Let me start out by saying that Fay Schmitt is one very smart lady. Many of you know her as Snookie, and she was one of Norma Sevel’s best friends for a very long time. It was Snookie who helped sm…
Let me start out by saying that Fay Schmitt is one very smart lady. Many of you know her as Snookie, and she was one of Norma Sevel’s best friends for a very long time. It was Snookie who helped smooth Norma’s transition from her beloved New York to Central Pennsylvania when she and Bernie married. And that included helping Norma understand the local lingo, fondly known as Pittsburghese.
As Snookie told the story at Norma’s 85th birthday party in our social hall a couple of years back, she early on had Norma flummoxed by her use of a phrase that’s pretty common around here. She said she couldn’t go out with Norma just at that moment, because she was in the middle of redding up her house. Redd up the house? You know, said Snookie. Redd up your house. Tidy things up. That’s the way we say it here.
It’s one of those many colloquial expressions that pop up in conversation. Like “Yinz better redd up the dining room and put out the chipped ham whenever company comes.” Like that.
I’m particularly fond of the “redd up” phrase. To me it sounds like a shorthand for “get things ready” or, even better, “get yourself ready.” Because today, on Yom Kippur, our focus is not on redding up the room, but redding up our lives.
Let’s be clear. This is not going to happen in a day – even on this holiest day. Yom Kippur – the entire Ten Days of Awe, really – is designed only to give us a time and a place to start. Prayers to openly acknowledge our failings. Music to fill our hearts with gratitude at being part of this Temple family – a family that’s here for us even with all of our flaws. Time for silence, to contemplate where we are and where we want to be.
But when it comes to actually implementing a plan to tidy ourselves up, well, that’s up to each of us.
Fortunately, there’s never a shortage of self-help advice in pop culture. And the current craze for redding up is called the KonMari method. It comes from a best-seller called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondo. Now, it makes sense that this should be so popular in Japan, where tiny living is not a choice but a necessity. These days, Japanese architects are building on odd parcels of city land as small as 300 square feet, with the task of making the homes as airy as possible.
But KonMari has become an obsession all over the world. And I think it’s because the message is universal. KonMari focuses not only on relieving clutter but also the emotional baggage that results from it: tension, lack of focus, frustration, even anger and resentment. And the author herself is aware of the implications:
“From the moment you start tidying,” she writes, “you will be compelled to re-set your life. As a result, your life will start to change. That’s why the task of putting your house in order should be done quickly. It allows you to confront the issues that are really important. Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.”
Tidying is a just a tool, not the final destination. And it has both a physical and an emotional element to it. It’s a parallel to our engagement with ourselves, our bodies and our souls, on Yom Kippur.
To put this physical challenge in its emotional context, we turn to Christiane Northrop, a physician who dispenses health and wellness tips in books, on TV and on the web. She’s a big fan of the KonMari method and suggests three main steps:
First, ask yourself: WHAT DOES YOUR CLUTTER SYMBOLIZE
Second: LIGHTEN UP what you have
And third: VISUALIZE YOUR NEXT STEP
First things first: What does your life’s clutter symbolize? Dr. Northrop says it makes sense to see where it is, what it is, and what it means.
If our main living spaces are a mess, for example, maybe we are trying to hide ourselves from the world, because no one will be welcome there. If we stuff things into closets, maybe we are unable to really see ourselves as we are, hiding things away from sight. If we clutter the bathroom, maybe that’s a sign that we lack self-worth, because that should be a space of both privacy and luxury. And dumping everything in the garage, to the point where we can’t get our cars in and out easily, may be a sign we are having difficult moving on with our lives. Maybe it’s due to a trauma, or a loss, or just plain exhaustion. But all of these places of clutter tell us something about what’s getting us stuck.
