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Seidel Drash KN5763

Rabbi Seidel Drash - Kol Nidre - 5763 (2002)

God, what a hard year. And I don't mean just for our country. For me, personally, this was a tough year. I wasn't directly affected all that much by the events of September 11th, 2001. I did a memorial service at TI for one of those killed in the Pentagon, someone who happened to be a coworker of one of our congregants, a Jew who was not a member of any shul. It was standing room only, including the balcony. There were TV lights blaring - the whole thing was surreal. Like 9/11 in general - unbelievable, like a bad dream.

But reality has a way of sinking in. At first it was all the warnings: "Around the end of December, expect a new attack!" I began wondering if living in Washington, DC was a stupid decision, like building a house in a flood plain. Eventually, though, by mid-Spring, an imminent new attack started to seem less likely. A little part of me was still waiting for the other shoe to drop, but another, bigger part of me felt able to live life normally again, come what may.

Maybe I could have returned to complacency altogether, if I hadn't traveled to Israel at the end of April. There, the war against terrorism has been going on for quite some time, and there is no-one who has not been directly affected. From the moment we got off the plane and entered customs, and we realized that we were the only plane landing, that the huge customs room that is normally such a balagan was completely empty except for our plane - from that moment and throughout the entire trip, my urge towards complacency was challenged.

Not that I knew what the next step in the war against terror should be, or that I had the solution for Israel's problems, or that I even knew what I as an average citizen should be doing. In fact, it was just the opposite. I had the overwhelming sense that nothing could be done, that life was just completely chaotic, that Israel was just an exaggerated model for life in general - one minute you're here, and the next, you're history. Not only do you have no control over your fate, the one who does have control is not God, but a terrorist.

Add to all this, the death of my friend, Jeremy Goldberg, in early July. I knew that I was by no means the only person in the congregation who was affected, but it hit me hard. Maybe it was the matter-of-fact way he accepted his own death, or the way he was working for the shul up to the night before he died... It all sure didn't seem matter-of-fact to me. It seemed like an outrage, like the last straw, the final proof that the world had run completely off its tracks. What chance did I have to make a difference in a world so capricious as this? And if my own contribution was so insignificant, if I could be erased at any moment, what was the point of life?

And then I would feel stupidly self-centered, amidst all my outrage. What on Earth was I complaining about?? I wasn't among those who were really suffering. None of my friends or family had been hurt in the terrorist attacks, either here, or in Israel. Yes, I lost a good friend this year, but that's not the same as losing someone, God forbid, from my immediate family. What right had I to be so deeply affected?

It wasn't long after Jeremy's death that I realized I was in the midst of a full-blown theological depression. I don't mean to make light of clinical depression - that's serious business, and my condition was just not that serious. But for a Rabbi, at least, a theological depression is a problem. I'm paid to believe in God. If I'm suddenly convinced that all is chaos, how is that helpful to my congregation?

Actually, maybe I could get away without believing in God. In Rabbi Abramowitz's day, the Rabbinical School student body was divided between Kaplanians and Heschalians. The Heschalians, among whom Rabbi Abramowitz counted himself, were followers of Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose approach to God was traditional and exuberant. The Kaplanians, on the other hand, were followers of Mordechai Kaplan, another of the professors at the Seminary, and the father of the Reconstructionist movement. The Kaplanians were far more numerous, and their belief in God was, at least by traditional standards, quite minimal. As a result, many of the Rabbis who graduated from the Seminary for several decades were not really believers. Nevertheless, the Conservative Movement survived, even without God.

But my doubts were even deeper. Because deeper than a Jew's belief in God is our conviction that we have a purpose, both collectively, as the Jewish people, and individually. We may differ about what exactly that purpose is, we may differ on how we should be repairing the world, but without that sense of purpose, how can we call ourselves Jews? A Jew without God, that's nothing new, but a Jew without a sense of historical mission: that's a real problem. Especially if that Jew is a Rabbi. The passage from Psalm 30 (verses 7 and 8) in our daily prayers, jarred me each morning:

"I said in my contentment - I will never be moved ... But when You hid Your face, I was terrified."

During my period of distress, you may be surprised to learn that my level of ritual observance was pretty much unchanged. I got up each morning and laid tefillin and davenned, even though I was so angry with God I couldn't speak to Him. I kept Shabbat as usual. And as far as food was concerned, it didn't even occur to me to enjoy a little traif. My problem wasn't with ritual. I need ritual whether or not I believe in God. My life is organized around traditional practices, disciplines that have served me well, disciplines that have helped to order my life. I may have been angry with God, even disbelieving in God, but I wasn't crazy, and the rituals I needed for my own sanity. I kept going, partly with the help of the good habits my tradition had handed down to me. But I wasn't enjoying life, or even feeling much of a purpose in it.

