Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why relationships are all about meaning-making - Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2013

A man named Honi the Circle Drawer appears in several stories in the Talmud. One of these stories is particularly famous, or at least the first part of the story is, and you might recognize it. Here is the original story as told in the Talmud:

R. Yohanan said: This righteous man [Honi] was throughout the whole of his life troubled about the meaning of the verse, "A Song of Ascents, When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like unto them that dream. (Psalm 126:1)" [This verse is talking about the exile of the Jews after the destruction of the 1st temple. The elite were exiled in Babylonia for 70 years, and then permitted to return to Jerusalem.]

Honi wondered, ‘Is it possible for a man to dream continuously for seventy years?’ One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.

Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed him which hid him from sight and he continued to sleep for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him, Are you the man who planted this tree? The man replied: I am his grandson.

Now, that is the famous part of the story, and many times when we tell the story, it ends there. There are children’s picture books that tell this story. If I wanted to give a sermon about sustainability or the environment, or other aspects of preparing our world for future generations, this would be a fine story, and a fine place to end the story. However, the story in the Talmud does not end here. The next part of the story does not belong in the children’s picture books.

After the exchange with the grandson of the carob tree planter, Honi exclaimed: It is clear that I slept for seventy years. He then caught sight of his ass who had given birth to several generations of mules and he returned home. He there inquired, ‘Is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive?’ The people answered him, ‘His son is no more, but his grandson is still living.’ Thereupon he said to them: ‘I am Honi the Circle Drawer’, but no one would believe him. He then repaired to the Beit Hamidrash – the House of Study and there he overheard the scholars say, ‘The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle Drawer for whenever he came to the Beit Hamidrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty that they had.’ Whereupon Honi called out, ‘I am he!’. But the scholars would not believe him nor did they give him the honor due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed [for death] and he died. Raba said: Hence the saying, ‘Either companionship or death.’ (B. Taanit 23a)

What an intensely sad story. I feel a knot in my stomach every time I read this story.

Honi seems to be saying…

Either give me companionship – connection and relationship with other human beings who know me and see me for who I am – or I might as well be dead. I catch my breath as it taps into a very deep place for me. It takes me to the lonely moments of my life, when I have felt isolated and invisible.

I think that more than anything else in the world, when I enter into the emotional sphere of thinking about broken relationships, or times when I have felt alienated, I find myself being dragged down into a dark place. The place from which Honi felt so desperate and alone that he prayed for death. I think of the Beatles lyrics from ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – ‘All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?’

At Rosh Hashanah we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life – the antithesis of Honi’s prayer for death. I have often taught that our prayer to be inscribed in the Book of Life is, in fact, an inner call to ourselves – that we rededicate ourselves to living each day as fully as we can, being as much of our essential selves as we can be.

But if alienation and a life without relationship to others is a kind of death, then perhaps our prayer to be inscribed in the Book of Life is also an inner call to ourselves to live a life that prioritizes our relationships and connections to others. Relationship and connection are the themes that I will be exploring throughout this entire High Holyday season, and which I wish to begin examining more deeply this evening.

I truly believe that it ultimately comes down to nothing less than the meaning of life itself. The meaning of life lies in something we deeply know -- in connection and in relationship. But if we know that – why is it so difficult to pull off? Why are there so many of us sitting here who can relate to that dark, painful place within because of a relationship with a member of family or an old friend that has become broken? Or because we don’t have as rich a network of connections with others as we would like? Perhaps we’ve had a hard time making meaningful connections with others in this congregation? Perhaps most of the time we push it far from our minds as we get on with the task of living, remaining connected to others whose interactions with us are less messy and complicated. But it only takes a moment to let those damaged or broken relationships come to the forefront of our minds, or those times when we’ve walked into a room full of people and haven’t found a group of people with whom it’s easy and comfortable to join the conversation, than we immediately feel the pain again.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, Co-President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL),
has produced a series of TV segments called ‘Simple Wisdom’. They are all available online. In sharing his ‘simple wisdom’ on relationships, he quotes Robert Wuthnow, who teaches at Princeton, explaining how it is that we experience the meaning of life as rooted in connection and relationship:

