Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Day 1 (2023): Complicated by Design

By Rabbi Arnowitz

I recently had the pleasure of attending a Hiking and Writing Retreat in the Rocky Mountains. One Rabbinic couple brought their 5-year old daughter to navigate the rugged mountain trails with them – you have to admire their optimism. But I’ll tell you, this might be the most good natured little girl I’ve ever met. She was a trooper, hiking miles a day in the mountains and seemingly enjoying it. From time to time she fell – the footing can be tricky in the mountains. And this is what impressed me most – she didn’t cry, she didn’t quit, she didn’t protest. She looked to her parents for reassurance that she was okay, brushed herself off, sometimes giggled, and started walking again. I was amazed.

But then, that’s childhood, isn’t it? A child takes a few tentative steps, falls, looks to their parents to make sure she is okay, laughs a little, and starts moving again. We take it for granted because that was pretty much all of us as toddlers. But when you stop and think about it, it is an amazing level of resilience. To fail again and again, to keep trying, and to actually enjoy the challenge and process.  You know who had that kind of resilience? You and me – anyone who ever took a step, or learned to feed themselves, or to read a book or ride a bicycle or do a cartwheel. We failed. And then we got up and found the strength or got the support we needed and tried again. We were masters of the art of failing, learning, trying again, and enjoying it. When did we forget how to do that? When did we become so goal-oriented that we stopped trying, stopped engaging in challenging processes for fear of failing to achieve success? There are a lot of complicated things going on in the world that need our attention – I fear we are so afraid of failing that we are not seriously engaging in finding solutions, no matter how large the issues loom in our consciousness. Sure we talk about them, but that’s not the same thing.

The most troubling part about this is that as Jews our tradition uniquely equips us not only to engage in complex challenges, but it teaches us to embrace the complexity. Rebbe Nachman of Bretzlav, who’s known as the Hasidic master of joy, taught a beautiful lesson about leaning into hard problems, even when failure is likely. As his example he uses nothing less than a Jewish person’s ability to connect with God through prayer and meditation with the goal of “knowing God.” He states, “Effective prayer will allow one to be completely consumed or swallowed up in the Ein Sof (God’s infinitude), a total loss of self. But it is just as important that this ecstasy be temporary to preserve one’s life…” (Likutei Moharan 4:9) He called this experience of getting close and falling away Ratzo v’shov, running toward and returning.

The Jewish idea of God is complicated. All religions have the goal of communing with the sacred, with the holy in the world, however they describe it. The Jewish idea is so difficult to grasp that while we constantly run towards God, attempt to know God, to be in relationship with that which is holy in the world, we know full well that every time we get close, we must turn away in failure. And yet we try again and again – that is, after all, the nature of religion. After thousands of years of this dance called ratzo v’shov, running towards and falling back, of navigating this challenging relationship, we have gotten good at it – we can apply it to other complicated things. In a world that wants everything to be simple, complexity has become the Jewish way – and the world needs some serious embrace of complexity just now. We face challenges that are not simple.

And remember – this is the teaching of the Hasidic master of joy! He does not simply suggest that we are good at this Sysiphisian process of Running and Falling Back, ratzo v’shov. He believes it will bring us happiness! Rebbe Nachman is telling us that with intention, with focus, with purpose, there is joy in the doing, joy in the process – even if we don’t succeed, just as we never quite succeed in knowing God. The journey is still worth it. Again, there is joy in the doing even if we don’t succeed, even if we know we may never accomplish the goal.

The world, and especially this country, needs Judaism’s counter-cultural, process-based approach. So many people seem to be so unhappy and I think it is in part that people only care about the results. We seem to have forgotten how to cherish and appreciate the work in getting there, like a better world should just somehow be handed to us. We are so goal-oriented that we are forgetting to settle in and do the work, to hunker down and make the sacrifices, for a better world. And it is making people miserable. Has there ever been a time when so many people have been so sure that they know all the “right” answers and yet felt so stuck and unable to solve big problems? We are in a tragic moment. But we can help buck that trend. We can find and share happiness and satisfaction by focusing on the process, engaging in the struggle of disagreement, collaboration, compromise and trial & error, and helping others do so too. Instead of solely focusing on results, we need to help create a society that seriously engages in the difficult processes of making things better.

