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Honi Lessons


As we get older, we collect a veritable repository of stories. We carry memories: our own as well as those of our family and friends. We carry plots from the books and articles we’ve read and the movies and shows we’ve eagerly watched, and the lessons taught to us in classrooms and waiting in line at Starbucks (remember waiting in line?).


Over time it becomes more difficult to remember all of these stories as we initially absorbed them. Plotlines get twisted and garbled and half-forgotten. It is so frustrating! We conflate themes, combine different stories that have no connection.


Sometimes a story reemerges. Something tickles a corner of the hippocampus, that area of the brain where story files are kept. Parenthetically, I imagine this region of the brain resembles a library filled with papers and open books everywhere…

A tale came knocking on my door of consciousness. I remember hearing it for the first time about 55 years ago in Hebrew School. It’s about a guy named Honi the Circle Maker. How he got his name is another story altogether. Suffice to say, he was known as a bright, pious, impatient man.
I was so happy for its return! What motivated my unconscious to send it out is anybody’s guess; that’s why they call it the Unconscious. But I think I know how it got here… but first, the story.


One day, Honi saw an old man carrying a shovel in one hand, and a tiny sapling in the other. Honi asked him, “Hey! What are you planting?” The man replied, “This is a carob tree.” Honi said incredulously, “Wait – doesn’t a carob tree take a really long time to bear fruit?” “Why yes”, the old man said, “It will take seventy years for it to give fruit.” At which point Honi scratched his head and said, “So why bother? You’ll never live to enjoy it! What a waste of time!”


The old man thrust the shovel into the loamy soil; it made that uniquely satisfying sound shovels make at work. As he continued to dig the hole he said, “When I was a young boy, I ate the fruit from the carob tree that my grandfather had planted. Now I am planting a carob tree for my grandchildren. It’s not about me; it’s about us.”

On the most straightforward level, this story is a stark example of delayed gratification. It’s the realistic assessment of what one can have and what one must wait for. Things don’t just happen. They take planning and fortitude. It means sometimes we have to do without.


Up till now, we’ve been living in a world that touts instant gratification as the norm. You want strawberries in January – poof! – there they are on the shelf! You want food from a restaurant in New York? No problem; we’ll send it right out. You can get almost anything you want, any time.


And right now, for almost everyone, we are suffering from delayed gratification. We can’t have what we want right now. We don’t have access to the people, places, and things that are most significant to us.


I want out right now! I want it to be all better! Only it’s not, and the only people wise enough to offer dependable advice are epidemiologists, and they’re saying, “It’s not a good idea to move forward as if all is well, because it’s not.” So we have to wait. Behaving like little boys with toy guns having tantrums because the babysitter said they can’t go outside is not helpful. It’s stupid and tragic. And it’s dangerous to every vulnerable citizen. Delayed gratification is hard; it’s a sign of maturity and empathy. But Honi doesn’t understand.


The other lesson I derive from this deeply planted story is that we are not responsible only for ourselves. What we do in the world must be about others and not just for ourselves. Unborn generations depend on us.
The old man in the story reminds Honi that this is how Jewish life works. We sustain ourselves – and we plant the seeds for the future. We care for ourselves – and we protect the interests of the next generations.


Belonging to a temple is not just for our own children’s Hebrew school or B’nei Mitzvah or baby naming. It’s to provide a place for the next generations, a point in space that serves as the locus of community and wholeness – a place with a reputation and a philosophy that is progressive – and dependably present.


My hippocampus must have sent this story to my frontal cortex to help strengthen my resolve in the work we do and the promises we make. Honi learns a lesson, and we do, too. The best things in life are those that we create, nurture, and love. It’s delayed gratification, for sure. But in the end, those things are worth waiting for – they always are. We are not put here just for ourselves – we are part of a chain, a living chain of tradition and history. We must never forget that planting those trees for the future is our obligation. It’s not about me; it’s about us.
Shabbat Shalom

In the Pocket

A few days ago, my grandson, Caleb, asked me a question. We weren’t on the phone. We weren’t on Facetime and we weren’t Zooming. He and his parents and little sister were visiting me and Liza at our home. Well, not exactly at our home – they were parked in front of our home.

