Sunday, September 19, 2010

Unravelling Regret

[Erev Yom Kippur Sermon, 5771-2010]

I regret to inform you that tonight we will be discussing regret. Regrets, grudges, and other artifacts that burden us, that impede passage through the corridors of our lives. We will also talk about death and forgiveness and knitting.

So I want to tell you about my Uncle Marvin. He was my only uncle, although I had plenty of great-uncles growing up and, baruch Hashem, have one still. But Uncle Marv was my only "real" plain-old uncle. He and I became especially close over the last decade, after my aunt had died and so had my father, who was my uncle's younger brother. Suddenly alone in the suburbs of Chicago, Uncle Marv moved to Las Vegas to be closer to his son and daughter-in-law. Meanwhile, my touring calendar began to include Las Vegas, and I ended up having many more opportunities to be alone with him than I'd ever had.

Despite his advanced age, he remained active, kinda crotchety and the source of an unflagging stream of jokes. He continued to come up with ideas and inventions. He worked in a grocery store right until he became sick with what was to be his final illness.

When I found out he had been hospitalized, I flew down. I spent two days sitting in his hospital room with him. In his thin and weakened state, he was nearly the spitting image of my father at the end of his life, which gave our time together an unearthly air.

Our first day together was all sweetness. He made jokes. We sang together - the standards: Gershwin, Irving Berlin. I was grateful to be there and he was happy I was there also. I sat and knitted at his bedside, a scarf intended for my sister. It kept my hands busy, and the click-clack of the needles filled the silent stretches with a note of purpose.

The second day was different. He was even weaker, and the joy seemed drained from the room. He still talked, but they were all stories of grudges and regrets: complaints about how his in-laws treated him. Disappointments about his marriage, about his career, about the move out west he should have done, about the businesses he should have started, about the many ways his life could have been better if people hadn't refused to believe in him.

I listened to this outpouring of ancient bitterness. My body tensed up, and as I knitted I felt my stitches getting smaller and tighter and harder to work with.

At some point I tried to change the tenor of the day by asking him to tell me a happy story. He told me briefly about his honeymoon. The birth of his children. Then he was flooded full-on with a childhood memory that clearly animated him. He'd been trying to sell enough newspaper subscriptions to win his first bike and he was one subscription short and finally Aunt Lucy bought a subscription she didn't need, despite the hard yoke of the Depression, so that he should get it, and the bicycle finally arrived, and he assembled it, and a neighbor sent him on his first errand to pick up something at the hardware store on Foster Avenue and when he came out of the hardware store his new bike was gone.

That was the happy story.

In a somewhat naïve, rabbinical student, do-gooder kind of way, I thought about the bedtime shema. We have a tradition, many of you know about it, that one should not die without forgiving and being forgiven. And since we never know when we will die, we recite a short vidui, a short confessional, each night along with our recitation of the shema. It goes, in part, like this:

Ribbono shel Olam! Master of the Universe.
I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or upset me, or who has done me any harm; who has harmed my physical body, my possessions, my honor — anything pertaining to me; whether accidentally or intentionally, by speech or by deed, in this incarnation or any other; any human being. May no one be punished on my account.

My uncle, always easily identifiable as Jewish, sometimes picked on for it, always proud of it, was not an observant man. I don't know if he ever said the shema outside of a synagogue. Or inside one for that matter. So instead of offering an explicitly religious practice, I simply asked him, "Do you think it might be time to let go of these grudges, Uncle Marv? Maybe you can forgive these people. Maybe they were only doing their best."

His response, though startling, had the honesty of someone without much time left. "No," he replied, "never."

Jewish tradition has, as you imagine, something to say about this. We are encouraged to forgive. And more. The 16th Century Spanish Rabbi Moshe Cordovero wrote that you are to emulate God in your forgiveness - that is, after you forgive, you must hold that person closer, dearer than you did before the offense occurred. Maybe that is in fact what we do in our most successful relationships. Forgiveness giving way to intimacy. But, as a general pracitce, this really sounds like an impossibly tall order. Think of all old bosses and coworkers you'd still have to be close to.