“If you listen to this, I promise you – you will never forget what meaning is again. I want you to think of cooking. Think of yourself cooking. By the way, for some of you the very idea of cooking may actually be meaningful. But just cooking. Now I want you to think of yourself cooking for your family or some close friends. Which is more meaningful – just cooking or cooking for your family or friends? Now think about this – you’re cooking for your family – using a recipe from your grandmother and you’re remembering her as you’re cooking. Again, which is more meaningful … cooking any old - or new – recipe or cooking bubbe’s recipe? Now think about this. You’re cooking – you’re cooking for your family – using a recipe from your grandmother as you remember her and, while you’re cooking, you’re also making some extra food for your neighbor who is sick and homebound. Do you see how each level is more meaningful?

That’s what meaning is, what Wuthnow calls spheres of relevance – how many spheres of relevance, how many frameworks can any individual act have? And the more spheres of relevance, the more connections to other people, the deeper the meaning of the act is, and that’s true with any act – whether it’s exercise, whether it’s walking in the park, whether it’s going to work, or whether it’s cooking – every act, if you can use your imagination, begins to connect to more and more spheres of relevance and the more spheres, the more meaning.”

The Presbyterian minister and writer, Frederick Buechner, writes: “You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.” Relationships with family and friends are the pathways to a world of meaning. To live a meaningful life, therefore, we must do all that we can to tend and care for these pathways.

We Jews don’t have the conventional picture of heaven and hell in our tradition (if you’d like to know more about that, please do join me for my adult ed course this Fall on Death and the afterlife in Jewish thought). But I am sure many of you are familiar with the popular parable about the man who dies and, before entering heaven, asks if he may see what hell looks like. He is taken to a banqueting hall with a long table laid out with a sumptuous feast. But then he notices that the people at the table have long forks strapped to their arms such that, even though they can put food on the forks, they cannot reach their mouths to enjoy the feast. The man is then taken up to heaven and he enters a room that looks identical to hell. He cannot understand – the same banqueting table and the same feast, and the people here also have long forks strapped to their arms. But then he looks closer and he realizes that, in heaven, the people have learnt that they can enjoy the feast together when, instead of trying to get the fork into their own mouth, they turn and feed each other.

The only difference between heaven and hell is that, in heaven, the people have learnt how to live in relationship with each other. Honi calls to us, ‘Give me companionship and connection!’

That is what it means to live in relationship. We do not want life to be a living hell. So we must do all that we can to nourish each other. May this New Year bring healing to our relationships with family and friends, and open up new possibilities and new connections. And may these renewed connections also be inscribed in our Book of Life.

This year, deepening relationships and creating connections form not only the themes of my High Holyday sermons and services, but also the beginning of a prolonged effort within the context of our congregation to create opportunities for members to connect and get to know each other better. But I don’t want to spend our worship time talking about this as an idea, a vision, and a hope, important though those things are. Today, tomorrow, on Yom Kippur, Succot and Simchat Torah, the largest number of our congregation pass through this building and spend time together. And yet, especially if you do not avail yourself of the opportunities to sit together for one of the community meals that we are offering on each of these days, you can easily sit through services and leave and not have connected with a single soul. I don’t want that to be your experience this High Holydays. If we’re going to commit ourselves to creating more opportunities for meaningful connection with each other, what are we waiting for?

So, tonight is your first invitation. You may have to turn behind you or in front. You may have to get up and switch seats for a few moments. But please, take the time to find someone that you don’t already know, or don’t know well. Think back to the example of cooking, and Wuthnow’s spheres of relevance. Think of an everyday activity – it might be cooking, or it could be driving, reading, listening to music, going out to a show, watching sports, taking a walk, going to the beach …. Think about how that activity becomes more meaningful because of the people you are with, a story about a specific occasion you were doing this activity, a memory of this activity with a family member in year’s past. Introduce yourself to the person you have turned to, share your example and, in doing so, let them learn a little bit about you, your family, your background, where you’ve come from, what and who you love …

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