I set up two lawn chairs on the sidewalk, and settled in, about 10 feet from the open car windows. I peered in at my precious son and daughter-in-law and my precious grandchildren inside  their red Toyota. Liza did not sit down next to me. She was being ineluctably drawn, ever closer, to the open window. All she wanted to do was to reach in, not even for a hug – but just to pet Sylvie’s hair for a second. I watched with bated breath, remembering how moths really are drawn to flames.

“Social distance”, I said, and Liza took a step back. No one cried or protested. It was business as usual in an alien world that defies belief. Don’t touch another human whom you love more than life itself. Ok, I won’t.

That’s when Caleb looked at me from the back seat, and asked, “Hey Bebop (my grandfather name – cool, right?), “When will I be allowed to come inside your house again?” I was struck dumb. I wanted to answer his very simple question. I could’ve said something like, “Soon, Caleb – really soon.” Or, “I can’t wait for that day to come.”

I couldn’t bear to answer his question directly, to say, “Sweet boy, I don’t know when. I just don’t know.” Instead I threw my doctor under the bus: “I’ll have to ask Dr. Klein for permission.” Can you believe it? That we live in a time where grandparents push our grandchildren away, to protect the grandkids —and to protect ourselves?

The other day I received an email request. A temple mom explained that her daughter requested a conversation with her rabbi. So, I called, first catching up on  the latest family info with the mom, who then handed over the phone. There was no time for pleasantries; my young congregant got right to it: “Did God send this virus to kill people because She’s mad at us?”

First: I loved her assumed gender pronoun for God. But second, and primarily: Where are we? On what planet does an almost six-year-old feel compelled to discuss theodicy with her rabbi? Shouldn’t we be talking about something else, something slightly more age appropriate?

I told her that image of God the Destroyer is not one we use anymore. God is not a punisher. God is not in the pain; God is in the healing. But this almost six-year-old lives in a moment when such a question does not seem abstract or theoretical. And it broke my heart.

There are days, some brighter than others, some warmed by the early spring sun, others grey with the dark clouds of spring rains. There are times in the course of a month, a week, a day – when confidence and hope and determination fill my resolute heart. I know that we will get to the other side, that I will be able to answer Caleb’s question, and tell him, “Come into our house any time you want; now give me a hug!”

And then there are times of despondency like I’ve never known. A helplessness driven by the cold brutish truth, that, as of this moment, there are no answers to when or how we come out the other side. Those moments are hostile and dark.

We are all a complicated construction of opposites, of up/down, yin/yang, happy/sad, light/dark. Not one or the other; we’re both and more, living lives in the wake of infinite duality.

 As Rabbi Simcha Bunem once taught:

Everyone should have two pockets and then put a note in each pocket. When one feels invulnerable and infinite one should reach into the left pocket and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.” But, when one feels sad and blue, discouraged and alone, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.”

This is our sentient, dualistic existence: simultaneously on top of the world and feeling down so long, it looks like up. We are not either/or. We are far more than that.

These days we must do a lot of reaching, for more than just Kleenex or our masks or gloves or whatever. Check your pockets, both of them. It’s ok to be sad and it’s ok to be hopeful. We can afford to be optimists and pessimists all in the same hour – or minute. Because that’s us – that’s how we’re built.

The secret of it all is to be patient, loving and kind with ourselves. We need to practice forbearance and forgiveness, not only of others, but of ourselves. This is a long road, and we have to pace ourselves – it’s the only way to get to the other side: with all of our sides.

One People

As days of quarantine have given way to weeks, we have all developed various coping skills. For some of us that means rigorous schedules: wake up time, shower, breakfast, first call/zoom/Facetime meeting, walk, lunch… you get the idea. A regimented trajectory for the day enhances a sense of control and high-level rational thought. It triggers executive functioning and self-esteem. Yes, it declares, I can do this. 

