Look Who Thinks He’s Nothing


My remarks (see sermon, dvar Torah, shpiel) from shul this Shemini Atzeret at Kehilat Pardes in Rockville. Enjoy!

I was a philosophy major in college, so every once in a while, I look around my house for some of the books I read many years ago. And this time of year, during the high holidays, it’s not uncommon for me to resume my search. A little while ago I went looking for Sartre’s classic, Being and Nothingness. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find my copy – if anyone in the shul has got a copy, I’d be much obliged – but I was reminded of this great story, that you may already be familiar with.

One day, Sartre was walking through the French Quarter of Paris, taking a little ramble with his friend, Camus. They were discoursing on the matters of the day, when they happened upon a rather bohemian looking man, standing out in the square, beating his chest. That’s an odd sight, they thought. So they moved closer. And they moved closer and closer until they could actually hear what the man was saying. He was beating, beating, beating his chest saying: I’m nothing, I’m nothing, I’m nothing.
And Sartre glances over at Camus and deadpans: Look who thinks he’s nothing.

So this is, I think, a perfect story for these final days of the Jewish holidays of this fall season. And it’s a great story – though it has never actually been confirmed – because these are days that are full of meaning. Days of contemplation. Considering who we are, what we wish to be, and our relationship to God.

The question, Who am I? is very much on our minds in this season.
[bending over – – – I’m nothing, I’m nothing]

It’s sounds pretty bleak, right. Actually, it isn’t bleak at all. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be. Nothingness seems like a bad thing because of the associations we’ve developed with the word over time. We’re familiar with the expression “to make something” of yourself. The point being that if you are something, or somebody, that’s a good thing. If you are nothing, or nobody. Very bad.

But this is, I believe, a rendering of the word that lacks imagination. A rendering that is unnecessarily limiting. And one that our good friend Jean Paul Sarte would thoroughly disapprove of. An entirely different approach is to see nothingness as no-thing-ness. That is, you are more than just one thing, that as a human being, you are so much more than your religion, your sex, your sexual orientation or how good your front lawn looks.
We’re not one-dimensional beings. That goes for what people see on the outside, and it applies just as much to our insides, what we’re feeling. Emotions are funny things, and most of us wish they were a little less funny, that we weren’t so contingent on external forces for our happiness. But that’s the thing about nothingness on the inside: we don’t like to feel nothing on the inside, so we allow our insides to be filled up – with emotions, with thoughts. It’s quite natural, after all.

But we often don’t like the thoughts and feelings that come up, and as a result, can feel something akin to shame and heaviness. I’ll give you an example. There is a well-known condition that is exhibited throughout the Jewish population in Tishrei, and also in Nissan, and it’s called The Second Day Yuntiff blues. This is a malady that is usually accompanied by too much eating, long days, and “I don’t know what to do with myself-IT IS.” Now the main problem with this phenomenon, the “Second Day Yuntiff Blues” is really that we often feel bad about ourselves for having it.

Oh, I really shouldn’t feel negative about Shemini Atseret, is how the thinking goes. After all, the King desired us so much, he wanted us to stay on a little longer . . . But on the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with the thought “I’m kind of done with this.” Because a single thought is like a passing cloud. It doesn’t have solidity. No lasting essence or effect. It’s really NO THING.

But we do choose whether we’re going to linger there. Whether we’re going to milk the disaffection and tiredness or take a kind of meditative approach to these thoughts and say “Aha, THINKING” and then choose the mental stance we want to take with respect to the chag. It doesn’t mean to be a cheerleader for Judaism, per se, but there is some version of Choose Life that I think applies here. You don’t have to be a Pollyanna. But you can choose to fill your life with good stuff. And, since I’m still obsessed with Hamilton the Musical, I’ll add a favorite line here: Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now.

My friend and teacher, Erica Pelman, said in the name of Rami Shapiro that when Kohelet refers to hevel [haval havelim] – Vanity of vanities – another way to read this is Empty, Emptiness. Now I know we often see emptiness like we see nothingness, as a bad thing.

But if it’s empty, we get to choose how we fill it up. This is ultimately the redemptive message of Judaism, and by the way, of existentialism. That while each of us doesn’t get to choose who our parents or where we grow up. We can observe our thoughts dispassionately and with curiosity. And, at the right time, we can choose which thoughts to nurture, and which to simply observe and see what happens.

Sof davar, havel havalim, it’s all empty. Let’s do as many good deeds as we can, be gentle with ourselves, and with others. All the rest is commentary.
Gud yuntiff.

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On Hamilton (& opening wider my own heart)

hamilton-credit-joan-1-1-qnck5frg-78029476I’ve shared a few messages recently on Facebook about Hamilton so some folks may know that I’m more than a little obsessed with this most American and modern of musicals. But why does it touch me so, and why now?

