Rosh Hashanah 5774: Burning and Longing

For Congregation Ner Shalom.

Gut yontiff.

Welcome again to this new year, to this new beginning. The birthday of the world as we know it.

I'm appreciating the world and its possibilities in a new way this week, having gotten back two days ago from Burning Man, which I attended for my first time, despite my advanced age and a social milieu which would seem to suggest that I'd have gone years ago already.

(Photo: Oren Slozberg)

Burning Man, if you don't know, is a vast week-long encampment in the Nevada desert, in which people come together from around the world to try out a different way of living. It's a celebration and it's a circus. People make art, splendid and colossal and ephemeral, to be disassembled or burned by week's end. They navigate a tent city with no roads or curbs indicating where you can and cannot go. Bicycles and foot are the transit of choice, unless you catch a ride on a vehicle refurbished to look like an octopus or an airplane or a merry-go-round.

The place feels like another world, this year one populated by 67,000 people, all longing for something different: to be creative, to live simply, to engage generously without the pressures and inequalities of money (which is not allowed to be used in the city), to experience freedom - artistic freedom, body freedom, sexual freedom. By day, Burning Man, in the narrow Nevada desert palette, looked like a refugee camp. And the people living in those beautiful tents - mah tovu ohaleycha - constituted a sort of tribe of refugees from a more complicated and more constricting existence. They had left their narrow places, like our own ancestors leaving Egypt, to become a desert people, and to experience a great expansiveness there.

There are even the rudiments of new religion in this gathering, as the annual rituals become more fixed, particularly the burning of "The Man" - the eponymous effigy that presides over the encampment until he goes up in smoke; and the burning of the Temple, a structure in which people leave notes of farewell to deceased loved ones, or to relationships gone bad, or to elements in their lives they need to let go of. These burdens are purged, kind of like we do at tashlich, when the Temple is set alight on the final night and all those intentions are offered up in fire rather than water, before tens of thousands of silent witnesses.

My experience at Burning Man, like all human experiences, was not without its blemishes. But still, on the whole, it had a flavor of Olam Haba, of the world to come, as was pointed out by the rabbi leading Kabbalat Shabbat services over at the Jewish camp at Burning Man. And in fact the whole week was more shabbos than I've had on any Saturday in memory. And the burning of the effigy of The Man - this year perched on a wooden space ship and done up to recall the robot Klaatu in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" - the burning of The Man, preceded by fire dancers and accompanied by fireworks was declared by my family to be: Best. Havdalah. Ever.

So I tell you all of this not as a "what I did over my summer vacation" report-back. I tell you because I am captivated by the idea that people came to this event full of longing for a new kind of living and a new kind of belonging. And what I noticed - and what particularly startled me - was the lack of impediment between the longing and the fruition. 

Because it's not that way back in this world, which we choose to call the real one. We yearn but the bridge between longing and living is sometimes narrow, or rickety, or sometimes already burned, but without the glorious ceremony.

Certainly each of us desires things. Good things, legitimate things. We want. A nice home. Or a partner. Work. Money. Health. Ease. Time. But these desires ride atop a carrier wave of deeper longing, that we don't always give voice to with the same specificity. I desire work, but what I long for is to be of use, or to belong. I desire money, but I what I long for is to be safe and feel safe. I desire a partner or a sweetheart or that hot guy I saw on the bus. But what I long for is to be held, what I long for is love, what I long for is not to feel so alone. I desire health, but what I long for is to keep living, to live and live and live the way this eternal-feeling soul of mine insists it can do. I desire justice or a better world or children or to leave some kind of a moral legacy. But what I long for is to feel that my time here has had meaning.

Maybe it would be easier for us if we didn't long. The Buddhists say that our longing is the source of our suffering, that disattachment is the path to spiritual happiness. I get that, and I think it can work. But it's obviously not a Jewish path. For better or for worse, ours is officially and full-on a path of longing, even if suffering is the price tag. In our tradition we long for return from exile. We long for the reemergence of an Edenic past. We long for peace. We long for Torah. We long for God. This longing, much of which I'll discuss more on Yom Kippur, is part of us. For better or for worse.

At Burning Man a friend was explaining to Ari, our 12-year old, how the structures that were being burned were designed with that end in mind. Besides being beautiful, certain faults were built in so that as they burned that would look glorious, their parts bursting into flame in the right order, the structure collapsing inward rather than outward. I was caught by this idea of vulnerability being designed right into the architecture. Because that is what longing is for us. It is our architecture, as individuals and as a people. And it is also a vulnerability. Longing impels us to move forward in this world. It is the only thing that does. Our yetzer - our deep impulse to do, to achieve, to live, to love, to experience another day. It is the machinery by which we travel. And it is a built-in weakness too, as we try consciously or unconsciously to fulfill our longing, sometimes in specific and surfacy ways, and we re-learn again and again the frustration at not being able to make our dreams come true.

So enough with the Burners and the Buddhists. What about the Jews? What does Torah say about this, about our longing? If, in Judaism, you want to think about longing, you are required to turn to Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs, our ancient book of erotic poetry that Rabbi Akiva rescued from the discard heap 2000 years ago and elevated to a status above all the other books of Torah, calling it our Holy of Holies. Because, in his view - and in the view of every Jew since - in describing physical desire it gives voice to our ongoing love affair with God. Its words are some of the most memorable in our tradition.

