|Here at Temple Beth Avodah, the weeks just before HHDs is like Houston Space Center before a launch. People are darting back and forth, checking lists and revising them: the chairs, the parking, the lights, the HVAC, the flowers, the honors, the security… and on and on. We know that no one’s life hangs in the balance over the question of which salads to serve after services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Nonetheless, it all feels very important and quite serious. We try to leave nothing to chance and nothing to the last minute. How everyone is feeling: from the moment they drive into the parking lot, to the moment they’re leaving, matters. Period.
Of course in the midst of all of that I have my own agenda as well. Sermons. A new machzor, which means new cues and new pages. New music. And then there’s what always happens: Shabbat, newsletters, blogposts, and more. I’m not complaining! After all, we’re launching a rocket here! It’s just… a lot.
This means that to get things done, I have to carefully clear out some space on my calendar, a job my assistant Claudia does admirably well. But on Thursdays, my day off, it’s up to me to manage my time and tasks. And with just days before Rosh Hashanah, it’s all about service prep and writing, editing, writing, mandatory exercising, sending holiday greetings, and so forth.
Yesterday, which, just to remind you, was a Thursday, I had the day all planned out. I was set. But I glanced out on the back porch on Wednesday night, and there was a large box from Whiteflower Farms, filled with perennials I had ordered in June. Written clearly on the box were words that always make me nervous: “Perishable.” I could let them sit in the box until, well, until when? After Rosh Hashanah? Somehow the idea of letting a box of beautiful monardas and phlox and geraniums dry up and die before the new year seemed to me to be a rotten message that did not bode well for my future.
When I was a young man, I heard the phrase “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” in the lyrics of John Lennon’s heartbreaking sweet lullaby Beautiful Boy to his then 3-year-old son, Sean. I didn’t understand what it meant then.
I do now.
Out on the ocean sailing away
I can hardly wait
To see you come of age
But I guess we’ll both just have to be patient
‘Cause it’s a long way to go
Lennon’s lyrics are so painfully poignant from this vantage point. We know that he didn’t get to see what he’d planned to see.
The house across the street from us was purchased and refurbished in 1915 as a wedding gift to a young couple sailing to England for their honeymoon. The ship upon which the newlyweds sailed? The Lusitania. And in a terrible twist of irony, it is in that same home where Danny Lewin, founder of Akamai, was living when he was stabbed to death aboard American Flight 11, on September 11, 2001, in an attempt to foil the hijacking.
A box of flowers won’t wait to be planted. A crying baby won’t wait to be fed. A sick friend can’t get in the car without you.
These are some pretty intense examples of life happening in the midst of other plans. It’s not fair. It’s not right. It’s not pre-ordained. It’s what happens on the way to making other plans.
So be loving and kind. If your day is derailed by life, all you can do is play it as it lays. When called upon to detour from the main road to come to the rescue of another, whether fauna or flora, give a special prayer of thanksgiving that you can make a difference in real time.
I was up at 6 this morning. I’m not an early riser by choice, so being awake before dawn was not what I’d call a welcome situation. The bedroom was a bit chilly with the windows wide open. I truly wanted to fall back asleep, but it was very clear that this would not happen. I was conscious.
You know how sometimes when you wake up you have a particular thought in mind. It’s not disturbing, and may, in fact, be pleasant or calming. Maybe it’s the remnant of a dream or due to the music that’s playing as you rise. It’s a gentle way to start the day.
That wasn’t my experience. My eyes opened after 6 am and that was it. It was as if my brain were a chainsaw and somebody yanked on the starter cord.
Schedules, appointments, things that must be done, worries about people I care about, will I or won’t I get to the gym, sermons, High Holy Days, what about dinner… it all came crashing in on me. At once. Was I going to fall back asleep? Not this morning I wasn’t.
So I got up to make the coffee. And as I stood there the aroma of fresh coffee began to caress my olfactory nerves. All of a sudden, I wasn’t obsessing about the 25 things that had to happen immediately! At once! Right now! I was smiling about how good Peet’s Major Dickason’s Blend smells as it brews, which led me to remember my first taste of Major Dickason’s Blend at the Peet’s on Union Street in San Francisco 37 years ago which led me to remember the months I spent with Liza before we got married and how sweet and romantic a time that was, which led me to smile some more…
I could’ve stood there, working myself into a frenzy of anxiety. I chose, instead, to just stop it. I chose to chill. Will all of these things get done? Maybe yes, maybe no. Does anyone’s life hang in the balance over anything I am required to do today? No. Will my staff slash my tires? I don’t think so. Will my wife and kids and grandkids still give me a hug at the end of the day? So far so good.