Marie Kondo says the first step to understanding the emotional clutter is to put all the physical clutter in one place. Clear out every room and really look at what we’ve accumulated. As she puts it, “There are three approaches we can take toward our possessions: face them now, face them sometime, or avoid them until the day we die. The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”
So let’s say we face them now. What are we likely to see? My guess is that it’s a lot of stuff that contain memories of people and places in our past who may not be part of our present. Maybe it’s a favorite shirt that belonged to an ex-boyfriend. There’s a good reason he’s an “ex” – but the shirt may remind us that we had good times too, that the relationship was not a complete mistake. A photo album full of pictures of a neglectful, or even abusive, parent reminds us that this person’s life was not all bad. We might keep the photo as a way of saying kaddish for someone when we cannot bring ourselves to actually recite the words.
I was really glad, after my father’s death, to discover he’d kept a few things from each of our childhoods. I have my baby book, old Polaroid pictures, a letter to me as a newborn from his boss, about what kind of dad I had. A couple of the birthday and fathers’ day cards I hand made for him. A few report cards, where I can see that my verbal skills have always been good, and my handwriting has always been rubbish.
It’s all in a little box I keep in my office at home, within easy reach when I need my dad close. But a few things are just enough to help me jog the memories. If I kept too much, I wouldn’t be able to sort out what’s really important. And I wouldn’t be able to find what I want, when I want it.
We all, I think, tend to hang onto the past in some way. Maybe we’re trying to keep children as babies, when they were dependent on us. Or keep our aging parents as young and vibrant, when they were not dependent on us. Or maybe, like me, we hang on to old clothes from when we were younger and thinner. But as Marie teaches, “The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.”
So we have to make choices. We have to take the next step and LIGHTEN UP.
But here, too, there’s a really important emotional component to the KonMari method. Because it teaches us to focus, not on what we get rid of, but on what we want to keep. It’s not about what we lose. It’s about what we re-discover.
So here’s how we do that. We pick up each item, one by one. We hold it. We stroke it. And we ask ourselves: Do we love it? Does it spark joy? If yes, keep it. If not, let it go.
I can’t imagine there’s a person in this room tonight who isn’t holding onto something that has outlived its usefulness. It might be a grudge against somebody who said something unpleasant. Or bottled-up anger against a slight, whether it was intentional or not.
Did somebody else take credit for a project you worked so hard on? Or did you have to do more than your fair share? Are you still thinking about a mistake you made six months ago, when everybody else has forgotten about it? Are you feeling ignored by your spouse, or disrespected by your children? Does it sometimes bring you to the verge of tears to think about it? Do they even know?
Chances are the other person isn’t even aware of what he or she has done, or at least what it’s done to you – because most of us walk away from a confrontation or a bad experience. We simply swallow the bad feelings, and then they sit like a rough pebble in the pit of our stomach. Because we think – probably incorrectly – that it’s easier to try and ignore it, or internalize it, than to have the conversation about it. Not accusing, not blaming – but simply explaining you how feel.
And now you’re faced with this question: Do you love that feeling? Does it spark joy? Is this the way you really want to live?
Answering those questions is really important today, of all days. We use rituals during these Days of Awe, to symbolically rid ourselves of what we no longer need or want. We cast our bread on the water, to wash away the sins. We beat our chests at each admission in “al chet” litany of shortcomings. Many of us, if we can, fast, to purge our bodies as a symbol of the way we can purge unhappy thoughts, and disrespectful words, and destructive behavior.
But Yom Kippur also calls on us to go beyond the rituals and symbols – and to really let go of the anger, and the grudges, even if we do not feel appeased. A traditional Yom Kippur prayer called the T’fillah Zakah reads, in part:
I extend complete forgiveness to everyone who has gossiped about me or even slandered me. So, too, to anyone who has injured me, whether physically or financially, and for any human sins between a person and their neighbor . . . I grant complete forgiveness.
Granted, true reconciliation is still the goal – so much so that the tradition also speaks of two friends on Erev Yom Kippur, standing face to face and asking each other for forgiveness – even if the offense was only perceived, or unintentional.
But I think the author of T’fillah Zakah recognized that, in reality, this often doesn’t happen. A lot of the time, we just need to act on our own. Because when we leave the break-the-fast tomorrow and head back to real life, we really do not want to go back to a messy house, full of all the stuff that’s suffocating us.
