Let Our Eyes Not be Dimmed, Let Our Vigor be Unabated
Yom Kippur 2010/5771
When our oldest daughter Gali was just 4 years old, on a bright Sunday in September my husband Mark and I found ourselves in lower manhattan, headed to a kids music festival in Battery Park, not far from where the World Trade Center had been. It was extremely crowded, parking was impossible, so we pulled into a garage and when we got out we realized we were across the street from Ground Zero.
I held Gali’s hand tightly as we walked along the sidewalk. There were several hundred police officers in dress blues lining the walkway in preparation for then President Bush’s appearance later that afternoon.
Gali began to pepper me with questions the way 4 year olds are want to do. Where are we? Why are there so many police? Where are we going? How long till we get there? What is this place? Mark and I took turns answering her questions and before too long we were standing with a lot of tourists on the viewing platform looking at the still mostly empty hole in the ground.
Children often say the most amazing things, we know this. But on that day, I was reminded just how children ask the single most difficult question, with all the innocence, all the interest, and absolutely no fear.
They ask why. Why are we here Ima? Because this is a special place. Why? There was a building here once. Why isn’t it here now? There was a terrible fire. Why? This is a special place.
Then suddenly, as if awakening from a trance, Mark and I scooped Gali up and made our way to a nearby playground. It took me a little while to collect myself – it was all I could do not to burst into tears and tell her the story of September 11, when she was in my belly, and I was a witness to a terrible day.
I remember thinking then about what I would tell my child about that day how I would tell her where I was, how I walked to the synagogue from downtown, how I went down to Ground Zero on the night before Kol Nidre, with her inside me, and felt as though I had my own candle against the darkness. But when she was 4, she would not understand. Even now I know the day will come when she will know about that day and many others before and since – she will ask the same questions of why, and I pray I will be better able to talk about bad people doing terrible things. She will ask me why they did it, and I am not sure I will have an answer that would make her feel safe and protected. Nine years later with so much still the same about the world and bad things happening to good people, I still cannot answer that question adequately for myself, much less for my children. So recently, as our middle daughter Rina began to include the question “why” as part of her daily 3 year old vocabulary, I was reminded of that day and I started to think about this question “why?” Children ask this question fearlessly. They want to understand their world. Asking why in this context is no different to themthan asking why they cannot have another Barney video.
But for adults – well, why is a tough question. We think we know the answers so we don’t ask why; or, we don’t want to know the answer so we don’t ask why. So if why isn’t the question we can comfortably ask, I started to think about the questions that we do have on Yom Kippur, that we ask of ourselves and whomever will listen. Questions that if we ever got the chance we’d really want the answers to.
So here, in these few minutes on the day when we are instructed to afflict our souls –- when removing the Torahs from the Ark last night at Kol NIdre is said to be like looking into our own coffin -– these are my innocent, interested, and yes, even fearless questions.
Why can’t I have every thing I want? Why can’t I be content? Why can’t I protect those I love? Why can’t I always feel safe?
These questions emerge quite naturally when I let myself ask them. Most of the time when dealing with challenges, I prefer to take the optimistic, hopeful stance. “No pain, no gain,” “this too will pass,” and the rabbinic notion of “issurin shel ahavah” – sufferings of love.
I usually feel that to give in to the “why questions,” will be a descending spiral from which there is no escape. To push through the difficulty has the potential to be so much better, if I can just persevere. It is too simple to think you either get what you want out of life or you don’t.
In Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, Overcoming Life’s Disappointments, he writes: “I look at the world and see three types of people: Those who dream boldly even as they realize that a lot of their dreams will not come true; those who dream more modestly and fear that their modest dreams will not be realized, and those who are afraid to dream at all, lest they be disappointed.” Kushner says that he would wish for more people who dreamed boldly and trusted their powers of resilience to see them through the inevitable disappointments.
I think that by attempting to answer these questions today, we might arrive at a place of understanding, or perhaps we will return to that innocence of our childhood, keep asking why, in order to really comprehend the human situation.
