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Rabbi Seidel Drash | Letting Some Burdens Drop

Rabbi Seidel Drash - Kol Nidre - 5775 (2014)
Letting Some Burdens Drop



            How much is too much?  And can you really hold on to too much of a good thing?  I’m not speaking about wealth - we all know that too much wealth can be a problem. Rather, I’m thinking about something more subtle, and more applicable to every facet of our lives.  I’m thinking about juggling.  If you’ve ever been to a juggling convention - and I realize that it’s possible some of you have not been - you’ll know that playing juggling games is usually a piece of the program.  Some of these games are a little silly, even to jugglers, for whom silliness is their normal state.  One of those games is called “club collecting”.  Normally, when you pass clubs back and forth, you throw back a club for every club you receive. But club collecting is a contest to see how many clubs you can receive and hold on to, without throwing any back, and without a drop.  The collector end up with many clubs in one arm, but when then space gets full, the club collector will try to stick a few more random clubs whever they’ll fit - between the neck and the shoulder, in between the legs you can usually fit several. [mime it]

            Pretty silly, no?  My job, as I see it tonight, is to convince you that, with whatever you happen to juggle, you may, sometimes, look just as silly.  Not that looking silly is always a bad thing.  But if you look silly when you don’t mean to look silly, well, maybe it’s time for a little self-evaluation.  My question for you tonight is the following: what clubs are you collecting?  And how long before you drop?

            The Talmud actually alludes to this issue, with the phrase

תפסת מרובה לא תפסת, תפסת מועט, תפסת.

Which might be translated as: You grabbed on to a lot, and you can’t hold it; had you grabbed on to less, you would have been able to hold it.  Tonight I want to look at a few different ways we moderns grab on to too much, and how, when we try to hold too much, we lose important stuff.

            But before I get into examples of unwarranted grabbiness, let me note the limitations of this Talmudic phrase.  Surely there are times in our lives when we should reach for the stars!  When we should take the big risk, when we should try for something that may be beyond our ability, should try to hold on to a lot - be it, say, a potential spouse, or a difficult but challenging job, or even a difficult but potentially beautiful hike in the mountains.  Trying for something difficult, standing on our tip-toes, going all in, and not being afraid that if we don’t succeed we’ll look silly - this is sometimes that right way to go. 

            So let me say from the start that this Rabbinic phrase, תפסת מרובה לא תפסת, תפסת מועט, תפסת., is not applicable to all of life.  Rather, there are times when we grab too much, and there are times when we don’t grab enough.   How do we know which is which?  That’s the question I’d like to explore tonight.  Maybe we can even derive a general rule about when we should be satisfied with a little, and when we should go for the whole enchilada.  Or maybe striving to derive a general rule about life is itself grabbing for too much.  Anyway, let’s begin.

            Here’s a discussion in the Talmud that addresses the question of holding too much, at least with regard to prayer.  I’ve been studying tractate Sukkah, in preparation for Sukkot, and I found there (41b) a debate about what exactly you can hold in your hands, while you are davenning the silent Amidah.  The passage begins when a child of the 5th generation Babylonian sage Ameimar asserts: during Sukkot, my father Ameimar would hold the Lulav in his hand during the Amidah.  Immediately, there’s an objection: Do we not have another tradition that instructs us: if we are davenning the Amidah, we should not hold tefillin in our hands, nor clasp a Torah to our breast!?  And the 1st generation sage Shmuel is quoted saying: Similarly, one cannot hold a knife, or a platter, or a loaf of bread, or a bag of money while in prayer.  Rashi, commenting on this passage says: You can’t hold the knife during prayer, because you’re going to be preoccupied with the possibility that you’ll drop the knife and it will stab your foot.  The platter - well it is probably full of food or utensils that you’re worried about dropping if you tilt it.  The loaf of bread will get disgusting if it drops on a dirty floor.  And the bag of coins could scatter, if you drop them, and you might lose money.

