Knick-Knack Paddywhack Give a Dog a Bone[1] – 24 September 2014 Erev Rosh Hashanah Inspiration by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, Congregation P’nai Tikvah 

Erev Rosh Hashanah Inspiration. Every night, when it’s bedtime, I pull back the bedspread, revealing the satin lining and, like clock-work, my sweet, faithful, hundred-pound German Shepherd, Shepsi pounces on the bed and flops down on the turned-back bedspread at the foot of the bed.  It is a ritual repeated nightly and always with an attitude of “I’m living the life of Riley, and this is my daily reward for being such a good dog.”  If dogs can be happy, I’d say that Shepsi is one happy dog.

Several years ago, Rabbi Bradley Shavit shared a story about a dog he had grown up with, a pooch whose name was Oliver.  Now Oliver was actually a female, but she was named after the mop-haired youngster who played the lead role in the musical “Oliver!” way back in the 60’s.  Like the star’s Beatle-coif, the dog, Oliver, kind of had a mop-top, so she was stuck with the name Oliver for life.  Oliver was a house dog and had the run of the house, during the day, but every night, every single night, in contrast to Shepsi’s delight in going “night-night,” Oliver would go through a drama of epic proportions:

Rabbi Shavit remembers that the nightly routine was to take her downstairs through the kitchen, opening the back stairs from the kitchen, which led to a stone basement, a dark, dank, cold stone basement.  Being just a kid at the time, Brad didn’t know why Oliver had to sleep in the basement, but that was where she had to sleep.  And every night, he remembered that the only way that they could get her there was to take a Milk Bone treat and throw it down those stairs into the darkness.  And, as he put it, every night she went through the same doggie soul-wrestling behavior.  She would teeter on the top step, rocking back and forth as if to be arguing with herself:  “Oh that treat looks so good, but if I go to get it, they’re going to close the door and I’m going to be stuck down there; but it smells so yummy, but I don’t like the darkness and the cold basement.  Rocking back and forth, forth and back, until her instincts for a delicious doggy treat overpowered her apprehension and she would run down the steps and the door would shut.  She went through that sturm-und-drang ritual every single night for seventeen years.

Oliver’s nature rigged her to go through that same traumatic me ritual, just as Shepsi’s nature has rigged her to go through her same happy bedtime ritual.  For either dog, given their scenario, a hundred times out of a hundred, chances are that they’d do the same behavior.  Well, after all, you might say, they are dogs.

But how different are we?  How many of us find ourselves repeating destructive behaviors, even after we’ve promised to change our ways?  How many of us vowed to avoid some things our parents did that we didn’t like, only to find ourselves doing the exact same thing as adults?

Is there really such a thing as free will, or is it all an illusion?  Do we react out of instinct, or are the decisions we make merely determined by the nurturing we had, the personality we’ve inherited, the circumstances in which we find ourselves?  What is “freedom” in this world?

Philosophically speaking, there are a number of ways of looking at the topic of freedom.  One of them has to do with the concept that everything that exists is the sum total of the laws of physics, which are unchanging.  We call this “determinism.”  Because, in this worldview, everything is atoms and molecules set in certain patterns by G-d, or nature, causing us to do what we do.  In other words, we are bound by biology to do what we do….it is in our genetic blueprint.  Of course, in such a philosophy, because everything is determined, nothing can be free.  Now, determinism is not so easily dismissed.  Great theologians have affirmed, over the years, that determinism is true.  Some have theorized that given the right information, one could predict the future based on mathematics and probability.  Even the great Baruch Spinoza, who defined “free” and “necessary” (or “constrained”) in this manner: “That thing is called free, which exists solely by the necessity of its own nature, and of which the action is determined by itself alone. On the other hand, that thing is necessary, or rather constrained, which is determined by something external to itself to a fixed and definite method of existence or action.”[2]

So, follow his rationale, if you can:  G-d, then, (or Nature, which, for many, is the same thing) is free in the sense that of being self-caused and self-determining, but human beings, then, are not free, as we are constrained because we are part of Nature.  In other words, humankind is a modification of Nature or, what is the same thing, G-d.  Spinoza writes, “I shall consider human actions and desires in exactly the same manner, as though I were concerned with lines, planes and solids.”[3] Many contemporary religions continue contributing to that deterministic understanding of the world.  And perhaps we do, as well.  How many times have we experienced synchronistic events and said, “Oh, it was b’shert….kismet….fated to be.”  So clearly within Judaism there is an element of determinism.   But, I want to remind you that there are many facets to Judaism, and, while it is surely Monotheistic, it is not monolithic.

Judaism brings up another idea, one that has come back to Western philosophies of late:  That is the observation that, although the physics and mechanisms of life seem fairly fixed, somehow life continues to evolve.  The universe continually seems to create new forms of beings that never existed before.  “B’reishit bara Elohim et haShamayim v’et ha-Aretz; when it was in formation, G-d created the heavens and the earth…” you know the story.  How is it possible that out of fixed rules, fixed natural laws, galaxies spin out, solar systems, planets?  And on some of the planets…this one, for sure, there is life.  And even life is not fixed and static, it is ever evolving.

We attribute the creativity in the universe, the ability to change, the ever-surprising novelty to that which we’ve named G-d.  And, in turn, we then understand that we do not have to live in a Bill Murray “Groundhog Day” recapitulation of the same-old/same-old day after day.  Tomorrow can be different than today, because we have been created “b’tzelem Elohim,” with the divine spark of G-d within us.