Why can’t I have everything I want? As I thought about this question, I went immediately to the prophetic source of the Rolling Stones: You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.
It is pretty clear that no one, no matter how much wealth, no matter how successful gets everything they want. How could it be? The only time in our lives when we do is when we are first born and even then, it’s a pretty fine line between what we want and what we need. Anyone who has been in the presence of a newborn baby recognizes how parents learn to discern the cries of their child, how to provide them with what they need, and what they want. But as the children get older, they begin to distinguish between needs and wants, and that is an important distinction. Because the Stones were right, getting what we need might ultimately be better than getting what we want.
Even Moshe Rabbenu, the greatest prophet of our tradition did not get the single thing he wanted after taking the people out of Egypt. He wanted to enter the land, but he was not permitted. How great must his disappointment have been? What depth of faith enabled him to cope? Rabbinic midrash imagines Moses pleading with God to let him enter the land, but God, while moved, does not change the decree. At the end of his life, the Torah says, Lo kehata eino v’lo nas lecho – His eyes were not dimmed, and his vigor unabated. (Deut. 34:7) We can’t always get what we want. But we can love and live, and enjoy that which we have. Let our eyes not be dimmed, let our vigor be unabated.
Why can’t I be content? As Americans, we have been guaranteed, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The concept of achieving true happiness or contentment for Westerners has always seemed rather ill defined and elusive, and I have always taken some comfort that the Preamble to the Constitution says that we are guaranteed the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself.
Did you know that the very word “happiness” is derived from an Icelandic word, happ which means luck or chance? When I think of it this way, it is contentment that I seek, not happiness. I may not be able to predict my life, some things do happen by chance, and I want to strive to be content in those moments.
Here are two scenarios I found helpful while reading The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and William Cutler. The first story is about someone who had an unexpected windfall from the sale of the company she worked for, which she had gotten in on the ground floor. When it sold, she was able to retire at the ripe old age of 32. When asked how she was doing she said, “Well it’s nice to be able to travel, and do the things I want to do, but overall I don’t think I’m much happier than I was before.”
The second story is about another 32 year old, diagnosed with HIV. Although obviously devastated at first, he took time to work through his shock, and seemed to be recognizing each moment differently. He started to be excited about getting up each day and facing the world, since he knew there would come a day –- hopefully not for a long time -– that he would leave it.
So it’s clear that contentment/happiness is determined more by the person’s state of mind then by external events. The Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel understood this well. He wrote that it is not important what we expect from life but what life expects from us that is important.
When we ask why we can’t be content, there is a certain assumption, perhaps even guilt, that where we are and what we have achieved right now is enough. Aizehu ashir? Who is rich? The rabbis ask, Hasameach b’chelko – one who is satisfied with their portion.
There is a tension between recognizing what we have achieved, feeling good about it, and looking even more ahead of ourselves to see what else might be there. The Dalai Lama teaches that our moment to moment happiness is largely determined by our outlook: How do we perceive our situation? How satisfied are we with what we have?
Each Shabbat we sing the words: Ashreinu mah tov helkenu, U’ma naim goralenu, U’ma yafa yerushateinu. Happy are we; how good is our portion; how pleasant our destiny; how beautiful our inheritance.
For us, even if we can’t always be content, we can recognize the goodness, the pleasure, and the beauty of what we have right now, what we hope will yet come to us, and what we will leave behind as our legacy.
We may not always feel joy or peace of mind, but we can love and live, and find contentment where we are. Let our eyes be not dimmed, let our vigor be unabated.
Why can’t I protect those I love? When I was younger and in the throws of a tumultuous adolescence, my mother would often say: “I wish I had a magic wand to banish your hurt and disappointment. Now that I am a parent, I too wish to protect my children from heartache and pain. I think we would all like to know just enough about the future so that we can make different choices that we know will lead us down a protected path.
But we all know that there is learning from difficulty. Robert Frost once wrote:
The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not to bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good
But just to ask us who we think we are.
