Saturday, October 13, 2012

Killing Your Darlings

It is Shabbat in New York City. I'm about to go out and scare up a shul. It's my father's yortzeit and though I could say Kaddish alone, our age-old custom is to do it in community instead. And over the years, with my travel schedule, it's given me an annual chance to wander into Jewish communities I never would've visited otherwise.

So I began googling Jewish communities near where I'm staying. And I stumbled onto the Sim Shalom Universalist Chavurah. For someone who plays as fast and loose with our tradition as I do, I am remarkably suspicious of other Jews' innovations. Are they crypto-Christians? Stealth Messianics? I guess that flavor of suspicion itself is rather Jewish, as we struggle to withstand the arrival of the next new thing, as we've survived Christianity, Islam, Sabbateanism, Franckism, the Enlightenment, Chasidism, Reform Judaism, and every other new idea that we now see as an innovation or a deviation, depending on the outcome.

One of the primary notions of the Sim Shalom folks, not unlike Mordecai Kaplan's framing of Reconstructionism, is the rejection of the idea of "chosen-ness." There are many paths to enlightenment and, using the language on Sim Shalom's website, "We reject the concept of a God that would choose a favorite child."

It was a funny statement to stumble on during this Shabbat Breishit where, among so many other things, we read the story of Kayin and Hevel - Cain and Abel. This story, in which God accepts the offering of the younger but not the older, is one of our many narratives that dwell in the anxiety about the seemingly unfair affection and attraction felt for the next new thing. We see it again and again: Isaac becomes Abraham's principal heir over Ishmael. Jacob swipes the birthright and the blessing from Esau. Rachel is the beloved over her sister Leah. Although Torah doesn't explore this dimension of it, it's worth noting that Moses himself is little brother to both Miriam and Aaron. Even King David, though not a set up as a sibling, is still posed as the young and more attractive alternative to King Saul. David is the upstart whose charmed and charming ascendancy drives the failing leader mad.

Torah over and over presents versions of this, of the younger being justified in taking what should belong to the older. Why such anxiety? Were we, as newcomers to the Promised Land, as builders of a kingdom not on empty soil but on the turf of an older resident civilization, insecure about our position? Is Torah's message that the new supplanting the old is the order of things? In Greek mythology the younger gods defeat the older gods; children supplant their parents, suggesting that change happens in a generational way. The Torah version, invoking our innate sibling rivalry, is subtler and trickier. It involves the painful conflict of ideas that are more or less contemporaneous.

In his mind-bending book Ishmael, Daniel Quinn paints the Cain-Abel conflict as an allegory representing the defeat of the old nomadic lifestyle, represented by Abel the shepherd of sheep, by the newer, settlement-based agrarian culture, represented by Cain. The murder of Abel by Cain exemplifies the agrarian revolution of about 10,000 years ago. Interestingly, in this reading of the myth, the newer idea - agrarianism - is embodied in the older sibling, and the older hunter-gatherer-herdsman lifestyle is embodied in the younger.

Of course what's always challenging and reassuring about Torah is that it doesn't lend itself to easy allegorical readings. Is Abel a new idea or an old idea? Is Abel the loss of the past or anxiety about the present and future? Or is this story not about ideas at all? Maybe it's about competition between tribes or nations. Or maybe this tale of sibling rivalry is just about sibling rivalry. After all, the murderous rage that many children feel at the arrival of the darling interloper is a deep current in many lives. It informs personalities and outlooks from cradle to grave.

I myself am a younger child. So are, when I think about it, most of my friends. How much of my general optimism comes from never having been challenged by a darling newcomer? And how much of that optimism would look to anyone else like plain old naivete?

Was Abel naive? When God accepted his offering but not Cain's, did he not see what was coming next? The outcome, though not foreseeable to the character, was utterly foreseeable to the narrative itself. Abel is named Hevel, the word that comes up over and over in Ecclesiastes, which we read last week over Sukkot before Simchat Torah boomeranged us back to the Beginning. It means breath. Vanity. Fleetingness. Impermanence. Unlike for his brother in the preceding verse, Torah gives no explanation as to how Hevel got this name. Almost as if it was less a name than an attribute. He was, in fact, impermanent. It could not have been his parents. After all, who would name their kid Temp?