The Talmud, uniquely among all religions, portrays G-d not only as a teacher, but as a student; not a dictator who issues edicts, but as a studious observer, one who studies and learns…and also teaches.  A good teacher is not coercive, but one who invites his/her students to make good decisions, allowing for choices, for mistakes, for corrections…for growth.  The 9th century Rav Saadia Gaon writes:  “The Blessed Creator does not allow His power to interfere in the least with the actions of people, nor does G-d compel them to be either obedient or disobedient.”[4]

This is radical freedom, and Judaism is predicated on radical freedom.  Our ability to do T’shuvah, to realign our priorities, to repent is the basis for the Ten Days of Return, the Asseret Y’mei T’shuvah, that this Erev Rosh HaShanah initiates.  We are not machines, we humans.  Were we automatons, predictably hard-wired and programmed, what would be the point of T’shuvah?!  What is built into our essence is that Divine Spark, the ability to make free choices.

In the Mishnah, Rabbi Akiva notes that “Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given.”  Free-choice!  Free will!  G-d has given us Mitzvot, commandments, yet G-d has also given us the ability to choose not to obey them.  And G-d also lets us be aware of the implications of our radical freedom.  G-d historically liberated us from our Mitzrayim, our servitude, but, In the Book of Leviticus/VaYikra, saying:  “They are My servants, whom I’ve freed from the Land of Egypt.  They may not give themselves into any other servitude.”  That translates to warning us against indenturing ourselves to the slavery of pursuit of fame or wealth or prestige or social status.  We have the freedom to resist going down those paths of servitude.

In a sense that’s both good news and bad news.

The bad news is that we have the freedom to mess up, and there’s no one who’ll clean up our mess after us.  As adults with free will, we do not have someone who will prevent us from hurting each other or being hurt by someone else’s poor choice.  Stewardship of the world is in our hands, and clearly, we do not always make the right choices…witness the melting of the polar caps, the hole in the ozone layer, the deforestation of the Amazon…the ubiquitous wars…

Kohelet Rabbah, an old midrash on the book of Ecclesiastes illustrates a lovely story about freedom and responsibility:

“When the Holy One created the first person, G-d took Adam and led him around all the trees in Eden.  ‘Take a look at how beautiful are My works,’ said G-d.  ‘How splendid they are.  Everything I made, I made for you.  Take care and not despoil the world that I made for you, because if you do, there will be none after you to fix it.”

Yep, the bad news is that we are free.  Free to mess up.  Free to choose to do bad things.  Free to choose to sin.  Free to give in to our Yetzer HaRa/our evil impulses.  Free to take that piece of chocolate, free to text while driving, free to cheat on a test…but, even though the choices we make are ours to make, we must live with the knowledge that those choices have consequences.

But, the good news is also that we are free.  We have a Yetzer Tov, a good impulse.  We are able to make good, thoughtful, moral, ethical choices.  We are also capable of learning from our mistakes, and not be trapped by decisions that were made for us or by us.  We are capable of admitting where we’ve gone wrong, righting those wrongs, making amends, making restitution, if necessary, and consciously avoiding those poor decisions in the future.  That’s what T’shuvah is all about.  That’s how we can make tomorrow different than today.

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra writes in the Medieval Period, “Going free is comparable to the renewal of the world.”  Each of us is capable of renewing the world.

With the knowledge that we are free to be who we are, free to make our own choices, we realize that the choices we make today will help shape or constrain tomorrow’s possibilities.  Life contains the freedom to choose ill or choose wisely.  Our tradition says, “U-v’chartem baChayim,” therefore, choose life.  Choose to do good.  Choose to grow through learning.  Choose to mend the wounds in your own heart.  Choose to bring broken families together.  If you are carrying a grudge, or haven’t spoken for some time to someone important in your life, out of pent-up anger, follow the examples of the Jewish tradition of Shmittah and, in the words of that classic, Frozen, “Let it go; let it go.”

We’re in a precarious time right now; our world is desperately in need of repair.  But it is not hopeless.  We have the freedom to choose what we need to do l’takein et ha-olam, to repair the world.

I remind you of the hopeful words of the poet, Judy Chicago’s alternative interpretation of the Aleinu:

And then all that has divided us will merge.

And then compassion will be wedded to power.

And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind.

And then both men and women will be gentle.

And then both women and men will be strong.

And then no person will be subject to another’s will.

And then all will be rich and free and varied.

And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance.

And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old.

And then all will nourish the young.

And then all will cherish life’s creatures.

And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth

And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

As we go into these Asseret Y’mei T’shuvah, these Ten Days of Return/ Ten Days of Repentance, let us be cognizant of where we’ve missed the mark in the past year; let us seek out those to whom we owe an apology and offer it, sincerely; let us make amends and, if needed, restitution; let us sincerely vow to do better in the coming year, and let us know, and truly believe, that we can apply ourselves to making tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow better.

We need not stand on the top step and chase after the Milk Bone only to plunge into the dark abyss again and again.  We can choose to live a life of hope and optimism.  We are P’nai Tikvah, the faces of hope.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Teichateimu

 

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz

Congregation P’nai Tikvah

Erev Rosh HaShanah 5775

24 September, 2014

 

Erev Rosh Hashanah Inspiration by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, Congregation P’nai Tikvah – the only Reconstructionist/Renewal synagogue serving the Las Vegas Valley.

 


[1] Based on a sermon by Rabbi Bradley Shavit  Artson:  “Untrammeled Future; Freedom and Becoming”

[2] Spinoza, Ehtics, in the Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, trans. R.H.M. Elwes (New York:  Dover, 1955), Definition VII., p. 48.

[3] Ibid, p. 129

[4] Rav Saadia Gaon, Sefer Emunot v’Dei-ot.