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רשע: The Wicked Child Sees Only the Present – Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 2

How many of us have experienced information whiplash this year? Not just information overload, which I think many of us have managed to live with in the past decade or so, but the sense of having our emotions pulled one way or another by current events, only to be pulled another direction a day or two later? I love coffee, but I had to dramatically reduce my consumption of caffeine this past year to cut down on my anxiety regarding the state of the world. Who would have thought there would be Nazis marching with rifles and helmets in Virginia? Who would have thought that a foreign power would try to manipulate elections?

I think it’s essential that we keep some perspective about the world, and not let events of the present moment throw us too far off the path of forward progress. Yes, the present may be disorienting, but we must try to put everything into proper perspective.

Recap: These four sermons are about our past, present, and future, as seen through the eyes of the famous “Four Children” of Pesah. Yesterday, we spoke about the wise child as being the one who sees past, present, and future.

Today, we’re going to talk about the רשע (rasha), the wicked child. What does the wicked child see? Only the present. It’s all about me, right now.

That cannot be us. Us Jews. We have to think broader than that. And if there is anything that our tradition teaches, it is this: we cannot be the wicked child. We have to see beyond the present moment.

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Operating system vs. App

I recently heard an appealing image in the podcast, Judaism Unbound (if you don’t know what a podcast is, please ask your grandchildren). Many of us today are carrying smartphones around, and there are two overarching software features to a smartphone: the operating system and the apps. The operating system (OS) is the environment that you see when you turn the system on: the screen where you see all the things you can possibly do. It’s the wizard behind the screen that is making everything function, all the bells and whistles that your smartphone features. You turn it on, and the OS is working. It makes everything go, connects everything together.

The apps (applications) are individual programs that do a specific task. You open one to check and send email. You open a different one to see if it’s going to rain. You open another to see when your next appointment is. Another will help you find a restaurant with vegetarian options for dinner. You get the idea – specific tasks.

The operating system is like your house; it provides space and structure and utilities. The apps are items in the house that do certain things: the blender, the bookcase, the shower.

So the Judaism Unbound hosts have been tossing around the idea of whether Judaism is an operating system or an app. Traditionally speaking, of course, the rabbis who created what we know as Judaism during the Talmudic period (i.e. the 1st through 5th centuries CE), thought of Judaism as the operating system.

Ours is a tradition that has something to say about all facets of our lives: not only how we interact with God or what we eat, but how we speak to each other, how we maintain our physical health, how we learn, how we interact with our relatives and neighbors, how we create a just society, even how we make love. As they taught us to say in Hebrew school (not that we really understood this so well), Judaism is not a religion; it’s a way of life.

And that is the way we have conceived of our tradition for two thousand years.

But we are living in a time, say some, in which fewer of us are thinking about Judaism as an operating system, but rather as an app. That is, when you want it or need it, you open the app. You come to the synagogue. You celebrate a lifecycle event. You speak to a rabbi about a personal issue. And then when you’re done, you’re on to the next app, and you close Judaism until the next time you need it.

That may very well be the case for some of us. Let’s face it – many of us are not even opening the Judaism app at all. Only about half of the Jews in America make an appearance in synagogue on Yom Kippur, but that’s only one measure; most likely far fewer are connecting to the wisdom on the Jewish bookshelf in any substantial way; few are supporting Jewish charities; few find spiritual value in the traditional offerings of Judaism. I would not be totally surprised if, on an average Shabbat morning, there are more American Jews in yoga studios than in synagogues.

Leaving Judaism aside for the moment, the challenge that we are facing as a society is what you might call “application-based thinking.” All the information that is flying at us all the time, all of the constant distraction, is forcing us to compartmentalize our lives in a way that is not only unhealthy for us as individuals, but also as a society. We are moving so fast, trying to accomplish so many things, that we’ve lost sight of the big picture. We are focusing on the moment, on the task at hand without questioning how this particular task fits into the grand scheme.

As an example, I will freely concede that I have become addicted to my own mobile phone. Except for the 25 hours of Shabbat every week, which in my household is a sacred technology-free time, during the rest of the week, like many of you, I compulsively check my text messages, my Facebook notifications, my Twitter and Instagram feeds, my two email accounts, my WhatsApp, and of course the New York Times and the Post-Gazette.

