I. The Shofar Through a Baby’s Eyes

For the past month, my children have heard the sound of the shofar every morning. This is part of the ritual of our home and of our people, to begin sounding the shofar on the first day of Elul. The practice has multiple rationales: first and foremost, to help us awaken to the teshuva we need to begin, to remind us that so great is the work of teshuva that we can’t wait until Rosh Hashanah to start, but must prepare and begin ahead of time. Second, for shofar-blowers, it’s training camp: time to get our facial muscles and our lungs in shape so that we can sound all 100 kolot at kickoff.

In our home, shofar blowing during Elul serves both these purposes. But this year, with the presence of a new baby in our family, tekiat shofar during Elul has taken on an additional element. As many of us know, but as we also may need to be reminded, a nine-month old baby like our son Toby is a perfect shofar listener. Every morning as I take out the shofar, Toby, sitting there in our living room, begins to smile and wave his arms and shout in anticipation. He loves the sound of the shofar. He loves it so much that when I’m finished with a tekia-shevarim-terua-tekia, he gives a “Ha!” which clearly signals “Again!” He lights up from the sound of the shofar, and were it not for my own limitations of endurance and time, I would blow the shofar all day, just to see the excitement it arouses in him.

It’s the season of confession, so I’m going to confess. Despite all the shofar blowing, despite the fact that I’m highly conscious of the month of Elul, despite the fact that I have a gorgeous shofar that took me years of shopping to find, I have a hard time getting nearly as excited about the shofar as Toby. I’ve given drashot about what the shofar is supposed to do, what its sounds are supposed to represent, what intention we should have when we hear it. But, honestly, most of those words really don’t work for me. To me, the teruah or the shevarim doesn’t sound like a cry; the tekiah doesn’t sound like the blast of the trumpets at a coronation. When I hear the shofar, I’m not moved to cry, I’m not moved to feel God’s majesty. Perhaps, and I shudder to say it, I’m not moved.

II. What Does Music Mean?

Many of you know that I was a musician growing up. I played the tuba. I majored in music in college, and I conducted an orchestra there too. Playing a brass instrument is good physical training for shofar blowing, of course. But I’ve also come to realize that musical thinking is good training for shofar listening too.

One of the biggest issues in music history is the relationship between sound and meaning. Does wordless music convey a meaning? Take the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, notes we all know: G-G-G-Eb. What do those notes say? Some might say they convey a sense of foreboding, opening an entire movement of heavy-sounding C minor. Or maybe they’re about power, as the orchestra plays those notes loudly and in unison. Or perhaps they’re saying something about inevitability, as the whole movement that comes after those four notes simply and ingeniously builds on and modifies the four-note motif in a way that seems almost predetermined, as though the piece couldn’t have unfolded any other way.

The question of what those notes mean is a classic question. But what if the question of meaning is the wrong question to ask? What if G-G-G-Eb doesn’t mean anything? My philosopher rebbe, Vladimir Jankelevitch, wrote about this. “We declare that music shall be, like all other languages, the bearer of meaning and an instrument of communication,” Jankelevitch observes. When we decide that music means something, we suggest that “it explains certain ideas, or suggests certain sentiments, or describes landscapes or things, or narrates events.”

“Under these circumstances,” Jankelevitch says, “one is led to ask whether our ears, far from being organs of hearing, are not rather more the cause of our deafness.” What does Jankelevitch mean? He means that, in being so invested in the idea that these sounds communicate meaning like some kind of prose essay, we are, ironically, becoming deaf to what’s really going on. This is music. It’s a collection of sounds. It isn’t prose, and we shouldn’t think of it that way.

If we’re going to look for a kind of language to compare music to, poetry might be best. Poetry, like art, and like music, isn’t about communicating a meaning through symbol as much as it’s about allowing ourselves to enter a different kind of way of being in the world. The point of all the piyutim we recite during the Yamim Noraim isn’t to make us bored, and it’s not to earn a reward for reciting every word. The point is, as Jankelevitch says about the Psalms, to arouse in us “religious obsession.” The point is to put us in a state of mind and heart and body in which we can be, in which we can be in the presence of God.

