November 19, 2018

Intention and Judgment on the High Holidays

Most of the time, I’m pretty wrapped up in my own life, so I decided I wanted to do something for somebody else.  However, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do or how much time I wanted to commit to it, so I decided to join New York Cares.  New York Cares is a New York City project that allows people to volunteer to work for a certain block of time in one of a wide variety of projects.  A person can volunteer once or more frequently, based on their schedule and interest.  Since my day job is in the legal field, I wanted to do something completely different when volunteering.  New York Cares’ volunteer opportunities to do cleanup work in City parks sounded like the perfect opportunity. I would do physical work, with none of the reading and writing I normally dealt with at my office job.

When I started my shift, the work was just what I’d hoped for. I was weeding, sweeping and shoveling. Just me and the land. Although there was some conversation with other volunteers, it was limited. While I was working, I was so focused on the pathway I was cleaning that I hadn’t really paid attention to the park itself. When I stopped for a break and looked around, I noticed a sapling with a protective fence around it. What called my attention to it was that attached to the fence was a photograph of a boy, most likely in his teens. A sign saying “Sammy – may he live in our memories” was underneath the photograph, and flowers and stuffed animals were attached to the fence, surrounding the photograph and sign.

It was clear that this was a memorial for some young man who had recently died.  Yet my first thought was not how tragic it was that someone so young had died with his whole life ahead of  him, nor how heartbreaking his death must have been to his loved ones. Rather, my first thought was “this looks like something private individuals rather than the park put up.  I’ll bet it’s illegal.”  Soon after, I had another thought, which was: “You are heartless. The family and friends of this poor young man are paying tribute to him, and all you can think of are petty rules?”

I went back to work, and for awhile, I felt ashamed of my initial reaction to the shrine and sad for the people who had put up the tribute. But then another thought came to me: If everyone who suffered a personal loss put up a memorial in a park, parks would look like cemeteries instead of parks, and no one would be able to enjoy their beauty and tranquility.  After all, isn’t paying tribute to the dead what cemeteries are for? So maybe my initial reaction wasn’t  so wrong.

I then realized that this inner debate was particularly appropriate to have now, when  the Jewish month of Elul is about to start.  That is because the High Holidays take place in the month of Elul, and that is when God’s two seemingly opposing attributes, mercy and judgment, are particularly in focus.  The dichotomy between these attributes plays out in each of us; our feelings as human beings on the one hand and the restrictions we put on them on the other are always to some extent in opposition. While Judaism has many rules to guide us in navigating the two, we play a part in this process as well.

An example that comes to mind is from a lecture I heard from Rabbi Yosef Veiner of Kehilas Shaar Hashamayim in Monsey. Rabbi Veiner recalled that a man once said to him that while there are mitzvos (commandments to do good deeds) and aveiros (sins), there are also actions that are neither. Rabbi Veiner disagreed and asked the man to give him an example. The man gave the example of when he was on the subway in the morning, just “spacing out.” Rabbi Veiner asked the man why he hadn’t brought some sort of Jewish book he could read from to fulfill the commandment to learn Torah when one can.  The man said that he was too tired to concentrate and needed time to just relax before starting work, which would require a lot of energy.  Rabbi Veiner said to the man, “in that case, when you relax on the subway you’re not doing an act that is neither a mitzvah nor an aveira. You are fulfilling the mitzvah of  sh’more nafshecha,” the commandment to take care of your health.

Although we pray to God to judge us on the High Holidays, the part we play in our judgment is in knowing the intention, or kavana, for what we do.  For who knows better than the above-mentioned man himself whether relaxing on the subway is a dereliction of the mitzvah to study Torah or a fulfillment of the mitzvah to take care of your health? And who knows better than I whether my concern over the legality of a shrine to a young man in a park is an act of cold-heartedness towards the young man or a show of concern for the public that needs the tranquil sanctuary of a park? The shadow from  the radio show of years past may know the evil that lurks in man’s hearts, but we know the light that shines there as well.  It is up to each of us to determine which of those two is what motivates our actions.

Shanah Tovah.