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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.

Looking Up

I love Thanksgiving. I always have. Yes, there is a genuine affinity for the food… The traditional dishes: turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, roasted winter vegetables, pumpkin pie, are all so good! They say that of all our senses, the olfactory system of taste and smell connects us to our earliest memories. And if I relax and conjure the scent of roasting turkey, and the taste of fresh -made pan gravy, I am right there, in a cloud of delight.

But certainly, there’s more than the meal. There’s more than a football game. It’s all about gratitude. We so easily fall into the rut of taking everything in our lives for granted. But that’s a trap that can create an expectation that somehow we deserve whatever we want. We can grow callous under the protective attitude of entitlement. But no one “deserves” anything. No one is guaranteed a fast track to love or attention or affluence.

Some of us have lucked into be borne at the right time, in the right place, and into the right family. It’s nothing anyone earned. It’s the luck of the draw. Some of us have worked hard to attain a level of comfort that we’ve extended to those we love. Some have earned enough money to share it generously with causes and places dear to them.

No one deserves any more or any less than anyone else. Yet there is a gravitational pull towards exclusivity, to judge those with less money or fame or privilege. And as we divide the world into us and them, we lose sight of the fundamental existential truth to which we’re attached from birth: that we are finite and that we share this impermanent state of being with every other human on earth. Or, as George Harrison put it:

But how do I explain

When not too many people

Can see we’re all the same

And because of all their tears

Your eyes can’t hope to see

The beauty that surrounds them

Now, isn’t it a pity

On this Thanksgiving I’m pledging to look up from my plate and see the beauty that surrounds us. I’m going to try to disengage from the painful arc of impeachment news. I will attempt to put down the reports of a sitting Israeli prime minister’s multiple indictments for bribery. I will even try to avert my gaze from the apocalyptic climate change reports and debates and Boston traffic and… so forth.

Looking up does not mean abandoning a just cause. It means seeing the perfect beauty of the Universe and embracing existence itself – this wonderful, cosmic little life I have. Looking up and appreciating the greatest gifts of life and freedom reminds me of why justice is worth fighting for. That life is not always utterly absurd. There is meaning and purpose in the struggle. Goodness needs as many allies as we can muster because the good is for all of us to nurture and share.

Have a terrific Thanksgiving. Look up.

Prayers and Their Meaning

Jewish prayer evokes all kinds of feelings. Sometimes it’s all about the familiar mantra-like experience of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish. Few people know what the words mean, or that there is no mention – no mention! – of death or dying in the prayer. Yet there is something profoundly moving about saying these Hebrew and Aramaic words – the sound, the rhythm, the cadence, the response of the congregation. The meaning of reciting the Kaddish transcends the meaning of the words.

Recently I’ve run into a Jewish prayer dilemma. A standard part of our liturgy has begun to bother me. It evokes some ire;  it stirs me in a very disquieting way. I love the prayer in Hebrew.  I enjoy chanting it in a variety of different melodies.  When I’m singing along, I don’t focus on the Hebrew – at all. The transcendence of the music lifts me, puts me in a place of calm and Shabbat. It’s the Jewish equivalent of zen.

But lately, I’ve gotten hung up on the English. I’m not quibbling over the authenticity of the interpretation or the grammar. In fact the problem has to do with leaving the melody and entering the meaning. What follows is the text that so bothers me.

Grant us peace, Your most precious gift, O Eternal Source of peace, and give us the will to proclaim its message to all the peoples of the earth. Bless our country, that it may always be a stronghold of peace, and its advocate among the nations. May contentment reign within its border, health and happiness within its homes. Strengthen the bonds of friendship among the inhabitants of all lands, and may the love of Your name hallow every home and every heart. Blessed is the Eternal God, the Source of peace.

What’s so problematic? The English is so passive. The entire supposition that peace is something that God can give us if we ask nicely. Or that peace is a gift we get at Dave and Buster’s after we win enough tickets playing Skee-Ball.

Peace does not come from God. It is not some divine, ethereal category of being. Peace, contentment, and the bonds of friendship are not from heaven. They are ideas that so many many people have desperately fought for and died to achieve, for themselves as well as their family, their friends, their community.

