Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
Rabbi David Lyon
October 11, 2016
Congregation Beth Israel
“L’Chayyim: Living a Life of Meaning”
Some years ago, a friend of mine who was also his son’s baseball coach showed me the trophies that filled his table at home. Each trophy was inscribed with the name of a child on the team. Now, I’m not a sports guy, but even I knew that the season had just begun. I said to him, “It looks like everyone on your team is getting a trophy. How do you know you’re going to win the season?” He smiled at me and said, “This is youth baseball. They’re all winners. Everyone gets a trophy.”
So, it’s come to this. Actually, it’s been going on for years. Missing the mark is apparently no longer a “teachable moment.” And, the pain of losing has become more than children should have to bear; because losing in life never happens, right? This altered outlook didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen just because we live in a world of changing attitudes. It happened to us, because we allowed success to become the means rather than the ends.
When bar and bat mitzvah students meet with me long before their big day, I often begin with a question for them. I ask, “What does L’Chayyim mean?” Many of them don’t know. Sometimes their parents are embarrassed that their children don’t know. So, I tell them. It means, “To life!” I make a point of teaching them, because I want them to know that L’chayyim doesn’t mean “To suffering! To failure!” In Judaism, suffering and poverty are not virtues. We can learn from suffering and poverty, but we don’t aim for them as life goals. Tevya the milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof” explained, “It’s no shame to be poor… but it’s no great honor either.”
They and we need to know that life, prosperity, and joy are Jewish. To be Jewish is to be aspirational. We need to aspire to our greatest goals, even if they seem out of reach at first. We should seek great success, but the best measure of our success should be a reflection of how we arrived there. We don’t want it to be said of us that we were born on third base and think we hit a triple. Better to arrive at success after having swung the bat and missed a few times, run the bases and built character along the way. We can’t really succeed without some skin in the game; without contributing sweat equity.
It’s rare to find examples of young people who skip the bases and slide into blinding success and fortune. By far, it’s the exception, not the rule. As far as I know, there are no special classes on how to be Mark Zuckerberg. Even Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, though they created breakthrough stellar innovations, labored at their passions and faced learning curves and teachable moments.
Today, those who aspire for stellar success are encountering two competing forces working against them. The first one is that they were reared on the American expectation that they should do better economically than their parents did; just as we were reared, and usually did do better than our parents. In the past, it was almost guaranteed that a college degree, internships and professional positions would put us on the path to doing so. Those familiar paths and patterns have either changed or they simply don’t exist the way they used to years ago.
The second competing force is the allure of iPhone apps, tech start-ups, and TV shows like “Shark Tank.” They make the path to success look so easy. Many are seduced by the potential for fast money and alternatives around college, internships and professional development. If the former depends on the latter, then periodic failure is bound to happen. Remember Forest Gump? He was a loveable character, for sure, and his likeability increased as he tripped into success. But, no one would call him an entrepreneur; not even his mother.
The entrepreneurial spirit — the passion to create and make a difference — is present in all of us; but, if it isn’t built on real talent or gifts and without proper education and training, then it’s bound for tepid and uncertain results. I’ve seen what happens when success eludes an eager capitalist or when failure comes again and again. I’ve been on the other end of the phone call when a Temple member finally reaches out and tells me that he’s failing. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know where he’s going. He’s asking for help identifying his purpose.
Between unmet expectations to exceed one’s parents and unfulfilled dreams of rapid success lies an enormous gulf. To bridge that gulf requires only one, often elusive thing — the TRUTH. Until now, the truth has either eluded him or he avoided it. But, you know why; because the honest-to-goodness truth can be personally disappointing. The truth can take him all the way back to the baseball field where he first encountered the truth. Despite the trophy that bore his name, he has always known what the world knew about him, too: he never scored a run, he rarely hit the ball, and, maybe the best thing he did was wear a path in the grass where his feet swung under the bench.
Instead of phony trophies, someone needed to tell him along the way that missing the mark isn’t a reason for despair. That’s why that phone call to his rabbi is so important. Rabbis are honest but they’re also kind. The goal of the conversation isn’t to cause deeper hurt; it’s to help him see in himself the soul that God did create there: a perfect soul; a source of unique energy, spirit, and potential. Jewish daily prayer includes the words: The soul that You have given me, O God, is a pure one.
Especially on Yom Kippur, self-examination and repair are remedies we all engage to heal a broken spirit and renew a tortured soul. On the Day of Atonement, Talmud teaches, “When sufferings come upon a person, they should examine their deeds and return in repentance” (BT Berachot 5a). Our Sages taught that suffering is less a punishment for [missing the mark] than a call to return.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that this is “what happens when the doctrine of divine justice is [connected] to Judaism’s relentless focus on the future. A [repentant] culture [such as ours] is one in which the instinctive response to suffering is to say: “Dear God, I accuse no one but myself. Forgive me. Accept my broken heart. Then give me strength to change.”[i] Jews and Judaism don’t ordinarily participate in the blame game. We accept personal responsibility for our part in success and failure. Even if other forces are at work, including poor judgement or adversarial competition, our role in the outcome is never denied. Rabbi Sacks observes that Jews survived, time and again, because we rejected the blame culture; because we refused to see ourselves as victims. Where we could, we turned tragedy into creativity.
At the funeral of Albert Einstein in 1955, his assistant, Ernst Straus, quoted Einstein who once said, “Two things are needed for our kind of work: One is indefatigable persistence; the other is the ability to discard something in which one has invested great labor and many ideas.” He concluded, “God is inexorable in the way in which he has distributed his gifts. To me he has given the stubbornness of a mule and nothing else — on second thought he has also given me intuition.” No one would disagree that Einstein was a great scientist and also a searching Jew; but, he was also philosophical. Straus ended his eulogy with another one of Einstein’s reflections. He said, “Greatness in the world of ideas is basically a question of character. The main thing is never compromise.”
