Sunday, March 30, 2008

Getting to YES

The Jewish Week, May 24, 2002

I am in a very precarious position at the moment. You see, I am a life-long Boston Red Sox fan living in Cablevision-land who happens to have access to something extremely valuable: Yankees games on the YES network. Ironically, I acquired a satellite dish a few years ago specifically to enable my children to grow up with their Sox on. DirecTV was my only hedge against their assimilation into Yankeedom. And it has worked. Now my kids have the pleasure of suffering both from an upsurge of global anti-Semitism and from not having won the World Series since 1918.

For me, this is a classic win-win. If the Yankees lose, the Sox gain ground. If the Yankees win, their die-hard supporters suffer from not being able to watch them.
But I've come to realize that it's not just Yankee fans who have been trying desperately to get to YES recently. It's been a very depressing year for all of us, a year when affirmation has seemed a distant dream.

Golda Meir once said: "Pessimism is a luxury a Jew cannot allow himself." We need, so desperately, to get to the kind of "Yes" that comes from deep within the soul, one that can overcome all the little things that get in the way, and the big things too, a "Yes" embedded in profound faith; a "Yes" that is embodied by the liturgical response "Amen."

"Amen" appears 30 times in the Bible, mostly in formulaic endorsements of blessings, curses and oaths. In our liturgy, the word almost always comes as a response to hearing a blessing recited. The custom of responding with "Amen" developed centuries before Gutenberg, when only the prayer leader had the written words in front of him, so the rest of the congregation had one chance only to state, unequivocally, that it endorsed every word spoken, by saying "Amen."

In the great synagogue of Alexandria, Egypt, two thousand years ago, the hall was so spacious that the people in the back couldn't hear the prayers being recited. So when a blessing was finished, the cantor would wave a huge flag and the people in the cheap seats would know that it was time to say, "Amen."

Jewish legend stresses the great religious value of responding Amen, saying it prolongs life and promotes forgiveness from sin. Even God nods "Amen" to the blessings offered up by mortals. "Whoever says Amen with all his strength," said the rabbis, "to that person the Gates of Paradise will be opened." That's where we need to get to - an "Amen" that forces open the Gates of Paradise.

The Jews of Alexandria couldn't hear all the words, but they knew what they were signing on to. So when they heard the Kiddush on Shabbat, they knew that this prayer is a testimony, that the Shabbat itself is a testimony to Creation and to a miraculous liberation from a place called Mitzrayim. When we say "Amen" to the Kiddush, we are affirming that there is a direction to history, a foundation for morality and a purpose for Jewish peoplehood. We are saying that miracles do happen if we work in partnership with God. We are signing on to all those things, we are sealing the deal, and we're even toasting the agreement.

We are getting to "Yes."

By saying "Amen" we are suspending some of our doubts and laying our cynicism and fatalism aside in order to be full participants in the cosmic experiment known as the Jewish people. We are taking a leap of faith. Every "Amen" is one more "Yes" to life that can counteract all the negativity that we hear out there. It's a "Yes" to being human, a "Yes" to cherishing every moment, every encounter, every morsel that we eat; it is a "Yes" to seeing all of life as a blessing. When we adopt this "Amen" mentality, we can begin to turn away from all that holds us down and really enjoy our few, fleeting days of life.

And now, the cry of our generation, our most sacred obligation of the moment, is for each of us to stand up unabashedly and say "Yes" in solidarity with Israel and against terror. We owe it to America. We owe it to Israel, to ourselves and our children, to the world.

But we have a problem. Judaism is a glass-half-full religion. Unfortunately, however, most Jews are glass-half-empty people, weighed down by our glass-mostly-empty recent history. Take a look at a recent American Jewish Committee survey of American Jews. Only 9 percent of those surveyed think anti-Semitism will decline over the next five years. OK, given how things are in the world right now, that's understandable. But look at this: fully forty percent actually disagreed with the statement, "Virtually all positions of influence in the United States are open to Jews." This survey was conducted exactly one year after an identifiably Jewish individual nearly became Vice President. How soon we forget! And this pessimism appears at a time when, according to the Wall Street Journal, high-ranking colleges are fighting to recruit more Jewish students to their campuses.

Abba Eban called us the people who could "never take "yes" for an answer." The Torah and the Jewish people seem to be the worst mismatch since, well, the Red Sox and the Yankees. Our tradition has provided us with an eternal hook-up to the YES network, yet far too few have subscribed.

We get another chance to do that now. As we prepare once again to ascend Sinai on Shavuot, we can't allow ourselves to wallow in pessimism and self-pity. Heck, even the Red Sox have a shot at winning it all this year. If they can do it, surely anything is possible. Neither Cablevision nor Arafat should keep any of us from getting to YES this year. As the rooters of that other New York team used to say, "You Gotta Believe."

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