Suggesting that God doles out peace demeans the people who have tried to create it. Asking God to strengthen the bonds of friendship among the inhabitants of all lands is the ultimate cop-out.

It’s up to us to make peace. God may inspire us to do the work. God may remind us that there is divinity in every living being. But God doesn’t grant peace any more than God heals the sick.

God is the great presence that undergirds our sense of purpose. We were created to do that which must be done. The story of manna was inspiring, but no one gets fed without effort. There is no free lunch.

My English version of Sim Shalom or Shalom Rav or Oseh Shalom is more like, “Dear God, remind us that we are the authors of peace. Help us, with your love, to gather the broken pieces and put them together. Help us to feel strong in the face of weakness, to rise to the occasion when we see evil, to extend ourselves to others who may not believe what I believe but who deserve compassion and empathy.”

I’ll keep singing the Hebrew words. Whenever I sing these prayers, I will focus on the music, on the soulfulness of the moment. But if I think about the words and their meaning, I know I can never again wish for God to make peace. It’s almost a shanda, a shameful thing to request. It goes from prayer to an empty gesture.

 The good news and the bad: it’s all up to us.  There’s no divine reckoning.  No Messiah.  No outstretched arm of God enforcing anything. No free parking. We’re all we’ve got. 

Remembering Rabin

 
I don’t remember where I was when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated 24 years ago last Monday. But the shock wave at the initial announcement, and then the revulsion and disbelief that he was murdered by a Jew, an observant Israeli of the far right… That, I can never forget. 
Rabin had signed the Oslo Accord earlier that year and was preparing the nation for the inevitable challenges that would come along with making peace. The murderer, Yigal Amir, claimed that Jewish Law permitted him to kill the prime minister. In Amir’s eyes and the eyes of his fellow ultra nationalists, Rabin was a rodef, a dangerous pursuer. Therefore in their twisted logic, they had the right to protect Jewish lives by taking him out. Amir said he shot Rabin in self defense of the Jewish people.The courts did not agree, and Amir was sentenced to life without parole. At his sentencing, Amir proclaimed that he had no remorse and that he had done his duty to the Jewish people. 
The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin had far-reaching consequences in Israel and the rest of the world. In a very real way, Amir and his fellow far-right community, murdered peace. It was the end of a certain kind of hopefulness, and a recognition that a new force was erupting. It was a force that actively and openly disdained the rights of Palestinians in Israel and vehemently opposed any notion of a two-state solution. Bibi Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud party, embraced the movement and then led the opposition to any real and lasting peace. Prior to Rabin’s death, rallies organized by Likud and other right-wing groups featured depictions of Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform, or in the crosshairs of a gun. Protesters compared the Labor party to the Nazis and Rabin to Adolf Hitler and chanted, “Rabin is a murderer” and “Rabin is a traitor”. In July 1995, Netanyahu led a mock funeral procession featuring a coffin and hangman’s noose at an anti-Rabin rally where protesters chanted, “Death to Rabin”. 
The chief of internal security, Carmi Gillon, then alerted Netanyahu of a plot on Rabin’s life and asked him to moderate the protests’ rhetoric, which Netanyahu declined to do. Netanyahu denied any intention to incite violence. But one doesn’t have to start a fire to cause a panic and a stampede to the exits.
When I heard about Rabin I felt that sharp pain of loss and despair that has become de rigueur for baby boomers. With every political assassination, from John F Kennedy to Martin Luther King to Bobby Kennedy, we watched dreams die along with the visionaries who spoke of them. We have seen, time and again, the triumph of hatred and violence over the fragile beginnings of peace and understanding. It’s happened so often that we have grown inured to the chipping away at new alliances, the denigration of compromises in order to achieve a new degree of harmony and communication between different ideas and ideals. 
We harbor a cynicism, a weariness that threatens to extinguish any spark, smother any flame of conscience. It calls to mind a well known Hasidic story that many have told, including Elie Wiesel, alav hashalom:
 
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov
Saw misfortune threatening the Jews
It was his custom
To go into a certain part of the forest to meditate.
There he would light a fire,
Say a special prayer,
And the miracle would be accomplished
And the misfortune averted.
 
