Thursday, October 8, 2020

This Passes, Rosh Hashanah 20


One spring, Solomon challenged his advisors, “find me a gift by next Rosh Hashanah that will make the happy person look at it and become circumspect, and the sad person look at it and become hopeful.” 

The advisors searched all over, until just before the new year one passed a poor old jeweler selling a ring – and this ring was the gift Solomon wanted. 

When it was presented to the king he smiled and thanked his advisors for finding the gift that would teach humility to even the most powerful and richest of man of all.  And what was special about the ring?  On it were written three Hebrew letters: gimel, zayin, and yud, standing for, גַּם זֶה יַעֲבֹר‏‎, gam zeh yaavor, “this too, shall pass.”

It is funny how a story so widely known, one that you’ve probably heard before, one you may have even heard from a guy in Jerusalem who told it to you while selling you just such a ring, isn’t really a Jewish story at all.  Or at least, requires a footnote at the end to give us the correct meaning. 

Because, while it is good to remember that everything passes– certainly, a relief to know in the face of the pandemic and quarantine, and the other disasters and challenges we face.  But if that is the end of the story, that it’s all for naught, that all the joy and happiness in your life is nothing more than a mirage on an endless, flat, featureless, colorless desert, that even the sad and tragic losses and failures and mistakes completely lack in meaning, that seems incorrect.    

Last High Holidays our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, helped us learn about teshuvah, and much to my surprise, he’s back to help us again in understanding the right, the Jewish, way to read this story.

In his version, from before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, basically a state fair, held on September 30th, 1859.  He shares, “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, "And this, too, shall pass away." How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”

Lincoln said this at the end of a truly marvelous speech, one you should look up after the holiday to see the workings of a master orator, called “Thorough Cultivation.”  To the farmers he was addressing, he begins by noting how great State Fairs are, (and on this point, speaking as a kid who grew up in Illinois and attended my “fair” share of county and state fairs, I disagree) because they--  “bring us together and make us better friends than we otherwise would be.”  This, Lincoln says, is important because, while for much of history, treating the outsider with scorn was allowed and even celebrated, friendship can, “correct the evils, great and small, which spring from want of sympathy [between] strangers, [being it is] one of the highest functions of civilization.”

He deftly starts by stating the obvious.  To his audience that with modern technology a field “thoroughly cultivated” produces more, both in terms of yield and in terms of satisfaction and dignity to the one tilling it.  Having established what is universally understood to be good for fields, “thorough cultivation” – he then says the same is true for human beings as well.  People have the right to be educated, treated with dignity and respect for their innate humanity, and not say --oh I don’t know, maybe Lincoln means – treated like slaves -- our fellow humans will not only contribute more to society, but will gain the reward owed them to live as all should, with equality and respect. 

It is at this point he adds the lesson we need to wrap up his version of the Solomon story:

“And yet, let us hope, it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world beneath and around us, and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.”

None of us is guaranteed that even some of our works will endure forever.  But even so, like Lincoln’s farmer, if anything still matters, and it does, it is the value of kavod ha-briot.  Of human dignity.  Realizing our best lives are lived when we see that what is true for us, that our lives can matter and mean something, is true about the potential of every other human being on earth. 

Our current circumstances should teach us that.  You really want the biggest things you take away from living through a quarantine to be that you watched all of Tiger King and that you can now also not pay attention during remote meetings? 

Wouldn’t it be better to have learned the value of life?  That people we might have belittled, are more vitally important to your life than you ever imagined?  Or that people who don’t look like me or live like me may have problems that make them angry enough to want to destroy things, tear them down? Shouldn’t that matter to me enough to want to at least learn about those people, and maybe even try to help them if they need it and I can? 

As different as I may be, and I may not be that different when it comes down it, but as different as I may feel from the African American protesting in Kenosha, full of despair and anger at a system and a history in our shared country that holds back people who look like him for no other reason than their appearance – I should want to snap out of my complacency, which after all contributes with its silence to the ills of the world, and understand -- and in understanding want to help him or her. 

Like Lincoln, doing so will have its tangible results – making a happy, productive citizen, and yet have deeper, higher meaning -- helping a fellow struggling human being attain their God-given dignity.

That though, seems far more obvious a setting in which wanting to understand and wanting to help, given a well-known history, are the choices one should make. 

More challengingly, at least for me, is a different example.  One that through what I’ve heard and seen, and through my stereotypes and fears, opens a great chasm of distance – for me anyway.  What should I feel towards the white American at a rally in Sturgis?  He or she feels intimidatingly foreign to me.  Their lifestyle is nothing like mine, their faith is nothing like mine.  And my assumptions about them, and my assumptions about their assumptions about me – lead me to want to have nothing to do with them.  Yet, even here, shouldn’t I want to understand and perhaps even try to help that fellow human as well?  For while I believe our country’s history clearly shows the African-American community far more wrong and far  more lacking justice today, does that mean I should give not a thought to whatever fears and anger and even hate the person in Sturgis feels?  And not to be too impressed with myself, would it not be even more of an achievement to seek that regarding one I feel so negatively about?  

The lesson, I think could be taken to apply in many cases for all of, I believe.   

And is it not also an achievement to act with courageous empathy and patience to those who misunderstand me?  And even more listen to those who can help me when I am wrong?  I don’t want to be wrong in life, I want to be good, too.  And I don’t think I’m alone wanting that.  At least I pray I’m not.  Isn’t that a reason to want to understand and reach out even to those with whom we disagree or those we either believe or know are hurting our world?

It’s a huge task.  I don’t know all the steps that will get us there.  Yet I am convinced this is a first step towards becoming, “better friends than we otherwise would be.” 

I love the humility in the gam zeh ya’avor story.  But I also love what President Lincoln, and our own tradition add to it – that even if it passes away, and all the more if it endures, we must bravely follow their advice. Will doing so mean we will always achieve it?  No.  Does it mean we will avoid conflict with evil-doers and evil ideas – certainly not.  Those we must defeat by any means necessary.  But “any means” includes with friendship and understanding, too.

This is not the weak path.  It is the strong one.  Let our strength be to make a stranger a friend.  And to meet with courageous understanding and patience the one who looks at us lacking such strength. 

And let us pray to God, ken yehi ratzon, so may it be. So may it be God’s will we appreciate this in the year to come.  Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment