Monday, August 18, 2003

Yom Kippur in July

It’s a staple of cheesy advertising: Ads declaring it’s “Christmas in July” and offering major discounts on clothing, appliances, etc.. I guess it never hurts to get a bargain.

For me, it’s always Yom Kippur in July. During my vacation, I begin working on my High Holiday sermons. I do this because I’ve learned that Murphy’s law has particular application to High Holiday sermons; computers break, illnesses occur, and funerals get scheduled all shortly before the holidays, making sure that any procrastinating Rabbi is duly punished for leaving things to the last minute.

It’s peculiar writing words for days of awe during the lazy weeks of summer. The laid back rhythms of vacation are not the ideal environment for inspiration. The weighty themes of the high holidays seem very faraway from sun, surf and ice cream.

However, there’s actually a lot of inspiration around in the summer. Because of my Yom Kippur mindset, I look at the ordinary in extraordinary ways. I’ve found that simple summer pleasures are often quite sublime as well.

Transcendence is everywhere. Life is not just life; it’s a miracle. According to the Midrash, every blade of grass has it’s own angel, calling it to life. These angels are on prominent display in the summer.

Sunrise. Waves. Trees. Mountains. Grass. Birds. Grasshoppers. Breeze. Clouds. Sunset. Moon. Crickets. Stars. There are so many small miracles, so many ways to experience what Einstein called a “cosmic religious feeling”.

But you don’t need nature to find inspiration; sometimes it can be found around the Barbeque. Friendship is not just friendship; it is a divine experience. If two people truly connect it cannot be mundane. Every moment of friendship, even chatting and laughing together, contain divine sparks, the product of two souls in close contact.

And then there’s family. Of course family vacations have a labile quality to them, jumping between the annoying and the endearing; but they certainly are about family. And loving families are a miracle. The love of a parent, sibling, spouse is too remarkable for materialistic explanations. Love is clearly from beyond this world.

Now, all of the above (the mushy, sermonic stuff) is actually an introduction to the following anecdote.

One afternoon, I was taking a walk with my three year old daughter. She tugged on my hand and pointed to sky saying “look Abba, a cloud! a cloud!”. Tears welled up in my eyes. Yes, it was only an ordinary occurrence, a moment of father-daughter small talk. But I started to think about the miracles of clouds, the miracle of her life and the miracle of our love for one another. And for an instant, it was truly Yom Kippur in July, an ordinary moment filled with great inspiration.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Optimism Reconsidered

I was raised to be an optimist. My mother, a supreme optimist, taught me that the future always brings good tidings. In Yeshiva, I learned how prayer and mitzvot shield the righteous from harm; don’t worry, bad things don’t happen to good people. As a student, I learned how the march of scientific progress has cured disease and improved life. How could I be anything other than an optimist?

Indeed, optimism is what led me to the Rabbinate. The pulpit was a perfect place to share my idealistic dreams of progress and redemption.

Ironically, the Rabbinate actually did much to erode my optimism. Until I started working as a Rabbi, tragedy was pretty much an abstraction, something remote; it is as a Rabbi that I first had to confront actual tragedies. Unfortunately, I have officiated at funerals for accident victims, and visited parents sitting shiva for their children. While I was struggling with these tragedies in my own community, in New York and Israel, terrorists murdered thousands of innocents in suicide attacks. The convergence of these catastrophic events shook my optimism, and even my faith. I learned that life doesn’t always have a happy ending; I realized that bad things can happen to good people.

I was forced to reconsider my beliefs. In my search for new insights, authors like Rav Solovietchik, Victor Frankl and the Piaseczner Rebbe opened my eyes to realistic approaches to the problem of evil. My belief became more profound, and there was even some room for optimism.

No, I no longer believe that things will always go well. (I haven’t shelved my hopes completely, but that’s for another day). I can never again be a passive optimist. Passive optimists believe that “all is for the best” and whatever happens, no matter how awful, is truly good. Actually, this approach is insensitive, disparaging the genuine suffering that many people experience.

But even a realist can be an optimist. I cannot be sure everything will be alright; I do not know or understand God’s plans. But if I try, I can improve things. This is optimism of action, an optimism about what we can do and accomplish.

The world is tragic, but we can still produce happiness. Terrorists, illnesses and accidents destroy the beautiful and the innocent; it is up to us to combat evil, give love, and create new life. With kindness, spirituality and progress, we can improve the world.

My current optimism has nothing to do with fate. I believe in free will, and I believe in the possibility of human goodness. I am optimistic because I can, (and you can), choose to improve the world. All we have to do is make the right choices.