Now, I tell you all this not only because I 'm an exhibitionist, to the point of presenting you with the sermonic equivalent of a web-cam netcast. I have a few other good reasons.

Here's one reason, maybe my most important reason for self-disclosure. I wonder if you all realize how common such a theological crisis is, even among us Rabbis? Maybe you think that there are some people who have perfect faith, and that you with your imperfect faith are somehow a defective Jew. I'm here to tell you not to think that.

I had a good conversation with a friend in the congregation recently, in which he admitted to me that he himself had thought, many years ago, of becoming a Rabbi. But he decided against it, for reasons that he now realizes, may not have been the best. He wasn't sure if he was enough of a believer. Knowing this person as I do now, I have no doubt he would have made a great Rabbi. He's certainly a good Jew, at any rate. And so are those of you who are struggling with finding faith and meaning, especially in times of difficulty like these times.

In fact, I will go a step further, and claim that it is precisely those who struggle with their beliefs about the world, who are the most sane. Those who are theologically manic-depressive are the ones who are living in the real world. Here's a quote from Cynthia Ozick's bizarre story, The Pagan Rabbi (Knopf, 1983, p. 25). I included this quote in my High Holiday packet 6 years ago, and it has taken on renewed meaning for me this year.

"Sheindel, for a woman so pious you're a great skeptic." ...

"An atheist's statement," she rejoined. "The more piety, the more skepticism. A religious man comprehends this. Superfluity, excess of custom, and superstition would climb like a choking vine on the Fence of the Law if skepticism did not continually hack them away to make freedom for purity."

Ok, Ozick calls it "skepticism", while I am describing my doubts in more psychological terms. Either way, it seems to me, to be true to both God and man, one must be religiously bi-polar. And I believe that there are pieces of our tradition that support my contention.

These last few weeks, I've been studying a series of stories from the Talmud, in the third chapter of Tractate Ta'anit. Ta'anit means "fast day". In the old days, people fasted more often than today: they fasted not just when a fast day showed up on the calendar, but they also fasted when they were confronted with national tragedy. The assumption was that if bad things were happening to them, God must be angry, and if they repented amidst fasting, God would take their repentance seriously. Fasts were called in particular in response to a drought. Rabbis would declare a fast day, and people would pray for rain.

But what happens when you are a big-shot Rabbi, a nationally venerated pious man, and you declare a fast day, and you pour out your heart to God in prayer, and ... rain still doesn't come? What happens when the rainmaker fails? It turns out that there is a whole series of clever stories about Rabbis who couldn't make rain, stories that I will present in detail in the next few weeks, during Sukkot, just before we will start to pray for rain. Tonight I just want to note how several of these stories [Ta'anit 24a-b] share the same punch line: /tryhn t,tu 'vh,gs akj, The Rabbi sees that he has failed, he grows dejected, and then the rain comes.

What's that about? Why should dejection bring rain? As I see it, the point is that if you are confident about your closeness to God - that very confidence can get in the way of a relationship with God. Only piety leavened with a bit of dejection and self-abnegation can bring miracles. In one of these stories, for example, Rav Nachman says of himself, after failing to bring down rain: "Push Nahman down from the wall onto the ground." At which point he becomes dejected, and the rains come. First, you must lose hope. Only then do you have a shot at catching God's ear.

So what about those who are theologically confident? What about those who are sure of God, or are sure that there is no God? I think that there is something pareve, even unhealthy about both the atheist and the fundamentalist. How can they be so sure of themselves? They live in a world where everything is known. But is that 2-dimensional world reality? I ask the atheist: is goodness really just a human invention, just a matter of opinion? And how can the fundamentalist ignore the chaos that seems to permeate the world? Reality is incomprehensible. And I mistrust - as Ali Salem puts it so nicely in one of the selections in my packet - I mistrust those who claim to understand life.

Fundamentalists are threatened by such blasphemy. Fundamentalists need an answer for everything. Now having all the answers may save you from theological depression, but it has enormous drawbacks. Some of those were spelled out nicely in Rabbi Boteach's piece that I included in your packet. To claim confidently that you know why God permitted these attacks to take place!? The arrogance of one who claims to know the mind of God cannot be overstated. May God spare us from the pious certainties of the fanatic. This past year, we were not spared.

