Saturday, September 11, 2010

Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5771: The Broomstick, the Bush and the Sh'ma

Rosh Hashanah 5771 Day Two
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
"The Broomstick, the Bush and the Sh'ma"


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It was the iconic image of the past year, if not this entire generation, and the picture wasn’t pretty.

Day after day we gawked at it, staring into the murky oblivion as it seemed to mock us, to laugh at our helplessness. Day after day we turned on the news and that oil just kept on gushing. Our technological prowess was just good enough to get a color camera down to deepest fathoms of the Gulf, able to capture the image in stark details and living color. And yet we were technologically helpless to do anything to stop the flow from the Deepwater Horizon well.

The catastrophe has taken an enormous toll.

Day after day, government and industry experts offered suggestions, and everything failed. If it weren’t such an environmental and human disaster, it would have been funny - in the way Road Runner cartoons are funny. Or I Love Lucy at the conveyor belt of the chocolate factory. It was a train wreck that we couldn’t stop staring at, unfolding before us in slow motion, one drip at a time, one glob after another, one ruined beach after another. The most powerful nation on earth was rendered powerless to turn off a simple faucet!

Remember that scene in Fantasia where Mickey Mouse plays the Sorcerer’s Apprentice? That’s what I kept thinking about as the oil continued to gush. You know the tale, based on a poem by Goethe, where the apprentice gets tired of fetching water with a pail, so he enchants a broom to do the work for him.

(Kids – this is a broom. You might have seen it used as prop in “Wicked.” It’s what we used to use before the invention of the Dustbuster. Yes, it’s crazy, in the old days we never actually sucked up dirt, we simply rearranged it – in really nice neat piles).

So in the story, the brooms keep multiplying and things get out of control, the floor is soon filled with water, and the apprentice is powerless to stop it – fortunately, the sorcerer comes back at the last second and restores everything the way it was.

It seems like every culture has its own version of the sorcerer story, where hubris takes over and people who try to manipulate nature suddenly and quite literally, discover that they are in way over their heads. There’s Frankenstein and Prometheus, and for Jews, the Tower of Babel, and the Creation story. In an interesting twist, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b) God plays the role of the Sorcerer and we are the apprentice, and sure enough, just as the Creation is completed, things get crazy and soon God is ready to destroy everything with a flood and begin again. In fact, the midrash posits that there were actually 10 aborted Creations before one finally took – ten worlds gone wild. But after the Flood and Noah, God gives humanity the covenant of the rainbow and promises never to destroy the world again.

Today is the birthday of the world. If only we could wipe the slate clean again. If only we could stop the wildfires in Moscow and the rains in Pakistan and volcanoes in Iceland and take all those tornados that have touched down in Fairfield County this year and put them back in Kansas, where they belong. If only we could gain a sense of control over our world again, our world and our lives.

Now this is not a sermon about environmentalism. I could give that sermon, but this year, with our new Finkelstein Mitzvah Garden, we’re letting our actions speak louder than words. Our garden fits right in to the earth-centered ethos we are nurturing here. Our new nursery school will be called “Shorashim,” which means roots. It’s a marvelous name with a multitude of meanings. But most of all, it emphasizes our love of nature.

And that has been our response to the chaos, the craziness. To a world that has gone out of control.

Crazy has become the norm. So you see, the fundamental problem we face is not simply that we are ruining the earth. That is merely a symptom. The problem is that we’ve allowed everything to spin out of control. Everything. If we want to get a handle on what we’re doing to the Gulf of Mexico, first we have to get a handle on the sorcerer’s broomstick. We need to get a grip.

You know that feeling, the loss of control. It happens nearly every day, but we notice it especially in extreme situations – when a relationship goes haywire, when a loved one dies, when we get sick, when we begin to forget where we left our glasses (spare pair). People have confronted the loss of control ever since the beginning of time– but now the scope has been magnified exponentially – it’s everywhere. This past summer, the United States became that person who staggers out of the doctor’s office with a tumor that no treatment could stop, the one drowning in debt with the marriage falling apart. This summer in the Gulf of Mexico, the US became the sorcerer’s apprentice.

We’ve lost the ability to focus. We are so bombarded with data, with information, with demands on our time, with phone calls and texts and emails and Facebook postings and Tweets – that, according to the New York Times, we aren’t just losing our bearings; we are literally losing our minds. One neuroscientist said of our multitasking, “We are asking (our brains) to do things (they) weren’t necessarily evolved to do.” And there are consequences.

