The Three Weeks serve as an “ice bucket challenge” to cool us off amidst our summertime frolicking. We are commanded to always serve God with joy, in every situation, everyday. During this short period of time, however, we “lessen” our joy by refraining from such things as live music, weddings and haircuts. Minor inconveniences, but just like preparing for the happier holidays, they make a difference in our day-to-day, just enough so that we acquire a sense of mourning that begins with the fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and peaks in the observance of Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av.) This day is the saddest on the entire Jewish calendar and commemorates the destruction of our Temples and other assorted calamities throughout history. Our experience of the Ninth of Av is intensified thanks to the three-week gradual integration of the tragic loss of Jewish influence and cohesiveness when our Temple was destroyed. I’d like to examine the purpose of struggle and hardship in the Jewish experience and hopefully find a silver lining behind our personal and collective tribulations.
Everyone knows the saga of the boy who found a caterpillar and put it in a cage as a new pet. Soon he observed the fascinating metamorphosis as the caterpillar disappeared within a cocoon. Just as he assumed that his prized pet was dead he noticed a small hole in the cocoon…just as he was promised, a butterfly was trying to emerge! At one point he noticed that it was stuck so he took a scissors and ever so carefully opened the hole a bit wider so the new creature could emerge. Sure enough the butterfly appeared with a large swollen body and small, misshapen wings. Days went by and those wings never grew. The malformed butterfly spent its last days crawling around the cage and the boy learned that the wings only develop when the butterfly mounts a tenacious struggle to escape its cocoon. His misguided act of kindness led to the creature’s doom. The lesson is, of course, that life’s struggles make us strong and give us the ability to fly. This is the period when we acknowledge 3500 years of Jewish suffering, hopefully perceiving that it has made us stronger. On the personal level, when you are in a tough situation, practice choosing the situation! Embrace it. You may ask for God’s kindness to make the pain go away, but realize that this challenge is a gift from God to help you grow. I know…easier said than done.
Last month I had a bit too much fun with the kids at shul. I love getting mobbed by the local children who know I that I’m a big kid who will happily chase them to their heart’s content. At one point I had a line of kids waiting to be swung by Sam the human swing. All went well until later that evening when I felt a funky twinge in my neck that sent tingles down to my thumb and forefinger. Sure enough, the next day I couldn’t sit down without immediate pain. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t drive and I became an ornery grouch. I opted for massage and chiropractic, both of which gave me relief, until I tried to sit down again. I was inconsolable in this place of darkness. I felt like my career was over, that I’d never be able to ski or bike, that without yoga my body would plunge into a downward spiral. No one could convince me otherwise. Thankfully a few weeks later I was scheduled to perform in Reno and at the High Sierra Music Festival. I wasn’t sure how I would pull it off but remarkably, after five days without deadlines in my studio or enduring LA traffic I was cured, thank God! Perhaps it was the magic of the soul-enriching Sierras. I emerged with a new “no piggyback ride” policy and a reminder that it’s much easier to be grateful for life challenges after the fact.
I recently enjoyed a mid-summer hike with my brother Yom Tov. We set out on a favorite LA trail that hugs a mostly dry riverbed as it ascends through stands of sycamore and oak. The trail then departs the shade of the riparian zone with switchbacks that lead to a series of rocks with panoramic views that we have named Shipwreck, Hawk and Eagle. As we gingerly avoided the poison oak that arched towards our exposed legs, we discussed the struggle of the typical artist. Is a life filled with obstacles a prerequisite for great art? I remarked that I noticed that in the wonderful autobiographies by Sting and Joe Jackson that their early years were fraught with financial and familial turmoil. Both authors chose to end the books with the first taste of stardom. In other words, once these singers hit easy street, their lives no longer offered the challenges that made for compelling reading.
As we crested the apex of Hawk Rock I mentioned to my brother that I often wonder why it is that God has opted to maintain the two of us on a financial precipice throughout our adult lives. While we enjoy frequent miraculous salvations from destitution, this situation engenders stress and worry especially for our beloved wives. I have discovered that the more I “go for it” in my career, the more I reap such salvation. Month to month we always seem to make it, establishing for me the clarity that in spite of a modest bank account one can live abundantly with joy and bitachon (trust in God.) Perhaps it’s due to my limited funds that God’s providence is readily apparent! My brother responded with a teaching of the Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, z”l: God keeps the emissaries that are doing God’s work hungry. In other words, if they are self-satisfied with the riches of life, they will opt for retirement on the beach instead of life on the road or a career in education. When Aish was in dire financial straits the Rosh Yeshiva launched on a multi-year tour of the Diaspora to teach and fundraise. He pointed out to his frustrated acolytes back in Jerusalem that without the cash flow issues, all those people around the world would not have been touched by his presence. When I pondered this reality, I realized that my brother is right. Would I fly to destinations around the globe for my concerts and workshops, enduring the pressure of deadlines and the physical and emotional pain of travel if I didn’t have to? Or would I move my family to a chateau in Fiji and forget the woes of the world?