Others let the tide take them. No alarm. No schedule. No pants…

Some of us have kids at home. Depending on their age, school, sitzfleisch (power to endure or to persevere in an activity; staying power), and personality, the managerial skills necessary to attend to their needs are prodigious. This huge responsibility takes up a massive amount of our brain’s hard drive.

There are so many subcategories  of individual and collective experiences in this phase of our lives; way too many to list. Truth is, no two people fit into any category except one: we are all in this together. We are trying so hard to keep positive. We want to embrace hope. We want to take the Jewish notion of salvation and apply it to this moment, right now.

Jewish salvation is different than the Christian concept. In those cool and shocking drawings that interpret a fundamentalist Christian concept called the Rapture, God lifts the saved up into Heaven, leaving everyone else on earth to die miserable deaths. It’s plain and simple and requires no explanation.

Jewish tradition stipulates that no amount of mitzvot, of good deeds and good intentions, get you to the front of the line. The really bad guys get weeded out by virtue of their sins, which place them outside the large circle, or as the URJ calls it, the big tent of Judaism. And, to be clear, God shares a special sense of love and affinity with those who understand how to be a mensch. To have a sense of God’s love is a gift worth earning through living a good life.

But Jewish tradition eschews any notion of individual salvation. We cross the finish line together: the heroes and the not so heroic. The big guys and the not so big guys. The extraordinary and the below average. There is no class valedictorian, no captain of the mitzvah team. Because we’re a community, a family, a people.

We are in social isolation for the good of all of us. Our selfless adherence to a social policy is about the collective; it is about us. We are united in moving together. We are committed to the health and welfare of all of us. The stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s not about what I want or I need. It’s not about what I deserve. It’s not about finding scapegoats for the origins of Covid19. It’s not about sinister plots or 5G or immigrants or another Jewish plot to take over the world. Such twisted thinking is beneath contempt.

Each one of us is making our way, day by day. It’s tough going, even for the shiest introvert. We are cut off from so much. We miss the embrace of loved ones and friends. We yearn for the simplest touch of a hand, for the feeling of being in a group. It’s about all of us.

The Aleinu prayer contains a line that says, “On that day, God will be One and God’s Name will be One.” This is the world we await. We yearn to see a world more united and at peace, where evil has been driven from the world, and where humanity gains a common vision of God that draws us closer, one to the other. This is a Jewish dream, a dream we want to share with the rest of the world. Proclaiming this hope is our mission, our light to the nations.

As you make your way through this weekend, isolated, restricted, remember that we have an old/new ideal, a concept bequeathed to us from our earliest ancestors and taught to our youngest babies: we are one as God is one. We will cross the threshold of despair and aloneness into a time of heightened awareness of the fullness of this gift of life we share.

No one said this would be easy. And nobody said that salvation was a simple concept. The saving grace in the story is that as isolated as you may feel, we will cross the finish line, perhaps in stages, perhaps with a variety of restrictions – but we will cross the threshold together.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Proustian Brisket

S. Chu, and J.J Downes, two well-regarded research scientists, wrote a paper in 2000, entitled, Odour-evoked Autobiographical Memories: Psychological Investigations of Proustian Phenomena. Their title tips a beret to Marcel Proust, the French writer, who wrote what is widely regarded to be, at seven volumes, the longest novel (and least read novel), In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu).

There is one part of his novel that is quite well-known and oft repeated. Proust romanticizes the deepest pangs of memory about the smell of a madeleine biscuit after soaking in tea. Chu and Downes define the Proust phenomenon as ‘the ability of odors spontaneously to cue autobiographical memories which are highly vivid, affectively toned and very old’. 

The Proust phenomenon was in full effect on Wednesday at the Stern house. The aromas of brisket and garlic and onions interplaying with matza toffee, melted chocolate and sautéed liver were utterly twisting my brain around into my oldest memories and some not all that ancient. It was like being on a Disney ride.

For instance, there is the distinct bouquet of the brisket.  I am remembering a Passover seder of my childhood, when I was maybe three years old. I recall being jammed together with lots of people in my grandmother’s Pittsburgh apartment. It’s very warm in her small space. But it’s not just a warm temperature. It’s a family warmth, a sense of home and connection. In my soul it becomes a touchstone experience, a mythic moment defining what it means to be a part of a larger whole.