When God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, the miracle was that Moses noticed that a miracle was happening at all. A burning bush that’s not consumed is a rather chintzy, two bit trick. But in order to notice that the bush wasn’t being consumed, Moses had to stare at for a good five minutes without being distracted. If that were happening now, Moses probably would have failed that test. In those brief five minutes he would likely have gotten a text from Miriam that she really liked her new Yoga class, a poke from Aaron asking him to read Torah at services this weekend, an emailed shopping list from Tzippora, a Google Alert that some rabbi was quoting his blog again, a Tweet from the Anti Defamation League about continued Egyptian mistreatment of Hebrew Slaves, which is great because at that moment his iPod is playing a remix of his favorite song, “Go Down Moses,” and then comes a reminder from his laptop to TiVo a Charlton Heston movie marathon. And then, maybe finally, God sends Moses a Tweet saying simply, “Hey! Dummy! Look over here! The bush! It’s still burning!”

And so it is. Did you ever have that sensation while you were in the middle of washing dishes that you forgot to mention something to someone – so you leave the dishes where they are and run to the computer and write the email, only in the middle of it someone pokes you on Facebook so you begin a conversation which then leads you to check a website for something, which leads you to something else and before you know it it’s 11 o clock and you’re tired and you go to sleep and the next morning your wife asks you why there are so many dirty dishes in the sink?

Has that ever happened to you?

Me neither.

Out – of – control.

We need to find a way to gain control of our lives again – for if each of us can do that, then maybe we’ll be able to slow things down for the rest of the world.

How do we do that? The Sh’ma tells us how.
It’s a three step process.

One – we have to learn how to focus; two - we need to take control of time, and three - we then have to assert control of our behavior.

Yesterday I spoke of how, when we feel powerless to confront a world so filled with hate, the most effective response is to love all the more. The same formula holds true with a world spinning out of control. The best solution is to assert control, through discipline. And since we can’t impose control on the rest of the world, we need to do it first on our own lives
So – three steps to the Sh’ma method.
Step one: focus.

In the Talmud, we hear that when the time for the Sh’ma arrived Rabbi Yehuda would cover his eyes, because he was engaged in other activities. The recitation of the Sh’ma was seen as a moment of deep inward turning and intense concentration. It remains a custom to cover our eyes today when reciting the Sh’ma.

There is no multitasking with the Sh’ma. This intense concentration is how we turn a set prayer, one recited at a set time, into something more purpose-filled.

Instead of multitasking, we do the opposite. Instead of doing many things at one time, the Sh’ma prescribes that we do the same thing over and over. For many of us, the word “routine” often implies “boring,” but the term actually comes from the word route – a path that we travel. Routine is an adventure along the beaten path, along the road MORE travelled.

V’shinantam l’vanecha, the Sh’ma says, “Teach your children and speak of these sacred words.”

But it doesn’t really say "teach.” V’shanantam means repeat. Don’t just teach this to your child once. Do it a second time. Repeat. Again and again. We have another word for repetition. Ritual. Daily prayer, weekly Sabbath, seasonal holidays, annual gatherings like this – that’s the Jewish way of dealing with the chaos. Discipline, repetition and focus.

Step two:

So how do we seize control over time? We do it from the moment we wake up. The Sh’ma is supposed to be recited when we lie down and when we rise up. The very first discussion among rabbis in the Talmud was about when to recite the morning Sh’ma. It came down to one of two things – either when it’s light enough to distinguish different colored threads of the tzitzit or for us to recognize the face of a casual acquaintance at a distance of about 6 feet. Maimonides fixed that time as being about 6 minutes before sunrise. The window for the morning Sh’ma extends for about three hours, for that is when, according to the sages, princes and kings would arise. Even royals were tied to the clock. Even they had to answer to a higher authority. Saying the Sh’ma at the right time was considered by our sages to be a more meritorious act even than the study of Torah.

But, you may ask, hasn’t technology liberated us from the tyranny of time? Isn’t it true that now we don’t have even to set appointments? After all, if we’re running late - which we always are - we can simply text the other person so that both of us can arrive late. Spontaneity has taken over as we’ve lost our ability to schedule. Time can be adjusted to suit our own particular needs. Dinner hour? Who’s kidding whom? When you work 24/7, you don’t dine, you graze. There is never a set time to eat anymore.