Somewhere in the course of all of this, and I can't tell you whether it was on the sweet day or the bitter one, I made a serious error in my knitting. I missed a row and reversed the pattern. That is to say, the front side of the scarf became the back, and vice versa. So that the ragged, unfinished elements would be visible no matter how you wore the thing.

I flew home with my mess of scarf, saddened not only at my uncle's impending death, but at the fact that he seemed so burdened, so narrowed, so bitter, and that that would be the emotional and spiritual flavor of his death.

Being in a narrow place, and being released from it, is one of the great narrative tropes of our tradition. Certainly, our great collective story of liberation, the Exodus from Mitzrayim, is that story. Mitzrayim, interpretable in Hebrew as "the narrow places" gave way to a vast wilderness, a midbar, free of landmarks, a big sky country where God's voice could speak to us, midbar meaning not only "wilderness" in Hebrew but also "the place of speech."

Release from the narrow place is not just our collective story but also a reflection of our internal struggles and our desire for expansiveness. In Psalm 118, we famously say:

מן המצר קראתי יה ענני במרחב יה
From the metzar, from the narrow place, I called Yah.
I was answered in Yah's great expanse.

Poor Uncle Marv, I thought in that moment, stuck in the narrow place.

Back in my own home, I looked at the scarf. I couldn't continue with it. The error was too significant. And, looking at the tight stitches I could only think of my uncle's discontents, inscribed right into the wool. It would not be a fitting gift for anyone. I pulled out the needles and began to unravel it row by row. As I did this, I breathed deep and imagined his grudges being released into the wilderness, being offered up into the expanse. At last I was left with a ball of yarn, and lungs filled with good air.

My sister called. It was now her turn to be in Las Vegas at the bedside. I'd forewarned her that he was very bitter. She called to say that she didn't know what I'd seen, but that he was now peaceful and loving, with no sign of bitterness. A couple days later I called him on his cell phone. I didn't expect him to answer but he did. I'd heard he was barely talking at all anymore. But he took the lead. He reminded me of two daytrips he and I had made from Las Vegas - one to Red Rock Canyon, one to Mt. Charleston. Memories of our being in the midbar, in the vast places where God speaks. I told him that from my window at that very moment I could see the Pacific Ocean, entirely wrapped in fog. He said he'd like to see the ocean, and that maybe that could be our next trip together.

My uncle had somehow ended up in merchav Yah. He was in the great expansive place. How did this happen? I have no way of knowing. The pagan in me likes the thought that in unraveling the scarf I released his grudges for him. But in truth, all I know is that in unraveling the scarf I released them for me.

Did he revisit the idea of forgiving, as is done in the bedtime Shema? I couldn't know. But maybe, in the absence of formal words of release, crying out from the narrow place was enough. Maybe his telling me all those things was, in essence, his crying "Yah" from the narrow place. Whether by "Yah" we mean "God" or we mean the keening of a primal pain. Or an exhale of the hard stuff into the ether. Maybe his defiant statement of "no, never" was in fact his call from the narrow place. No. Never. Yah.
And after that, mysteriously, he seemed to have breathed in expansiveness, and with it visions of canyon and mountain and ocean.

Maybe, in fact, calling out is enough. Even without kavanah, without an explicit intent to unburden ourselves of our grudges, our bodies and our spirits eventually know what they must do, despite ourselves. After all, the narrow place is magnetic. We know this. It is cozy and familiar and we do not always give it up easily. But, as the sages said,

יותר משהעגל רוצה לינוק הפרה רוצה להיניק

More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants to nurse. In other words, God wants to give us kindness even more than we desire it for ourselves. Or in this case, this Universe wants us to be filled with expansiveness, even more than we want to give up the narrow place. Even when we say we don't want to give up the narrow place at all.

I'll never know exactly what happened for Uncle Marv. I do know, though, what happened for me. I became more convinced that I must always seek out and embrace expansiveness, the merchav Yah. I do not want first to amass 80 years of grudges, or 70, or 50, or 10. I will do my bedtime Shema regularly or irregularly. At bedtime, or when I remember. I will use those exact words or others. Or I will use no words at all, but simply call out Yah from my narrow place. I will say Yah, yeah, yo, You, or simply breathe the hard stuff out. Yah.