I’ve used the same Passover brisket recipe for the last 40 years. The recipe is on an index card in my mother’s scrawling cursive. The recipe is her mother’s – my grandmother’s brisket. It’s not just a recipe – it’s an algorithm that gets entrée to my heart.

So, you see, the Proust phenomenon bounced me from one moment in Newton right into a crowded Pittsburgh apartment in the late 50s, a location filled with love, wide open and without limits.

Sometimes it feels as if we are, each of us, a smooth stone, skipping across the endless expanse of an infinite sea. Where we are in any given moment changes all the time as we move through space and time and memory.

The seder is filled with Proustian phenomena! The parsley dipped in saltwater, the haroset, the matzah itself! These are all purposely part of Passover. Each olfactory experience puts us somewhere else in a memory of another time.

Every Jew at a seder table is a kind of time traveler, bouncing between earliest memories of childhood and adolescence. And if we concentrate, we can travel beyond our individual memories to a collective memory, joining our thoughts and memories together in an infinite tapestry of thought and time, of devotion and wild success, of birth and death and rebirth.

Passover is that moment reminding us with all senses that life is transitory. One moment we are slaves, the next we are free. Only don’t forget; the Exodus doesn’t end with our freedom – the story just begins there. The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey tells us, is where to find the real action. And it isn’t pretty. There’s bad behavior, defiance, disappointment, betrayal, death, and even redemption. We’re not done: the road stretches out before us.

That’s our heritage. That’s the surface upon which our smooth stones skip and careen. This life is a composite of our individual experiences as well as of those who came before us. And we are building new moments, new memories, right now: with our family, our friends, our community.

There’s so much more to our story than right now! There’s an ancient history below our feet even as we reach toward the Heavens. That’s our Passover promise: to reach way past the confines of our homes toward each other, and beyond that.

And all that from my grandmother’s brisket.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach

rebhayim

What Does God Think?

“How’s it going?” I ask. “Fine. How are you?” “Hanging in there…” “Yeah, us too. Stay healthy.” “You too.”

 We’ve passed each other on the street twice a day, 3 days in a row. We say the same things. Every. Time. It feels like a scene right out of the Truman Show (which is available on Starz and Hulu, NOT on Netflix or HBO). Same line, same faces. Every. Day.

I wonder as we pass: have we ever met prior to this awkward moment of rendezvous? Do we live on the same street? What are you doing to stay alive? Do you sterilize the kitchen counter when you bring in groceries? How much toilet paper do you have? Are you scared, anxious, terrified or freaked out? Who do you watch? Do you read everything from multiple sources? Do you avoid the news altogether?

I have a thousand more questions running in the back of my head. This social isolation has my poor extroverted brain spinning like a hard drive searching for a source… But, in the meantime, I nod to the strollers in the street – and there so many strollers in the streets! – and offer my desultory commentary.

Sometimes I think about what God might be thinking during this peculiar time. The God in my head is not a loud, belligerent manager screaming about what the heck it is we humans screwed up this time. God is not some punishing presence visiting a plague upon humanity because we are awful. And God is not some twisted teacher causing a plague to teach us a lesson so that we come out of this madness being better and kinder to each other.

That classical God image is archaic and cruel. The God with the temper, the God who causes calamity and loss and destruction – that God I don’t want or need. My God looks at this mess we’re in, shaking an anthropomorphic head in sadness. The Holy One has no power, no magic wand to wave and make it all go away. My God has absolutely no answers as to why and how this happened. COVID19 is as opaque and ominous to God as it is to us.

The God I connect with is a God of endless love, el rachum v’chanun: a God of mercy and compassion. This God consoles me, reminds me that I am not alone. God reminds me that I have a family and friends and a soulful congregation. God reminds me that the Holy One is with me, too. And that, “Even when I pass through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, because you are with me.”

