Rosh Hashanah Day 2
SHAMELESS PLUG: Dave and I are in the midst of considering buying an apartment. (And while I am at it…we are also looking for Mets playoff tickets for us and the kids ) But seriously… As we walk through each apartment we look closely at certain things-are the bedrooms big enough? Does the kitchen have enough space for two sets of dishes? Can we host Shabbat dinners? What we rarely look at are the hallways between. We generally know that it isn’t hard to get from one room to the next. Or so we thought…For anyone who has bought an apartment, every single space has meaning.
This summer, I read a wonderful book that came out by Rabbi Sherre Hirsch called Thresholds: How to thrive through live’s transitions to live fearlessly and regret-free. While I certainly don’t think anyone can master those concepts by reading one book, the book, along with other thoughts that I had this summer, has given me more language on these issues.
Allow me to explain. Rabbi Hirsch sets up a wonderful image for us-She writes “Whether it’s our cozy bedroom, or toy-strewn family room, our newly renovated kitchen, each of us has a favorite room in our home. But when do we ever think about the hallways? We spend a lot of time traversing the hallways and crossing the thresholds both in our homes and our lives. These moments when we are in transition, those moments when we are standing between the way we were accustomed to living and a new way of thinking, feeling, and being. I‘m talking about those moments when we are preparing to enter a new room, to take the next step on the journey of our lives.
As we celebrate Rosh Hashanah today, and take that step into 5776, we need to step back from the noise of life, and think quietly and deeply about where we have been, where we are going, and how we are feeling about these journeys.
To help us explore, I want to reflect on a wonderful movie that came out this summer-though it was seemingly made for children, Pixar’s Inside-Out was a movie that people of all ages can and should see. It tells the story of a girl named Riley, who was moving from Minnesota to California. However, the story was narrated, not by an external voice, but actually from several characters that represented her inner dialogue.
In the movie we were quickly introduced to her emotions, each whom had names:
Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear. Each of these emotions, guide her decisions and often compete with one another for control of her by pushing buttons on the control panel in her brain. Rabbi Geoff Mittleman writes, fear is tall, thin, looks like a frayed nerve and is purple. Not only that, his eyes are purple, too. Anger, which looks like a brick and is red (and sometimes flaming), has red eyes. Disgust, who is green, has green eyes. Sadness, not surprisingly, is completely blue, and even looks like a teardrop.
At one point, towards the end, joy and sadness get kicked out of the brain and anger takes over-
And this is normal-Haven’t we felt that before-where we can’t even allow ourselves to let the other feelings back in…And it seems that our head is full of anger and our heart is full of sadness? While there is a place for anger-how can we pause and find a place for it and then to set it aside.
So how do we do that? We look at the character of Joy and realize how brilliant the director was:
But Joy, who is mainly yellow, has more than one color in her. She has blue eyes and blue hair. Why? As my Rabbi Mittleman continued, Well, if blue represents sadness, then the message is clear: there is no such thing as “pure joy.” Instead, even in our most joyous times, there is often sadness mixed in.
Now…As I was watching the movie, I, like any sap, wanted “joy” to win-to be the one who could fix everything and control everything-who wouldn’t? Why would I want disgust, anger, fear, or sadness to be able to take over- But as the movie progressed, it was clear, that one cannot only feel joy, and in a sense, one can’t understand joy without all of the other emotions. (recent article) In The New York Times parenting blog, Motherlode, the author remarked:
“Inside Out” doesn’t just stick up for dark feelings, it also recognizes that growing up comes with evolving emotional complexity…The movie suggests that the bittersweet is a step up from untarnished joy and shows how frantic cheerfulness can stand in the way of genuine connection.
In other words, Inside Out shows us that the goal of life isn’t “to be happy.” We will feel sad, angry or frightened. But we need our whole range of emotions for developing our sense of self and our relationship with others.
So in many ways, the fact that Joy has some Sadness in her helps her character become more fully human. If even the representation of Joy can be sad at times, so can we. And if we strive to be “happy” all the time, then we aren’t truly living our lives.
Dr. Julian Baggini, a British Philosopher writes that
There isn’t actually a single, unified you at all. Your brain is not a little world full of anthropomorphic creatures, of course. But it is made up of various different, often competing impulses. You are simply how it all comes together, the sum of your psychic parts.
What it all adds up to is a picture of the self as something which coheres into a single narrative but which has nothing permanent and unchanging at its core. We are forever in flux, always in the process of growing out of what we once were into what we are to become next.
George Bonanno-Who wrote The Other Side of Sadness (Thresholds, 23) profoundly writes, our experiences of grieving are as unique as our identities but what we do share is the innate ability to cope and be resilient and it is that idea, that I would like to explore this morning, since we are here, unique but with the unified goal of walking into the right rooms, with the right attitude.
So as I left the movie, I began to wonder, just as the little girl, Riley was moving from one room to another, and was guided by a mix of conflicting emotions, what rooms do we move between, what emotions guide us on our journey, and how can Judaism and the Jewish tradition serve as guideposts to understand that walk, as we turn the corner and open the door into 5776?