Redding up our lives requires facing all that stuff, keeping only what brings us joy, and letting go of the rest. Only then can we move to the third and final step: VISUALIZING OUR NEW LIVES. The future as we want it to be.
Dr. Northrop encourages us to be very explicit about this. It can’t be just: I want to be a better person. We have to have a specific path, and set ourselves specific tasks, to make that happen.
And here too, Yom Kippur shows us the way, in the two Torah readings we will share tomorrow. The reading from Deuteronomy, Nitzavim, gives us the general outline, the mitzvah of being ready to act on God’s behalf. I think it’s where we stand after the purge. Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem: You stand here, all of you today!.”
But the Holiness code from Leviticus is very detailed in laying out a path for the future. It models for us proper behavior at home and at work, in public and in private. Do not steal. Do not cheat. Do not lie. Do not defraud your neighbor. Do not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. Do not reap everything you can from your vineyards and fields – the corners belong to the poor.
Every single one of the Torah’s specific examples from thousands of years ago translates into what we do today. And every single one of them is a reminder that the best way to rid ourselves of clutter – is not to hoard it in the first place. The best way to make amends – is to be more careful about what we say and what we do, to start with. Chances are, we are going to mess up. We are going to let the clutter creep back in. And we’re going to have to do this all over again a year from now. But maybe then the clutter will be a little less overwhelming, the purging will be a little less painful, and the spark of joy will come a little bit easier.
Marie Kondo warns us that the path on which we embark tonight will not be an easy one. “The process of facing and selecting our possessions can be quite painful,” she writes. “It forces us to confront our imperfections and inadequacies and the foolish choices we have made in the past.”
But the fact of the matter is that we cannot get to step three – visualizing our future and making it real – without confronting our past and purging ourselves of that which no longer sparks joy. And if we can embrace that spark in ourselves, we will be a light – a veritable beacon – of joy for others.
May the journey on which we embark tonight lead us to such a future. May the act of redding up our own lives inspire others to do the same. May this be God’s will and our own, as we say together: Amen.
©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin
I recently got another one of those occasional emails from someone looking for other Korotkins. Usually they are distant relatives, children or grandchildren of a great-great-uncle that I never kne…
I recently got another one of those occasional emails from someone looking for other Korotkins. Usually they are distant relatives, children or grandchildren of a great-great-uncle that I never knew existed. Once in a while I have run into Korotkins at national Jewish gatherings. And I actually found the remnants of the old Karotkins’ Furniture Store in downtown San Antonio, Texas. It’s been closed for years, but it was run by the branch of the family that we’ve discovered was routed through Galveston instead of Ellis Island about a hundred years ago.
Despite prodigious digging, though, none of us has been able to trace the family back past three generations, beyond my Grandpop Mike’s father Sam, and his bevy of brothers.
We get hints, sometimes. We knew that a few of the brothers had returned to Russia, disaffected by life in the New World, where the streets – promises notwithstanding – were not made of gold. The trail went cold until a few years ago, when I found the family name in a genealogy display at a Jewish school in a suburb of Moscow. It gave me hope – but no further leads – about their survival.
We also have, on occasion, been the subject of folk legend. My father was once informed by a Russian colleague that the Korotkins were leaders of the White Russian uprising against the Bolsheviks. Since the guy turned out to be a KGB agent under surveillance by the FBI – he must have the lowdown, right?
And then there was the time I was introduced at old Bowie Race Course to the itinerant great-great nephew of Leo Tolstoy who – when he heard my last name – swooped down in a big bow, kissed my hand, and proclaimed that I was a Russian princess.
So there’s that.
But the bottom line is that my family tree, as we can sketch it out now, is pretty scrawny. Which leaves me wondering: Where does our story begin?
Many of you have the same issue. The Old Country just didn’t keep good records of Jewish families, so we’re left to family stories and, if we’re lucky, some photographs. It is said that we Jews are long on memory. And maybe it’s because our own personal family histories are often so sketchy that our history as a people is so important. But even then, we ask, as a people: Where does our story begin?
