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Revising Our Expectations
Rabbi Eddie Sukol
Rosh Hashana Sermon 5770 / 2009
Most Rosh Hashana sermons implore the listener to examine how we have behaved and how we have spoken to others over the past year and seek forgiveness for our wrongs. We ask: What are the things we wish we hadn’t done? What are the words we would take back if we could? Who have we hurt or wronged? Like an accountant performing an audit, we are to make a list of our shortcomings, and then, one by one, person by person, ask forgiveness for the hurt and harm that we have caused.
That’s a good message, and a worthwhile endeavor but I don’t want to speak about it. So, while I don’t want to ignore or downplay the High Holy Day’s focus on taking a spiritual inventory it seems to me that this year the questions we are asking have more to do with our expectations, our hopes and our desires in the aftermath of a year in which we experienced the worst economic crises since the Great Depression.
The most significant questions that arise from this past year are not about what we have done wrong, but rather how can we adjust and adapt to a new way of thinking and to a new reality that will shape and define our lives. For many of us, our fiscal security has been undermined. Assumptions that we have lived by are turning out to be false. There are many things that may cause us concern in any given year, but this year it has been the economy that has most battered our sense of security and our peace of mind.
Every survey of the national temperament shows that we are a frustrated and increasingly angry nation. Poll after poll shows that people think things are getting worse for the country, not better. Fifty six percent of baby boomers, who are today in our 40’s to 60’s, think that our children will inherit an America that is worse off than the one our parents left us. We are the first generation to believe that.
I suspect that my experience is like many of yours. The economic situation this past year affected our spending, our savings, our retirement plans, our work and employment, our vacations, our educational pursuits-for us and our children. Professional people, both men and women, people with college and graduate educations, middle and upper class people, for the first time, ever, found themselves unemployed. You didn’t have to be rich enough to invest with Bernie Madoff to see your stock portfolio, your retirement savings, and your investments decrease by one-third to one-half.
Many of us here are baby boomers. And while our plans for retirement aren’t immediate and they’re not looming around the next corner, many of us, I think, planned to work until sometime around age seventy and then enjoy the fruits of our labors. But this past year we have come to realize that this may not be possible. For those of us who are the parents of middle and high schoolers, we may, for the first time, be contemplating the reality that private universities and colleges are simply out of reach for us, even with grant and loan assistance. And for too many in our community, the challenges aren’t in the future, but are much more immediate-having to do with paying the mortgage, buying food for our family, paying for medicines and doctor visits, the utility bills and credit cards.
Even people who are well off are worried in a way that they never have been before. We’ve seen it around the country and we’ve seen it in our own community. I’ve never known, and I’ll never know, what it’s like to be worth a hundred million dollars, but I can imagine that for the man who is, suddenly finding his personal wealth diminished by eighty or ninety percent must be staggering. And all of us are experiencing that feeling on a scale proportionate to our income and our net worth.
Most of us here, even the elders among us, were not yet born during the depression that began in 1929-so this is, in fact, the worst economic time that most of us have ever experienced. As a nation we are anxious and frustrated. We feel that there are promises unkept that affect us and our families. Our hearts and minds are troubled. We have more ways to communicate with each other and we feel less connected to our family, friends and neighbors than ever before.
I don’t think it’s a malaise or apathy that we suffer from, but rather an anxiety, a concern that we are, for the most part, helpless to make the country better. And we have having trouble imagining solutions to our problems.
I want to share with you my thinking over the past few months about the nexus between meaningful religious experience and the unprecedented economic upheaval that we have experienced this past year. What is the role that religion can play in our daily lives in the face of economic crisis, anxiety, frustration and anger?
Meaningful Judaism is not really about whether you lit Shabbat candles last night. Or if you keep kosher. Or when the last time you were in synagogue. Religious life isn’t about the minutia of ritual or rules. Religion and spirituality are the way that we ask and answer, or at least try to answer, the big questions of our life. Religious seeking is a quest to address the existential questions of meaning and purpose.
Rabbi Wayne Dosick summarized it this way ‘Religion helps us to face the unknown, to find meaning in our lives, to understand pain, suffering and evil and to live life and confront death.’ (Living Judaism, p. 3, paraphrase)
It’s no surprise that I look for answers in the wisdom of Judaism, and that I love to read and study our sacred texts for inspiration and hope. Let me share one of those texts with you. It’s a very short passage, and it comes from the Talmud, on the section that discusses Rosh Hashana. The rabbis taught, “Tafasta meruba lo tafasta,” (Yoma 80a), “The one who grasps too much, will grasp nothing.”
It’s a genre of rabbinic teaching that addresses consumption. The person who tries to have it all, will wind up with nothing, because money and material possessions, while certainly important, are not ultimately what provides abiding meaning in our life. And the person who is driven to acquire excessive material goods, is the person who will always want more. Whatever they have will never be enough. They live with a void that cannot be filled.