Ani l'dodi v'dodi li. "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine."

Yishakeni min'shikot pihu ki tovim dodeycha miyayin. "Oh that he might kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is sweeter than wine."

But a friend recently pointed out to me something about this book that I'd never noticed.  That at no point in Song of Songs is this love actually consummated. It is a book about anticipation, about longing, about looking forward. The lovers don't actually ever touch, despite their heightened awareness of each other.

Kol dodi hineh zeh ba m'daleg al heharim m'kapetz al hag'vaot. My lover's voice comes to me skipping over the mountains and jumping over the hills.

They see each other in their dreams.

Ani y'shenah v'libi er; kol dodi dofek pitchi li achoti. I am asleep, but my heart is wide awake; My lover's voice knocks, saying open up for me, sister.

The lovers describe each other's beauty; they anticipate a rendezvous; they go to the garden to meet. But we never see the meeting. The most contact we witness is a glance:

Hineh zeh omed achar kotleynu Mashgiach min hachalonot matzitz min hacharakim. Look! It is my beloved, standing behind the walls, observing from the window, peering out from the curtains.

That image! A lovesick youth, watching for the beloved to appear at the window, the way so many of us in our youth could, embarrassingly, be found pacing outside a dormitory or lurking at a cafe waiting for the object of our desire to walk by.

That is the closest the lovers actually come to each other in Shir Hashirim.

A glance. Our great text of longing in Judaism celebrates not the fruition but the anticipation. It glorifies the suspense and honors the not-knowing.

And what a lesson this is for us. That we consider judging ourselves by the quality and flavor of our deeper longing, and not by whether or how our longings come true. We seem to be instructed to find the juice in the longing itself.

And in suggesting this, Torah is wise. Because we so often do not get what we want. And being created full of desire for stuff or people or a life you mostly you can't have is otherwise rather a cruel trick of nature. No, you can't always get what you want. Life unfolds in unpredictable ways. The physical world places limitations on what we can do and achieve. The culture places limitations on who we might meet and how we might interact and what futures we might concoct together. And other people's actions limit us too, because they also have longings that they're trying to work out in their own imperfect ways. But, suggests Torah, holiness is not in achieving the thing, it is not in having the most toys at the end of the game. Instead holiness is in the near Godlike longing inherent in each of us, even if the expression of it is flawed.

Now Torah is not, I think, saying don't want - don't want the house, don't want the job, don't want the lover, although the commandment of al tachmod, "do not covet," does sound a cautionary note about watching where your longing ends up. No, Torah is not saying don't want. But perhaps Torah is decoupling longing from acquiring. And by doing so it is suggesting that "not getting" is not the same as "failing." And for that matter, getting is not the same as succeeding and having is not the same as deserving.

But we are only human. We spend so much of our time and energy judging ourselves and others by these surfacey things; we become frustrated and unkind when we sense that we're not getting something that we desire, whether it's love or respect or safety or just the feeling that we belong. We judge ourselves as unworthy when love does not manifest in the way we'd imagined. Or, we make questionable decisions. Fueled by our longing for connection, say, we end up trying to make it happen with the wrong person, under infelicitous circumstances, in the last 10 minutes before the bar closes. Or we stay in a bad relationship because our longing for love is stronger than our longing for wholeness or our sense of already being loved. And over and over, we behave in ways we later regret because we have acted out of longings that we pretend, that we convince ourselves, we don't even have.

But not today. Not on this new year.

Tik'u bachodesh shofar bakeseh l'yom chagenu. "Blast the shofar," says Torah, "on this day where there moon is hidden." In other words, for me, this is the moment, the annual moment, to break the silence and wake up to the longing that we have obscured, that longing that each of us has concealed from ourselves. Teshuvah is what is required of us. Not atonement for sin. But a Returning to the deeper parts of ourselves. To dig through all this shmutz that comes from the misdirection of our longing or the frustration of some of its supposed goodies. And to honor instead the longing itself. Our yearning for love and closeness and safety and life; to feel the depth and loftiness and wonder of our eternal and insatiable yearning. And to forgive ourselves for so often getting it messed up in the translation. Letting go, as the Buddhists would certainly have us do, of some of the superficial cravings and attachments, and to look instead at what our deepest longings are and to honor what they say about us.

Take a moment right now, and look inside. Find something you've done that you're not proud of. And then go down one story to find the longing that was underneath that act. Notice the beauty of that longing, and go ahead and forgive yourself for the stupid thing that sprang out of it. And then think, if we were to give these longings some fresh oxygen, and relieve them of the burden of our judgments, who among us knows where they might go? How they might fly? Where any of us might find ourselves? What, inside of us, or in each other, or in this glorious Creation, might be speaking to our longing at this very moment, saying, "Come, come to the garden." What voice that we didn't hear until the shofar of this great and new day made us shut up and listen.

Longing is certainly a vulnerability in our architecture; it can weaken the joints of our lives and it so often proves flammable. But it is the noble stuff we are made of. And, unencumbered by judgments of success and failure, of should and shouldn't, of better and worse, who knows where that longing might bring us, and what beautiful, if temporary, art we might still make out of these lives we have been given.

Shanah tovah.

I am grateful for the insights of Rabbi Eli Cohen, Sasha O'Malley, my family, and the people of Burning Man.