Sunday, August 11, 2013

Soul-Seeing in Elul

(This sermon was delivered on Friday, August 9th, 2013 - Shabbat Shoftim)

Late one night in the city of Chelm, known to be populated by fools, Shmuel happened upon his friend Avrum.  Avrum was down on his hands and knees, underneath a streetlight, searching for something.  Shmuel inquired as to what Avrum was doing. “I’ve lost my keys,” he replied.  “Perhaps you’ll help me search.” Shmuel joined him.  After half an hour, they still had no success.  “Avrum, where exactly did you lose those keys?” Maybe we can concentrate our efforts.”  Avrum replied, “I lost them in that alley over there.”  Shmuel was dumbfounded.  “So why are we looking here!?!?!?” Avrum looked over at his friend: “Why are we looking here?  Because the light is better here-  that’s why!”[1]

The story seems a little silly, yet we know it hits on a real truth – one that likely resonates deeply with many of us: that too often we choose to look where the light is best, where it is easiest to see, even if that which we are seeking is located someplace entirely different.  When navigating our own lives and making our own choices, we generally take familiar, well-lit paths - those routes we’ve traveled many times, ground we’ve traversed before.  It’s more predictable, more comfortable that way.  It’s also why we tend to fall into the same patterns of thinking and behavior over and over and over again, despite our “best attempts” at a different outcome.

That’s why the period of time in which we find ourselves calls to us to try something different.  This Shabbat marks the first Shabbat in the month of Elul, the 30 day period that serves both to close out the past year and to prime us for the year ahead.  Each day of Elul beckons us to step out of our comfort zones, to search our lives, our thoughts, and our actions in ways that aren’t always easy, to acknowledge both the enlightened parts of ourselves, but also to confront the darker parts of our souls, all with hope that such a search might positively impact our own process of teshuvah – that call for repentance and return that is the essential demand of the High Holy Days – now less than a month away.

There are, in fact, many long-standing traditions associated with the month of Elul to help this process along.

Traditionally, the shofar is blown every day during Elul (except Shabbat), sort of like a repentance alarm clock, to remind us of what is coming. And in case you don’t have a shofar, and want to get in on the daily shofar call, there’s an app for that!

Some recommend that in anticipation of the High Holy Days, the every person should focus on repentance, prayer, and tzedakah in advance for at least one hour every day.  An hour a day – not so bad.

Others advise compiling a cheshbon hanefesh – literally an inventory of the soul – in which one documents their successes and failures over the past year generally in light of their relationship with God, other people, and themselves, as sort of a preparatory document and teshuvah business plan as it were. 

But before any of these recommended steps can happen, I believe there is a critical pre-step which might be the most important thing any of us can do if we seek to engage in this challenging seasonal work of teshuvah.

Many of you have heard me sing the praises of Rabbi Alan Lew of Blessed Memory and his incredible master-work titled, “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared.”  It is, in my opinion, the best book out there about the High Holy Days and what they can mean.  If you are considering acquiring any book at all about the High Holy Days, this is the one you should have.  Much of this pre-step is inspired by his book as well as the following story that he shares in it:

While hiking on Martha’s Vineyard with his son, a storm came up and they had to take shelter in a little shack with a big picture window.  Rabbi Lew sat looking out the window in the rain at the birds and other nature, none of which he found very captivating after about 5 minutes.  His son, on the other hand, was having a much more interesting time.  He was not looking out through the window at what was outside, but rather at the window itself.  The window, he pointed out to his father, was a very active world in and of itself, a nature preserve for insect life.  It was clear that the window wasn’t just something through which to view the world; it was a world in and of itself, a place with a life of its own. 

The shifting of our gaze from the big broad world out there and how we engage in it, to the window through which we see the world – our own lens of experience and consciousness -  that is where the work of Elul and the High Holy Days begins.  Because that screen of our perspective mechanisms is, according to Rabbi Lew: “not just a blank transparent medium.  Rather, it is a world unto itself, a world teeming with life, and that life affects everything else we see.” [2]

If the main work of the teshuvah process in Elul is to travel back over the past year and essentially sight-see the course of our lives and relationships, determining high lights and low points along the way, then the pre-step to that process, this deeply inward focusing, might be understood as soul-seeing, where we move our search light away from the outside world and point it in a different direction, illuminating the activity taking place in the window through which we view that world.  The concept sounds complicated, but it’s really not.  Think about the expression of what it means to look at or see the world through rose colored glasses, and you’ll have a great example of what this means.