Don’t misread me hear. I am not suggesting that Judaism is a religious tradition that eschews material goods or wealth. They have their place and if they are both acquired and shared, they can be the source of great good in the world. There is no way to provide for the poor in our community without some of us having more than we need, so that we can share it with those who have less than they need.
But Judaism, throughout the ages, does have a concern with the relentless pursuit of material goods and wealth. “Seek what you need and give up what you do not need. For in giving up what you do not need, you will learn what you really do need.” That’s the wisdom of the 11th century Spanish rabbi, Shlomo ibn Gabirol.
It is important to be clear about what are our needs vs. our wants. I learned this from Roxanne many years ago. She had bought something as a treat for the family to enjoy at dinner--I don’t remember what it was, maybe it was sparkling apple cider or chocolate syrup to go with our ice cream. What I do remember is that the second it was used up, someone in the family, probably me, wanted her to buy it again. And she responded, lovingly, but emphatically with something like, “What, I buy it once and now it’s become a staple?!”
It’s so easy to think that we want is what we need. But ibn Gabirol’s counsel is well heeded. Obtain what it is that you really need and ignore what you do not. You will be more satisfied and more fulfilled. Zen Buddhism teaches the same lesson in it’s search for simplicity.
I saw a wonderful cartoon in this month’s edition of The Funny Times, a monthly humor newspaper published right here in Cleveland by Sue and Ray Lesser. While it’s a visual let me try to describe it to you. It’s a cartoon of a Buddhist Monk moving from one residence to another. Behind him is a man riding a bicycle with a basket in the front. In the basket is a tiny bag and affixed to the front of the basket is a sign that says, “Buddhist Moving Company.” The message is clear-simplify, free yourself of that which you do not really need. If you begin with material things, you will find that you will liberate yourself in other ways as well.
Among Eastern European Jews of the 19th century, especially the Jews in Lithuania, the Musar Movement developed. It’s central tenant was ethical personal behavior. The term Musar comes from the book of Proverbs (1:2) and it means discipline or conduct. The Musar Movement focused on a person’s ethical and spiritual development.
One of the personal qualities that the Musar Movement emphasized was simplicity. Simplicity in our habits and in our consumption was a value that Musar adherents believed would lead to ethical practice and behavior as well personal satisfaction, well being and peace of mind.
It is worth recalling a teaching of Yisrael Salenter, one of the Mussar rabbis. ‘The luxuries we indulge in eventually come to be seen as necessities, as if we could not live without them.’ Salenter was teaching about the difference between wants and needs. He stressed moderation and simplicity in all things.
If we always want more, whether it’s material goods, or love or attention, or fame, or fortune,-if we are unable to appreciate what we do have in our quest for more of something,-then no doubt we will never be satisfied.
We will not get everything we want-no matter how wealthy or well known or good looking we are. We all know people who seem to have it all, and yet they live lives of misery. And will disappointment, from time to time, may be inevitable, misery is not.
The New Year provides us with an opportunity to step back from our regular, everyday, harried lives and appreciate all that is good and wonderful in our life. When we are able to do this, we may find that it is possible, and that we are willing, to revise our expectations, to better understand what we really need so that we can live fulfilled, rather than with troubled hearts.
As I wrote in my Teachings from Tradition that was emailed to many of you yesterday, this is a serious time of year for the Jewish soul. My hope is that, despite the challenges and pressures that we face daily, this New Year, and our time together in prayer and meditation, will be the beginning of a year filled with peace of mind, with security, with satisfaction and fulfillment. Then indeed, it will be a good and a sweet New Year.
This essay first appeared in the Newsletter for
City Fresh East on July 7, 2009
By Rabbi Eddie Sukol, The Shul
If you could eat only seven foods what would they be? I suppose at the top of my list would be chocolate followed closely by bananas. I’ll have to ponder my remaining five choices. This time of year I think of watermelon, but in the winter, grapefruit would be high on my list.
Of course, if I were an Israelite getting ready to enter the Land of Israel thirty-two centuries ago, the shivat haminim, the seven species native to Israel, would be on my mind. These special seven are wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates (Deuteronomy 8:8).
Wheat (sorry you gluten free eaters) and barley were the two most plentiful grains in antiquity. Wheat especially, was used to make bread, a staple of the ancient diet.
Grapes were necessary to make wine. Wine is present at every Shabbat, holiday and simcha (celebration) and we are taught that wine “gladdens the heart.” But wine does much more than that.
Wine is a symbol of our partnership with God. God, envisioned as a Creator, provides the seed, the earth, the sun, the water-all necessary for the grapevine to grow. But we must put in the effort and do the work to plant and harvest the grapes and to ferment them into wine. It just might be that wine gladdens the heart because it is a tangible manifestation of our human partnership with the Divine.