There are so many rooms that we each walk through-whether it is with family, work, volunteering, or more, we each know that there are moments where we feel a sense of a shift in the ground beneath us. Sometimes it is because of pure joy-we are preparing to walk our kids down the aisle as the get married to a people that they, and we love; but sometimes it is painful heartbreak as we usher a person we love to a hospital bed, not knowing what the result will be; sometimes it is taking the step to apply for a new job, knowing that we might be rejected and sometimes it is starting out on our own, even though it might be difficult.
At each of these moments, our emotions, Riley’s emotions, of JOY, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and disgust, all come into play.
But the question is, knowing that they in fact all do play a role, how do we live with all of them together? How do we have an authentic life, where we can calmly as possible, move from one room to another, and what other emotions do we need to consider putting in the mix, to help with that plan?
Let us begin with joy and sadness-how does Jewish tradition and Jewish life explore these seemingly conflicting emotions in a way that helps us live a more balanced life?
• one of the most joyous moments we can experience is a wedding, but it ends with the breaking of a glass to remind us of the destruction of the Temple and that our world is still broken. In other words, even at our highest moments, there is always a little sadness in there.
• In fact, even as I stand under a chuppah with a couple, handing them the first glass of wine to drink, I always say, “May life’s joys be heightened, it’s bitterness sweetened, and each of its moments, hallowed” for acknowledge that to live life fully is to pass back and forth between these emotions.
• But the comfort is that reverse is often true, as well — sadness can sometimes lead us to joy. There is a scene in the movie where Riley, who only after experiencing sadness, could experience true comfort in the arms of her parents. While no one wishes sadness on anyone, it is during moments of sadness when you can often feel the most connected to others. Think about why a funeral and a shiva minyan — some of the saddest moments we can experience — are often filled laughter and love. Friends and family members are sharing stories of their loved one, and so are bringing a little bit of joy into these moments that seem so low.” And so it is appropriate that the psalmist taught, “Weeping tarries for the night but Joy will come in the morning.”
Let us think about fear as well. I would assume that the fear of failure is what is most prevalent in all of our lives.
Fear of failure is the most clear-no one wants to fail, but unfortunately, fear of failure is often quite paralyzing for as Kierkegaard says, “Life must be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
And we know that fear impacts everyone, including Moses. Recall the story at the burning bush-Moses was scared. He questioned his capability, he questioned God’s power, he questioned the community response, he argued and he rationalized. And you know what, he wasn’t totally wrong. Can you imagine telling your wife or your father in law that you heard from God at a bush that wasn’t burning and you understood now what to do? It does sound a bit nutty, but thank God (ha!) Moses listened and moved forward.
There were three other emotions that could have been in the movie that weren’t-love, forgiveness, and faith. For each of these certainly play a role in how we see the world and how we act with others and how we experience the hallways of our lives.
Let’s start with love. As I think about love, my mind goes to two very different sources. The first is David Brooks, whose NY Times column and recent book has addressed many issues surround emotions: In The Road to Character, he wrote,
“Like all great commitments, love operates simultaneously on two different levels: the level of gritty reality and the level of transcendent magic.
The level of gritty reality in marriage is the grocery shopping, the cleaning, and the compromises. Do you do the dishes after each meal or do you put them in the sink and do them at the end of the day? The gritty reality of love involves the particular gifts and foibles of this or that partner or beloved. This kind of real love, Lean Weiseltier said, “is private and it is particular. … When the day is done, and the lights are out, there is only this other heart, this other mind, this other face, to assist in repelling one’s demons or in greeting one’s angels. When one consents to marry, one consents to be truly known, which is an ominous prospect; and so one bets on love to correct for the ordinariness of the impression and to call for the forgiveness that is invariably required. Marriages are exposures. We may be heroes to our spouses but we may not be idols.”
But Brooks says that love has its own logic that defies normal utilitarian logic. For example, most resources are scarce; you can use them up. But love is the opposite; the more you love, the more you can love. A person who has one child does not love that child less when he or she has another. A person in love is capable of more love. A person who loves his college does not love his country less. Love expands with use.
This is such a beautiful statement and to me, it is a reflection of one of the most famous texts in our Jewish tradition, the Shma and V’ahavata. We are told to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all of our might. This ever expanding opportunity to feel comes from and is celebrated by our tradition. Whom we love and who loves us will manifest itself in a variety of ways-for some it will be with a parent; for some with a spouse; for some with a child; for some with a friend. But in all cases, it is the ability to be vulnerable in a way, that all of your emotions, all of the pieces inside of the character Riley’s head, are able to sit together, for something much greater.