Later when his disciple,
The celebrated Magid of Mezritch,
Has occasion, for the same reason,
To intercede with heaven,
He would go to the same place in the forest
And say: “Master of the Universe, listen!
I do not know how to light the fire,
But I am still able to say the prayer.”
And again the miracle would be accomplished.
 
Still later,
Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov,
In order to save his people once more,
Would go into the forest and say:
“I do not know how to light the fire,
I do not know the prayer,
But I know the place
And this must be sufficient.”
It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
 
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn
To overcome misfortune.
Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands,
He spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire
And I do not know the prayer;
I cannot even find the place in the forest.
All I can do is to tell the story,
And this must be sufficient.”
And it was sufficient.
 
The story is sufficient only if it leads us to consider the world in which we live, the world we wish to bequeath to our children and our grandchildren. The story is sufficient only if it inspires us to do deeds of lovingkindness, only if we strive to create a new clearing in their forest, a new prayer, a new flame that will banish the darkness of the world. We do a lot of head holding a la Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn. If we don’t get out of our armchairs, then shame on us. As it says in the collection, The Ethics of Our Ancestors, “The day is short, the task is great, the master is insistent. It is not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it…”
The murder of Yitzhak Rabin will always be one of the darkest days in the history of modern Israel and in the hearts of the Jewish people. I deeply mourn his passing and the potential that died with him. But there must be more than memories and sadness and cynicism. It’s time, in Israel – and in the United States – to get up out of our armchairs. Anything less profanes the memory of Yitzhak Rabin.
 

11-1

It’s the first day of November, the eleventh month of the year. That simple fact is reflected on our smartphones and desktop computers. Perhaps you have a wall calendar with monthly pictures of your favorite breed of dog or cat, or a digital clock on your nightstand glowing out the time and date. Unless 11/1 is your birthday or your anniversary or some other lifecycle event, or if you get paid the first of every month, youre probably utterly indifferent to today’s date.

For our ancestors and for some Jews, up to this very day, a new month is a reason for celebration and prayer. It is always announced at the Shabbat before it arrives. A new month is greeted with open arms.  There are special prayers and rituals and a general sense of gratitude and joy when rosh hodesh comes.

Highlighting the new month has to do with so many things. For one, hearing it announced reminds us of what holidays are coming up. It puts us in the right  mood for the month.

There are deeper connections than that. At its most fundamental level, marking the beginning of every month is about establishing the rhythm of the Universe. It’s the cycle of Jewish time, orbiting around the transcendent presence of God. The beginning of every month coincides with the new moon.

The cycles of Jewish time appear in all spheres of our lives. For centuries, Jewish women have connected the cycle of their bodies with the lunar cycle. Some of the most soulful and innovative Jewish observances come out of women celebrating rosh hodesh. Because women were creating it in a patriarchal framework, these rituals developed quietly, and were kept through oral tradition. That’s been changing over the last 50 years. There are now many groups of women actively connecting for rosh hodesh.

Another significant explanation for marking the new month is that, to quote Steve Miller, “Time keeps on slippin’ into the future.” To say a prayer praising God for this new month reminds us to be grateful for the unspeakable beauty of the world in which we live.

“But”, you may ask, “What about the stuff that drives us crazy, acts of depredation and violence, of hunger and disease?” Yes, that’s there too. And for that reason we are called upon to have faith, and to hope.

We mark a new month according to the arrival of the new moon. The odd thing is that a new moon is essentially not visible.  There are several reasons why it is impossible for us to see the New Moon in the sky. The alignment of the Sun, the Moon, and Earth, leaves the side of the Moon that faces Earth in complete darkness. Technically, this is called a conjunction or Syzygy in the Sun-Earth-Moon system. In addition, the New Moon rises and sets around the same time as the Sun, bringing it too close to the Sun’s glare to be seen with the naked eye.