I imagine that each of us can think of our own experience of “the fallen tree” that crosses our path, and the moment we had to pause and ask, who am I?
It may be, as Kushner explains, that instead of God giving us a friendly world that would never challenge us, and make us strong, instead God gave us a world that will inevitably break our hearts. And how do we manage this world? V’hayei olam natah betochenu –-wWe have been instilled with everlasting life. In other words, we have been compensated by the planting in our souls, the gift of resilience.
In his novel Be My Knife, world-renowned Israeli writer David Grossman has the voice of one of his characters say "I once thought of teaching my son a private language, isolating him from the speaking world on purpose, lying to him from the moment of his birth so he would believe only in the language I gave him. And it would be a compassionate language. What I mean is, I wanted to take him by the hand and name everything he saw with words that would save him from the inevitable heartaches so that he wouldn't be able to comprehend the existence of, for instance, war. Or that people kill, or that this red here is blood…I love to imagine him crossing through life with an innocent trusting smile –- the first enlightened child."
We try, like David Grossman, to teach our children a language of compassion. But, there are always people we encounter who, for any number of reasons, live with hate, people who seek to harm and destroy others. It is a sad reality, but a reality we can’t ignore. David Grossman, a legendary voice for peace knows that now, as his son Uri, was killed in 2006 during the conflict with Hizbollah in Lebanon. (R. Joshua Levine Grater)
We cannot always protect our loved ones from the inevitably difficult moments that life deals to humankind, but we can love and live—control what we can, let go of what we cannot. Let our eyes be not dimmed, let our vigor be unabated.
Why can’t I feel safe? In 1995-96 I lived in Jerusalem. You may remember that beginning February of 96 there was an intense wave of suicide bombings. The number 18 bus which I took each day was attacked twice. But each day after the attacks, I got on another bus and went about my day.
When a bomber blew himself up in Tel Aviv outside of Dizengoff Center on Purim, that’s went I started to feel scared and unsafe. I remember making the decision not to take buses anymore. My parents said, rent a car, take taxis. And I did for a while, but it got too expensive, and eventually I got back on the buses.
I didn’t realize just how scared I was until I went to see a healer named Herzl Ovadiah for some terrible neck pain that I was having. He asked me a few questions about my life, which I answered vaguely, then he gently touched my shoulders, my forearms, and a spot under my arm along my rib cage. I winced in pain at every touch. He said, come and see me five times, I will help you take away the fear that lives in your body.
I was shocked. I no longer felt afraid, but obviously my body still did. Over the course of the sessions with him, sobbing through nearly every one, eventually, I didn’t hurt anymore. I felt released from the grip of my fear.
After that, I told myself that living in fear had taken a toll on me, and I would do everything I could to not be afraid like that ever again.
I suppose living in a post 9/11 America many of us have felt unsafe for the first time in our lives. Living through the worst economic disaster since the crash of 1929, has added to our instability, and bearing witness to the BP spill and the really unknown degree of future impact, we are all poised to ask why we can’t feel safe, why we must always feel on the edge of an abyss? We worry more, and give the benefit of the doubt less. We are cynical and simplistic in our thinking sometimes, and we often let fear do the talking.
We cannot always feel safe, but we can love, and live, and push through our fears. Let our eyes be undimmed, let our vigor be unabated.
We know that there is no life without struggle. Rabbi Kushner reminds us that Genesis paints a picture of Eden, a perfect world, and the Torah ends with Deuteronomy painting a picture of a leader denied his dream “What happens in between is that life in all of its messiness, unfairness, and unpredictability intervened Life, with its capacity to tantalize us with dreams then breaks our hearts.”
So with all my innocence, interest and lack of fear, I ask these questions about life. May we be able to face our past with appreciation for having lived it, may we be able to face our present with strength to make it through the difficult passages, and may we be able to face our future still dreaming, still hoping, still present to the world around us.
Hatima tovah – May we all be blessed in the new year with what we need, with contentment, protection, and safe travels.
©2010 Rabbi Yael Ridberg