The fanatic is most comfortable persecuting other people, as he plays out his anger at the world. But how does the Jew, who is angry with the world, play out his anger? We tend to play out our anger at God. As Rabbi Boteach puts it, anyone who feels comfortable with the way God created the world, anyone who has no argument with what God has allowed to happen - such a person is dangerously wrongheaded. Our tradition demands that the righteous take issue with God. God doesn't want us to be complacent about the world as it is. He expects us to take issue with Him; God is disappointed when we back off from challenging Him. In Rabbi Boteach's words:

...Man's mission was never to make peace with suffering and death... As long as we can explain how people can be gassed, or people die of incurable illness, the pain associated with these losses will be mitigated. And that is not meant to happen... When G-d came to Abraham and informed him that he was about to crush Sodom and Gomorrah, cities which Abraham himself knew were deserving of punishment, did Abraham bow his head and accept divine Judgment? No! He pounded with his fist and demanded, 'You are the Judge of the whole earth. Shall You not practice justice?' (Genesis 18:25).

In other words, we Jews are expected to ride the roller-coaster of theological manic depression.

Isn't this true in so much of life? Take thankfulness, for instance. One simply can't exist all the time in a state of thankfulness. There are going to be peaks and valleys, as with every human sensation. There will be times when God's beneficence seems overwhelming, and times when, for whatever reason, nothing seems to matter much. Or take the feeling of wonder, one of the prerequisites, according to Heschel, of belief in God. Sometimes, especially out in the natural world, you feel wonder at God's creation; other times, in the midst of a traffic jam that has made you late for work, your wonder is not so holy.

And what control do we have over our feelings? Our actions, that we have a little control over, but our feelings? Our feelings and our thoughts often come unbidden, and they are often strange, and even inappropriate. Sometimes, we find ourselves in a situation in which we know we should be feeling thankful, but instead we feel nothing, only emptiness. There's no sense in pretending we don't have uncomfortable feelings, no sense in pretending that we're not sometimes riding a roller coaster and feeling a little out of control. It's the way God has created us.

Our feelings are intimately tied to our beliefs. So it shouldn't surprise us that our beliefs are also somewhat unpredictable, sometimes inappropriate, sometimes out of our control. It does seem odd that God has created us in such a way that our belief in God is so unpredictable. But that's the way it is. We can't force faith. We can pretend, as I think many do, to have an unshakable faith, but what's the point of that? And what's the danger of that? How many innocents have suffered this year, victims of those with unshakable faith?

Along these lines, I've been thinking recently about tefillin. As I put tefillin on each morning this summer, symbolically binding myself to a God whom I had little use for, the symbolism of the head tefillin struck me. As most of you know, there are two parts to tefillin: one part that goes on your arm, and one part on your head. Now the former is tightly wound around the arm: several windings around the upper arm, then seven windings between the elbow and the wrist, and finally windings around a finger and then the palm. You literally bind God's words to your arm and hand, just as it says in the first paragraph of the sh'ma.

But the head Tefillin isn't bound to the body at all. The head tefillin is simply placed on the forehead, and the straps hang loose from the back of your head down on either side of your neck. It's always a little shock for someone learning how to put the head tefillin on, after they've struggled with all the windings of the hand tefillin. "That's all?", they usually say, "You just put it on your head and let the straps just dangle?"

This summer the symbolic meaning of this struck me. We can't bind our minds. God can't even bind our minds. We can and should place God's words between our eyes, but we can't force ourselves to believe those words. So it makes good sense that the head tefillin is not bound. The hand tefillin, that we do bind, because it's our actions, our hands that we can control. Through our actions we can bind ourselves to God's will.

I wish I could give you a simple ending to my story. The ending is at least happy - I did eventually feel thankful again; I did begin again to feel God's love. But I'm not sure how it happened. For that matter, I'm not sure why I felt such a distance in the first place. It may have been a reaction to 9/11, and Israel, and the death of a close friend. But I'm only guessing. I understand that clinical depression is similar in this regard - it's not always clear what starts people on a downward spiral, or exactly what enables them to recover.

I can tell you what helped me along the way. You did. You helped me. We helped each other, I suppose. After Jeremy's funeral service, as I was standing outside the shul waiting to drive to the cemetery, several of you approached me. It can't have been easy for you; I'm sure I didn't look like I wanted to talk. Nevertheless, several of you approached me anyway, and said things like: "Ethan, I know this was especially hard for you, because you lost a good friend."

I can't tell you how comforting those words were at that moment. In fact, I was surprised at just how comforting they were for me. It was just a simple statement of fact. "Ethan, I know this was especially hard for you, because you lost a good friend." I had just said as much in my eulogy. But to hear someone else say it... It made me no less sad, but it grounded my sadness in a caring community. It gave me my bearings: yes, the world seemed unbearably sad at that moment; I had lost a good and kind friend, forever. Your validation of that fact reminded me that grief was ok, that I needn't be afraid of such a terrifying world. Others have suffered as much, others have suffered much more. Utter dejection is part of life; you can get through it, with the help of a community.