It’s all about having faith that the new moon is there, even when we can’t see it. We could spend our time in desperation and anxiety, waiting for the first sliver of the waxing moon. Or we just keep going, having faith in the cycle of the Universe, in the rhythm of the saints.

There’s a beautiful tradition called birkat hachodesh: blessing the new month. It is recited outside at the advent of the new month/new moon. It’s not done so much anymore, which is a shame. Because on the night of a new moon, the sky is so dark, yet so filled with stars. It reminds us just how tiny we are – and that we are so lucky, in this moment, to be alive, that everything will ultimately be alright as we are embraced by the Holy One, and by each other.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who by sacred speech created the heavens, and by the breath of Your mouth all of the stars and the planets. You set for them a law and a time, that they should not deviate from their task. And they are joyous and glad to perform the will of their Owner; they are workers of truth whose work is truth. And to the moon You said that it should renew itself as a crown of beauty for those God carried from the womb, as they are destined to be renewed like it, and to praise their realms. Blessed are You God, who renews the months.

There is a cosmic harmony. We live in a Universe of such transcendence. We live: with hope. Keep the faith.

[I am aware of the fact that the tradition of celebrating rosh hodesh is around the Jewish calendar – we welcomed the month of Heshvan 4 days ago. But don’t let that stop you. Put on your coat tonight, walk outside, take a deep breath and look at the sky: find the waxing moon. And say thank you.]

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Climbing Another Mountain

When we switch back from the special white Torah covers to the Shabbat multi-colored covers on Simchat Torah this Sunday at 6pm, it will signal the official conclusion of the High Holy Days season. I’ve never climbed a mountain before, but I would assume that the feeling upon reaching the summit is a lot like putting the last Torah back in the ark to begin the new cycle of temple life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these last few weeks of the new year. The HHD cycle felt different. Certainly, the celebration of the High Holy Days is never the same twice. Each year is a unique moment in time for us as individuals, as a congregation, and as a people. We’re all travelers, moving through time and space.

This new year is coming in with dark clouds and heavy weather. We obviously never know what will happen from day to day and month to month. But I sense a climate of intense angst, a particular kind of dread I don’t remember ever feeling, not even during the Vietnam era.

We don’t know what the vicissitudes of life will be this year. All we know for sure is that they will be choppy. Or to put it another way: we’re on the roller coaster and we’re listening to the click click click of the mechanism pulling us up the steep slope. It’s dark and we can’t make out when were going to reach that point when we begin to careen down and around.

Is it grammatically correct to say that this new year felt “more unique” then years past? However one phrases it, that’s my feeling. It dawned on me from the beginning of the cycle. Usually, at Erev Rosh Hashanah services, congregational participation is muted. It’s as if people are getting into the groove of the season; the special melodies, the prayers we say only during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur… By Kol Nidre, folks are more attuned to the music and the mood of the season. More people sing with confidence and fervor.

But this year, when we turned and sang Avinu Malkeinu, I was deeply moved by the immediacy of the congregation. People were singing. They were listening. People were profoundly present. Why? I have a theory, based on absolutely no evidence other than my gut feeling and anecdotal evidence from congregants and from rabbis serving other congregations.

I think we realized just how important – how necessary it is – to gather as a community. We know that going it alone is not how to make one’s way into the uncertainty ahead. A year after the Tree of Life murders, we understand the fragility of life as Americans and as American Jews in a new way. We need each other – it’s as simple as that. There was, I think, a kind of urgency in the congregation, borne not out of fear, but rather from the conviction that to “dwell together as brothers and sisters” is more than a hackneyed phrase. It is a raison d’être.