A couple of weeks ago, our kehilla had the pleasure of learning with Samuel Klein, a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. During a limmud Shabbat afternoon, Sam asked us to think about and then share with each other a prayer from the machzor that is particularly evocative for us. And I was amazed, and yet wholly unsurprised, to find that the vast majority of people named a prayer not on account of the meaning of its words, but because of the power of its melody. The tunes for Avinu Malkenu or Ki Anu Amecha, the melodies of Unetaneh Tokef and Mareh Kohein—these are the things we remember. They are what make the High Holidays for us. They’re so powerful that, if we don’t hear them, we might even feel like the Yamim Noraim didn’t happen.

Now that isn’t to say that the words aren’t important. They are. Mi yichyeh umi yamut, uteshuva utefilla utzedakah maavirin at roah hagezerah, aseh imanu chesed v’hoshienu—these are powerful words, and they have powerful effects. Yet the music seems to resonate even more for us. The music taps something deeper inside our brains, farther inside our hearts. The music, which has no meaning. The music, which we don’t think about, but simply experience.

III. The Limits of Language

You may be familiar with the Talmudic story of Moshe ascending on high to find God sitting and affixing crowns to the letters of the Torah. Moshe asks God, Ribbono shel olam, Master of the Universe, why are you doing this? God ultimately shows Moshe the image of Rabbi Akiva, who, 1,000 years after Moshe’s death, interprets even the crowns of the letters into Torah. This leads Moshe to ask, “Ribbono shel  olam, you have such a man, and yet you give the Torah through me. Why?” God answers in a seemingly thunderous tone: shtok, kach alah b’machashava l’fanai; Be silent! This is how the idea came to me!

In many readings of this story, God’s answer is understood as a rebuke to Moshe for asking too many questions. I read it less as a rebuke than as a statement to Moshe that there are things that God simply can’t explain. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav offers a wonderful variation on this theme: Shtok, be silent, kach aleh b’machshava l’fanai, And through silence, ascend to the level of my thought. For Rebbe Nachman, the point of the story is that Moshe and God can only go so far with language. At a certain point, God can’t communicate through words, and Moshe has to get past words if he wants to understand God. They—we—have to find another way of communing beyond, or perhaps before, communication.

Rebbe Nachman, of course, was one of the Jewish people’s greatest creators and teachers of and about niggun. He wouldn’t have been surprised by our conversation at the limmud a few weeks ago. Of course, he would say, the melodies have a greater effect on you than the words do! The melodies are vastly more powerful than the words. Wordless sounds—the notes of a niggun, the blast of a shofar, the cry of a baby—take us where words cannot, into the realms before and beyond language, the higher and deeper places.

Vayehi kol hashofar holech v’hazek me’od; Moshe yidaber v’haelohim ya’aneinu b’kol: And the voice of the shofar grew louder and louder; Moses spoke and God answered him in a voice. The moment when not only Moshe, but every Jew, heard the voice of God was a moment not of speech, but of sound. Sound that was intense. Sound that was intimate. Sound that went beyond what words could express, and tapped a deeper part of our souls. The Torah was given, not in words, but in black and white fire, in lightning that was audible, in thunder we could see. God spoke to us in an ineffable, inexpressible way.

To ask what the meaning of that moment was, what the sounds meant, is to ask the wrong question. It’s not about meaning. It’s not about symbol. It’s both before and beyond those things. Ultimately, I would suggest, the experience of the shofar is simply about listening and opening ourselves to hear. “Just pay attention,” writes Mary Oliver about prayer.

this isn’t

a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.

And so I return to the image of my 9-month old son, who is quite literally pre-verbal. Toby isn’t applying labels to the world. He isn’t yet giving names to things, sorting them, dividing them. Those will all come by next Rosh Hashanah. But right now, at this delicious and wonderful moment, he is old enough—and young enough—to be genuinely moved by the experience of hearing the shofar. I can’t tell you what’s going on in his mind or his soul. All I can tell you is that something powerful happens when I blow the shofar for him in the morning.

