How Are You?
Rabbi Melanie Aron
Erev Yom Kippur 5764
Sunday, October 5, 2003
Earlier this year I went with a small delegation of Jewish community leaders to meet with the editors of the Mercury News. We wanted to speak with them about their coverage of the Middle East, particularly the headlines and photographs chosen for Israel related articles, and the way articles taken from other sources, like the New York Times, were edited. After we made our presentation, they said to us: We know you have concerns, but we also know that we are doing something right. Just last week we met with an Palestinian delegation and they were just as critical of our coverage as you are.
I will talk more about the Middle East tomorrow morning, right now I'd like to focus on the assumption that if you are getting criticized by both sides, you must be doing something right.
Let me give you a different example in a very different context.
When someone asks me: How are you? 99% of the time I will answer "fine". In Hebrew, you say, beseder, literally, in order, ok. It's, "thanks for asking but I don't need any special consideration right now, I'm ready to proceed".
For this simple answer FINE, I have been criticized from two directions.
On the one side is my friend, who if I answer fine, responds: Fine? Fine! Is that all? Just fine? Look at the beautiful world around you, think of the fantastic day ahead, just fine!
And you know my friend is right. Fine is not a good enough way to greet the day. I could be more appreciative, more in touch with the blessings of everyday life.
The world is a miraculously beneficent place with oxygen enough to breathe and temperatures within the range for human habitation. If I am at Temple, it means my dad isn't seriously ill in the hospital, my kids have made it to school, and there is no other crisis in the world around me that has disrupted everyday life.
I have a house to live in, food in the refrigerator, health insurance, and my husband has a job. And even if I lacked the refrigerator, the home, the job and the health insurance, I might still be one of the more fortunate individuals on this earth.
There are so many things that we take for granted in the United States that other people in the world long for. We have been spared, for the most part, the direct danger of battle, captivity, torture, or starvation, unlike 500 million people in the world.
We can attend our worship services without fear of harassment, arrest, or even death, unlike 3 billion of our fellow earthlings.
Just being able to read the prayer book, or any other written material, makes us more fortunate than over 2 billion adults in the world who cannot read at all
Even if you are not among the wealthier members of the congregation, even if you are among the least wealthy residents in Santa Clara County, you are still among the world's top 8% in terms of family income.
Of course remaining in touch with our good fortune, whatever it is, is difficult. Sometimes for a moment or two when the weather is perfect and our minds are relaxed, we appreciate the goodness of our lives. Sometimes for a day or a week or even a month, when these blessings are contrasted with some difficult time we've had, an illness or scare, a hospitalization, or some other crisis which puts the blessings of everyday life into better focus, we can, as Rabbi Milton Steinberg put it so beautifully, Embrace the World with Open Arms.
In Western tradition we tell someone to 'seize the day'. The rabbis have another way of getting across a similar message. They tell the story of a man traveling in an unfamiliar place. All of a sudden he is told: gather up what you can of the stones and pebbles around you and put them in your pocket. Without much enthusiasm, he gathers up a few rocks and then moves along. That night, when he is resting in an inn, he happens to take these rocks out of his pockets, and finds that they are really precious gems. He is filled with regret that he wasn't more industrious in trying to pick up more of these valuable items. The rabbis say that man is most of us. We pass through life paying little attention to what is offered to us. The education we receive, the time we have with our family and friends- for most of us it is only late in life that we realize what gems we had and how little we took advantage of our opportunities.
Our tradition, in telling us to recite 100 blessings every day, reminds us that in even the most normal, boring day there is a lot to be thankful for and that the blessings we take for granted may not be ours forever. Whatever else I may have to complain about, it doesn't hurt to spend a moment thinking about what is right in my life.
Let's return to my little conversation. Someone asks me how I am doing and I say: Fine.
I have another friend who criticizes "fine" from the other direction. Are you just saying that, she asks? Would you say that even if you weren't fine?
And she's right too. Sometimes we are what they call in Yiddish, shtarkers. We adopt a professional stance. If the football player can play with a broken ankle and the actor go on stage with 102 because the show must go on, then we should be able to say fine, even if it isn't completely true. And there is something positive about that.
First of all, most of the people who ask, are not really that interested.
Secondly, if we are in the middle of a crisis, or have recently experienced a loss, just being able to go about our everyday business can give us a good feeling, and we don't want to revisit our pain at every moment. Going through the rituals of everyday life, putting on our work persona, can make us feel better about ourselves, and give some structure to our day.
Thirdly, saying fine is also part of what we offer others. My kids' pediatrician may share some of her own life experiences when they become relevant, but in general we prefer that she be focused on our kids.
Think about how it is when that isn't the case. I still remember the anesthesiologist from my c-section when Aviva was born. He was delighted to have a rabbi to talk to. He had lots of questions about his girl friend, about to be fiance, and their upcoming wedding. Was that really the time to get a rabbinic consultation? Sometimes focusing on the other person's needs is the most appropriate response.
But there is another side to this. One Jewish advice columnist wrote recently: "In the Jewish community kvetching is ok, but anything beyond that we keep private."