And yet, I am amazed at the numbers of people I see coming into the synagogue, ostensibly to spend a moment doing something holy, who cannot put their phones down on Shabbat and holidays, even for an hour that they are sitting in the pews, even when we ask them to do so.

smartphones

Ladies and gentlemen, if all we see and consider is what is on the screen for a few moments, that is our inner wicked child taking over. That is living only in the present.

Another example: I’m going to tread very lightly here, but let’s return for a moment to American politics. What is afflicting our system is not necessarily the personalities involved, but rather the imperative to seek short-term political victories over long-lasting policy decisions that benefit us as a society. Sound-bites and insults have become the norm of political discourse, and few politicians, let alone voters, are willing to think too far beyond that.

We have reached a point where few can even entertain, let alone articulate, the position of the other side, and in such a situation, nothing can be accomplished that will further the project of building this country. I fear a future of languishing – of neglect of infrastructure, of failure to confront the devastating consequences of the phenomena that are gnawing at our citizenry: not enough rehab beds for opioid addicts, the outrageous cost of health care, the stagnation of wages for half of America.

True leadership in our body politic requires the long view, of past and future at the same time.

Let’s face it: the present is an illusion. There is no present at all. Dr. Dan Gilbert, a Harvard social psychologist, has said in his TED Talk, The Psychology of Your Future Self, The present is merely a wall, a kind of mehitzah (divider between men and women in some traditional synagogues), if you will, between the past and the future. Who we are at any given moment is just one point of data along a shifting continuum; nobody in this room is finished growing, developing, changing. It does not matter if you are 19 or 90. We’re all still moving forward into the next iteration of ourselves.

And just as politicians and the news media focus only on the “now,” so too are we, the citizens, not taking the long view; we are thinking only about ourselves, in this moment: how will this impact me right now? That is not how a healthy society functions. We’re all in it together.  Ultimately, what affects our neighbors affects us.

The רשע, the wicked child sees only the present, because there is nothing more important in their world than themselves.

When are we the wicked children?

  •     When we see suffering in this world, and we look away.
  •     When we put metaphorical stumbling blocks before the blind – that is, those who are blind to the consequences of their choices.
  •     When we withdraw from the community.
  •     When we put the value of saying yes over doing the right thing.
  •     When we seek financial gain in place of the sanctity of our interpersonal relationships.

I do not have time to give examples of each of these, but I am sure that we can all think of times when we have made the wrong choice, the one that highlights ourselves over the greater good. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we might even see examples of this in our behavior every single day.

So how might we get beyond the present? How might we find our way into the long view?

Ladies and gentlemen, I encountered a wonderful idea in Rabbi Alan Lew’s book about the high holidays, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, generally my go-to source for inspiration at this time of year. (I rarely recommend books in this way, but if you need some high  holiday inspiration, you might want to invest in this book. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever read about Judaism.) Rabbi Lew has a talent for infusing his Jewish commentary with ideas drawn from the Buddhist tradition of meditation.

One of the names of Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikkaron, the day of remembrance. Traditionally, we understand this to mean that these days are days on which we remember God, and God remembers us. We ask to be remembered in the Book of Life for a good year. We try to remember the good deeds of the past year, and how we hope that these exceed our transgressions, which, with chagrin, we also remember.

Rabbi Lew reframes the idea of Yom HaZikkaron. Rather than remembrance, he says, we should refer to this day as the day of mindfulness. That on these days, we should be mindful of time, of where we have been and where we are going, and mutual awareness between us and the Qadosh Barukh Hu:

“If God were not aware of us, this whole pageant of teshuvah and forgiveness wouldn’t make much sense. Who would there be to return to? How could we ever be forgiven if there weren’t an awareness out there that knew precisely what we have done and how we feel about it now? And if Rosh Hashanah did not provide us with the perspective of heaven – with the opportunity to see ourselves with perfect clarity as if from the outside – how would we ever achieve this kind of clarity? How would we ever manage to get far enough outside ourselves to see ourselves accurately?” (p. 137)

Mindfulness, which some have translated into Hebrew as “Eranut,” drawn from the word ער, er, awake, is, of course, one of the portals of Derekh. It is an entry point to Judaism, an area in which we at Beth Shalom are now offering innovative activities for you. (E.g. meditation once per month on Shabbat mornings at 9 AM, starting in November.)

One traditional understanding in Judaism that may be help us to not be the wicked child, to see beyond the present, is the idea of the yetzer hatov and yetzer hara, which are usually translated as “the good inclination” and “the evil inclination.” But a more accurate traditional understanding of the yetzer hatov is, “the inclination to selflessness,” and the yetzer hara as “the inclination to selfishness.”

When we live only in the present moment, we are governed by our yetzer hara, the inclination to selfishness. On the other hand, when we successfully think about past and future, about lessons learned and potential consequences, about ancient and modern wisdom, we are being governed by our yetzer hatov, the inclination to selflessness. When we realize how our lives are intertwined with our community, how our fate is bound up with that of our fellow citizens, that is the yetzer hatov acting. That is when we see beyond the present moment, when we see the past and the future, and the betterment of others around us.

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I am inclined to think that our knowledge and awareness of God on these days is reflected in a more practical way in our awareness of the individuals and society around us.

Now, that’s not an easy thing to do. But Judaism provides direction.

One of those things that help to bring out the yetzer hatov is tefillah / Jewish prayer. Prayer is a kind of mental training, similar to meditation or yoga. It is entering a mode of focus, of reciting an ancient formula that connects our hearts and minds to our hands and mouths. I love the meditative aspects of tefillah; that is one reason that I ask you to engage in some moments of silence and create some internal space to strive to hear the still, small voice of the Divine during the Amidah prayer – we want to give everybody in this room the opportunity to find that meditative focal point. If you feel unable to connect with the words on the written page, listen to that inner voice as your guide.

After prayer, the second thing of primary value in our tradition is Jewish text learning. “When I pray, I speak to God,” said Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, professor of Talmud and chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, “When I study, God speaks to me.”

Think, for example, about the internal struggle reflected in the words of Hillel found in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And If I am only for myself, what am I?” Those words from the Mishnah are more than 1800 years old. And yet they continue to echo in the challenge that we each face as we continue the daily struggle between the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara, the inclinations to selflessness vs. selfishness.

To get to the best gems of rabbinic literature, you have to be open to reading and discussing the words of our tradition.

Even if you are ambivalent about traditional theology, or the idea of “organized religion” (You call this “organized”?!), the words of our tradition will speak to you, because they are not about God, per se. They are about humanity, about intellectual stimulation, about making this world a better place, about self-improvement. These words are about you, and about us.

In 2007 when I was completing rabbinical school and applying for jobs, I had an interview with a team from a large west coast congregation. Toward the end of the interview, they asked me the following:

“A congregant comes to you and says, ‘Rabbi, I feel as though I really need some spiritual engagement, but I work like a dog and I just can’t make it to synagogue on Shabbat. I need to go to the beach.’ What do you say to that person, Rabbi?”

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I explained that, after trying unsuccessfully to get this theoretical Shabbat beach-goer to a Talmud class or a discussion on theology, I concluded that the only solution is to say, “Well, you should know that God is also at the beach.”

 

I did not get the job.

But I think the answer is not to answer Mr. Beach Guy at all. When he comes to me to ask the question, I have to grab him at that moment, sit him down with Pirkei Avot or the beginning of Massekhet Berakhot, the first tractate of the Talmud, and start learning right then and there. That is, to give him the perspective on the depth and richness of our ancient collected wisdom, something that many of us somehow missed in Hebrew school.

I think that we have no choice but to force ourselves to see beyond the present; to recall the past and prepare for the future. We have to let the words of our tradition infuse our lives, to let them draw us out of the app and into the operating system.

While it may be obvious that none of us wants to be the רשע, the wicked child, it is sometimes a lot harder for us to see beyond the present. But that is exactly what we need to do.

To read the next in the series, The Simple Child Sees Only the Past, click here.

Shanah tovah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Rosh Hashanah 5778, 9/22/2017.)

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