(Yom Kippur 5777)
Today I’d like to share some ideas as to how we might live a more authentic, and authentically Jewish life – and to illustrate my points, the key ingredients will be: a lobster, a carrot and a tree. You might think that to be authentically Jewish the prime props should be a mezuzah, a tallis and a brisket. Those are all fine, but for today, a lobster – yes, a lobster, a carrot and a tree.
So let’s get started; we begin our journey with the tree.
It was the early part of the summer, one of those picture perfect Shabbat afternoons with clear skies, warm temperatures and almost no wind. I was lying out on my deck in the backyard at about 4-4:30, admiring the lovely, calm blue sky and listening to the birds chirping.
I paid little heed to a rat-tat-tat sound coming from the woods.
Must be the woodpeckers, just adding a little percussion to this exquisite symphony.
And then, suddenly looking up, I saw one of the majestic trees lining the edge of the backyard begin to sway in my direction. Without warning, it began to fall – and not just fall, but fall toward me. Paralyzed and shocked, I let out an enormous scream, sort of like what you see in the movies where everything suddenly shifts into slow motion and the hero starts screaming in one of those distorted voices that sounds like a cross between the “Incredible Hulk” and a 60 Minutes interview with someone in a witness protection program.
The tree landed with an enormous thud – about 10-15 feet from me, and just inches from doing significant damage to the house. Had it angled only slightly to the left, I would be delivering this sermon right now to our fellow congregants next door at Beth El Cemetery.
To this day, I have no idea what caused the tree to fall. It was covered with foliage and was clearly not dead. There was no wind. It hadn’t rained for days so the ground wasn’t soft or muddy. It was a perfect day! It just fell. Some say it was overgrown and top heavy and failed to adapt.
What became clear to me, immediately, is that, if my backyard on a peaceful Shabbat afternoon in June is no longer a safe place, there is no safe place anywhere, anymore.
But we knew that already. No safe place. Not a school. Not a movie theater. Not a café in Tel Aviv. Not a nightclub in Orlando or a Chelsea curbside. Not a zoo in Cincinnati, for toddlers or gorillas. Not even the happiest place on earth, Disney World – where this year the Grand Floridian’s lagoon turned out to be a croc infested swamp. What a perfect metaphor for what has happened to our world. Even Disney has become deadly!
Krista Tippett, the host of the radio program “On Being,” writes, “Why we are so uneasy – it goes way beyond crime rates and shifting gender roles, economic gyrations and geo-political upheaval. It goes beyond even terrorism and even the festering plagues of racism and bigotry climate change. These are only the symptoms of the earthquake we are witnessing. Our global crises, the magnitude of the stakes for which we are playing, could signal the end of civilization as we’ve known it.”
And we sense that this is a very perilous crossroads in history.
So I was sitting there on my porch, looking at this tree and wondering we can ever feel safe. There was something very unnatural and foreboding about what I had just witnessed. On a Supercalifragilistic Mary Poppins day, I had just been attacked – by the scenery.
I was also feeling very lucky.
We humans are meaning making machines. To be human is to strive to forge order out of chaos. That is what religion is supposed to help us do. So was this fallen tree a message for me? Was it a warning? Was God testing my reflexes? Was the tree enchanted by the Wicked Witch? Or was this a totally random event?
All I know is this: When a tree falls in a forest – and it lands ten feet from you – it shakes you… it shakes you to the core. The falling tree brought me face to face with my mortality.
But once it was over, it led me to reflect on the tree’s mortality. The century or more it had lived. The storms it had endured. Only to fall so meekly, so inexplicably, so randomly. Was it a victim, too, of the epic changes we’ve brought to our planet? I felt a rush of sympathy for the tree, like Jonah felt for the shady plant in his story, the plant that suddenly withers and dies. So strong and firm one second; and the next, gone.
How art the mighty fallen!
And then I realized. I am that tree. Grow-grow-grow, year after year, decade after decade, and then rat-tat-tat and the next second, it’s all over. When we confront our mortality every day, it heightens every moment of life. Now whenever I hear the squirrels in the trees, I take notice.
And I take cover.
And I hear echoes of Mary Oliver’s poem “A Summer Day,” where she writes, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
My days on this earth have now exceeded 21,000, almost exactly half of them spent here. At this age, my father had fewer than five hundred days left. I can look at things from that perspective, by counting down. Or I can count up from the 109 days since the tree fell – 109 days more than I could have been on this earth, had it hooked ten feet to the left. I prefer to count up.
