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Living in Two Worlds

Erev Rosh Hashanah • Rosh Hashanah Eve

October 2, 2016 • 1 Tishrei 5777

Rabbi Bridget Wynne


I want to share one of my favorite stories, told by Rabbi Nachman, who lived in the 1700s in what is now Ukraine.


Once there was a king who chose the four wisest men on earth as his advisors. One could read the stars, another the waves of the sea. The third could interpret stones, and the fourth the language of the winds.


One day the advisors came to the king, their faces troubled, their eyes full of fear. One said, “Your majesty, we have terrible news. We’ve consulted the stars, the sea, the stones, and the winds, and have seen the future. A plague is coming. It will poison all the grain in the kingdom. Those who eat it will go mad. But there is a way out. You must set aside what is left of the old harvest so that we five will not have to eat the poisoned grain.”


The king was silent, lost in thought. Then he answered, “If everyone except us is mad, they will think that we are mad. So we have no choice. We, too, must eat the poisoned grain. But, before we go mad, let us make a mark on our foreheads. In the hard times to come we shall see the sign on each other, and know that we are mad. We will remember that there was a time when we were not, and that the day will come when we shall no longer be mad.”


It’s a strange story, of a land in which every bite of grain, necessary for life, leads to madness … of a ruler who chooses to join his people in this madness.


One reason I love this story is because it reminds me of our lives. We, too, are often surrounded by what feels like madness. What we’re fed can poison our minds, our hearts, and our souls.


Yet we have choices that the king and his advisors did not.


Like many people, I live in two worlds. One is the world of our mainstream culture. In day-to-day life it can seem ordinary enough, though the more shootings of African-Americans we see, and the closer we get to the election, the more visible the madness becomes.


This world values people who are famous, wealthy, and, if they are women, never age. It even holds up people who are famous for being famous for us to admire, to follow the details of their lives, to emulate. Think about what are called “reality shows,” which are based on the degradation of vulnerable human beings. Is this reality? Or madness? Or both?


This world reveres winners, and scorns losers. Do you remember this billboard displayed at the Olympic games a number of years ago? "You don't win the silver medal, you lose the gold." In this sort of competition there are lots more losers than winners, so many of the citizens of this world spend time feeling that they –- or we --- don't measure up.


It is also a world full of fear. It’s not by chance that messages of threat and competition surround us, that we are enticed to watch others be humiliated, or to see them as a menace. Fear sells. Danger is peddled –- by the media to get us to click, by the marketplace to get us to buy, by politicians to get our votes. Our brains respond instinctively to what seem to be warnings all around us. Fear works. It’s part of what keeps us alive.


These days we’re bombarded with messages that we should fear terrorists, refugees, Muslims, immigrants, and people who are different from us, who we’re told are stealing our chance –- or our children’s chances -- to live the American dream. And a danger that has existed for years –- of our law enforcement and justice systems criminalizing black and brown people -– has become visible to all. We have created an impossible situation in which police officers, prison guards, and others are trapped, expected to address so much they cannot – poverty, mental and physical illness, addiction, cheap guns that are easily available …


When we tune in to news and social media we are barraged by these crises, both real and imagined, and the responses to them, some constructive, some not. This is on top of the more personal side of social media. The people on Facebook, for example, which some call Fakebook, seem to be having such a great time. Maybe if we buy the right things, get trained or coached by the right individual, build our personal brand, then we will be as happy, healthy, successful, and attractive as they are.


This is the madness we are fed.


So, on Rosh Hashanah, which our tradition calls Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment, how do we measure up? Unless we consciously choose to step away from the madness, it’s natural to see our lives through the eyes of the culture that surrounds us. From that perspective we might ask, “Am I a winner? Have I achieved enough? Do I have enough – enough admiration, enough stuff? Do I look good? Do I matter?”


This is how our culture trains us to see ourselves and others. But we have more choices than the king and his advisors did. Let’s visit another world, one that is profoundly countercultural. I don’t mean California or Bay Area counterculture.


This is the world of Jewish values. But are they really countercultural? Aren’t they pretty much the same as American values? Some are; many are not. Jewish values do not teach us to win out over the competition, or encourage us to fear, humiliate, or publically embarrass others. Instead, they remind us that the world does not revolve around us, nor belong to us. Our tradition tells us to love our neighbor, to love the stranger, to love ourselves.


How do we do this? Here are a few specifics:

  • Dan lekaf zekhut. Give others the benefit of the doubt.

  • Lo ton’u ish et amito. Do not wrong others, financially or by embarrassing them.

  • Lo ta’amod al dam reyekha. Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.

  • Tzedek, tdezek tirdof. Justice, justice, you shall pursue.

  • B’makom she’ein anashim, histadel l’hiyot ish. In a place where no one behaves like a human being, strive to be human.


In a place where no one behaves like a human being, strive to be human.


Finally, our tradition insists that we matter, not because we are perfect or famous, but because within each of us is a spark, a unique, I would even say sacred, potential. At the same time, we are all profoundly connected, to one another, to all that is around us. Every choice we make can help to destroy or to heal our world, in ways we may never know.


What would it be like to be judged, to judge ourselves, according to these values?


This world of Jewish values is also a world of faith. I am not focusing here on faith as we usually hear about it, as belief –- belief in God, belief that everything will work out for the best. I mean a different type of faith I’ve learned about from our tradition. Faith that our deeds matter, our lives matter. Faith in the possibility that each of us can make t'shuvah –- can return to a better self, a truer self. Faith that we can look beyond fear, and discover joy and gratitude. Faith like this is a choice. If we decide that there is no meaning, no higher calling in life, we can go on with our lives unchanged. We can stamp these days, these songs and prayers “return to sender.” Or, we can choose to enter into the possibility that there is meaning, and what we do matters enormously.


This world of Jewish values and faith invites us to ask ourselves the deep questions: what really motivates us, what gifts might we offer the world, what would it mean to have the courage of our convictions, to live our values? These are risky questions. They make us vulnerable. We might fail, we might look foolish. We might have to make uncomfortable changes, or difficult sacrifices. It’s risky to choose faith, risky to look into the core of our being. But it’s riskier not to.


The king realized that he and his advisors probably could not stay sane while everyone around them went mad. We humans need others who see us for who we are, who reflect reality back to us, the good and the bad. Without this, the king chose to join his people in their madness.


Our situation is different. We do not have to be surrounded only by madness. We need to be with people with whom we can be real, to whom we can reveal our shadow side and less than noble agendas. People who love us enough to tell us the truth when we’re off base, in a way we can hear it -- with compassion and love, not judgment or anger. People who see the good in us when we see only failures and shortcomings, who see our strength when we feel weak, who point to our courage when we feel afraid or ashamed. We need people who will let us try out new ways of being.


In this New Year, let us commit to becoming those people -- who can be trusted, who treat others’ vulnerabilities with care and concern, who see beneath the surface, who help each other grow. Can each of us do this in a deep way for everyone? Probably not. But we can each be there in that way for someone, and we can all do better, with everyone.


In fact, we are already here together, sharing this tent, having chosen to be here, to look at our lives from the perspective of our deepest values, our truest selves. As I close, I invite you to take a moment now to bring to mind any insight, any feeling, any encounter that has reminded you this evening of who you really are. Then, remember it, take it with you, from this world we have created here this evening, into the world each of our choices can help to shape in this New Year.

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