Friday, October 12, 2012

Starting Fresh, letting go of grudges

Below is a modified version of this Shabbat's sermon, which will be given as this week's "The Rabbi Speaks" at WDEL. I've been thinking about this subject matter a great deal since the high holidays but even more as recent events unfolded in the life of my friends.

This weekend, I'm doing a wedding for longtime friends; specifically, the groom and I have been friends for 20 years. His group of friends (who have been my longest-time buddies since high school) go back nearly to the womb. At some point 10 years ago, one from the group, who had been there from the beginning, got into a fight with the others, which turned into a nearly 10 year grudge. He didn't talk to us, and we didn't talk to him (though there were occasional overtures . After a while the resentment gave way to just a sense that this was meaningless, the anger subverted by a sense of purposelessness. Which is why I was really glad to get this picture from the bachelor's party--The groom to the left, the 'missing man' in the middle, everyone reunited (the fourth member of the merry band, Stephen Day, is the one taking the shot).

So here's to the beginning Torah again, renewal, and letting go of grudges in the new year.

There’s a famous story of two buddist monks, who had taken vows of celibacy, vows to neither touch nor speak to a woman, who were walking from one village to another.  Along the way, they reached a place where a river had washed out the bridge—they’d have to cross on foot. Standing alongside the river was a young woman who, upon seeing the monks, begged for their help to get across. One of the monks took pity on her, hoisted her onto his shoulders, and carried her across the river. The two monks went on their way, the young woman hers. They travelled in silence all the way to the next village, a trip of several hours, while the one monk steamed at the other, furious that he had violated his vows. Finally, after reaching the next village and finding lodging, the angry monk spoke harshly with the one who had carried the young woman: “how could you violate your vows like that!” He cried, “does your faith and devotion mean so little to you?” The other monk looked at him serenely and said, “I stopped carrying the woman several hours ago. I left her on the riverbank. And yet you are still carrying her and have brought her to this place. You are still carrying the woman.”

This week we in the Jewish world concluded our reading of Torah, our sacred scriptures, and began it again. On Simchat Torah, which was this past week, we read the last verses of Deuteronomy, the death of Moses, and then an instant later began with the story of creation, which was our Torah portion this past Shabbat, just yesterday. One may ask the question, well, really two questions: One, why read creation now? Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, was about a month ago—shouldn’t we have read it then? Two: Why start the cycle again? Why do we keep reading this story again and again, the same tales, the same chapters and verses? If our lives are lived linearly, why do we read cyclically, going in circles year after year?

Each of these are legitimate questions. Aren’t there other things we could learn? Aren’t we giving short shrift to whole swaths of Scripture: Chronicles, Proverbs, some of the minor prophets, Samuel and Kings? And that’s to say nothing of more modern texts, materials that perhaps relate better to our contemporary experience than some dry words written by a society beyond our comprehension. What more could we derive from these texts? And why do we wait so long after the new year to read creation? It’s a little like waiting to watch the World Series on Superbowl Sunday, isn’t it?

The answers to the two questions are intimately related—indeed, they’re the same answer. We begin the story again, and we do this some weeks after Rosh Hashanah, for renewal—that we may begin again.

Let me explain what I mean. Rosh Hashanah is the new year, to be sure, a time when we’re supposed to renew ourselves, perform Cheshbon Nefesh, the accounting of the soul, some self reflection, and make some resolutions. But just like our resolutions in January, it’s easy to slip, easy to go back to previous habits. Why? Because we are creatures of habit: our lives are not lived linearly, but cyclically. We live in the past, and our behavior is informed by our past experiences, our histories. So, our interactions with people is predicated on our last encounter with them, the way we behave with certain folks or in certain situations is based on what we’ve seen in the past. This is why, when you go home for the holidays, we find ourselves turning into a teenager again, or why at school reunions we gravitate back to our old crowd.

Sometimes this can be helpful, and sometimes it can be harmful. Like the two monks in the above story, relying on our past can mean holding onto a grudge long after the situation should have been resolved, refusing to see someone in a different light or accept a change of heart, or preventing our own selves from growth and development. Our past can trap us, hold us hostage. So reading the story of creation a few weeks after Rosh Hashanah is a reminder that we can still renew ourselves, can still create a new world for ourselves, that we don’t need to give in to our past histories and experiences—we can choose to respond differently.

Likewise the reason we read the same texts: to force us to see them differently. Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, told his grandson that he finally understood later in life that every day brought a new understanding of the text. The truth is, while the words don’t change year to year, we do, and studying those same texts every year turns them into a kind of speculum, a mirror reflecting how we’ve changed and grown, or not. It forces us to confront our cyclical lives and ask questions of whether we’re allowing ourselves to get stuck or whether we’re taking the opportunity—and the risk—to grow.

We’ve all experienced this in some way, I hope—a personal relationship renewed that had run aground, a new way of thinking or being that got us out of a rut. One of my earliest experiences of this was in high school, my junior year. I was a real jokester, and one day in my journalism class we had a substitute. Our regular teacher was a favorite of mine, and this substitute was clearly in over her head, so like any high school kid, I gave her a hard time. Later, my regular teacher sought me out in the cafeteria. “I heard you were funny in class today and gave the sub a hard time.” He said with a knowing grin. “did you know she was my fiancee?” You can imagine how mortified I was. I rushed to apologize to the sub, but worried that my relationship with that teacher was permanently breached. In fact, the opposite was true. He remained a teacher and mentor for me, forgave my youthful indiscretion, and supported me in my endeavors as I matured. He saw past the one event, he refused to carry that experience with him, and gave me a chance to grow as a result.
Likewise my former senior rabbi at my old congregation. I saw someone offend him terribly (as you might imagine, this happens in our job); he was horribly upset. But later in talking, the congregant asked his forgiveness, said he was sorry, and my senior forgave him and moved on. Completely moved on, never treated him any different or spoke grudgingly of him. I was amazed at the time—who can do such a thing? How can you not bear a grudge against this person? I won’t say I’m where my former senior is on this, but since that time I’ve grown to understand how important it is to not stay at the river, to move forward, to let the past go, and to renew yourself, to re-create yourself, to begin again, as fresh and new as we can allow ourselves.

So we’ve begun the Torah again, and we’ll be reading the same texts throughout the year until next Simchat Torah. The question is, will you carry the baggage of the past year, past history, past experiences with you, or will you leave it at the river’s edge? Will you give yourself the opportunity to learn and grow, or stay contained by the past? My prayer is that we find the strength to move forward, to shake off the weight of history and allow ourselves the chance to grow, to become the people we’re meant to be.

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