Last night on Skype, I wished our 19-year old, who is away at college, a happy and sweet new year. And in his customary acerbic style, he responded, "I don't believe in artificial calendar divisions." Which I will try to remember as we approach his birthday.
But he is right – what is a year? Yes, it means something astronomically. We're close to the same spot where we were 12 months ago, at least relative to the sun, even though both we and the sun continue to hurtle outward on the wave of the Big Bang. A year also means something in terms of our seasons, and the biology of plants and animals. Agriculture. Food.
But for our hearts? For the unfolding of history? Does it mean anything at all? How can today be a new beginning when it is really just the day after yesterday, and tomorrow will be just the day after today?
Maybe as we see the world changing, in some painful ways, in some seemingly unstoppable ways, we need to hold the possibility of a time out. Of a new start. A reboot. We all know that teshuvah – our process of taking stock, and making good where we've gone wrong, and returning to who we are or most want to be – teshuvah is available to us year round. And we also know we would never do it if we hadn't calendared it.
And this year I for one feel the need of a kind of time out more than ever. Because it has been a very hard year – for me, for us, for everyone. We have been constant witnesses to terrorism, refugees and racism, violence against African Americans, fear of Muslims, climate change, a terrible election season. Paris, Aleppo, Orlando.
Over the past months, I began to notice how short my temper was getting (and still is), and how entrenched my judgments. I don't know at what point I realized how much my mood was synced to the state of the world; linked to the news that was coming over my feed. The more dire stuff that I heard about, the more dire I became.
We have spent this year hearing the world crying out in pain. Some say it's the birthpangs of a new era, of some great change in consciousness. And I hope that's true. But I also know that every generation before us has had to face war and intolerance and oppression and displacement. Every generation has heard the Earth's cries. If the world is in pain, it is, arguably, a chronic condition.
And still we have to respond to the suffering we witness. The fact that we can't fix the world in some once-and-for-all sense is not an out. As Pirkei Avot tells us:
לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא אתה בן חורין להבטל ממנה
"It is not your duty to complete the work. But neither are you free to abstain from it altogether." Or as Clarissa Pinkola Estés says in her essay, "Do Not Lose Heart; We Are Made for These Times," "Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach."
To mend the part of the world that is within our reach. We must be able to engage with this wounded world and bring our best selves to it. What kind of engagement? What actions? What organizations? I'm not an expert. I am not going to give advice on what to do, although next week on Yom Kippur I will offer some general Jewish rules of engagement.
But for tonight, instead of talking about what we might do, I want to focus on who we might be. Who might we be in times such as these?
A couple weeks ago I had the fun of interviewing singer and activist Holly Near on this bimah, as part of a conversation series held by Commonweal, where my husband works. I am a longtime fan and follower of Holly's. And over all these decades she has been a vocal activist, vocal in all senses of the word, around many ills that are difficult and painful to engage with. Issues that if I engage with them too intensely, I crumble. So I asked her what her spiritual practice is that enables her to do this work, to engage the difficult world with such constancy and without despair.
After confessing that she too feels despair sometimes, she zeroed in on this lesson. She quoted Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, whom many of us know as founder of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Dr. Reagon said, "Once you know where you stand, it takes a lot of pressure off you." And Holly went on to say more. "You don't have to be deciding all the time," she said. "You just know where you stand. . . . And there is in that standing a kind of holding of your own space. This is the space in which I live and move and breathe. It doesn't mean that I'm not teachable. I can change what I think. But at this moment in time with what I know this is where I stand."
When she said this, I was able to diagnose what has been so difficult for me these past months. Because in the space, in the interior space, where I should have a solid foundation of values and beliefs and practices, I have allowed a vacuum to form, a vacuum that then fills with all of the terrible and discouraging stuff going on in the world. It is as if I were a well, and instead of being filled with fresh water from my Source, I am instead filling with the runoff of this dark time. I end up holding the suffering and the cruelty, the oppressed and the oppressor. And the hopelessness.
But knowing where we stand, knowing who we are, in a deep way? In a way that fills that vacuum? So that we have a sense of priority and of purpose. Compassion at the ready. Yes, knowing where we stand. That is surely something. That is surely medicine for our aching psyches.
I'll give you a small example from my life of the difference between knowing where I stand and not. A few years ago, in the teen class that I teach through J School, the question was raised about how we respond to begging. What does Judaism say? So I agreed to pull together sources, and there were many, many sources. The texts overall display a concern for the beggar's well-being and dignity. That he or she should not have to stand there, humiliated, while you dig through your wallet. That there should always be pleasant words exchanged so that instead of supplicant and benefactor, you are instead just two people. The rabbis also raised the questions that haunt many of us: shouldn't this person just get a job? What if they don't really need the money and this is some kind of scam? What if they use it to buy alcohol? The rabbis have much to say about this, but where they come down is that the level of need and the use of the money are not for us to judge or dictate. And that giving is as much for the giver as for the receiver. Because it refines in us our qualities of generosity and compassion.
From this teaching, one of my students went on to establish a practice with her mother, that then became my practice as well. Which is to have a bill or two folded up in a front pocket, easy to reach, at all times. And when someone asks you for money, you can take it right out and hand it over with a smile and pleasant words. And you always say yes.
Now you might not agree with this practice; some people don't. But I will tell you this. That before that, every time I was asked for money, I had to try to size the person up – the tone of the request, the credibility of the story – and I was placing myself in the position of deciding every single time whether someone was deserving. As if I knew. As if it were up to me. And being judge never made me feel good, even if I decided to give. It always made me lesser. But once I decided where I stood, then it was easy. Choosing in advance to err on the side of compassion and dignity. I have never since had to choose whether or not to give something to someone who needs it. I know it doesn't fix homelessness. I know it doesn't replace working to ease poverty. But I am doing something within reach, as Dr. Estés suggests. And my well is pre-filled with Compassion rather than Mistrust. I know where I stand.
So, knowing where you stand. Knowing your mettle. Knowing what you're made of. This might be our great task in the new year, our great task for this artificial but critical division time that are the Days of Awe.
Truthfully, I can't remember how long it has been since I've examined my mettle; since I've looked at who I am. Who I am simply. Who I am when no one's watching; when no one's expecting anything of me. Who I am when the internet is off.
I mention the internet because for me, if not for you, the internet has become symbolic of my distraction. There's much that's wonderful about this era of extreme connectivity. I love staying close with family around the globe, I love finding out about important things quickly, I love being able to get the answer to almost any question that begins, "I wonder...."
But constant connectivity comes at a price, a high price for me. I experience ongoing interruption, ceaseless distraction. I entertain a million questions and suggestions without discerning what is actually pressing, what is actually important. I react and react and react. My gaze that should always, in part, be inward is drawn outward in countless directions. I'm not preaching here that we should toss out our devices, although a couple hours off on Shabbos might make us much happier people. I am, though, noticing that much of the time that I spend posting and liking and friending, much of the time I spend awash in unfiltered, sensational news reports, I could instead be breathing deep and asking myself what next? What matters to me right now?
So in this moment I want to remember who I am when the internet is off. And come home to that person. To make teshuvah. Because teshuvah is not just atoning. It's returning. To who we are at the core. Not to the souls that we have but to the souls that we are.
There's a moment of returning in Torah that we almost never talk about, but I think is quite the right model for the work we need to do right now. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Jews read the story of the Binding of Isaac. And after that story ends, Torah kind of drops Isaac like a hot potato. But there is one story, one curious thing he does after his father dies. Torah tells us that all the wells that Abraham had dug, the Philistines filled with dirt. Then Torah says:
וַיָּשָׁב יִצְחָק וַיַּחְפֹּר אֶת־בְּאֵרֹת הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר חָפְרוּ בִּימֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו
וַיְסַתְּמוּם פְּלִשְׁתִּים אַחֲרֵי מוֹת אַבְרָהָם
וַיִּקְרָא לָהֶן שֵׁמוֹת כַּשֵּׁמֹת אֲשֶׁר־קָרָא לָהֶן אָבִיו:
And Isaac returned and redug the wells of water
from the days of Abraham his father,
but which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham's death.
And he called the wells by the names his father had given them.
We are wells that have been plugged. Our water doesn't easily rise from the Source anymore. Instead, we fill with the runoff of violence and the runoff of racism; the dirt of conflict and the debris of Donald Trump. We fill with all that. We hold all of that in us. And that helps no one.
I say we have had a big enough dose of the world's pain this year. But here's the thing: the world has not yet had a big enough dose of us. Of what we have to offer. The love and compassion and dedication that we can bring when our wells are full.
So in this year's teshuvah, let us return, each of us, as Isaac did, to re-dig our wells. To clean out the sludge; toss aside the rocks and dust. We might have different techniques for this dredging – silence, walks in nature, music, prayer. But we can all do this work so that our wells – the wells that we are – can fill and overflow with all we've learned, all we love, all we long for, all we are. And we can, proudly, like Isaac did, call them by their names. I am a well called Compassion. I am a well called Generosity. I am a well called Justice. A well called Patience. A well called Perseverance.
Enough being distracted by the small and the petty. Let us meet the important head on. Drench it in principle and passion. We each, for our own sake, need to be whole and connected to our ever-replenishing Source. And the world needs that of us too. We cannot water parched earth from a dry well. So let us fill with mayim chayim, with living and holy waters, and let us swamp this desert with love and calm and strength of purpose.
We have Ten Days to do this, but yes, that's an artificial division of time. So take a year if you need a year. We have every day of our lives to do teshuvah, to fill our wells, so that we know where we stand.
Gratitude to Holly Near and to Nora Brenner-West. Image by Irwin Keller, manipulated by Doron Hovav.
A sweet and flowing new year to all.