And I can tell you that every morning, as I gaze into the pure joy on his face, the radiance of his tzelem elokim, I grow more attuned to the presence of God. My infant son is teaching me, as I hope he can teach us all, to let go of what I’m supposed to hear in the shofar, and instead simply experience its voice.

Ketiva v’chatima tova, May we all be inscribed and sealed for a year of listening and hearing, of looking and discovering, of beholding God’s presence and God’s image in the world.

Advertisements

A few weeks ago our son Micah couldn’t sleep. So after a fitful hour of tossing and turning, he finally came downstairs and lay down on the sofa. And of course he was asleep within seconds. Half an hour later I picked him up to carry him back upstairs to his bed. At 7 years old, Micah is reaching the point where I can no longer comfortably carry him. (Okay, I couldn’t really do it comfortably at 6 either.) But, perhaps sensing precisely that this was likely one of my last opportunities to carry the sleeping child who for the last seven years has been my youngest, I made an extra effort to carry him instead of asking him to walk up on his own. We made it to the top of the stairs, and I put him in his bed.

There is something about sleeping children: we look at them and see innocence, we pick them up and feel protective and intimate. I remember moments when my children were younger, holding them in a rocking chair, willing myself to remember the feeling of the moment, sensing just how ephemeral it was. To hold a child, to carry a sleeping toddler to bed, is one of the great tender moments of life, overflowing with a feeling of generosity. We sense the holy in such moments.

I find myself thinking about children, and about carrying, on this Yom Kippur.

When we think of children and holidays, we usually think of Pesach. Of course, Pesach is a child-centered holiday, with its games and questions, its special foods and many meals. The youngest child asks the Four Questions; the cleverest child negotiates the best deal for returning the afikomen. Many a Jewish parent has carried a sleeping child from the couch to the bedroom at the end of the seder.

Not so Yom Kippur. Unlike Pesach, Yom Kippur is a quintessentially non-child-centered holiday. Parents of young children are challenged to figure out what to do with their kids on Yom Kippur, because Yom Kippur is made for adults: there is no meal, there are no stories, no games, no question-and-answer. Even when the grownups aren’t in shul, fasting makes them low-energy and not particularly available to children. Likewise the substance of Yom Kippur is for grownups. The concept of teshuva is a hard one for children to engage. To think about teshuva requires a long view, an ability to be self-reflective, to take in the scope of one’s actions in the past year, and to judge oneself. While children can grasp the idea of being sorry and granting forgiveness, the fullness of the idea of teshuva isn’t something to expect of a 7-year old.

Yet on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur our metaphors are frequently parental: k’rachem av al banim, ken terachem aleinu: As a father has mercy on his children, so may You have mercy on us. Or the many times we say avinu malkeinu, our father, our king. Or consider Rabbi Akiva’s famous words at the end of the Mishnah in Yoma: “Who purifies you? Your father in heaven!” This is language unique to the High Holidays. At Pesach we refer to Hashem as God, and ourselves as God’s servants. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, alongside the image of God as king and ruler, we evoke a different relationship, that of parent and child.

The language of carrying is also central on these days. In our selichot we repeatedly refer to God the way God describes Godself: nosei avon, the one who carries sin. We draw this language from two accounts in the Torah: God’s forgiveness after the sin of the Golden Calf, and God’s second act of forgiveness after the sin of the spies. In both instances, God refers to Godself as the one who carries sin.

The language of carrying is also evoked in the verse from Micah that we read in our Haftarah Yom Kippur afternoon, and in the central sacrificial act of Yom Kippur, the confession of Israel’s sins on the head of the se’ir l’azazel, the scapegoat: “The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place.”

