I first noticed it in the eyes, wide and alert, not with joy, but anticipation, and not a little bit of fear, and old, like the city they were watching. These were the eyes of the soldier on duty in the Old City of Jerusalem, on my last visit back to Israel. It was the first time that the soldiers weren’t adults to me, weren’t these majestic lions, but kids, youths no older than 18, 19, or 20. Where to my American eyes they should have been wearing basketball jerseys and ball caps, they were wearing flak jackets and helmets. Where the American teenager would be playing on their mobile phone texting with friends, they’re handling their M-16 and radio (and texting with friends). Where our kids are worrying about which college is the right fit for them, or what they should post to facebook, these kids are worrying about their friends’ lives, worrying about what their parents will feel if something should happen to them.
We are not used to the idea of discomfort at that level being brought close to home. We are unaccustomed to that level of sacrifice. We are certainly not used to the idea of sending off our youngest generation, never mind our own children, into harms’ way. And think of the sacrifices, no less small, that our own children, boys and girls of eighteen or nineteen or twenty are making, returning from foreign wars to years of psychological or physical therapy, or to be buried.
To many of us, that burden is too much to bear, too much to give. As a culture, we are taught not to think of what we should give up, but what we should get, what benefit, what pleasure we should derive from a thing. We are focused on happiness, on having fun, on enjoying ourselves. We all buy into that notion in one way, shape or form. We justify our purchases, no matter how petty, or our behavior no matter how erratic, with the phrase “well, if it makes us happy, why not?” If that car makes us happy, does it matter its gas mileage? If that outfit makes us happy, does it matter how appropriate or inappropriate it is? This is America, after all, and no one can tell us what to do or not do. I find myself using the same language; how many b’nai mitzvah have I told to go onto this bimah and have fun. Not have a spiritual or meaningful experience, not do a good job, or even do their best, but get up here and have fun.
I wonder whether we are really meant to be happy, whether happiness is our greatest and most important tool of measuring how meaningful our lives are. Think of how many American children are prescribed mood-altering substances despite the paucity of research on what long-term effect this has on children, and the studies showing that too many children are over-prescribed these medications. Think more of the ever-encroaching marketing efforts to us and to our children. Will your child really be happy unless she has Dora the Explorer episodes on DVD? Or Dora cereal? What about Dora underwear? Will you really be happy unless you have the body you’ve always wanted (and haven’t you always wanted six-pack abs? Or shoulders you could lay a bridge over?). Everything is there, that constant drone reminding us to be ‘happy’. And yet, happiness seems to get us in more trouble than it’s worth.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote:” The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate; to have it make some difference that you have lived, and lived well”. I wonder if he was right; our lives are not, should not be about merely sating our appetites, our desires, about pursuing fun and happiness with disregard to all else. Rather, our lives should be filled with sacrifice; doing what is right, what is good, what is necessary, what is essential, what is thoughtful. We are meant to use our lives to do that which gives meaning above and beyond simple fulfillment.
There are, of course, justifications for our sense of fun as happiness, as part of the American way. How much does it hurt someone, after all, if I’m having fun? Isn’t having fun better advice, especially to our all-too-competitive kids, than to go out there and murder their opposition, be it in the classroom or on the playing field? And really, it’s in the Constitution: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
All this is true, and there is certainly nothing wrong with having fun: and this is a thin-lipped New Englander talking. Nevertheless, I look at these kids coming back from Afghanistan and other places, look at the families of kids who are never coming home, and I wonder: why is it that we only ask sacrifice of the Other: our poor, and our young? Why is it that we look our noses down at those who do sacrifice of themselves, thinking of them as suckers, as fools who couldn’t be clever enough to avoid that hazard, who ‘bought the hype’? Look at the way the words ‘shared sacrifice’ have been treated in the political arena, almost cynically, with a sneer befitting Billy Idol attached to the words. This is equally true in synagogue life: we in leadership spend so much time trying to make the synagogue experience easy and fun, that perhaps we forget to make it meaningful and challenging as well.
Alternatively, why do we think of those who sacrifice as saints, improbably unattainably and impossibly good, able to give of their time and energy in a way that no person could do and maintain a career or family? I think of Danny Siegel‘s mitzvah heroes, people who seemingly spend all their spare time working to get every heroin addict into treatment, every foster child with AIDS into a home, every inner-city child to graduate high school. We look at them and say, one way or the other, “I could never do that!” Why is it that we never say, or rarely say, ‘that is what I should do’?
A few years ago, shortly after Israel’s cease fire with Lebanon, I was talking to a young woman. She had advocated for Israel in college, worked for an anti-discrimination agency, and after all her experiences, talked about a great weariness; she was tired of fighting the good fight, tired of what our African-American brothers and sisters call ‘the struggle’. She wanted no more demands for apologia, no more well-meaning lectures about how anti-Israel is not synonymous with anti-Semitism, no more spirited conversations at housewarming parties, trying to convince the other of Israel’s legitimacy while balancing the Jewish values of human rights. I think perhaps that is what ails us, this sense that we’ve done it already. A hundred times we’ve called our congressman, we’ve rallied, we’ve raised money, we’ve fought the pitched battles in classroom and at water cooler. Let it be someone else’s turn to fight; now it’s my turn to enjoy myself, to have fun.
