This is the season of reckoning. Back to the drawing board. Press reset, clear the cache, reformat the hard drive. It’s time to step out of your busy life and figure out why you are living it. See where you are versus where you want to be and figure out what it’s going to take to get there. We call it t’shuva, or return. Jews don’t believe in original sin. We believe in original purity. Along the way we get covered in road grime and once a year we pause to get back to that candy apple red finish underneath.
One important component of t’shuva is ownership. You have to figure out where you are falling short with God and take responsibility. The other eleven months of the year you can pass the buck. Now we take the fall. Don’t blame your parents for not giving you the right education or for their verbal abuse. Don’t blame your rabbi for being too busy or for misleading you. The dog ate your tefillin? Folks, it’s Judgment Day. The judge knows your every secret. Why not anticipate the prosecuting attorney’s argument and face up to your shortcomings?
As my friend David Sacks said in his amazing weekly class that I frequent, God is the great sit-com writer in the sky that wants feedback from us, the actors. What do WE see as important for our characters? How is God doing in getting us to our goals, to realizing our potential? The dialog when you are in the synagogue during the holidays is about helping God understand what you need in your world. You have permission to be chutzpadik. Ask for the moon! Not just that you want a job or a raise or a spouse, but that you want to have a starring role in the saga of the perfection of the world, of tikkun olam.
I am part of the Ba’al T’shuva (BT) movement. That means “master of return.” A small trickle of young Jews started to become more interested in their heritage in the 70’s and it turned into a flood in the past two decades. Countless neighborhoods nationwide have been transformed by yuppies looking to create modern day shtetls with shuls, bakeries, restaurants and bookstores all within walking distance. I’d like to argue that this month we all become ba’alei t’shuva. It doesn’t matter where you are or where you came from. This is the time to buckle down. To find a single mitzvah to add to your life. To perform mitzvot you do already with even more dedication.
There are a few pitfalls to avoid in becoming a BT, even if it’s just for the month of Tishrei. The whole idea of connecting with God requires humility, creating a space for God to dwell inside. How ironic that some BTs feel that they themselves discovered God and Torah and now live in the smug triumph of their accomplishment. Anyone less observant is treif, anyone more observant is out of his or her mind. BTs can be infamous bridge burners. Some neophyte BTs are quick to quote Rashi’s comments on the biblical juxtaposition of honoring parents and the Sabbath as the source that they won’t honor parents who desecrate Shabbat. I’m confident that those who nurture filial bonds of love and reverence are far more likely to bring “wayward” parents close.
The antidote to this trap is gratitude, to look at gifts in your life with laser-sharp focus and to be thankful to God for the small details. To recognize that our upbringing may not have been perfect but it gave us the tools to get to where we are now. And that our present state is exactly where we need to be or we wouldn’t have traveled this perfectly orchestrated path. God wants our whole being. Our past and our present. God lovingly arranged for the circumstances of our lives and all of the challenges along the way to give us a feeling of empowerment for “choosing life.” And rather than perceiving a malicious Creator dolling out punishment during the High Holidays, we must be grateful for the divine system of cause and effect.
I had the gift of a potent revelation this week. I was out at a great LA jazz club hearing some absolute musical masters tearing it up. The volume was more intense with every song and I had to beseech the bartender for some earplugs. At one point I noticed that the keyboard player’s amp was on fire. No one was doing anything. A timeless minute went by where my shock at the lack of response turned into action. In spite of my broken foot and crutches I leapt to the stage to pull his flaming amp away from the thick red curtain that it was leaning on. I screamed to the waiter to get a fire extinguisher. The owner of the club ran down to the stage to tackle me…he assumed I was an overzealous fan. The fire was put out, the keyboards were patched through the PA system and the band never stopped playing. However, they did segue into Fire by Jimi Hendrix.
