CULTURAL JUDAISM and THE PAIN OF MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: A YOM KIPPUR STORY

baseball-fiedl-under-lightsNo joke; there was an article from the Washington Post that this year, on Yom Kippur, Jews might have to make some serious sacrifices. Baseball playoffs could potentially coincide with the “Day of Atonement,” and Jews from the respective cities might have to decide between baseball and Yom Kippur. For college football fans, abstaining from attending or watching the game would be another great sacrifice. The article (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/whats-a-faithful-jew-to-do-the-yom-kippur-baseball-dilemma/2014/09/18/c3319b7a-3f5c-11e4-b03f-de718edeb92f_story.html) was well written and honestly I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry.
There were a few troubling lines in the piece. The author relates, “Even nonobservant Jews try to keep what is known as “the Day of Atonement” somewhat holy, going to synagogue, fasting, and minimizing earthly activities like television or work.”
First of all, who is the author calling “nonobservant?” It sounds pretty observant to me attempt to keep the “Day of Atonement” somewhat holy. In 2014, perhaps we should say it’s a beautiful thing that we suffer the agony of trying to choose a clear and present love (like sports) over a distant love, like Judaism.
At least in California, no one calls themselves “nonobservant.” Here, we call it “cultural.” No one likes to be “non” anything besides non-smoking (tobacco only of course). In fact, “cultural” is the single greatest category with which Jewish people I meet identify themselves. Now here’s a question. What’s cultural about what we do? In modern America, it’s hard to say anything we do is ‘culturally’ Jewish. After all, what makes up a culture. Food? Language? Clothes? We don’t speak Yiddish, we don’t really dress anymore “Jewish” than our non-Jewish neighbors (I see my neighbors also wear Lacoste), most of us don’t eat lox and bagels now because of the carbs, and I haven’t heard Chassidic music being blasted at the local parties…so what makes us even culturally Jewish?
When asked what it means to be a cultural Jew, people tell me, “well, I go to services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.” Or “I support Israel.” I hear things like “I try to be honest,” “I try be a good person,” and “I take responsibility for my community (tikkun olam).” Some people define their cultural Judaism as going to Shabbat dinner (especially if they’ve eaten the food my wife makes). My dear friends, since when is this Jewish culture? I’ll let you in on a little secret. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A JEWISH CULTURE!!! Our culture changes depending on where in the exile we go. Go ask a traditional Sephardic family to have gefilte fish. Try putting on Sephardic music for a group of Ashkenazi grandmothers. We’re talking about different “cultures” entirely!
However, if you’d sit down a group of Jews from across the world, from different social classes and age groups, and you tell them that the Torah teaches us to try to be better people, admit when we’re wrong, say we’re sorry, respect other people, and take responsibility for our world, no matter who they are or where they come from, they’ll relate. There’s nothing cultural about it because they aren’t from the same culture. It’s something deeper. It’s us, it’s who we are UNDERNEITH THE CULTURE that identifies us as Jews. Yes, once you get rid of the Drake, the bright colored fratty shorts, and boat shoes, the kindness you practice, the greatness to which you aspire is the same kindness and greatness that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob did. They’re recognize YOU!
Today, religion is a dirty word, for backwards people, who never studied science. Thank you, I’ve been there before too. Atheism and agnosticism is as cool now as it was 5,000 years ago. It’s freedom. So let’s not use the word “religious” because it makes you uncomfortable. But don’t fool yourself to think that you’re culturally Jewish, or even nonobservant Jewish, if there’s even a TINGE of guilt when you consider if you should be spending Yom Kippur in synagogue or at the ballpark. You’re Jewish! And you feel guilty. Take a number.
As my rabbi told me, “Call a spade a spade.” Yom Kippur isn’t a day that most of us look forward to with a tremendous amount of joy. There are no 40 course meals like there are on Shabbat, no crunchy matzah, no bar mitzvah presents. As one of my students said, “You go to synagogue for SIX HOURS AND YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND ANYTHING.” Maybe the rabbi will get up and makes a few jokes and some ‘words of inspiration.’ You’re so hungry. When can we eat? My feet hurt. What page are we on? If you sang less, the service would go faster. Wait, what? There’s more praying? I can’t read Hebrew! The English makes no sense—who will live and who will die???