Let us do that together. Now. Not on our deathbeds, but now. Let us find the people we're still, year after year, unwilling to forgive. The stories that still pain us so very long after they stopped being fact and became stories. Let us gather those things into our lungs and our throats and let us breathe them out of these narrow places together: Yah. Yah. Yah.

And take a deep breath of merchav Yah - of holy expansiveness.

And let us say: Amen.

And by the way, when the day comes at last that you can't find me, I'll be on the beach with my uncle.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Attuning to Love

Drash for Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5771

I've been a bit blocked of late. Writer's block for sure. But maybe more. I turn 50 in three days and it's brought up a bit more gunk than I thought it would. More limitations. My body not working the way I want. And, of course, these are just plain hard times to begin with: the economy; the wars; the planet; the new generation of book-burners amassing their piles of Korans. So much to feel angry and helpless about. So I've been feeling blocked, and have come to feel angry and helpless about that too. Even writing a drash for tonight was killer. Last year and the year before they flowed. But not this one.

All year I'd collected thoughts, feelings, phrases. Then when it came time to write, I threw these all at the paper and none of it would stick. Or it stuck, but failed to make a pattern. I turned on myself in a fury. "Aha, beginners' luck has worn off, and now we see the truth," I said to myself, rather cruelly. "You've finally run out of things to say," I said to myself, rather disingenuously. "Everyone will see you're no rabbi," I said, while another part of my mind feebly responded, "Well, they do know that already..."

I decided to spend a day thinking and writing in the woods. It worked great last year. But this year, I sat anxiously under the indifferent redwoods, waiting for inspiration. The last straw came when I looked up out of the anonymity of nature to see a familiar face smiling and saying, "Oh Reb Irwin, I can't wait to hear your sermons this year!"

The rout was complete. I was ruined, my efforts worthless. I felt wrung out - not by my hard work (and I was working hard), but by the exhausting ordeal of self-judgment. Hineh yom hadin - as we say on these holidays: Behold the Day of Judgment.

After all, isn't that what these holidays are about? Judgment? The judgment language is everywhere in the liturgy. We are asked to look inside and take stock, in a process called cheshbon hanefesh - the accounting of the soul. It's hard and it doesn't always feel good. In fact, I had one friend tell me that she wouldn't be attending Yom Kippur at her synagogue this year because she's tired of being asked to feel bad.

Of course self-judgment makes us feel especially bad, because we're really so good at it. Maybe the concept of divine judgment is terrifying because it's another layer on top of the what we've done to ourselves. I know my failures; God knows not only those, but also the ones I'm still in denial about. Who could stand up to that kind of God-like scrutiny?

We've complained about this angst for as long as we've been a people. In Psalm 130, which we recited the other night at Selichot, we ask:

אם–עונות תשמר–יה אדני מי יעמד

"If you keep track of all our transgressions, Adonai, who can stand?" In other words, how can any of us hope to withstand God's judgment?

A more modern text raises the same question. This very Jewish text is a joke my friend Esther Schor told me this summer. It goes like this:

Moses has died and ascends to heaven. God welcomes him. "Moses, are you hungry," asks God. "I could eat," replies Moses. God picks up a can of tuna, opens it, dumps it on a plate, sticks a leaf of iceberg lettuce next to it and puts it in front of Moses. Not wanting to be impolite, Moses nibbles at it, all the while looking down over his shoulder, where he can see clear down to hell. There the people are feasting. Tables full of food like at a Bar Mitzvah. Finally Moses works up the nerve and says, "God, I don't want to seem ungrateful, but I can't help but notice that the people in hell are eating much better." "Listen, Moses," replies God, "for two I don't cook."

Both the Psalm and the joke correctly point out that saintliness is not in our nature; if there were a heaven and hell, and divine judgment determined the outcome, heaven would be empty. And if self-judgment determined the outcome, I don't imagine heaven would be any more populous.