I do not pretend to know what’s next. But I do know that following the World Health Organization’s 5 directives is a sacred obligation, a true mitzvah:

HANDS Wash them often                                 

ELBOW Cough into it

FACE Don’t touch it

SPACE Keep safe distance

HOME Stay if you can

And I do know that staying in touch with people, reaching out via phone and/or Internet, even saying, “How are you?” to the same people every day is right and necessary – for them and for me, too.

Nothing happens for a reason or because God wills it to be so. There is no magical thinking in postmodern Judaism, just the assertion that we can rise to to the place God desires us to attain. It is a place of empathy and understanding. It is a place where we might candidly acknowledge our fears and sadness, even as we redouble our efforts to grow individually as human beings. We can participate more actively with our communities to feel and to be more connected, even when we are forced to be physically apart from each other.

It’s a long hard road and we’re on it together. No shortcuts in sight. We’re not alone. I’m all in, with your trust and love, knowing that God is by our side, giving the gift of infinite love as we make our way.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Take a Breath

I’ve been taking walks every day since returning home from surgery on February 25th.  I started with 5-minute strolls in the house, moving from room to room. The scenery got boring quickly, but there was a sense of satisfaction that I could move through space – at all.  

Four days in, I walked up and down the stairs. And while I would not characterize that as an accomplishment comparable to that of Sir Edmund Hillary, I did pause at the summit for a breath, and for a quick prayer of shehechiyanu. My goals in recovery, small and gradual, were in my power to achieve. 

On day 8, Rachel, my visiting physical therapist, arrived as part of my post op team. At some point I will give a shout out to my PT and the visiting nurse and… well, the cast of professionals at Beth Israel and those who came to my home to push me forward gently and to keep an eye on my vitals.  Anyway, my PT suggested we go for a walk.

As we strolled along, Rachel stopped, looked at me and said, “You’re hunching over as you walk, and your shoulders are up around your ears. Many post-op bypass people walk like that; it’s your body going into protective posture. But now I want you to consciously change that: stand up straight, drop your shoulders, and take a deep breath.” 

I endeavor to be the quintessential good patient, so I did as she suggested. I just let my shoulders drop. “Now take a deep breath, hold it, then release,” she instructed.

In that moment, still learning the vagaries of my post-op body, my limitations in it, as well as the  DNA-driven need to protect it, something deeply profound occurred. Doing the simplest things imaginable: relaxing my shoulders and taking a breath, created a dramatic surge of endorphins that swept over me. An immeasurable sense of well-being filled my soul. 

The decision to relax my shoulders and breathe was not magical or shamanic. I’ve made bigger decisions in my life… But there was something particularly consequential to it. I understood why I felt so tensed up, so physically defended. But that very understandable concern blocked another possibility: that I could untense, take a deep breath, and reframe my place in the world. Yes, I was operated on. Yes, my sternum was wired back together. Yes, I was so sore.

And – yes, I can accept that as all true and real and then anticipate feeling better as time slowly passes. It’s my choice, my decision.

I’ve largely stopped reading the prognosticators’ accounts of the future of the world in light of Covid19. There’s no good to be found in the projections and the gloomy assessments. It will be what it will be. We have no control over that. The prognosticators only true product is angst. I don’t want any of it, any more than is my own daily portion.

Just tell me the rules: where I can go, what I can do, who I can see, how far I have to stand back, what I can do to make others’ lives better, how I can help. I’d build ventilators in my garage if I could – but I can’t. I’d develop a vaccine, but I don’t know how. So, I’m going to be the best possible dad and grandfather and husband and uncle that I can be. I’m going to figure out how to be the best TBA rabbi I can be in cyberspace.

And I’m going to drop my shoulders and take a breath. And you do it, too, even if it’s for 30 seconds. Send some healing to your frayed soul. Let your body take care of you. It won’t make everything all better. But it will remind you of the peaceful presence of your soul, the goodness you contain, and the promise of a new day.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

The Wait


The waiting is the hardest part/Every day you see one more card/You take it on faith, you take it to the heart/The waiting is the hardest part.