Life disconnected from life’s vicissitudes does not make for great art. Perhaps that’s why many successful musicians are never able to top their debut album. That precious early repertoire typically chronicles the adventures in the trenches as the artist claws for recognition. The sophomore release often fails to recreate this degree of emotional intensity and without radical reinvention, the performer joins the heap of “one hit wonders.” Great artists take us on a ride as they chase a personal vision, never satisfied with the status quo. We marvel as Picasso transitions from Blue to Rose, from Cubism to Surrealism or as Miles Davis pushes the boundaries of jazz regardless of the critic’s disdain. Miles lambasts those who imitate others or who at the sunset their careers, “ape” themselves. In other words, having nothing novel to offer, they simply perform an endless greatest hits package into their retirement. He stated, “if you’re trying to ape…you don’t have anything to give the world, you might as well be dead.” The message is simple: celebrate the process, don’t settle for the same old same old, remember that all the drama in your life is your life, learn to perfect the art of making lemonade out of lemons.
All of us, in whichever career we have chosen, can be artists. An artist seeks to deliver the best at all times, no matter who is paying, without regard to impressing anyone. A true artist isn’t afraid of individuality, of performing his or her task with total integrity. Artists are known to be extremists, defying convention, standing out from the crowd. In Judaism we can approach our faith as an artist, crafting a unique relationship with the Creator, painting our personal practice with nuances that customize our religious experience to match our predilections, all within the rubric of Halacha (Jewish law.) We can each be extremists in our own way, choosing those mitzvot that speak to us and making them our raison d’etre. According to famed Surrealist Marcel Duchamp, the artist defines art, and by extension the artist defines who and what they are. In other words, if we decide we are an artist, then we are! While Rambam may encourage the middle path, the “shvil hazahav,” in some ways we must become extremists, fashioning our lives as daring artists, pushing the boundaries in those areas in which we hear a calling.
We are naturally attracted to extremes, to polarities that go beyond our personal experience. Only these extremes have the velocity to become ingrained in our consciousness that is already overflowing with input. My Aunt Lynnie taught me this important lesson when I was a child. She had returned from a tropical vacation at Club Med with a gift of three beautiful shells for our family. As she explained how she scuba dived to find these treasures she reported about the people on her trip that she really liked and a few that she found obnoxious. I then queried about all the other people that she must have met but didn’t mention. She responded with a lesson on the bell shaped curve: only those individuals that delight or disgust you are going to be remembered. This begs the question: how do you want to be remembered? What unique communal contribution will mark your having visited this planet?
The same paradigm is extant in my memories of grade school. Those peers that made a lasting impression were extreme in some way. Extremely athletic, beautiful, talented, smart, extremely kind or extremely annoying! I too was extreme in my own way; when I run into my teachers after all these years, I find that they usually remember me. I was a devious class clown and had no tolerance for mediocrity. Some teachers loved me, some despised me, but all had an opinion. I thrived with magnanimous teachers who understood that my perfectly timed joke or clever prank was never malicious but only intended to get a laugh and get me some attention. Others chose to do battle and therefore I got kicked out of nearly every educational institution that I attended. One of my Hebrew School teachers, Michael Waterman, admitted to me that his rowdiest students were the ones who went farthest in life. They had the gall to take on the establishment, to stick their necks out, often possessing natural self-confidence, quick reflexes and the ability to defuse dry, overly serious situations. This begs the question whether as parents we should always be pressuring our children to fit in, to toe the line.
Rabbi Natan Lopes Cardozo named his venerable Jerusalem-based institution the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu. He emphasizes that Avraham’s quintessential trait wasn’t necessarily chesed (kindness.) It was his utter refusal to accept a substandard status quo. Only when he was willing to accept the role of rebel, regardless of the reaction of his family and society, was he able to follow his unfettered logic to the revolutionary conclusion of Ethical Monotheism: that a loving, unique Presence is intimately involved in our lives and created the world for our pleasure. The Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu recognizes and uplifts the holy rebel. Rabbi Cardozo insists that we keep kosher as an act of disobedience against eating like an animal, that we join a community in prayer as an act of rebellion against the tendency to think one can go it alone, we use the mikvah to protest against our society’s obsession with sex. This is quite the opposite of the current tendency of “religious” communities to commit to mitzvot in order to fit in or to please a wrathful deity.
Sadly, the typical “Moshe Rabeinu” Talmudic style of study creates a “safety in numbers” reluctance to challenge and innovate. This is the modus operandi of the Charedi world, and it is quick to decapitate any rebel that refuses to or cannot toe the line. Rebbes feel that they cannot reward the “bad” boys, and paranoid families are forced to excommunicate lest they endanger the shidduch opportunities for well-behaved siblings, God forbid. Is it any wonder that there is a epidemic of “off the derech” youth (those abandoning traditional Judaism,) many of whom are like zoo animals released in the wild, without the basics of street smarts or secular education to survive in society at large. My brother Rabbi Yom Tov states that Orthodox youth are given 90% of Torah. What they are missing is the first 10%: the “why” of Judaism: why we do mitzvot, why we serve God, why we are different from the other nations of the world, why we merit redemption. Picture that butterfly without the chance to fight its way out of the cocoon. Without a personal engagement with the WHY of Judaism, observance can become rote and meaningless.
Clearly all the movements in Judaism are facing unprecedented challenges. The answer to our collective salvation lies in offering every individual the permission to dedicate his or her individuality to the service of the Jewish people and ensuring that service to God is artistic, mindful and joyful. The struggles that our people face are like those of the butterfly…we are writhing and striving and competing, building and breaking and building again. While it is hard to perceive the merit of setbacks, the challenges we face are creating the most powerful, beautiful wings, wings that allow us to soar in this greatest adventure of human history.