Look: life is so very precious. Not just at the 30,000-foot spiritual overview general statement of principle level. But perhaps more importantly, at the up close granular level. Every little thing we do, every decision we make impinges on the sacredness of our lives.
Spending time planning one’s day is a wise and mature thing to do. Spending time slapping oneself upside the head and repeatedly saying “Gevalt!”, does nothing but waste time. It reminds me of a famous rabbinic quote (which rabbi? I’m still looking it up…), which I paraphrase: “One who obsessively talks about their flaws and failures and sins thinks only about their flaws and failures and sins and soon becomes their flaws and failures and sins. Stir filth this way it’s filth; stir it that way and it’s still filth. And during all this time of brooding, I could be stringing pearls for the Holy One. You’ve done wrong? Who hasn’t! Now turn away from the brooding and start doing good!”
All I can do is the best that I can do. And that has to be enough.
And now it’s time to string some pearls for the Holy One.
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
We all grew up with guys like Ryan Lochte: handsome, popular jocks who always had an entourage of dudes and girls. They were usually not the sharpest tools in the shed, but this didn’t seem to matter much to the adoring students and teachers who fawned over their athletic accomplishments and good looks.
They got away with all kinds of pranks and class disruptions while other less popular kids were slapped down. The excuse for these golden boys, no matter what they did, from being terribly rowdy at parties, not doing homework, or losing their car, was something like International Olympics Committee spokesman Mario Andrada’s statement. “We need to understand that these kids were trying to have fun…“But let’s give these kids a break. Sometimes you take actions that you later regret. Lochte is one of the best swimmers of all times. They had fun, they made a mistake, life goes on.”
That notion of a chosen few to be judged differently due to their popularity or social standing has long been a part of American life. Celebrities often seem to benefit from a pernicious double standard. They “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” with all sorts of authority figures in thrall to their patina of fame.
But there is a flip side to this worship of the rich and famous. Woe to the celebrity who gets caught doing something ridiculously foolish or criminally egregious. In such cases, the public giveth and the public taketh away. Not to mention corporate sponsors…
I am not the first person to note that original IOC apologia for Lochte et al rings hollow. First and foremost, Andrada calls them kids. Only Lochte is 32. Which means the statute of limitations for kid behavior is in effect. It is true that to vandalize a service station bathroom is not a capital crime. But to lie about it and then get caught on video is an invitation to a real multimedia frenzy.
I’m trying to separate my schadenfreude (pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune), from the facts in regards to Ryan Lochte. Which is not easy. But his sudden plummet from lovable rascal to pathetic, fixated adolescent has a kind of justice to it.
Our tradition teaches us that everything we do has consequences. Coming up to the High Holy Days we are particularly cognizant of this time period as the commencement of a judgment process that culminates on Yom Kippur when God decides who shall live and who shall die. The evidence that God reviews is not our thoughts, but our deeds. It’s not what we meant to do or not do. It’s only about what choices we made.
There is no book of life and a book of death. God does not punish the evil and reward the innocent. Those are metaphors, images to help us feel more deeply about the dimensions of our own choices. But I do think God cares about our behavior. I do believe that any one person’s bad choices have implications for them and for others far on down the line. This notion of the deep reach of our actions is why repenting and forgiving are so crucial to the High Holy Days.
We are called upon to examine our behavior over this past year and acknowledge where we’ve fallen short. We are reminded of the implications of our misdeeds in regards to others. And we are called upon to surmount our own rush to judgment and forgive those seeking pardon.
So far, Ryan Lochte hasn’t apologized: to the Brazilian people, to the service station owner, to the other guys who were with him and got thrown under the bus, or to the American people whom he is supposed to be representing. All he’s done so far is to say he’s sorry for “not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning.” By me, that doesn’t count for much at all.
As one the people who watched the “popular” guys get it all, a la “Revenge of the Nerds”, I am happy to see a 2-dimensional punk laid low. But as a rabbi in his 60s, I think I’m ready to let it go. I hope and pray it’ll be that easy to find forgiveness for others – and for myself – this coming High Holy Days.