Sunday, September 15, 2013

Yom Kippur 5774: Independence and Interdependence

I’d like to begin today with an exciting announcement. Mark your calendars right now because in just 2 1/2 months, Jews all over our country will, for the first time in their lives, celebrate :  Thanksgivukah  - the once every 18000 year confluence of Thanksgiving and the first day of Chanukah.  United as Americans and Jews for this once in an eon opportunity, we will of course dine on deep-fried turkey, but also latkes with cranberry sauce, and pumpkin sufganiot; our menorahs will instead be called menurkeys[i], with red, orange and yellow candles emerging from ceramic turkey-tail feather candle-holders – don’t believe me?  Check out Thanksgivukah’sFacebook page: as of yesterday, there were nearly 3000 likes and the number is growing.  There doesn’t seem to be a Jew (or a retailer) that isn’t excited about Chanukah’s early appearance this year.

So, why does Chanukah fall so early on the civil calendar this year?  Well, unlike the Gregorian calendar’s solar orientation, "the Jewish calendar is based on not 1, not 2, but 3 astronomical phenomena: the rotation of the Earth around its axis (a day); the revolution of the moon around the Earth (a month); and the revolution of the Earth around the sun (a year)." The Jewish calendar actually connects them all, creating a cycle that aligns and diverges, eventually realigning with the secular calendar.  But the really amazing thing about the Jewish calendar isn’t just the complicated algorithm that makes it work.  It’s that the calendar itself is actually a profound Jewish teaching: that nothing in the universe is isolated or independent. Rather, everything is inextricably woven together in the encircling spiral of existence.  

This interdependence stands in opposition to the forces controlling the orbit of secular society. Last May, New York Times culture commentator David Books wrote a really interesting article demonstrating just how much so.[ii] His piece described Google’s new database of 5.2 million books published between the years 1500 and 2008.  The database includes a search function enabling anyone to type in a word and find out how frequently or infrequently that word has been used throughout the ages. Brooks’ article revealed two notable cultural phenomena of the last 50 or so years. First: it showed an increase in modern society’s emphasis on the individual over community.  As it turns out, over the last half century, words and phrases like “self,” “unique,” and “I can do it myself” were used more frequently than relational words like “community,” “tribe,” and “common good.”[iii]  But along with an increase in individualization, came the second result: a decrease in the prioritizing of morality.  Terms like “virtue” “decency,” and “conscience” were used less frequently.  Gratitude words like “thankfulness,” humility words like “modesty” and compassion words like “kindness” decreased by nearly 50% while productivity words like “result” and “deadline” skyrocketed.[iv] We live in a culture intoxicated by the myth of radical individualism. 

In his flagship book “Bowling Alone[v],”  Robert Putnam offered expansive data confirming America’s changing behaviors: our disconnects from one another along with our disintegrating social structures – such as religious organizations, political parties, and even bowling leagues.  We are literally bowling alone.  But you don’t need to be a culture commentator or social scientist to notice this.  When it’s commonplace that family out-to-dinner nights entail parents and children sitting around a table together, but each staring at the screen of a personal device; or when the first, and sometimes only question we ask in response to a problem is “How does it impact me?” we know that somehow, knowingly or not, we’ve prioritized the Sovereign Self over the community. The first person singular “I” is the new world. After all, friends, there’s a reason Apple doesn’t call them we-pods, we-phones, and we-pads.

I’m not claiming any lack of culpability either.  And here’s the problem for all of us:  this notion that there is nothing more important than my independence and my “self” is perhaps the biggest, most dangerous lie.

The lie, however, is not a new one, and we’re not the first people to be drawn into its pull.  Let’s talk about Jonah - the last biblical story we read on Yom Kippur.  When the story opens, God tells Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh that if they don’t repent, God will destroy them.  Jonah, though, is not particularly interested in helping out Nineveh.  You see, Nineveh was an enemy of the Jewish people at the time – think Iran, North Korea, or perhaps even Syria for an appropriate contemporary equivalent.  “Why should I help them repent?  It would be better for me if God zaps them – destroys them all.  Why should I care what happens to them?”  Jonah thinks. So, he runs away.  He finds a boat, hops on.  You know this part.  Big storm.  While everyone else on the boat is terrified that the boat will split apart, Jonah sleeps soundly, oblivious to the world around him.  The crew members decide to toss Jonah overboard to appease God.  Something that proves quite a wakeup call, since Jonah almost immediately is swallowed by a giant fish.  For three days and three nights, Jonah languishes inside the fish's belly. It’s enough time for him to learn his lesson: Choose to shut your eyes, to believe that you are just one, isolated, independent person, choose to believe that you are NOT a part of something bigger, and that you don’t have to be accountable to the world, and here’s what you get:  Live alone.  In darkness.  (Where it doesn’t smell so great either.) Away from the world of which you claim you are not a part.  Jonah promises to change his behavior. The creature then spits Jonah out, and Jonah delivers God’s message to Nineveh. They repent, and God forgives them.  The story goes on, but you get the point. 

