I’ve been watching with amusement many of the news feeds I have on social networking sites like Facebook all of the rabbis scrambling to write their most important sermon of the year. I am partially amused because I started Shlomo’s Drash for Rosh Hashanah 48 hours before Rosh Hashanah, so I’m in the thick of this too. Fortunately I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and the outcome of my piece doesn't change the course of thousands of lives, unlike those with a smicha. I also want to start in an odd place – Christmas.
I don’t remember the first time I got one, but it was somewhere around twenty years ago. A friend of mine from college, who is an ordained minister, started sending a letter updating everyone about her life over the past year. It was always fun to read and find out what she was up to in her Christmas letter. Yet I was startled one day when I received from a rather non practicing Jew of my acquaintance a Christmas letter again updating everyone on the changes of her life and family. While I understood the letter from the minster, from another Jew it just seemed a bit weird. I’ve never felt completely comfortable with that letter, which until now I often privately called “the goy letter.”
That was until the year I received during the days of awe another letter like the first two from a dear friend and fellow congregant. Strangely enough, it lost its goyishe feel in its timing. It was then I realized what makes this letter comfortable or uncomfortable is the timing. When at the end of a religious year it is a taking stock before the New Year. It is actually a religious act. I would feel just as uncomfortable with my non practicing Jew genuflecting as I do with that letter, yet I don’t with the congregant and the minister.
I think that letter is the whole point of Rosh Hashanah, and my congregant friend had it right on the mark. The Days of Awe are the time when we take stock of who we are. We note what we have done wrong and what we really want to do right in the next round. I have often in this Rosh Hashanah D’var written that I’m not comfortable with a name written in one of two log books called the Book of Death and the Book of Life. Instead I believe we all have our own books. It is neither the book of life nor the book of death but the book of fully living. Everything we do and are exists in this book. The results of the past year are just a chapter in this book. That chapter may be full of stuff to read or boring, it may have cliff hangers or it may contain that rather dread ending THE END. While that might be a bad ending, what is worse is blank pages meaning we never really lived in this past year. I often like to wish someone “may you be inscribed in the book of fully living.”
That letter is particular impacting me this year for a very modern reason. A friend of mine tempted me into starting to use Facebook, and to say the least I’m addicted. For those not familiar with Facebook, it is one of many of the social networking tools available on the internet. Essentially you are given a web page. All you have to do is fill it with stuff about your self. One can log pictures, videos, and of course text. People write about their lives one small thought at a time. The object of all this is to connect with others. The Facebook database allows finding other people you might know in a variety of ways. Then you electronically ask them to be a Facebook friend. Once they agree, you have access to read all the stuff in one’s page, and communicate publicly on their “wall” or more privately via internal e-mail.
Through Facebook I come across a lot of people I used to know including a lot from my college days. Like my friend the minister, I have been writing repeatedly my story over and over again of the last twenty years. Yet after that introductory letter to a new Facebook friend who was an old acquaintance, things get into the swing of reading each other’s status messages. Status messages are nothing more than single sentence messages publicly broadcasted to your friends telling them what you think or what you are doing. It is of course voluntary. Some friends are chatterboxes and let you know a lot, or give their opinion constantly. Others are more silent. But from reading those messages you have a constant stream of seemingly trivial information about a person, which gives a texture different from the update letter. Such texture is so rich there are other services like Twitter which do nothing but update statuses.
I’ve been thinking lately that the holiday letter is much like the High Holidays, while Facebook is our day to day experience of the mitzvot. One is comprehensive, and grandiose the other simple small and very personal. We write not on keyboard or pen and ink, but with actions and deeds. For some their entire experience is that letter. For others, including myself, the richer experience is the status messages, in the periodic prayer of more regular services. It allows me to be in relationship with others. When they need a friendly presence I can be there for them – if not personally at least in communication electronically I can comfort them. When I need someone, there can also be there some one for me.
While I could debate which is better the letter or status messages, there is a third possibility that is so sad and tragic it is the thing we all should work on in some part of our lives.
This year, for the first time I traveled to Israel. While there were many memorable moments, there was one that blew me away – the hippodrome in Caesarea. It was neither the horse races nor the architecture that I was thinking about. It was a man who most likely stood where I stood on the sand of the arena overlooking the Mediterranean. His name is Simon b. Lakish, though known throughout the Talmud as Resh Lakish. Before he was one of the greatest sages in the Talmud, some claim he was a gladiator. If he was, it was on this field he most likely fought, the horse racing field turned into a gladiatorial arena by his time. We also know that R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus spent his last years there as his bier was being carried from this town to his birth place of Lydda. [Sanhedrin 68a] Resh Lakish and R. Eliezer had a lot in common though living about a century or so apart. Both had a brother in law they spent much of their lives getting along with, indeed had a deep friendship. Yet a small matter broke that friendship and they would not talk to one another. Bitterness and pain would curse them till their dying days.
I went into detail about the oven of aknai incident in my Drash for Nitzavim 5766. The short version was over the permissibility of a oven with interchangeable parts, R. Eliezer was excommunicated and all of his judgments made invalid by his brother in law Gamaliel II. There was bitterness between the two, so much so that R. Eliezer’s wife, Imma Shalom made sure her husband was not alone so he could not pray for the death of her brother. Once she was quickly interrupted.
[On her return] she found him fallen on his face. ‘Arise,’ she cried out to him, ‘you hast slain my brother.’ In the meanwhile an announcement was made from the house of Rabban Gamaliel that he had died. ‘Where do you know it?’ he questioned her. ‘I have this tradition from my father's house: All gates are locked, excepting the gates of wounded feelings.’
Wounded feelings were also at the heart of another pair. R. Johanan and Resh Lakish. Their story begins with an act of t’shuvah, the evil Resh Lakish changing his tune:
One day R. Johanan was bathing in the
Jordan, when Resh Lakish saw him and leapt into the after him. Said he [R. Johanan] to him, ‘Your strength should be for the Torah.’ — ‘Your beauty,’ he replied, ‘should be for women.’ ‘If you will repent,’ said he, ‘I will give you my sister [in marriage], who is more beautiful than Jordan I.’ He undertook [to repent]; then he wished to return and collect his weapons, but could not.[Baba Metziah 84a]
Resh Lakish becomes an incredible scholar, though one day he and R. Johanan get into a heated argument about the point in manufacture where blades are can become spiritually contaminated. In a crass statement, R. Johanan mentions Resh Lakish’s sordid past, and thing go downhill from there, both men incredibly hurt and unwilling to forgive the other.
Resh Lakish died, and R. Johanan was plunged into deep grief. Said the Rabbis, ‘Who shall go to ease his mind? Let R. Eleazar b. Pedath go, whose disquisitions are very subtle.’ So he went and sat before him; and on every dictum uttered by R. Johanan he observed: ‘There is a Baraitha which Supports you.’ ‘Are you as the son of Lakisha?’[i.e. Resh Lakish] he complained: ‘when I stated a law, the son of Lakisha used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; whilst you say, "A Baraitha has been taught which supports you:" do I not know myself that my dicta are right?’ Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, ‘Where are you, O son of Lakisha, where are you, O son of Lakisha;’ and he cried thus until his mind was turned. Thereupon the Rabbis prayed for him, and he died.[ibid.]
Without his friend, brother-in law and colleague, R. Johanan, the redactor of the Jerusalem Talmud, dies in grief so deep it drives him insane. Their relationship made Johanan a better person, one who was able to make the brilliant rulings he is famous for. Without Resh Lakish he falls into nothingness, half of his soul ripped away by his own anger. Such anger is not just for one generation but many. In a corollary to this story, we hear another.
On another occasion R. Johanan met the young son of Resh Lakish sitting and reciting the verse, The foolishness of man perverted his way; and his heart frets against the Lord. (19:3) R. Johanan thereupon exclaimed in amazement: Is there anything written in the Hagiographa to which allusion cannot be found in the Torah? The boy replied: Is then this verse not alluded to in the Torah, seeing that it is written, And their heart failed them, and they turned trembling one to another, saying: ‘What is this that God hath done unto us?’(Gen. 42:28) R. Johanan lifted up his eyes and stared at him, whereupon the boy's mother came and took him away, Saying to him, ‘Go away from him, lest he does to you as he did unto your father’. [Ta'anith 9a]
Resh Lakish’s Son and wife both show their bitterness in their own ways against R. Johanan. The Sister of R. Johanan in a very direct way, and the son and nephew of Johanan in a battle of wits, citing a verse in Genesis about the cruelty of brothers. The bitter feud only ends in death.
These stories are not about poor little shlubs but the best and brightest of the Talmud. They are there to tell us a significant thing one we must think about not only between humans but between ourselves and God. Communication is important. Saying how we feel is important. Most of all, not letting those feelings dwell in silence is important, for they will burn a deep black hole that will only leads to sadness and destruction. We must express ourselves and our stories, our chapters in the book of fully living.
Often the goy letter is superficial, how the kids are doing, how many cars and houses we have, where we went on vacation. It gives us more of a status than the Facebook status message. The problem with the status message, and daily communication in general, is while it often has more of our soul in it, it is in such small amounts it is imperceptible. R. Johanan and Resh Lakish only blew up at one another over a small matter, yet underneath there was something building that needed to explode, and when it was lit by a small spark it ended both their lives. Neither lived in the book of fully living ever again.
The letter to our friends and the letter to God during the High Holiday season need to be the release valve. Often we are clueless about what underneath the surface is dwelling. Sometimes we do but are afraid to admit it. In our very public setting of public liturgy we can try to find and release those feelings that have been building over a year both to Man and God. On a daily basis, like twitter and Facebook, we need to express those feelings, both by really talking to people we have wronged and who wronged us, or to God in our daily or Shabbat prayers. In do so we try to work it our before either become a powder keg.
Imma Shalom noted well that the gates of hurt feelings are never closed. God always hears them. What we do with them is the important thing. We can be destructive or we can be reconciliatory. To work towards reconciliation is not to be weak, but requires a deeper strength to truly resolve the problem instead of placating one party. Placating only buries the problem for an explosion later as the resentment continues and increases
As a writer and speaker, I’m never exactly sure who I have offended or hurt by my works in public settings, in my speech and in my writings. As a prelude to this season of repentance, May I ask for forgiveness to all who I did offend. I’m sorry I hurt you if I did. I’m not prefect, but I will try better next year not to do the same.
And may you all have a great exciting and wonderful chapter in the book of fully living for 5769!