Monday, September 21, 2015

Being small, being blessed (Rosh haShanah 2015 / 5776)

Adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg's Rosh haShanah comments, 5776 / 2015
When you’re walking around Manhattan, how can you tell the real New Yorkers from the tourists, the people who live anywhere other than the New York area?
One way, of course, is that the New Yorkers are looking down or straight ahead -
it doesn’t matter if they’re passing one of the tallest or most historic skyscrapers in the world; they just keep on walking and they don’t look up.  While the tourists can’t stop looking up, because in most cases, this is something amazing and so wildly different about Manhattan - the quantity of immense buildings in such tight proximity.  And it’s not surprising that the people for whom this is a novelty can’t stop looking up, while the people who live nearby are a little jaded by it and have long stopped looking up.

And what’s the opposite?  When you’re out in a rural area, how can you tell the New Yorkers from everyone else?  At least to judge from my own experience, there’s a reciprocal phenomenon which has to do with stars at night. For the last almost 30 years I have lived in places where you can't see stars.  And when I get the opportunity to be in a place where I can see stars, I start to be like a tourist in Manhattan. Looking up; tripping over things, bumping into people, getting frustrated glances from people, who seem to be saying to me: “Yeah, those stars sure are interesting, in a very stable kind of way.  You know, they have looked much the same for several hundred thousand years, but I’m glad you’ve discovered them now!”

I had the pleasure of spending some time at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires this summer, in upstate New York.  It was a pleasure in part because - unlike in Hoboken - they have stars there.  Unfortunately, they also have something called ‘shmirah,’ which is the Hebrew word for ‘watch’ or ‘protection’ - which includes a  special role assigned especially to the quote-unquote responsible older staff, to be available on a rotation until 2 in the morning and sometimes later, in case there are any emergencies with the kids that require an adult who is older than college age.
It happened that on August 12, I landed a shmirah slot of 1.30-3am.

But this was actually a highlight of my summer because it happened to coincide with the Perseid Meteor Shower, which under other circumstances I wouldn't have even noticed.  And that is how I got to be outside in a clear field in the middle of the night in rural upstate New York and got to see a view I had previously seen only in a planetarium.

And while I was sitting there I got a song running through my head. It’s the song I sang just a moment ago.  It’s a relatively new melody, but the words come from the book of Genesis, from an episode in the life of Jacob, in which he says in the middle of a starry night:  קטנתי מכל החסדים ומכל האמת אשר עשית את עבדך
“I am so small - so small in the face of all the kindness and all the truth that you have shown to your servant.”  (for a musical rendition of this verse, see

Looking at stars is a most paradoxical feeling. On the one hand, it’s a glorious and relaxing experience. They seem so beautiful and quiet. And then on the other hand, once you think about it just a little bit, there’s almost no life experience that makes you feel smaller, even to the point of insignificance, than looking up at stars.  Each of us inhabits the centers of our worlds.  We are focused on our own needs, and we are each the center of our own universe - no matter how generous or altruistic we are.  And then you look at the stars, and you get a different perspective.

Even thousands of years ago, people looked at the stars and derived from them the message:  I guess I’m smaller than I thought.  In Jewish tradition, this idea is expressed in Psalm 8 - recommended by the 14th century Spanish sage Abudraham as a psalm particularly appropriate to recite on the High Holy Days, the season that we think of as the birthday of the world.
כִּֽי־אֶרְאֶה שָׁמֶיךָ מַֽעֲשֵׂי אֶצְבְּעֹתֶיךָ  When I look at your heavens, your handiwork,
יָרֵחַ וְכוֹכָבִים אֲשֶׁר כּוֹנָֽנְתָּה:   the moon and the stars which you have shaped -
ה מָֽה־אֱנוֹשׁ כִּֽי־תִזְכְּרֶנּוּ וּבֶן־אָדָם כִּי תִפְקְדֶֽנּוּ:what are mortals, that you should be mindful of them,  mere mortals, that you should take account of them?

Even thousands of years ago, our ancestors looked up at the stars and it made them feel small and insignificant - that the issues and the dramas of their lives seemed so tiny against the vast expanses of space that you sense when looking at the stars.

It is amazing to me that there are a number of religious impulses seem to get weaker and weaker the more we learn about science, but this is one religious impulse that actually gets stronger and stronger the more you know about science.  The author of Psalm 8 used to feel small when he looked at the night sky, and saw the moon and stars.  but he did not have any idea just how small he was.  (I am grateful to my colleague Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky for his writings on this concept.)   The Psalmist had no idea that each of those stars he saw in the sky is roughly as large and ferociously powerful as our sun if not more so, or in other words, many of those stars are a million times larger than earth and are so hot that they would incinerate anything that got within about a million miles of them. And if the stars don’t seem that huge or that ferocious, it’s only because they are so absurdly far away from us.  The Psalmist could not possibly have fathomed the concept of a ‘light year’ - I think most of us have trouble picturing that concept - let alone the several light years away that our closest neighboring stars are.   And that our entire galaxy, 100,000 light years across, is smaller than a grain of sand next to the ocean that is the entire observable universe.  The Psalmist may have thought he was inconsequential, but he didn’t have any idea just how small he was. (To quote the old Jewish joke for this time of year: "Look who thinks he's nothing!")
But then the psalmist goes on: ותחסרהו מעט מאלהים וכבוד והדר תעטרהו תמשילהו במעשי ידיך  “But you have made human beings just a little bit less than divine, crowned them with glory, and given them mastery over that which you have fashioned.”  Somehow, despite our small stature, we live in a world that gives us tremendous joys, extraordinary power;  the opportunity to experience beauty; and love, and creativity, the opportunity to grow, to nurture others, and to make our world better and better over time.  We manage to use our intelligence to control our fate to a significant degree.  We can achieve remarkably difficult things.  And many of us feel like Someone with a capital S is paying attention to us. All despite the fact that we’re a mass of chemicals on an inconsequential rock hurtling through space.

And in the same way that science helps us to understand, even better than the Psalmist ever could, just how tiny and inconsequential we are, science also helps us to understand, though differently from the Psalmist,  just how improbably special we are.  The biologist Lewis Thomas wrote:  “STATISTICALLY, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you'd think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise. We are alive against the stupendous odds of genetics, infinitely outnumbered by all the alternates who might, except for luck, be in our places..... The normal, predictable state of matter throughout the universe is randomness….  [while] We, in brilliant contrast, are completely organized structures ……    We violate probability, by our nature…..Add to this the biological improbability that makes each member of our own species unique….  You’d think we’d never stop dancing.”

This the same idea that Abraham Joshua Heschel said was at the core of all religious expression - what he called “radical amazement.”  For Heschel, the most important difference between the religious person and the non-religious person does not have to do with one person believing in God and the other person not believing in God.  The most important difference is that the religious person is amazed by the world, and the non-religious person takes the world for granted, or is a little bored by the world.

My guess is that most of us don’t pause very often to contemplate the extraordinary implausibility of our existence at all - to think about the question of ‘why are we here?’ When would we?! We don’t have time!  With all our important things to do,
and it should not be surprising that contemplating how tiny and special we are in the midst of an immense universe is not on most people’s to-do list on a regular basis.

And here, the absence of stars in the sky over New York and Hoboken is a helpful metaphor: The stars are there all the time; we just can’t see them because of all the artificial light that WE have created.  So we can only see the lights that are focused on US and we forget that we can see far beyond our world. And what else do we miss about the world beyond ourselves because of the spotlights we shine on ourselves?!

I think this is one of the fundamental questions that leads to Jewish prayer.   Jewish tradition tells us that at regular intervals, we benefit from turning down the lights
that are focused on us, and our routines, and our needs, so that we can see the stars.
We benefit from pausing from life as usual and focusing on how small we are
and how blessed we are, because otherwise we are likely to think of ourselves as all-powerful and personally responsible for all our successes.  And otherwise, at the times of crisis, we are likely to be overwhelmed by the challenges that we face
unless we are well practiced in recognizing our life's blessings.

Seen from this perspective, prayer has a lot less to do with God and much more to do with us.  And in fact, there are so many different ways to understand God in Jewish tradition, defining the exact nature of God, is there a God, what does God do and what does God create - these are matters for the theologians to discuss, but they are not exactly what prayer is about.  More than anything else, prayer is about recognizing the ways we are small and the ways we are special.

A rabbi with a great capacity for communicating about Judaism to kids, Rabbi Marc Gellman, has written that there are really only four kinds of Jewish prayer, which he calls ‘wow, thanks, oops, and gimme.’  This is just a cute childish way of conveying what Jewish tradition has long expressed about the content of Jewish prayer.  The ‘wow’ prayers are שבח shevach - praise, the passages in the prayerbook that simply express amazement at the world we live in - its beauty, its grandeur, its size.
The ‘thanks’ prayers are הודאה - hoda’ah - expressions of gratitude for all the blessings in our lives that are so obvious that we take them for granted - until God forbid we’re at risk of losing them.
The ‘oops’ prayers are סליחה - s’lichah -- we get to be very familiar with these over the course of the High Holy Days.
And the ‘gimme’ prayers are בקשה - bakashah -- the petitionary prayers.  Which are actually a much smaller percentage of the content of the prayerbook than you might think, considering that that’s what most people think of when they think of ‘prayer.’

And the ‘wow’ and the ‘thanks’ prayers that one offers have a tendency to change the ‘gimme’ prayers that one feels inclined to ask for.  And this is because it is the nature and purpose of Jewish prayer to transform the person who is doing the praying - even as we usually think that the purpose of prayer is to transform God and God’s plans.  This is the reason why the verb  להתפלל le’hitpalel, the Hebrew word ‘to pray,’ is a reflexive verb.

I DO believe that prayer can change the reality in the world.  But more reliably, more regularly, prayer acts upon ourselves.  The medieval Italian Jewish sage Leon de Modena used to express this using a metaphor:  “Imagine a man in a boat who is pulling himself to shore. If one did not know better, it could appear that he is pulling the shore to himself. But indeed, it is the one in the boat who is being moved, because the shore is fixed. So it is, he said, with prayer. We think that when we pray we are moving God closer to our will. But true prayer does quite the opposite: It moves us closer to God's will.” [summary by Rabbi David Wolpe]

One of the most extraordinary prayers in the Torah was offered under a starry night sky.  And it was offered by the patriarch Jacob, who might have been an unlikely candidate for offering one of the more powerful prayers in the Torah.

If you have a favorite character in the torah, my guess is it's probably not Jacob.
The first two stories about Jacob in the Torah show him as a conniving trickster.  Jacob takes advantage of his twin brother Esau’s impulsiveness and trades him a bowl of soup for his birthright. Later, Jacob commits the first act of identity fraud in the torah, masquerading as his brother, deceiving their blind father, to receive the special blessing of the first born that is supposed to go to his twin brother Esau.
Not surprisingly, twin brother Esau is a little frustrated by this and actually threatens to kill Jacob.  Jacob runs away - in the middle of the night.
He takes refuge with his uncle, Lavan.  Jacob has some conflicts with Lavan - and not surprisingly, Jacob runs away - in the middle of the night, which is starting to be a theme in the stories about Jacob.

But there’s one episode in Jacob’s life in which he does an extraordinary, amazing thing, that that seems so contrary to his character.  Jacob sends messengers to his long-lost brother Esau.  They have not seen each other for at least 20 years, since the identity-fraud incident.  Jacob is conflict-averse; he would rather squirm away from his problems than to face them directly.  And yet Jacob sends messengers to Esau and says “I hope to find favor in your eyes and being reconciled with you.”

Esau responds - but in the way that Jacob fears most.  The messengers return to Jacob and they say:  the good news is, Esau is actually heading this way. The bad news is:  he has 400 armed men with him.  He’ll be here tomorrow morning.

And Jacob panics. I imagine that Jacob is feeling that maybe he shouldn’t have tried to reconcile with his brother after all.  One traditional commentator, Rashbam, even imagines that Jacob was contemplating solving this problem the way he had solved problems twice before in his life - by running away again in the middle of the night.

And Jacob starts to feel fear more intense than any he has felt in his life.  In fact, he takes steps to prepare for the worst - to prepare his family for a violent confrontation with Esau.   But then, that night, Jacob comes to a realization:  He is standing at the banks of the Jordan River, and he realizes it is the exact same spot where he had been 21 years earlier when he ran away from home.  Somehow, coming to that same physical location causes him to ponder everything that had changed since that time,

And that night under the stars, Jacob prays. even before praying for God to save him, Jacob says קטנתי מכל החסדים ומכל האמת אשר עשית את עבדך - I am too small - katonti, from the Hebrew word katan’ meaning ‘small.’ , I am unworthy of all the kindnesses and steadfastness that you have shown to your servant.

Jacob feels low. This whole incident is reminding him of an episode he is not proud of, the parts of himself that he so wishes he could change.  Additionally, he’s feeling vulnerable.  He faces forces that seem more powerful than he is - There are things that may happen to him tomorrow that he may not be able to control.
And third, all this is taking place against the backdrop of the starry night sky - which makes even the largest, most powerful person feel so small.   And yet he manages, just for a moment, to take the focus off of the severe challenge he faces -

and to cast the focus onto all the ways he is blessed.  And his prayer appears to give him the strength to do what he knows is the right thing, even though it is the hardest thing for him to do:  he prepares to face his brother in the morning.  

Psychologists who study the trait called ‘resilience’ - that reflects how well someone is at bouncing back after some kind of adversity -  shows that resilient people are most likely to combine two seemingly contradictory attitudes.  First, they have a staunch acceptance of reality, not seeking to deny the presence of danger and pain.  Second,  they also have a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly held values, that life is meaningful and manageable.  That both of these themes are present in Jacob’s prayer may contribute to his steadfastness and ability to face his fears.

The setting I sang of Jacob’s prayer is by the Israeli musician Yonatan Razel; it’s a song that has become popular in Israel in recent years. He said that he wrote the song Katonti because it was a favorite verse of his grandfather, a survivor of the Shoah.  But it took on new meaning, after having been written but before being recorded, because of an event in Yonatan Razel’s life.  Yonatan Razel’s daughter as a toddler suffered a terrible fall off of a balcony.  After long hospitalizations and rehabilitation, and many absolutely terrifying days, his daughter is now healthy again. But he said, it was those words of Jacob that carried him through many a dark night.   That they encouraged him to see despite the bleakness of the current moment, how much he had been blessed with.  And those words of Jacob, in the context of Jacob’s newfound ability to do that which did not come easily to him,
also were among the inspirations for the Razel family to found an organization to match families in Israel dealing with the crisis of head injuries,with other families that could mentor and support them through their crisis.   

And Yonatan Razel has told other stories of people approaching him when they have experienced major life difficulties, and times of great fear, and they have told him: the words that were running through their minds at those moments were the words of Jacob’s: I am so small, compared to all the kindnesses and all the truth that you have done for your servant.   Most stunningly, he recalls making a shiva call to the home of Naftali Frankel z”l, one of the three teenagers who was kidnapped at the beginning of last summer and murdered by Hamas terrorists. He tells of being amazed when Naftali’s mother, Rahel Frankel, saw him sitting in a corner of the home and came over to him to tell him, “Yonatan: I don’t know if you realize this, but all we’ve been able to say is katonti mikol ha-hasadim u-mikol ha-emet asher asita et avdecha.  And Yonatan Razel has expressed his admiration for those who even at such challenging times were able to keep their minds and hearts focused on the blessings in their lives.

Back to Jacob.  What happened to him after his prayer?  Later that same night is when he meets the mysterious man who wrestles with him, giving him the new name “Yisrael” or the one who wrestles with God.   And then the next morning, he has the meeting with his brother Esau, and it goes surprisingly well.  Better than he could possibly have expected.  Maybe that sounds familiar - of the worries that keep us up at night, there is at least a percentage of them that turn out fine despite the fear and anxiety.

The Hasidic master Rebbe Simha Bunim of Pzishcha used to say that every person should have two pockets so they can put a different message in each pocket.  At times when they are feeling like they are at the center of the universe, they should look at the piece of paper in one pocket, on which should be written the words, ‘I am but dust and ashes.’ אנכי עפר ואפר. Anochi afar va-efer.

But when they are feeling low and powerless, they should look at the piece of paper in the other pocket, on which should be written the words בשבילי נברא העולם  Bishvili nivra ha-olam.   The world was created for my sake.

Whether or not we have the opportunity to look up at the stars this year, may we turn down the lights of our own lives so that we can see beyond this world, just enough to understand that we are small, but also little less than divine.

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