The very last Biblical message we get on Yom Kippur wakes us up to the fact that although everyone and everything may look like independent, disparate entities floating around the universe at random, the spirit knows, the soul knows, (and by the way so does science), that every last one of us is connected to everyone else.  We are just like giant redwood trees, each seemingly a powerful, independent miracle of nature, but dig a little deeper, and you will see that they all share the same root system, not only intertwining and using each other’s roots to create a wide base enabling them to grow to their abounding heights, but often in fact, fusing their roots together, so that they cannot survive without each other.  You will never see a towering red wood tree standing solitary in a field.  John Miur, the environmentalist for whom the famous and beautiful Miur woods was named, illuminated this deep Jewish truth when he famously said: “When you tug at a single thing in the universe, you find it is attached to everything else.”  

I was reminded of this lesson first hand this summer during my participation in a rabbinic delegation with the American Jewish World Service.  Inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice, AJWS works to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world.[vi]  This summer, AJWS flew me and 16 other rabbis from across the country and the denominational spectrum 7,643 miles around the planet to Lucknow, a city in North Eastern India and the small rural village of Bhakaripurwa. Each morning, our group would do construction work in the village to help improve its school, its students’ water access, as well as provide a sanitary food-preparation area.  Each afternoon, we met with AJWS grantees and social justice activists from across India, and each evening we would study the Jewish sources rooting our engagement. 

I had so many incredible experiences while in India, and I look forward to sharing more of the trip with you over the coming year.  But today, I want to share the story of just one person I met.  Her name was Renu.  For as long as she could remember, Renu was different from the rest of her siblings.  A daughter in a traditional family from the highest caste, her role as a female was clear and also notably limited.  Her mother died when she was a child, and her father died when she was only 19, and still unmarried.  Although women are not permitted to perform funeral rights, she insisted on carrying her father to his funeral pyre literally on her back, along with the other males in her family.  When her siblings tried to force her into an arranged marriage, Renu refused. They disowned her. Left with nothing, Renu swore to herself she would never marry or bring children into such a cruel and unfair world.  And then, somehow, despite the terribly complicated and corrupt system, Renu continued her education, eventually going to law school and becoming a lawyer.  And along the way, she met and fell in love with her now husband.  When they had children, Renu and her husband chose to make up an entirely new, non-caste-defining last name for their children, so they would never be subject to the narrowness and oppressive nature of the caste system. We would expect that the next part of her story would be that because of her experiences of rejection and oppression, Renu and her family then moved to London or to the US, where they now live a life of freedom, worlds away from the pain of their former community.  But instead, her story goes like this: because of her experiences of rejection and oppression, Renu, in that very same oppressive community, founded and dedicates her life and work to a legal advocacy group[vii] that addresses women’s issues from within a human rights mandate, with particular attention to violence against women and the right to choice in sexual relationships. Renu is a person who, by rights, would be completely justified in separating herself from her community and the system. But instead, she chooses to dedicate her life to that very system, to its improvement, for the betterment not just of women, but of everyone. And when people like you and me support AJWS, AJWS is able to help fund organizations like Renu’s throughout the global south, so they can change their communities from the ground up.  You and I, AJWS, Renu, and communities a world away, seemingly independent entities orbiting each in their own universe, and yet, Judaism comes to say that all of it, just like the sun, the moon, and the Earth, are in fact connected and interdependent. 

About my trip this summer, people often ask me, “Did you visit the Jewish community in India? Or Synagogues there?” and I say “No.” And then they say, “So, it was a service trip, but not a Jewish trip, right?” And I say, “No, it was a service trip, but it was also a totally Jewish trip.” And then I get this puzzled look. 

I think that we Jews, living in the 21st century, have become confused about what being Jewish and doing Jewish means in our world. Yes, being Jewish means having a special relationship with the Jewish people, both here, and everywhere else.  It means understanding that as Jews, we value each other, our communities and synagogues.  It means we are responsible to and for each other and our communal institutions.  No one else will do it for us.  And by the way, educating our children about their Jewish identity, nourishing our own spiritual selves alongside others in community, supporting our synagogue and this community that we call our spiritual home, these are not burdens; they are privileges.  Being Jewish also means that we, as Jews, will always have a deep relationship with Israel.  Whatever your opinion about land and peace and religious practice, we, the Jewish people, don’t have the right to dust away Israel from our hands.  To deny any of this is to deny a unique gift that is particular to the heart of what it means to be Jewish. But being Jewish also comes with a unique demand to see beyond our own sovereign selves and our own sovereign communities.   

On December 7, 1972, Apollo 17 captured a photograph of Earth as it traveled toward the moon.  It showed for the first time a color view of the entire planet, with its swirling brown and green land and cobalt seas and white clouds.   The magnificent blue marble whose circumference spans 24,901 miles filled the entire frame, and in that one image, it expanded for all humanity our understanding of the larger planet of which we are all a part. 

