. What transgressions are too much? And up until then, what will we do to rebuke, to critique—and to offer another chance.

It is not a coincidence, then, that we read Deuteronomy as we lead up to the High Holy Days, days which are dedicated to the notion that we have a second, third, fiftieth chance to do better, to be better. The message of Elul, of Rosh HaShanah, of Yom Kippur, is the same message we hear each and every Shabbat, it is the message of Deuteronomy, of the prophets: Return us to You,O God, then shall we return. It is the message of God meeting us halfway, of God forgiving the stiffnecked people….and we, the stiffnecked people, managing to turn--even infinitesimally-- back to God, and back to our better selves.

So I return to the floods, for a moment. Our prayers this Shabbat go out to those in Mississippi and Lousiana who are still without power, who are still battling rising waters, who are still reeling from a storm 7 years ago. And so, in their honor and with hope, I offer this teaching that I learned from Rabbi Avi Weiss.

As the days and nights of the flood come to an end, our text tells us that:

And it came to pass in the six hundredth and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from off the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark and saw, and behold, the face of the ground was dried up. (Gen. 8:13-14)

Since there are several "firsts" in the Biblical calendar, Rashi fairly asks—when was this? And he says—ba-rishon, According to Rabbi Eliezer, this would be Tishrei. Just as Rosh HaShanah celebrates the creation of the world, perhaps even more so does it celebrate a second chance, the end of the flood, the beginning of a new life on earth. It’s déjà vu, all over again. 

And if God gets second chances, shouldn’t we?