Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Yom Kippur: Getting To It

For Congregation Ner Shalom, Cotati, CA.

Not long ago I had a run-in with the law. Not a big deal. Not like in the movies. No drugs or bank heists or international espionage. Not even any arrests (although I have in fact been arrested for civil disobedience on more than one occasion).
I was on my way to Ner Shalom’s annual Havdalah with the Horses. I was dressed in my finest faux cowboy gear – boots, jeans, Stetson. I had my guitar in the back seat and I was practicing talking like Chuck Connors in the Rifleman. As I turned onto East Cotati I saw the CHP car sitting on the shoulder and, as I always feel when I see a police car, I thought, “I’m going to get caught.” I think that instinctively, even though I’ve usually not done anything illegal.
As soon as I rounded the corner, the patrol car began to follow me. And when I stopped at a light, it pulled up alongside and behind, to read my registration sticker – ah yes, the registration sticker that I didn’t have. And as the traffic light turned green, the squad car’s lights burst into color and its siren emitted its nauseating “please pull over” whoop.
In the parking lot where we settled in, Officer Philips told me how out of date my registration was. And I began to tell my story. I couldn’t complete the renewal because there’s a factory recall out on this model, and they can’t smog it without my going to a dealer for the recall first. But the car also needs a new engine. Which we can’t afford. So we were saving to do that and figured we’d get the recall problem fixed at the same time. And now I’d actually made an appointment at the dealer for Tuesday, and here it was Saturday, and I really had the appointment. But anyway, at least we’d paid the renewal; the car was just officially missing the smog certification.
Officer Philips radioed in. “No,” he said, “you’re actually more than a year behind in registration; you didn’t pay anything. We have to impound.” And he called for the tow truck.
Could it be? How had I never dealt with this? The car had almost imperceptibly gone from being transit to being troubled to being overdue to being in need of an unaffordable repair to being mostly a metal box parked on the grass. It happened so gradually that I’d somehow allowed myself to lose track. I’d somehow let myself pretend there was no problem.
The tow truck was on its way. But if the car got impounded, I could only get it back with a completed registration, which I couldn’t get because of the factory recall unless I brought it to a dealer which I couldn’t do on Tuesday if the car was impounded. “Yep,” said Officer Philips, “that sure is a Catch-22.”
I began taking my stuff out of the car. And I began to wonder, how could I let things like this happen? I am, as you know, overextended. But I’m not completely disorganized. I could have seen to the issue of the registration payment or the smog certification or the recall on any of the previous 400 or so days. But I didn’t. And I had no excuse.
So why hadn’t I cleaned up my mess? What is it that makes me wait until some authority catches up with me? What is it that makes me feel like I don’t have the ability to just do what I know I need to do?
Meanwhile Officer Philips kept giving me chances. He would tell the tow truck not to take the car if, say, I could prove that I did have an appointment with the dealer. (I called on my phone; they were closed for the day.) Or if I could pay the registration fee right now on line. (I had Oren at home trying to do this but now the DMV computers were down.)
For some reason, Officer Philips wanted me to succeed in straightening this out. He wanted any basis upon which he could now undo the penalty. He spent a ridiculous amount of time with me – an hour or more – patiently babysitting my predicament, as flexible as his authority allowed, despite my standing there looking for all intents and purposes like a reject from the Village People.
Now this could just be a story about me and my particular flavor of neurosis. But it made me think bigger. About why any of us chooses to put off the actions that would allow us to live more cleanly, to live more honestly.
Last week on Rosh Hashanah, we talked during Storahtelling about what makes humans different from the other species in the Garden. People named many things – awareness, falling in love, laughter. No one mentioned procrastination. (Maybe they meant to say it, but decided to wait for some later time.) But procrastination is distinctly human. I live up on Sonoma Mountain, surrounded by deer and turkeys and squirrels and hummingbirds. And while one could impose many anthropomorphic descriptions on their styles of life, you can’t accuse any of them of procrastination. They know their priorities without having to choose them. Need a new nest? You build it. Need to forage for food? Forage!