I think of the number of phone calls I get that are in the category of kvetching, versus the times when people don't share with me the really serious, scary or painful things that they are going through. Often it is not just that they don't happen to share them with me, but that they feel that for the Temple community they must somehow present things as better than they really are. Perhaps we believe that we belong to Temple Lake Woebegon where: "All the men are strong, all the women are beautiful, and all the children are above average" ?
There was a time, within most of our memories, when the High Holidays was something of a fashion show, a time when everyone came to services all fatutsed in their best new clothes and fanciest new hat. And this display wasn't limited to our clothing, it extended to our entire life story.
I think of Philip Roth's descriptions of the Jews of Newark, sweating in their minks in a New Jersey Indian summer or of the scene in Barry Levinson's movie Liberty Heights, where the family is dressed up to make an appearance at High Holiday services as their father is taken off to jail.
We think we have come a long way from those portraits of Jewish life in the 50's and early 60's, "America's golden age of denial", but I wonder if we fully realize how much the effort to use the High Holidays to display how well things are going for us, stands in total contradiction to the meaning of the days of awe. It also prevents us from being a real community.
Eli Weisel tells the following version of an old Chassidic story.
Once the Gerer Rebbe decided to question one of his disciples: How is Moshe Yaakov doing? he asked.
The disciple didn't know: What, shouted the Rebbe, you pray under the same roof? You study the same book? You serve the same God- yet you dare to tell me that you don't know how Moshe Yaakov is, whether he needs help or advice or comforting? How can that be?
Years ago a rabbi at this congregation gave a sermon on the High Holidays about how tiring it was to keep up appearances and not to acknowledge pain and hurt where they really existed. I have been told about that sermon many times, and recognize that it came within a particular personal and communal context. But I reflect on that sermon periodically because I think that sermon had an important message for us all.
We are a congregation of well educated, intelligent and competent individuals, successful in our life endeavors, doers and shakers in our communities. But we are also a congregation of human beings, who hurt sometimes, who stumble and fall, who work on our character as well as our physique. In Jewish tradition admitting our imperfections doesn't demean us or make us less valuable. In Judaism that is our glory, to be beings who can be broken and hurt, who miss the mark sometimes and cause pain to themselves and others, yet who can reflect, self correct and strive to do better. Denying our failings and weaknesses, the tzuris that really exists in our lives and in our families, is avoiding the work of Yom Kippur, and it doesn't make us more appealing to others either.
Harold Kushner tells the following story of a king in the Middle Ages who was wooing a woman he wanted to become his queen. They sat together on the couch and he told her about himself. He said boastfully, "I reign over a country that is enormous. I am in charge of an army and navy that number tens of thousands." She listened and moved away from him on the couch. He went on, "I administer a bureaucracy that involves thousands of workers and I am consulted by kings from all over the world." She listened and moved a little bit further away from him on the couch. "I am the head of a vast judiciary and every day hundreds of complex cases are brought to me to resolve." She moved further still away from him. And then he said, "Sometimes I'm lonely. Sometimes I'm scared and I don't know whether I am doing right with my life," And when he said that, she moved closer to him and took his hand.
20 years ago when I first started going to rabbinic conferences, they were places where rabbis, all dressed up in good suits, boasted about how well things were going in their congregations and complained about the loneliness of the pulpit. Over the years, the dress at the conferences has gotten more casual, and the conversation less competitive. When we have a chance to share our successes and our worries, our hopes and our fears, the rabbinate becomes a less lonely place.
Sometimes we see God in the starry heavens above, sometimes we hear God in the call of conscience deep within, and sometimes we recognize God when we recognize others and are recognized in turn, as an individual, as a Thou, an ends and not a means, a soul and not a number. God is there when we are really there for each other, and when we trust another person enough to show the side of our life, that isn't ready to be on display.
Next time you are here at Temple, and I turn to you and ask, how are you, I hope you will feel that you have options besides, Fine, thanks. Perhaps you are bursting with excitement or anticipation, perhaps you are handling some hidden trouble that weighs on you at that very moment.
Next time you turn to the person sitting next to you at a committee meeting, or the members of your Havurah when you get together to make up the schedule, or the friends you usually sit with at services, and you ask them: how are you, I hope that they will feel that in our congregation, the question is not just a formality, but an opportunity for meeting, soul to soul.
On Rosh Hashanah eve, Linda Allen talked about how we hadn't chosen to call ourselves Temple Shir Hadash, or Beth Shir Hadash, house of Shir Hadash, but Congregation Shir Hadash. In Hebrew the word for congregation is kehillah kedoshah, a holy gathering, a holy community.
In Judaism holiness is not the same as perfection. The Israelites wandering in the desert are called holy, am kadosh, goy kadosh, not because of their actions, but because of their aspirations. Each of us is commanded to be holy, not because we can be perfect, but because we can perform holy acts and increase holiness in the world. On Yom Kippur there is no one so arrogant and stiff-necked as to say, I am perfect and have not sinned. And yet it is on Yom Kippur that we say before the Kol Nidre prayer, it is with awareness of our shortcomings that we gather and pray as a holy congregation.