A Fixer-Upper

With thanks for inspiration and direction to my colleague Rabbi Daniel Dorsch.

My children in West Hartford moved into a new house this summer, one that had a bit of work to do to put it in shape. We spent a little time helping them with that move, and it reminded me of another house move, our own, 35 years ago.

You would not believe what the housing market in Manchester was like in the spring of 1979 when Lisa and I, with our three little girls, had to move here for me to be your new young rabbi. Houses were selling so fast that we literally could not get up here fast enough from New Jersey to make a purchase. Ultimately, we bought a place that we knew would be temporary and began looking for another place within walking distance of the shul that would be suitable. By November of that year we found a house, a fixer-upper, the house we have lived in ever since, and we do love it. Fortunately, the only renovations that were absolutely necessary were the interior and the exterior. The house featured bright orange kitchen counters, wallpaper that would have been perfect in a bordello, and orange shag carpeting that probably did not look very good even when it was new. But getting it in shape was a project I actually enjoyed. I even did some of the work myself, though it did have to be torn out later and redone by a professional. That process, by the way, went on for about 30 years, so it is a good thing I enjoy home makeover kind of projects.

I am quite certain that Rabbi Abraham Isaak Kook HaKohen, the first chief rabbi of Israel, did not know much about house renovation, but he understood that getting meaning out of your life is linked to looking beyond what’s on the surface.  He wrote that when you dig down, when you want to deal with issues like spirituality or making meaning in your life, “that a person who tries to sustain himself only from the surface aspects of existence will suffer terrible impoverishment and begin to stagger.”

Rav Kook argued that to make meaning in your life, to see beyond what’s right in front of you, there must be (quote) “inside of us a burning thirst for inner substance and vision which transcends the obvious surfaces of existence. That’s where,” he writes, “by seeking inner sources, by looking deeper than the surface, we can seek mayim besasson, waters of true joy.”

Tonight, as we begin a new year, I think that is what all of us should be doing.  We are called on this Yom HaDin, this Day of Judgement, to go beneath the obvious surfaces of our existence and to see our life in a more meaningful way, and we must do this just when our world is becoming more and more about finding meaning in superficiality.  When you are fixing up a house, you must deal with the surfaces: the countertops and hardwood floors. That is what is needed when it comes to a house.  But when it comes to your life, and who you really are, you must go deeper. You must dig down and see the divine potential to do better we all have within us.

Rosh Hashanah, if it is done right, is our annual homeowner’s inspection.  It is when we are expected to go beyond the ugly wallpaper and the 1960’s carpeting, and look at the very foundation of our homes. We look at the pipes of our lives, and we try to a roto-rooter the blockages, the obstacles that prevent us from having meaningful relationships with God and other people.  We look at the foundation underneath the hardwood floors, and evaluate whether we are living lives that match our values.

It is interesting that Microsoft named its new laptop computer “Surface.” Did they imagine that that would be attractive to people? I guess they did. We should be asking ourselves what that says about our society. Have we grown so complacent with our lives on the surface that we won’t push ourselves into new and uncomfortable territories? Are we really afraid to question the values we live by, to see whether or not we can’t grow just a little bit wiser and connected to the world of the spirit?

In our day, there is a moral and spiritual crisis in our lack of willingness to go below the surface and make the more challenging repairs to our lives that may be painful at first, but that will allow us to live better.

Part of our problem is our addiction shortcuts.  We fail to look deeply at ourselves because we are just looking to find the quickest way to get to our goal with doing the least amount of work possible.  I am certainly guilt of this. There is a hole in a wall that needs to be repaired, but I put it off and instead hang a picture. We have entire conversations on email when we are angry at someone instead of just picking up the phone and talking it out.  Or we make a phone call when we are certain we will get the answering machine so we don’t have to actually converse and deal with real issues. The pharmaceutical industry takes advantage of our willingness to take instant diet pills and have surgery even though any doctor will tell you that living a healthy life is about healthy eating and adequate exercise.  How many people come to the synagogue on these holidays and only think about how quickly the rabbi will be done with his sermon and when they will be able to slip out and go home?  Sometimes, even when are physically present, we are so busy looking for the quickest way to get to the end that we shortchange the opportunity to look deeper at ourselves.

Do you have the same problem I suffer of being too easily distracted? Israel’s poet laureate, Yehudah Amichai, once wrote a poem called Tayarim – Tourists. It is a brilliant poem about tourists walking around the Old City of Jerusalem, something to which I can really relate.  In this superb, short poem Amichai describes what happens when you live your life so distracted that you are unable to look beyond the surface; that you miss what’s really important, and you never get to experience those well-springs of joy.

Listen to his words:

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period.

Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,

“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.

I am the last person to criticize being a tourist in Jerusalem. But Amichai makes an important point not only about how tourists tend to behave, but a point that can apply to our lives in general. More specifically it may apply to a problem we have in attending High Holy Day services. We spend years and years coming to shul on the High Holy Days and still we are tourists in our own shul, or in our own lives, because we focus on the surface. Tourists don’t get to that well-spring of joy because they are distracted by the archway or the granite counter top in front of them and don’t reach down and touch their soul to find the potential that is really there.

Sometimes in life, we also don’t get to well-springs of joy because we’re looking for the answers in all the wrong places. I love to greet potential members of our synagogue, but I have yet to have a member who asks me the most essential questions that should concern them. They don’t ask about finding a spiritual home and whether this will be a place in which they can feel connected to God. More often then not the questions concern the hours of Hebrew School and how much the dues are. I would love to have a potential member ask me about what we offer in adult education, before I bring up the subject. But that rarely happens.

Once, in a small village in Europe a man who had been a regular at a particular shul stopped attending. The rabbi was concerned and went to see the man at his home. “Where have you been? We miss having you at our daily service.” The man explained that he found a rabbi in another town to whom he could better relate. “What is so special about that rabbi?” “Well, for one thing, he can tell what you are thinking and he has actually taught me to be able to do that as well.” The rabbi was a bit taken aback and challenged the man. “Really, you can tell what I am thinking?” The man responded, “I can. You are thinking about the verse in Psalms, ‘I have placed the Lord before me always.’ The rabbi quickly said, “Ah-ha you see. That isn’t the case at all. As a matter, I am not thinking of anything like that.” “So, rabbi, you can see why I found another shul.”

I never have to greet potential new members like that. If only I did? I would love to find new members, or even long term members, who are looking beneath the surface, who want to go into real depth in our Jewish heritage. Who want to take Hillel’s teaching of Torah on one foot, “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor,” and the follow his advice of “Now go and study.” It’s that last line that tells us to go beneath the surface, to dig deeply into the well-springs of our tradition.

Our synagogue does offer that opportunity. Look at the brochure in next month’s bulletin that will list all the courses we will be offering. If you feel you have forgotten much of what you learned in your youth, or you recognize that you really did not learn the basics when you might have, the opportunity to do it now is here. Look at the brochure about the Institute of Basic Judaism course. Are you willing to go beneath the surface and do some real learning? It will take a commitment, but that is what spiritual growth is all about.

And so this year, don’t let yourself be so easily distracted by the archway such that you don’t see what’s really important.  And stop trying to find answers in all the wrong places, when deep down you know where the right places really are to ask.  And then, build meaning in your life.

May all of us in this new year do the necessary interior construction and may we be able to say, as God commanded in the building of the sanctuary, “Asu li mikdash” Make for me a sanctuary, “v’shchanti b’tocham” and I will dwell among you.
May you have a year that is good and full of sweetness. Shana tova u’mituka