But we humans are granted, by our Creator or by nature, free will. We have the ability to choose and we celebrate that ability by making bad choices all the time, choices against our deep interest, choices we know on some level to be the wrong choices for us. At least I do.
We choose not to make peace with the people who matter to us. We choose not to forgive the people who have hurt us. We choose not to give a second chance to people about whom we once had a strong snap judgment. We choose not to apologize. (“Ah, she’s probably forgotten it by now anyway.”) We choose to be other than who we really are or who we really want to be. We choose to wait when we need to act. We choose to ignore when we need to notice. We choose paths that are easier or more enjoyable or less expensive or less of a headache or just closer at hand. It’s natural to do. It’s only human.
And this characteristic of humankind has migrated from the individual to the body politic – our collective willingness to prioritize, or to let our leaders prioritize, the immediate over the inevitable; to put economy ahead of ecology; to fail the cause of peace when war seems more popular or more profitable.
We as individuals and we as a collective are willing – repeatedly – to subordinate deep needs to superficial ones.
In part I think this happens because our lives are much more complex than that of hummingbirds and deer. Our world is so complex that it is easy to feel helpless.
Face it. We live in a world we cannot explain. Not just the natural world – that has always been mysterious and a source of fear and wonder. But we have created a human world that is beyond our comprehension. Industry and science and politics and law and technology and commerce and medicine and social interaction. None of us can grasp more than a thin slice. What we understand is so outweighed by what we don’t. I don’t know how my car works, let alone my computer. I don’t know where most of my food comes from. I don’t understand ethnic tensions in distant places, and I barely understand them down the block. I understand a portion of what the government says it does, and nothing of what it does without saying.
Of course we feel helpless. Of course we often feel hopeless. No wonder a presidential candidate can say that 47% of Americans feel like victims, and somewhere deep down we think, “Hmm, yes, maybe I do feel like a victim.”
There isn’t a way to stay in charge of all of it. So we tune it out, like white noise, like static. We have to. Call it denial, but it’s a legitimate survival skill in this era. But over time, we tune out so much that we begin to tune out our own hearts as well, our own truth. Animals have no such problem. Neither do children. Ask a kid what she wants with all her heart, and she will know the answer. But we adults live in a great cognitive disconnect between what we know about ourselves and the incongruous choices we make.
Tomorrow we read a passage from the Torah portion, Nitzavim, in which God comments on our ability to follow God’s mitzvah – which I take to be not just God’s law but our deep human wisdom. The passage says, lo niflet hi mimcha v’lo r’chokah hi. “This mitzvah is not too mysterious or too distant for you. It is not in the sky or over the sea that you have to be subject to someone else’s paraphrase of it. Rather,” says the text, karov eylecha hadavar m’od, b’ficha uvil’vavcha la’asoto. “But rather it is close to you, close within you, already in your heart and in your mouth.”
How to live is something we already know, deep down. We know who we want to be, how we want to be. Take a moment right now. Close your eyes. Who do you want to be? Forget all the reasons you can’t. What kind of person do you want to be? Imagine yourself. Now please, hang on to that vision. Not just through this drash but when you get home tonight, and tomorrow, and next week too.
Think of what you just pictured and felt. We know when our actions are at one with that vision. We know when our speech really truly reflects our hearts. And we damn well know when we’re making choices that drag us further from who we want to be.  
Just as I knew my car registration was expired.
So why is it so hard to reboot without fear of some authority figure, whether it’s a cop or whether it’s God?
Our tradition charges us with the task of teshuvah – of returning to our selves; returning to our deepest and highest yearning; remembering who we want to be and realigning our sense of self with that vision. We are assigned the task of fixing our wrongs, cleaning up our messes, putting things right, living from a place of integrity.
