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.