“What about being Jewish is most compelling to you?” This the question I asked our 11 conversion students late last month as they sat with me in my study. It was their Beit Din- a clergy court of three which included myself, Rabbi Yergin and Cantor Berlin. Required by Jewish law to affirm the convert’s intentions as they choose to join the Jewish faith.
One answered, “I like the commitment to social justice.” Another, “The idea that you do good things for other people and do your part to make the world a better place, not for some reward, but because it is the right thing to do.” And still another, “That I am challenged to be a better person. That the ideals of Judaism remind me to make better choices about what I say, how I behave, what I do.”
Their answers were great! If not predictably similar. They also matched up pretty closely with the results of the much lamented 2013 Pew Research Center survey meant to explore Jewish identity. The Pew Poll showed that 69% of those surveyed felt that leading an ethical life was essential to them as Jews and 56% said that working for justice and equality played an important role in defining their Judaism. Interestingly, however, when it came to observing Jewish law, i.e. ritual observance, only 19% of the Jewish adults responded that it was essential to what being Jewish means to them. (Pew Forum.org)
Judaism has long been seen as a religion steeped in ethics and compassionate living. Many mitzvoth in the Torah regarding treatment of slaves, women, animals and the natural world, are still considered revolutionary within their historic context. So though when we say someone is ‘religious’ we typically mean “they are particularly ritually observant.”For most of us, it is engaging in Gemilut Chasadim, acts of loving kindness, striving to be moral and ethical human beings--doing good in the world that we consider at the core of what our Jewish identity is all about.
And perhaps this is as it should be.
From the moment God commands Abraham “Lech Lecha” go to a land that I will show you, God promises him: Veh-hi-yeh b’racha….“and you will be a blessing.” Rashi’s interpretation of this phrase, has always been my favorite: “The [right to give] blessings are given into your hand. Until now, [the right to give blessings] were in my hands. I blessed Adam, Noah, and You. From now on, you will bless whoever you want.”
Rashi seems to be saying that the ABILITY to bring blessing to other people’s lives…making them better, is the blessing that Abraham receives. It is this core teaching of Judaism that remains so compelling thousands of years after it was inscribed in the Torah. It is not up to God to bring blessing into the world. It is up to us.
Fast forward 4000 years or so and we are still trying to figure this ‘be a blessing thing’ out. Because even with all the commandments, commentaries and teachings at our disposal we find this ideal difficult to master. Knowing we are far from perfect, that despite our best efforts our process of teshuvah will never be complete, the quest to live out a perfectly compassionate and ethical life feels futile at best. And it is. And that’s ok.
In Judaism, because we believe there is only one God, we are called to recognize that all is God’s creation. As God says in the book of Isaiah 45:7 “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe-I, Adonai do all these things.’
This dialectic is found within us as well. We are perpetually imperfect beings and acknowledge that within us is both a Yetzer Ha Tov (an impulse toward the good) and a Yetzer HaRah (an impulse toward the bad). And you can’t have one without the other.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis suggests, however, that we don’t look at the yetzer ha rah as evil, but as something like electricity, an energy that can be used to light the darkness or to start a fire. It has the potential for good and bad. It can be used to consecrate or desecrate the self or the other. Without the yeter ha ra, there would be no creativity, no urges for physical pleasure no desires for self-advancement. The world would be at a stand still. The Yetzer haRah is essential to our being so that we build and strive. Yet if it overwhelms us, if there are no limits, it can become destructive. Both inclinations may be essential, but so too is the tension--the balance between the two.
This truth plays itself out in our personalities every day. Think about it. We admire a person with self confidence, but if they become too self-enamored, we consider them boastful. We value honesty, yet without a filter or a reason to share a particular truth our directness disintegrates into mean-spiritedness, even brutality. The same goes for our weaknesses. We may be insecure, impatient or judgmental. But these traits have their virtuous sides: humility, gumption, high standards. These are admirable traits in their proper context as well.
Seeing how close the Tov and the Rah can be we can see how necessary it becomes to engage in the struggle to maintain that balance, transforming our weaknesses into tools for blessing despite how difficult that can sometimes be.
Our rabbinic tradition is full of strict rules and regulations meant to assist us in making ‘good choices’. The goal for them was not so much to affect punishment as it was to convey an unambiguous message about the values of Jewish society. And anyway, with people living in close proximity to each other the social/moral pressures brought to bear by one’s neighbors were sufficient to keep people in line, whether their intentions were God-like or not.
There is a Hassidic tale of a rebbe, driving along a country road. The coachman sees an apple orchard, jumps out and begins to take some apples. The Rebbe cries out, “You are being watched! You are being watched!” The coachman not lingering but for a second- jumps back into the carriage and drives the horses as fast as he can. After a while when they are a considerable distance away, he stops and says, “But I did not see anybody watching!” Ahh…the Rebbe replies. “but God is watching you.”
Whether you believe God is watching or not, the question of how we set limits on appropriate and inappropriate behavior how that behavior is monitored or even defined is really in flux.