Jewish tradition has a perfect remedy from the ravages of time run amok. It’s called Shabbat.

This past summer, I spent a week on a body of water, half a world away from the Gulf of Mexico. As our boat glided along, the Aegean was pristine and calm. Not a Cyclops or Hydra in sight - or even a gushing oil rig. We left port on Friday afternoon and that evening, Mara and I spent some time on our balcony watching the full moon glisten over the placid waters, as we passed island after island. At one point we passed an island that appeared to be virtually uninhabited. I say virtually, because there were lights there. As we slowly passed, I was able to count them – about 50, all glistening like the stars above, flickering like Shabbat candles.

But something seemed strange about those lights. They were scattered all over the island, not concentrated in any one area that you could call a village. There were no patterns that resembled streetlights or roads. In fact, none of them were moving. Not one. No cars. Everything was peaceful and still. It looked like a scene out of Fiddler on the Roof.

Sabbath Prayer with Souvlaki.

Was this possible? Everyone else searches these ancient waters for the lost city of Atlantis, and here had I stumbled upon a Greek island full of observant Jews? Nothing was moving. I called it Shabbos Island. I’ll never meet the people who live there; I’ll never know whether they are shepherds or stockbrokers – but it doesn’t matter.

And all I heard was the whoosh of the boat gliding through the waves. But in the back of my mind I knew that this was an illusion, that the quiet of Shabbat is a needed rest-bit, but that in fact the Aegean is connected to the Mediterranean which is connected to the Atlantic which is connected to the Gulf of Mexico. It was an illusion, but it was an illusion that I needed.

Shabbat is the antidote to civilization. It is the best possible response to the craziness of time run amok.
At the port of Mykonos I was relieved to be greeted there by a white pelican, the mascot of the island, waddling about like he owns the place. It was a relief to see one not covered with black crude. I couldn’t believe my eyes. My world had been turned right side up! Is there such a term as turvy-topsy?

As lovely as the Aegean was, I wasn’t fooled. My thoughts just kept gravitating back to that image of the gushing oil just four seas away – knowing that it was still gushing mightily - and that terrifying feeling that we have lost control.

In her popular new book, “The Sabbath World,” Judith Shulovitz speaks of the difference between what she calls mechanical and mobile time. Mechanical time, the kind of time we lived in before we lost control of everything, was seen by many as shackles, enslaving us to its dictates.

But a chain can also be an anchor, and what we thought enslaved us was also grounding us. And we’ve lost that. We’ve lost the anchor. There is no such thing as a z’man kavua – a set time. Everything is immediate. Everything is “On Demand.” As Shulevitz notes, “We shop when it’s convenient, not when stores are open. We watch movies and television on DVDs and TiVo, not according to published schedules. We correspond via email and Twitter and Facebook in instant staccato bursts throughout the day…not when the mail is delivered.”
The schedule has been “softened,” as she calls it. “…we’re in charge of mobile time (and it connects us)…” she adds. “But being in perpetual contact can also make us feel as if time is in charge of us…. The Sabbath, by contrast demands of us a hard and tragic sense of beginnings and ends.”

Shulevitz’ makes a solid case of how the seventh day was the first great attempt on the part of human beings to take control of time, by creating a day, a randomly selected block of 25 hours – where we can anchor ourselves to the clock. Tonight, Shabbat begins at 6:55. We can begin our observance whenever we wish – our service begins at 6:30 - but the time for Shabbat’s start is fixed. Can you imagine texting God, saying “God? I’m running a little late. Can you hold that sunset for ten min?” It doesn’t happen that way.

So here’s the paradox. The only way we can assert control over time is to create a day where time asserts control over us. There has got to be something fixed in your life – something that you can’t change. Something like Shabbat. Something that, if you are late for it, you are simply late. Even when we are late, it gives us that comforting feeling to be grounded to a world that’s actually spinning normally on its axis. We are tethered to our lateness. Even if I miss the beginning of Shabbat, I know that Shabbat has begun. For a day, at least, the craziness stops.

And then finally, step three. Once we have begun to assert control over time, we need to employ discipline to assert control over our behavior.