The midrash reminds us of the earliest episode when this language is used. It comes in the story of Cain. Just after Cain has killed his brother Hevel, God famously asks him, “Where is Hevel your brother?” And Cain responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God tells Cain that his brother’s blood is crying out from the earth, and condemns Cain to be a wander, na v’nad, in the midst of the earth.

But, says the midrash, Cain prays.

Rabbi Eliezer said: See how great is the power of prayer. If it cannot transform everything, it at least transforms half. Cain stood over Hevel his brother and killed him. The decree went out against him: “Na v’nad, a wanderer you will be in the earth.” Immediately Cain stood and confessed before the Holy Blessed One, saying, “My sin is too great to carry.” He said, Master of the Universe, you carry the entire world, but my sin you will not carry? Did you not write, “Who bears sin and passes over wrongdoing?”  Forgive my sin, for it is great! Immediately he found mercy before the Holy Blessed One, who took away the Na part of the decree, for it is written, “And he lived in the land of Nod.” From here you learn how great is prayer before the Holy Blessed One. (Deut. Rabba 8:1)

Cain’s plaintive words in this midrash are striking. Helpless, overcome, he cries out to God: My sin is too great to bear. The burden is too heavy. I can’t carry it. And then he reminds God that God is the ultimate carrier: the one who is sovel, who bears the burdens of the world; the one who is nosei avon, who carries sin away. Cain does not ask God to carry him: just the opposite, Cain will have to carry himself. But God agrees to carry his sin, to lessen the severity of the decree. Cain will not have to carry the burden of both his own life and the sin he has committed. God grants forgiveness, God carries away Cain’s sin, and his burden is eased.

This is an adult moment. Cain’s forgiveness does not mean he recovers his childlike innocence. The very next verse of the story tells us as much: “And Cain knew his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Hanoch.” Immediately after his forgiveness, Cain finds a place to live, the land of Nod, and engages in the most basic definition of biological maturity, reproduction. He then has a son whose name signifies education. Cain does not become a child again. He becomes an adult, doing adult things, taking adult responsibilities. He finds a place to live. He has a child. He teaches his child. In just a few verses, Cain transforms from the teenager who kills his brother and shirks responsibility into a responsible adult who has children and educates them.

Yet the touchstone for this assumption of adulthood is an ironic twist. In order to become a fully responsible adult, Cain has to first surrender himself to God. He has to let go of the power he thinks he has–the power he has just proven, the power to kill–and acknowledge that in the presence of God, in the presence of ultimate conscience, ultimate judgment, he is powerless. In surrendering his power, Cain in effect becomes a small child again: the small child who is powerless, who is utterly dependent. The small child who cannot fight off sleep. The small child who needs us to carry him. This powerless small child is precisely the being that evokes our sympathy, our rachmanus, our tender love.

Cain is not a child, and his moment of returning to a child’s state is not permanent, but temporary. Through this moment of throwing himself on God’s mercy, of acknowledging his powerlessness, Cain is transformed. He is forgiven. He is redeemed. He grows up. By allowing God to carry his sin, and by begging God to carry it, Cain becomes capable of carrying himself.

There’s a famous Christian poem about a person having a dream of walking on the beach, looking back on the footprints of the journey. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, those of God and the person walking. Sometimes there were only one. As the poem famously puts it, “During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

I think we too easily resist this kind of language in Judaism. We’re more fond of intellectual arguments and text-heavy formulations of symbolism and signification. In the Modern Orthodox community, in particular, we tend to over-intellectualize the experience of the High Holidays. In doing so, we too often miss the core experience, the basic move that this time is about. It is about allowing ourselves to be carried.

Yom Kippur is about enabling God to forgive us of our sins, those accretions that build up in our adult lives of power. To be an adult is to be a bar da’at, one who knows. The old maxim goes that knowledge is power, but it is not simply an aphorism. To know is to be powerful. That’s what it means to be an adult, to have agency and to exercise it. But as the story of Cain poignantly illustrates, our knowledge, our power, the very thing that makes us tzelem elokim, can be used to dominate, to control, even to kill. That is the inherent dilemma of power. The corruptions that knowledge and power engender, those are our sins.

