Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Rosh Hashana 5768 - a Message against Despair

Sometimes the best laid plans go to waste. Sometimes we miss opportunities. Sometimes we feel we simply don’t control our lives. Sometimes, or perhaps once a year, we need to think about where we're headed, whether we're going in the right direction, and whether we're where we want to be.

In a speech last April,
David Grossman describes the emotional desensitization caused by living in a war zone, the dangers of becoming ‘nationalized and confiscated by the conflict, by governments and armies, by despair and tragedy.' He talks about the void growing ever so slowly between the individual human being and the external, violent and chaotic situation he lives in and which is being filled with apathy, cynicism and despair: Despair of the possibility of ever changing the prevailing state of affairs, of ever being redeemed from it.

On a similar theme but set in a completely different time and place, Amos Oz describes his aunt’s feelings of growing up amongst the Gentiles in 1930s Poland.

"A thousand times it was hammered in to the head of every Jewish child that we must not irritate them, or hold our heads up, and we must only speak to them quietly, with a smile, so they shouldn’t say we were noisy, and we must always speak to them in good correct Polish, so they couldn’t say we were defiling the language, but we must speak in Polish that was too high, so they couldn’t say we had ambitions above our station and Heaven forbid they should say we had stains on our skirts. In short, we had to try very hard to make a good impression…You who were born here in Israel can never understand how this constant drip drip distorts all your feelings, how it corrodes your human dignity like rust…"

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what country people live in. To paraphrase that 1980s
Bonnie Tyler song, every now and then we all experience a partial eclipse of the heart, a clogging up of our feelings, like the sticky goo in the British anti smoking adverts that somehow blocks our emotional arteries, prevents us from truly feeling…from truly becoming who we are meant to be.

Rosh Hashana for me, is about trying to unclog the muck, to purify our hearts to allow us to feel, to rid the void within us of despair and apathy and fill it with hope, to ignore those aspects of our environment that impede us from becoming who we really are, to overcome the ‘corr
osion of human dignity’ and the ‘void of despair and apathy.’

In short to do Teshuva, to ‘return’ to ourselves, to who we are supposed to be.

Grossman and Oz raise a challenge that we should be answering – how to face a painful reality yet continue to feel, how to face a world that rejects us yet remain true to ourselves. How to experience disappointment yet not become apathetic to the suffering of others. How to find enough room in our hearts to care about domestic violence in Lod and road accidents in Rahat, to feel for the children of Sderot and Bet find the courage to ignore what the goyim may think.

Yet the message of Rosh Hashana is the opposite of Grossman’s ‘despair of ever changing our prevailing state of affairs’. Instead it teaches us that if we’re not happy with the type of person we are, we have the power to change. If we’re not satisfied with the society in which we live, we have the power to make a difference.

On the anniversary of humanity’s creation when each person and nation needs to answer God’s everlasting question of איכה – where are you, let me wish anyone that still visits this site after 5 weeks without a fresh post a happy new year filled with renewed ability to return to ourselves, to unclog our arteries and to believe the radical idea that if our lives or society or country or world aren’t the way we would like, the power lies within us to effect change.

Shana Tova

(for anyone interested in seeing how my writing has regressed in the past year, click
here to check out my 2 Rosh Hashana posts from last year)


ohad said...

great post!! i haven't read your post for a while' and i must tell u- i missed it!
shana tova gibor.

Anonymous said...

Shana Tova mate, nice piece of writing.

I thought about this unclogging process you were talking about.

Many years ago I read a book considered to be the cornerstone of chabbad thought (although Im not a chabbad fan myself, the book itself was quite interesting). Its called Sefer ha Tanya.

One of the main core parts of the book dealt with using your mind to control your emotions.

This process, once accomplished, in the authors view, makes the individual a gibor (hero).

Reading your post made me ponder this once again, because Im not sure I agree with it in the first place.

Lets say that

the heart is the seat of your emotions.

the mind is more concerned with rational, logical thought.

I think "unclogging" the heart and mind means getting to the point where you can use your heart and mind in concert.