I am entering week two of my long road to open-heart surgery. Next Friday, I will be in the capable hands of a surgical team. In the meantime, I’m able to live my life right now as I want to, as long as I chill out. But Tom Petty (z”l) had it right: the waiting IS the hardest part.

I think a lot about this journey I’m on. Thoughts are always percolating. My mind spins like a centrifuge, whirring at a frightful speed. I try not to talk about it… Yet I talk about it obsessively.

People tell me this is normal. After all, next Friday, Dr. Kamal Khabbaz is going to split my sternum open and stop my heart. That is not a ‘procedure.’ It’s the real thing.Given all of this, I want to reframe my life for a brief moment. I want to shift from the existential life and death moment I am entering (and yes, I know the survival rate for bypass surgery is 97%), to a place of gratitude.

This is my incomplete list of gratitude, in no particular order:

I am thankful to be living in the greater Boston area that has, in addition to lots of good sports teams, the best medical care in the world.

I am thankful for Dr. Johanna Klein and Dr. Loryn Feinberg and their professional insight and their humanity. Their gentle medical care directed me for that stress test and now, to healing.

I am thankful to Dr. Kamal Khabbaz and the team that will be taking care of me on the operating table, and I am thankful for all of the docs, RNs, NPs, PAs, techs, orderlies, and others who will be getting back up and out.

I am thankful to my congregation, to former Texas congregants, and to my friends who have reached out to express love and support and suggestions. They have offered meals and walks and meditation tapes and all-around loving support.I am thankful for my family.

My wife, Liza, is a powerful and directed woman. Her presence by my side for 40 years, her love and support have given me strength. I will be depending on her and our kids and grandkids, to keep me going.And I am thankful to God. You know that gesture Big Papi made all the time. Lots of ballplayers use it after a home-run? When they cross home plate, they look up to the heavens and point an index finger at the sky? That’s what I plan to do as they wheel me to the car. It’ll be shorthand for thanksgiving, a reminder that the Holy One has surrounded me with blessing.

What’s It Worth To You?

Have you ever asked someone for a piece of information, and their answer is, “What’s it worth to you?” It’s a flippant, provocative response. Sometimes – perhaps, most of the time, it’s meant to be funny and sarcastic. But sometimes it’s a real question. Sometimes the information being sought is, in fact, a tradable commodity. Perhaps it is delicate, potentially damaging evidence that gives an entry point into someone else’s secret life.

What is knowledge worth? And: what’s worth knowing? These questions are rhetorical. There is no way to assign value to knowledge. In a world where analytics is considered a crucial tool to measure worth and success, knowledge is itself, unquantifiable.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, former head of Yeshiva University, wrote, “Judaism is a culture of knowledge, in which learning and teaching, cogitation and reflection, intellectual effort and theoretical pursuit, are esteemed and elevated to the highest ranks of its precepts.”

The most elevated form of learning in Jewish tradition is called “Torah lishmah.” The best standard translation is “Torah study for its own sake.” To open one’s heart and mind to the process of inquiry, to develop a sense of curiosity and exploration – these are considered genuinely praiseworthy.

Why is pursuing knowledge for its own sake, upheld with such reverence? Why does Judaism embrace the pursuit of the mind so unabashedly, so lovingly? Perhaps because it offers us an escape from the world of things. It asserts that there is more to life than rules and obligations. It tells us that there will always be a place where one can be free to learn and pursue beauty and truth. This doesn’t negate our obligations to the world; Torah lishmah is not about escaping to an ashram or retreating to a cave or a monastery. Our tradition declares that we have both endless obligations (mitzvot) and aspirational goals related to achieve. How often are we reminded that we must perform acts of social justice because we know what it was like to be enslaved?

But everything is not – cannot – be transactional. The life of the mind, the pursuit of learning for its own sake, is a sacred mission. The world of intellectual curiosity is infinite, an ever-expanding territory of knowledge.

Why study the origins of the Universe? Why does it matter when the Big Bang occurred? Why travel in space? Why explore the deepest depths of the ocean? Why study a page of the Talmud every day for seven years? Why read fiction? What’s it worth to you?