The great possibility of teshuva on Yom Kippur is to acknowledge those corruptions, and then to allow God to carry them away. It is about returning, for a moment, to being a child–not with a child’s innocence, but with a child’s capacity for surrendering. It is about giving up our da’at for a moment, liberating ourselves from the false trappings of our knowledge and power, and allowing ourselves to be ultimately powerless–on this day, this Shabbat shabbaton.

The other night, I took Micah and Jonah to their first night baseball game. Jonah caught a foul ball. The Tigers held off the White Sox. We stayed until the end. When we got home after 11 p.m., Micah threw himself on the couch and began to fall asleep. This time I looked at him and knew that I couldn’t carry him. He’s too big now, and I’m no weightlifter. I had to rouse him and help him walk up the stairs on his own two feet.

As we experience this Yom Kippur, I pray that we can all find the emotional and spiritual place where we can let ourselves be carried. Where we can stop being adults so fearful of losing power, and remember what it is to be a child who trusts in her parents to carry her.
Gemar chatima tova.

I delivered this dvar Torah this past Shabbat at Kol Sasson congregation in Skokie, IL.

 

I. Stumbling On Big Questions

In 2005, four weeks after I received semikha, two weeks after our second son was born, my wife Natalie and I moved to Evanston. As the new rabbi at Northwestern Hillel, there were many things to do, many people to meet. But the biggest thing to do, programmatically anyway, was prepare for the High Holidays.

Like many campuses, Northwestern has an area where theater groups, political groups, fraternities and sororities hang big painted sheets to announce their upcoming events: “Party at Sig Ep Saturday night!” or “Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, Thursday to Sunday in Shanley.” So to publicize the High Holidays, I figured we could hang a painted sheet, something like, “Yom Kippur, Wednesday. Repent!”

But a funny thing happened on the way to Yom Kippur. We realized two things: First, we could afford to make something slightly nicer than a painted sheet. So we printed an 8-foot by 3-foot banner at Kinkos. Second, instead of making a statement, we could ask a question.

Statements and announcements, it seemed to me, could linger in the air and easily be ignored. A question, by contrast, enters into the mind. You can’t walk by a question, a good question, and ignore it with the same ease that you ignore a statement. The old TV ad is a perfect case in point. “It’s 10 pm: do you know where your children are?” is far more evocative than “It’s 10 pm. Make sure your kids are safe.”

So we made a banner that asked what we thought was the basic question of the High Holidays: What will you do better this year? Underneath we wrote, Experience the High Holidays, and we listed the website for Hillel.

It turned out that this banner, created in my first weeks as a rabbi on campus, would be the seed of a much larger project, one that has influenced my professional career and my approach to education, leadership, community, and spiritual life. A little over a year ago, I left Northwestern Hillel to lead the national development of Ask Big Questions, which this year will be active on over 20 campuses, training over 100 students in the skills of text-centered reflective community conversation, and reaching tens of thousands of people from various walks of life in-person, online, and in print.

As we journey through this Elul, I want to go back to that Elul seven years ago. Here we are again in Elul. Here we are again, preparing for the High Holidays. Here we are again, a full shemitta cycle later, with the chance to discover, or rediscover, some Big Questions.

(more…)

An audio recording of this sermon is available here.

Tonight I want to talk about fear.

Yom Kippur can be a fearful day. We are afraid of being hungry. We are afraid of being thirsty. How many of us are already counting the hours until we can eat?

We can be very afraid on this day.

What if we’re hungry? What if we’re thirsty? What if after all those words, after all that singing, after all the rabbi’s exhortations to do teshuva–what if, after all that, I feel nothing? What if God doesn’t answer me? What if God doesn’t exist? What if all of this is a load of hooey?

It’s a terrifying thought. It inspires fear in our hearts.

And the roots of this day prompt us to think about fear.

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us a god who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.'”