There is a story of two Jews, a religious Jew and a secular Jew, weeping at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. A bystander asks each why he is weeping. The religious Jew says his weeping comes from the sacrifices and travails the Jews have suffered throughout the ages. The secular Jew explains that he weeps because he does not know what to weep for. I fear, very soon we will have no longer any connection between our own actions and the state of the world, no connection between our tradition and its demands upon us and what makes us feel good, no connection between our people here and in the land of Israel. We will, in our pursuit of fun, in our escape from the struggle, begin to alienate ourselves from our communities and each other and our tradition, more and more convinced that if it does not directly convenience or benefit us—me—in that moment, then it is worthless, and our children will not even know what they miss.
The truth of the matter is, there is no rest for the weary, there is no option for it to be someone else’s turn, for ‘someone else’ will take up the task too late. When Joseph Darby was confronted with pictures of torture and humiliation conducted by his comrades at Abu Ghraib, he did not wait for someone else to report the violations, did not wait for someone else to take their turn. He answered the call, he did the right thing, knowing that he would lose friends, that he would receive death threats, that he would be considered a traitor. Yet if you ask him today if it was worth it, whether he would do it again, he would give an unequivocal yes, that he made ‘the right decision and it had to be made.’
My friends, if Joseph Darby can give up his career to do the right thing, can’t we give up a few hours of our time a week to devote to something other than me and mine? My friends, shouldn’t it be time that we start asking ourselves “what more can I do?” Shouldn’t it be time to put aside our pursuit of what is fun, to put aside questions of what is most convenient, or easiest, or cheapest, or looks the best, but to ask, ‘what is most meaningful?’ To ask: what more can I do? What more can I give of my wealth—and my person, myself, my time, my being—for the betterment of my community, my people? Is it too much to ask of ourselves to go to Israel even when it doesn’t look picture-perfect, when our children go and put their lives on the line, when we are willing to go to celebrate in paradises that hide the slums their staffs come from? Is it too much to ask of ourselves to donate our time to volunteer—really volunteer—to prepare books on tape for the blind, to tutor, to visit the sick and the elderly, to go to a shiva house of a complete stranger, to give up our fifth Sunday to help feed the homeless with Sisterhood or Brotherhood—rather than just give a dollar and wear a bracelet that makes us feel like we’ve done something? Is it too much to ask that we observe more than just one mitzvah day, one Tikkun Olam day a year?
A guy sees an ant lying on the sidewalk, its legs pointed toward the sky. He says, “what’re you doing, little ant?” The ant says, “I heard the sky was falling, so I’m here to stop it.” The man laughs and says, “And what good do you think you’re going to do with those tiny little legs?” The ant shrugs and says, “Eh, I do what I can.” As much as we may feel that we are no bigger than ants, and have as much influence on the world around us, we must remember what the ant says, and do what we can. For what we can do is transformative. Arik Einstein wrote years ago: Ani v’atah nishaneh et haolam. Amru et ze kodem lifanai, ze lo mishaneh”: You and I will change the world. Others have said it before, but it doesn’t matter, for you and I will change the world.
That is why I am calling upon all of us to more fully engage in volunteerism this year. In other synagogues, a High Holiday appeal means asking for more money. While I certainly won’t turn away whatever wealth you may find it in yourselves to generously give to this community, instead I’m asking for your wisdom and work, for your time and effort, for you to be fully present here at the congregation in meaningful and challenging work. Why Beth Emeth? Why not some charitable organization or the JCC or the Kutz home or a club like Kiwanis or Rotary (and by the way, all of those are very good things). For a few reasons: because you have to start somewhere, and despite what Tom Friedman says, the world is still a big place and it’s hard to figure out where to start. This year, we’re partnering with Hanover Presbyterian (among others) to look into how we can better care for our neighbors and our fellows in Delaware and beyond. Because this is your community, a place filled with people who know you and love you and want to share in work but also want to share in your life; where the work of our hands and hearts is spiritual work no different from prayer or Torah Study. Because a synagogue isn’t just a house of prayer or education: it’s a house of community work as well, a public house, an assembly of folks looking to shape the world.
So, before you leave today, look to the handout before you. Look to the opportunities to share of yourself and grow and affect real change in the world around you.
It was the sages of the Chasidim who said: when I say I can’t do everything, let it not be in order to do nothing. Let it be, instead, merely a recognition that I don’t have to do everything, that other people too will do their part to right wrongs, just as they—and I—will try not to add to the wrongs we see done each day.
It is time to be through with saying “I can’t do everything” in order to do nothing. It is time to engage in meaningful work, to pursue the meaningful life: For the sake of our children that they may learn to pursue peace and justice; For the sake of our world, that we will have left it better than when we received it; for the sake of ourselves, that we may answer the question asked of us when our days are ended, that we may look ourselves in the eye every day, knowing that ours is a meaningful life, and lived well.