Saturday, August 27, 2022

Idealism and Realism

 This essay originated as a d’var Torah (sermon, or literally “words of Torah”) at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA. I dedicated it to the memory of my father, Bernard Wolfman, as I delivered it shortly after his 11th yahrzeit (the anniversary of his death).

There’s an interesting progression of statements in the Torah portion R’eih. The statements are in quick progression—Deuteronomy 15:4-5, then 15:7, then 15:11.

First, verses 4-5: “There shall be no needy among you—since Adonai your God will bless you in the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a hereditary portion—if only you heed Adonai your God and take care to keep all this Instruction…”

Next, verse 7: “If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that Adonai your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsmen.”

And finally, verse 11: “…there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”

The text rapidly goes from definitively declaring one extreme regarding poverty to definitively declaring the other, with a much less conclusive position in between. Curious.

I’ll get back to these verses later, but let’s change gears for a moment. Ask yourself whether you consider yourself to be someone who dreams big, and whether you think of yourself as a realist. Now tuck that away. I’ll come back to that, too.

But first I want to tell you about what happened when my husband and I decided to begin keeping a kosher home. I asked our rabbi at the time, Aaron Landes, about what we would need to do. We were standing in the towering foyer in the synagogue building at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. I can’t remember why we were having the conversation there, on the red tile floor, with people occasionally passing by us in each direction, rather than in the privacy of his office. He asked me whether I could put my dishes into storage for a year before using them again. And when I’d just begun to open my mouth to answer, he interjected, “Or how about six months?” Bargaining with me before he even knew whether I’d object.

It's a funny story, but it demonstrates a pattern of movement from the big dream to actionable reality. Clearly, Rabbi Landes wasn’t sure of my ability to go big and fulfill the one-year requirement. So he started with the ideal, and then offered a course to take if that would prove too difficult.

I call this a pattern because we see it repeatedly in Jewish life.

In prayer, we have kavanah—praying with intention and emotional engagement—and we have keva, or routine, fixed prayer. Steve Freedman, currently head of the Solomon Schechter Day School in Teaneck, NJ, once explained to me that engaging in fixed prayer creates the discipline and boundaries within which kavanah can happen. In the book Embracing Judaism, Rabbi Simcha Kling puts it this way:

Prayer is a fundamentally spontaneous activity. …Through its history, the Jewish tradition has encouraged spontaneous prayer. In addition,…formal, fixed prayer services were developed by the Rabbis as a means of heightening one’s spiritual consciousness.

He goes on to say that getting comfortable with prayer requires learning its structure and participating in it. He then adds, …choreography and melody play important roles. In a public service, moreover, others are present and one’s relationship to them is also a factor. All of these contribute to the phenomenon we call prayer, which is highly subjective and emotional.

There is the ideal of kavanah in prayer, and there is the realism that we can’t always achieve it but keva can happen daily, helping us toward kavanah.

Anita Diamant, in her book Living a Jewish Life, includes a section she calls “Shabbat versus Soccer.” Writing in 1991, she states, In the past, the Jewish world was divided into people who observed all the laws of Shabbat and those who observed none of them. The choice was either/or. This is no longer the case for American Jews, who observe the Sabbath in a variety of ways. For many..., making Shabbat is a goal achieved (a) sometimes, (b) partially, (c) rarely, or (d) all of the above. Diamant likens this to how a dish looks when you’ve cooked it at home. Even if it tastes great, visually it usually doesn’t compare with the professional photo in the cookbook. For example, I’m incapable of creating a layer cake that isn’t lopsided—but it stands, holds birthday candles, and taste good. There is the big idea we may be going for, and there is what we can realistically achieve in our pursuit of it—each of us with varying constraints that influence what our actions may be.

Dr. Neil Gillman talks about this principle in his book The Way Into Encountering God in Judaism. Discussing how humans can talk about God when we cannot grasp God’s nature, he writes: although we cannot know God’s essence, we must still speak of God, all the while fully realizing that everything we say about God is only marginally accurate, partial, impressionistic, imaginative, and intrinsically subjective. The big idea is that God is beyond what we can know or express; the realistic actions consist of substituting what language and conceits we do have, even as we understand them to be false.

If we are given only the ideal, and it proves too much, we might simply walk away. From creating a kosher home, in the example of my conversation with Rabbi Landes. From prayer, if we sometimes struggle to achieve kavanah. From Shabbat, if the only option is all-or-nothing. From God, if we can never use words to imagine God.

Now let’s go back to the verses in Deuteronomy.

·        We are told that “There shall be no needy among” us, if we follow all of God’s instruction.

·        But then again, just in case “there is a needy person among” us, we are told how to treat them.

·        And actually, well, “…there will never cease to be needy ones.”

What is really going on here, based on the concept of the big idea versus the realistic actions?

I think there are two big ideas presented here: one is following all of God’s instructions; the other is eradicating poverty. They are put in front of us so we can know and understand the ideal state. But—just as quickly as Rabbi Landes took six months off my timeline for getting my dishes back—we are offered a more realistic path that allows us to take actions toward these ideals through our treatment of the poor. Which also suggests that turning our attention outward, to how we care for others, is the best course toward inward change, impacting our behavior overall.

This is a lesson we can bring to our congregational life. Many of us feel passionate about our synagogue, or about a particular aspect of Jewish life. From that passion, we develop big ideas that we’d like to bring to fruition. Sometimes, however, we become so fixed on those ideas that the have trouble accepting realistic timelines toward achieving them through smaller actions. Or we forget to look outward at how others may experience the issue. I include myself in this. I’ve gotten so wrapped up in what I see as the ideal, that—instead of getting joy from the small steps we take, and pausing to look at how others react or at what next step might reasonably happen—I focus on my frustration at what we’re not yet achieving.

This attitude can lead to passing judgement. Imagine if our Torah portion left us only with the big idea that “[t]here shall be no needy among” us, if we follow all of God’s instruction. Instead of taking care of the needy, we might be pointing at our less observant neighbor and blaming them for poverty. That wouldn’t be very productive, and it would make living in community hard to bear.

Earlier, I asked you to think about whether you are someone who dreams big, and whether you are a realist. I believe that most of us are both. Sometimes, we come up with the big concept, the ideal to work toward. Sometimes, we are identifying the realistic actions, and helping to make those happen. Most important is that we recognize the place for both, keep moving forward, understand and respond to the impact on others, and leave judgement at the door.

 I’ve added the boldface and italics in the quotes from Deuteronomy for emphasis; they are not in the original.


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