And the same is with forgiveness:
As I think about forgiveness, there are of course so many rooms that we walk into that we are anxious about either, because of what we have done, or what someone else has done. But we don’t need to look further than the book of Genesis to understand that in changing how we react to the past, we can change our future. That doesn’t mean that what was done was good, or forgotten but it means that the future is more important. We recall the story of Joseph, who had been thrown into a pit and left for dead by his brothers. Decades later they came to him and didn’t recognize him as the vizier of Egypt. Why? He had figured out a way to keep living despite his past. But when he saw them, he froze. How would he respond. His first response was honestly human. He gave them a difficult time. But, as he grew to see them closer, to step near them, he realized they were family and he had to move forward to move away from the trauma of the past. That isn’t always easy, but as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes:
Forgiveness is “the most compelling testimony to human freedom. It is the action that is not the reaction. It is the refusal to be defined by circumstance.” To forgive is to let go of our dreams of a better past and grab, with both hands, the possibility of the future.
The last emotion that I would have liked to see in the movie is Faith for I believe that Faith can be an antidote to fear, if we can express our fears. It can help us seek love and forgiveness in our relationships with others. What are our fears?
So, how do we sit with the sadness or the fear? Love and forgiveness? I would suggest that we pause, for a moment, with the hope that we will figure things out…and then move forward.
Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein shares the following:
As I count down to my next big birthday, I’m feeling all of these desires to hold life right where it is. I was picking out cards for a friend’s 30th birthday and I hated almost every card that I saw. One said, “Happy 29th… again!” Messages like that get me angry and I want to blast this notion that there is an ideal age out of my mind and out of Hallmark…. BUT, I also share the insecurities that cards like these embody. .. I hear from parents that they just want to hit the pause button and enjoy the stage they are in with their kids, especially when their kids are young. I hear the same thing from grandparents who want more time with their grandkids, and adult children who don’t want to watch their parent’s health decline.
This desire to pause is so deeply seeded in us especially when we start to realize how precious life is and how easily it can fly by or disappear. There is a story of King Solomon who asked his servant to find him a ring that could make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. Eventually, after scouring the land, he brought back the item of jewelry that Solomon described. The King looked at the engraving in the inside of the ring and read the words:
Gam zeh ya’avor.
This too shall pass.
It seems that the fleeting nature of time also makes us savor each moment that much more. It makes me want to get together with friends and share a delicious glass of wine, not so much that I lose myself, but just enough so that I really enjoy the moment. I think that while we cannot pause time, we can focus in on every moment more intently, drawing awareness to the way we live.
In this way, we do press pause.
The antidote to rushing time, and the antidote to being afraid that we aren’t doing the right thing, or we aren’t making the right choice, seems to be cultivating gratitude and mindfulness. Kohelet is right, we cannot turn 29 again, we cannot grasp at wind, but we can stand still occasionally and appreciate the breeze on our necks.
But then we need to have faith, and we can go back to the beginning, back to Bereshit, to understand how faith played a role, even in God’s creation of the Hirsch. As Rabbi Hirsch recalls, “The story starts with God in a dark hallway. There was chaos-and it was ambiguous, disorienting, and confusing. God had to make a choice: go forward and create light or keep the universe cloaked in darkness. As far as we know, the universe didn’t come with an instruction manual. And this was God, after all. There was no one telling him what to do. If God had done nothing, would light have come of its own accord? There is no way to know. All we can know is that God didn’t wait around in that hallway to find out. No matter how scared or how unprepared He must have felt, He moved forward. And each day, he paused, looked at his work, and said it was good.
In the movie Inside Out, we are reminded that the complex, complicated emotions we feel, are real, and necessary but it is we that can control them and with that acknowledgement we can face the days in front of us:
Finally, how we choose to respond, is the key:
My friend (Brent Spodek) wrote “When a friend of mine was a reporter in North Carolina, there was one guy, Ray, who worked in the ad department and had a very long commute. He lived on the far side of Raleigh, and had to slug it out on I-40 every morning to get to the office. How do I know he had a long commute? Because whenever I’d say “How’s it going, Ray?” or “Good morning, Ray” the response was always, “I was in my car for over an hour this morning and am going to be in the damn car for over an hour going home!”
One year I met Ray’s absolutely lovely and charming wife at a Christmas party. I introduced myself and in the course of conversation, I asked what she did. When she said she was a nurse in Wilson, which is about an hour in the opposite direction from Raleigh, I braced myself. “You must have a long commute,” I said.
“Yeah, but I love it,” she said. “It’s my time to relax and listen to some music. Between the kids and the hospital, its the only time when someone isn’t asking me for something.”
She focused on peace and got peace; he focused on anger and got anger.
We get what we focus on, whether its anger, peace or anything else.”
The thresholds of life are the most difficult and understanding our emotions certainly isn’t going to solve everything.
But sitting with our many emotions together, is the way to live not only a fulfilled life, but a life that our Jewish tradition speaks of.
As we begin this year together, there is one voice that shouldn’t be there, and that is perfection. For perfection is the most difficult to achieve. I was once told that we should ban the phrase, “practices makes perfect” and replace it with “practice makes progress.”
I don’t know if Dave and I will find an apartment. I don’t know if there is even a perfect one. But as we begin this year, here is my hope. That while apartments are nice, feeling at home is better. So-may each of us not seek perfection but progress. May each of us progress forward, living with sadness and joy, fear and faith, and love and forgiveness. If we do that, maybe we can feel truly at home.