Embrace the World for a Moment

The news continues to be like an ongoing soap opera, with one long cliffhanger after another. It all feels more and more preposterous. The future looks murky and threatening. It feels almost unbearable. I’ve said the Yiddish word ‘oy’ a billion times these past few years. Stop the world! I want to get off!
If we wanted, we could share our outrage over the disgraceful state of our world. We could count on all fingers and toes just how many things are wrong. We all carry more than our share of fear and anxiety over every minute of every day.
The first Gerer rebbe, Yitzhak Meir Rotenberg, once said something like, ” If you spend all your time reflecting on your failings, on evil and moral decay, then over time you become enslaved by evil and the whole world turns to ashes. Stir filth this way or that, it’s still filth. In the time I spend brooding about the world, I could be stringing pearls for the benefit of the Holy One.”
It’s hard to keep positive. It’s hard not to be in a permanent sense of indignation. And certainly, I’m not suggesting we ignore the social ills. We Jews have a job to do, to repair this broken world.
It’s a grey New England, early Fall day. The leaves are brilliant, glistening with rain, blowing in the breezes. I know in just a short while, the leaves will be gone, and winter will be here. But for right now, this very moment, I’m taking a moment to breathe and to give thanks. Yom Kippur has passed. Sukkot is coming. I’m still here, and if you’re reading this, well then, so are you!
At the end her beautiful, heartbreaking poem, The Thing Is, Ellen Bass writes, “You hold life like a face/between your palms, a plain face/ no charming smile, no violet eyes,/and you say, yes, I will take you/I will love you, again.
That’s what we do: we shake our fists, we march, we seek justice. But for a moment, we can open our arms wide and embrace the mortal, tired world.

Forgiveness and Letting Go

It is so hard to forgive. After being assailed by a colleague, humiliated by a loved one, betrayed by a friend, harmed physically or emotionally, or both… the list is infinite – the resulting damage is often traumatic. We’re a mess. Our self-confidence teeters on the edge. We can’t trust anyone, including ourselves, for a long time, or at least what feels like a long time. The process of healing takes years, and sometimes, a lifetime. There are wounds to bind.

After time has gone by, and the hurt has subsided, we sometimes replace the pain caused by another with resentment. We gather our emotional strength and proceed to use it as a force to ward off the offender. Every mention of their name, every picture, anything at all associated with them gets us going. We resent the offender, yet we continue to think about them way too much. We plot fantasies of revenge, insult their reputation, and tell stories of their perfidy to anyone who will listen (and sometimes we tell the story over and over again to people who don’t want to hear it again…).

When we’ve been hurt or slighted, we get thrown off our game. But over time, as we eschew the possibility of forgiveness in favor of anger and blame, we become stunted. Our hearts whither. We become less accessible to others until we are nothing but resentment. We see the world through a distorted lens as we become a caricature: the quintessential victim.We don’t have to live in the pain of the past. We can emerge from that place, even if it feels terrifying to let go of something that has become our raison d’etre.

When we forgive someone, we lose nothing. Instead, we gain a new, open heart. We can love and be loved in a fuller, more productive way. We don’t have deny that we were wronged. We don’t have to pretend we were injured. We don’t have to forget. But we do have to try to forgive in order to live our lives to the fullest extent possible.I know that some things are unforgivable, and no one else can make that call. But finding the strength to forgive is finding freedom for the soul. It’s finding precious air to breathe. It’s admitting just how big the human heart can grow.

Yom Kippur can be a hard day, and I’m not talking about the fasting. It’s about starting again. It’s about the spaciousness of the soul and the healing of old wounds. It’s about forgiveness.

It’s Only Words, And Words are All I Have

I am in a tiny dinghy on a vast sea of words. Hebrew words, English words, transliterated words. I’ve picked up my High Holy Day Machzors a hundred times and chanted, read, then reread all the pages we’re covering. For weeks I’ve been writing and rewriting. The tyranny of composing essays or sermons, or really anything on a computer is that you never arrive at the final draft. You can continue to edit right up to the very moment you have to get up and deliver the sermon or submit the article.

This means I’ve spent a lot of time reviewing and editing my words. I reach a point when I begin to panic. Does this make sense? Have I written my way into a corner? Is this sermon worthy of your attention?

