Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rosh HaShanah 1st Day D'var Torah


by Lisa Kempler

Shana Tova, everyone.

This year has been one of intensity on many fronts: for us as Americans, as Jews, and as citizens of the world. The minyan, too, has seen lots of changes with multiple people moving away, sick parents, babies born, and children growing up in many ways. Of course, there’s always lots going on in the world news front, but the events this year felt closer to home. The top 10 goings (with a nod to David Letterman) were:

Number 10: The increased focused on anti-terrorism, including the recent anti-ISIS scale up

9: Conflicts in Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, and Egypt

8: Putin and the Ukraine

7: Planes going down

6: Police brutality (such as Ferguson)

5: Immigration

4: Health Care reform and the web site design and infrastructure nightmare from hell

3: The Israel/Gaza conflict and the accompanying upset and events around the resurgence of anti-Semitism, questioning of Israel’s right to exist, and discussions of what Zionism means and how can/should we continue to support Israel

Number 2:  Climate change as a growing focus for the US and the world

Here’s a quote from a  “Jewish Daily Forward” article echoing that same sentiment:

“Yes, it was a rough summer, what with racial tension in Missouri and an army of Spanish-speaking children invading our southern border, plus threats of a new world war in Ukraine and barbaric jihadis marching across Iraq, decapitating journalists and massacring religious minorities. Not to mention the deadly, dispiriting 50-day war between Israel and Hamas. And don’t even talk to me about Ebola.”

Oh, right, for about 5 minutes I had forgotten about, the short-term scariest but, nonetheless, still sensationalized by the media every day: # 1 – the Ebola virus.

It’s not just how much is going on globally, but that there seems to be an expectation that we’ll be intellectually on top of all of it.  In multiple ways, we’re encouraged to pay increasingly more attention to the detail, to the nuance.  The Forward’s sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek tone is in response to this. The news reports seem to want to share the blow-by-blow on every issue constantly. It used to be that you’d mostly just hear what the head of states had to say and then reports about what happened – a speech, an article on the front page of a paper, etc. But now they go a lot deeper. I feel like I’m there, or like they want me to be.

This reminds me of the High Holidays Ashamnu from the Vidui.

-          Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, debarnu dofee

I’ve always taken the attitude that if I’m going to make statements that I have committed this long list of transgressions, I ought to try to figure out if they’re true, to remember the events that happened during the year so that I can be genuine in my confessions. Yes, I know that much of the liturgy from RH is stated in the first person plural – “nu” – anachnu -- we. Often it is explained that we as a community did these things or that we’re taking responsibility for these things collectively. That gets me off the hook, both in terms of being responsible for nailing down the past and having to feel personally responsible for having done all these bad things on my own. Still, I like to reconstruct my year. 

You know how when you want to remember something, you sometimes tie a string around your finger? Well, the image I get in my mind of the Vidui is one of my whole body tied up in little strings, one for each thing I need to remember I’ve done wrong. I suppose I could view at as a symbolic gesture, or a generic catchall for all of my missteps. It would be easier to just say – like we do to each other, “Whatever I did, sorry!” But then I’m not really mentally participating.

Going back to the deluge of information – from subscribing in email, from friending and liking on Facebook, and from Youtubing and otherwise absorbing the media: It feels like everyone wants us to know everything. What’s implied is that there is an ideal of being 100% up-to-date and “omniscient” – all knowing, like God. Or really smart, like an encyclopedia, like Wikipedia. Then you could win at Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit or Apples to Apples or finish the NYTimes crossword puzzle.  This alongside an embedded cultural belief – both eastern and western - that extensive learning will raise you up, help you achieve Nirvana, or at least bring you a sense of completion or wholeness.

So what’s the problem with information?

In the movie “Bee Season”, a Jewish preteen who is great at spelling is encouraged by her sad, overachieving father, played by Richard Gere, to learn Kabbalah. As you may know, there’s a kind of rule in Judaism that you can’t learn Kabbalah until you’re 40 because you might not be mature enough to handle it.

At one point in the movie, she is so overwhelmed by the deep mysticism embedded in the Hebrew words, the associated images, including the Hebrew letters and the meaning behind them. that she has a fainting fit, a kind of ecstatic seizure. Note the underlying premise: She is perfect at spelling. She literally knows all the words.

The directors leave you with the sense that it was both revelational AND too much simultaneously for her. The problem occurs when she tries to process everything she knows.

For most of us, all this information intake does not generally bring ecstasy. If you’re like me, we’re often operating in a zone of one step away from information PTSD.  The acronym TMI takes on a whole new meaning.

So what’s wrong with knowing stuff?

Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, in the Guide to the Perplexed states that: There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom, or chokhmah, Rambam says, is:
       1) Knowledge of truths that lead to knowledge of god
       2) Knowledge of workmanship (making things, craftsmanship)
       3) Acquisition of moral principles
       4) Cunning and subtlety

He also says that “Highest form of perfection is moral perfection” and that mishpat, or judgment, denotes the act of deciding upon action in accordance with justice.

