Friday, May 17, 2013

Reaching Higher in West Egg: The Great Gatsby Meets the Nazirite

When I was offered the job of Assistant Rabbi at Temple Israel six short years ago, I figured I should do a little research about Great Neck. So I re-read The Great Gatsby. As you may know, F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in Great Neck in the 1920s, and the place that he identifies as “West Egg” is our peninsula, somewhat less fashionable than “East Egg,” or Port Washington.

OK, so you might say that Fitzgerald’s tragic tale of love and loss among wealthy, young gentiles in the Jazz Age might not be a good indicator of what I might experience in the Great Neck of the 21st century. And you would be right. Except that what Jay Gatsby ultimately teaches us about that particular place and time is both placeless and timeless, and still applies to all of us.

You would have had to have been living in a cave to have missed the promotional messages for the new 3-D film version of The Great Gatsby, the fourth time it has been turned into a major motion picture. It cost over $100 million dollars to make, with a sizeable advertising budget to match. I have not yet seen it, but I have read a few reviews. In particular, I read Maureen Dowd’s piece in the Times Sunday Review two weekends ago, in which she reminded us that the book’s title is, in fact, ironic: Gatsby is not “Great.” Rich, yes. Mysterious, yes. Throws fabulous parties, indeed. But not great.  Dowd cites a conversation with Leon Wieseltier, long-time literary editor of The New Republic, in which he takes to task all of the Gatsby films for succumbing to excessive focus on the gloss of Gatsby:
 “... people have lost the irony of Fitzgerald’s title. So the movies become complicit in the excessively materialistic culture that the novel set out to criticize.”
I’m not going to spoil the story for those who have not read it, but the essential message conveyed by this great American novel is that money cannot buy you friends, love, or happiness. This new version of the film, according to Dowd, misses the point by emphasizing the big parties, with dramatic choreography and over-the-top, splashy scenes that convey more skin-deep theatrics than emotional depth. (One has to wonder why a tale of socialites in the Roaring Twenties needs to be in 3-D.)

And that seems to be exactly the problem that we face right now as a society: where is the emotional depth? Today, West Egg is decked out in flash: fancy cars, gorgeous homes, the most wonderful devices to emerge from Silicon Valley, superb schools and parks and synagogues. And many, many beautiful people and fantastic parties. But is it possible that something is missing in our lives?

Last weekend, I went with a group of Temple Israel families to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires for the Vav Class Family Retreat. This was a pilot program, the first try at what we are planning to make an annual feature of our Religious School program.

The accommodations are spartan. It rained most of the day on Saturday. The food was, as you might imagine coming from a camp kitchen, tasty but simple. And wherever we were outside, we were surrounded by swarms of gnats. (They did not bite, but they were REALLY annoying.)

But in less than two days’ time, we built relationships. Between tefillot / family-friendly services and meals and free time, between the discussions and games and the minhah service that included a nature walk, the bonding that we shared as we fulfilled the Shabbat potential for menuhah / rest and oneg / enjoyment, we fashioned community from the grass roots. This is what Judaism should do. This is what synagogues are for.

Youth House Director Danny Mishkin, Director of Education Rabbi Amy Roth and I led a series of discussions and activities. On Shabbat afternoon, I was sitting with the parents discussing ways to cultivate gratitude in our children. We read some material from Dr. Wendy Mogel’s book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, and some sources from Pirqei Avot, including the following:
איזה הוא עשיר? השמח בחלקו.

Eizeh hu ashir? Hasameah behelqo.

Who is rich? The one who is happy with his portion. (Avot 4:1)
אל תסתכל בקנקן, אלא במה שיש בו.

Al tistaqel baqanqan, ela bemah sheyesh bo.

Do not look at the flask, but rather what is inside it. (Avot 4:26)
These passages are among several in Pirqei Avot that help to refocus our attention away from externalities to what is really important, and to separate needs from wants. The discussion was valuable, but not as powerful for the participants as I had hoped. As we were concluding, the skies opened up and it started to rain, so we continued to sit in the camp library and chat. The conversation innocently morphed into a discussion of how to get children to focus less on their smartphones, and to set limits on their use. We shared advice, swapped stories, and it was clear to me that this was a concern that was high on everyone’s mind, and all were invested in the conversation. It occurred to me that this was not the kind of discussion that  happens easily today; we were nearly 20 adults talking about parenting, uninterrupted by our own electronic devices because we had all opted to preserve the sanctity of Shabbat by leaving them off. It was beautiful, and powerful, and profoundly helpful.

On Sunday morning, as we were preparing to leave, we shared a final moment together on the waterfront. Standing on the edge of a lovely lake fenced in by rolling hills, we sang a song or two, and processed the weekend experience together. One of the participants observed that ultimately, the material features of the retreat - the rooms, the food, the bugs, the rain - did not matter at all. What mattered was the time spent together, bonding, schmoozing, drinking instant coffee and playing basketball. And so the simplicity of the experience added to its success in building connections between us all.

Unlike some varieties of Christianity or Buddhism, Judaism does not highlight asceticism. On the contrary, the Torah and the Talmud teach us that God gave us this world so that we might enjoy its fruits. We read, for example, in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sotah 3:4):
Who is a pious fool? He who sees a ripe fig and says, “[Instead of enjoying it myself], I will give it to the first person I meet.”
The apex of Jewish spirituality is not to deny oneself, but to take pleasure in God’s Creation, albeit with a berakhah, an acknowledgment of God’s role in bringing us that ripe fig. The same is true for all other physical pleasures.

And most of us here in contemporary West Egg are fortunate to live well and appreciate God’s gifts to us. As long as our monetary gains are not ill-begotten, wealth is a blessing.

But we should not forget that comfort should be enjoyed with proper perspective. Material wealth has limits. Yes, having enough money makes certain things easier. It guarantees good access to education and health care, and of course allows for eating well and travel and leisure and so forth.

But what can creature comforts not do? They cannot fill the voids in our souls. They cannot bring joy in the context of loss and suffering. They cannot help us be better people. And they cannot bring people together in a way that connects them to each other meaningfully.

God has created a world in which everyone can be wealthy if he or she learns to appreciate the most essential gifts, those that can only be accessed through relationships with those whom we love, and with the Divine.

All of this brings me to the subject from Parashat Naso that our bar mitzvah boy raised earlier, that of the nazir. As the Torah describes, a man or a woman may become a nazir by taking a vow not to drink any alcoholic beverage, or to cut one’s hair, or to be exposed to tum’ah, impurity, by contact with a dead body.

The nazir lived a slightly more austere life than his/her fellow Israelites. It is worth pointing out that two of the most important heroes of the prophetic books, Samuel and Samson, are nazirim, and it seems that the source of their power - in the case of the former, his ability to communicate with God, and for the latter, his great physical strength - is their nazirite vow.

The suggestion is that living without certain indulgences (i.e. personal grooming and cocktails) might yield a higher form of existence.

In general, Judaism does not embrace austerity. But sometimes denying ourselves certain pleasures helps raise us up.

How do we achieve repentance on Yom Kippur? Why does our calendar identify six additional fast days throughout the year, with other optional personal fasts available to us at any time? Why do we take upon ourselves the hardship of avoiding the five species of hametz (and for some of us, many other things) during Pesah? Why does our tradition teach us to move out of our comfortable homes into the sukkah, where there are no marble countertops or fancy bathroom fixtures (or even bathrooms) during the festival of Sukkot?

The very act of self-denial, of setting limits for ourselves, is thought to stir God’s compassion. We can be cleansed through simplicity, and even occasionally through outright hardship. Going without helps to put us in a more open, spiritual state, that gives clarity and context to our lives. These traditions suggest that introspection may be achieved through humility. Simplicity helps to serve as a magnifying glass into our souls, and puts us back in touch with God’s Creation.

Jay Gatsby made the mistake of thinking that in order to win back Daisy Buchanan, all he needed was lots of money. But he was wrong. And the lesson that we should all take away from Gatsby, and from the nazir, is that over-the-top parties and lush material possessions are to be enjoyed, but the real substance of life is not to be found there.

The Torah’s description of the nazir is followed immediately by Birkat Kohanim, the blessing that the kohanim / priests would make over the rest of the Israelites in the Temple in Jerusalem:
יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ.

יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ.

יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.
Yevarekhekha Adonai veyishmerekha
Ya’er Adonai panav eilekha viyhuneka
Yisa Adonai panav eilekha veyasem lekha shalom
May God bless you and keep you;
May God cause God’s face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace.
The midrashic collection Sifre tells us that the light of God’s face, identified in the second line, represents wisdom and Torah, which, unlike material goods, can never be taken from you. I would add love and companionship to the contents of this light.  Taking a cue both from Fitzgerald and from the nazir, the things that we really need can be realized only in the context of family and community; they are the truly valuable fruits of Creation. 

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, May 18, 2013.) 

1 comment:

  1. Posted on behalf of Carol Rabin (Thank you, Carol!)

    Dear Rabbi Seth, I posted a lovely comment regarding your weekend in the Berkshires and the Great Gatsby but I am not computer savvy and it disappeared, never to be read again. I enjoyed reading your comments and had only one thing to add.

    As I read all about community I remembered a quote that I recently found in Disney which relates to your description of awareness and respect of surroundings:

    "A family is like a forest, when you are outside it is dense, when you are inside you see that each tree has its place."

    Thank you for your words so early in the AM. It is a great way to begin my day.
    Carol Rabin