Long before that photograph, our tradition taught us that our Jewish obligation extends as wide as our world.   It is our particular identity as Jews that calls us to a responsibility to the other in the circles extending out from our center. To all of them. We can’t say it applies to one and not the other.
We’ve heard a lot about this these High Holy Days. Rabbi Greene reminded us of our connection to the fate of Judaism in the State of Israel. Rabbi Mason charged us to consider gun violence and immigration issues.  And he reminded us that even if we have no perceived invested interest in Syria, we still aren’t permitted to look the other way.  

There is an interesting teaching in the Talmud[viii], where someone asks what the best way for a person to cultivate holiness is.   One rabbi says to study Torah.  Another says to make sure to say blessings whenever you have a chance.  The third, and the winner, offers an odd response.  He says that to be holy, we must practice and uphold laws of civil torts – the laws of damages.  Why?  Because guess what is at the heart of civil litigation?  One person in relation to another.  When you don’t uphold the laws of damages, you negate the critical notion that each person is responsible for and accountable to the other.  The great 19th century rabbi, Israel Salantar taught that we should see our responsibilities in the world as follows:  first a person should put his house together, then his town, then the world – in expanding circles of obligation that may begin at the center, the perceived point closest to us, but those responsibilities do not end until the wide expanse of the world is encircled in our embrace.

Jewish tradition is clear that we are accountable to and responsible for the communities from which we consume because we are, whether we recognize it or not, in relationship with each other.  We live in a world about which we know more than we ever have before.  Our market place is no longer the corner shop.  It is the globe.  Don’t believe me? When you get home today, take a look at the tags on the clothes in your closet.  Some will say made in America. Some may even say made in Israel.  But still others will say India, and Bangladesh, and China, and, so on. 

This tallis I’m wearing today serves as a powerful reminder for me.  I bought this fabric in India – fabric traditionally hand woven and painted by women in a rural village in Bengal, and sold to me through an organization that provides those women in that village education opportunities, job training, legal advocacy, and fair commission so that they can empower themselves and improve their own lives.  I knew when I saw it that I would turn it into a tallis, so it could serve as a physical reminder to me, and perhaps now to you, of our unique obligation as Jews in bringing people from the outside in.[ix]  Of knowing the heart of those we would call the stranger.  Of our accountability to the world around us, in everything we do.  Because our own sovereign self, and our own sovereign community, and our own sovereign world are all connected by the very same roots.   “When you tug at a single thing in the universe, you find it is attached to everything else.”   

Two days before I left for India, NASA’s robotic probe, the Cassini Orbiter, while travelling on the far side of Saturn, captured an incredible image of that planet’s majestic rings along with a tiny pale blue dot  - a planet called Earth nearly 900 million miles away.[x]  No surface features are visible since Earth takes up only a scant few pixels – however its unique blueness, caused by sunlight reflecting off our planet’s oceans, clearly shines through.

One of the early Jewish mystics, Moses Cordovero, wrote of the theological impact that this picture leaves, 500 years before it was taken.  He said: “…If you are enlightened, you know God’s Oneness; Then you wonder, astonished: “Who am I?  I am a but a tiny speck* in the middle of the sphere of the moon, which itself is a speck within the next sphere.  So it is with that sphere and all it contains in relation to the next sphere.  So it is with all spheres – one inside the other – and all of them are a speck within the further expanses.”[xi]  From which we might expect Cordovero to conclude that we are therefore nothing, that our lives are small and insignificant and meaningless in the grandeur of the cosmos.  But instead, he says this.  “Your Awe is invigorated, the love in your soul expands.”

The sun, and the moon, and the Earth, and you and I, and so much more, are all part of one infinite, eternally unfolding and interdependent cosmos, of which we are nothing more than the tiniest speck of dust, but nothing less than the guarantors of its harmonious grandeur.  “When you tug at a single thing in the universe, you find it is attached to everything else.”   

[ii] Brooks, David. “What Our Words Tell Us.”  New York Times.  May 20, 2013
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Putnam, Robert.  Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster. 2000.
[vii] AALI – The Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives.
[viii] Bava Kama 30a
[ix] As informed by Exodus 23:9 in particular. See too Levinas’ teaching “The trauma I experienced as a slave in the land of Egypt constitutes my humanity itself. This immediately brings me closer to all the problems of the damned on the Earth, of all those who are persecuted” in Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures p. 142. 
As well, BT Gitin 61a, Dt 21:1-9 and Mishnah Sotah 9:6. Dt 22:8, as well as recent halachic responsa around Pikuach Nefesh that expand the limits of “lifanecha” in “choleh lifanecha.”
[xi] As translated by Danny Matt – note my choice to change Matt’s translation “mustard seed” to “tiny speck” given the readers’ lack of awareness of the context/connotative value of “mustard seed” in biblical/theological hermeneutics.