In other words, if you understand things at a moral level, you can use your judgment and act wisely.

This tells me that you can act based on wisdom, but not solely based on knowledge.

According to Mishlai, Proverbs,
Wisdom cries aloud in the streets,
Raises her voice in the squares
At the head of the busy streets she calls,
           At the entrance of the gates, in the city, she speaks out:
           How long will you simple ones love simplicity?

One interpretation of this is that merely taking in information is simple, easy. It doesn’t require taking a lot of responsibility. And you can’t possibly process or act on ALL of it. In fact, it’s simpler not to, whether you delete most of it, or archive it, or save it for next week when you’ll have more time. The reason wisdom is crying in the streets is because knowledge acquisition is the default easy-out.

All of this knowledge is only useful if you can figure out what to do with it.

So a goal, then, is to figure out which information, knowledge, is worthy of choosing, which of the many messages and postings and goings-on are the ones that you will really be wise about, will act on, will take a moral stance on.

Did you catch that last part from Rambam:  “to act by deciding on action in accordance with justice”.

Acting justly.

You knew this was coming: This past Sunday, just 3 days ago, 400,000 people, including at least 4 of us from the minyan (raise your hands – you know who you are), descended on NYC for the PCM - the People’s Climate  March – to show we care a lot about something about which we feel we have a deep understanding. So we took action together, in an attempt to get other people – the UN, Obama, the world – to also understand. And to act. On their wisdom.

Being there, it wasn’t just the number of people that was noticeable. It wasn’t just the time it took 400,000 people to stream down Central Park West and then 58th St. and then Avenue of the Americas and 42nd street and 11th Avenue. Oddly, when the march hit its final destination, it seemed to just keep going down 11th.

That was cool, but what really struck me was how so many different causes were subsumed under the heading of “Climate”. For a moment, I thought maybe it was being co-opted opportunistically. There were signs and groups dedicated to veganism and vegetarianism. There was CodePink, a women’s organization that says that war isn’t green or romantic. OXFAM was there saying “get ready for the biggest food fight ever”, and there were lots of signs that stated that while the 1% can pay their way out of climate change, the 99% will be left to deal with the fallout. Well, I’m not so sure that’s how it feels when fires destroy your house in California or your family cottage is washed away on the Cape or on Long Island. But, yes, it stands to reason, that the more disenfranchised and resource-less you are, the harder it will be to cope or even survive. 

These potentially seemingly diverse causes fit beautifully and neatly under the umbrella of “Climate Justice”.  The message of the march was: 97% of scientists agree:  “Tsedek, Tsedek tirdof”. Chase, walk, run, march for justice – Do the right thing, the just thing.

OK, so there was one cause that was over the top for me:

I was wearing my TFCE shirt – the Flattest Century in the East shirt from a bike ride a did 3 weeks ago. You can see it on Facebook. I approached a gentleman wearing a shirt that said “Bicycling is not a crime”. Intrigued, I approached him to see what that meant. I heard him explaining to one of the people in my climate action group that he couldn’t believe how police were giving out tickets to bicyclists who violated traffic laws. I know too many people who have had run-ins with bikes this year, including some in the minyan, to sympathize with his quest for biker anarchy.  That is not justice. That’s a death wish. His issue is not under my climate justice umbrella; it’s off my climate justice island.

Enough ranting about crazy drivers: If acting wisely means doing what is just, taking care of the physical planet and its people would be a wise action. We don’t need lots more information.

She is a tree of life to those who grasp her.
And whoever holds on to her is happy.

That line: Etz chayim hi lamachazikim bah – that we sing when we put away the Torah. It’s also from Proverbs. I always assumed that was a direct reference to Torah. It’s not, at least not explicitly, at least not the p’shat. It’s talking about wisdom, and, by coincidence, trees. Hmm. Holding onto trees makes you happy. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase tree hugger.

In summary, then:
  •        You can accidentally become so absorbed with information intake that it becomes a proxy for thinking and acting.
  •         If you’re to be wise, you have to participate.


My question to you is, what are you going to
  •        participate in
  •        this year
  •        that would make the world more just? 


Shana tova

Lisa Kempler lives in Brookline with her family and works in the high-tech software industry. In 2011, she joined Citizen's Climate Lobby, becoming the first member of the Boston chapter. Citizen's Climate Lobby is a volunteer-run organization with chapters throughout the U.S., Canada and recently other countries. CCL is dedicated to creating the political will for a sustainable world via a federal revenue-neutral carbon tax, legislating that the proceeds collected from carbon production are returned to households to support their transition from fossil fuels to renewables. Lisa regularly writes and speaks about climate change and solutions to it. Visit www.citizensclimatelobby.org for more information and to find a local chapter.


Lisa delivered this d'var on the first day of Rosh Hashanah at the Boston-area, lay-led, egalitarian minyan that she belongs to.

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