Moses is on Mount Sinai. He has been gone for nearly 40 days. And finally they can’t take it anymore: “We don’t know what has happened to him,” the Israelites say. Lo yadanu meh haya lo. We don’t know. Not knowing is the root of their fear. They are plagued by doubts: What if he doesn’t come back? What if he fell off the mountain? What if God killed him? What will we do?

And so, to ease their not knowing, they make themselves a pacifier: they build the golden calf.

This is the greatest sin in the Torah. It prompts Moses to seek God’s forgiveness, which establishes the model of teshuva for us here today. That sin, building the Golden Calf, is rooted in fear. The fear of losing control. The fear of not knowing.

(more…)

To listen to an audio recording of this sermon (made after the holiday), please click here.

You probably remember the story about the elderly Jewish woman listening to a lecture by a famous astronomer. The lecture was about the sun.

At one point the astronomer said, “In around six to seven billion years the Sun will exhaust all its hydrogen fuel and begin the process of stellar death. When that happens, the Sun will grow so large it will engulf planet Earth.”

Distressed, the woman interrupted the lecture, yelling out, “Wait, when will this happen?”

The astronomer replied: “Six to seven billion years from now.”

To which the woman replied, “Whew! I thought you said million.”

The central mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is not dipping apples and honey. It isn’t eating honey cake. It isn’t getting together with your crazy relatives. Those things are all lovely and important. But they’re not what Rosh Hashanah is fundamentally about. No, at its heart, Rosh Hashanah is about listening–about remembering what it means to listen, and about listening closely to the sound of the shofar. (more…)

Moses’s final words to the Israelites reverberate with the drumbeat of a keyword, hayom, today. The opening verses of Nitzavim center around the idea of hayom:

“You stand today, all of you, before the LORD your God… that you may enter into the covenant… which the LORD your God is making with you today, in order that He may establish you today as His people and that He may be your God, just as He spoke to you and as He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here today.” (Deut. 29:10-14)

Hayom appears a total of 16 times in this double-parasha, which represents over one-fifth of the 74 mentions of the word in Deuteronomy. By comparison, the other four books of the Torah combined mention hayom a total of 61 times. If Deuteronomy is significant for its unusually high concentration of hayom within the Torah, Nitzavim-Veyelech is particularly distinguished.

Midrash Tanhuma offers one interpretation of hayom in this parasha: “Just as today is sometimes dark and sometimes light, so too for you: even though it may be dark now, in the future the Holy One will shine an everlasting light, as the verse states, ‘And God will be for you an everlasting light’ (Isaiah 60:19–which was from last week’s haftarah). And when will this be? When you are united as one…” (Tanhuma Nitzavim 4). The Midrash’s understanding of hayom here focuses on the transience of a single day: this too shall pass. Whatever darkness, whatever suffering we may have today will ultimately be superseded by the everlasting light of God. Not, the Midrash argues, on account of grace, but rather when the Jewish people find a way to be unified.

Another understanding of hayom is that offered by various midrashim throughout Deuteronomy: What does the Torah mean when it states, “And the words that which I command you today shall be on your hearts?” (Deut. 6:6–from the Shema) That every day you must see yourself as standing at Sinai being commanded anew. Or, in other traditions, that every day a voice goes forth from Sinai again. Here the emphasis is not on the transience of today, but on the newness and preciousness of today. The point is not to hold on and get to tomorrow, but to recognize that every day has the potential to be just as transformative as the moment of Revelation at Sinai.

Hayom is one of the watchwords for the High Holidays. The traditional Musaf ends with a prayer whose refrain is hayom, recited seven times (eight in some editions). Hayom harat olam, today is the birthday of the world, we say on Rosh Hashanah. Ki bayom hazeh yichaper aleichem, For today you shall be atoned, we say on Yom Kippur.

When we say these lines we can experience both approaches: Today can be a day we get through, a day to endure until a brighter day comes. But today can, simultaneously, be a day of transformation, renewal and change–as dramatic and meaningful as the day the Torah was given. This is the paradoxical nature of living in time: it is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel observed, the dimension we cannot control, but it is precisely the dimension that makes us human. We know that this moment will end, that this day will end–and that is exactly what makes it possible for the moment or the day to be meaningful.