Time has also helped. I tend to react slowly to both good and bad things. Again, I don't think I'm alone in my slow reactions. When I saw the first tower start to crumble on 9/11, the full horror didn't even begin to sink in. Though there may well have been a bit too much hype about 9/11 this past week, I for one needed at least some of it. I had some tears still waiting to be shed, and I needed some stirring words and music to elicit those tears.

Some of those tears appeared on a little trip to Boston our family took this summer. One of my wife's sisters lives not far from Concord, and we took a little canoe trip under a number of rustic bridges up to the place that figured so prominently in that first Revolutionary War battle. There's a rough wooden bridge there still, and there's also a simple monument engraved with Emerson's words:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

In the April breeze their flag unfurled,

There the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard 'round the world.

I think it was in reading those words, that my whole year began to come into better focus. That last line, about the shot heard 'round the world, had, in my youth, always seemed to me just a tad self-indulgent. How important to the world was our revolution, really? How foresighted were our founding fathers, really? How revolutionary were their ideas, after all? The terrorism of this year has reminded me of the importance of our American revolution, of the shots that will still need to be fired, of the shots not yet heard 'round the world. Richard Brookhiser puts it well in his recent book, Rediscovering George Washington (Free Press, 1996, pp. 9-10)

It is as if we thought that founding a nation was a routine task, an easy call. "Washington didn't do something big, it's just he was first," said a ninth-grader on Long Island, interviewed after Richard Nixon's funeral. It is hard to imagine now even a ninth-grader could believe such a thing these days. In the 200 years since the American Revolution, many countries have transformed themselves, many more have been founded, and most of these efforts - from the French Revolution to the last offensive in Bosnia - have been disappointing, when they have not been disastrous... the record of so many dashed hopes should give us pause.

Reading Emerson's poem helped renew my sense of purpose. I was reminded of who I was, and what I stood for. And most importantly, I was reminded of those who risked their lives to create a society that I take for granted. It isn't just our generation that is embattled. I could not read Emerson's words and be anything but thankful. I could not think about those embattled farmers, and then the events of 9/11, without feeling a renewed sense of purpose.

Another conversation I had this year was important to me as well. I had just seen the movie "The Lord of the Rings", and I was speaking with Stan Dorn about the symbolism of the movie. I didn't get why Tolkien had made the rings were so central to his trilogy, I didn't see what broader issue the rings symbolized. Stan replied that the rings were not just about power, but about the evil that is inherent in power. Power, in Tolkien's view, is always bad, and must always be destroyed. Power is inevitably corrupting.

As Stan and I both noted, this is not a typical Jewish view. We have historically understood that power can be corrupting, of course, but we do not advocate fleeing from power. Avoiding power is nothing less than avoiding responsibility. Power is scary; but the question is not how to avoid it, but rather how to use it in service of God. Whether you are a powerful country that has much to give to the world, or you are a parent, whose children need you to exercise your authority for their mental health, power should not be avoided.

This year, I asked one of my Rabbis, Eliezer Diamond, a question along these lines. I noted how difficult, even how corrupting it can be to listen to praise. Whether people are thanking me for something that I never really did, or I am receiving well-deserved thanks, either way, it's awkward. Eliezer responded, perhaps a tad impatiently: "Ethan, come on. Everything good is corrupting: power, sex, praise, money - you just need to learn to use them properly."

So, what restored my faith and sense of purpose? It may well be that I just needed a vacation. But I think it also dawned on me that I had come to use the randomness and chaos in this world as a crutch, as an excuse to avoid the work God sent me for. I had used this year's untimely deaths to persuade myself that I had no power. I had embraced the sadness that we all felt this year, and wallowing in that sadness, let myself be seduced into despair.

Part of any recovery, whether from sadness, or from confusion, or from despair - part of any recovery is just relearning how to wait. Waiting for the wind to change, and then resetting one's sails to take advantage. Sometimes, you begin to feel that wind when the realization dawns: you are not alone. It's not only that others have suffered in the past, for the same just cause. It's not just that they stand, in mute solidarity with you. It's that there are people here and now who understand, who know the truth, and who aren't afraid to share it with you.

So I thank you for helping me through this difficult year. I hope I've been of some help to you as well. We have all gotten a glimpse this year of what a strong nation America can be in a time of crisis; I have myself learned what a strong community we have right here at Tifereth Israel. May we continue to be a help to each other during the coming year, which is sure to have its ups and downs. May we have the sense to bind ourselves to the examples of our spiritual ancestors, be they the first Americans, or be they Jews. And may we be blessed to live as much as possible in the coming year amidst feelings of thankfulness and purpose.