            So, the Talmud asks, how come it’s ok to hold the lulav while davenning, but not these other things?  The answer: because holding the lulav is not a distraction - just holding that grouping of myrtle, palm, and willow is the mitzvah. Therefore, the Lulav, far from being a distraction, can actually highten your kavvanah.  During Sukkot, at least.  Were you to hold the Lulav during, say, Pesach services, that would be a distraction, both to yourself and to the rest of us.

            The later halachic commentators continue the discussion by trying to figure out what else might or might not be ok to hold on to during the Amidah.  What about a Siddur?  Remember in the old days, especially before the printing press, most people couldn’t afford siddurim so they davenned from memory.  But later, after the printing press, when books became affordable, a regular person could own a siddur.  What if you know the amidah from memory - as many regular davenners do - should you use a siddur anyway, or maybe davenning by heart is better?  There is no clear answer on that one, by the way.  It depends on the individual, and what best helps their kavvanah.

            But what about something that is just plain heavy, but not especially dangerous, or holy, or likely to be damaged if you drop it?  Can you carry something heavy during prayer?  A different section of the Talmud gives us the answer, which Disney thoughtfully put to music: Let it go, let it go, let it go...  A later commentator is even more restrictive.  There are some things that should not even be within your view:  The Birkei Yosef (Orach Hayyim 96:1) says:

שאסור להושיב תינוק לפניו בשעת התפילה

It’s forbidden to have a child in front of you during the Amidah.  Which is of course a problem, because elsewhere it says that children should be brought into shul. 

            Anyway, you get the idea.  There are many things that might cause you, if you hold on to them, to lose concentration on the task at hand.  Now I don’t expect that many of you are guilty of holding on to a Torah, or Tefillin, or a loaf of bread, or a knife during prayer.  But maybe there are other things, perhaps other thoughts that are weighing you down, making it hard for you to concentrate.  What is it that you hold on to during prayer?  Might it be that some thoughts you stubbornly cling to are holding you back?  What might some of those thoughts be?

            Here are some thoughts that I have held on to at different moments in my life, thoughts that have hindered me during prayer.  Along with some burdens that I’m guessing you might carry.

I don’t really know if there is a God.  So what do I think I’m doing here?

I believe in a God, sort of, but not a God that’s going to answer prayer.

Ok, I guess I believe in God, and I do think God has a way of responding to prayer, but all this incessant praise - what’s that about?  God seems like God’s in need of constant stroking.  It makes me angry, actually - I know people that need constant praise, and the last thing I’d want to do is praise them.

I don’t know the Hebrew.  The English is ok, but, I don’t feel like I’m really doing it right, if I’m doing it in translation.

I’m not as religious during the rest of the year as I am today.  Who am I kidding, by spending hours in shul tonight?

I feel like I rarely get a big charge from these prayers.  Some people seem to be so in to it, but I can never seem to feel whatever it is they’re feeling.

I just rushed from work to get here.  Traffic was horrible, parking wasn’t easy.  I’m in no mood to commune with whatever God I do or do not believe in.

Getting the kids to come to shul tonight was a nightmare.  How am I going to find any bit of peace tonight, knowing that my kids seem to resent it, every time I pry them away from a screen.

            Sometimes I feel like a club collector, with some of these thoughts clenched in my mind.  And it’s not easy to let go of these thoughts.  I have to take the time to note each one, acknowledge that there is some truth there, and then consciously drop it.  Here’s how I drop those particular burdens I just mentioned:

            Burden number one: I don’t really know if there is a God, so what do I think I’m doing here?  It’s a good question.  My faith in God is not certainty.  And I don’t know exactly why I’m here.  OK, I’m paid to be here, but if I weren’t paid to be here, I’d still be here, wondering what I was doing, exactly.  It’s a good question - and now that it’s been asked, and acknowledged, I can, usually, let it go.

            Burden number two: God doesn’t really answer prayer.  Ok, it often feels that way.  So what if I believe that? Even if I believed that God answers prayer, I wouldn’t expect God would answer every prayer, as if God was my private gofer.  So yes, God might not answer any prayers tonight.  But does that mean God answers no prayers?  No.  So I’ll slough off that burden, the worry that God doesn’t answer prayer, as unprovable.

