A father and his son, travelling together in a wagon, came to the edge of a forest.
Some bushes, thick with berries caught the child’s eye.
“Father,” he asked, “may we stop awhile so that I can pick some berries?”The father was anxious to complete his journey, but he did not have it in his heart to refuse the boy’s request. The wagon came to a halt, and the son alighted to pick the berries.
After a while, the father wanted to continue on his way. But his son had become so engrossed in berry-picking that he could not bring himself to leave the forest.
“Son!” cried the father, “we cannot stay here all day! We must continue on our journey!"
Even his father’s pleas were not enough to lure the boy away.
What could the father do? Surely he loved his son no less for acting so childishly. He would not think of leaving him behind—but he really did have to get going on his journey.
Finally, he called out, “you may pick your berries for a while longer, but be sure that you are still able to find me, for I shall start moving slowly along the road. As you work, call out “father! Father!’ every few minutes, and I shall answer you. As long as you can hear my voice, know that I am still nearby. But as soon as you can no longer hear my answer, know that you are lost, and run with all your strength to find me!”This story, from Art Green’s “Your Word is Fire”, could be about many things: our relationship with God, prayer, how we set our priorities. But it seems to me that it is a story about the choices we make. So frequently we are the child—easily distracted by our daily adventure, focused so much on the fruit before us that God’s voice—the still small voice—becomes ever stiller, ever smaller. To paraphrase our machzor, we, who are caught up in the daily round, focused entirely on our own wants while missing out on our needs. We are heedless to the voice of reason, of meaning, of care and concern for our wellbeing. So enraptured we are in the fruit we are eating—the immediate gratification—that we fail to appreciate eternal values. We are indifferent to all but our own desires, the voice in our own heads. As Rabbi David Wolpe writes, “Children delight in putting a seashell to their ears. Listening, they hear magically the rush and roar of the waves. What they do not know, of course, is that they are listening to the rushing blood inside their own heads.” Insensitive to the words that call us to higher purpose, we focus too much of ourselves in what is gossamer or effervescent. Indeed, we expect those focused on the greater good, those who, like the father of the story, see the urgency, the need around us, and hold them back, slow them down, make them answer our own desires.
Look at our relationship with clothes and food. “Instant Fashion”—cheaply made clothes sold at rock bottom prices to fit the moment’s taste—would seem to be a Godsend; new clothing that anyone could wear. In reality, they are many times made in horrific sweatshop conditions, their dyes and materials are not only flimsy but highly destructive to local environments, and they are not sturdy enough to reuse, pass on or donate. They are, essentially, ‘disposable’ clothes, clothing that, like the note to Jim Phelps at the beginning of every episode of “Mission Impossible”, self-destructs.
Likewise we should think about our food choices. A few weeks ago, for our confirmation orientation, the cantor asked a question about Kashrut, where the participants—parents and teens together—were asked to articulate their values. One parent said what many others were thinking: “I just like to eat!” And it’s true. Like Julia Childs, we love to eat. We savor creative flavoring and comfort foods alike. There are more programs on food, restaurants, eating and eating habits, cooking, food production and every other aspect of nourishment that we can imagine or possibly watch in a lifetime. And a discussion of food choices in a religious context is often poo-pooed. Many of us remember Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s sermon at the Toronto URJ Biennial four years ago, where his discussion of sacred eating flew about as well as bricks don’t, to quote Douglas Adams. And many of us are quick to dismiss Kashrut as judgmental, as Orthodox, as meaningless semi-science that has no place at a modern table.
But do we think about the food we put into our bodies? The cellophane we throw away almost thoughtlessly? Do we think about the trucks that brought the fruit out of season to our supermarket? The coffee and chocolate picked by slave labor, often child slave labor? The treatment of those workers picking strawberries and berries in our country—back-breaking work that often exploits migrant workers? Do we regard the treatment of the chicken or cow that adorns our plates? As we clear our plates, do we think about the 40% of food in this country that ends up being thrown away, and the thousands if not millions who go without?
And there are the choices we make when we interact with one another. I was reminded this week by a true story of the theologian Martin Buber. Once, he met with a student who had a question. Buber thought he was pleasant enough, that he answered the question thoughtfully, that it was a perfectly amicable meeting, but in retrospect wondered if he hadn’t been distracted and showed himself to be distracted. Later he found out that the student he had met with committed suicide. Buber was left to wonder whether, if he had been more attentive, more present in the conversation, he could have done something to prevent this student’s death, and he promised himself he would never be inattentive when speaking with someone again. While we think the consequences of our interactions are less immediate or dire, how often are we inattentive to one another, or to the stranger. How often are we dismissive, focused more on our phones than the person before us. Perhaps our negligence does not lead to suicide, but to be sure it leads to the coarsening of our relationships with others, the commodification of those interactions, and a kind of death of the soul, as the person ceases to be a person but a means to an end.
This is not to advocate, to be sure, for a kind of hair-shirt relationship with the world; that we need to live lives of unmitigated smugness and self-righteousness, or beat ourselves over everything we do. Kosher traditions and those who revere them often focus too much on how the animal died rather than how it lived or how those who tended it were treated, and the practice has developed an ‘inside baseball’ culture that does more to alienate Jews than give them a sense of sanctity. Often we are focused on our personal budget, and our relationship with others is informed as much by someone else’s behavior as it is our own inner voice. And yet, and yet, what if there were another way to look at our daily choices?
