Erev Rosh Hashanah 2019: The Secret No One Will Tell You.

Can you keep a secret? I am trusting each and every one of you to never, ever tell anyone else what I’m about to share with you. It’s beineinu: Just between us. So here goes:

I’ve never eaten avocado toast.

Never.

In my life.

There, I said it. And I feel so much better now.

I worry about these things. Avocado toast is apparently not just a passing fad. It’s been on the top-ten-things-to-eat list for several years now, ever since dieticians decided that not all fats are created equal, and the fat in avocado is okay – in moderation and, especially, on toast. With maybe a fried egg. And salt and pepper.

It seems to be on every restaurant’s menu, and on every celebrity’s favorite-quick-things-to-eat list. And I’m getting a little worried that I’m missing out. That I must be doing something gravely wrong with my life if I’ve never, ever eaten avocado toast.

It may seem like a little thing to you. And I suppose it is. Frivolous, really. But both trendy and tasty. And if I’m missing out on this, what else am I missing in my life? Where else have I gone wrong?

Jason Gay, the brilliant, insightful columnist for the Wall Street Journal, used the example of avocado toast in a column this spring to reassure the graduating class of 2019 that they will be just fine in the long run, even though their fears of the future are overwhelming them just now.[1]

Kind of what we go through tonight, when we enter the New Year with the nagging fear that we haven’t cleaned up our mess from last year just yet – and we’re really, really not ready for what’s to come. And that we really don’t know how to be ready.

In that column, Jason Gay let the new graduates in on the dirty little secret that I’m telling you tonight:

“Nobody really knows what they’re doing. Nobody.”

If you, like me, often judge the meaning and richness of your life far too often from the visual travelogues of your Facebook friends – who are either vacationing in Paris or protesting in El Paso – then you feel a little bit inadequate. If you look at the self-portrayal of the lives of colleagues who seemingly work dawn to dusk, with an amazing focus and sense of purpose – then you feel a little bit lazy or hazy.

Does everybody I know just have their stuff together, their lives neatly ordered, checking off accomplishments day by day and never failing to read the assigned “book of the month” from cover to cover?

The answer is no. They don’t. And they don’t eat avocado toast, either. So let’s take a deep breath and follow along with Jason Gay’s three important things that we need to know about life.

Truth Number One: It’s never as bad as it seems.

Sometimes we feel like we are living the lives of 12 year-old-girls, where life is either brilliant or a dumpster fire. And it’s usually a dumpster fire. We are never caught up with our to-do list and will never be caught up. We call the wrong people at the wrong times and then can’t remember why we were calling somebody at all. We forget pick-ups at the pharmacy or at the afternoon soccer game. Our work is under-appreciated, and our work-load is overwhelming.

We find ourselves in tears by the end of the day from sheer exhaustion. And then it starts all over again the next day.

But let’s take a step back, look around and look at ourselves. Most of us in this sanctuary tonight have it pretty good. We do not suffer from hunger. We can afford a decent roof over our heads. We got a good education and try to use it to the best of our ability. And on those days when we do find ourselves in tears, we have people in our lives to hold us and let us cry it out.

That doesn’t mean that everything in our lives is tickety-boo. Many of us sitting here tonight are desperately missing the person who used to sit beside us.  Others of us are dealing with long-term health issues, either physical or emotional, that don’t show because they don’t completely debilitate us. We have good reason to worry about our sick parents or our troubled kids.

But a lot of those challenges that send us into 12-year-old girl dumpster-fire spirals are short term. They do pass – sometimes quickly, often when we just take a deep breath and deal one piece at a time with the thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of life that’s been left on our doorstep.

We just have to remember to take that breath before we let out that scream. The great sage Rava taught: “A man is not held responsible for what he says in the hour of his distress.”[2] But what we say can still sting, if our words are shot like arrows at other people who end up as collateral damage.

Think about the passages of Torah we’ve been reading over the past year, and the stories from Joshua and Judges we’ve been studying on Shabbat mornings. The seminal experience that takes up most of the Torah, the one that made us into the Jewish nation we are today, was our Exodus from Egypt. Now that was a dumpster fire.

Our ancestors didn’t know where God was taking them when they were freed from Egypt. And they certainly didn’t know how long the trip would be. They rebelled early and often. Against the leadership of Moses and Aaron and Miriam. Against the dire conditions. Against having to move from place to place. Against the rules and commandments being imposed by a God they could not see.

But when their behavior showed anger or impatience or cowardice – inside, they were just plain scared.

They spent forty years thinking – how will I survive? Am I good enough? Am I strong enough? Am I smart enough? Am I faithful enough?

And you know what? Those are the same questions we ask ourselves every single day. And it’s based on the same fear that drives us to distraction. It’s the same fear that keeps us from recognizing that life is never as bad as it seems.

When you work a jigsaw puzzle, sometimes it takes forever to find and fit the pieces that go around the edges, and match up the ones with similar colors or markings. But what a great sense of relief and pride we feel when enough pieces are in place that the image becomes clear. When fear of the unknown goes away, and we recognize that we are good enough, and strong enough, and smart enough, and faithful enough to finish the project. To survive the mess that we call life.

Which takes us to truth number two:

Truth Number Two: Everyone is making it up as they go along.