It’s the question that my colleague Rabbi Neal Gold asked in a recent Torah Commentary about the section of Deuteronomy that includes the statement, “arami oveid avi” – “My father was a fugitive Aramean.” That fugitive, that wanderer, says the Torah “went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there, but there he became a great and very populous nation” (Deut. 26:5). These are, of course, the words we read in the Passover seder every year.
So there might be a strong argument that this is where our national history begins – if only we could figure out exactly who the “arami oveid” was. Abraham? Isaac? Jacob? Joseph? Any of them would fit the bill.
But our national history might just as well begin elsewhere.
If you’re a maximalist, it might begin with the initial call to Abraham from God to embark on a journey of faith and fate. If you’re a minimalist, you might choose 1948, when the modern State of Israel was proclaimed.
In between, you might choose Jacob becoming Israel after struggling with the angel. Or Moses taking the Israelite slaves through the Sea of Reeds and bringing them to Mount Sinai, where they invoked a covenant with God.
You might think our history as a people rightly begins with the settlement of the Promised Land by Joshua, or the building of the First Temple by Solomon. Or the period of the Second Temple, for which we have ample archaeological proof beyond the Biblical and Rabbinic sources.
All of these are valid suggestions. But I’m going to argue this morning that our history as a people begins with the Torah portion we will read this morning – Akedat Yitzchak, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac.
Because, despite the fact that it is referenced nowhere else in the Torah, this troubling and enigmatic episode becomes the foundational narrative of our people and our faith, in post-Biblical Judaism.
The Rabbis say that God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son is the 10th and final test of his faith and trust in the Divine, and that Abraham answered the 10th call just as he did the first, with a simple, “Hineini: Here I am.”
What happens after that has fascinated, troubled, and challenged Jews, and later Christians and then Muslims, for centuries.
In a three-part adult learning program on Saturday mornings this October and November, we’re going to look at the profound impact on this chapter on all three faith traditions. For now, I want to focus on what Abraham’s response means for us on today of all days.
Let’s keep in mind that Abraham and Sarah had waited decades for a son. And when God fulfilled the promise of the angels – when Sarah became pregnant and Isaac was born – the elderly couple knew that they had received a great blessing, but also a great responsibility. God had told Abraham: “All the nations of the earth will be blessed through you.” It meant they had to raise their child with the same deep faith, and faithfulness, and courage that they had shown in serving God.
So why in the world would a God that gives such a blessing, then turn around and take it away? Why does God make them go through the agonizing prospect of losing this beloved son, only to turn around and give him back again? And why do we read this story on Rosh Hashanah?
Abraham believes he is being forced to choose between his faith in God and his love for his family. You know the expression “all in”? Party tonight? I’m all in. Climbing to the top of Machu Pichu? Yup, I’m all in.
Well, Abraham, I think, takes that literally and maybe too far: that being all-in with God means being all-out with the people he loves. As Rabbi Amy Scheinerman has written, Abraham’s choice highlights “the dilemma of perceiving our relationship with God as conflicting with our relationship with the people we love.”
Even though God talks with Abraham, and guides his steps, somehow Abraham sees God as divorced from his day-to-day life. And that’s where Abraham makes his most serious mistake. Rabbi Scheinerman writes:
“When we see God as wholly other and divorced from the immediate world of our relationships with human beings, we fail to recognize the God within us and the divine spark within others. God becomes splintered and deformed, and our moral lives do as well.”
The prophet Isaiah (43:12) proclaimed: וְאַתֶּם עֵדַי נְאֻם־יְהֹוָה וַאֲנִי־אֵל “You are my witnesses, declares the Eternal, that I am God.” Every time we fail to witness God, to see God in everybody and everything around us, then God – as it were – ceases to be. When we think that God doesn’t care about what we say or what we do, we take God, not only of our lives but out of this world. And when we do that, we run the risk of treating other people, and treating the earth itself, as something ordinary or expendable or unimportant – instead of seeing the earth and everything and everybody on it as precious and unique and blessed. And that is where we make our most serious mistake.
