Choosing Life?

Kol Nidre 5776 talk by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

MJ_Strassfeld_photo-B&WIn the Torah portion we read just before the High Holidays, God says: I set before you life and death, choose life. Seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? Except in the most dire circumstances, we would choose life if we could. So what does the Torah mean when it enjoins us to choose life?

What is life? How would we define it? For Judaism, a core part of the answer lies in what we are doing right this moment. Not praying, not talking, not even studying, but doing any or all of those things together in community. As Robert Putnam, noted in his seminal book entitled Bowling Alone, fewer and fewer Americans are participating in civic and community life. Through an examination of bowling leagues and other forms of group activities, he found a serious change in the pattern of Americans as the role of the individual was elevated and the group demoted.

The internet has only made this issue more complex. Does the enormous virtual community created by social media diminish or increase peoples’ connections to one another? If you have 200 or 500 Face book friends—is that real connection even if it is only virtual, or is it a superficial “friendship,” or no friendship at all? Is it enabling connections you couldn’t possibly have face to face or is it a way of distancing yourself from others and controlling their access to your life?

In our contemporary world, Judaism is counter cultural when it suggests community as an essential aspect of religious life. The intimate act of pouring one’s heart out to God is not done in solitude but rather in the context of a minyan, a prayer quorum. The language of prayer, even the al het the confessional of Yom Kippur, is recited in the plural, though it is clear to most of us that the litany of sins we recite may have little to do with us. Shabbat and holidays are to be celebrated with family and friends.

While some religious traditions encouraged a renouncing of the worldly, Judaism called for an embrace of the world. Tikkun olam—repairing the world—may be a newly coined expression but love your neighbor as yourself has always been an essential teaching of Judaism. We are meant to live life in relation to other people—not in a cave alone, subsisting on a few berries. Don’t gossip, don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, don’t oppress the stranger because you were a stranger… all these injunctions found in the Book of Leviticus are about the challenges and opportunities for holiness in the everyday interactions with other people. Yes, we, each of us is created in the divine image/tzelem elohim. The Torah said it first: each human being is created with inalienable rights. Yet, those individual rights are supported and modified in the context of relationships. Caring and supportive relationships lead to community.

Judaism (and I would argue religion broadly) is about our common humanity, not about dividing us into the chosen, the saved, the faithful on one side and everybody else on the other side.

After creating Adam, God says: lo tov heyot ha-adam levado—it is not good for Adam to be alone. At the end of each day of creation God says—ki tov and it was good. Now for the first time in the world we see something that is lo tov—not good. Being alone. To experience existential aloneness. This is usually understood as the reason for the creation of Eve. Thus there should be couples who give birth to the next generation and create love and family. This verse is a biblical foundation for marriage equity. Yet, I would like to suggest that even this is too narrow a reading of the verse. It is not enough that a man and a woman or two men or two women should join together. Lo tov heyot ha-adam levado—it is not good for a human to be alone means we are meant to be social creatures, and therefore we need to strive to create caring communities.

Perhaps then the book of Genesis is a demonstration of the mistaken notion that you can do it alone. Abraham thinks his mission is to be the lonely man of faith journeying to the Promised Land. When he hears of the impending doom of Sodom, he asks the right question: Judge of the world, will you not spare the city if there are 50 righteous people there, what about 45… down to ten. But he stops at ten. Why ten? Why not five or even one? Because with ten people, you can create community. That is why the tradition requires ten people for a minyan, a prayer quorum. Sodom is destroyed because there are not even ten people who will take in a stranger needing shelter for the night. Sodom is destroyed because it is the opposite of a caring community. It is a place filled with hatred of anyone who is not of Sodom. Perhaps the people of Sodom were very nice to each other, but they are the example of a fake community—a community that only cares for the insiders, but is hostile to anyone different, anyone defined as other.

Abraham sees and experiences all of this but remains the lonely person of faith. When he hears the call to sacrifice his son Isaac, he asks no one whether he should he do it. There is no friend to say to Abraham—what, are you crazy? —because it doesn’t occur to him to ask.

As the book of Genesis continues to unfold, God comes to understand that the Torah cannot be given to an individual no matter how faithful. Nor even to a family. For even if there is a potential reality check by another member of the family, a family is often too small and its members too similar in outlook to create real different perspectives.

God needs to wait until the book of Exodus when the words “Bnai Yisrael” no longer mean the sons of a person named Jacob/Israel but “Bnai Yisrael” means the people of Israel. The Israelites are a people with a shared experience of persecution who will struggle to leave Egypt behind to become a people who could forge a new just society in a promised land that lies just over the next horizon.

The book of Deuteronomy will set out that vision of a just society where every Israelite will have a piece of land, where those who are poor can gather the corners of the field, where the courts of justice will treat both the rich and the poor equally, and where those on the margins of society, the widow, the orphan and the stranger will be protected. It is an ideal vision that is never fully realized; just read the prophets’ condemnation of their society. Yet, the vision still remains. The challenge to us to help create such a society is still heard in the echo of the shofar’s call.