It may surprise you to hear this, but I think we could learn about this idea, and the happiness that comes with it, by looking at the protests in Israel right now. There are people marching in the streets, the very fabric of the society is being placed under a microscope, and some of the most difficult, troubling questions are aired publicly and loudly. Don’t get me wrong – I am not making light of the situation in Israel. We should be worried about what is going on in Israel today – about the future of Democracy there, the deeper splits in society along religious, ethnic and socioeconomic lines and about the unresolved status of the Palestinian Territories and Palestinians living in Israel.

But even as we pray for a successful outcome to this moment in Israeli history, and understanding that people (even the ones sitting in your row with you) may have different ideas of what success would look like, we should also be inspired by the willingness of the citizens of Israel to engage in difficult, maybe impossible, problems, knowing full-well that the outcomes may be unknown or goals unreachable. Yet they show up and do the work anyway, gather and protest, every week since January 7th. That’s 9 full months of thousands and thousands of people putting themselves on the line despite the risk. And Israelis are risking a lot, their whole society, the whole Zionist dream, the hope of 2000 years, so that the reality of that dream matches their values.

And not only are they willing to try, to engage in the process, but the protests often seem strangely joyful. At the protests there is dancing, singing, waving flags, there are moments when if you turned off the sound you would think you were watching a giant, Zionist  Simchat Torah celebration. Israelis realize that fear of entering the process openly and honestly is the surest way to meaninglessness. Israelis take their problems seriously, and in doing so, they find purpose in embracing the complexity.

Are we taking our challenges as seriously in this country? We shout about them a lot. We wring our hands. But are we seriously engaging in challenging dialogue and difficult partnerships and compromises to get things done? Are we risking everything for the things that are most precious to us, the fabric of our society, the future, and even the present, for our children?

True joy is, in fact, to be found in engaging in challenging projects, in incremental progress, in shaking it off when we come up short, and trying to move forward again. Perhaps that’s why Israel, with all of its strife and existential pressure and security issues, ranks #4 on the 2023 world happiness index of nations. Life there may be hard, but it never lacks meaning and purpose. I fully believe that only a Jewish State, a state with the heritage of religious and historical complexity, could be that happy with all the pressures and problems, challenges and existential angst that Israelis deal with everyday. It’s not that we are naturally better than anyone else, it’s not an inherent Jewish quality, we have just had a whole lot more practice at it. As we learn from Rebbe Nachman, it’s what we were built for – complicated by design.

On the other hand, here in our results-obsessed culture, we’re told that if you can’t measure a successful outcome, the effort doesn’t mean anything. And so, if success is in doubt, why engage at all? That kind of thinking results in ludicrous conclusions, like “I just don’t want to talk about it anymore,” and “I guess climate change is just something the next generation will have to take care of,” and  “Well, the students themselves will have to solve the problem of school safety.” What kind of society is so daunted by complex challenges that it decides to leave them for their children? Only a broken one. Especially when our children are at risk? What could be more antithetical to Jewish values than that? And shouting loudly, talking with friends, posting on social media – these are not serious ways to address serious challenges.

In the musaf service we will read, “Who by fire and who by water.” The world is on fire – metaphorically and literally, the world is under water, metaphorically and literally – the world needs us right now. I don’t have the solutions for these issues, but it is time we start seriously engaging in the questions. We may not be able to complete these goals ourselves, but it is time to stop allowing the fear of not reaching the goal to prevent us from working towards it. It is time to be counter-cultural and to embrace challenges with an eye towards compromise and sacrifice and best possible solutions, even if they mean trade-offs.

And for those of you who are trying, who are in the weeds, working with those they disagree with, accepting that getting something is better than getting nothing and taking the challenges seriously enough to do the hard work of purpose-driven, problem solving communities -thank you! I have one request – please do it louder. We need more examples to inspire the rest of us of how incremental progress brings more happiness than ideological purity any day.

On this day we celebrate the Creation of the World, but as the Baal Shem Tov taught, Creation itself is an on-going process, not a moment. Each in our own way and as a whole, we have a purpose in the process of Creation. When we add to the world with our own efforts to bring more holiness, to bring more to our lives and the lives of others, we help perfect God’s creation, we fulfill our purpose.

As Rabbi Tarfon taught in Pirkei Avot: לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין  לְהִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. “It is not up to us to complete the task (phew), neither are we free to refrain from it.” (oh) The Jewish people are literally built to find purpose and joy in ongoing processes even when success seems remote, we see the value in trying, in Ratzo v’Shov, in falling down and getting back up. May we all find the courage, fortitude and humility to join the challenging processes in the year ahead, and may we all find joy on the journey.

L’Shanah Tovah.

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