Parashat B'Chukotai 5776
Tomorrow I head off to Chicago. My last trip to my childhood home, the house the Kellers built, back in 1958, in what had been a cornfield and before that a prairie. The house has sold. On Monday we sign papers; on Friday we leave the keys and tiptoe out.
In the meantime there is the last of the furniture to find homes for - not much admittedly. And a few things we'll be taking.
There's a round-fronted china cabinet that had been Grandma Minnie Keller's. But when Grandpa Irwin died in 1957, Grandma moved to an efficiency next door to Aunt Jeannette, her sister-in-law. It was a sweet, miniature Chicago apartment, a block from Lake Michigan, with a tiny kitchen, a breakfast nook, arched doorways and a fold-out sofa where she slept. Tiny, but beautiful, in the way that they once knew how to make tiny beautiful; at least in Chicago they did. Tiny and beautiful like her. In any event, there was no room for a china cabinet, so that precious thing went to my parents' basement before I was born. And I, little gay boy with design sensibilities, always wanted it. Someday I'll bring that with me and put it in my house, I thought. I didn't know that it would be 55 years of somedays before that would happen. And what I will do with it, I can't tell you. Because I don't live in a house with enough proper wall space to hold it, and I don't have the kinds of things that people used to put in china cabinets. Nonetheless I will force something, because this piece of furniture, old and beautiful, is oddly important to me.
So my sister and I will spend the week packing for the movers. And other things. We have to replace a million 2-pronged electrical outlets with 3-pronged so that the municipal inspector will sign off on the sale. And we have to repack the 40-or-so boxes of things that we simply haven't gotten around to curate yet. Those will head in a moving truck to a storage room near my sister's in LA, where they will probably sit for a long time, with the cost of the storage unit as the only remaining pressure to make us get it done.
I have been trying, with mixed success, to integrate some of the old stuff I have already brough home from the house of my childhood, from the basement that was the repository of so many of my relatives' artifacts. There are days that I think, Just throw it all out, starting with the boxes of pictures. After all, no one after me will know who any of the people in them are anyway. But I haven't done it.
Over the past couple years I've incorporated photos of grandparents and great-grandparents and even great-great-grandparents into my work spaces at home and here at the synagogue. I have a wedding photo of my parents leaning on the wall next to my desk upstairs. And I fear that slowly my home and my office are looking more and more like the old Schlock Shop in San Francisco's North Beach. So many trinkets and pictures and books, often just stacked, for lack of suitable space.
I remain torn between what feels like my duty to be the keeper of memory – if I don't remember my maiden great aunts, who will? – and my desire to have a life that's based in the present, with room to actually move around and dust-free air to breathe. I want the air. And I still want the basement.
How does any of us know what to preserve and what to let go of? And when we let go, how do we do it, and where does it go?
There is an interesting moment that I think is pertinent to this question in this week's Torah portion, Bechukotai. The portion opens with a vision of what the world could be like if we follow God's mitzvot. We are promised gishmeykhem b'itam, rains in their seasons. Not too much, not too little, in just the right places and moments, so that you won't have to grab paintings out of the basement of the Louvre because the Seine is pouring in. And there will be peace, and we won't be afraid of enemies or of animals. And the produce of the earth and the trees will be abundant.
In fact, Leviticus 26:10 tells us:
וַאֲכַלְתֶּ֥ם יָשָׁ֖ן נוֹשָׁ֑ן וְיָשָׁ֕ן מִפְּנֵ֥י חָדָ֖שׁ תּוֹצִֽיאוּ׃
"You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make room for the new."
Eating old grain, long stored. It's a beautiful idea and an awkward translation. The Hebrew is better. V'akhaltem - you will eat - yashan noshan. The word yashan means "old" or "old stuff." But noshan, from the same root, has the sense of something aged. Like a fine Port or bottle of Scotch. The produce, what we produce, what we receive from the Universe, will be abundant and will age so well that it will still be delicious and satisfying and grow even more so as it ages. And there will be so much of it that we won't be able to consume it all. We'll need to clear some of it out of the granaries and storerooms in order to make space for the new.
What a vision of blessing is that! The old will be yummy, and the new will be abundant.
I feel blessed in this particular way in my life. I love the old. It has taken this long to get through my Mother's basement not just because it's voluminous but because I love everything in it. And, in my life there has been an abundance of the new also, in every moment. And I struggle with how to make room for all of it.