Maybe Torah instead is saying something about our individual, internal struggles. We have competing needs, ideas. Sometimes the more attractive idea has to go. As the advice to writers goes, "Kill your darlings." But when you do, it is okay to mourn, and the idea that survives must be held accountable. When it asks, "Am I my brother's keeper," the answer - in the world of ideas as much as the world of action - should be a resounding "yes."

Or maybe this story of the first crime of passion is not meant to teach anything other than impermanence itself, its tone less akin to the mythology of Genesis than to the fatalism of Ecclesiastes. Maybe Kohelet, Ecclesiastes' author, uses this term - hevel - over and over in order to send us right back to this core narrative about unpredictability and impermanence. We grow, we tend, we offer up. Sometimes the world accepts our offerings. Sometimes it doesn't and we don't know why. Sometimes we are punished for our success. Sometimes we punish ourselves. It is all hevel. Yet we have no choice but to keep growing, keep tending and keep offering up.

This sentiment is beautifully captured in an unattributed poem that became a song by Maggy and Suzzy Roche:

     People are often unreasonable, illogical,
     and self-centered;
     Forgive them anyway.

     If you are kind, People may accuse you
     of selfish, ulterior motives;
     Be kind anyway.

     If you are successful, you will win some
     false friends and some true enemies;
     Succeed anyway.

     If you are honest and frank,
     people may cheat you;
     Be honest and frank anyway.

     What you spend years building, someone
     could destroy overnight;
     Build anyway.

     If you find serenity and happiness,
     they may be jealous;
     Be happy anyway.

     The good you do today,
     people will often forget tomorrow;
     Do good anyway.

     Give the world the best you have,
     and it may never be enough;
     Give the world the best you've got anyway.

     You see, in the final analysis,
     it is between you and God;
     It was never between you and them anyway.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Kohelet: All is Impermanent; There is a Time for Everything

For Congregation Ner Shalom, October 5, 2012
It isn’t easy being king. After all, one’s best efforts come to naught; they are mere vanity, like chasing the wind.

So go the words of Kohelet son of David, king in Jerusalem, writer and star of the book called Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, which serves as the companion text for the holiday of Sukkot. Our tradition says that Kohelet, the writer and supposed king, was actually King Solomon, but there’s no non-midrashic evidence of that, just as there is, in fact, no extrinsic evidence that King Solomon ever existed. But just going with our stories, King Solomon seems very unlike this Kohelet person. Solomon is kind of solid and wise and unfazed. Whereas Kohelet is at first blush more like Solomon’s father, David: impulsive, full of mood and seemingly young. His words sound like they could be spoken by some undergraduate philosophy major, perhaps wearing a black turtleneck and smoking a cigarette.

Havel havalim, Kohelet says. It is all vanity. Vanity of vanities. He is king and yet he sees that no matter what he builds, no matter what he succeeds at, it doesn’t last. The world goes on, generation upon generation. The streams flow into the oceans and the oceans never fill. The winds blow and then circle around and blow again. What was is what will be. What was done is what will be done, v’eyn kol chadash tachat hashemesh – there is nothing new under the sun.

Kohelet represents a kind of world-weariness; a jadedness expressed by the character Prior Walter in “Angels in America” when he says, “It’s something you learn after your second theme party: It’s All Been Done Before.”

Hakol havel. It is all vanity. Wow. How honest. To be a king and see your own insignificance? That’s got to hurt. The disillusionment in the field of high politics must be immense. And that disillusionment is never copped to, even though it’s not well hidden from us, the king’s subjects, either. Watching the first presidential debate, didn’t we all recognize it? The too-thin veil of principle draped carelessly over the jagged edges of desire, greed and futility? Seeing moral truths get brushed aside as the debate goes to the best jawline and biggest smirk? Watching the candidates, it’s hard to know who is more disillusioned – them or us. Do we even want to be aware of this? As Kohelet says,

Ki b’rov chochmah rav ka’as, v’yosif da’at yosif mach’ov.

The more you know, the more painful it is. Ignorance, even back then, was bliss.

