Shabbat VaYeshev: Do You Believe In Your Life?

Do you believe in your life? Enough to lose it?

The media reports that people are frightened. More and more, the ordinary activities of daily life seem to be places in which a mass shooting might occur. “When I drop off my child at school,” “when I go to the mall,” “when I am at work,” “when I go into a cafe to grab a coffee, I realize, it could happen there.”

An article describing the rising fear Americans feel about random gun violence goes on to consider ways we might cope with this anticipatory, more and more general fear.

“I think awareness of your own fears is the only way to go and to do the things that are soothing and comforting and distracting to do, and to do things that bring meaning to your life and bring comfort to other people,” said Dr. Sherry Katz-Bearnot, assistant clinical professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. “It’s what your grandmother said: Keep busy.” (“Fear in the Air, Americans Look Over Their Shoulders”)

Our Jewish ethical tradition holds that we can do better than that. We cannot just “stay busy” if our lives do not have value to us; busy nonsense does not calm the storm of existential terror. And we cannot simply stay in bed and pull the covers up over our heads.

We Americans are beginning to experience what other peoples in our world have already learned: there is no guaranteed safety. On any day, life may end for any one of us. We are accustomed to as, as an idle conversation starter, “what would you want to do if it were your last day?” But we do not live our lives that way, because it’s not possible. 

There is a different question we should be asking ourselves. In a world in which my choices might end with my death, do I believe in my choices enough to stake my life on them?

In Israel during the second intifada of 2001-2003, I witnessed the way people behave who are used to random violence in their everyday lives. Average Israelis, many of them opposed to the policies of their government that had caused the uprising, and had no necessary connection to politics, were aware that their daily choices were existential choices. Israeli social culture has evolved, over more time than just the last decades, a common awareness that life, itself, is not a supreme value, but a relative value, to be used to demonstrate one’s convictions about how life should be lived. Israelis do not stay home and cower; they live with a heightened awareness that where they live, how they live, will cost them their lives.

In America in these dark days, we are surrounded by random violence by the armed and angry, and heinous cowardice on the part of our elected officials. The choice to live as we wish and be safe is not now, if it ever was, available. Many of us average Americans have had no direct part in what makes the gun wielders angry, but we may be killed. 

Your life as you live it, with its commitments, expectations and desires, is going to require you to walk into a world of random violence today. Do you believe in what you are doing today, this and every day, enough to say “I may be cut down before I can finish, but I am building a meaningful life day by day”.

In our parashat hashavua for this week, people suffer and sometimes die, sometimes because of choices they have made and sometimes as a result of another’s whim. May our lot be with those who are privileged to be aware that our lives are made valuable by our conscious choices, and may we believe in our lives.

Shabbat Nitzavim-VaYelekh: Standing Firm And Walking It Forward

We are reading a double parashah this week. The first of the two readings is called standing firm in place, and the second is walking, going forward, toward something. One teaching we can derive from the fact that these two parashot are often read together is that we are to be doing both of these apparently utterly contradictory things at the same time. It is something we do all the time in Judaism, and it is vital.

 

What does it look like to stand firm and to walk at the same time? It’s a way of separating out that which is really important from that which is simply familiar and comfortable. It’s something we strive to do in our congregational family in many ways:

 

Shabbat and Holy Day prayer

With all Jews, we stand firm with the tradition that Shabbat starts on Friday night and goes through Saturday.

We walk it forward in exploring different ways to observe Shabbat (kirtan-style Kley Kodesh services, Kabbalat Shabbat dinner instead of services, etc)…not to mention declaring that Shabbat starts when we can be together to make it, not necessarily at sundown.

 

With all other Jews, we stand firm with our holy day dates, even though they’re inconvenient.

We walk it forward by figuring out ways to bring the holy day to us – on this Rosh HaShanah, if you can’t come to morning services to hear the Shofar being blown, hopefully you can at least make it to Tashlikh at the river, where we’ll blow the biggest blast we can for you.

 

Wherever our congregation expresses our sense of what it means here and now to be Jewish, we negotiate this balancing act, between tradition and thoughtful inheritance. 

We stand firm in our belief that there is a value in the tradition we’ve inherited, because we belong to the people that has created it and passed it on in every generation. 

We walk it forward, because we are now the generation that receives it and figures out how to keep it alive and vibrant so that it can help us figure out our purpose in life – and, hopefully, those who will come after us.

 

In the Torah, the first word, Nitzavim, is in the plural: we are all standing firm together, each of us helping each other to receive the tradition, to understand it and do it. And the second word, VaYelekh, is in the singular, indicating that each one of us has the privilege and the responsibility of carrying it onward. Each of us makes all of us, and only when we are all voices are welcomed in the congregation do we lift up our voices in our shir tikvah, our “song of hope”. 

 

On this Shabbat, may you feel more honestly your own voice in the myriad harmonies of the Voice of Torah that strengthens us to stand firm, and inspires us to go forward, together.