It’s all Torah lishmah. Don’t try to explain going to the moon by creating a narrative that we did it because we wanted to learn many things that would be useful on earth. Tang tastes good, but it wasn’t the motivation for a moon shot. Of course, there were military and technological innovations and applications that were by-products of the moon missions.

But truly, we did it because we could. Because we’ve wondered what that object in the sky was all about since our earliest ancestors stood on two feet and pointed at the sky. It’s Torah lishmah.

In 1943, Rabbi Leo Baeck was deported from Berlin to Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. There he was put to hard physical labor on a garbage cart. Witnesses remembered watching him and another prisoner pushing the refuse on a wagon, all the while engaging in a discussion of Jewish tradition and philosophy. It’s Torah lishmah.

In pursuing the life of the mind, we extend ourselves beyond three dimensions. We engage in an infinite Universe of possibilities, of reflection and joy, of laughter and tears. It’s all there to taste, to engage. It’s Torah lishmah.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Falling

Falling is all over the English language. Falling down on the job. Falling in love. Falling out of love. Falling for a scam.

The truth is, nobody falls on purpose. We jump on purpose. We hop, dive, and roll on purpose. But nobody says, “Now I’m going to fall down.”

The older we get, the more fragile our bodies are when they become objects hurtling through space. If we slip and break a leg or a hip or sustain a concussion, we go to the hospital for surgery. And then all hell can break loose. For a variety of reasons, some known and others not so much, it takes older folks longer to find their way out of the haze of the post-op period. And for a variety of reasons, some known and others, not so much, older adults die from falling and breaking a hip or a shoulder.

We’re just so vulnerable. On ice. On the beach. On surfaces, hard, medium, or soft. We’re in a perpetual state of war against gravity. Each and every one of us is a Leaning Tower of Pisa come alive, precariously perched on the surface of this globe.

Whenever we fall, regardless of age, we get so embarrassed. We apologize profusely for being clumsy, for not looking out for the cat curled on the floor, or for failing to notice the shoes by the door. We fall. And it’s as if we’ve done something terribly wrong, as if we’ve breached some ethical firewall. Which is crazy, because frankly, it’s a bit miraculous that we’re not constantly toppling over…

Falling is a natural response to gravity, a force with which we must reckon. We simply have no dominion over it. Think for a moment about the terminology used for launching rockets into space. We say we must “escape” gravity. We are hostages to gravity. We are Newton’s apple.

Christian theologians call the moment when Adam takes a big bite out of whatever fruit Eve plucked from the Tree of Knowledge, the Fall. Capital F. Pulled down by the gravity of sin, these theologians say that we are a ruined, pathetic, irredeemable bag of bones. The only way to recover from this state of sin is through baptism and/or accepting Jesus as the son of God whose death is the sacrifice that raises them up, defying the gravity of sin.

In Jewish theology, Adam and Eve’s sin is understood as a deadly sin. They knew better, yet they were drawn by the force of sin to do the worst thing they could possibly imagine. The rabbis don’t spend so much time criticizing Adam and Eve. They mostly sadly shake their heads and reiterate just how badly Adam and Eve messed up. The first man and woman ruined the possibility of human perfection and immortality.

The Adam and Eve narrative can be strangely reassuring. If the first man and woman failed, if they were drawn into the orbit of sin, if they were so imperfect, then we must acknowledge that we, too are imperfect. It’s never going to be perfect. We just have to try harder to set our own orbit around sin at a safer distance.

Sometimes we fall on our faces. Sometimes we fall in love. What a hopelessly romantic image: that love creates a force so strong and ineluctable that all we can do is give in. Sometimes we regret that fall and the resultant pain. Other times… not so much. But we must all surrender to the gravity of the heart.