None of us is Einstein. But, it wasn’t his genius that led him to know that “greatness in the world of ideas is basically a question of character.” He accepted the truth about himself as much as he did about logic he found in nature. To succeed, we must do the same. It’s not easy to turn; but, if we want to proceed, then we must turn and we must do it now.
On the High Holydays, we take a personal accounting. Sometimes we don’t like what we see when we total the accounts. More debits than credits on our lists of deeds means loss, failure, and disillusionment. It can hurt. It can hurt a lot. Sometimes we avoid the pain; but, I’ve witnessed that when we master our urges properly, the pain that personal growth requires gives way to relief and then to pleasure. It can also lead to peace of mind.
In Torah, we learn, “Lo tuchal l’hit’aleim.” You might know that it’s one of my favorite teachings. It’s commonly translated, “You shall not remain indifferent.” Given that Hebrew roots often share related meanings, the verse can also mean “You must not hide yourself.” When we hide ourselves, we become indifferent to the truth. It begins when we’re children. When we pick up a ball or coins that don’t belong to us and put them into our pockets, we begin to believe that we can change the truth about the matter. The child says, “I didn’t see any ball. I don’t know anything about coins.” Eventually, good parents or teachers taught us that no matter how hard we aimed to alter the truth, the truth remained the same. And, no matter our self-deceptions, we can’t hide the truth from ourselves, even now.
Oh, we all wish that we could know where we were intended to go, and if we would find success when we arrived there. If we could know, then we would do exactly what we needed to reach the destination. But, even when it’s hidden from us, faith in a larger purpose to our life can still be motivating and inspiring. Then, when we do reach milestones along the way, because we learned from our mistakes and focused on real gifts and skills, we might know real joy. No life is going to be permanently joyful; but, it can be permanently meaningful. That might not be enough for everyone. Some people need constant happiness and joy. I love happiness, too, but if I can’t maintain it, I’m honestly very content with meaning whether it’s found in joy or sorrow.
Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, taught, “Judaism is not the pursuit of happiness; Judaism is the pursuit of meaning.” He didn’t say that we shouldn’t seek happiness. He only meant that if we sought only happiness that we would be disappointed more often than not. And, even if we did enjoy it for some time, happiness remains elusive. Instead, Wiesel wisely taught that we should seek meaning. For me, meaning allows me to face my reality without hiding from it. I accept my blessings but also my lumps. I’m not perfect. I don’t have a perfect life. But, the meaning I seek and always seem to find is mine every time. Meaning makes it easier to show up. I don’t have to hide. I don’t feel indifferent, because when I accept my reality, then I always feel something. Of course, I hope it will be mostly joy, but even when it isn’t, I’ll look for meaning in those moments.
Naomi Shemer, one of Israel’s most endearing singer/ songwriters wrote a song about the joy and the sorrow we have to balance with faith in order to thrive. Though we are American Jews, it speaks to us, too. Shemer wrote, “Al Kol Eleh” For All These Things. Written in Hebrew, in English it says:
“Every bee that brings the honey / Needs a sting to be complete / And we all must learn to taste the bitter with the sweet.
Keep, oh God, the fire burning / Through the night and through the day /
For the man who is returning / from so far away.
Don’t uproot what has been planted / So our bounty may increase / Let our dearest wish be granted: / Bring us peace, oh bring us peace.
Al Kol Eleh; For the sake of all these things, O God, / Let your mercy be complete
Bless the sting and bless the honey / Bless the bitter and the sweet.
Save the houses that we live in / The small fences and the wall / From the sudden war-like thunder / May you save them all.
Guard what little I’ve been given / Guard the hill my child might climb / Let the fruit that’s yet to ripen / Not be plucked before its time.
As the wind makes rustling night sounds / And a star falls in its arc / All my dreams and my desires / Form crystal shapes out of the dark.
Guard for me, oh God, these treasures / All my friends keep safe and strong,
Guard the stillness, guard the weeping, / And above all, guard this song.”
Shemer was realistic and hopeful at the same time. She observed the sting of the bee but also its honey. She recognized the strength of our human handiwork but also the power of our prayers for prosperity. She valued the need for strong walls for protection but she knew that war could bring them down hard. The song’s theme is sobering and inspiring. It’s an Israeli worldview; but, first, it’s a Jewish view. We’re all taught to see the world for what it is — beauty and wonder, science and art; but, also for what the world can be — a place to plant and grow; a world to build with faith in our future.
In the final analysis, we have to choose how we’re going to see ourselves in the world around us.
It’s like the story about a small Jewish man who’s sitting on a boat next to a large sleeping man from Texas. The boat is moving up and down in the water. The little Jewish man gets seasick, and, unable to help himself, he ends up getting sick all over the Texan. The Texan starts to wake up. He opens his eyes and, to his horror, sees himself covered with this mess. He looks at the little Jewish man. The little Jewish man looks at him and says, “You feel better now?”
Changing our orientation — turning — is what the Ten Days of Repentance are all about. And, “L’chayim” To Life, is our way of seeing the world and our future. The only question left to ask ourselves is the one that Rabbi Hillel posed to us centuries ago. He asked, “Im lo achshav, ei-matai?” “If not now, when?”
[i] Jonathan Sacks. “To Heal a Fractured World”. Schocken, New York 2005. p. 180
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.