I don’t have to tell you that there is a lot of ugly in this world today, ugly that comes from not seeing that divine spark in others, and not igniting it in ourselves. Ugliness based on ignorance or downright hatred, of the color of her skin, or the religion of his family, or which button she pushes in the voting booth, or how he expresses his gender identity.
Ugliness that spawns the belief that the only people who deserve to be with us are the people who are like us.
And I’m here to tell you that this is not at all God’s idea of how the world should work.
The rabbis of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) teach:
“Every human being on earth derives from one human being, created for the sake of Shalom ha-Briot, peace among God’s creations. So that one person could not say to another: My father was greater than yours. For if a man strikes many coins from a single mold, they all resemble one another. But that’s not true of God, the Holy One of Blessing, who fashioned every human being in the stamp of the first – and yet not one of us resembles another. Therefore, every single person is obliged to say: The world was created for my sake.”
The world was created for my sake. And yours. And yours. And yours. Each one of us shares equally a spark of the divine light that filled the days of creation, which we celebrate on this Rosh Hashanah, this New Year. Each one of us stands equally before God, on this Yom Ha-Din, this Day of Judgment, bearing responsibility for our own behavior, and for the future of humankind.
The binding of Isaac represents the beginning of our story as a people, because Abraham finally understood, in Isaac’s redemption at the hands of an angel, that his relationship to God could not be separated from his relationship with the ones he loved.
As author Marcia Pally recently wrote, in Commonwealth and Covenant, child sacrifice was part of the surrounding cultures in Abraham’s time, so it would not have surprised him for his own God to ask for his son. Abraham’s faith, writes Pally, “lay not in agreeing to the ordinary (to the sacrifice request) but to the unusual – to stopping the sacrifice mid-act, as it would violate the covenant between Abraham and Isaac, and thus between Abraham and God. On this view, the lesson lies not in Abraham faithfully agreeing to sacrifice, but in Abraham understanding that covenant is in keeping relationship alive.”
That’s it! That’s the very moment when our story begins. The moment when that knife was raised, and Abraham heeded the call of the angel to STOP!
That is the moment that Abraham realized that God was in his life, not just through prophesy and miracles, but through the way divinity is expressed in the world. That the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham and his offspring, not for the sacrifices they would make on an altar, but for the commitments they would fulfill, and the promises they would keep, and the leadership they would accept, in helping shape a world that is more kind and more caring and more peaceful than it otherwise might have been.
Yes, there is a lot of ugly in this world, which comes from us not seeing the divine spark in others, and not igniting it in ourselves. But without this story, which begins the history of our people, it could be worse. At least we understand where we make the mistakes. And if we cannot fix them on our own, we are compelled to call on our leaders to act.
God is not in the wind, nor in the earthquake after the wind, nor in the fire after the earthquake. God is, as the prophet Elijah discovered, in the “קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה the “still small voice” within each of us. The voice of conscience that whispers to each and every human being, each and every day, that God is both with us and in us, and that what we do – for good or for bad – can have cosmic consequences we cannot even imagine.
As we hear the blast of the shofar, the ram’s horn that is a reminder of Isaac’s redemption at the birth of our nation, let truly awaken us to promise, to potential, and to peace. Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen. ####
©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin
So there I was, having dinner with my friends Theresa and Mark and their friends David and Sue, on the patio of a wonderful little Italian restaurant in North Chicago. It was Friday night of Labor …
So there I was, having dinner with my friends Theresa and Mark and their friends David and Sue, on the patio of a wonderful little Italian restaurant in North Chicago. It was Friday night of Labor Day weekend, and I was in Chicago to officiate at a wedding that Sunday. But Friday and Saturday were dedicated to friendship.
