Sunday, January 9, 2011

Tooting my own horn

If you missed my "The Rabbi Speaks" this morning, here's the text. A little more tongue in cheek today.

Promise to have the text from my article on Chris Coons' visit to CBE later in the week. Many thanks for his participation, along with Rabbi Beals at Beth Shalom and Rabbi Saks at AKSE!

Who doesn't love a good stand up comic? I remember going with my father to the clubs in New York when I was in High School, or staying up to watch the Half-hour Comedy Hour on MTV to catch those of the quick wit. While certainly Bea Arthur (z'l) had little good to say about the profession in "History of the World Part I" (sorry, Not safe for print), we gravitate toward the comic, especially the observational comic who, in the best tradition of Mark Twain and Dylan Thomas, or even many of Shakespeare's characters, speaks uncomfortable and inconvenient truths in a way we can hear them.

So I was struck when I stumbled upon a Louis CK routine from an appearance on Conan O'brien's show. You can find it on Youtube, and a transcript on Slate in a segment by Farhad Manjoo, but this is radio, so you'll forgive me as I deliver it poorly.

"Everything is amazing right now, and nobody's happy," he says. "When I was a kid we had a rotary phone. We had a phone you had to stand next to, and you had to dial it. … If they called and you weren't home, the phone would just ring lonely, by itself. … This is what people are like now: They get their phone, and they're like, Ugh, it won't … Give it a second! It's going to space! Can you give it a second to get back from space?"

Well, then. And while we laugh at the absurdity of it all (and really, it's pretty absurd that we went from rotary dial maybe 30 years ago to making restaurant reservations and taking pictures with our phones), he does make a good point. As he puts it, "We live in an amazing, amazing world and it's wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots."

As a rabbi, hearing this sends me to thoughts of the generation that fled Egypt. If they had a motto, it would be "what have you done for me lately?" From the moment the Sea of Reeds crashes behind them until they pass away in the wilderness, they constantly gnashing their teeth. Their response to freedom is to look at the wilderness and declare, with great drama, "but what will we eat?! Did you bring us out of Egypt TO DIE!!?" As readers, we roll our eyes and think, "yes, that's right, the God that just laid waste to Egypt and redeemed you with many a promise forgot to pack snacks." A generation of spoiled idiots indeed, they will harass Moses and Aaron and God and each other throughout the next three books, kvetching that everything is terrible, and in fact, they sound a lot like us. Freedom? What good is freedom without working internet? Covenant? that's great, but why does tech support have to be so lousy? A modern midrash imagines two of the Israelites, on their way through the parted sea, never looking up at this amazing miracle, but rather looking down at their feet, complaining bitterly about the slippery, muddy path. Everything is amazing, but no one is happy.

Of course, on a certain level, we're being unfair. Faith is hard. It's hard to look across the Sinai, your entire way of life shattered, and think, "yep, all is well, that looks great. Unknowable God who let us rot for 425 or so years now wants to give us a homeland? Sure!" And if it's hard for a people who knew only hardship and depredation to have faith in this God and his prophet, a former Egyptian muckety muck, how much the moreso for us in our modern day, with our, shall we call it, healthy sense of doubt and righteous indignation? As a generation, we have watched political language justify the bankrupting of the future, and ignorance and fear-mongering validate the persecution of those unlike us--even to the point of mass murder. We walk around with an attitude that people owe us something, with expectations that problems can be solved instantly, and that because we have so many choices in life--an embarrassment of riches--there is clearly one choice that is superior to all others. And when anything seems out of sorts with our choice--be it a meal, a cell phone, a job or a partner, we are wracked with remorse. There is a reason Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik described the one who believes as the lonely man of faith.

And yet, that would be a pretty lame message of Scripture: faith is hard, and people are ungrateful. I know when my great-uncle gave me that kind of "kids today" speech it made me want to rush out and write thank you notes. Or not. What hope is there in such a message? Rather, there is something else we should be focusing on--not at our feet, but at the amazement around us. There is doubt in our lives, and challenge to be sure. We have lofty expectations. But more often than not we choose to be part of the solution, rather than the problem. We can be spoiled to be sure, but we, like Israel, are learning how to be responsible, not just entitled. Sure, cynicism get's us to look at that 'hopey changey' stuff with disdain, but we still get choked up by it and find ourselves wishing we lived in those moments more, living in our higher moments.

So we began with humor and I'll end with humor. A man is driving a brand new sports car along the switchbacks of a mountain highway, when a bend in the road takes him by surprise. The car plunges over the side, but miraculously, somehow, the man escapes, and is now hanging off the ledge. He struggles, knowing that letting go would mean certain death. He finds himself pleading to God--something he's never done before--and much to his surprise, a voice responds."

"Oh, thank God!" Cries the man, "Please save me!"

"certainly." Says the almighty, "but you have to do one thing for me."

"absolutely, anything!"

"Let go."

Are we ready to let go and take a leap of faith, in ourselves, in those around us, in God? Or are we going to cling to the materialism and pseudo-needs that around us? Not sure, don't worry, help is on the line. Please hold for the next available operator. Or check out the website, if your connection is working."

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