Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Can't Get No Satisfaction? Become a Spiritual Immigrant - Behar/Behuqqotai 5772

When I was in my early twenties, I interviewed my maternal grandparents, Rose and Eddie Bass, aleihem hashalom.  They were born around 1912.  My grandfather was happy to tell his story, which was, ironically, not too happy – his father had left his sick mother in charge of five boys, and my grandfather was taken at age 3 by the State of Massachusetts and placed in a foster home with a Jewish farmer outside of Boston.  Gramps spoke very fondly about the Slotnick family who took him in, his years on the farm, his pet cats, driving cars as a teenager, and so forth.
My grandmother, however, who had immigrated to the United States from what is today the Ukraine at age 8, kept trying to back out of the interview. “Why do you want to hear this?” she said.  “We were poor, we were miserable, and the non-Jews were horrible to us.”  As far as she was concerned, there was nothing to tell about her childhood.  She was glad that she had left the old country, but life was hard in America as well.  She never looked back.  

And yet, when I asked her about her teenage years, about meeting my grandfather, she would light up for a moment and give me a charming memory: “All the boys were after me,” she said.  “I didn’t like Eddie at first, but he grew on me.”  They were married in 1936, during the Great Depression, and were together for 66 years before my grandmother passed away in 2002.

Their lives were hard, marked by poverty, loss, and suffering.  I recorded some truly astounding stories.  But they were happy with what little they had.  And whatever small successes they had in life they relished, perhaps because they were achieved with their own hands.
When we read the Torah this morning, there was an extended aliyah of curses. That's right, good 'ol fashioned biblical curses.  You know the sort – if you don't walk in the way of the Lord, your enemies will conquer your land and scatter you amongst the nations and you will be desolate and hungry and barren and so forth.

Amongst these curses is one that I think speaks to where we are today, one of the greatest curses of contemporary America.  “You shall eat and not be satisfied.”  (Lev. 26:26).  Ladies and gentlemen, thank God, we have more today to eat than any previous generation.  When my mother was growing up, if you didn’t finish what was on your plate, my grandmother went into panic mode.  By comparison, my children, thank God again, are surrounded by food, clothes, many, many gizmos that make a cacaphony of noises (such that Abba tries hard not to replace batteries when possible).  They have a warm, loving home, and lack nothing.

We “eat” better today, here and now, than in any previous generation.  And “eat” here is in quotes, because we are blessed with many kinds of abundance, many things that were unavailable to our grandparents:

How many of us...
… Have more vehicles than drivers in the household?
… Could donate half of what’s in our closets and still have plenty of clothes to wear?
… Have the luxury of free time for overseas vacations?
We are healthy and comfortable.  Barukh haShem.  And yet, we all know that no matter how much we have, there always seems to be something else that we want or “need”.

In 1965, a mere forty-four years after my grandmother immigrated to the United States, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones released a musical statement about satisfaction.  Mr. Jagger’s complaint was, as I'm sure you know, that he couldn't get any.  The song is a statement about class, about society, about wants vs. needs (and of course it's got a great beat and the kids can still dance to it).
Satisfaction has always been very hard to come by, but somehow, I think we are worse off in this regard than our grandparents were.  In this Goldene Medina (Yiddish for “Golden Land”) of plenty, satisfaction is in shorter supply than it ever was.  Perhaps this is an innate human reality.
Last week, Rabbi Stecker mentioned the opinion piece in the New York Times about the culture of outsourcing.  We don’t have the time to take care of all of the things that we used to do, so we pay somebody else to do them, and then must work more to pay for all of the things that we have outsourced.  For sure, today’s economy boasts hundreds of new types of employees -- life coaches, dating coaches, wedding planners, hired dancers for parties, wantologists (who help people determine what they really, really want) -- but what have we lost? The author of the article, Arlie Russell Hochschild, an emerita professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, observes the following:
“Focusing attention on the destination, we detach ourselves from the small — potentially meaningful — aspects of experience. Confining our sense of achievement to results, to the moment of purchase, so to speak, we unwittingly lose the pleasure of accomplishment, the joy of connecting to others and possibly, in the process, our faith in ourselves.”
We are so anxious about where we are going, says Dr. Hochschild, that we forget to enjoy where we are.  While we are busy farming out our daily tasks to professionals, the small successes of life go unnoticed, the holy moments unsavored, and the satisfaction of personal accomplishment unrealized.

Our grandparents had far fewer choices than we do.  Given that we are all pressed for time and faced with an inordinate number of options as to how to devote it, how do we find our way through life in such a way that maximizes our satisfaction?

This is, you might say, the 2012 reflex of the Rolling Stones’ very prescient question, nearly half a century ago.  

Well, I have an idea.  When the lack of satisfaction gets unbearable, it's time to leave. Emigrate.  Pick yourself up and move, spiritually, to a different place.

You can do it.  Some of us in this room are physical immigrants – some of us picked ourselves up and left our homes due to the various upheavals of the 20th century – from Hitler's atrocities to Khomeini's revolution.  And those of us who are not immigrants are necessarily the children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren of immigrants.

But to immigrate spiritually is just as difficult, and yet there is a precedent in Jewish history: when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago, the Jewish people immigrated spiritually from one way of worshiping God to another; our prayers today, specifically the Amidah but really all of them, replace the sacrifices that our ancestors offered in the Temple.  Instead of a priesthood offering the best of our flocks to God, we as individuals offer the best of our lips. Sometimes we in this building debate very subtle changes in what we do here in services; imagine replacing the whole system with something else entirely!

So how do you move to a place of satisfaction?  Maimonides, the most influential single rabbi in Jewish history, suggests the following:
צָרִיךְ הָאָדָם שֶׁיְּכַוַּן כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו, כֻּלָּם, כְּדֵי לֵידַע אֶת הַשֵּׁם בָּרוּךְ הוּא, בִּלְבָד; וְיִהְיֶה שִׁבְתּוֹ וְקוּמוֹ וְדִבּוּרוֹהַכֹּל לְעֻמַּת זֶה הַדָּבָר
A person should direct his heart and the totality of his behavior to one goal, becoming aware of God.  The way one rests, rises, and speaks should all be directed to this end. (Mishneh TorahHilkhot De’ot 3:2)
Maimonides gets even more specific: eating, sleeping, relationships, and every single action that we undertake should not be ONLY for the pleasure of doing so, but rather that all should serve the higher goal of making it possible for us to be holy vessels.  That is, we can and should take pleasure from our daily activities, but pleasure is not the end goal.  Judaism has never endorsed asceticism; on the contrary, it is a mitzvah to live well within a sacred framework.  But everything we do has a holy purpose: to make it possible to get in touch with God.  That is our bottom line, if you will.
This is spiritual immigration.  Maimonides wants us to re-orient our thinking, to make us conceive of our actions differently.  If we can successfully immigrate to this mode of thought, we have a much better chance of being satisfied, and to devote our energy to the Jewish values of learning, of repairing the world, of seeking peace between people, of treating each other respectfully in all our dealings.  
We need to think like spiritual immigrants.  We need to guard against the possibility that abundance, whatever form it takes, might breed apathy or discontent.  We need to stay “hungry” for challenge, for spiritual exploration, growth, and ongoing satisfaction.

My grandmother did not want to talk about her experiences, because she thought that her poor childhood reflected badly on her or made us uncomfortable.  As one who had come to this country to seek a better life, her perspective came from having found satisfaction in achievement.  That was the story that I wanted wanted her to tell me, and eventually she did.  Most of us do not face the physical challenges that she faced; we must therefore take up the spiritual challenge.

If we re-orient ourselves to focus on how to be holy vessels, to see our actions as serving this purpose, we might be able to manage successfully the challenge of want vs. need, and perhaps get some satisfaction.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, May 19, 2012.)

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