Friday, September 3, 2010

Death of a derashah

I wrote the derashah below for the second day of Rosh HaShanah, but my Rebbetzin/editrix nixed it when I read it to her last night.

The crimes:
1. Too obvious;
2. Fuzzy use of 'spirituality' between Rabbi Dr. Twerski and Rav Kook;
3. It's overwritten.

I agree with all three counts, but I don't want the work to go entirely to waste, so here it is. Let this at least be a lesson in the challenges your rabbi faces in crafting a good derashah.

I’ve always been taught that there are Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, ten days of repentance. The term is rooted in the gemara, from two thousand years ago – the Bavli mentions ten days of repentance between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, and the Yerushalmi calls them עשרת ימי תשובה. The only problem is that the term seems to be wrong – we don’t have ten days. Rosh haShanah is not a day of Teshuvah.

Classically, teshuvah involves admitting we’ve sinned, regretting the sin and determining that we won’t repeat these offenses – and we do none of those on Rosh haShanah. We don’t say “Al Cheit,” we don’t say “Ashamnu, Bagadnu,” we don’t say Selichos. This makes sense – if we would plead guilty, the case would be closed, Rosh haShanah would be over! Finished, there’s nothing more to discuss! The last thing we want to do is to walk into court on the day of judgment and say, “Guilty as charged!”

But if we don’t admit sin and apologize on Rosh haShanah, then in what way is this day part of עשרת ימי תשובה? Those days really begin tomorrow, and we should call them the Eight Days of Teshuvah!

Our answer may begin with an observation by Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski, regarding altruism.

Dr. Twerski describes a natural human need to behave altruistically, to sacrifice immediate personal gain on behalf of a greater good. His book, Spiritual Self, describes the hungry unease people feel when they are not acting altruistically, and the misguided, self-destructive routes they may take to try to sate that hunger.

Dr. Twerski identifies such altruism with spirituality, and he writes, “The spiritual person is… one who is willing to sacrifice personal comfort and physical contentment for an external goal. Development of such spirituality among young people may be the only way they may be deterred from the destructive use of mind-altering chemicals… [L]ack of spirituality and pursuit of contentment as the ultimate goal will lead to some other type of indulgent behavior.”

In another book, Dr. Twerski tells the story of a young man who came to him for suicide counseling. The man stood to inherit billions from his father, more than he could ever spend, but he was miserable. His octogenaraian father was addicted to the office and did nothing else, and the young man envisioned himself going that route and living an empty life. Dr. Twerski suggested, “With that money at your disposal, just think of the way you could be helpful to many thounsands of people.” And he writes, “The man looked at me quizzically, as if I had just descended from Mars. ‘Give it away? Why would I want to give it away?’” It’s a classic case of someone who feels something is off inside, who is missing the altruism, but who is going a self-destructive route because he isn’t aware of what is troubling him.

Writing ninety years ago, Rav Kook made the same diagnosis regarding the Jew and his mitzvos.

In his Orot haTeshuvah, Rav Kook explained that the teshuvah process begins before any viduy, with our registering a spiritual unease, with our noticing that our internal balance is off – not just in terms of altruism, but in terms of Judaism.

As Rav Kook describes it, our personalities have a natural equilibrium, mediating between our responsibilities toward ourselves, toward our families, and toward the world at large. If we stop fulfilling some of these responsibilites, these roles for which we were designed, we grow disturbed, and even pained, by a barely-conscious awareness that we have strayed from our basic nature and purpose. Until we return, we are restless, filled with the sort of epic angst that makes for moody poetry and dramatic theatre, and either we respond to that angst with anxiety, irritation and anger, or we diagnose the illness, recognize the source of our pain, and mend the rift between our potential and our actual.

As Rav Kook wrote, drawing a parallel between the physical body’s immune system and that of the soul, “פליטת החמרים המזיקים פועלת פעולתה הטובה והמבריאה בגויה כשהיא שלמה בתכונתה, והרקה רוחנית של כל מעשה רע וכל רשומים רעים ומקולקלים הבאים ממנו... מוכרחת היא לבוא, כשהאורגן בריא מצדו הרוחני והגשמי יחדיו.” “The removal of harmful materials has a salutary and therapeutic effect upon the healthy body, and the spiritual removal of bad deeds and their bad and corrupt impressions… must also happen, when the organism is physically and spiritually healthy. ”

Based on both Dr. Twerski and Rav Kook, all of us naturally feel some discomfort, some sense that our balance is askew, and this triggers our teshuvah instincts. Interpreting the signal and prescribing a solution is the rest of the teshuvah process.

But we have a problem. Perhaps some of has have a highly tuned, natural sensitivity to this internal signal, but surely this is not true for all of us. In the course of our lives as Jews who live and work and play in the larger world, who interact with hundreds, or even thousands, of human beings who do not share our tribal mitzvos or our habits of heritage, who read books and listen to music and watch entertainment that do not include krias shema and mezuzah and kashrus and shatnez and talmud torah other than as cultural curiosities, our natural sensitivities to spiritual equilibrium become dulled.