The second paragraph of the Sh’ma makes it clear that we have a tremendous degree of power, not only over how we behave, but how our behavior will impact the world around us. If we heed the commandments, rain will fall in its proper time and we will enjoy a bounty of grain, wine and oil. If not, things will spin out of control again and oil will gush into the Gulf of Mexico. We struggle with some of the implications of that paragraph, but its primary message is empowering. The Sh’ma is all about our power to control our destiny.

The Machzor picks up that message and hammers it home - “U’teshuva, U’tefila Utzedakkah Ma’avirin et Roa Hagezayra.” Repentance, prayer and tzedakkah avert the severe decree. We have the power. We have control! The rabbis understood that. In the Zohar it says that when a person judges himself, the heavenly court is not allowed to touch the case. God would throw the prosecuting angels out of the room. If we do our own soul searching, Heshbon ha-nefesh, the whole Book of Life thing is moot. This statement is both remarkable and radical. All we need is a little discipline and we can assure ourselves a purpose-filled life.

So how?

Here are some rabbinic guidelines to leading a more disciplined life.

The Peasetzna Rebbe set a time limit for each of his activities. Eating? Give it a half hour. Even Torah study had its limit. His entire day was scripted. He was obsessive.

Another rabbi carried a list of character traits with him at all times. Not many, just the few that he was trying to fix. You can’t do it all at once. So one week it might be anger. And he would write down, “Silence and speak in a low voice” and constantly make reference to that piece of paper all day.

Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg wrote on his list the instruction to read the list three times a day, every day, without exceptions. Of course, if the instruction to read the list is on the list, you sort of don’t need it, since you’re reading the list anyway….
OK, It might seem a little over the top, but maybe we should try that. Make a list of three things you need to do to be a better you, and read it religiously three times each day.

The rabbis believed that if you practiced a certain behavior for 40 straight days, it would become natural and instinctive. They felt that if an angry person forced himself to be cheerful to everyone for that long, he would no longer be an angry person.

If you are naturally shy, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk said, “Pray real loud for 40 days, with vigorous movements of all your limbs.” You’ll notice a change. If you are lazy, force yourself to get ready in half the time each morning, dressing, washing up, going to the bathroom, going to synagogue – do it all with more energy. And you will change that character trait.

These Hasidic leaders said exercise is important too. Take walks, they said, but with a focus, a purpose, a discipline. Do it for the sake of heaven.

They understood that for some, forty days was too long a time to ask for a complete character transformation. So they said, one hour. Fix one hour when you live according to the Torah.

Just one hour. One hour each day. That’s all. The hour of living biblically. And sorry, it can’t be between 3 and 4 in the morning.

Think how much more purposeful our lives would be if every day, for an hour, we tried not to gossip. Several years ago I challenged you to do it for a week, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It was very powerful. Maybe it’s time to do that again. But maybe you already are pretty good at refraining from bad speech. So maybe for an hour, try not to lie – just speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. Otherwise we fall into traps of embellishment and self deceit that have been the scourge of politicians, business leaders and former Cy Young award winners accused of taking steroids.

One hour. Just an hour of truth – it could be catching.

Or maybe, for an hour, do something especially charitable.

Here’s an exercise to suggest to the cheapest person you know. Have him withdraw a hundred dollars in singles and then give it all away. The trick is, you have to give it to a hundred different people or causes, one dollar at a time. In an hour.

Are you the impatient type? (If you are you are probably out in the lobby right now). Pick the hour-long period each day when you feel your patience is going to be most challenged. Maybe it’s when you first come to work in the morning, or when you get home after a long day. Or when you get behind the wheel and you’re running late or you are in the back of a long line at supermarket. Now, commit to being patient, just for that one hour. When your child comes at you as soon as you’ve come in the door and you finally sat in your chair, say, “Yes, sweetheart, I’d love to build the Empire State Building out of Legos with you, right now.” Grit your teeth and smile.

Is arrogance your issue? Do you always need to be the center of attention? Try sitting in the back of that classroom or meeting hall. For an hour, let someone else speak.


Recall the line from Pirke Avot in the Talmud: “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.”

Are you the lazy type? Set the alarm for an hour earlier – to a really loud radio station that you hate - and force yourself to get up.

How about narcissism? That seems to be our biggest issue these days. How can we overcome it? How about covering the mirrors in your house. Just for an hour. Yes, it will make it look like a shiva house, but sometimes that’s not so bad either. Just, for one hour, don’t look at yourself!