            Number 3: The incessant praise.  Yeah, the prayers are surely not the way I would write them.  So repetitive.  And I don’t always feel like saying thank you, again and again. So skip a few of the praises, and add your own personal prayer.  Or read the side bars, and see if you can find stuff you like.  Besides the obligatory parts of this service - the amidah, the sh’ma, the al hets - the rest is optional.  So pick and choose.

            Number 4: The Hebrew.  During the year, I do know the Hebrew, and that is a great blessing.  But on the High Holidays, some of the prayers are so arcane, so filled with obscure Hebrew words and  obscure references to ancient Midrashim I’m not familiar with, that I get lost in the Hebrew.  So I will sometimes switch to the English, and of course that makes me feel like a fraud.   It’s true, I should study these esoteric prayers more in preparation for this day.  But I didn’t.  Acknowledge it, let it go.

            Number 5: It feels hypocritical, being so religious today.  On a typical day, I don’t even spend an hour in prayer.  So who am I kidding?  I’m not so holy.  So why all this beating the chest today, as if I were? Good question.  Probably I’m not the only one with this concern. But maybe I’m not so much of a hypocrite, but rather someone trying to rise to a higher level.  Maybe this is not a burden, all this extra stuff I’m doing tonight, but an opportunity.

            Number 6: I feel like I don’t always get a charge from these prayers.  True enough.  Of course, it’s partly because I’m working today as a leader of the community, but even without that, it’s really hard for me to feel deeply about these prayers.  Sometimes an hour will go by, and I won’t have had a single thought with anything holier than: why hasn’t the Torah reader for the 3rd aliyah arrived yet??  And yet, that’s really the exception, if I’m honest with myself.  Even when I’m not getting a charge, I’m reflecting about the year, and regularly, important ideas come to me about my life, and ways to improve.  It’s still worth it, going through these ancient motions, for those moments.

            Number 7: Rushed here from work, no way I can concentrate now on things more ethereal than traffic and parking.  Hey, that’s normal.  This is why the service is so long.  Take the first hour just to breathe.  You’ll get to a better place by the end.  And maybe next year, you’ll be able to leave work a little earlier.

            Number 8: Kids didn’t want to come tonight.  Kids can be tough to move from one place to another.  But before worrying if they’re really allergic to shul, and before you’ve convinced yourself that you will be the final Jew in your line - ask them at the end, tonight, what they did this evening, and see how it went.  I’ll bet it went pretty well for them.  And if not, let us know, so we can provide better programming in the future.

            I release the burdening thoughts I hold by acknowledging whatever truth the thoughts hold.  And after acknowledging them, let them go.  I try to open myself to whatever this experience of Yom Kippur will be.  Expecting nothing.  Demanding nothing.  Sure, I may get nothing.  That wouldn’t be new. And it wouldn’t be such a huge tragedy, in the grand scheme of things.  I tried. It didn’t happen for me.  But I knew that going in.  I know that with prayer, there’s no guarantees.  And I know that there’s a better chance of something happening if I’m not clenching all my doubts.  A club might come my way, perfectly rotated, a thing of beauty, and I might just catch it, if I don’t have my hands full with troubling, self-doubting thoughts.

            Prayer works best when we come to it with no preconceived thoughts.  When we let ourselves speak directly to the Divine source of our consciousness.  When we can set our deepest, most embarassing hopes and fears directly before the Great Listener.  And sometimes, if we have not convinced ourselves that there isn’t really anything out there, sometimes we may see a ray of light.

            So what else might we be holding on to, what other intrusive thoughts restrict our flexibility, and threaten to make us drop?  Let’s leave prayer, and our doubts about prayer, and move on to the rest of our lives.  Let’s move from the crippling doubt infecting our prayer, to the disabling overconfidence in the rest of our lives.

            Here are a few overconfidences that, I’m guessing, many of us hold on to, and forget that we hold.    These burdens are ugly untruths that slither around inside us, usually unacknowledged, which allows them some freedom and hold over our lives.  In fact, they’re so ugly, we try to ignore them.  However, when we admit to them, they somehow lose their power over us.  Here goes.