That’s the story of the tree.
There is an art to authentic living that can best be understood when we look at a lobster. Yes, I said LOOK at a lobster. Rabbi Abraham Twersky explains that a lobster is a soft mushy animal that lives inside a rigid shell. As the lobster grows, that shell becomes very confining, and the lobster feels itself under pressure and uncomfortable.
So what’s a lobster to do?
It goes under a rock and casts off its shell. Eventually, when the new shell hardens and becomes confining, it casts that off too. The stimulus that enables the lobster to grow is that it feels uncomfortable – it needs to restore order to the chaos of its confinement.
Rabbi Twersky adds that if lobsters had doctors, they would never grow. They would feel some pain and go and get a prescription for Valium or Percocet and then feel fine. We need to realize that times of pain and stress are actually times of growth. Crises are, in truth, opportunities.
We can fall like the top-heavy tree – or we can shed, regroup and change, like the lobster.
Here’s a fun fact: Approximately 1600 people have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Now according to writer Andrew Sullivan, of those 1600, only 36 have survived. And each of those 36 reports that at the moment they jumped, they felt instant regret.
Since those 36 constitute what the pollsters would call a random sample, we can assume that just about all of the others felt the same remorse.
Only 36 of the 1600 have had the chance to count up from that day. Only 36 have had the chance to shed that emotional shell and continue to grow, to have a life beyond their moment of crisis, to see the light of dawn after the darkness. Only 36 have been blessed with that greatest gift of all, a second chance.
Jewish folklore speaks of 36 people in each generation who, without knowing it, are solely responsible for the survival of that entire generation. The number probably stems from it being a multiple of chai, life. The Hebrew letters adding to 36 are Lamed and Vav, and so they are called Lamed Vavnicks.
These 36 are reminders to all of us of how we must cherish every moment of life, and to recall at times of extreme stress, that it always will get better.
In a beautiful memoir published posthumously, Paul Kahalanithi, a young doctor, traces his battle with cancer. The book, “When Breath Becomes Air,” has been a best seller and for good reason.
He writes: “I’ve seen those precious instants where, one moment, there is a breath, a slow, weakened exhaling and inhaling of life force – and the next, there is only air…. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection,” he adds, “but you can believe in striving toward it.”
He calls those moments when life is under threat as the most authentic moments for both doctor and patient. Ah, that word again. Authenticity. Those moments when you realize that the tree is taking aim at you. Those moments when your feet are just about to lose contact with the bridge. Those moments when the chemo is either going to work or it won’t. Those moments when you have to shed that shell or die.
And those moments when we are fasting all day, an act symbolic of death, and the book of life is about to be sealed.
Those authentic moments, when we experience life at the limits.
Rabbis often face these moments with people. One such moment arose in our community this year when a teenager from a neighboring congregation suddenly died, tragically. That night and again the next, at my house, I sat in a circle with some of that teen’s friends, and I was terrified at what I could possibly say to ease their pain. I knew that whatever I said, it had to be a completely authentic response from the depths of my soul and not just chapter and verse from a “How-to” book by Dr. Oz.
I sat with them, speechless, for what seemed like forever, and then simply said, “I’m here.”
Life is most authentic at those moments, but we can’t stay there forever. Two weeks after the horrible tragedy, I saw one of our teens and asked how he was holding up. He said “Great,” and looked at me as if he had no idea why I was asking – he was back in the world of pop quizzes and mock trials and all the normal things a teenager should be preoccupied with. But that authentic moment, that moment when we are most human, will forever remain with him.
And that indelible lesson will remain as well – that we were put on this earth to love one another, and in the end that’s all that matters.
To live authentically, as writer Shelly Turkel puts it, “we need to build our answers up from our very human ground.”
One of the biblical names used for the Jewish people is “Israel,” a word that in Hebrew means “one who struggles with God.” And we do struggle with God, and we struggle with life, and we struggle to survive and we would have it no other way. Just as the worst moments of our individual lives make us who we are, the most painful moments of our collective life as a people have made us what we are as Jews.
We are the sum of our most intense and challenging moments – but not just that.
Our lives are the sum of our most challenging moments – AND HOW WE RESPOND TO THEM.
