Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Rosh Hashanah: Rage Against the Status Quo

Right now, even as you read this article, you are asleep. You are not unique; most of us are lulled to sleep by a constant barrage of daily drudgery. We become thoughtless creatures of habit and allow the status quo to muffle our aspirations. Even idealists can lose focus, and become fixated on chasing mindless trivialities. We need to wake up.

According to Maimonides, the shofar’s call on Rosh Hashanah is a sacred alarm clock, a call to stop slipping into the status quo. The shofar wakes us up, and demands that we reexamine our routines. It reminds us to battle against the status quo.

Considering how stifling the status quo can be, it’s no surprise that greatness is found in those who can break away from their past. Jewish literature is filled with examples of great men who defy the status quo. Abraham walks away from his country, his birthplace, and his family’s home, in order to follow his destiny. His journey leads him to become the father of the Jewish people. Ruth, a Moabite woman, leaves home out of love and loyalty to her mother in law Naomi. Her grace and kindness find her a new home among the Jewish people, and her story is included in the Bible as the paradigm of true compassion. Rabbi Akiva, an ignorant, middle aged farmer, decides that with enough diligence, even he can succeed at Torah studies. This bold decision will lead him to become the greatest Rabbi of his time. These heroes achieve greatness by breaking away from the status quo.

Most of us will not become heroes like Abraham or Ruth or Akiva. But, we need not live in unending mediocrity. We too can rise up against the status quo.

Any new challenge that you undertake is a rebellion against status quo. Any time you stand up for your ideals is a rebellion against the status quo. Any time you give more, volunteer more, care more, you have rebelled against the status quo. Any personal transformation is a rebellion against the status quo.

I know someone who quit smoking. Why? Because one day, observing his kids playing, he realized he probably wouldn’t have the same joy watching his grandchildren playing. He immediately quit cold turkey. Something woke him up, and he could no longer stomach the status quo.

Dylan Thomas, in his poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, insists that we refuse to accept the infirmities of old age, and demands that we “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. Truth be told, all of us, (of any age), begin to decline the moment we become prisoners of habit. Too many of us fail to consider new perspectives and new beginnings. That is why, as the shofar sounds, we must wake up, and rage against the status quo.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Extreme Makeover, Soul Edition

I haven’t had plastic surgery…yet. I have managed to hold out, despite a barrage of television shows promising salvation by the scalpel.

Actually, I have no difficulty with plastic surgery. An improved physical appearance can improve one’s job prospects and possibility of marriage. Cosmetic surgery is simply another example of human ingenuity enhancing quality of life.

However, society’s fascination with plastic surgery is exaggerated. The aforementioned TV programs breathlessly tout plastic surgery as a vehicle for personal redemption. Attractiveness is seen as being next to Godliness. Aspirations of the soul, such as identity and meaning, are now accomplished with liposuction. Unfortunately, this is absurd: plastic surgery is by definition skin deep.

Now I’m not na├»ve: I realize you won’t see a TV show that features Rabbis performing advanced Torah implants or prayer lifts or charity peels anytime soon. But that’s a shame, because our souls can get just as torn and worn as our bodies. Harsh years in the dog eat dog workplace, coupled with excess consumption, can erode the most spirited youthful idealism. Cynicism and the pursuit of comfort can transform former idealists into sarcastic, brandy sipping, golf playing sellouts.

So how do former idealists get their souls back? With an extreme makeover for the soul.

Soul makeovers come in many different varieties. Sometimes you need to go on the road. Comfortable environments can lead to spiritual decay; you need to leave home in order to challenge your soul again. Find an appropriate spiritual retreat, and break away from the daily grind.

Sometimes you need to just do it. We all say we want to spend more time with family, volunteer more, and study more. But, on any given night, it’s too hard because we’re tired/had a rough day at work/need to take care of some errands. And all of our great goals end up sliding away, one night at a time. So just do it!

Sometimes, you need to go home. There is an amazing amount of spiritual insight in our own backyard. Yet we ignore own treasures, simply to search for fool’s gold. It is at times astonishing to me that some Jews, with the oldest and most influential religious tradition in the world, still run after every bizarre new fad. The best place for a soul makeover is right at home.

A member of our synagogue, Larry, traveled with me on a trip to Israel. It was his first visit, and he was overwhelmed by what he experienced. The history, religion and culture transformed his entire outlook on life. At the end of the trip, he said:

“Before coming to Israel, I was of the Jewish faith. Now, I’ve become a Jew” .

This is what a spiritual makeover is all about. You just do it, break away from the old grind, and return home. At the end, you finish with your life transformed, and even.....ith a more beautiful soul.