The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Promises to Keep

Parashat Ki Teitzei • August 20, 2010
Aspen Jewish Congregation • Rabbi David Segal

[22] When you make make a vow to the Eternal your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the Eternal your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; [23] whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing. [24] You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Eternal your God, having made the promise with your own mouth. (Deuteronomy 23:22-24)

Last week I happened to see a rerun of an episode of The Office.  In it, Steve Carrell’s character Michael Scott had, 10 years before, sponsored a group of inner-city school kids, who became known as Scott’s Tots.  He promised them that he would pay for college if they graduated from high school.  This episode took place 10 years later, when the kids came to collect on his promise.  Needless to say, he couldn’t afford college tuition for an entire class.  Instead, he offered them each gifts:  “I know you all need laptops for college,” he said, “so here are laptop batteries for each of you...”

It got me thinking about this time of year, which is all about keeping promises, and what to do with promises we’ve broken.

The best known prayer of the High Holidays is Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidre.  But we rarely stop to think about what it means.  Literally, the title means “all vows.”  And in fact, the text is an ancient Aramaic legal formula for a release from vows -- kind of like a release you sign before you do something living for another year, in this case.  There is some debate about whether it should absolve us of vows from the previous year, or from the subsequent year, but either way, it is not a beautiful, heart-wrenching prayer in its content, but rather a dry legal document.

Kol Nidre has a long and strange history.  I won’t go into all the details, but a few highlights are worth noting. For one thing, for centuries, Kol Nidre was a tool of Christian propagandists, who claimed it as proof that Jews aren’t trustworthy.  “Don’t do business with them,” would go the argument, “because they don’t keep their promises. It says it right here...” Fortunately, the world has changed enough that that's no longer the case -- and hardly anyone speaks Aramaic anymore, anyway, so they can't understand it!

There have even been attempts to remove Kol Nidre from our liturgy.  Mordecai Kaplan, a notable Conservative Rabbi of the early 20th century and the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement of Judaism, tried to remove this prayer from the service at his New York City synagogue.  In his view, it was not modern enough to keep; it was inconsistent with the values and practices of the day.  In response, there was virtually a congregational rebellion.  People were just too attached to this prayer.  

For them -- as I believe it still is for us -- there was a deep connection to the music.  The haunting melody, the gravity of this time of year, the connection to tradition and the passing of time...all of these together make Kol Nidre a profoundly sacred moment, even for those who don’t usually use the word “sacred.”  We’re fortunate enough this year that we will hear Kol Nidre both on the cello and sung by our Cantor.

But in addition to the music -- which would be reason enough! -- I think there is another reason to keep Kol Nidre in our service.

The Torah’s laws about vows, which we just heard chanted, is pure; it’s an ideal of perfect behavior. But Kol Nidre reminds us: we live in the real world, where we go back on our word, where we lose faith.  Sometimes we do it willfully, and sometimes accidentally.  So we need Kol Nidre, not just to ask God to forgive us, but also to remind ourselves:
We must be more mindful of the vows that cross our lips, because we ARE ultimately accountable for them, and we must care for our souls in that regard.  AND we must also live in the real world, with other people.  We must acknowledge not only ours but other’s limitations and inevitable imperfections.

Although it’s not yet winter, a poem came to mind that expresses this idea.  I think it’s probably familiar to many of you:

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening
Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

This time of year, we dwell in that space that Frost describes. Yom Kippur is, spiritually, the darkest Jewish evening of the year.  We retreat, reflect, turn inward.  We inhabit the silent solitude of the woods.

But in the end, we must move on.  We can’t stay in the woods forever. The shofar blast, like the horse’s harness bells in the poem, awakens us from our inwardness. We re-emerge into our world of obligations and relationships. It is messy, but it has the potential to be holy, too.

Every Yom Kippur, we turn inward, consulting the quiet darkness, and we recommit ourselves:
to keep our promises; 
to go our miles;
and, when it is our turn, ultimately, to sleep,
we will have left the world of our relationships and responsibilities better for our having left our own trail in the newly fallen snow.

Shabbat Shalom and an early Shanah Tovah.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Milk & Honey (and Oil...)

Shabbat Eikev • July 30, 2010

There's a story told of Moses on the mountain, looking out over the Promised Land, frustrated that he will only see it but not cross into it.  In his conversation with God, he said (picture Alan King, cigar in hand, telling this):
"God, how wonderful!  A land flowing with milk and honey -- wonderful!"
Then Moses continued,
"But God, how about maybe some oil?"

This type of joke, and others like it, has entered the Jewish consciousness.  Israel is called "a land flowing with milk and honey" 17 times in the Torah, but never a land of oil (ok, maybe olive oil).  Perhaps there's something here about the psychology of not appreciating a blessing.  Perhaps today, looking around, we can't help but see the wealth of some of Israel's neighbors, the resource richness.

This "resource envy" is misguided.  Consider that studies have shown that countries rich in oil and natural resources (e.g. minerals) -- think Middle East and Africa, especially -- tend to be plagued by corruption, poverty, and war, not to mention inequality and lack of democracy.  For further reading on this idea, check out The Paradox of Plenty by Terry Karl.

And there have been some recent examples.  When it became big news last month that Afghanistan is sitting on $1 trillion worth of mineral reserves, some commentators (including Jon Stewart) expressed their condolences to the war-torn country.  The sentiment went something like this: "Congratulations, Afghanistan: you're now assured centuries of conflict, greed, and instability."

Similarly, natural gas was discovered recently off the coast of Haifa.  Initially hailed as good news for Israel's economy, the excitement turned more dismal when Hizbollah claimed the rights to the resource deposit.  Journalists then began to speculate on another Israel-Lebanon war, this time over resource rights.

One economist (Paul Collier of Oxford University and the World Bank) has estimated that, in countries who depend solely or mostly on natural resources, the chance of civil war can be 20-40 times higher than in other countries.

This is know as the Resource Curse or the Paradox of Plenty.  The interesting thing about this idea is that it applies not just to countries and international politics -- but also to people, to us.

It's already old and tired to say that we live in a materialistic, consumer culture.  But how many of us have more shoes than we need?  More clothes than we actually wear?  Too many tchotchkes?  (And believe me, as someone who just moved last week, I am guilty of this myself. I am not immune!)

And the deeper, harder question is:
When we raise children immersed in this culture of amassing things, what are we teaching them?  What are they learning about the value of a dollar?  About the value of a day's work?  About plenty and poverty, and where they fit in in the world?  About what really matters in life?

Now, Judaism is not an ascetic religion.  We don't really have a monastic strand who rejects material possessions and all worldly wealth to live a life of poverty.  Judaism is not anti-wealth.  But it is against valuing substances over substance.  It is against -- to use our metaphor -- valuing oil over milk and honey.

Milk and honey are the antidote, precisely because they are not the most valuable resources, but rather the truest blessings in life.

Milk resonates with motherhood, nourishment, and love, as well as protection and empowerment.
Honey symbolizes sweetness, joy and celebration.  And it's worth noting that it's produced by bees only in community, reminding us about the nature of human fulfillment -- that we need to be in relationship.

Milk and honey are things without which we cannot live, without which we cannot be fully human.

Two final thoughts.

First, it might actually be a blessing in disguise that Israel has no oil.  It's had to rely on intellect, creativity, people power.  It has created cutting edge hi-tech; great music, film and arts experiences; and religious and spiritual flourishing.  Without oil reserves to rely on, but with plenty of milk and honey to go around, Israel found a better way.  The question is, how can we take a lesson from that success into our lives?  What can we learn about how human ingenuity and imagination flourish -- when we're forced to play outside (although in Aspen, I'm preaching to the choir!)? When we read a book?  When we spend time with a friend, or helping someone in need, rather than with our things?

Second, we recall what we heard chanted tonight from Deuteronomy (11:10-11):
For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven.
(Sounds a little bit like our own Roaring Fork Valley, doesn't it?)  This description is a reminder: that we aren't ultimately in control.  The rains come and go, and we don't command them.  There are mountains and valleys, ups and downs, highs and lows, and we don't get to control those either.

What we do get is milk and honey.  What we give, if we will take up our responsibility, is milk and honey.  Nourishment and sweetness. In community, in relationships, in friends and family, in the beauty of nature, in the quiet of Shabbat.  In service and tzedakah, in tikkun olam.

Oil's value rises and falls.  But milk and honey are priceless, and eternal.

Shabbat Shalom -- may it be sweet and satisfying.