Once should not suffocate the other.

Too much emotion clouds your reason.

Too much reason makes you, well, emotionally constipated.

From a decision making point of view, and from a receiving and processing of information point of view (in terms of how you perceive that information and react to it) it makes more sense, I think, to use your heart and mind equally.

Im not entirely sure that theyre so segregated from each other in the first place, even in a metaphorical sense.

Hopefully, doing this, using your heart and mind equally, will allow people to live happier lives by making better decisions and perceptions in their lives.

Shana Tov, have a great fast everyone and thanks Calev for providing us with thought provoking reading even if you think your writting has regressed.
Often its the the simple things in life that make us think and ponder.

Calev said...

Ohad (as mentioned in last year's Blog Post) glad you like!


I tend to agree with you in that the balance between head and heart is extremely important (and extremely difficult) – I know for myself this is an issue I still haven’t mastered.

What I meant by unclogging was trying to rid ourselves of the ambivalence that living in Israel can cause. After all – how many different things can we care about at the same time? Can we really worry about car accidents or the sex trade when we have this conflict with the Palestinians hanging over us? Can we care about poverty when we are potentially worried about getting on the bus? Can we care about Palestinian civilians when children in Sderot are suffering every day?

I'm not sure it's possible, but I understand Grossman as trying to say that living in a war zone inevitably numbs our emotions. Its something ive written about before and and something i constantly think about in my life here.

Perhaps our job is to try and open ourselves to the possibility of caring and feeling and identifying with other peoples' pain – unclogging our indifference…and most importantly, not giving in to despair that we have no ability to change the world we live in. THAT in my opinion, is the really radical idea behind Teshuva.

Thanks for your thoughts

Shana Tova


Anonymous said...


I agree, point well made.

What Im suggesting is that all these issues can be viewed and potentialy mastered by simply taking a step back and dealing with the process which we use to sift though and react to information.

If we try to react to our surroundings here in Israel, in the broadest sense, I really think we can make our lives much easier by:

Make decisions using our heads and hearts in concert and in a positive way.

E.g. Do I feel scared getting on this bus? Does that override my need to live my life and move about so that I can at least function? If I dont get on the bus I'll just sit on the beach all day (not necessarily a bad thing but a little boring after a while). On the other hand it may explode. Decision time.

E.g. Your senses feel numb from watching the violence on telly, or experiencing it on miluim. Does it make sense to let it upset you for a protracted period of time? Decision time once again.

At the end of the day I really feel that positive thought (the head) and positive feeling (the heart) helps us to:
1).First of all process information we receive correctly and in a way that something positive can come out of it, and 2).Secondly react positively in terms of our decision making process.

Life is here for living. Theres nothing wrong with taking a calculated risk.

There is however something very wrong with vexing all the time and avoiding decisions, or repeating bad decisions.

I know this place is a little overwhelming for some, but having been born in a country where the crime rate is throught the roof and where the level of violence makes Israel look safe, I can honestly say, from my side, its really not all that bad here.

I moved from the country where I was born a few years ago to another country where everything is really quite safe and works very well.

To be honest it felt quite robotic.

I then moved to Israel.

Theres something human going on here, simply because things dont work 100%.

When friends of mine feel overwhelmed by this place I often relate a story to them I saw on TV some time ago.

A while after the conflict broke out in Sudan I saw a special on the news about a little boy, under the age of 10, who had watched his village get burned to the ground, his father killed and mother and sisters gang raped.

He fled during the fighting and ended up in a semi-desert area.

He survived for a couple of days before some aid workers picked him up.

It may sound funny, but whenever Im faced with a daunting situation, no matter what it may be, I always remember that little boys face.

What he went thought makes our daily trials and tribulations pale in contrast.

Something to think about.

Have a good fast mate

Yehudi01 said...

Chag sameach! I love the blog! I will link us up and I'll be back often to read your latest! My wife and I are making aliyah soon, so I enjoyed reading about your experience. Keep up the great work! L'Shalom...