Monthly Archives: December 2019

Nighthawks

Last Shabbat evening, I was in Chicago with 5000 other Jews (including 11 other TBA board members and staff). I could go on and on about what we experienced: the people who spoke, the old friends we encountered, the new ideas emerging, the reassuring truth that we are doing so well as a congregation, and so on.
I could go on and on… but the ripples from the Chicago Reform Biennial will be spreading out at our temple and throughout Reform congregations nationwide. You will feel them and see them and hear all about them. The TBA delegation learned a lot. Our collective and individual experiences will coalesce as a decisive change agent in our community.
It is exciting to see how the Reform movement continues to grow, unafraid to embrace the reality of the American Jewish community. We are on a strong trajectory, always moving up with a deep commitment to our ever-renewing covenant.
But I did something else while in Chicago. I actually left the convention center from time to time. I got to the Art Institute, second in size, and depth of collection only to the Met.
The Institute is extraordinary. I felt immediately overwhelmed by the vastness of the galleries and the sheer variety: from Andy Warhol to Mesopotamian pottery to Alaskan war masks to photography to Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
At one point as I wandered, a bit slack-jawed I’m sure, I bumped into Edward Hopper’s 1942 masterpiece, Nighthawks. I didn’t know it was at the Art Institute. And it took my breath away. There was no bench in front of it, no place I could sit down and take it in. The dimensions are 30″x60″; not big at all. But so powerful!
To stand in front of the masterpiece was to be drawn into Hopper’s world, awed by the brushstrokes and the texture and the colors. Is the painting about isolation? Is it about loneliness? Or is it a warm place for a late-night cup of joe?
I will forget some of the things I learned in Chicago at the Biennial. Some of the speakers I heard will recede from my conscious mind. The names of the prayer leaders or the new melody of a prayer will evaporate.
But the pure, absolute pleasure; the thrill of being so up-close, looking at the original — THE Nighthawks – was a life-affirming event. It was a check off my bucket list that I didn’t even know existed. Or, as my wife says, it was a shechechiyanu moment.
I love my access to so many resources on the Internet. The information I can find at any moment, day or night, is a staggering new human experience that we are only just barely beginning to understand and incorporate into our consciousness. I love it and grow from it.
But it’s one thing to look at something online, even in HD quality, and quite another to be right there. Which is my biggest concern about the digital/virtual world.
My Hanukkah wish is to remind everyone – including myself! – that, like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell sang it in 1968, “Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.” The moment of true encounter with a great masterpiece is sacred. And so is looking into the face of another human being. You can only get the sacred encounter with Nighthawks in a gallery at the Art Institute. But the holy moment of encounter with an other is around us every day. Don’t substitute it for a screen.

Yetzer Tov and Yetzer Ha-Ra

Our ancestors long ago identified a clear, dualistic truth of humanity. We are comprised of the yetzer tov (the impulse for good), and the yetzer ha-ra (the impulse for evil). Over 20 centuries, scholars have discussed and argued over the meaning of this duality.

Some assert that the yetzer ha-ra is not a demonic force that pushes a person to do evil, but rather a drive toward pleasure or property or security. The yetzer ha-ra is all about my needs. It is about selfishness and egocentrism. They say that if it is left unlimited, it can lead to evil. But… they also say that without the yetzer ha-ra, no one would build a house or take a job. It is the energy of appetite and acquisition.

The yetzer tov comes from another dimension of the human experience of reality. It reminds us that we are NOT the center of the Universe. The yetzer tov, to borrow from another tradition, is a halo over our heads. It is the force reminding us that we do not live in a vacuum. It directs us to reach out to the other, as opposed to the yetzer ha-ra, that pushes us to reach in. The yetzer tov is all about idealism and altruism.

This, in our tradition, is the eternal tug of war, and we experience it on every level. It is the foundation of Jewish ethics. It’s an honest appraisal of who and what we are made of. It’s all too common not to want to help others, or give tzedakah, or lend a hand to someone who has fallen. It’s I/me me/mine all of the time.

We, humans, can be exceptionally selfish, destructively selfish.  We easily disregard, disenfranchise, and dehumanize. The history of the world is filled with the carnage of the yetzer ha-ra. The present darkness engulfing us emanates from that ugliest part of the yetzer ha-ra. Sometimes I can almost smell the rot of it all.

But every now and then, someone reminds us that there’s more to it all than the yetzer ha-ra. Sometimes the purveyors of light arrive. I think of Greta Thunberg, the fantastic 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who is so filled with the yetzer tov. Her courage and indignation are a beacon of light. She is the yetzer tov personified. Her message, which is her life, is so pure and crystal clear. I admire her for her idealism and the zeal she brings to the table, a fearlessness when it comes to delivering an unambiguous yetzer tov message.

And whenever any adult throws his or her maligning yetzer ha-ra negative energy at this sixteen-year-old, it betrays an ancient human toxicity that is always ready to snuff out the light.

The fabulous extremism of Greta Thunberg and her yetzer tov is a valuable corrective. I’m not going to take a trip to Israel in a sailboat. I will fly. My yetzer ha-ra wants to be comfortable and safe. But I will think more clearly about how I do travel. I will no longer sit in my idling car to keep warm as it spews carbon dioxide into the air. I will calculate my carbon offset.

For most of us – ok, for me! – the yetzer ha-ra comes easy. Selfishness is the default human response to the world. The work is locating the force of the yetzer tov and raising it up. Maimonides, when speaking of giving tzedakah, says, and I paraphrase, “You don’t have to be happy giving tzedakah. You don’t have to pretend it’s nice or that you’d rather do nothing else than give money for worthy causes. But your yetzer tov beseeches you, begs you, to do something.”

We are the constant tightrope walkers, the yetzer ha-ra on one side pushing us forward on that perilous course, and the yetzer tov, keeping us deliberate and safe. Sometimes we err toward one or the other. That’s our lives. Looking for balance as we want everything for ourselves while being urged to open up our arms to embrace the other.

Our tradition teaches us that finding balance is our task. As it says in Perkei Avot, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21). Those are our unambiguous marching orders.