Our children are perfect.  Any defect that they seem to have is really a defect of society - their teachers, their spouses, their bosses: these people just don’t know how to appreciate our kids.

We ourselves are perfect.  Well, maybe not perfect, but there is nothing we could realistically do to improve ourselves - nothing that would really be feasible, given all that we have to do in our lives.  Ok, maybe we could make some improvements around the edges, but basically, we don’t really need to change anything big.

Anything we did this past year that didn’t work out well - it’s really someone else’s fault.  Or maybe society’s fault.  In my case, I might say: “The fact that nobody came to my Talmud class is not my fault: it’s just that the general public is apparently not yet ready”.  Their loss.

I could go on, but it’s painful.  And anyway, these illusions are all closely related - they’re all about how things are perfectly good as they are now, thank you very much.  Sure, may be some improvement is possible, but, realistically, I and everything I have produced are basically fine.

            It’s related to the issue of perfection that I talked about on 2nd day Rosh HaShanah.  But here, I’m not talking just to the perfectionists among us.  All of us have illusions about just how good we are.  And we have to let those illusions go, if we are to improve. 

            In a way, I find this illusion, this burden of perfection, actually much heavier than the truth.  The truth, which sounds like it might be harder to bear, is merely: I could do better.  The good things I did this year, yeah, they were good.  But I wonder how I could build on those achievements?  I wonder if the good I did this year was just the foundation of something much greater!  And what might that be?  Can I be open to what that next step might be?  And it’s ok if the next step makes what I’ve done up to this point look pretty pathetic, because I’ve let go of this idea that I have to be perfect.  I’m here today only to be better, not to pretend I have been pretty darn good, or to beat myself up about being a schlub last year.  And it’s easiest, I find, to move forward, if I don’t judge to harshly, or too leniently, what I’ve done before.   The burden of perfection is like a juggling club wedged in between my head and my shoulders, making it impossible for me to keep my balance.  I want to be able, in the coming year, to be flexible to what’s coming next.  Even, dare I say it, to have a sense of play about the new year.  What’s it going to bring, I wonder??  If the new year dawns, and it turns out that some of my actions and thoughts of the previous year were just plain wrong-headed - I can admit that, I can live with that, because I ditched the burden of being infallible.  I’m just dust and ashes, and I’m ok with that.

            Ok, so maybe that’s a lie.  I’m trying to be ok with being dust and ashes, with being subject to recall at any moment.  This last year has helped with this, albeit painfully.

            Over the last year, I feel like I’ve seen more of life’s hardships than usual.  Not in my own life, but in the lives of others.  Now you may be thinking, “Wait, this is part of a Rabbis job isn’t it?  He’s been a Rabbi here for over 20 years, surely, he’s seen some sadness in his work before.”  And that’s true: some of what I see has hit me hard over the years.  I’ve led funerals where I was just a millimeter from breaking down in tears.  And I’ve done weddings - like the one for Myron Murdock and Judy Herzog which also felt emotionally overwhelming.  But in addition to those events here in our TI community, these past few years I’ve seen many of my friends outside the TI community go through hard times.  And for reasons I don’t understand, that’s had a different affect on me - it’s been scarier somehow, even though I see these old friends very rarely, and I’m not as close to them as I used to be.  Their troubles have brought home the message that I try to keep at arms length in my work: stuff happens to everyone, even Rabbis and their families.  Any of this could happen to me.  Maybe that seems odd to you, that a Rabbi wouldn’t realize this, but there are many levels of recognition within the simple word “realize”.  Now I realize it a little more than I did before.  And in the context of this drash, it’s help me put down a burden, namely the illusion that I have control over my fate.

            This year a close friend of mine lost his long-time pulpit, which had been a very big and fancy shul.  And he had the devil of a time finding a new one.  He was just hired a month or two ago at a part-time salary in a tiny dying shul.  Someone else, whom I knew less well, but whom I admired for his biting wit and his accurate - if a bit too cynical - take on life: turned out to be an alcoholic.  He lost his job due to the alcohol, divorced his wife, remarried, had a small child, lost another job due to alcohol, and then killed himself.    Another friend, suffering from compulsions I will never understand, divorced his wife, only to find that his second wife was mentally ill.  And this second wife of his had so misbehaved, that he lost his job.  An old friend from middle school with whom I’m in touch - two of his children are struggling, one in the throes of addiction to marijuana, and the other - well he’s trying to start college again, hoping it takes this time.

