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High Holiday Kol Nidre D'var 5778/2017

11/15/2017 11:08:54 AM


By Rabbi Joshua Lesser

If a year can be reduced to a single question (no, not “WTF?”), last year, 5777, would be the year of “What can I do?” Throughout the year, it echoed like a liturgical refrain. After each threat or successful action by this administration to undo some protection: What can I do? After each natural disaster: What can I do? With the growing global refugee crisis: What can I do? In the midst of a devastating loss, personal or political: What can I do?

“What can I do?” is a simple question but one with many meanings.

Some asked with a sense of their own power, a feeling of urgency and a desire for solutions: “What can I do?” Some asked with confusion about how their particular gifts and circumstances matched the need of the moment, and so it was a very personal “I” asking “What can I do?” And most frequently, it was a rhetorical ribbon tying up the collective feeling of powerlessness: “What can I do?”

At times “What can I do?” is how we wake up to the reality that we have both a responsibility and something to offer. Sometimes “What can I do?” is a Band-Aid or a reflex. And other times “What can I do?” is the heavy shroud of hopelessness. This past year many of us vacillated between powerless resignation and overpowering moral outrage, with empowered resistance in the middle--sometimes all in the short span of a CNN Breaking News segment.

Asking “What can I do?” is like shining the Bat-Signal and hoping that our inner hero will know how to respond, or that someone else will come and tell us how to fix the problem. If only it were that easy. As we have seen, not every problem is solvable, measurable or linear. At best, answering “What can I do?” yields a compassionate and helpful response, but too often it causes reckless, unintended secondary consequences that worsen the situation. We recently saw in Houston that volunteers responding after the hurricane swiftly drained precious resources and created transportation problems.

Even when “What can I do?” is practical to ask, it is the type of question that comes from the germination of a seed, not from the nature of the seed itself. In other words, “What can I do?” may not be the right place to start. “How can I be?” is closer. How can I be with the state of the world? How can I be in relationship to my responsibility and my own limits? These are the spiritual adulting questions that deepen our awareness of ourselves in relationship to the world. Ultimately, they will root us and support our ability to answer “What can I do?” more effectively.

Contemplative teacher Richard Rohr explains it is an ongoing search for understanding that creates compassionate and wise people. “What can I do?” seeks certainty; “How can I be?” offers “an entirely different way of knowing . . . a dark journey, a path where we must discover for ourselves that grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness are necessary for survival in an uncertain world. People who live in this way never stop growing, are not easily defeated, and frankly, are fun to live with. You can tell mature and authentic faith by people’s ability to deal with darkness, failure, and non-validation of the ego—and by their quiet but confident joy! . . . The only people who grow in truth are those who are humble and honest.”

Many of us approach Yom Kippur asking “What can I do?” as if it is a formula for a responsible response. In addition to measuring our strengths and failings, Yom Kippur is an invitation to grow in truth. It is why I return to Micah’s words in chapter 6, verse 8; they can serve as a compass in the coming year: “God has told you, Humanity, what is good and what Adonai seeks from you: Simply do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”

Remember, Micah was a prophet, a justice advocate who lived in difficult times under a corrupt and oppressive regime. Micah protests on behalf of the impoverished and the vulnerable. Many of the people have been led astray, but in hearing the warnings of Micah and his fellow prophet Isaiah, the people decide to address their culpability and responsibility.

They approach Micah and ask “What can I do?” Like many of us, they start by looking for a quick fix. Will burnt offerings do the trick? In today’s context think: Can I make a donation? Show up at a protest? Will a precious calf suffice? Think: How about a really generous donation? And either in urgency or in cynicism (it’s hard to tell from the text, and so, too, it is with us) they make grand gestures. What if I offer a thousand rams with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Think: Things are terrible. What if I gave up everything? It still would not be enough. And then, in the most dramatic desperation or moral outrage (it’s hard to tell from the text, and so, too, it is with us), they ask: Can we fix things by offering up our first child, for the mistakes of our soul? Think: The world is so broken; things are so corrupt and beyond our control. What is the point when nothing I can do will make a difference? Will there even be a world left for the next generation?

I believe Micah hears their powerlessness, their attachment to easy solutions and the crushing upset of a world so corrupt it feels beyond repair. Rather than solely advocate for them to change, he offers words that require them to reflect--to encourage them to just be. He sees the predicament as not only a failure of justice (of doing), but an existential crisis (of being). He still urges them to act within their power to make things right, but he also acknowledges their profound recognition of a world and a regime beyond their control. Doesn’t this speak to us on this day in this moment?

His words are both a call to action and an embrace. I reimagine his words for us: “Friends, let me remind you of the goodness in our reach. God has instructed us clearly: Simply do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the Source who created you.” Micah responds to people’s need for doing and their sense of being with the simple answer “Do justice” and the complex answer “Walk humbly.”

We must live his words backwards, start by walking humbly, so we can know ourselves and our capacity to embrace our powerlessness before we understand why we must love mercy and how we can most effectively do justice. The end of his teaching is actually where we must begin.

Doing teshuva can be an essential part of walking humbly. According to my mussar teacher, Rabbi David Jaffe, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav says we begin by examining reality, opening ourselves to the truth, even when it feels uncomfortable or embarrassing. We have to compare what we have done with how we want to be. This can be painful, forcing us to confront our grief and other challenging emotions. Rabbi Israel Salanter builds upon this, explaining that we must refrain from doing the behaviors that are out of alignment. This is followed by tikkun, repair, which elicits joy and love in the face of transforming what was once painful and hidden into an emerging integrity. Then we are ready to do justice thoughtfully.

