Whenever I jog in the Old City, I stop at this amazing spot overlooking the Western Wall, grasp the top of the railing, and prop myself up about five times. I look like I’m exercising my biceps, but I’m really stretching my soul. Last week, as I started, an older religious woman yelled, “please, don’t jump!”
“Boy,” I thought, “is the angel of death really hovering around me that much this year?” My second thought was to explain that joggers “kill themselves” to live forever not die prematurely. Truthfully, this stranger’s concern charmed me. “Don’t worry,” I told her gratefully, respectfully. “I’m just absorbing the view.”
“Ah,” she said, “much to absorb.”
And there you have it, the epitaph for the year 5780 as it exits.
There’s been much to absorb, much of it negative: deaths, hospitalizations, fear, loneliness, shattered businesses, lost wages, ruined dreams, damaged psyches, strained relationships, ruined relationships – and that unnerving realization of just how vulnerable we and “it” — our society, our world – are.
Some of us have been lucky enough to absorb some good too. Many Corona-haves — not those who have Covid-19 but those who remain “haves” despite Corona (and don’t have young kids!) – appreciate the slow pace or the opportunities for contemplation or the deepened perspective.
Absorbing this year of loss and longing, I’m struck by the special people in my life who were alive last September and have vanished. I feel the pain of those who saw their life-plans disrupted, derailed. I sense the anxiety around this still-clouding future among so many used to micromanaging tomorrow. But this year, more than most, I can also specify new friendships gained, new communities joined, rejoined and created – in Zoom and in real life – and, partially due to being in mourning for my mother, new spiritual pathways launched – or at least attempted.
Especially at this complex crossroads, amid mass confusion, concern and despair, Rosh Hashana can overwhelm. How do you plan out a year? How do you prep for next week when you don’t know if that Corona-monster will finally get you – or the government won’t let you leave your own house for your own good? First, accept the advice Natan Sharansky offers in our new book Never Alone . Learning from nine years of wrongful imprisonment in the Gulag, he says: “don’t try controlling what you can’t control – focus on what you can control.” Even when the KGB bullied him in jail, he knew “They cannot humiliate me, only I can humiliate myself.” Natan, therefore, recommends undertaking projects you can control – and taking things step-by-step.
Similarly, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz – whom we lost this year after 83 years of life that produced over 300 books – warned against trying to “make plans for the whole year” in two Rosh Hashanah days. It’s “impossible.” Every year “is multidimensional and is connected to many different worlds.” Instead, “form a general picture of what ought to be the character and direction of this year. One should place on the head of the year a ‘crown of Kingship’ and thereby transform the year into a completely different form of being.”
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg gave a lovely Dvar Torah this week instinctively synthesizing Steinsaltz and Sharansky. The big picture, the direction, is “choosing life,” Greenberg teaches. You choose life by doing good. Every time you choose to do a good deed not a bad one, share a nice word not a nasty insult, even eat healthy instead of pig-out, you vote for life. And the payoff isn’t necessarily a financial bonanza or a Vegas jackpot or even prolonged life. It’s simply a better life, a purified soul, strengthened relationships, nurtured communities: the circle of goodness grows – no matter what else is happening elsewhere.
That sage advice empowers, providing a sense of control, without deluding us into thinking everything is under our control. It allows us to think big but live snug. It girds us against the disasters that may overwhelm us and be out of our hands, by showing how much good is in our hands.
To complete the circle, the small acts of hesed , kindness, these mini-mitzvot, ultimately provide a cosmic payoff too. In Netivot Shalom, the Slonimer Rabbi explains that a sense of purpose to fulfill your mission here in the world and fix what needs fixing, expressed through good deeds, inscribe you into the Book of Life.
Being someone who makes that extra effort to do good, be kind, and go spiritual, makes you different. And “difference” is going to be a key theme these Days of Awe. Whether you pray with a limited crowd in your usual synagogue or outside under a tent, whether you pray by Zoom or in a pop-up minyan in someone’s garden, these holidays will be distinctive.
Just before my wife and I married, the late Rabbi Ron Aigen of Montreal, shared a lovely teaching that the Hebrew words for holiness, sanctification and marriage-consecration all come from the root k-d-sh, which means to differentiate. That makes separation, difference, the first step toward holiness.
This Rosh Hashanah, we will continue absorbing so much, good and bad. May we sift, filter, differentiate, not just absorb. By acting like sagacious sieves we will control what we can, maximizing the good, and sanctifying our lives – and the world — step by step, good thought by good thought, holy redeeming deed by holy redeeming deed.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.