16 September 2010

YK/SR Notes/5771 1.0

The Anger.

When we throw those tashlich crumbs into the water each year and I pledge to curb my anger.  Usually, within twenty-four hours I have failed.  It's the idol, made of neither silver nor gold but the raw material of my human infallibility that I design, mold and cast into a god with greater powers than the God I believe in. 

My anger usually is exhibited in private--at home, a terrible place to rage; and while driving, another terrible place to rage.  Part of the illusion of expressing oneself in private is the belief that no one can see you.  But we are seen.  Even when we sneak around.  "As the thief is ashamed when he is found, so is the House of Israel ashamed."  (Jeremiah 2.26)  So year after I year I confront these idols, working on the days and nights in-between to tame those gods, bring them down, and destroy them. 

I believe this is one of the reasons the Sages chose Jonah as the prophetic reading for Yom Kippur afternoon.  Jonah is the quintessential Jewish character of descent.  He goes down, deep down into the belly of the ship where he sleeps and once discovered tossed overboard, is swallowed into the belly of the great fish, a descent into descent beneath the face of the deep.  Once vomited out, with all graphic implications being that he is covered in the filth of his hiding, he finds himself without his mission having been fulfilled and the very people he came to warn of impending doom had reconciled on their own accord--even without the prophet to deliver the dire warning, the people of Nineveh figured it out themselves and changed their ways.

Jonah's response:  Anger.  "And it displeased Jonah greatly and it grieved him."  (Jonah 4.1)  So much so that he begged God to take his life, arguably the final descent--choosing death over life.  "I would rather die than do the right thing."  If that isn't idolatry, then I don't know what is.

During my life, I have seen people take this path.  We all have.  Accepting an accelerated path to our own inevitable mortality is generally easier than that which preserves our life.  Sometimes its even cloaked in the veil of what gives us pleasure.  My father died of anger and sometimes it was even a charming and romantic anger, veiled in the noir expression of cigarette smoke, hard work, cynical disassembling of pretentious veneer, and being Jewish. 

My dad never knew what to do with his Jewish soul.  He could only understand it in the most basic terms.  His mother was an immigrant; his grand-parents were saintly and mythologized religious types who, as grandparents, likely were at most two-dimensional characters; and, his own childhood and young adulthood was as much about escaping Jewishness as being American.  He loved to point out that the "H" on his army dog tags stood for his designation as an American Hebrew but as for observing the mitzvah of "teaching his children," he'd having nothing of it.  I, his first-born son, am an autodidact.  I am literally his Kaddish--his death being the final impetus for learning the Hebrew language and catapulting me into the fellowship of those who remember the dead in the cadence, rhythm and structure of ancient Aramaic and Hebrew.  When I say Yizkor for him each Yom Kippur, I mourn the loss of his early death but I also mourn the loss he chose for himself: the lack of the sacred, the lack of the narrative structure of Jewish life and history; hell, even the lack of regular exercise.

You big jerk.  You missed my becoming a rabbi.  You missed my wedding and the naming of my children.  You will miss each Bat Mitzvah and each event of your Jewish grandchildren's life.  You, who loved the broad stroke narratives of your time in the service during the Second World War had nothing of substance to say about that H around your neck!  And now, in the community I lead, there are a fair amount of guys like you.  I see you every day.  And am reminded in observation and action, of that irreducible anger that, like sacred fire, gets passed around among the guys and passed down to those next in line, from one generation to the next. 

I've come to believe that one of the issues that sustains the proverbial dysfunction of the Jewish community in the place where it is has to do with an unresolved anger toward God, toward authority, toward the challenge of the sacred and morality; all of which, in the best of all possible worlds, are meant to build a better world but get seen and understood, by those who don't want to do the work of practicing the sacred, as impediments to our happiness.  And so those who do practice the sacred are annoying or self-important or holier-than-thou; those who care about Israel are "Zionist" or "right-wing;" those who practice the wealth and creativity of Jewish culture are too ethnic or caught in an enclave of solipsistic celebration.  The material plasticity of our impressions of what things are as opposed to the living reality of their vividness, their vitality, (certainly not their fixity!) and their all-too-messy malleability (the doing of ritual as engagement in the world) is, for some, too complex a series of choices to make--not only about living but about living as Jews.

Anger, in this construct, is a force of destruction but not Abrahamic, more Nebuchadnezzarish.  Not a righteous objection to a false god but the willful attempt to dismantle what is good precisely because unbridled goodness is for some, too much to bear.  Because goodness unrestrained is redemptive; it inherently causes more goodness; and in so doing, changes to rules by which we ordinarily live our lives. 

What was there for Jonah to be so angry about?  The people of Nineveh changed.  That was the point of the exercise, though in the process we read about Jonah's shame and embarrassment at his own failure in carrying out the plan.

"Is it right of you to be so deeply grieved?" God asks Jonah.  That's when he leaves the city, builds a booth, and sat under the shade until he would see what would occur in the city.  His pacifism in the face of the remarkable turn-around of the Ninevites a site to see in its own right.  The sun beats down on him and God offers him shade in the form of a tree, which, the Sages teach, gave Jonah not only temporary relief but the false belief that material comfort in this world was the reward he sought.  But the task he had been given was to save a town, a task he failed at miserably.  Seeing them having repented of their own accord, he believes he succeeded.  But his faith is a mere illusion.  An idol.  Ripe for the picking.  And so God sends a worm to devour the tree, and Jonah loses his temporary shade, and as the sun beats down and he grows ever-more weary, he utters his fateful words, "Better is my death than my life!"
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
  (Langston Hughes)

Unable to transcend the material, Jonah makes his final descent.  Choosing death over life.  As allegory for us Jews, on the holiest day of the year, made fundamentally more sacred by our denial of material comfort, we are challenged personally at this one moment more than at any other time of the year, unless of course we stand over the grave (God forbid) of one we love.

The inescapable pit.  The boat, the fish, the grave.  And the Aron Ha Kodesh.  The Holy Ark, home to the Torah scrolls, the word of God, open and empty awaiting not the return of the Word but awaiting us, our return, our words. 

"See I have set before you this day life and good and death and evil...therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your seed."

The seed of sustenance; the seed of another generation; the seed of a plant that provides shade from the sun; and the seed which grows into a tree, which is the Tree of Life, the Book of Books, that we learn one letter at a time, one word at a time, one idea at a time.  Taming our raging souls on life's seas of volatility and training ourselves to offer sacrifices of goodness and loving-kindness. 

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