When one Googles the phrase “learn to fall,” the number of hits is over 78 million. Many of those websites suggest:

  • Stay Bent Over. Crouch down if you feel yourself losing your balance. You won’t have as far to fall. A crouch enables you to roll and protect yourself.
  • Keep Arms & Knees Bent. Fall with bent elbows and bent knees. It shortens the distance and saves broken wrists and elbows.
  • Land on Big Muscles. Land on your butt, the muscles of your back, or your thighs. Don’t catch yourself with your hands when you fall. Instead, roll and try to land on the meaty parts.
  • Keep Falling. Relax your body rather than stiffening up. Roll up into a ball. Keep the rolling going. Spread the impact out. The more you roll with the fall, the safer.
  • Protect Your Head. If you are falling forward, turn your head to the side. Roll to that side. Avoid a face plant. If you are falling backward, tuck your chin to your chest, roll, and try to land on your thighs and butt.

How can anyone think so fast while falling? How can we even remember these rules? Yes, it’s all logical. And gravity is a rational force; at least it seems to be logical. But how we fall is far from logical.

We all fall down. Gravity will always triumph. Finitude is assured. In the meantime, as rule #4 suggests: just keep rolling. “The more you roll with the fall, the safer.” The interesting part isn’t that we fall down; we all do. It’s how we get back up that ultimately defines us. It’s not always easy to get back up. And we often need help to do so. Until such time as the final fall comes around – and it will – keep rolling.

Ben Bag Bag

There’s a famous saying in Perkei Avot – The Ethics of Our Ancestors – attributed to a rabbi named Ben Bag Bag. We know nothing about him. There’s no bio, no way to trace his roots. We can reasonably assume that he lived in the land of Israel during the first century CE, prior to the destruction of the Second Temple.

Ben Bag Bag is quoted just once in the entire corpus of Jewish text. Yet his teaching, his few words of wisdom, are surely repeated several times a day and inferred in every place where Torah is studied. Not too shabby. Ben Bag Bag said: “Turn it over and turn it over again because everything is inside of it. Look into it; become old and gray inside of it. Don’t back away from it – there’s nothing so satisfying.”

This multi-valenced teaching is a favorite of mine. It boldly defines what continues to be a fundamental tenet in Jewish learning.  Torah study is available to all of us. It isn’t the exclusive domain of Torah scholars or erudite academicians. We are all invited into the palace of study.

Ben Bag Bag is not issuing a gentle bromide here. The Hebrew word for “turn it over,” hafoch, is written in the second person imperative. He is urging us to jump in with metaphorical shirtsleeves rolled up, to grab this learning enthusiastically and shake it up.

Hafoch is not a gentle word. “Turn it over” is not dramatic enough to portray the deeper meaning of the word. It would be more akin to shaking a snow globe and looking at it from every angle. The more significant point here is that one must actively engage, fearlessly entering the text without considering it too delicate or fragile.

In fact, the Torah teaches us this very thing in Deuteronomy 30: Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

There is no such thing as a stupid Torah question. There is no censorship, no holding back. Anything goes in Torah study. Go for it, Ben Bag Bag says. It’s your Torah.

Ben Bag Bag teaches us that the Torah study imperative is not transitory. It is a life long relationship. Stick with it!, urges Ben Bag Bag; “Become old and grey inside of it.” The thirst for Jewish knowledge is never quenched. It is an ever-present phenomenon. There is no age limit.

Sometimes people suggest that coming to Torah study on a Sunday morning sounds interesting, but… “I don’t know enough,” or, “I don’t know any Hebrew,” or “I’ve never done anything like it.” Ben Bag Bag would say, “Don’t back away,” that is, don’t worry about what you know or don’t know! Just come in! It just feels good; it feels right.

One could extrapolate from this famous maxim in Pirkei Avot to simply say that learning for learning’s sake is so good for you. It’s the continual exploration of the Universe in which we live. It’s recognizing the infinite possibilities of human knowledge and the reach for more. It’s the way we express our human curiosity, to boldly go where we haven’t been before.

The most profound truth of the Torah is its open invitation to hold it up to the light and deconstruct, then reconstruct it. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that goes together and then morphs into a new shape. So go learn: a Torah class, or an adult learning class or a Newton Community class or read a good book. Just keep turning it over and over. The palace of wisdom is an excellent place to become old and gray.