Frankly, a host of elements all combine and conspire to slay me > emotionally, aesthetically, musically, philosophically. & I’m thankful to Hillel Broder for helping me, over #ISTE17 drinks, to hone in on some of the subjective agents that may be at work. One, I reckon myself a student of American history with a particular bent for the Revolutionary period. I am in awe of the Founding Fathers/Brothers and yearn to know more about their lives even though I no longer idolize them (that is, make an idol of them for worship, for there is only one entity worthy of worship). I grew up, like so many of my fellow citizens of a certain age, on hip hop, so the lyrical pacings that are at once staccato and smooth fall on my ears in just the right way, like raindrops on good soil. And I’ve always liked musicals. West Side Story and Jesus Christ Superstar were the cultural mother’s milk in some of my early formative years, and I heartily sang the role of Jesus to my brother’s Judas in his bedroom on many occasions growing up. The sentimentality, kitsch, and absurdity of musicals resonate with me strongly, and I don’t know whether this resonance is somehow innate or whether early exposure to the genre caused it. No matter, it’s a part of me now.

Carmiya and I often talk about whether you have to have had a certain experience in order to connect to others who may be going through that, like childbirth, death of a loved one, disease.  On one hand, it appears almost obvious that you have to walk in another person’s shoes to fully understand them. Yet I can’t help but think that this position reflects a lack of imagination. Must I have experienced a particular type of loss, say the loss of a child, God forbid, to relate to that experience in another? What does it mean to connect to another person anyway, to understand them?

Ultimately, every object of our attention is like an onion whose layers can be perceived and peeled back. And my experience with Hamilton over the last few weeks is gloriously like this. Each listening reveals something new. Today, on the flight back from San Antonio to DC, I followed the lyrics song by song as I listened to the entire first act. I realized more fully than I had before a series of parallels that unwind as the story unfolds: between Alexander and Eliza. And Burr. And remarkably, tragically, Philip. I cannot see how it is possible for a person to experience Hamilton without gaining an appreciation for the patriots who gave birth to our country, and an appreciation simply for difference. The show paints wholly distinct characters so fully and subjectively that I imagine when on that glorious day that I finally see Hamilton in the theater, clapping my hands at the end so vigorously that my hands hurt, that I will all the while feeling a numb sense of connection to the others in the audience b/c of our undeniable subjectivity & humanness.

And maybe this is why, to me, Hamilton is so sublime. It helps to achieve something akin to meditation. At least, it’s like meditation when I’m doing it “well.” Meditation has the capacity to transform something in us where we are timeless – out of the grip of time and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. When we are knowingly outside of our selves and our stories that we might connect most directly, even if only in our minds, to the subjectivity of others, that they experience pain, discomfort, and longing just as we do. And they deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as we do. That we can help bring this about through meditation or through acting for the sake of others.  I think of how Alice Walker describes what Pema Chodron, the renowned and my personally favorite Buddhist nun, has helped her to do:

… how to keep opening wider [her] own heart.

This is what Hamilton does for me, and I love it.

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I’m shocked, shocked that others don’t agree with me.

So unless Abraham Lincoln himself runs in the General, I’m voting for Hillary Clinton if she is the Democratic nominee. Folks are welcome to chime in but #ImWithHer and all is good in my world. But the funny thing is that it is so clear to me that she is the best candidate that I’m puzzled that others don’t agree with me. Now I won’t go here into all the reasons why I support her (“though they are many, and weighty and deserve to prevail..”). What I really want to say is that the fact that I am bewildered why others don’t share my strong feelings is itself the best reason to suspend judgment about the judgments of others, as much as possible. Seewhatimsayin?  That is, if something is so clear to me but is clearly not shared by countless others, isn’t that a good reason not to take yourself and your thoughts so seriously?  There are exceptions of course, #NeverTrump chief among them, but it’s always good to remind yourself that it’s a big world out there and folks should be pretty free to learn their own lessons.  As Janie said, “You got tuh go there tuh know there.” Amen.

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Why Write?

I have felt an increasing pressure and desire recently to start writing in a blog.  Sure, there is a good deal of personal branding involved in the decision < taking the opportunity to participate in and inform the discourse around topics that concern me > but it’s not all instrumental or goal-oriented.  I think the greater attraction is simply the interest in “joining the discussion,” as we are commonly invited to do through various media and social media channels.

But there was something in Josh Roiland’s beautiful review of Joan Didion’s recent biography that pushed me over the edge.  She is quoted as saying this to a 1975 Cal Berkeley audience:

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.

Boom.  That captures the better part of my fascination with writing generally and with keeping a blog in particular .  So there, I have taken my own little step to joining the conversation and encourage you to do the same.

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Here it comes . . .

First blog post is a comin’ . . . Check back soon.

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