Friday, September 13, 1996

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Jewish

The Jewish Week

Have you ever stopped to think of how many useless things you've accumulated? Sukkot is a great time to reflect on this this, as we recall our ancestors' journeys through the wilderness with few posessions but enormous faith. This realization also hits me when I head to the outlet malls to buy the exact same khaki pants I purchased a few years before -- only one size larger. I buy the new pants reluctantly, but simultaneously pledge not to part with the old pair, just in case. The Messiah will undoubtedly come before I again fit into them, but I keep the older apparel nonetheless. I hate to throw things away.

It's the same with magazines. In my basement I've got decades of Newsweeks and Sports Illustrateds (worth pittance compared to all those baseball cards my mother chucked), a few ancient copies of Moment and some collector's item copies of the Jerusalem Post when it was left-wing. And then there's my fourth grade math homework, my old harmonica, some Hebrew notebooks with all the original psychedelic alef-bet doodles, and letters; loads of letters, personal, junk and life-transforming -- enough mail to fill the Smithsonian someday after I write the great American-Jewish novel, follow up with my memoirs and die.

But in the unlikely case that I don't become obscenely famous, I've got to start lightening the load.

Baggage accumulation, like the national debt, rises uncontrollably even as we seek to rein it in.

Every Pesach I dutifully perform the ritual of spring cleaning, but with each seder comes another albumful of snapshots, accompanying the escalating collection of clippings for the files, books for the shelves, videos for the cabinet, CDs to replace the tapes to replace the LPs to replace the 45s to replace the 78s, to put next to the 486 to replace the 386 to replace the PC Junior to replace the slide rule. If I were to sit down and read all the books I've got lying an a neat pile on my night table, I'd never have the time to scan the millions of pages of literature I can download right now from the Net or on CD ROM. It is petrifying to note that through computer technology I now have accessible to me a Judaic library greater than the cumulative libraries of all the great and not-so-great sages of the last 2,000 years. This baggage has deep value, but one can suffocate from the sheer weight of it.

Judaism has lots of baggage too. Our core acts of religious expression have been smothered by centuries of accumulated embellishment. Though some piyyutim (religious poems) are beautiful, most come across now like the old clothes that fill my closets. Very few of them actually "fit," and by the time you get around to the best stuff, you're too tired from "trying them on" to notice.
But we keep adding layers, to the point where our tallesim are becoming as weighty as those moon suits worn by the astronauts. As I stand during the Amida, straining to lift myself to angelic heights with each utterance of the word "Kadosh," I am weighted down by so much ballast that it is virtually impossible to pray.

Maimonides wrote about 24 things that keep us from truly doing teshuvah. There are umpteen impediments keeping me from truly baring all before God each moment of each day. If the world is a very narrow bridge, as Nachman of Bratzlav suggested, then in order to cross it we've got to cut loose the loaded U-Haul that we are dragging along. The problem is that the things we jettison might prove valuable to others, including our own children. So we shouldn't obliterate everything, rather we should place the superfluous in storage -- somewhere else. Then, free at last, we can begin to negotiate that narrow bridge.

So what could we do without? What weighs me down? For one, we really don't need the New York Times. Try going without it for a week and we might discover something amazing: our own opinions. On a Jewish communal level, we've probably got a few too many organizations and far too many fund raising dinners. We really don't need two days of Yom Tov in the diaspora and we could cut down on the times we repeat the Sh'ma, Kedusha and Ashrei at services. We could do without lengthy sermons and solos too. But these aren't really what weighs us down.

Our primary burdens are self-inflicted. They include feelings of guilt and inadequacy, unresolved relationships with parents, children, spouses and lovers; and hopelessness. The burden comes not from accumulated photos and fourth grade homework, but from seeing those bygone days as our best days. Then there are the burdens of pretension, status-seeking and conformity. The obsessive fear of change is a horrible burden to bear, and the need to always be right. Hatred is equally terrible, taking so much energy to sustain.

When all these burdens are shed, the other trappings hardly matter. So what if there are two Ashreis, five black-tie dinners and a closet full of outsized pants. These are the peripherals. The junk I shlep from place to place can often spring to life with new, sudden significance, if only I could color them with hope and humility.

If only I allowed myself to shed the extraneous layers and bare my soul before God, not allowing anything to get in the way, not the page number I have to announce next, nor the name of the Kiddush sponsor. Then I would truly be God's instrument, a violin in God's hands, allowing myself to share my most beautiful music with God's world.

I am God's instrument, exposed and lithe. And all the old pictures, the extra prayers and ancient periodicals serve to moisten the strings when I myself am stored away for the night. Even my old harmonica has become a life-giving force; it is the instrument of an instrument. These things can easily accompany me across that narrow bridge, not as the ballast but as the bounce.

If only I could let the baggage go.