Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Choosing life . . . . . in a world of brokenness

Who is in charge of your life? God? Yourself? Others?

If you were in synagogue a few days ago on Rosh HaSahnnah, it would be understandable if you might have felt as if your only option is to submit to some predetermined fate about the course of your life. The great image of the High Holiday season -- articulated dramatically in the ונתנה תוקף/U-netaneh Tokef prayer -- is that of God high in the heavens, writing in a book that determines the course of your year to come. We sing together the words:
בְּראשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן
On Rosh HaShannah it (who shall live and who shall die) it is written.

וּבְיום צום כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן
And on Yom Kippur (this coming Shabbat) it is sealed.
And, yet, the prayer also gives us something to do in the 10 days between these two holidays -- a path to reduce the severity of the decree written on Rosh HaShannah:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה
מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רעַ הַגְּזֵרָה
Teshuvah, prayer and tzeduckah avert the severity of the dec
But what exactly does this "teshuvah, prayer and tzeduckah" mean? I could try and help a bit by translating all the words into English -- repentance for teshuvah and charity for tzeduckah -- but that leaves us still wondering what is really meant by repentance and by charity (or, for that matter, even prayer). What, for example, are we meant to repent from? If it's from sin, what does sin mean for us?

Whenever I think of the nature of Judaism, I always think of the choice of our ancient Sages to end the Torah with the heartbreaking image of Moshe standing on the edge of the Promised Land, knowing that he will die there and never see the land of his forebears. The Sages could have instead chosen to end the Torah with the next book in the Bible -- Joshua -- and its tale of a triumphant reentry into the land punctuated by dramatic military victories carried out with God's help. But our Sages chose to end the Torah in the wilderness -- in a place of exile and brokenness. There's a powerful message in that for us -- brokenness is not just something for Moshe, it is for all of us. That is where we live. We live knowing we will die, and even that we may die in pain and disappointment. We live knowing the world is full of suffering -- even the death of children to cancer -- that we cannot hope to make sense of.

It would be easy to lose hope knowing that we live in a world that is broken, and that is unlikely to be completely fixed in our lifetimes. It would be easy to become discouraged. We could -- and sometimes do -- lose faith like the people Israel did on their 40-year journey in the wilderness.

But God calls us back with the demand that we -- even on the edge of the place of potential doom that is the sealing of the decrees on Yom Kippur -- embrace the best that it is possible for us to be as humans. To be humans who choose to acknowledge our mistakes and errors and then to repent from them. To be humans who choose to acknowledge God's greatness through acts of prayer. To be humans who choose to try to make the world around them more just -- especially for the weakest and most needy among us -- through acts of righteous giving. In effect, to be humans who choose life. . . . even amid the threat, or even nearness, of death. Even amid knowledge of the brokenness amid us and around us.

Some weeks back, I wrote here about how I was hit by a car while bicycling. I was not hurt badly and did not need to go to the hospital. Yet, I have found myself thinking about the accident often, and have been wondering why I seem to think it was such an important event for me.

I am still not sure. But I know that I keep thinking of the moment when I realized the car was going to hit me. To my surprise, it was not fear that gripped me. Instead, I was able to intentionally do the thing that I had learned would be most useful towards increasing my survivability in the face of an impact -- I relaxed. I allowed myself to roll up onto the hood of the car and then fall back down on the ground. In effect, at that moment when it seemed like I had no control over what would happen to me, I still grabbed for what agency I still had to work towards my goal -- my goal of choosing life.

As chaplains and spiritual caregivers, or just as people, we often meet people whose time left on earth appears to be short -- as if a 'car' is coming towards them -- or who have experienced much loss, including the loss of independence or of loved ones. We often struggle to find ways we can be of some comfort. I know of no magic words for those moments. But I do know it is always still possible to choose life for the moments that remain to us, to be a force for good -- for teshuvah, prayer and tzeduckah -- in the world.

May the year ahead be a happy and healthy one in which you are sealed in life -- and one in which you are able to find your own way towards choosing life for yourself.

Shannah Tova.


Above, you may have been confused by the picture of a bicycle. It is Bira single-speed cruiser bike with coaster brakes (also featured below on top of a labyrinth of all things that I found in the East River park with the Williamsburg Bridge in the distance). For me, cycling is one of the little ways I try and choose life a bit more often. I got the bike from NYU's bicycle share program and rode it down from the Village today to Bowling Green downtown (where I write this blog post courtesy of free wi-fi in the park).

NYU's bike share program is just a pilot that will hopefully soon be supplanted by the ambitious plans for a municipal share program. Based on the great success of bike share in Paris, this program hopes to revolutionize how people get around the City. In Paris, people rent the bikes from automated stations with credit cards. The rentals are meant to be short term -- just to ride to the next bicycle station where you drop it off (the rates are designed to encourage people to quickly return the bikes). I hope it really comes to be -- as planned -- by next summer!

From NYC biking

No comments: