Rosh Hashanah Day Two Sermon
Rabbi Aviva Bass
Temple Sinai 5778
On Rosh Hashanah and during the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, we are asked to examine ourselves. Part of heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, involves looking at that to which we have been investing our time and energy. To what have we been committed this past year, and to what do we wish to commit in the year to come? Today, I would like to look at the distinction between attachments and commitments and look at the liturgy of the High Holy Days to see how it may yield insights into how to distinguish between the two.
Many of you are familiar with the story of the Golden Calf, which the Israelites made while waiting for Moses to come down from Mt. Sinai with the Tablets of G-d’s Commandments. While Moses was on Sinai receiving the Torah, the Israelites grew impatient, and feeling that they needed to see a god to follow and to believe in they melted down their gold to forge a Golden Calf, to which they proceeded to give homage. Upon his return down the mountain, witnessing this act of idolatry, Moses smashed the Tablets of the Commandments, which they needed to be recarved from new stone. How does this incident relate to us today? The Israelites believed that they needed to attach themselves to a physical object, the Golden Calf, rather than to an ideal, to G-d and the Torah. One of the reasons that idolatry is a sin is because it obscures the Truth and takes energy away from true commitment and diverts it to superficiality, resulting in attachment to shallowness.
Most attachments are not quite as obvious as the Golden Calf, although they are just as seductive. Often they are elusive, and many people spend much of their lives in their pursuit.
Some obvious examples of objects of attachment are money, power, or a particular lifestyle. Yet attachments can also be to preconceived ideas of how one’s life “should go,” such as being married or having children by a certain age, home ownership or a certain job status. These are the kind of things mid-life crises are made of!
Some relationships are built on these rocky foundations. Some would call this conditional love, but I do not believe that this is love at all. This is not really love for another person, but rather self-love. It is the language of desire, not giving. This is part of what Martin Buber termed “I-It” relationships—seeing in another only the fulfillment of one’s own wants and needs.
It is difficult to let go of our attachments, especially when we have grown accustomed to living our lives in a particular way and are asked suddenly to switch gears. A popular bestseller is a book called Who Moved My Cheese? By Spencer Johnson and Kenneth Blanchard. It is an allegorical tale about mice and tiny humans who suddenly run out of the supply of their cheese and must either learn to adapt by leaving their home to go into a difficult maze to find a new source of cheese or face eventual death. Each of the characters reacts differently to the changed circumstances. It is a story about survival, which is really an allegory for all of us when we are faced with change. It has become required reading by many corporations, because so many people have this difficulty accommodating to changed circumstances. We grow comfortable with the way things are, and this often can lead to unhealthy attachment.
Commitments are constituted by deeper ideals and higher values than attachments are. Commitments represent our relationships with others and with G-d. These are the ideals that lead to tikkun olam, the repair of our shattered world, and represent a partnership with the Divine in our lives. These are the basis of truly loving relationships, those in which one cares more for or at least as much for the other as he/she does for him/herself. These are the relationships that were termed by Martin Buber as “I-Thou” relationships, in which we recognize G-d within others as well as within ourselves. We saw many examples of commitment in response to tragic circumstances with the recent natural disasters, as people put others’ welfare before their own.
Are all attachments bad? Although Buddhists might not agree with this, perhaps attachments can be life-affirming at times, especially when they lead to commitments to core values, such as the preservation of life. They can give people a sense of security in an insecure world. However, attachments can become bad when they obscure core values and true commitments.
I read a story in the book Kitchen Table Wisdom by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, in which Dr. Remen was attending to a young man who had been separated from his ski party and had spent three days in below-zero Fahrenheit temperatures, but who had survived the ordeal. He had suffered frostbite and gangrene of his feet. One of his feet healed, but the other became so gangrenous that the doctors told the man that they must amputate the foot in order to save his life. Yet the man refused, saying he would keep his foot. Days passed and he became sicker and sicker, as the toxins flooded his body. The situation was desperate, yet the man refused the surgery. Finally, his fiancée tore off her engagement ring and thrust it onto the black toe of his gangrenous foot. “I hate this damned foot,” she sobbed. “If you want this foot so much, why don’t you marry it? You’re going to have to choose. You can’t have us both.” Looking at the bright shiny ring on the rotting tissues of his foot convinced the man. He had been so attached to the idea of having both his feet, that he had forgotten in the process his commitment to his fiancée and his life. He scheduled the surgery the next day.
While usually not as dramatic as this, we could all probably recount stories of times when we became so attached to the way things were that we lost sight of the big picture in our reluctance for change. Our commitments, our true values, can bring us back to reality.
Are all commitments good? Unfortunately not. We have too often in recent history witnessed people who have committed themselves to evil ideals and deeds. As we have seen, there are people who are willing to die for their obscene values of murdering others and creating terror. Commitments have the potential for evil when they are to evil ideals.