And no wonder. We live lives that are complex. Our efforts to be our best selves are hampered by our need to make money and take care of our families and get out the door to work and a million other things. Moral questions are often gray. And sometimes we do know what's right but we just don't have time, for many good reasons, to do it. And what do we mean anyway by "our best selves?" Are we really split into bad and better selves? Isn't this "best selves" metaphor another "good me/bad me" dichotomy that's just another setup for failure?

That's why I'm going  on strike this year. I protest. I have gone through a sincere cheshbon hanefesh, a spiritual inventory, during each of the last 40 or so high holy day seasons. Every year I explore my shortcomings. I try to make my peace with the world. Sometimes I even pray. And the next year the shortcomings look suspiciously similar to the ones the year before. Like going back over and over to look in the fridge. Same stuff inside. But older. And a little more pungent. So while this annual season of introspection can feel cathartic in the moment, I'm skeptical about how much it results in actual change.

So yes. I'm on strike. I say this: if cheshbon hanefesh is a true accounting, then the balance sheet must contain not only liabilities but assets too. I want to spend a little time looking at that side of the ledger. This year I want to make it my project to look for the good. In others, yes. But also in myself. Because I think just underneath or on the flipside of everything we feel bad about, there is something good, something worthy of love, something waiting for a little respect.

I will now model this, using several of my real-life shortcomings.

I feel hopeless and unhappy about the overflowing pile of undone stuff on my desk. The inbox of emails awaiting response like pets pawing at the door to be fed. The boundaries I didn't set. My difficulty saying "no." The way my family suffers for my overcommittedness.

Days of Attunement X-Ray Glasses
Some other year, I'd brood over those things, feel terrible and resolve to try harder. But this year I would like to see deeper. If only I had a pair of Days of Attunement X-Ray Glasses, I take a second look. Wait! I do have a pair! Let's see what we see.

Aha. So behind the overcommittedness there's my desire to be everything for everyone. And also there's my deep love of saying, "yes." Those aren't bad things. They get me in trouble, but they're lovely things, and they deserved to be noticed. Hey.

Let's try another one. My impatience. My seemingly ever-shortening fuse. With my Days of Attunement X-Ray glasses what do I see? Some nasty perfectionism maybe; behind that some insecurity. Behind that I see my need to prove something, to prove what I can do all by myself, and behind that - let me readjust the glasses - ah yes, the desire to be loved. Now I get it. And wait, there's something else. Oh, this one is surprising, for a rabbi-slash-singing-drag-queen. Deep down, there's part of me that's an introvert, who just wants to be able to be alone and doesn't know how to ask for that. Wanting to be loved. Needing solitude. I can honor and appreciate those parts of me, even though the way I've acted on them has obviously gotten me into hot water.

So I'm not trying to wiggle my way out of responsibility; I'm not - despite appearances - looking at myself through rose-colored glasses. I'm not letting myself off the hook for my actions or their consequences. If there is teshuvah to do in the world, I have to do it. But looking lovingly at their source, the simple, human, even beautiful source: that is new and surprising and, I think, good.

So what are these X-Ray Glasses? Here's your mnemonic. You can remember because they form a chet. They are the divine and, thankully, human attribute of chesed. Of love. Of kindness. What a nice change, looking at all I'm ashamed of through a lens of genuine love and kindness.

You don't have to do it this instant, although you're welcome to. But I'd like to invite you this year, when you're beating your chest and rattling off your list of transgressions, to find one that's really present for you, to pause with it and to look deeper behind it using your own built-in Chesed Lenses. What we all might discover is that there are parts of us that are real and are praiseworthy and are in need of attention, and which need to be taken into consideration when we act in this world. Maybe that little bit of good stuff that's in need of attention will help us change more than any great heap of self-condemnation.

The great Chasidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, commanded his followers to judge with kindness. He taught:

דע כי צריך לדון את כל אדם לכף הזכות

"Know," he said, that you must judge every person on the meritorious side of the scale, on the generous side...

ואפילו מי שהוא רשע גמור, צריך לחפש  ולמצוא בו איזה מעט טוב

and even someone who seems completely wicked to you, you must look for and find eyzeh m'at tov - some small bit of good, and by recognizing the small bit that's good, you invite the person to return in teshuvah. For Rebbe Nachman, looking for the good wasn't enough. Finding it was obligatory. In other words, he never doubted - nor should we - that it's there.

But what I propose is that m'at tov - that nugget of goodness - is not sitting alongside our faults. It is part of them. It breathes through them. And the m'at tov is also what makes us care about how we're doing in our lives to begin with.

Rebbe Nachman believed this m'at tov to be utterly transformative. His prooftext (they always use prooftexts) is in Psalm 37:

ועד מעט ואין רשע והתובוננת על–מקומו ואיננו

"Just a little bit and there will be no wicked one; you will look at his place and he will not be there." The traditional reading is that in just a little bit - i.e. very soon - the wicked will be wiped off the face of the earth. But the Rebbe's ingenious reading is utterly different. Find the little bit of good in someone and the next time you look, you will not see a wicked person at all. Just a little bit and there will be no wicked one; you will look at his place and he will not be there. Is this advice any less true when looking at ourselves?

And so may we, on the brink of the new year, during the hard and pressured times that we all experience, do this for each other and for ourselves. When we look inside, let us not stop with the faults. Let us mine deeper for the praiseworthy piece that set it all in motion. The m'at tov - the bit of good that flows even through our failures. And by acknowledging that praiseworthy piece, that m'at tov, may we send it on a better course to its happy fulfillment. May that be our method of change. So that when we look back to the place where we saw, and scolded, our wicked selves, our wicked selves will no longer be there.

I wish all of you a good year, a better year, a year of compassion, a year of attunement to the good in others and in ourselves.

Rosh Hashanah Welcome: Through the Wall

Chag sameach. Gut yontiff. Welcome.

I want to congratulate you for showing up tonight, for whatever reason you did: because this is your lifelong custom or because it's a new engagement; because it moves you; because you're curious; or because you love someone who wanted to be here. These are all fine reasons. So mazeltov.

I know for many of us the transition into synagogue ritual can be difficult. There are many things about our tradition that are hard to buy into. I recently had the opportunity to pray in a community that was politically progressive but ritually conservative. They used an Orthodox prayerbook, and it was my first time using one in a long time. The entire service was in Hebrew. I know for many of you that would prove an obstacle. My problem was different. I understood all the Hebrew. And the content of what I was reading proved to be the great obstacle. So many things I couldn't buy into: severely gendered imagery, God-as-king, angry-God, judging God. I began to see the words, the Hebrew typeface we call block print, as actual bricks, walling me off and keeping me out. I felt myself fuming. I felt tears welling up.

But as I stared at this wall, my mind wandered to the Greek myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. Next door neighbors, lovers from feuding families. A chink in the wall was how they saw and heard each other, and how they carried on their love affair. The image suddenly allowed me to imagine a chink in the wall of liturgy, to see the space between our inherited words. Through this opening I saw, smiling at me, I don't know what: maybe our tradition, maybe the cosmos, maybe God. But something in the experience smiled back at me like a lover. I chuckled at the secret of our love affair, and felt my tense body relax. As I did, the opening grew and became a great gate and swung open for me at last. Pitchu li sha'arei tzedek as we will sing repeatedly over this holiday. "Open for me, ye gates."

So I invite you to find your own gate this holiday. The one that opens for you, to whatever mystery lies behind it. If your gate is music, may it open for you. If your gate is tradition, may it open for you. If your gate involves ignoring all the words and reflecting quietly or walking outside under the stars, may it open for you. If your gate involves God, may it open for you. If your gate involves replacing the word God with Universe, Being, Existence, Non-existence or Mystery every time it comes up in the book or issues from my mouth, may that gate open for you as well.

I ask your forgiveness in advance if this service turns out not to be exactly what you had wanted. But, as the sages famously said, "You can't always get what you want. No, you can't always get what you want. No, you can't always get what you want."

But if you try to find your own gate, you might just find you get what you need.

It is Rosh Hashanh. A time for turning - turning the calendar, turning a page, maybe turning over a new leaf, turning around, turning back. I am glad we are here together at this moment of turning, looking behind, looking ahead, looking inside.