We had ordered appetizers and sat around the fireplace, when a young man came up and joined us. He was wearing a graphic tee-shirt with the image of thick-rimmed glasses, reminiscent of the ones that the late beloved Cubs baseball announcer Harry Caray used to wear. Theresa, a dyed-in-the-wool lifetime fan who had once named her two dogs Cubbie and Wrigley, complimented the young man on his sartorial choice and soon discovered he was a Cubs fan too.
And so began the recitation of what I shall call “A Cubby Fan’s History of Misery.” Theresa and her young friend lamented the lost opportunities of past years, as though they were still fresh wounds from a sharp spear. 1984 and 1989 were bad enough. But then the conversation really got ugly. 2003, the year the Cubbies were destined to win it all, and actually made it to the second round of playoffs. Sixth game. Eighth inning. Their pitcher firmly in control.
And then. Bartman. The stuff of legend. The fan in the left-field seats who knocked a long fly ball away from the glove of Cubs left fielder Moises Alou. And two batters later, shortstop Alex Gonzalez booting that potential double-play ball. The Cubs lost game six. And of course they lost game seven. And the agony continued.
But then, all of the sudden, the atmosphere lightened. Oh, this year’s Cubs! Manager Joe Maddon is a crazy genius! Jake Arietta is the best pitcher in the universe. Kris Bryant – wow, what a young star! The Cubs are winners. They are picked by just about every oddsmaker on the planet to win the World Series. And so the conversation ended with the inevitable declaration: “This is gonna be the year!”
That’s what it comes down to when you’re a Cubs fan and your team hasn’t won a World Series since 1908. You think Jews have a long memory? Hah! Try hanging out with a bunch of Cubs fans for a while! And yet after they re-hash every excruciating detail of every disappointment of every crucial loss of every season, they will still proclaim: This is gonna be the year!
I’ve spoken before about the nexus of God and baseball, and how it cannot be mere coincidence that the High Holy Days always intersect with playoff season. When one deed, like one crucial play, can make the difference on God’s scale of judgment. When one person, performing at his or her best in a clutch situation, can make the difference for so many people. But being with Cubs fans last month gave me new insight on just how powerful the connection really is.
Think about it: We are all Cubs fans in a way, as we reflect on the year 5776 as it comes to an end. We have whiffed on some balls we should have hit solidly to right field. We have been tagged out at second base more times than we can count, when our timing was not quite right. Our arms are like jelly after a season of trying to throw strikes perfectly every single time.
We may come to the High Holy Days tired, or disappointed, or insecure. But every single one of us entered these doors tonight with hope for the year 5777. That we can spend our time more wisely and more selflessly. That we can be better teammates with our spouses and children and parents and co-workers. That, regardless of what has happened in the past – This is gonna be the year!
Baseball, like life, takes skill and strategy to navigate. But fundamentally, it’s not really so complicated. As the pitcher Nuke Laloosh said in the movie Bull Durham: “This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”
1. Sometimes You Win
Sometimes, in life, we come out winners. It feels good, doesn’t it? We get the job we really want, or the promotion we know we deserve. We get a chance to show off our skills, develop new ones, and prove our value to others. We have a healthy relationship with our partner and spend quality time with our children. We take the time to think about the decisions we make, and consciously do the right thing, for the right reason. Sometimes, circumstances just fall into place and life is a winning proposition.
And sometimes, when that happens, we remember to say, with appreciation, “I am really blessed.”
It’s not that manna has dropped from heaven, and we have only to pick it every morning. It’s that the knowledge and the skills we’ve developed, through our God-given ability to learn and to grow, are paying off. As a successful fisherman once said to the prophet Elijah, who asked how he learned his trade, “Understanding and knowledge [to do my work] were given me from Heaven.”
Winning in life, then, is not like winning the lottery. Mostly, it’s not a chance event, but rather a conscious choice. It’s the result of focused thinking and intentional behavior. I have a friend who, for decades, has thought she would be “discovered” and be a big singing star – just like on television. Did she take voice lessons? Well, no. Did she sing in the local choir or do community theater? No. But if only two of the four judges on The Voice would turn around for her, she would be so happy. If only she’d actually gone to the auditions for “The Voice.”