So how do we know if our own beliefs and deeds are attachments or commitments, and how can we measure whether our own commitments are truly worthy? I mentioned the other night the formula in our High Holy Day liturgy, which we say throughout both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which is very helpful in determining these distinctions for ourselves. We say, “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedekah ma’avirin et ro’ah hag’erah.” This is the central message of the holiday season. It is translated in our machzor as “But repentance, prayer, and charity avert judgment’s severe decree,” and most of us associate that judgment with G-d, the ultimate Judge of us all on these Yamim Noraim. Yet, I would like to suggest another interpretation, that these three factors can help us to avert our own misguided judgments, our unworthy attachments and commitments. The other night, I asked you to examine each of these concepts in relation to our own menschlichkeit. Now, let’s take a deeper look at each of these three concepts in relation to judging our own attachments vs. commitments.
Teshuvah, as I said the other night, is most commonly translated as “repentance,” but a more accurate translation would be “return.” This is an inward process, as we return to our inner selves to examine our behavior, as we are doing now. We ask ourselves if our actions represent a positive commitment to an ideal in consonance with our partnership with G-d. If it is not, we have the opportunity to return to right behavior.
Tefillah is also an inward as well as an upward process, as we move toward that which is Higher than ourselves and our own personal concerns. It is inward because, like teshuvah, it also involves self-judment. To remind you, l’hitpallel, the verb which means “to pray” actually can be more accurately translated as “to judge oneself.” How can prayer help us to distinguish between attachment and commitment?
Dr. Remen says the following in her book:
“ . . .Prayer is not a way to get what we want to happen, like the remote control that comes with the television set I think that prayer may be less about asking for the things we are attached to than it is about relinquishing our attachments in some way. It can take us beyond fear, which is an attachment, and beyond hope, which is another form of attachment. It can help us remember the nature of the world and the nature of life, not on an intellectual level but in a deep and experiential way. When we pray, we don’t change the world, we change ourselves. We change our consciousness. We move from an individual, isolated making-things-happen kind of consciousness to a connection on the deepest level with the largest possible reality. . . Prayer is a movement from mastery to mystery.” [Ibid., pp. 270-271].
An example of this point about prayer is that people often pray that their sick loved ones recover from their illnesses. When at bedsides with people praying in hospice and other dire situations, I explain the difference between curing and healing. We pray together that the sick person become healed. However, that may not mean that the patient is miraculously cured of his/her illness or disease. It may mean that G-d grants a spiritual healing but not a physical one, so that the patient may ease into the next world in a peaceful state. And we pray that the loved ones are at peace with whatever form this healing will take. If we refuse to let go of the concept that G-d should cure the patient physically, we become attached to that idea, rather than what may be best for the hospice patient, which may be as painless and as peaceful a death as possible.
Tzedekah is an outward process. This word is very often translated as “charity,” yet, as I mentioned the other night, this is a mistranslation, because of the connotations of that word. Charity is from a Latin word charitas, which means “love.” It implies that one does acts of charity from love. Yet tzedekah comes from the Hebrew root tzedek, which means “justice.” It implies not choice made out of feelings of love for the recipient, but rather an obligation, righteous action that is required of us. Tzedekah thus is about the pursuit of justice and righteous action. Tzedekah requires of us to ask ourselves the question, “Is what I am doing benefiting others or only myself?”
So these three actions: teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedekah, the inward, upward, and outward processes required of us during these Yamim Noraim can help us to discern whether our behavior is made out of empty attachment or true commitment to Higher ideals. Rabbi Richard Hirsh suggests the following interpretation of this piece of our liturgy, “Direction (teshuvah), Reflection (tefillah), and Connection (tzedekah) make it possible to live within boundaries not of our making and beyond our control. Teshuvah, or turning to G-d/lines, is the process of deciding the direction of our lives. Tefillah, or prayer, can be a reflection on who we are, where we are, and where we are going. Tzedekah, both charity and acts of justice, connect us to others, reminding us that our own salvation or self-fulfillment cannot exist apart from those with whom we share past, present, and future.” In this way, we may be able to discern between attachments and commitments.
Now as we have just commemorated the 16th anniversary of 9-11, I remember the words of President George W. Bush speaking after the terrorism, who said that, through their actions, the terrorists shook the foundations of buildings but not of the American spirit. That is because the true human spirit is linked to our commitments and ideals, not to what is represented by an edifice. It is also that commitment which caused us on 9-11 to mourn not just the buildings or the economy, but, more importantly, the tremendous tragedy of the loss of life—real lives and relationships forever severed by that evil act. It is also this spirit which bids us to help those affected by tragedies, both acts of terrorism and those of natural disaster, and moves us to prayer and to action.
During these High Holy Days, may each of us be able to do a true heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, to examine how we are investing our time and energy. For the coming year, may we be able to relinquish old, unnecessary and potentially damaging attachments and renew and rededicate ourselves to our true commitments to Higher ideals. May the world be able to distinguish between the Golden Calf and G-d’s teachings, to lead us toward a world of peace. And together, may we be able to create a new mishkan, a dwelling place for the Divine, for G-d to cause peace to reign upon us, on all Israel, and on all the world.