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, offers us deeper insight into the type of soul-seeing we need to do before embarking on the interactive work of teshuvah.  Usually interpreted as a portion focused on the establishment of an ancient judicial system, the Torah reads: “Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.”  What gates are we talking about? According to Hasidic tradition, those gates mentioned in the text are more than the big city gates.  As Rabbi Lew also points out: we learn that there are 7 gates - or better windows to the soul of every human being.  2 eyes, 2 nostrils, 2 ears, and the mouth.  Everything that passes into our consciousness must enter through one of these gates. And appointing judges for those gates comes to mean that we seek to acquire discernment over that which influences our consciousness, that which passes through our gates.  So, the passage from the portion really beckons us to look deeply into our own systems of discernment and opinion and even belief, to understand that all of it is a lens that colors our impression of the world and our relationships.  [2]

As many of you know, I spent the last 2 weeks of July in India as a part of American Jewish World Service’s 2013 Rabbinic Delegation. Inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice, American Jewish World Service works to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world.  One of the most difficult parts of the trip was coming to understand that how I see the world and the characterizations I understand as defining concepts like failure, success, liberation, and oppression are not universal, but are in fact specific to the western cultural lens to which I am conditioned.  At one point, the women in our rabbinic group had the opportunity to meet with the women of the rural village in which we were working.  We asked the village women to tell us about their system of marriage and family.  They shared that in India, marriage is not about individuals, but rather it is about families. When a couple is married, they do not live separately in their own house but rather move in to the groom’s parent’s house (in which sometimes grandparents still live), where they will continue to live.  Boy did we have a hard time with this, and our immediate evaluation of their system was really negative.  What a system of oppression – where were the rights of the individuals to choose whether or not to partner with another,  and where were the opportunities for them, if they even did choose each other, to start their own life together without the burden of their entire family, I wondered?  But then the village women asked us to tell them about our system of marriage and family life here in America.  And when we explained first that marriage in and of itself wasn’t mandatory, but for those who chose it, marriage was really about the individual choices of 2 people to share their lives – nothing more and nothing less, the village women stirred a bit.  “But where do you live?” they asked.  And when we said that often newlyweds share their own apartment or home together, without other members of the family living with them, they became even more uncomfortable.  “But how do you take care of your parents and grandparents when they get older and need you?”  And let me tell you – any negative judgment that I was feeling about their ways was shared equally in the negative judgments they were feeling about our ways.   And so, when the conversation moved to the topic of poverty eradication and human rights, we had to understand that the things we assumed were base-line, shared systems were actually completely different.  That’s not to say that the village women didn’t yearn for empowerment opportunities for themselves, nor did it mean that they didn’t want to improve the living conditions in their village no less their country – in turns out we shared the same values and desires, but the way they envisioned what that might look like proved entirely different than any Western ideal I know of.  It wasn’t until we were able to acknowledge our own lens of assumptions that we were able to find common ground.

The same is true for our own selves and souls.  Before we can do anything that begins to address the world outside of ourselves, we have to develop a keen awareness of the driving personal forces behind the thoughts we think, the choices we make, and the actions we take.  And there is no real way to account for, and certainly not to atone for our choices and actions, until we can be aware of that window in each of us, which refracts every one of our assumptions and thoughts, no less behaviors in the world.

Because we can’t begin to look outwards and assess our engagement with the rest of the world until we attempt to search out those places where the light doesn’t always shine so brightly.

So this start of Elul, take some time, maybe it’s a few minutes, maybe it’s an hour a day, and take a good look at your own window.  Spend some time there and study closely what you find.  You just may discover something that you didn’t even know you’d lost, but once found, will lead you on a path of return, assuring that your life and the lives your life touches will be all the better for it.

[1] Joel Ziff, Mirrors in Time, A PsychoSpiritual Journey through the Jewish Year
2 Lew, Rabbi Alan.  This is Read and You Are Completely Unprepared.