These are not Yom Kippur tasks. This is an ongoing assignment. But absent a crisis or a timetable, we don’t do them. So our tradition says do it in the month of Elul. But that month slips by as we watch political conventions and ready our kids to go back to school. So then on Rosh Hashanah we’re reminded that we have ten more days to put things right and return to our deepest sense of self. On your mark, get set, go!
And yet, here we are again. Yom Kippur evening. And who among us has done it? Some yes, many of us not. So Yom Kippur pressures us with its own internal deadline. An image of Heaven’s Gates swinging closed through this holiday until tomorrow night, at the end of our ne’ilah service, when they at last click shut.
Our tradition obviously knows how hard it is to get moving. Taking that first step is so difficult. It is why we have midrash around who first put their toe into the Red Sea. Those legends remind us that you don’t need the courage to part the sea. You only need the pluck to dip your toe. And that small bit of chutzpah will move the oceans.
This holds true for all our deep desires. To be more fair. To be more kind. To be more learned. To be more green. To be someone who gives. To be someone who volunteers or someone who gives tzedakah. To be a music-maker or a vegetarian. To be someone who keeps a little bit of Shabbat. To be someone who gets outdoors. To be someone who flosses! To be someone who just does more. Or to be someone who - finally - does less.
The path of teshuvah, of returning to who we deeply want to be and know ourselves to be, also begins that way. “The journey of 1000 miles starts with one step,” as Lao Tsu said. Or noch tzvei trit, “just two more steps,” as my wise great-grandmother Rose Jacobs would say, when her little daughter, my grandmother, asked, “Are we there yet?”
Last week, Yael Raff Peskin led a truly beautiful tashlich ritual at the creek in Sebastopol. This is the ritual where we toss birdseed in the water, representing our guilt, our flaws, the things that hold us back from being who we know ourselves to be.
At this particular tashlich we stood on a floating bridge, some forty or fifty people. The bridge was not only the narrow bridge Rebbe Nachman talks about when he says kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar m’od – the whole world is a narrow bridge and the key thing is not to fear. It was also a wobbling bridge. There was no easy way to just stand firm and fling our faults into the flowing water. Because try as you might to stand firm, the surface under you would certainly give way.
We all live wobbly lives, despite childhood expectations of safety and certainty. It is easy to say, “I will make things better when the wobbling stops.” “I will take care of this relationship after the work crisis is over.” “I will take time in nature after I figure out how to handle this money problem.” But the time will never be right. The ground rocks under our feet. And the key, humans, is to do it anyway. Not to be afraid, but to do it anyway. We can. And what each of us needs to do is in our hearts and on our lips already.
So the lesson of the wobbly bridge is, I guess, to do it now. The lesson of the Heavenly Gates is to do it now. The lesson of the sudden untimely deaths of friends and loved ones is to do it now. There is no moment to act but this one.
The Gerer Rebbe, one Yom Kippur, commented on Rabbi Hillel’s famous words, “If not now, when?” He said:
The present moment, which was never here before, will never be here again…. And every moment has a different [purpose]…. How can we atone for the wasted present moment? The next moment cannot atone for this moment.
We only have now. It is all we can count on. So do it today, on Yom Kippur. Do it before the gates shut. Remember who you want to be. And then choose at every possible moment to act according to that instinct.
God is waiting – or perhaps your better self, the human you most want to be, is waiting – patiently, while you run through your tales of complications and impediments and factory recalls. You are waiting, waiting for you to finally get to it.
Ben adam, mahlecha nirdam, says the Sephardic poem I chanted last week. “Human being, why do you sleep? Wake up now, and call out.”
And so human, wake up. Call out. To your deepest self. You already know what to do and what to say. For it is close to you, closer than your skin, b’ficha uvilvavcha la’asoto, in your heart and on your lips, that you may do it.
Will it be a difficult road? Could be.
Will you know the way? Torah says so.
Is it worth it? Oh, yes.
Is it far to get there? No. Noch tzvei trit. Just two more steps.