Sometimes we win by knowing our limitations. Our talent may be for writing but not for singing. For numbers but not for prose. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn to do something new. I hope we’re always learning that, otherwise life would be boring. But it means having enough self-awareness to get you pointed in the right direction.
Don jokes that, now that he’s finished up law school in his early 70’s, he discovered too late that he’d have made a really great bureaucrat. But along the way, he became a really good writer and editor. He took those God-given talents with which he was blessed, and he nurtured them. And he found other people – mentors – to nurture them. And they blossomed into a wonderful career. And of course led to a wonderful marriage.
Focused thinking and intentional behavior lead not only to winning but to wisdom. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the prophet Daniel teaches: “God gives wisdom to the wise, and knowledge to those who have understanding.” The rabbis asked: Isn’t that backwards? Wouldn’t it make more sense to give wisdom to somebody who needs it more? Knowledge to those who have little?
But God responds best to those who put the effort in. This is how the Talmud puts it:
“Observe how the character of the Holy One of Blessing differs from that of flesh and blood. A mortal can put something into an empty vessel but not into a full one. But the Holy One is not so; God puts more into a full vessel than into an empty one. And the reason is this: If you pay attention, you’ll go on paying attention. If you build on what you already have learned, you’ll continue to learn. But if your heart turns away from knowledge and wisdom, then you will not be able to hear it anymore.”
Writer Michael Lee Stallard wrote that good baseball managers, like Joe Maddon of the Cubs, know how to cultivate not just physical skill but positive thinking. He tells his players: Focus on what you can control. Work on your preparation, not on the outcomes. Be mentally prepared so you don’t make the mental mistakes. “When the time comes to act quickly, you will be prepared to do the right thing,” writes Stallard. “This time of mental preparation reduces stress and fear, which sabotages optimal performance.”
- Sometimes You Lose
Sometimes we lose because we sabotage ourselves. But sometimes we lose even when we are trying as hard as we can to do the right thing. The book of Deuteronomy teaches a theology of reward and punishment that’s pretty straight forward: that the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. But we know all too well that life doesn’t work that way. The author of Ecclesiastes lamented:
“All things have I seen in the days of my vanity; there is a just man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness.”
Sometimes our best efforts are ignored. Sometimes our hard work is taken for granted. Sometimes we feel unappreciated. And if we are good people at heart, and if we do keep our minds and our hearts and our ears open, it’s so frustrating when things don’t work out the way they should.
King Solomon, who was exalted as the wisest ruler of all, once said: “Through increasing wisdom I have increased vexation for myself, and through increasing knowledge I have increased suffering for myself.”
The smartest, wisest, most knowledgeable people take it hardest when things go wrong. Some withdraw into melancholy – and just check out. Some get angry – often misdirecting anger at the wrong people at the wrong time. A lot of times, these people not only take it hardest – but they take it out on themselves, causing a spiral of self-doubt that, like the Talmud’s heart that turns away from knowledge and wisdom, makes it even harder to dig out of a funk.
Joe Maddon is successful because he is upbeat and optimistic – and that positive outlook is positively infectious. Todd Johnson tells the story of Joe Maddon and Javy Baez, a young player that Maddon touted all through the exhibition season last year, even though Baez was struggling mightily. He was striking out way too much, a flaw that would get him sent down to the minors. Maddon said, “I just want Javy to come out and try to get better every day and stay in the present tense in working on things.”
Staying in the present tense is at least one reason why Javy Baez raised his batting average 120 points between the 2014 season and 2015. He has been playing solidly at the major-league level since his call-up from the minor leagues in mid-April. And on June 28th, he hit a grand-slam home run in the 15th inning that powered a Cubs’ win over Cincinnati. He still struggles with strikeouts sometimes. But fun has taken precedence over funk.
- Sometimes it Rains
But, hey: Sometimes it rains. Like a baseball rainout, life is very often about dealing with the consequences of things that are out of our control. The dishwasher is going to break down right before a big family dinner party. The boss will make you do somebody else’s assignment as well as your own. Your child will be suspended or reprimanded for inappropriate behavior. Your parent, or grandparent, will suddenly become ill and enfeebled and require constant care for which you will be responsible. And probably it’ll all happen at the same time. Because when it rains, it pours. Literally, sometimes, the elements may conspire against us.
As Todd Johnson wrote, if there’s one thing Joe Maddon can teach us about this, it’s to be versatile. Remember: Work on the preparation, not on the outcomes. Javy Baez has played three different positions this year on a spectacular team, and the young Cubs star Kris Bryant has played four. In life, too, it helps not to be too much of a specialist, not to be fixated on, or engaged in only one thing, a thing that can easily become tiresome, or obsolete – like teaching science or history from a text book that’s 20 years old. Sometimes we need to broaden or freshen our skill set – so that we’re more valuable, more able to adjust to an ever-changing landscape of daily demands and long-term goals.
In his law school career, Don has discovered the joy and fulfillment of “teaching an old dog new tricks,” so to speak. And, as I always say in touting our adult-education programs, it’s never too late to start learning. As Don and I have both found in our later-in-life academic careers, life experience gives us the ability to assess and analyze situations, and synthesize information, with a skill that younger colleagues often haven’t yet gained. And rainouts give us a little time to spend with a book, or a journal, or a gym, or a friend, whose company we’ve been missing.
SO: Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains. But whatever may happen to us, or with us, or in spite of us, it’s important to keep one thing in mind: Life, like baseball, is a team sport. Oh, we all look at the individual stats: batting average, earned run average, slugging percentage, how often you’re caught stealing. But, in the end, all those stats – however great or not-so-great they are – mean little if you’re not on a winning team.
And winning takes more than the strategy and wisdom of the manager. Winning on the field is up to the players, playing as a team – not just for themselves, but for each other. Winning in life is up to us – living not just as individuals looking out for ourselves and our own statistics, but as human beings charged by God with a responsibility to one another. It takes a little bit of selflessness.
The rabbis have this concept of tzimtzum – literally, contraction, or withdrawal. According to mystical interpretations of creation, the Divine Presence was originally so infinitely enormous and powerful that nothing else could exist. God literally had to shrink to allow the world as we know it to come into being. It didn’t mean that God was any less powerful, or any less present in our lives. By contracting, God showed a sense of immense selflessness that allowed us to come into being.
Selflessness, tzimtzum, is part of human life, too. It’s how a parent allows a child to start walking, talking, eating, and thinking for himself. It’s how a manager allows an employee to shine, to grow. It’s how a teacher, a rabbi even, learns to stop speaking and start listening. It’s how the most talented athlete becomes a champion.
On this Rosh Hashanah, God is calling each of us up to the plate. And it doesn’t matter if we’re a star player or a late-season call-up from the minors: When God calls, we respond. Not just for ourselves, but for the whole team. For parents and children, for friends and family, for classmates and co-workers, for the people sitting next to you in the pews tonight – and, yes, for the people down the block whose names we do not know.
It’s a really scary thing to be at God’s home plate. We stand here tonight, and look up at that eternal scoreboard above the ark – Da lifney mi ata omeid: Know before whom you stand. We feel God’s judgmental eye on us, wondering if we will be good enough, or strong enough, or faithful enough, or flexible enough, or selfless enough. Whether we will appreciate our blessings, acknowledge our limitations, and heighten our aspirations.
But you know what? We’ve already done one really brave, really good thing. We’ve walked in that door and allowed ourselves to be vulnerable. Because this is Rosh Hashanah. And it’s not just a day of judgement, it’s a day of hope. A day when we’re all Cubs fans. When anything old can be made new again.
It’s the post-season, people. And no matter how we got here – whether we were leading the league all year, or stumbling in as the dark-horse wild-card team – it’s time for us step up, stay in the moment, and shine.
If we can commit to that tonight….then, count on it: This Is Gonna Be The Year.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own, as we say together: Amen.
©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin
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