Most of the so called “nonobservant Jews” that the author of the Washington Post article writes about see themselves as Isiah’s “suffering servant” on Yom Kippur (yes, it’s a Jewish concept). They might have to sacrifice baseball or football to attend services. Or go to the game with a heavy conscience. WHY ARE THEY CALLED NONOBSERVANT? An OBSERVANT Jew is one that deals with guilt, or sacrifice, when it comes to being who they are. That’s what makes us GREAT. Is it a SACRIFICE when we pass over making money if we’d have to be dishonest? Yes. Is it a sacrifice when we put the needs of our parents, and our friends, and our spouses over our own? Yes! Our collective family inheritance is the ability to sacrifice comfort to embrace our ideals.
I told my rabbi I was unhappy because I wasn’t as good as I could be. He said if I didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t be Jewish. Being bothered. Feeling guilty. Wanting to be better. Knowing we can be better. Willing to sacrifice to be better. These are concepts that are universal Jewish yearnings long before our current culture, and they will go on long after our modern chapter closes. These are eternal concepts. They’ll be here when the skinny jeans are gone. And the bent iPhone6 pluses.
See, we’re just all Jews. And we have to deal with the fact that there will be things we want that we shouldn’t have. Or actions we do that we shouldn’t have done. And the really crazy thing is that deep down inside, we know when we’re wrong. We make a lot of noise though, and act very deliberately, so that the rest of the world doesn’t see us second guessing ourselves.
If we didn’t have to sacrifice, or worry about missing out, we’d never become excellent. See, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) is the key to living an amazing life. You REALLY can’t do everything. Believe it or not, if you spend your life on your phone, you’ll miss the sunset. If you watch the sunset, you’ll miss your favorite show. If you eat the donut, you’ll miss seeing your toes. You can’t do it all. No one can. But learning to love making choices, and learning to love the FOMO, which FORCES you to choose, is the secret to becoming great.
When you know you can’t do everything, you pick doing what’s important. What you love, or what you need to do. And if you don’t make the right choices or have the right priorities, you get that gnawing feeling that you’re not becoming who you’re meant to become. You’ve gone off course. So you have to redirect. Or keep on your wrong course because it’s too scary to change (don’t do that please).
The most scary FOMO in the world is not being the best person you can be. Not becoming a champion. Its recognizing you did miss your “moment.” You made the wrong choice. But guess what? Judaism says a righteous person falls SEVEN times. That means if you don’t make mistakes, and get up and keep going, you’ll never be great. The secret is that failure is part of the process. Learn to love that you can mess up. If you can mess up, you can fix it. That’s Yom Kippur. It’s a chance to refocus on our goal to be great.
Deep down, cultural or not cultural Jews that we are, we all want to be great. That’s why we love sports. It’s like a religion to some. And for those that don’t worship sports, they worship something else that gives them a sense of greatness. We love winners, however we quantify them. We love idolizing those that made it in whatever way we define success.
There’s a pleasure out there even greater than your team winning the World Series or the Super Bowl. It’s YOU winning the Super Bowl or World Series. Problem is most of us don’t play professional ball. Your team winning is someone else doing the work, and you taking the win. Making a billion dollars yourself is better than working for the guy who made a billion dollars. Sure, proximity to success is fun, but it’s not AS fun as having it yourself.
But you have to believe you can do it. And you have to cut out things that hold you back from doing it. And it’s not easy to close doors. It’s not easy to not go do everything you want. The highway to greatness is strewn with the unfocused people looking to invest little of themselves, make it big quickly, and get out. Focus, and drive, and commitment, and believing in yourself gets you the greatness.
And at the finish line, when you played your heart out, you’ll be surprised to find the “Higher Power” saying “I knew you could make it all along.” The biggest favor the “Higher Power” gave us was Yom Kippur, where we could admit we’d messed up, get a little FOMO, and get back on the right path. That’s pretty important, and it might be hard to reflect on that when you’re watching a ball cross the plate or someone ELSE running into the end zone. Just a thought.
May we be sealed for a year of life, happiness, peace, and success.

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