There is a classic Hasidic story about Reb Zusya of Anapol:
As he lay on his death bed, Reb Zusya trembled with fear. His students asked him why he was afraid. Reb Zusya said, “In the world to come, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Avraham Avinu, or Sarah Imeinu, or Moshe Rabbeinu / Moses our Teacher?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?'”
How do we understand ourselves? That is, when we take those rare moments of reflection, how do we measure our emotions, our choices, our relationships? How do we judge ourselves?
Now of course I’m not talking about the tangibles. I’m not concerned with what you do for a living, or how much money you earn, or how many children you have or what kind of car you drive, although we for sure know that there are people who measure themselves according to those things. And let’s face it: those are easy things to measure.
What’s much harder is the internals, the intangibles. How do we understand who we are and why we behave the way we do? How do we evaluate whether we have made the right choices? Not so easy, or so measurable.
One possibility is that we measure ourselves based on the range of our life experiences. Who were the people in our lives whom we trusted, who taught us many useful ideas and skills? Who were the people that served as role models? What are the thoughts and principles that we have acquired that drive our choices, that sanctify our relationships?
For many of us, that will include our parents. It might also include teachers whom we remember fondly, or neighbors, or public figures, or authors. It would probably include some of the things that they taught us, the sayings and phrases that they gave us that come to the fore when we need them.
Those learned principles will certainly also include the lessons learned the hard way – the time that a good friend engaged in risky behavior that landed him in the hospital; the colleague who continued dating the person that was clearly wrong for her, and eventually was devastated when the relationship ended.
We hear these voices and we draw on them when we need them – to evaluate ourselves, to check our behavior, to judge our choices.
I recall once being on a highway during my previous life in Houston, when suddenly there was a downpour that suggested Parashat Noah. Suddenly, I couldn’t see a thing, even though the wipers were on full blast. And then, out of nowhere, I heard my mother’s voice: “Get off the road!” she said, firmly. And I did. My safety, my mother said, was more important than whatever I was headed to.
We take the most salient things that stick in our heads, the pieces of wisdom that we accumulate as we go through life, and we refashion them for our own purposes, to be our measuring-sticks as we move through life. We pull them out, usually sub-consciously, when we need to re-examine that framework, to chart our course through life, to make decisions. They are all part of the glue that holds our lives together as we continue on our own personal journey.
We measure ourselves through the lens of past experiences and our reactions to them.
Now the interesting thing here is that Jewish prayer, tefillah, is a kind of model for this very phenomenon.
You may have heard me say that the essence of tefillah, of Jewish prayer, is self-judgment. Prayer is not just mumbling curious words in an ancient language – it has a structure, themes, choreography, history, customs, tradition, laws, etc. And the Hebrew word for “to pray,” lehitpallel, is actually a reflexive verb, meaning that you do it to yourself. The relatively obscure root, פלל (p-l-l), actually means “to judge.” So when we rise to lehitpallel, we are standing in judgment of ourselves.
And tefillah, prayer, is meant to be a text upon which we meditate when we stand in judgment. It is the Jewish mantra. And it is filled with the most resonant, the most appealing bits of Jewish text. Let me explain:
Everything in the siddur was assembled from previously-existing words and phrases, mostly from the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible. It’s almost like a quilt made from recycled cloth: these phrases were selected from various textual sources and re-fashioned to suit the needs of the composer. These composers lived throughout the last 2,000 years in different places around the Jewish world; some we know, and some we do not. But all of them abided by the simple rule that these quilts are stitched together from the ancient sources. (A few things, like the three paragraphs of the Shema, are direct quotes from the Torah, and were therefore not composed specifically for prayer, but most of the siddur is not like that.)
This quilt is warm, reassuring. The swatches of material repurposed for regular use bring together ancient wisdom and the gravitas of generations of Jews, who clung to them through the centuries and across continents, through pogroms and triumphs, through forced expulsions and Zionist yearnings.
There were, in today’s haftarah / prophetic reading, a bunch of these nuggets that have been recycled throughout our liturgical tradition:
בָּרוּךְ הַגֶּבֶר, אֲשֶׁר יִבְטַח בַּה’; וְהָיָה ה’, מִבְטַחוֹ
Barukh hagever asher yivtah badonai, vehayah Adonai mivtaho.
Blessed is the one who trusts in God, for God will be his stronghold. (Jeremiah 17:7)
This line appears in two places: in Birkat Hamazon, the “grace after meals,” and also in a section at the end of the weekday morning service called Qedusha deSidra.
וְהָיָה כְּעֵץ שָׁתוּל עַל-מַיִם
Vehayah ke-etz shatul al mayim
[God shall be] like a tree planted upon the water (17:8)
This is quoted in the piyyut (liturgical poem) called “Geshem” (“Rain”), recited on Shemini Atzeret in the fall, anticipating the beginning of the rainy season in Israel.
[God is] the one who searches the heart (lit. checks the kidneys) (17:10)
This image of God appears in a piyyut for High Holidays, Vekhol Ma’aminim (“And all believe…”).
וְלָתֵת לְאִישׁ כִּדְרָכָו, כִּפְרִי מַעֲלָלָיו
Velatet le-ish kidrakhav, kifri ma’alalav.
… to give to every person according to his ways, to each the fruit of his doings. (17:10)
An adapted version of this appears in the standard funeral liturgy, in the section recited after burial called “Tzidduq HaDin,” the justification of the decree.
רְפָאֵנִי יְהוָה וְאֵרָפֵא, הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי וְאִוָּשֵׁעָה: כִּי תְהִלָּתִי, אָתָּה
Refa-eni Adonai ve-erafe, hoshi’eini ve-ivashe’ah, ki tehilati attah.
Heal me, God, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved; for you are my praise. (17:14)
This is found in the weekday Amidah, recited three times a day, except that the language we recite has been pluralized (i.e. “Heal us, God, and we shall be healed…”).
What is the lesson here?
One of the beautiful things about Jewish practice, about living our lives in Jewish time, is that we benefit from a tradition that stretches back thousands of years. Our textual sources, our collective body of knowledge, has enabled us as a people to see farther, as Sir Isaac Newton put it, by standing on the shoulders of giants.
When you walk into a synagogue and pick up a siddur, whether you know the history and development of the material therein, whether you can read Hebrew or not or know the melodies, you can rely on the fact that what is contained within is tested by time and filled with the best bits of Jewish tradition. You may not agree with it all (and I certainly struggle with some things in our liturgy), but at least you know that it is a genuine product of generations, and that all you have to do is pick it up to stand on their shoulders.
And, pulling back the lens, this very Jewish idea can infuse our entire lives with holiness. Just as the siddur / prayerbook, the Jewish mantra, is based on the most inspiring pieces of ancient text, just as the vehicle for self-judgment is a quilt of the wisdom of our ancestors, so too do we understand ourselves by peeking through the lens of the lessons we have gleaned from our most important teachers, the people who have personally given us their lessons. So too do we measure our lives by drawing upon all of the most powerful pieces of wisdom handed to us by others.
The lessons that we draw from our educators, parents, and friends help us to measure ourselves. We stand on their shoulders and thrive on their wisdom to give us clearer vision about who we are, about how we relate to others.
And that is what we do throughout our lives.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/20/2017.)