Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal | September 22, 2017
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For ten days the gates are open and the world is fluid. We are finally awake, if only in fits and starts, if only to toss and turn. For ten days, transformation is within our grasp. For ten days, we can imagine ourselves not as fixed and immutable beings, but rather as a limitless field upon which qualities and impulses rise up and fall away again and again like waves on the sea. Some of these impulses rise up with particular intensity. We may even experience them as afflictions, but they can be the keys to our transformation. Their intensity points to the disequilibrium and dysfunction in us that is in need of transformation.
These words are written by Rabbi Alan Lew in my favorite High Holy Day book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. It is probably true that many of us, even after the last 48 hours of Rosh Hahshanah, still feel deeply unprepared to do the spiritual work required of this season. If our goal is change, most of us need some help getting there. Lew’s suggestion is affliction and instability, something that moves us out of our regular routine.
For me, I think I have felt more disequilibrium this year than in years past. Whether right, left, center or none at all, the change of power in Washington can adjust the balance we feel as we walk through the world. The hurricanes in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean, earthquakes in Mexico and other natural disasters bring to the surface the uncertainty and fragility of our ecosystem that we always know is lurking there. And every time we hear of a death or experience an illness for ourselves or our loved ones, it summons for us the uncertainty of our own lives.
In Parashat Ha’azinu, Moses attempts to make the Israelites feel some of the intensity we feel in this moment. Moses is about to die and the Israelites are about to enter the promised land, leaving their leader who has stood as a prophet and buffer between them and God time and time again. This is Moses’s last attempt to jolt the Israelites out of their complacency and make them understand the position they are in. Moses tells them, “The Lord saw and was vexed And spurned His sons and His daughters. He said: I will hide my countenance from them, and see how they fair in the end.” God also promises to “sweep misfortunes on them” and to waste them with pestilence, plague and famine. The descriptions of these horrors and punishments are meant to startle the Israelites and make them see the ways in which their behavior will lead to their downfall. It is a final attempt to get them to behave differently than they did during their passage through the desert.
Even the physical structure of this parasha is meant to make us sit up and take notice. If you have a chance to look in a Torah scroll, you will see this is a poem, written out in short columns. The very form of this portion forces the reader into a different posture and to pay a different kind of attention to the words in the scroll. The medium and the message are designed to push the Israelites, and hopefully us as well, towards transformation.
Most of the time, when we think about sudden events jolting us from our complacency and helping push us towards that transformation, we think of tragic events – death, natural disasters, sudden illness. All of these often cause us to reexamine our lives and recommit ourselves to living by our most deeply held values.
But what if we didn’t wait until something terrible happened, or until Yom Kippur came around to remind us of the consequences of stagnation. What if we could build a world where people’s lives were changed, where people experienced acts of disequilibrium, where we are knocked over by the waves not of affliction, as Lew says, but by radical acts of Hesed, of loving-kindness, of goodness and love. What if every good act that we did, or was done to us, built, bit by bit a tower of kindness that changed the world. In a world where we feel run down, almost numb, to constant bad news and tragedy, could one kindness, one tiny ripple, change who we are? I think the answer is yes. We see examples of this every day, if only we are able to break through and look.
It is the Jewish bride and groom in Houston who, upon realizing that their wedding was not going to happen during the hurricane, took all the food that had been purchased and prepared and fed it to first responders. Or the mattress store owner who opened his store as a shelter to families in need.
Or the beachgoers who formed a human chain, holding on one to another to save a family swept away by a riptide. It is the Navy veteran who came to sit with the leadership of the Reform congregation in Charlottesville to help them protect their space and their spirits during the worst of the violence.
Who are those people, the recipients of those kindnesses now? How as that experience changed them? I have been doing some reading on the question of how participants in hate groups change. It seems that one kind interaction with an individual from a group that they hate, or a moment where they feel protected by a person who they consider their enemy, can have a significant impact on getting that hateful person to change their attitude and behavior. One kind, protective, forgiving act can change someone’s life permanently and that person’s change can have a lasting impact on their family, community and on the world.
Rambam says that we should walk in the world like our scales are evenly balanced, and that one kind or unkind act can tip the balance for us and for the entire world. Saying hi to someone, holding the door, checking in on a homebound friend, giving someone a hug can change a person’s day, their week or even the course of their lives. The psalms teach, Olam Hesed Yibaneh, the world is built with loving-kindness. In these aseret yemei teshuva, these ten days of repentance, returning and renewal, I pray that we can transform ourselves and our world with love. Shanah Tovah and Shabbat Shalom.
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