How can we overcome prejudice? Go online. Seriously, go online and visit Mecca. Take a virtual journey to a place where they wouldn’t let you in. Women, go to the men’s section of the Western Wall. Go to the website of the Other and find out just how much like you the Other really is. Spend an hour in Haiti. I listened to radio Australia the other day, just to become better able to communicate with the cantor! You know, the accent is very close to a Boston accent – especially the “r”s. More often than not we discover that as different as we are we’re still the same.

These exercises are what our tradition calls Mussar practice, designed to release the light of holiness in our souls by enabling us to refine positive character traits. Next month, I’m going to be teaching a series of classes in Mussar at the JCC for our Bureau of Jewish Education. At each session, we’ll work on one trait, like humility, empathy or honesty. This will be a hands-on class. And you can get a head start.

So for this coming week, pick something to work on. And start with an hour a day. And then, like we did with the gossip project a decade ago, send me your suggestions for how you’ve used that hour to change something about your life. You can do this anonymously. I’ll be sharing the ideas on our website and yes, Twitter. I hope we can create a long list of suggestions to share.

What can we do to overcome arrogance or anger, envy or greed, slander or worry or fear? How can we better cultivate leadership and gratitude; awareness, modesty and love, simplicity, honesty, optimism, respect and awe?

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the patron saint of the 19th century Mussar movement said, “A pious Jew is not one who worries about his fellow human’s soul and his own stomach; a pious Jew worries about his own soul and his fellow’s stomach.”

It is time to focus on adding a modicum of discipline to our lives – If we can refine our souls, maybe there is hope for this chaotic world.

Rabbi Naomi Levy has just written a book called, “Hope Will Find You: My Search for Wisdom to Stop Waiting and Start Living.” It turns out that her inspiration came from her physically disabled daughter, Noa, whom doctors thought had a degenerative and perhaps fatal condition early in life, but who was able to overcome it. “Life is uncertain, life is unfair, life is chaotic, and God is in a fog,” she writes.” We grope blindly in the darkness for hope, but, with the courage, and confidence and faith to act, hope will find you.

One day, Noa, asked Naomi if she could have a rock climbing party for her twelfth birthday. Naomi was petrified, always so overprotective.

She said, “No, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” “But why?”
“It’s too expensive.”

But day after day Noa kept pushing for the rock climbing party. Eventually Naomi gave in.
On the day of the party Noa put on a climber’s harness, and to her mom’s amazement, she pushed with her legs and pulled with her arms and boldly made her way up the wall. It wasn’t easy, but she climbed and climbed. She was fearless, beaming with joy.

During the party there was a boy about Noa’s age who was too frightened to climb. His father was encouraging him, but he stood frozen in his place. His muscles were strong, but his fear was stronger still.

“That day,” Naomi continues,” my daughter taught me an invaluable lesson: our greatest disability is fear, our greatest strength is courage. In climbing, it is the smoothest surface that is the most treacherous. A rough rocky landscape is fertile ground for ascending. If you want to rise up don’t fear the bumps. Turn every stone into a step…

…As I looked around the gym that day I couldn’t help but wonder if the key to a meaningful life was embedded in that rock wall. The beckoning stones gave me my answer. The challenge in life is a

simple as this: Do I stare at the wall or do I climb?”

We have our answer. Climb.

When the most powerful nation on earth can’t plug a leak for three months, a 12 year old girl who can barely walk can still climb. When we are overwhelmed by gigabytes of data, bombarded with texts and 24/7 communications, we all have the authority to turn it off – maybe for an hour, maybe even for one weekly sublime, Sabbath day. When we feel powerless to change all those little nagging things that we hate about ourselves, we can climb out of that morass too.

We have control. Climb.
Climb up the ladder where the true power lies. The power of discipline.
The power embedded in the very words of the Sh’ma.

We’ll repeat those words until they are engraved upon our hearts; we’ll cover our eyes and focus on each one. We’ll recite them at a time assigned not by our whim, but by the rising sun. And we’ll write that list of character traits upon the doorposts of our homes and upon our gates.

Let those words carry us beyond the oil leaks, the crazy weather and the incessant noise that we have generated, to the peaceful bliss of Shabbos Island. And let us grab that sorcerer’s broomstick and toss it to the wind. And then we’ll turn, we’ll pause and we’ll notice.

The bush …. It still burns.


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