Wishing a happy, healthy year to all who pass by this post.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Rosh Hashanah 5773: Only Human

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, Cotati, CA]
There’s a story about a group of ants that stumble upon the remains of a picnic. If we want we can make it a Rosh Hashanah picnic – with apples, honey, teyglach, honey cake. Delighted, they start dismantling it and loading it up to carry back to the colony. Each ant hoists some 100 times its own body weight in crumbs on its back and starts trudging toward home. They notice that Moishe the ant is carrying only 70 times his own weight. They say, “Hey, Moishe, what’s the matter with you, carrying only 70 times your weight?” Moishe looks up and says, “Nu, what do you want? I’m only human.” 
 
“I’m only human.” Our perennial apology. It is our ultimate statement of limitation – of weakness, of lack of will, of failure! I am only human.

Today is a day we are invited to take up the issue of what it means to be human. On Rosh Hashanah we say hayom harat olam: “Today is the birth of the world.” But the tradition is more specific. It’s not the anniversary of the first day of Creation, of “let there be light,” but rather of the sixth day, the day that this creature of clay, this earthling we call adam, that we call human; was created; the day when we, who are “only human” made our debut.

This idea that the world is not worth celebration until we appear in it, is not surprising. After all, the traditional Jewish view is that the world was created for us, and that is also the dominant view in our culture. It is a catchy and convenient idea that is alive and well and continues to motivate the actions of many members of our species, especially but not exclusively the ones who gravitate toward positions of power.  

But I’d venture that most of us do not feel like masters of the earth. Most of us feel not like masters at all but like subjects; subject to the age-old limitations of being human: our bodies, our circumstances, our times. 

Being “only human” is undeniably a frustrating thing. It is so limiting, this clay of ours. We are trapped inside our skins. We know the world through peepholes and each other largely through guesswork. For all of our vaunted human intelligence, it seems that the Fruit of Knowledge that we gobbled down in the garden gave us less actual knowledge than just a painful awareness of how much we don’t know.

We are clay. And DNA. And saltwater and surging chemicals. But we want so much more, we want to be so much more. We want to reach beyond our skin. Like Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We want to touch the greatness that is outside of us. We are clay with aspirations.

This paradox is captured in our Sixth Day Creation story itself. In it, God says:

Na’aseh adam b’tzalmenu kid’mutenu.
Let us make adam – the human – in our image and our likeness.

This is a paradox because adam means earth. We are the Earth-Being. God forms us of clay like a potter at the wheel, we say. Our birth is of earth. But the text also says we are made b’tzelem Elohim: in God’s image. So we are matter, somehow formed in imitation of the immaterial.

Godlike mud. 

So what is the godlike part of us? We don’t know! And that’s a terrible taunt. God tells us we’re godlike, then leaves us to work it out. How are we godlike? We can’t fly. We can’t shape-shift. We can’t live forever. We can’t tell the future or know the secrets of the past. We can’t look into each other’s hearts. We can’t do any of the cool superhero things we dream up for ourselves in comic books. No. On the contrary. Our lives are short. We are earthbound. We break, we hurt, we die, we grieve. We are only human. How sad for us, then; what a curse, to be able to imagine something better.

But isn’t our imagination a blessing as well?

I had a conversation not long ago with a childhood friend who, as an adult, suffers from bipolar disorder. It’s made her life difficult both personally and professionally. As she charged through our conversation at lightning speed, I finally interrupted to ask if it’s okay for me to jump in and pull her back to topic. She said yes, and added, “Irwin, understand that this is me on a good day. Now imagine me on a bad day, and talking to people who don’t happen to have a fond childhood memory of me.” 

I was struck by that, picturing the people who look at her without pity. I thought of the people who challenge or anger me. The ones I look at without pity. And, for the first time, it hit me: there are people who have loving childhood memories of them. What if I were one of them? How would my view of them be different?

Let’s all find out right now. Think of someone who bugs you, or who challenges you in some way. Conjure up the thought of that person, and give me a nod when you see them in your mind. Now imagine the child that they once were. Imagine how loved they were or, perhaps, how loved they wanted to be. Go ahead. I dare you to do it right now, even if you feel resistance – especially if you feel resistance. Think of that person and, for a moment, fondly hold in your arms the child they were. 