Walking humbly is not a single action but a process of understanding who we are in relationship to the world. When we focus only on “What can we do?” we get in trouble. We judge ourselves against the actions of others, or we insist our way of responding is the way. Our certitude can lead to fundamentalism and a shame-based way of assessing ourselves or others. Walking humbly demands we stop numbing ourselves and heighten our senses to create the container of our joy, sorrow and empathy. Walking humbly opens hopeful possibility.

We are neither all-powerful nor totally powerless. With all that we hope to achieve, we must engage the questions and confront the feelings that will give rise to our potential and enable us to accept our limits. Walking humbly is seeking the middle ground between assuredness and despair, between relying on our own agency and succumbing to overwhelming paralysis. In the words of physicist Niels Bohr, “How wonderful that we’ve met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.”

There’s nothing like accompanying a loved one while they are dying to get a formal introduction to this paradox of living with our power and our powerlessness. The country’s political landscape was the backdrop of losing my father to cancer. My father watched CNN relentlessly. Even if we moved to another room, we could hear Wolf, Alisyn, Van or Fareed in the background. Most visits, we would circle the drain about how our country was falling apart. Our personal lives and this political reality are intimately related.

One day, we sat together and he looked at me with resignation. “Josh, don’t feel like you have to visit anymore. What use am I, to you, to those I love? How is my presence a benefit to anyone? What can I do?” Like many of us my father lived for doing, and in its ceasing he rejected his being. A caution for all of us.

“Dad, this is not the time for a cost-benefit analysis. It is not about what benefit you bring or what you can do. When a baby is born, to be honest it creates a great deal of disruption, lost sleep and discomfort--but no one ethical questions its worth or what it can do. It is loved. It just is. And so it is when we are dying. As long as you’re here, I am here. It’s not so much about doing. It’s about being together.” In moments like this, it is clear who we are and are becoming is more precious than what we do.

If we are not dying, it is harder to reckon with our sense of powerlessness. Our ego tends to avoid the notion that we might not have power, so we either indulge our savior complex or we become resigned, with a diminished sense of self, and profess our overwhelm and question our worth.

Gandhi offers a reality-check for our ego by saying, “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

Balancing our agency and our powerlessness is what I believe it means to walk humbly. I was much better at addressing my father’s powerlessness than my own. After the diagnosis, I would cook his favorite foods. He relished the food. No matter how small his portions became, it made me feel good. Discovering that he ate more when I cooked than at other meals made me feel like I was doing something important. When my father asked me not to bring any more food, I was crestfallen, not just because of what the request implied about his health but because it limited what I could do. It was a blow to my ego and sense of value. Slowly over time there was less and less I could do. And even the things I thought I could do, like ensure his access to more and better care, were thwarted. His last two weeks, almost everything I tried to do was met with complications. I began to accept this was my powerlessness boot camp.

In his final days, I stayed by his bed and sang to him--nothing I had ever done before. He would ask for me to pray--nothing he had ever asked before. On Tisha B’Av, I chanted Lamentations, for the destruction of the Temples, the sanctuary of our contemporary world and the chamber of his body. On most days I was accompanied there by my sister, but this time I was alone, sitting literally and figuratively in the dark, chanting the sweet and somber trope. When I arrived at the penultimate line, the Hashivenu, about returning humbly to God, powerless, I prayed with all my power. Less than 24 hours later, my father’s soul released from his prison. Somehow it is easier for me to show up at a protest than to pray intimately in the vulnerability of my own sense of powerlessness. It was so hard to accept that there was nothing to do, yet it took all my being.

Though it was the day after my father’s memorial service, or maybe because of that, I was drawn to join the Thousand Minister March in D.C., a clergy protest for racial justice on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech. During the march, a reporter stopped and asked what I hoped to achieve by marching. I answered that I was there to advocate for voting rights, access to health care, economic justice and criminal justice reform.

As I continued marching, I mulled the question in my head. What was the point of being there? Would it achieve anything immediately? Not likely. Was it to feed my ego? No, I was neither a speaker nor a VIP. Rather, the purpose of being there was not, in essence, about doing anything in particular. I started to worry. Was this a poor use of my day off and an unwise investment of limited resources?

I realized that with my “Black Lives Matter to This Rabbi” sign in hand, I had no agenda except to be present--which was just fine. This was about walking humbly with God, unpredictable, but, when done well, grounded in connection, to God, self and others.

No wonder I was feeling joy. I thought of that morning and the dozens of rabbis who had hugged me, enfolded me in their arms and offered words of comfort. I received their generous grace. The strangers I met all day had blessed me, embraced me, cried with me and fist-bumped me simply because I held a sign that said their lives matter to me. I was there honoring my father not through our habit of doing but through the simplicity and fullness of being and walking humbly with my feet.

Here at CBH, I want us to answer the urgent question of “What can I do?” with just and thoughtful approaches, but even more profoundly, I want Bet Haverim to be the place where we can feel connected, challenged and safe as we joyously walk humbly toward the question of “How do I want to be?”

Sun, November 18 2018 10 Kislev 5779