            My first reaction to all this was despair.  These are all good people, trying to serve God - none of them deserved any of this, as far as I could see.  After hearing each story - and it seemed like every month I heard a new one - I’d go around in a daze for awhile.  I’d wonder: “Life is fragile!!! How can I prevent these tragedies happening to me!!!”  And I’d be thinking that sentence with three exclamation points.

            My next reaction: hold on with white-knuckles to what I have.  “They cannot take it from me!!!”  Again with the three exclamation points.  But such a tight grasp on what you have has a way of transforming what should be a blessing into a burden.  It’s really exhausting, holding on to what you have so desparately, and I was constantly filled with worry and foreboding.  As my teacher, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond put it, when he came to TI a number of years ago - you will lose it all, eventually.  That burden of thinking I’m in control of your fate: it’s just going to get heavier and heavier as you get older, and you see the end approaching.

            What to do, when you hear bad news?  As my teacher put - you might want to try a lighter grasp.  Or, in the context of this drash, I’m saying you might even want to consider discarding certain notions that bring only tension and thanklessness.  Can I let down the huge weight “I need everything to stay just as good as it is right this minute!!!!”  Can I calmly admit: I don’t know what the future holds.  There are likely going to be frightening things down the pike that I have no control over - that’s life.  But if I’m not wedded to keeping everything I carry, maybe I can rest a little easier, even with the knowledge that life may well get a lot harder.

            And what am I left with, when I let this go?  When my belief in God does not entitle me to any assurances about exactly what the future holds in store.  When all I can hope for is that God will be with me, through thick and thin.  And even that, I’m not sure of.  Though, truthfully, I have almost always felt, in the past, God’s presence when I called out honestly.  Could that be enough? 

            I don’t know if it will be enough.  But I’ve found that it’s better.  Instead of worrying “X is so scary, it must not happen!!!”, I’ve gotten better at placing that burden to the side.  After all, carrying this burden is like trying to keep your balance with 3 juggling clubs held between your legs. Instead, I have been allowing myself to have a little faith that God’s presence, which I have felt in the past, in times good and bad, will continue to be with me.  

            Perhaps this is one of the meanings of that passage from our prayers: משפיל גאים ומגביה שפלים.  What exactly does that mean, that God is the force that humbles the haughty, and uplifts the lowly?  Maybe this prayer is reminding us: make yourself low - expect no special protection from God besides God’s presence, and you may find yourself raised high, relieved of your burdens.  Make yourself high, by holding on to everything you’ve got - this will not bring uplift - quite the contrary.

            What if, today, you could strip everything away, everything you carry.  What if you could appear today, for just a few moments, empty before God.  And as you pick up each of your burdens again, weigh them.  Are they worth carrying?  Can you find at least a bit of joy or blessing in each burden?  Are there some that might be best left lying on the ground?  Without the burden, you might have energy to move, gracefully, freely, in a new, holier direction.

            And what about the burdens we will still end up carrying? Well, as I mentioned at the beginning of this drash, real juggling takes place when people pass clubs back and forth, not when one person just collects them.  There’s a prayer we say every day of the year - in our Machzor it’s on page 75 - that relates to this.  In speaking of the angelic beings, we imagine that

כולם מקבלים עליהם עול מלכות שמים זה מזה

all of them pass back and forth the burden of the Kingdom of Heaven.  And what are those burdens they are passing back and forth?  Who knows?  But I like to imagine angels sharing burdens as if they were passing juggling clubs back and forth to each other, never letting any particular load weigh them down for any length of time.  May that be our lot, today.  May we be granted the ability to let burdens go.  And for those burdens we must keep: may we be granted angelic wisdom to share them with those we love.

            In this way, may this day of prayer and fasting and repentence be not exhausting, but restoring.