Did you feel something? For a moment were you open to believing in their best intentions? That they might be doing their best in the limited clay that they’ve been given? That even now, though they rub you the wrong way, they're trying their best? With this friendlier eye, can you imagine what motivates them? The desire to learn, to love, to be loved, to create, to connect, to be noticed, to be appreciated. How much more alike do you feel now? Does some of the wall you’ve erected against them wear away? Do you see that like you they’re only human?

Mazeltov. You have used your imagination and you have chosen to do so with chesed, with compassion. You have engaged in an act of empathy. No, it is not the same as God’s putative ability to look deep into each person’s heart. But it is godlike. And it is only human.

In difficult political times like these, I wonder sometimes where my empathy has gone. I look at people whose views I oppose and who oppose mine. I make sweeping judgments about them. I’m not incapable of empathy toward them. I just choose not to exercise any. After all, I’m only human.

But how bad would it be if I did? For instance, let’s take some big opponent of same-sex marriage. If I could set aside my hurt at seeing the bumper stickers on their car, couldn’t I pretty easily imagine the emotions that underlie their position? How difficult is it really to appreciate their very human fear of change, the fear of a world moving faster than one can cope, loyalty to tradition, a fear of letting go of what you know. Easy to imagine, because I feel those things too. And if they were inclined to try, how difficult would it be for them to perceive my very human hunger to belong, to have what others have, my desire not to be left behind, my hope not to have to beg for it.

I may not change anyone’s mind by engaging in random acts of empathy. I am not so na├»ve. But by doing so I will have kept myself from the temptation of dehumanizing others. Yes, they might dehumanize me. I know it. I don’t like it. But I don’t have to do it back. 

Jesus (yes, Jesus) said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.” Our tradition doesn’t explicitly require loving our enemies. But tucked away in Torah is the idea that having empathy for them is important. In Exodus we read that if you see the donkey of someone who hates you collapsed under its burden, and your instinct is to just let them all go to hell, you are instructed nonetheless to help that person get their donkey on its feet. The human-ness of the situation binds you to each other.

Similarly in our very familiar Psalm 23, we read: ta’aroch l’fanay shulchan neged tzor’ray. You, God, set a table for me across from my enemies. This image is not that of a bargaining table, a table of war. A shulchan aruch is a table set for a meal. This is a vision about being able to sit down and break bread with the people we disagree with. Because deeper than our infuriating opinions and frustrating quirks is our very human hunger. When we break bread together, we connect as humans. We are experiencing empathy. My experience on this earth is like yours. You hunger, I hunger. You want, I want. We are both only human.

And maybe that’s a piece of this puzzle. Our human experience is not a barrier to empathy; but a condition precedent to it. Our being human is our only available source of it. Our humanness allows us to break through and reach beyond these human shells. Being human is not a wall, but a bridge. We are earthbound, but our earth-born compassion gives us flight. Body and spirit are not opposites. The spirit is instead the name we give to our human need and human ability to stretch.

The truth is, I believe, that if there is something divine in us, it is solid-state; it is inextricably woven into our humanity. When God acts, it is through us. Or looking at it from a different viewpoint when we act in the best possible ways, the most compassionate ways, we are God. We are tzelem Elohim – not just the image of God but the spitting image of God; not just the image of God, but our imagining of God. 

We who are only human have the ability to act with greatness. So great that we might be confused with angels. On the sixth day Creation story, after we’re referred to as adam, humankind is then referred to as ish, a term that in Torah is intermittently used to mean “angel.” It is this word for human that the sages use when they say uvamakom she’eyn anashim, hishtadel lihyot ish – “in a place where there are no people, try to be a person.” Not a human, as in “I’m only human.” But a person, as in a good person, a compassionate person. A mentsch. A person with the bearing of an angel. 

There is a story of a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov who dreamed of meeting the prophet Elijah. He begged his master to help him do this. So the Ba’al Shem Tov instructed him that on Rosh Hashanah he should go to a particular house in a particular village, with a satchel full of food and a satchel full of children’s clothes, and knock on the door, and there he would meet Elijah. This Chasid’s family was loath to see him go, but for the chance to meet the prophet Elijah it was not too great a sacrifice. 