Our lives are public like never before. People are watching—all the time! And in this age of Social Media we spend a tremendous amount of our time inviting them in. But have you considered what it is we are we inviting them to see?
Some of us create a perfect façade. Always beautiful, always smiling, always, grateful, always proud. We may have hundreds if not thousands of admirers. But are we still maintaining relationships ‘off line’ that give us the space to safely reveal the complexity of our true selves?
Others share everything: the good, the bad and the inappropriate, leaving ‘the viewer’ feeling compelled to respond, though they might not be quite sure what to say. For some, this public sharing is a source of comfort and support. But I wonder about issues of privacy and ultimately self-esteem. How do we alter our relationships with others when they know absolutely EVERYTHING about us?
Clearly, I am not a fan of either approach since I think that both create a reactive rather than interactive relationship with our circle of family and friends.
I’m not saying it doesn’t feel good to get a flurry of ‘likes’ for a well-placed picture or to get several hundred birthday greetings as I did yesterday. But I am suggesting, that those interactions are ultimately shallow. They are easy and convenient, but they are NOT the same as relationships that involve personal discipline, generosity, genuine acts of kindness and yes forgiveness when our imperfect family members and friends (or we) let our yetzer HaRah get the better of us. In cultivating messy (aka REAL) relationships, we are compelled to work on our real selves and we get closer to becoming the blessing we hope to be.
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, quite popular with the international Orthodox set, suggests a self-awareness exercise that can lend us some powerful insight into the ‘true selves’ we actually project. She instructs us to imagine the photograph our children, our colleagues, our friends, our family are taking of us.
“Our children, especially, are living, breathing ‘smart phones,’ she writes. They snap our ‘pictures’ constantly, even when we are not aware of it or least expect it. They store these “photos” in their hearts and minds. One day they will show them to their own children who in turn will show them to theirs. Would you want your grandchildren to see those “pictures”? Is that the way you would like them to remember you?
For sure there are some pictures of me (whether mental or printed) that I would rather forget. But you know what? Pictures don’t actually need to be perfect to be beloved. And neither do we.
Remember when you took pictures with a camera, and then brought your roll of film into the store to be developed? You didn’t know how they would come out until you opened the envelope. There was an expectation and excitement (and a bit of trepidation) as you pulled those photos out, wondering what the camera lens would reveal.
My sister has a favorite picture of herself as a towheaded little girl with a dear family friend who died a few years back. It’s just an intimate shot of a little girl and a special grown up in her life. Its tender and sweet…a candid moment in time. But the picture is out of focus.
At my parents’ house this past Thanksgiving, we happened upon it. My sister, a professional photographer herself, observed that if it had been taken now, on a phone or even a digital camera it would have been deleted. A tender moment gone forever in favor of a clearer shot. We both agreed there is value in those fuzzy photos. They may not be perfect but they capture a moment, a feeling, a truth about life being lived in messy but blessed way.
I am not suggesting that we ‘go for the fuzzy photo’. But I do think we should keep a few on hand. Not only do they capture a moment in time that we might want to remember, but they remind us that while we strive for that sense of goodness and blessing. It won’t always come. Sometimes the result will be a little hazy.
And that’s ok, because we are then better able to see where the work still needs to be done. The more we ask the hard important questions like: “Toward what should I orient my life? Who am I and what is my nature? How do I mold my nature to make it gradually better day by day? What virtues are the most important to cultivate and what weaknesses should I fear the most?” (David Brooks, The Road to Character, p261) The more likely we are to see the blessings in the imperfections, cherishing the journey –along with all its struggles---as we make our way.
Judaism is a religion of tensions and it is during these Days of Awe that the two sides of human existence are most emphasized in our minds and hearts. As Rabbi David Ellenson explains in his introduction to our new High Holy Day prayer book- Mishkan HaNefesh, “The God of our machzor demands that we have no pretensions in regard to who we are as human beings. We are presented with two sides of human existence, with our weaknesses as well as our strengths….We must always remember that the world was created for our sake. At the same time, we are told that we are but ‘dust and ashes.” We are instilled with a much-needed humility, [but]… God encourages us to believe that we are not mired in unchangeable patterns and that we can change and grow. (Mishkan HaNefesh, xxii-xxiii)
This, I hope, is what those conversion students meant when they spoke about their connection to Judaism. Each in their own way is searching for purpose and meaning. Unsatisfied with the faith tradition they left behind, or craving a connection to community that has been lacking Judaism and Jewish community is at its best in recognizing that while we are far from perfect, each of us has goodness within. Each of us is on our own journey towards finding meaning and purpose and blessing in our lives. When we acknowledge our own imperfections and are generous in our reactions towards others’ flaws as well we are more able to share our blessings with others.
May these Holy Days remind us of the work we each have to do, in stretching ourselves to be more generous of resources body, mind and spirit. Fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham all those centuries ago. We too, can ‘be a blessing.’ It starts by recognizing who we are and considering what we might yet be.