As Jason Gay wrote to those graduating seniors:

“Life is a series of leaps and educated guesses. Sometimes, uneducated guesses. We can practice, prepare, and read all the instruction manuals, but we’re really all making this up as we go along. . . And the charlatans who claim they do have life figured out – they have it less figured out than anyone.”

There are a lot of people out there trying to sell us books that claim to unlock the secret of life. But they do not include our rabbinic sages. They knew better. Every generation of them has had the unenviable task of explaining why bad things happen to good people. And they’ve never been able to come up with a good explanation.

The students of Rabbi Ishmael used to teach: “One who goes through forty days without any kind of suffering is, in a manner of speaking, deemed to have received his reward in this world.”[3] That is to say, just know that rough stuff happens and be grateful to God for the good days we have.

Like the long-suffering good man Job, the sages realize that life really does not come with an instruction manual. That calamity happens for no reason. That people don’t always get what they deserve, for better or for worse. They call it “God’s ineffable plan,” and that’s about as good as it gets.

It’s not very satisfying, but at least it’s truthful. And it’s why we all have to make it up as we go along. My wonderful Bible commentaries teacher Dr. Ed Goldman, taught us that God’s simple message boils down to this: Just do the best you can, with what you’ve got to work with.

Several chapters of the Book of Exodus describe in excruciating detail God’s direction to Moses for building the Tabernacle that they would carry in the wilderness, the physical symbol of God’s presence in their midst. There are vivid descriptions of an ark covered with pure gold, curtains of various colors made of fine linen, boards of acacia wood fastened together with hooks of gold and sockets of silver, exquisite rare jewels sewn into the vestments for the priests. The details go on and on.

Where do you think a bunch of rag-tag nomads wandering through the wilderness would come up with these things? Did they schlep all this wood and linen from Egypt? Did they miraculously find dolphin skins in the middle of a desert?

My guess that they decided the task wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be, as long as they took the right approach. So they short-tracked the looming chaos and frustration, took God’s exacting measurements and materials, and just did the best with what they had to work with.

Making the best of what we’ve got – is neither an admission of ultimate failure, nor an excuse for settling for mediocrity. It is a recognition that we are put on earth to serve God, to tend God’s world, and to nurture God’s creatures – be they human or beast. It is a realization that the material world – like each of us – is imperfect, and that it is deliberately made that way so that each of us can, and must, make it better.

That realization brings us to the third and final truth that Jason Gay delivers to us:

Truth Number Three: Embrace the Chaos, walk out the door, be kind to your fellow human beings, and change the world.

“A little chaos is okay,” he writes. “A little chaos keeps life interesting, keeps you on your toes.”

The truth is that life would be pretty dull if every day was predictable, if every challenge was easily conquered, if we never felt frustrated or a little bit ill-prepared for a task. But here’s another truth: it takes courage for you to walk into the middle of chaos, sort out the pieces that are important, and make the world a better place with them.

There’s a fascinating, and complicated, verse in the Book of Proverbs (12:25). The first part goes like this:

דְּאָגָה בְלֶב־אִישׁ יַשְׁחֶנָּה

If there is anxiety in a man’s mind, yashchena, let him quash it

“Let him quash it.”

Two great sages of the Land of Israel disagreed on what that really means.[4] Rabbi Ammi understood it as “yasi-hennah”: Let him banish it from his mind and think about other things. His friend Rabbi Assi played around with the letters of the same word and concluded, no, the word was actually “Yeshi-hennah”- let him speak about it to others, so that they can help him and ease his anxiety.

I think both are right. Sometimes you have face your anger or your frustration – or your fear – on your own, breaking it down piece by piece. Sometimes you just have to set it aside for a while until you can come back to it with a fresh eye.

And sometimes you need advice, and you can’t be afraid to ask for it. You can’t feel unworthy or foolish. There are no stupid questions. There are only unasked ones. And sometimes another person’s wisdom or insight or experience is just what you need to break out of the chaos of your own mind.

Whatever the case, the second half of the verse from Proverbs gives us the result:

וְדָבָר טוֹב יְשַׂמְּחֶנָּה:

And turn it into joy with a davar tov.

Davar tov. That could be a kind word, or a good deed. Either way, the result is the same: you create something positive out of your struggle. Something that can help another person. Something that, yes, might even change the world, a little bit at a time.

“There will be mornings,” Jason Gay warned, “when you won’t want to walk out the door.

“But it’s OK. Remember this:

“It’s never as bad as it seems.”

“Everyone is making it up as they go along.”

“Embrace the chaos, walk out the door, be kind to your fellow humans and change the world.”

In this New Year, do not be afraid to walk out the door, or out of the seeming safety of your own mind, into the chaos that is the nature of life. Break down the pieces of the chaos a bit at a time, and re-organize them so that they make some sense. Use the energy of your struggle to push the world to a better place.

And be brave enough to try something new. “Because,” as Jason Gay acknowledged: “let’s face it, avocado toast is delicious.”

Let the year 5780 be one of turning setbacks into successes, and gratitude into giving. And let us say together: Amen.

####

©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

 

[1] Jason Gay, “The Secret No One Will Tell You,” Wall Street Journal. Saturday/Sunday, May 11-12, 2019

[2] Bavli Bava Batra 16b, from The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, p. 719. Compiled by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitsky, translated by William G. Braude (New York: Schocken Books, 1992).

[3] Bavli Arachin 16b-17a. From The Book of Legends, p. 719.

[4] See Bavli Sanhedrin 100b

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