Today we read parashat Nitzavim, or ‘standing’, and it asks us quite pointedly: “what do you stand for? What are your values and choices?” In this portion, Israel stands on the shores of the Jordan River. They have a choice to make: to enter the land God has promised, the land that has been for them and their ancestors merely a dream. But it’s not just the choice to enter the land; they must also enter a relationship with God, not one of servant and master as they had known in Egypt, nor one of abstractions, as we often imagine God today. Rather, a relationship of mutual trust, a relationship of love, a covenantal relationship based on Sacred Obligations to each other, and between Israel and Adonai. And Moses lays the choices out pretty clearly: “I have set before you today life and good, and also death and evil…choose life that you might live.”
It’s pretty clear why we read this text on Yom Kippur: today is a day about choices. The choices we made in the past year, and the choices we are going to make as we stand on the shore of a new one. Kol Nidre reminds us that we are not always free in the choices we make—often we feel backed into a corner by the realities of our life situation, our relationship with others, previous experiences, our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses. And often no matter how much we want to turn, to change our behaviors or habits—to change our choices—we are paralyzed by the seemingly overwhelming nature of what lies before us. Like the child in the story, we have ceased to hear our father’s voice, and we look among the paths of the bushes eager to run but not sure where to go.
But the text of Torah reminds us that we shouldn’t overthink it as well. "For this commandment that I command you today," Moses insists, "is not beyond your understanding, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, nor in the seas beyond your reach for the Word is very near to you. Carry it out with your mouth and with your heart.”
No, we cannot always choose the situation we find ourselves in, but we can choose how to respond to that situation, how to regulate ourselves, how to live in such a way that our morals and values challenge us meaningfully, where we can focus not only on our own needs but the needs of others. We won’t be perfect in our choices; we will make mistakes, but that is the adventure of life. Edwin Friedman, in his book “a Failure of Nerve”, illustrates quite well what can happen, and what we fear, when he discusses the Age of Exploration:
“Throughout this period of exploration, trips are beset by the unforeseen. Frobisher’s ship is frozen in Hudson Bay. Columbus is told by natives in what is now Panama that there is another large body of water on the other side of the Isthmus, but he must meet another ship and has to leave it to Balboa to discover the Pacific. Verrazano ventures out of the range of the long bows on his ship and is captured and killed by cannibals in the West Indies…Drake, after navigating the Magellan Straits, is driven south, off course, and discovers the tip of South America, but his fate does not always come up “heads.” When he passes the Golden Gate, the fog keeps him from discovering San Francisco Bay. The most serendipitous event of all, of course, is the discovery of America itself. After all, Columbus was really trying to reach Japan, and he died thinking he had.”
But, they took the risks. Those same explorers were willing to make choices that challenged them, were willing to be wrong, because the risks were greater than the rewards. Surely we could sit here, eating our berries, safe and content, and change not at all. We could wait passively for our parent return in order to hoist us back up on the wagon, kicking and screaming. Or we could make the choice ourselves, we could take the risk, choose a path, accept that we may stumble, but in choosing hear the voice again.
You know, the violinist Yitzchak Pearlman was on the Colbert Report just last week, and it reminded me of a story from one of his performances from a number of years ago, recounted by Rabbi Wayne Dosick. As many of you know, Perlman was stricken with polio as a child, which left him able to walk only with braces on both legs and crutches. When he plays at a concert, the journey from the wings to the center of the stage is long and slow.
Perlman was scheduled to play a difficult, challenging violin concerto. In the middle of the performance one of the strings snapped…the orchestra immediately stopped playing and the audience held its collective breath. The assumption was he would have to put on his braces, pick up his crutches, and leave the stage…after a brief pause, Perlman set his violin under his chin and signaled to the conductor to begin.
One person in the audience reported what happened: “I know it is impossible to play a violin concerto with only three strings. I know that and so do you, but that night, Isaac Perlman refused to know it. You could see him modulating, changing, and recomposing in his head. At one point it sounded as if he were re-tuning the strings to get a new sound that had never been heard before. When he finished, there was an awesome silence that filled the room. Then people rose and cheered. Perlman smiled, wiped his brow, and raised the bow of his violin to quiet them. He spoke, not boastfully, but quietly in a pensive tone. “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”
He could have given up, could have stopped the performance to fetch new strings. Perlman could have done a lot of things. He took a risk on himself, the orchestra and his audience. He did not choose to break a string, he did not choose to have polio; these were thrust upon him. In that moment, he chose again to rise to the challenge, to find out how much music he could still make with what he have left.
So now we stand on the cusp of a new year, and we have to decide how much music we can make with what we have left. We have an opportunity to make new choices—choices about what we eat, about how we dress, about how we treat each other, about how we make the choices we make, how we live in our world. Do we choose to focus on our own wants and desires, or on our needs and the needs of others? The choice is clear, and it is not so difficult—we know what is right and good; it is not in the heavens or across the sea, but in our very heart and mouth. May we, on this day, cease eating the berries of selfishness, heed the voice of holiness that calls to us every faintly. May we, in this New Year, make the kinds of choices that lift us and our world ever higher, choosing to be our very best selves. May we run with all our might to catch up on the road to redemption.