Shabbat shalom.

Parshat Ki Tavo begins to bring us to the end of the book of Deuteronomy, and with it the Five Books of Moses. Where in last week’s parasha, Ki Teitzei, we found a portion stuffed with laws–much like Parshat Misphatim or Parshat Kedoshim–in this week’s reading we find a transition to the final chapters of Deuteronomy, in which Moses will exhort the people one final time.

Ki Tavo caps the legal sections of Deuteronomy with the blessing and (much longer) curse that will accrue to the people if they fulfill, or fail to fulfill, the commandments. This portion is always read before Rosh Hashanah, and can be thematically linked with one reading of the High Holidays: we must examine our deeds and do teshuva in order to earn the blessing and avoid the curse. This is a transactional view: I do for God, and God does for me. The problem with it is that, as soon as one experiences the reality that good deeds are not always rewarded, and even worse that bad things happen to good people, it becomes unsustainable: I did everything right, and still God didn’t take care of me. So I’m giving up on God and Torah.

But there are other approaches. The Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) recounts the story of Elisha ben Abuya, the famous apostate who left Judaism after witnessing a young boy die while falling from a ladder after his father asked him to climb it, send away a mother bird, and retrieve the eggs from its nest. Both the mitzvot the boy performed–honoring his father and sending away the mother bird–come with the assurance that they will lead to “lengthening of days,” according to the Torah. How then could the boy tragically die? The Talmud offers the response that reward and punishment don’t happen in this world–s’char v’onesh b’hai alma leika–but rather happen in the next.

This approach essentially says that the transactional understanding of our relationship with God isn’t fully adequate, but is essentially right: the reward and punishment happens in the next world, rather than this one. And that may work for many people as we approach the High Holidays.

Another approach is that of the Hasidim of the 18th and 19th centuries. In particular, I want to draw our attention to one comment of the Gerer Rebbe, the author of the Sefas Emes. This is one of his comments on the parasha from 5652 (1892), which begins with a midrashic analogy of Torah and water:

The notion here is that there are waters one can pass through, which are likened to the simple matters of the Torah; these come up to a person’s belly or his neck. But there are also deep waters which have no end, which are called sailing waters–only one who knows how to sail can pass through them. Such a person is one who can diminish himself and become light above the water; it is one who can make himself as if he were lifeless, [totally dependent] upon the Torah, and then he can enter into these deep waters.

All are worthy of the power of Torah, which teaches how to enter into the depths of the abyss. For just as one cannot learn to sail except by going on the water, so too the Torah teaches how to nullify oneself and to ascend to enter into its inner parts. This is what is meant by “Listen, O listen” (Deut. 28:1: v’haya im shamoa tishma): there is no end to the rooms of Torah.

This is a different approach than the contractual one. It is richer, thicker. The Sefas Emes, here as in so many places, understands human nature in its simplicity and its complexity. Our relationship is as easy and complicated as our relationship with ourselves. The key is our posture towards the world. For the Sefas Emes, as for the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl or the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas a century later, the world is not about me: it is about God (in the case of the Sefas Emes), or the needs of the other (in the case of Frankl and Levinas). The process of self-abnegation, or bittul, is essential. In order to go into the deeper possibilities of Torah and of life, we have to get over ourselves–we have to be able to float on the water. And being able to float, as any swimmer knows, is what enables us to swim.

As we wade through Elul and approach Rosh Hashanah, I find this kind of orientation much more helpful and resonant than the contractual orientation. Certain questions are unanswerable, at least in the language we normally use. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why am I not being rewarded for my good deeds? As we all know, the world is a more complicated place than that. But it is also a simpler place. The question isn’t so much about contracts, as about learning to float and learning to swim.

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

~ Denise Levertov (1923-1997), “The Avowal”

Shabbat shalom.