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The Difficult Texts We Live

Kol Nidre 5778

Just a few weeks Ilyssa and I got to enjoy the rite of passage that is the first day of school photo.  Since our daughter, Raia, had broken her wrist and had a big pink cast on, I asked Ilyssa if we ought to wait, fool ourselves and future family albums, by taking a cast‑less photo a few weeks later—she wisely said no.  Then, the first day arrives and after meeting them at Akiba and dropping Raia off, Ilyssa sent me her picture.  It's great, she is so cute (!) and above all else, she is smiling!  She never smiles for pictures, she hates it. But, on cue, Ilyssa sent the outtakes, which perfectly captured her—you can see Raia yelling at her mom.  I texted Ilyssa, “that’s the one.”  That is Raia, that picture tells a story; that photo will develop memories beyond the physical changes that will be seen from year to year.

Just two days before that failed but perfect photo shoot, there was an essay in the New York Times titled "Instagram Your Leftovers," written by Laura Shaprio, which got to the heart of Raia’s two photos.  The writer’s point was that we need to take stock of all that we eat and are served, not simply the meals that are aesthetically pleasing.  We cannot simply catalogue the one dinner we made that came out perfectly or take photos of the beautiful food we ate at a restaurant; we also need to take a picture of the food that we sent back into the kitchen or the failed dinners that led to take‑out.  Short of doing this, our ancestors and historians, will see a cosmetically enhanced, Photoshopped version of our lives, with all the stress and struggle silently removed.  It will be discarded with no trace that it was ever there, with no awareness of how that impacted us, let alone that meal and the experience that were shared around it.

It is Yom Kippur, I am not here to talk about photography and certainly not food; we are here to reflect on our tradition and our souls.  I what to talk about Judaism, about Torah and the troubling stories they contain.  Why are these stories here?  Why have they survived?

On Rosh Hashanah I asked what was the reason the Torah readings that we read were chosen—The Binding of Isaac, Sarah’s pettiness, and Abraham casting out Hagar and Ishmael to a certain death in the desert?  As I marched with the Torah, someone mentioned to me that these readings showed troubled families, families with issues, and this person was spot‑on. Rosh Hashanah may be the perfect time to be addressing the difficulties of family.  Every family in the Torah was full of faults and that, you must realize, is counterintuitive—the instinctual move is to create a perfect story with perfect people, yet in the Torah we only have dysfunctional families.  We do not have an example from our Matriarchs or Patriarchs of a great parent or ideal friend.  We have flawed characters leading flawed lives, and if I can be so bold, we have a flawed God too.

We may feel we can excuse a difficult text in the Torah because it is ancient, maybe its even admirable for being better than other contemporary ancient texts, perhaps these realistic features are empowering.  But how does this jive with the difficult texts that our Rabbis wrote, the ones that survive and live on in our tradition, many of which are in our machzor.  The Talmud is, unarguably, and undeniably written by people, yet it is still is filled with difficult stories and troubling responses to those stories.  How can we reconcile this with the tradition we want to uphold?

A few weeks ago my aunt, Rabbi Benay Lappe, gave her “Crash Talk,” in which she addresses her theory on Jewish law and text study but she is really just talking about life.  I reflected with her that the way she addressed Midrash in her talk was eye-opening for me since it was more expansive than I had realized.  She believes, and she is right, that a Midrash is not simply a tale the Rabbis weave in order to explain a difficulty in the text but it addresses a difficulty in their lives; a midrash is only couched in a textual problem.  (Why was Abraham chosen?  Because he smashed his father’s idols; but maybe they were really answering the question of why they had survived the Temple’s destruction when so many others did not.)  I told her that the way she explained it had opened things up for me, that Midrash became a way to live rather than merely a way to study.  And in our ensuing conversation she reflected to me that, of course, we have difficult texts in the Talmud because we have difficult stories in the Torah.  The Talmud is only a commentary on the Torah, so how can it hold its weight without them?

The Talmud is filled with wonderful interpretations and laws that better our lives but also difficult and disturbing responses to questions that we, hopefully, today would no longer answer in the same way.  Yet the enterprise is beautiful because it is human.  The story at the heart of the Talmud, its Midrash, is simply an attempt at answering the difficulties of life; just below its surface, just beyond the discussions of law and its minutia, is the story that deals with the pieces of the Rabbis that they did not like about themselves.  And let me take it a step further, how we feel about the tradition’s difficult stories not only impacts how we see ourselves but they are the same thing; our self‑image and the tradition being different is only an illusion.  The Torah is worthy of love and we worthy of love.

Difficult stories get furthered, past down and then codified as tradition, most often, because our lives are difficult.  If life was simple, if the path towards meaning and morality were obvious, then we would not have met Joseph nor the anxiety-riddled Moses, their stories would have sank to the bottom rather than rising to the surface.  If life was easy then we would only have the first half of the Giving Tree.  Ultimately, we are imperfect and that is why we, and our tradition, gravitate towards the imperfect stories and claim their characters as heroes, as our own.

The Rabbis in the Talmud did not have the luxury of scrubbing the ugliness out of the text they inherited; yet 2000 years later we are all still here.  So, why we do spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to sanitize our own stories?  Why do we spend so much of our precious time in a futile search for a life that is not our own?

The other problem we have when it comes to these texts is not sizing up their difficulty but weighing their degree of difficulty.  We have egregious acts and stories that defy explanation and we ought to figure out, communally, what lens to view them through.  But let’s put them in the corner and move on, I know, that is a privileged place to stand from, easy for me to say.  We cannot ignore their existence but we need to find a place for them that will allow us to question the texts whose answer is out there.

We need to move them to the attic of our homes—not a storage unit somewhere else, but the attic.  We place them there next to the ugly lamp and mementos you cannot get yourself to throw out.  They are there us for when we are ready because just like that lamp, at some point the harshness will start to dissipate and what did not work then, may, now, work—some will always be ugly and that is ok.  But the real reason we have to place them in the attic is not because we are embarrassed or ashamed of them, but in order for the other texts, so that the other pieces of ourselves can stand out when we have a vantage point to clearly view them from.

We need to rid ourselves of the clutter that blinds us of the real and accessible work.  We all want our Tradition to answer for the challenging ideas it contains or for God to answer where he/she was in the Shoah.  Yet, I think, we gravitate towards those questions because it allows us to avoid asking the questions we can answer, the hard questions that get at our heart rather than obscuring our mental image even further?

These texts were written and retold, lived and then relived because of their innate ability to challenge our core; the static that we often feel that brings calm to our lives is actually locking us into spiritual and emotional laziness.  Haberman understood that being brave enough to encounter our difficult and troubling stories will, inevitably, yield strategies for how to fully engage with them.  The end of The Merchant of Venice will always be the same, but we are not.  Every year we begin the Torah with creation and end with a tearful goodbye to a Moses, who died on the wrong side of the Jordan; yet every year we are different.

The Hasidic Rabbi, Lev Yitzchak of Beritchev, every year on Rosh Hashanah would cry out loud, “This year is different. This will be the year that the person I strive to be, I will actually be. This year will be different, I really mean it this time.”  I really mean it this time—what is powerful about that prayer is not that he said it but that he meant it.  We need to be strong enough, not only to hope but to feel that this time around will be different.  And, what that is really telling us, if we are brave enough to utter that Hasid’s vow, on this night where we beg God to undo all our vows we could not keep, we are saying to ourselves that there is more to us than the pieces that are broken or difficult, the person who can be hurtful or small, the person we do not like.

Our reflex or instinct is to ignore or discard those pieces, but this year embrace that person and say that too is who I am but it need not be all of who I am—we are so much bigger than our sum of negative qualities.  Judaism is certainly so much more than a religion of ugly stories.  None of us would be here if Judaism did not have heart, if it did not have depth, if it did not allow for family, if it did not get at the meaning we are searching for.  And, none of us would be here if we thought we are living our perfected life, living out the ideal versions of ourselves.  But I hope you are here because you know that that life is out there.

This summer I was turned onto the work of filmmaker and archivist, Rick Prelinger.  He is interested in old home movies, and what he realized, after cataloging, thousands of hours of film, is that every home movie is the same, they contain the same tropes:  young parents and little kids at Disney World, dad putting camera in daughter's face, kid tries to blow out birthday candles and fails, but tries again.  His insight was that that no one ever films gas stations.  Everyone drove to Disney World; we all have footage of the world’s largest thumbnail but the gas stations that allowed for the journey to exist, are nowhere to be found.  What we set our sights and fix the camera on, are things we are attracted to, what we think are meaningful, but also, what could easily be understood to others as meaningful.  He says, “People rarely film things that you hate, which means home movies are usually pretty, filled with flowers and fountains.”  And that we “Can’t judge the past at its best, but we need to confront its imperfections”— this is Judaism and this is what it means to be a human.

The authors of our tradition and those who have sustained our people are offering us this wisdom: read it all, engage with the full text- beautiful and troubling, mundane and messy because we are in each of those texts.  The literal Torah is only a rouse, it is there to steer us towards doing the work of fully confronting the difficult stories we have written and the ones we will continue to write.

Judaism is not a religion of happiness; Judaism is a religion of meaning.  Living a life, not simply being alive, is about seeking meaning and that requires growth.  Growth is hard, there is a reason we call them “growing pains”; it demands engaging not with who we would like to be but who we have been.  Happiness comes when we get rid of what we do not like, whereas meaning comes when we are able to confront those things.

We know that when we have two manuscripts:  one that is perfect and one that has errors, the one with the errors is the authentic one, that one is the older version, because those errors have not been fixed.  Living a meaningful and full life is about living from that mistake filled manuscript because it is a reminder that we are imperfect- we were imperfect yesterday and we were today, yet tomorrow, maybe we will be a little less imperfect.

We need not write a new text, a new version of our story but we try to live it a little bit better.  We need to be comfortable with the messiness, which is different than being complacent, we need to seek the best version of our messed up selves because that is where insight is birthed and that is where we need to lead from.

The only thing we can do today, right now, is be like Lev Yitzchak of Beridtchev, and say this year will be different.  This will be the year, rather than giving up in the face of struggle, rather than giving in or being lazy, I will keep reaching for the best version of myself, not the perfected version but the true one.

This year, leave your cameras on, the footage will yield a lasting picture of who we really are.  Those films and those pictures, warts and all, will yield a complex but full picture of the beauty that lives inside each of us, while telling us where we need to grow.  Judaism has survived and thrived for so long because of its complexities, the Torah is still studied for that reason—it is real and it keeps giving.  Let’s make this the year where we live as if our lives are real and reveal all that we have to give.

May we all be written into the book, for a year of health, happiness and growth.

Shabbat shalom and shanah tovah.

Rabbi David Minkus

The Pulpit Shelf

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784