Dr. Twerski’s internal altruism compass may continue to function, because the greater world recognizes the importance of selflessness and reinforces it for us – but how will we be reminded to pay attention to Rav Kook’s internal Jewish compass? How will we be motivated to move along a path of teshuvah?

This is the role of the spiritual sledgehammer that is Rosh haShanah. With all the subtlety of a vuvuzela, the shofar blasts in our ears, proclaiming, “ד' מלך! HaShem is the King!” We add into our davening the plea, “UvChen ten pachdicha,” appealing to Gd for a greater Divine presence in our world, for a presence which guarantees that we will have constant awareness of our specific obligations as Jews.

Rosh haShanah, with its מלכיות and its emphatic proclamation of Gd as King, summons us to re-orient ourselves as citizens of a Divine kingdom, and to feel for that honest voice inside that can tell us how well we have been meeting our obligations.

This is the position of Rosh haShanah at the head of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, before there can be any Viduy. Rosh haShanah is the wake-up call, the day when we re-learn the question we need to ask ourselves: How are we doing? Are we religiously in-sync? And if we are not, what will we do about it?

In fact, this fits Rav Gifter’s explanation of the relationship between viduy and teshuvah. As Rav Gifter explained it, we have a broad mitzvah of teshuvah, which begins with preparatory acts and awareness of need, and concludes with viduy – all of these are elements which create the grand process and mitzvah of teshuvah.

Certainly, this re-orientation begins with the figurative as well as literal alarm clock that is the shofar, and it is supported by the words of our Rosh haShanah davening. While we are within the walls of this room, we may well begin to feel the stirrings of that spiritual compass described by Rav Kook. But there’s more to the process, there must be more, or our awareness of discomfort will be numbed by the honey on our challah at lunch, and it will dissipate entirely as the first tendril of lashon hara insinuates itself into our pre-dessert conversations.

We turn to classic advice from a gemara in Berachos, building on a pasuk in Tehillim: לעולם ירגיז אדם יצר טוב על יצר הרע, One should always stir up his yetzer hatov, his desire to do good, so that it will triumph over the rest of his nature. The first step is to actively seek and nurture that internal compass.

If that is sufficient, if taking a sounding for internal disruption works and inspires us to return to balance, great. If not, the gemara continues, יעסוק בתורה, we turn to Talmud Torah, to learning Torah, both to teach us what we should be looking for and to provide us with a general mental environment in which the internal spiritual balance is what matters.

If that suffices, the introspection and learning work to stir teshuvah and restore equilibrium, great. Otherwise, יקרא קריאת שמע, recite Shema, with its reminders of our core beliefs and imperatives. Inculcate within ourselves that HaShem our Creator is One, that we are meant to develop love for HaShem, that we have responsibilities as Jews.

If that works and we are now ready for a durable teshuvah, great. But the gemara says that if it doesn’t, יזכור לו יום המיתה, we should remember the day of death, the end of our time here, and use that as the ultimate spur to ask ourselves: What are we doing here? Why are we alive? Are we using our potential? How are we using our potential?

This is the process of Teshuvah. Rosh haShanah is the beginning, the Shofar is the beginning, the davening is the beginning of these Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, waking us up to the need for teshuvah.

I have a friend who is very successful in his field, he’s a significant philanthropist and a thoughtful Jew. He told me a few years ago, in his early fifties, that he had felt for a long time that something was off inside, until he lost a parent and came to shul for kaddish and finally figured out what was bothering him: He needed to come to shul to daven once in a while, maybe weekly, maybe a little more. He needed to make space for Gd.

This decision had taken my friend years. Not because he’s uneducated – he’s known about minyan for decades. Not because he’s insensitive to Judaism. Not because he’s unintelligent – he’s smarter than the great majority of people I know. What took him years was insensitivity to his internal compass; he had only the vaguest sense that something was wrong, and no clue as to how he should proceed, until he came to shul to say kaddish and the answer was in his face.

Rav Kook says that all it takes is a single sustained thought to make this happen. הרצון הטוב הוא הכל – Will is everything. Once we establish our will to figure it out, our will to act, we will figure it out.

We begin by coronating Gd with our davening. We continue with the shofar. We extend this through the coronation of Gd at the end of Yom Kippur, declaring ד' הוא האלקים. And, ultimately, our sensitivity to Rav Kook’s compass inside will carry us through the year, a year of health and happiness pledged to us with a Divine כתיבה וחתימה טובה.

1. The gemara mentions ten days of teshuvah in Berachos 12b and Rosh haShanah 18b; the Yerushalmi uses the term עשרת ימי תשובה in Rosh HaShanah 1:3.

2. Technically, of course, it should be "Nine days of Teshuvah" if we omit Rosh haShanah, but I don't need to go there.

3. Rabbi Dr. Twerski's first quote is from page 13 of
Spiritual Self, and his second is from Without a job, who am I?

4. Rav Kook's quote is from
Orot haTeshuvah 5:1. See also 1, 2, 3, 4:9, 5:6, 6:3, 8:2, 8:4, 8:10, 14:6, 15:3-4.

5. The gemara in Berachos is from 5a.

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