Sunday, October 9, 2011
The Pursuit of Longing
I remember when I was a very little boy, around the age of three, my parents did a big mitzvah: they took in a woman who didn’t have a home of her own, and gave her room and board, and in exchange, she kept up the house and helped take care of me. The woman’s name was Ruthie. My parents tell me that Ruthie liked to keep to herself, with a sad, wistful, faraway look in her eye. Ruthie apparently had had a son once, a son whom she had lost, but she never spoke of him. Whenever my mother asked her about what happened with her son, she never wanted to discuss it. But one thing drove away her sadness: she loved me! I mean, she adored little three-year-old me. The sad, quiet Ruthie whom my parents describe doesn’t match my memories. All I remember is her unreserved smile, her laughter, her hugs, her loving touch, her carrying me and taking me everywhere with her. I remember feeling so safe and loved whenever I was around her. And my parents confirm this memory: she was a different person when she was with me. It was like her loving me filled up some kind of emptiness she had inside... And then there was the day that strange red car—that I had never seen before—pulled up in our driveway. I remember the grown-ups talking downstairs. I remember being told to play outside for a while. Then, the car was gone. And so was Ruthie. Later, I found out that on that day, out of the blue, Ruthie’s sister had shown up in that big red car. Without warning that day, she had Ruthie pack her things, and together they left for some state far away. Ruthie never said goodbye. The sisters didn’t say where they were going, and we never heard from Ruthie again. I don’t remember how I felt at the time, but looking back today, I’m certainly not angry with Ruthie. How could I be? I have no doubt about how much she loved me. She was not a woman of words. Even as a little child, I knew, I could feel deep down how much I meant to her. And to this day, I have no doubt that she simply didn’t know how to say goodbye. Her sister had shown up without warning. She was totally unprepared, and how could she find the words, how could she cope with such a goodbye to this little child who, for a brief moment of her life, filled a terrible emptiness. How could she express her gratitude, her love? I have no doubt that she would have, if she could have. If she’s still alive, wherever she may be, I hope she doesn’t feel regret. I hope she knows that I remember her, with love and with longing for her healing from her loss of her own little boy. I long for that with a longing that is really more that I can express in words... The Torah tells us the story of the end of Moses’ life. Moses says “V’Etchanan El Adonai,” “I pleaded with God at that time, saying, O Lord God, You who let Your servant see the first works of your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan...” But God did not grant Moses’ request. Instead, God said to Moses, “Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan…” It doesn’t take much for any of us to put ourselves in Moses’ place in this life. For each and every one of us, there is a Promised Land somewhere over across the great River of Life, somewhere where we know we can’t fully arrive to, not in this lifetime, no matter how much we crave it, thirst for it, desire it…it is beyond our reach. In every one of us, there is always a place of yearning of something more to say, to do, to accomplish. We tend to go through our lives, avoiding experiences of yearning and longing, experiences of feeling life as incomplete or lacking some kind of wholeness. The name of the game for us today is the Pursuit of Happiness, after all. We are taught to make the most of life’s opportunities, always to remember to have fun and enjoy life, not to get caught up in downer spirits. We are taught that we can always drown out the blues and the dissatisfactions of life if we get a great job, a great house, we own great things, go on great vacations, get great notoriety and ‘success’—then we can overcome that gnawing tugging of our hearts in the background—right? No. Actually, we can’t. People nowadays will shop to try to cover over that inner feeling of longing. They’ll shop until they become hoarders. Others turn to alcohol or sex or drugs or food or any manner of addiction to seek to escape that feeling of incompleteness inside that society says we “shouldn’t” have. But no amount of material possessions or diversionary activities can save us from standing on that summit with Moses, knowing that we can’t fully cross over… One of the greatest privileges I have as a rabbi is that I get to perform weddings. One of the most beautiful things in the world I get to see is the shining faces of a couple looking right at me under that Huppah: faces of such love and such pure joy and happiness. We all know, of course, that the moment we wait for at a Jewish wedding (before the kiss, of course) is the moment that the glass is broken and we shout Mazel Tov! I often get the question what the breaking of the glass means. Many of us have heard that it represents remembering the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem even at such moments of greatest joy. That answer is true, but it’s only partially true. It’s also a ritual act that captures, perhaps better than anything else, the real kind of joy that is happening at a wedding. When a couple stands under that Huppah, it’s a little taste of perfection, of perfect happiness; the Huppah becomes a little Garden of Eden. But that perfection cannot last, not in this world. We must break the spell. With the breaking of the glass, we ‘wake up’ and remember that the love and joy of that moment, as beautiful and perfect as it is, is a fleeting flash in a world where nothing lasts. I think that’s the real reason why we cry at weddings. We are overcome by longing—a longing that is really love itself welling up within us: love for that beautiful couple discovering such happiness in a world where life so quickly passes. It wasn’t for nothing that the song goes, “Is this the little girl I carried, Is this the little boy at play. I don’t remember growing older—when did they?” That plaintive song perfectly captures what I’m talking about! It’s all about yearning, longing. We Jewish people have a unique and brilliant relationship to the fundamentally human and universal capacity to long and yearn for what could be in this life. In other religious traditions, there are different responses to human longing. Some religions teach their adherents to sublimate their longings and surrender or submit to the will of the deity. Some Eastern religions talk about tangha- “desire” and “dissatisfaction” as the essence of all human suffering, the very thing that must be “extinguished” in our human nature. But we Jews, we go in the opposite direction: we embrace this longing as that which makes us most human, and closest to God. Longing and yearning are everywhere in Judaism. It is the essence of our prayers: we long for a return from exile, back to the Land of Israel, we long to rebuild Jerusalem, we long for the Mashiach. Our texts are filled with expressions of longing. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” we pray. We pray never to lose our longing. We may lose everything else, but please, O God, not that yearning.. Longing and yearning lie at the very heart-center of Judaism. We are the people who yearn. Longing is the national genius of the Jewish people, the essential magic ingredient of our survival through the ages. We may have known exile and centuries of catastrophes and persecutions. And how have we collectively responded to these losses? With anger, bitterness and hatred? No. We have, as a people, always responded with an ever-deepening longing to come home, to repair the brokenness of the world that we can feel in the broken places in our hearts. So many of us are filled with concern for our lives, for our families, for the world. Some of us reflect today and wish our lives could have been better, that we had made different decisions, or that we could get back a happiness or contentment that we remember we once had. Any and all of these life situations are a variation on the theme of longing. And the brilliance of our tradition tells us: don’t run away from these dissatisfactions, these concerns, even that sadness. Don’t be afraid to embrace it. Embracing our longing, not fleeing from it, is the secret to healing our lives. In other words, we cannot pursue happiness until we pursue our longing first! When we say the Ashrei, we say the line “Poteach et yadecha, umasbia lechol chai ratzon,” It’s like we ritually become like Adam in Michelangelo’s Cistine Chapel—now with hand inverted palm up toward God’s open hand: “You, God, open Your hand, and you satisfy every living thing with ‘ratzon.’ “ What is ‘ratzon?’ It is usually translated as God’s good “will” or “favor.” But in the Zohar, our sages teach us that what ‘ratzon’ really means is ‘longing!’ What does this mean? That in some mysterious way, the act of embracing our own longing, is how we come full circle and satisfy that very longing! That God opens God’s hand to us, and satisfies us by giving us our capacity for yearning. And why is this so? It is because in truth, as Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, it is God who yearns for us. Our infinite yearning is the very image of God within us! Every time we feel that ache inside, it is God’s longing for us to come home. If you want to find the face of God in your life, seek the places where your life feels the most imperfect! When Moses stood on that summit and pleaded to cross over, perhaps that was the greatest piece of Torah he gave over in his entire life. He stands for us all. In his standing there, he shows us that if there’s anything that each and every one of us in this world has in common, it is a deep soul-knowledge that this world, this life we live is not perfected, not whole. Each and every one of us has within us a vast ocean of such depth of feeling, a sea of imponderable depths of love and kindness and goodness that we can’t possibly give over in this one little lifetime. We can try mightily, and still we fall short; ultimately we are misunderstood, we don’t make it. The great pathos of our human condition, is that it is not possible for any of us to live up to the potential of goodness that dwells within us. The myth that life is just about pursuing happiness ignores this truth. There is always a part of us that grieves over the love that we can’t give over—and to know this, to embrace it, paradoxically, is the only real wholeness—in Hebrew ‘Shalom’—the only real peace and joy. Why? Because our longing is our greatest motivator to action and to justice. When I know that I have more kindness within my soul than I can ever give over, and so do you, there’s a joining—you and me—and all I feel is compassion, the deepest empathy with you. And I am motivated to act out of kindness, as much as I can, for you. Even if we know that we can never do enough, even if we can’t save the world, or even one person, we can die trying. The greatest act of courage, the noblest of our humanity, is when we transform our yearning into action, when we reach out in kindness for the sake one another in this world. Every Mitzvah, when it’s all said and done, is yearning transformed into action. When we reach out fully knowing that we may never succeed—or perhaps we will—the success is not in the result, but in the action born of the longing itself for the sake of another’s happiness. The generation of Israelites that left Egypt journeyed for forty years and never made it to the Promised Land. It wasn’t their arrival, but their yearning will to journey forward—for the sake of their children and children’s children- that continues to inspire all future generations. “Lo aleicha hamlacha ligmor” “You are not required to finish the task,” say our ancient sages in the Mishnah, “V’lo atah ben chorin lehibatel mimenah,” “But neither are you free to desist from trying.” It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter how much of your potential you have lived up to, or squandered. It doesn’t matter if your better years are behind you, or if you have all the material trappings of success you could want. We’re all together in this. The aching of your heart that you know so well is there in the hearts of everyone you see, of everyone you know. There are no exceptions. I got my first taste of this truth so many years ago, in Ruthie’s bittersweet and unfulfilled longing for her own child, a longing that found only a fleeting respite in her love for me; a longing that motivated her to share nothing but joy with me, despite her sadness. From Ruthie, I learned that yearning and love are not different emotions, but are really two aspects of the same One Love, a love that comes from nowhere other than God. When we acknowledge this Love, this truth, we, together, make God’s dream for us come true for one another. Rabbi Heschel, as usual, summed it up best. He said: “…he who craves for the light of God [foregoes] his ease for ardor, [and forgoes his] life for [the sake of] love, knowing that contentment[--happiness--]is the shadow, not the light. The great yearning that sweeps eternity is a yearning to praise, a yearning to serve. And when the waves of that yearning swell in our souls all the barriers are pushed aside: the crust of callousness, the hysteria of vanity, the orgies of arrogance. For it is not the I [myself] that trembles [with longing] alone, [yearning] is not a stir out of my soul [alone] but [rather yearning is] an eternal flutter that sweeps us all.” On Yom Kippur, the day of fasting, may the hunger of our souls to be a blessing ignite our deepest passions to do what we can, in our own beautiful, limited ways, to make this world a blessing.