But that doesn’t fully answer why community is so important. Certainly many communities are caring. More people helping is better than fewer. It does take a village to raise a child. But community is not just a numbers game.

Community reminds me that the world is larger than myself. In the modern world our personal slogan is not just l’etat c’est moi but le monde c’est moi. I look at the universe and all I experience is me. In community I encounter other people who are both like me and not like me. Real communities are made up of diverse groups of people, whether it is the people in your neighborhood or the members of your synagogue. Unlike some Jewish groups that are self-selected and looking for people who are just like them, synagogues are open to anyone who wants to join. That is challenging because that means there will be people with whom you disagree and people you just find annoying. Real communities do not have smooth tranquil rides. Sometimes you will wonder why you joined, or better, why they don’t leave. There will also be moments when the person who never seems to contribute to the discussion will actually say something insightful or the person who is always critical or complaining will express gratitude for something you have done or they will show up at the Shiva for your parent and you are surprised and appreciative—at least for a moment, for you too are also human—that is the point of community—to remind us all of our imperfections. For even if some people remain constantly annoying, life is filled with bumps and challenges and people are part of those challenges. For the truth is, there are people who find each of us difficult or annoying. There are those with whom we always disagree politically or religiously; the same is true for them. Community is real like life.

But community is not just about opening ourselves to other people. It is an opportunity to add to the richness of our experience. Sometimes it is as simple as hearing about another person’s life or way of looking at things. In a synagogue community there is a structured way to live in other people’s experiences. Synagogues are the setting for the celebration of simchas—joyous occasions big and small in people’s lives. We celebrate together children becoming b’nei mitzvah. We announce upcoming weddings, birthdays, anniversaries during services.

A member of my old congregation shared an important insight with me. She noted that, upon learning in services that a couple was celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, she at first felt sad and even a little hurt, realizing that such a moment would never happen for her. There was a part of her that wished she hadn’t come that morning, only to be reminded of what she didn’t have in her life. But she had been sitting next to this couple for years and felt connected to them. Suddenly, she realized that regardless of her own situation, she could feel real joy for this couple and that made her feel good. Her world was enlarged through a simple act of generosity, of seeing the world beyond herself. She realized that no one has everything in life. Everyone has disappointments and pieces of their life that didn’t turn out the way they had hoped. Without denying the painful truth of that, it is possible to understand that their anniversary did not come at the expense of her life.

There is no limit to the number of simchas in the universe such that if one person gets one there is one less for me. Why then shouldn’t she be happy for this couple and rejoice with them in seeing the joy on their faces? In this way as well community enlarges our universe. We get to celebrate more simchas than any one person could possibly have. The woman concluded her conversation with me by wondering what in her life she might like to celebrate with the community sometime.

In describing the building of the mishkan/sanctuary in the desert, the tradition states that each and every Israelite contributed to the building of the sanctuary. Each had a unique combination of skills. Or in a different teaching, the rabbis say all Jews are needed to fulfill all 613 commandments because some can only be done by a priest or a king, and others can only be done under certain circumstances. But all together we can fulfill the Torah. Communities offer the opportunity not only to celebrate and to engage with different kinds of people; they help repair the world.

Communities are also there to share the inevitable sorrows and losses of life. In the face of tragedy and death, the best we can do is to join hands and offer the warmth of our humanity and the light of our caring against the surrounding darkness.

Communities remind us that we can be open hearted to others not exactly like ourselves and we can be open hearted to ourselves seeing others simchas as moments of celebration, not reminders of disappointments or calls to be envious of others’ successes.

The kabbalists/Jewish mystics defined the nature of God as ein sof—the One without limits. One of the ways humans are created in the image of God is that our hearts are ein sof without limit, our capacity to love is not limited. We can love many people. We never have to say sorry, we gave in the office, there is no more left. This does not mean we can or need to love everyone, it does mean the capacity to love is enormous and we can celebrate many simchas even if at times we feel disappointment in what we don’t have in our own lives.

What we are doing in synagogue on Yom Kippur saying all these prayers about God, proclaiming God’s majesty, is acknowledging God as the ultimate Other. God becomes the expression for acknowledging that there is something in the universe that is larger than myself. The idea of God functions in our lives as an antidote to narcissism. God is the expression for the unity that underlies all the diversity. God is the expression for the purpose of living or for the vision of the just life. In the end we have come full circle le monde c’est moi=the world is me, not in a Michaelcentric way, but because I have realized that I am connected to every person and every being and everything in the universe and thereby I am part of the community of all existence.

As I said at the beginning of this talk, in the Torah portion right before these High Holidays, the Torah portion meant to set us up for the work we have to do during these ten days, God says, “I set before you life and death. Choose life.” I think the answer to my initial question—what does it mean to choose life?—is simply this: Reject the idea that you can do it alone. Reject the death that comes from disconnection. Choose to engage fully in your life, to make each moment a moment that is alive. Choose to connect to others, to build caring communities and societies, and thereby add to the richness and vibrancy of the world that you have inherited so that those who come after you will know that you did everything you could to make the world safer, healthier, more peaceful, and more just.