That is the art of authentic Jewish Living.
Two iconic figures died recently, both of whom embodied the spirit of Yisrael. Both emerged from the cauldron of 20th century European madness: Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres.
A few years ago, about 75 of us went to the 92nd St Y to hear Wiesel speak about the book of Job. In discussing the end of the book, Wiesel spoke of the fine line separating faith from insanity, suggesting that a little madness might be required in order to maintain a posture of faith in an unjust world. He postulated that Job did not fear an unjust God so much as an apathetic one. And Wiesel also feared apathetic human beings, even more than unjust ones.
Wiesel also believed that when we hear the story of a witness, we too become witnesses, and through us the story lives on; a living scroll ever unfolding. “Because I remember, I despair,” Wiesel says, then adding, “Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”
Wiesel was not the very last Holocaust survivor to die. But in fact, his death was the end of an era – he was our Survivor in Chief, representing all the witnesses. He was our prophet, and the prophet’s voice has now been silenced.
But he charged us with the responsibility of being witnesses in his stead. That is why our congregational trip next summer to Eastern Europe is so important. This is not merely a tour of places like Warsaw, Cracow, Budapest, Prague and Berlin – although we’ll have lots of opportunity to enjoy these glorious cities. But make no mistake, this is a pilgrimage, to places where Jewish civilization thrived for a thousand years, and a place called Auschwitz, where it nearly died in a thousand days.
Auschwitz was the epicenter of it all. It is a place where all civilized human beings must go, to remember, and pray, and to take upon ourselves the mantle of witness, to pick up the gauntlet from Wiesel. It is not a burden, but an honor to respond to that sacred calling.
The Jew has an obligation to remember – but then, like the lobster, to shed the shell of victim, the confining shell of resentment and anger and despair, and to transform the disaster into an embrace of life and a relentless pursuit of justice and dignity for every human being.
If Wiesel’s passing represents the end of the era of the surviving witness, Shimon Peres’ death marks the end of the era of the founding dreamer. For a Jew is responsible not merely to be a witness, but to dream, to imagine a better future, despite the darkness that surrounds us. Peres said we should use our imagination more than our memory. “Optimists and pessimists die the exact same death,” he said, “but they live very different lives!”
Peres’ vision and Wiesel’s memory anchored us, moored us. And now they are gone and we are cast adrift, but still we inspired by their immortal message.
To be a Jew is to live acutely, relentlessly and compassionately, and to be moving forward while always glancing over our shoulder … to be a witness to the past and a beacon toward the future. To cling to life and purpose with all our might. To shed our shells and grow new ones. And all the while to be totally and unabashedly human.
That’s the lesson of the lobster.
Now, enter…the carrot.
Dan Barber, a chef and writer, speaks about an experiment he ran on a special kind of carrot, a Mokum carrot, which he was able to grow outdoors in the middle of cold, cold February. When it was ripe, he ran something called a Brix test, which measures the sugar content. It came to 13.8. He compared it to an organic carrot purchased from a Whole Foods, presumably grown in a much less hostile environment. That carrot measured 0.0. on the same scale.
No sugar detectable.
Why such a dramatic difference? He explains that the carrot is feverishly converting its starches to sugars because, in those hard freezes, it doesn’t want ice crystallization.
And why is that?
Because if it gets ice crystallization, it dies.
“What you’re tasting is sweetness,” he states. “But what the plant, the root vegetable is telling you, is that it doesn’t want to die.”
Talk about mindful eating. A carrot will never taste the same to me again. Maybe that’s why we make such a big tzimmis about tzimmis on the high holidays. The sweetness we’re tasting – is life itself.
Have you ever noticed how the sweetest things are produced under the greatest duress? The State of Israel has never known a single day of complete peace, not for 68 years. Yet this year it placed 11th of all the nations in the world in the happiness index, out of 156 countries. The US is 14th. Basically ahead of Israel you’ve got Australia – New Zealand, Canada (the man-cave of countries) and the nations of Scandinavia, where the closest they’ve come to war lately was when Prince Hans Westergaard tried to usurp the throne of Arendelle in “Frozen.”
And then you have Israel. Calamitous, terror-filled, polarized, with the meshuggenah bus drivers and rude bank clerks. THAT Israel. It’s 11th. It’s also the country where the tomatoes are more flavorful, the falafel crispier, the sunsets more spectacular, the people more welcoming, the children more playful – and life is, like that carrot’s, simply sweeter.