So the Chasid want to this house, and as he stood outside he heard the voices of children crying. He knocked, and when the door opened he saw hungry looking children in threadbare clothes. He asked if he might stay with them over the holiday. The children’s mother said, “but we have no food to feed you a holiday meal with.” He replied, “It’s alright, I’ve brought plenty of food – enough for all of us. And clothes for the children too.” He stayed with the family for the duration of the holiday, never sleeping a wink for fear of missing his promised encounter with Elijah the Prophet. But he saw no one.

He returned to the Ba’al Shem Tov and complained that he did not see the prophet. “You didn’t see Elijah the Prophet?” Asked the master. “No, I didn’t.” “And you did everything I told you to?” “Yes I did.” 

“Then go back before Yom Kippur and do the same thing again, with a satchel of food and a satchel of clothes. But this time go a little earlier and stand at the door for a while listening.” This the Chasid did. And once again he heard the children crying. “Mama, we haven’t eaten all day.” And he heard their mother’s voice say, “Children, don’t you remember before Rosh Hashanah? I said ‘Have faith. God will send Elijah the prophet to provide for us.’ And wasn’t I right? Didn’t Elijah come with a satchel of food and a satchel of clothes? And didn’t he stay with us for two days? And now I promise you that Elijah will come again and help us.”

And then the Chasid understood, and he knocked on the door.

When we act with compassion, with generosity; when we set out to relieve suffering, then we are acting b’tzelem Elohim – in our most godlike way. Then we only humans may be confused with prophets or angels. 

We have remarkable gifts, either breathed into our spirits or coded into our cells. We have this terribly limiting, painful human life: short and frequently visited by grief and suffering. But it gives birth to such remarkable compassion, when we let it. It gives birth to empathy, toward friend and enemy alike, when we are brave enough to feel it. It gives birth to such generosity, when we don’t hold ourselves back. 

Maybe as we recite High Holy Day prayers, when we reach out to God in sorrow and regret and hope, we should not be imagining God at all, but should see ourselves calling out to our own potential greatness. Not political or military greatness, but each our own greatness of spirit, greatness of compassion, greatness of imagination. The best we want from ourselves. We can carry so many times our body’s weight! Perhaps we are the right destination for our prayers, and God is kind enough to stand in as  metaphor.

So on this birthday of the world, let us celebrate our humanity and all the potential for greatness that it represents. Let us celebrate our persistent desire to reach beyond our clay. Let us celebrate the fact that being only human is far from a limitation.

“Ben Adam,” says a Sephardic poem for the High Holy Days, “Human being, wake up. Break out of the shell of your humanness. Call out. Reach out. Ask for compassion. Act with generosity.”

Ben adam mah lecha nirdam? Kum k'ra b’tachanunim.
Sh’foch sichah, d’rosh s’lichah me’adon ha’adonim.
Lecha hatz’dakah v’lanu boshet hapanim.


We are clay. And we are just below angels. In this New Year, let us fly like angels on wings of compassion, compassion towards our loved ones, towards the people who challenge us, towards the ones who hurt us, even as best we can, toward the ones who hate us. 

Let us awake and ask for compassion and practice compassion. For on the sixth day, the human, the mentsch, the clay imitating God, was created.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Weight of the World is Love (Queer Love Chant)

This is a three-part chant I wrote over a decade ago for a ritual designed by my friend Scott Himmelsbach. It was for an event called "Love, Valor & Compassion" and I was tasked with creating some music for the "love" section. It was a queer event, so I culled from Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman. Their text snippets bring to mind, respectively, the earthiness, the juiciness and the heavenliness of love. I've sinced used this periodically to replace the "Ahavat Olam" or "Ahavah Rabah" in Jewish ritual. And the other night I tried it for the first time at a (non-queer) partnership ritual (see video).

I offer this in case you wish to try it in your community or your work. (Start with Ginsberg and hold it till it's steady. Add Langston Hughes. Once those are stable, reach for Whitman! Lather, rinse, repeat.) If you do this, let me know how it flies!

And thanks to Johanna Adorjan for surreptitiously capturing this bit of video that gives a sense of how it sounds: