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In the parking lot where we settled in, Officer Philips told me how out of date my registration was.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.