The intensity of life at the limits.
Want to hear something funny? I think we are becoming carrots here too.
Have you noticed that, despite all the fear and insecurity, all the hate online and nastiness of our public debate, our world is actually becoming more oriented toward the dignity of the human being? I’m sure you’ve heard the stats, that violent crime is continuing its decades’ long downward trajectory. I spoke last week of how, regarding racism, we’ve seen love triumph in the strangest places…. With an intensity never before seen. We’re not just talking about love. We’re talking about love is love is love is love is love! You can’t sleepwalk through life anymore.
We’re appreciating life more because we’ve seen how fragile it is. We’ve experienced life at the limits, so many times. And when lived at the limits, life is simply sweeter. And we’re taking those lessons and photosynthesizing them into love.
Just recently, our community has been blessed with two magnificent new buildings, the new Jewish Home in Bridgeport and the new Stamford Hospital. In both cases, it is the human element that takes precedence, the dignity and comfort of the patient or resident. In both places, there are no more shared rooms. Everyone has the blessing of privacy. The rooms in Stamford Hospital even have blackout shades to enable patients and family members to experience that hospital rarity – a good night’s sleep. A CT-Scan machine has a skylight right above it with a colorful photo of flowers. Everything is elevated to the human level. At the new Jewish Home it’s the same.
A hospital and a nursing home: two destinations typically associated with pain, decay and death – these places have become downright Disney-like – minus the crocodiles!
We at Beth El are beginning an exciting process of setting long-term goals and refining our mission, and our focus too is on the dignity of the individual human being – and the art of authentic Jewish living.
We can be adaptable and resilient like the lobster; we can find sweetness in the most stressful circumstances like the carrot; we bear witness like Wiesel and dream dreams like Peres; and we cling to every precious moment of life as if a tree is about to fall ten feet away, all the while preserving the dignity of being human, until our last ounce of breath becomes air.
So now if we add it all together, all the shadings of what it means to live an authentic Jewish life, everything we’ve discussed over the past ten days can be summed up in one fundamental calling:
Be a mensch.
It’s not enough to live one day at a time. What matters is what you do with that day. And we need to live our lives not merely as if every moment matters, but every action. Every deed. Because it does.
Be a mensch.
That’s how we experience life’s sweetness – by sharing that sweetness with others. That’s how we reject despair – by easing the despair of others. That’s how we shed the shell of crisis – by helping our neighbors to shed theirs.
Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan points out that “biblical Hebrew is all made out of verbs…it all starts in the doing and goes back to the doing. Why isn’t there a blessing for giving tzedaka to the poor? By the time you say the blessing, the man will die of hunger…spirituality cannot just be in what you think and what you feel – it has to be invested in what you do.”
Over the past six weeks I’ve been sending out emails called “Mensch*Marks,” daily benchmarks describing various ways in which we can better lives.
These were values that my dad taught me. He was always telling me simply to be a mensch. These are values I’ve wanted to pass down to my children – and to you.
I mentioned earlier that when my father was my age he had only about a year to live.
I was just 21 when he died and I don’t recall nearly enough; but that message from him rings through to me every day: Be a mensch.
And that’s how I’ve tried to live my life.
Sometimes I’ve succeeded and at others, undoubtedly I’ve failed. But I’ve never stopped striving to remind us all, in word and deed, that we were put on this earth to love one another – and in the end, that’s all that matters.
The rabbis stated, “In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human.”
In a world as dehumanizing as ours has become, simply being a mensch is a measure of heroism – and it may be the greatest measure of all.
Bahya Ibn Pakida, a 10th century Jewish philosopher, wrote, “Days are like scrolls…write on them only what you want remembered.”
That scroll we are writing on is our own Book of Life. And each entry is our own personal mensch*mark.
If we all do that, it won’t save the world overnight; but it will, over time.
John Paul Lederach wrote this Haiku:
Don’t ask the mountain to move
Just take a pebble
Each time you visit.
Inspired by the resourceful lobster. Galvanized by the relentless carrot. Chastened by the tragic tree. And grateful to be alive, for as long as we are alive, we will move that mountain, one pebble at a time.
And we will change the world.
May the coming year be a year of authenticity and growth, for all of us and for the world.