After the excitement I nursed my Corona and reflected: We cannot sit around and wait for someone else to help us. Yes, you have to pray, to make God part of your team, but you can’t sit around and wait for the big break, you can’t depend on anyone to make it happen for you. You can’t postpone the dream, the vacation, the change in lifestyle. There is no easy way out. No free lunch. This is it. Want to lose weight or quit smoking? Cold turkey, baby. Want to connect to God and live a holy life? Get to a class, a Torah website, a Shabbas table. I can’t just wait for the phone to ring for that next gig or album client. I have to figure out what I want and get busy. And make an exhaustive list of goals for myself and for the world when I meet the Master of the Universe on New Years Eve.
The other aspect of my revelation that night was in regard to gratitude, specifically to my parents. They may not have given their four boys a life of mitzvot, kashrut, Torah study and the like. But they did raise a family that was passionate about Israel, Jewish music and the Jewish people. The more I think about it, my parents were superheroes. They gave us the freedom and courage to explore the world and the discipline never to be “quitters.” They raised us colorblind: it was perfectly natural to love everyone, all races and religions. The highest-ranking executives in my father’s garment company were Black, Hispanic, Filipino, or Irish. This was totally normal for us brothers; we treated them like aunts and uncles. We also had no bias in terms of economic standing, sexual preference, age. Poor, rich, young, old, all were welcome in my household. They unleashed four adventurous, open-minded boys with a solid foundation of love, trust and common sense.
This is the season to act on your gratitude. To express
verbally your love for friends and relatives, to apologize sincerely for your shortcomings. When we clear the air of the pain and suffering we inflict on others, especially those closest to us, we are creating a more unified planet. Rosh Hashana is about making God king. God can’t be king unless God has loyal, content subjects. Subjects that are filled with strife, hatred and dis-ease cannot properly honor the King. Yom Kippur gives us a clean slate with our re-coronated King. Now that we’ve taken care of making amends with God’s subjects, we can focus on those places where we’ve fallen short in our observance of God’s decrees. We have 613 commandments, not 613 suggestions. Perhaps mitzvot are better understood as divine pathways or in the words of Shlomo Carlebach, God’s prayers for us. We’re like a kid coming back from a year abroad to a loving parent. It’s all love and forgiveness. Thank God.
This time of year we focus not only on God as loving parent but God as spouse. It’s not about crime and punishment. It’s about the power and beauty of our relationship, a relationship continually deepens and must be celebrated. A relationship that requires care, protection, fences. When we build a home with God, we avoid sin not because we are afraid of the whip but because we couldn’t imagine defacing our beautiful palace.
I’d like to finish this essay with a great story. An executive with very little Jewish education was learning with a rabbi. He had been pushed by one of his peers to give it a try and now it was a high point in his week. The weekly encounter with his heritage gave him fodder to try on his family now that he insisted they be together for Friday night dinner. One thing that bothered him was that the rabbi, who was clearly teaching him, kept referring to their sessions as “learning together.” The executive called the rabbi on this one day: “We’re not learning together, you are teaching me! Why not call a spade a spade?” “No, quite the opposite,” said the rabbi. “I learn from your world of experience and you learn from mine. I don’t know so much more than you do!” “What?” the executive replied, “don’t patronize me! I barely went to Hebrew school and you are trained rabbi!” The rabbi responded: “Imagine you are in an Olympic-sized swimming pool racing Michael Phelps. Who would win the race?” “Well, of course Phelps would destroy me!” said the executive. The rabbi responded, “Now picture the two of you in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Who would win in a race to Los Angeles? You see, we’re both in the middle of the Pacific, you and I. In the great world of Torah, the deepest ocean in the universe, we’re even!”
My dear readers, may you have a year of sustenance, health, love, wisdom and peace of mind. May the world be a place of peace, free from disease, disaster, cruelty and suffering. This is our time to tell the Director what we think of the script. God wants our input. We are not actors or puppets. We are God’s children, God’s chosen ones, partners for life. Don’t limit your vision to a denomination, a movement, a synagogue, an organization. This time of year we have the awesome opportunity to pray together. In different buildings, different countries but still together. On a lifeboat in a vast ocean. We are the Jewish people. We are one. Like different fingers on one hand. Connected, needing each other. Humbly walking with our loving Creator. Building a palace. Masters of return.