But how do you escape disillusionment? With food, wine, earthly entertainments? Kohelet tried those and they didn’t work. What then? Build? Design? Gather wisdom? Kohelet, ever the life of the party, reminds us that the wise person dies even as surely as the fool.

Disillusionment is everywhere. “Why should I vote? Why should I care,” ask many young people. And many not-young people. Why should I bother to act at all?

Kohelet strikes a chord with all of us; he is not a prophet hurling God’s words at an unhearing public. He speaks for the people. Whoever he actually was, his nom de plume, Kohelet means “one of the kahal” - a member of the congregation, the voice of the community. He speaks in all our names. We all reign as kings of our own lives. And yet all or so many of our efforts to govern are futile.

But maybe bleakness is an incomplete reading of Kohelet. Maybe there’s an element of angst, but also an element of acceptance. Perhaps he is a kind of Buddhist. Our earliest Israelite Buddhist. Hevel havalim – vanity of vanities. Not a lament as much as a mantra: Kohelet’s way of saying what in Sanskrit is called anitcha. Impermanence. All is impermanent. Like a Buddhist he is aware that suffering comes from not accepting the impermanence of all things; that trying to cling to what we’re attached to is r’ut ruach – like grasping at the wind.

Is Kohelet a lesson in disattachment? Disattachment as a way of life scares me even more than disillusionment. How can I embrace disattachment when so much action is needed in this world? There are terrible people doing terrible things. There are good people doing terrible things too! How can I stand idly by when there is so much at stake?

The answer is undoubtedly that this is not an “either/or” question. Kohelet doesn’t say, “do nothing.” He – or she because really who knows? – says, “Look at the big picture also.” Everything is temporary. Our gains are temporary. So are our setbacks. Life unfolds in ways that are bigger than us and that disregard us. “So,” Kohelet seems to say, “let go of the constant need to control it all.” Instead, find the richness in your life, the richness in this very transient moment. Do not let your happiness hinge entirely upon your success in controlling your conditions.

There are cycles bigger than us and we will cycle through all of them. As Kohelet goes on to say, to everything there is a season:

A time to be born, a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted.
A time to weep, a time to laugh.
A time to mourn, a time to dance.
A time to seek, a time to lose.
A time to keep, a time to cast away.

Kohelet casts away his need to control. Kohelet makes room for the possible futility of his efforts in the human world. And he comes to this conclusion: We cannot understand God’s plan, and so all that is left to do is lismoach v’la’asot tov b’chayav. To be happy and to do good in our lives. These are not the words of someone who has given up, but the words of someone who has opened up.

My last question tonight about this odd and wonderful book is this: why on Sukkot? The other pairings seem to make sense. On Pesach, in the spring, we read of love in Song of Songs. On Shavuot, when marking our covenant with God, we read about Ruth and her covenant with Naomi. But this? Kohelet on Sukkot?

Maybe it is about the harvest. You go into the fields and you realize that neither your careful tending nor your gross negligence had so very much effect on the crop. The rain and the sun were beyond your control. We don’t always know what we will harvest in our lives. So be careful of the level of your attachment to the outcome.

Or maybe it’s this. On Sukkot we live in a structure that is, by design, impermanent. Anitcha turned architecture. We eat and sleep and pray in it. And this structure, like our lives, is blown by winds much stronger than it. It is exposed to rain and cold. We have no choice but to live with its uncertainty, even as we reinforce the ropes and the knots and the fronds lying on top.

But the sukkah also affords us a grand opportunity to peer up from our lives and see the stars. They are changing too, but so slowly as to seem unchanging. They are distant from us but not irrelevant to us. There is space – makom – that binds us to them. We are tethered to them by light years of ayin, of nothingness.

This malchut, this kingdom, is much bigger than we are. Our world is like the wind that blows in its season and comes back around to blow again; our lives are the palm fronds rustling in that wind; and all this against the glittering and ancient backdrop of stars that, for all intents and purposes, have always been and will always be there.

That is the perspective provided by Sukkot and set to words by Kohelet. All is impermanent. There is a time for everything. And it’s all been done before.

And sometimes, even if briefly, that can come as a great relief.