Words. When this existential confrontation occurs, I am reminded of Flaubert’s aside in Madame Bovary, when he writes, “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

Jules Feiffer, the famous cartoonist/writer/gadfly, produced a weekly cartoon commentary for the Village Voice. One of the recurring themes was a woman in a black leotard, doing modern dance steps while proclaiming a variety of profound truths, nonsense, and provocative insights about the world. For some reason, I’ve imagined doing a sermon like that. Don’t worry – that would never happen. And I hate to dance. And I’ve never attended a single dance performance, save my daughters’ endless dance recitals, which were, let’s face it – deadly.

It’s not the dancing per se that attracts me. It’s just words never seem entirely up to the task. They’re a cracked kettle. They’re opaque, easily misunderstood. So maybe a form beyond words alone. Maybe interpreting words through movement could make their meaning clearer. Maybe?

So here I am – heneini – talking about the limits of words – with words. And I don’t have many moves beyond the literary ones. This is what I’ve got. And I will share with you, through all of our filters and thoughts and experiences, my best attempt at making meaning. Think of it as an offering of truth or a challenge to preconceived notions. Come join me on this sea of words.

Thinking About the Good Old Days

There’s a significant phrase in Jewish liturgy. We hear it most commonly at the end of the Torah service.

הֲשִׁיבֵֽנוּ יְיָ אֵלֶֽיךָ וְנָשֽׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵֽינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם

Hashiveinu Adonai elecha v’nashuva, hadesh yameinu k’kedem.

This line comes from the book of Lamentations, chapter 5, verse 21. Lamentations was written after Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian empire conquered Judah, laid siege to Jerusalem, and then destroyed the first Temple in 586 BCE. It was a horrible and traumatic time for the Jewish people.


In its original setting, this text is the next to last verse in the entire book. It is a desperate cry. The author begs God to let us back into the divine presence. After the destruction of the Temple, he feels cast out. After so much pain and loss, he despairs of anything good ever happening again.


It’s a complicated sentence to translate because these 6 words imply so much. My interpretation would be, “[Forgive us; open your heart to us]. Let us come back to you, and we will come back; make it like it used to be.”


This dream of restoration, that the good old days are possible to reclaim, is an ancient and abiding hope. But the good old days is a mythic construct. It’s gazing into a rearview mirror vainly hoping we’re looking forward. Nostalgia can be so sweet and intoxicating. If we could just go back to the way things were, we could fix everything and make it all better.


I’m in that new club of older adults who say things like, “I used to be able to walk so much faster.” Or, “I used to stay up until 1am reading and working – what happened?”


Here’s what happened; life happened. It’s not mysterious, and it shouldn’t be surprising. Yet it is both mysterious and shocking.


As we greet people to have a sweet new year, I consciously do not say anything about having a year of peace. Because I don’t think it’s appropriate to wanly wish for something that cannot happen. At least, not right now. I do remember a time in the Sixties when it felt like we could do anything. It was a time that felt ripe with new possibilities. We truly believed that we could end the war in Vietnam; we would give peace a chance.


It’s chilly out there these days, in temperature and temperament. There’s no going back. It’s all about moving forward with resiliency. The myth of the good old days is so comforting, but not instructive. It’s not real. The notion that one day, peace will come, as if it’s a long lost zeppelin, coming in for a landing, at last, is crazy.


It has to be about the will of the people of the planet to decide on just how ludicrous it is to posit that some people deserve more than others based on their race or religion. Peace will only come when we’re all willing to work for it by rowing in the same direction.


And that’s why the hope for peace is a Messianic ideal. Because, quite frankly, the whole world already knows the harsh reality of climate change. We are all under its thumb, yet we still refuse to act in concert as a human race. Which is why I can’t say we pray for peace in the new year.


Here’s what I can feel comfortable saying on the cusp of the new year. Dear God, give us the strength to live through each day with dignity. Give us the courage to stand by the ideals of justice and mercy. Give us the selflessness to extend ourselves to others as we take care of ourselves.


The wishlist is staggering. But wishing and praying are a good foundation for action. As we enter a new year in a little more than a week, I pray that we can find the courage to hope and the strength to do what must be done.
There’s no good old days, just the days to come. They’re empty pages; what a sweet new year it would be if we were to fill those pages with abiding love and holy intentions.

Shabbat Shalom
rebhayim