I also wonder about the same question as it applies to Judaism. To our life as Jewish people. We have so much old stuff. Our collective granaries are full and overflowing. This has been driven home to me especially since starting rabbinical school in the fall. Through just the handful of courses I've already taken, I've been introduced to wealths of texts and ideas and customs that I had no idea existed. Or have had deeper study and insight about texts and ideas and customs that I did know about. Such riches! But in impossible quantities. At a certain level, the vastness of this stuff can be so overwhelming as to render it useless. And that is something that I know many of us have experienced. We throw up our hands in despair at the complexity of Jewish tradition. We don't keep any kind of Shabbat, because there are so many old rules about Shabbat that it overwhelms us and we walk away entirely and allow our holy Shabbat to be something lesser than it – and we – deserve.
So how do we go about making room in the granaries of our lives to keep some of the yummy old and allow in some of the abundant new? As Jews, we have an ongoing relationship with the past; for us the past is painted in a Jewish palette. And while we haven't decided if our future is going to be painted in that palette or not, we are nonetheless drawn to it.
We like a dip in tradition. That is, frankly, and I hope this is not too presumptuous, why we are all here tonight. Only a couple people are in this room because Judaism is something kinda new and exciting. (I know who you are.) For the rest of us, it's a peek into the treasure room. We may not want to live like Jews of the past, but we're not willing to entirely chuck it either.
So tell me: what is the yashan noshan for us in Judaism? What is the old stuff that has aged really well? That is still yummy? I asked some of the people in this room, and they point out the morning prayers, the mourning rituals, the reading of Torah, the rites of passage, the sense of being in community and being part of a tribe. These and more.
Those all sound to me like keepers also.
But none of us in this room is hanging onto everything in the treasury. Weoften don't have a place in our homes or in our lives for things so large and oddly shaped.
So then what about the new? Because the new brings us here too. The music tonight? The texts are ancient. But mostly the music was all written within the last ten years and would sound unrecognizable to our grandmothers.
But there is nothing new in being new. Every one of the things that we named as being yashan noshan, beautifully aged and matured, Jewish customs and concepts, was once new. Some upstart had the crazy idea, let's get up early and make a blessing for every movement of our body until we get out of the house. And believe it or not it caught on.
So what are the new things in Judaism right now that we want to pay some more attention to? That we're interested in letting in a little more or investing in a little deeper? Again, asking people in the room, I hear mention of the new and moving music, the use of Hebrew chant, the inclusiveness of Jewish community today.
So then what is the principle we use to decide what to let in and what to let go of? I have a couple, but I'm not fully settled on it yet.
One is that it has to have something to do with God, or what we might call God if we believe that way. Something that brings us closer to a sense of the Divine, of mystery, of some unity with the Universe. Something that lets us transcend the day-to-day rhythms of commerce. Something that can help us hold great joys and great sorrows. Something that breathes meaning into moments of our lives that we might not otherwise have noticed. If it doesn't help with that project, I'm not so very keen on keeping it.
Another principle for me is that there has to be some possibility of us sharing it. It has to help us be Jews together. If we each reach into the genizah or the granary or the Chicago basement, and we each walk away with something unrelated – a camera, a cake server, a skate board – we will each have a memento, but we will not have community. Whereas if we each take a teacup of the same pattern, then we know something about each other. We can imagine all of us sipping our morning coffee, then placing the cup back on a shelf or in a round-fronted china cabinet. Yes, this teacup is what our people do. Or better, we take recipes from a recipe file in the basement and we share them with each other. Then we can eat together, or eat apart and feel like we're eating together.
Okay, I know these are terrible analogies. But whatever we decide to keep, I want it to be something that helps us be part of each other.
One last thing about how we clear out what we choose to clear out. The 15th Century Italian rabbi, Ovadiah ben Yakov Sforno, makes a lovely comment about the prophecy that in a time of blessing we will need to clean out the old good stuff to make room for the new. He says that the old grain is not to be tossed into the garbage heap. It is meant to feed other nations who are in need.
I would not suggest that we impose our old customs – particularly the ones we do not intend to follow – on others. But I'm wondering if this dictum suggests something like this: when we let go of a custom or a text or a prayer, we retain an understanding of its function and a memory of its beauty. And this understanding, this memory, can help us speak and listen more generously with people of other traditions. Ah yes, we might say, there is an old custom in Judaism that carries a similar meaning to this beautiful custom of yours. Then we have found a place to begin loving conversation with others, so that the other part of the prophecy, that no one should be afraid, might also come true.
So I will continue to hang on to stuff. And I will do my best to purge stuff when I need to, and make room for the new. And when I do that, I will hold on lovingly to the memory of what I let go of, to honor it, to honor those who came before me, and the Divine that flows through all of it.
May the old be yummy. May the new be abundant. And may it all be holy.