The fig and the pomegranate are both compared to the Torah. Their many seeds are a metaphoric image for the seeds of wisdom contained in our Holy Teaching.
The pomegranate is also an ancient fertility symbol reminding us of the first commandment in the Torah “to be fruitful and multiply.” God’s promise to the patriarchs and the matriarchs (though unspoken to the women, their participation was surely necessary) that the Jewish people would be as numerous as the “sands on the sea and the stars in the sky” could have been reformulated to say that we would be as abundant as “the seeds of the pomegranate.”
An olive tree can live and produce for hundreds and hundreds of years. Olives are a native food throughout the Mediterranean and Mideast. Olives were useful both as a food and as a source of oil. The oil could be used for cooking or for religious purposes, such as providing the fuel for the Ner Tamid, the Perpetual Light that burned in the Tabernacle and then later in both the First and Second Temples. Keep in mind, that according to legend, there would be no Hanukah, if it weren’t for olive oil.
Finally, the last of our seven species is honey. The first six species are all products that grow from the earth. Therefore the honey that completes the seven species must also be something that grows from the earth. We know that in this context the honey that is referred to is a kind of nectar that is derived from dates. Although the date is not mentioned by name (tamar in Hebrew) in this listing of species, it is in fact what is meant by the term d’vash (honey).
Along with the enumeration of the Seven Species, chapter eight of Deuteronomy also includes the instruction then when we have eaten and been sated, we should offer blessings to God for providing for us (v’achalta, v’savata, u’vayrachta). Always a good idea, whether you’ve eaten any of the Seven Species or another of your favorite food.
This essay first appeared in the Newsletter for
City Fresh East on July 21, 2009
By Rabbi Eddie Sukol, The Shul
What is your earliest memory? For most of us it is sometime around age three. And for many people, an earliest memory is often connected to a dramatic or emotional event. One of my earliest memories is when the rescue squad came into our house to resuscitate my grandmother, Esther, who was living with us at the time. Esther was in the room I shared with my brother David, so the episode had heightened significance for me.
Whatever our earliest memories, very few of us remember being nursed by our mothers (as a bottle-fed baby, I surely have no memory of it), unless we were nursed into toddlerhood or beyond. But even without conscious memory, there can be no diminishing the mother-child bond that occurs during nursing.
It is therefore no accident that the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) is described as “a Land flowing with milk and honey” no fewer than a dozen times in the Torah. The Land was and is the wet nurse to the Jewish people. According to the Torah, the Land of Israel would be a source of sustenance, both physical and spiritual, to our ancestors and to us. And through that nurturing, we bonded to the Land.
I do not consider myself a mystic, but I do believe in collective consciousness and from that orientation I ask: Why do Jews visiting Israel have such a strong reaction upon arriving there? I think it is more than just the excitement and emotion of the trip. Deep down, there is a sense that we are returning to our mother’s breast to feed and be nurtured. Something very deep in our psyche, in our soul, is stimulated by the connection to the Land. As it was for our ancestors, the Land of Israel is our wet nurse, feeding, nurturing and sustaining us.
The idea of Land as wet nurse isn’t really so far fetched. In Jewish tradition, even a rock can nurse a child in danger. The midrash on Song of Songs teaches that when the Egyptians cast the Israelite males into the river to drown them, God’s ministering angels swooped down from the heavens, caught each boy and placed him safely upon a rock. At that instant, God, the Holy and Merciful One, caused each rock to sprout a nipple in order to suckle the child.
And another Midrash tells that Moses was hidden by his righteous mother, Yocheved, in the wall of their house. “How did he eat?” the midrash asks. The moisture that dripped off of the stone wall nursed him and he was satisfied and quiet.
Do you think that stones nursing an infant is far-fetched? Another midrash suggests that even a man could nurse! Queen Esther, we are told, was orphaned as an infant. Her father died when her mother was pregnant, and her mother died when Esther was an infant. Mordechai, Esther’s cousin, adopts here to rear her to adulthood.
The midrash asks, “How did he feed this infant?” “He held her to his breast and she suckled.” (I am told that this is actually possible, but the midrash has forever been spoiled for me by this exchange between Jack (Robert DeNiro) and Greg (Ben Stiller) in “Meet the Parents.” Greg: “You can milk just about anything with nipples.” Jack: “I have nipples, Greg, could you milk me?” Funny, yes, but it kind of wrecks the beautiful imagery of the midrash.)
To return to the serious teaching of the Torah. Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, is the source of our sustenance. It is the place in which our Temples stood. Jerusalem is the city from which the teaching of Adonai went forth. The Land sustains us physically, this is the flowing milk. And it builds and fortifies us spiritually, this is the dripping honey. In the truest sense of the word, Eretz Yisrael is our motherland.