April 2, 2020

Thoughts on the Days of Awe – Live the Light, Be Strong

Thoughts on the Days of Awe

Live the Light, and Be Strong

Nixon was a Capricorn. And so was Jesus.

I vaguely remember the day, I must have been around nine or so, when I found out I was a Capricorn. Someone in my family was reading the Astrology section in the newspaper, and I was curious. In the ensuing conversation I found out what I was. Of course, I read up on myself every day for a while. Then I read up on other people in the Astrology section. Hmm. Some days, apparently, I was someone else. Then I read an article about famous Capricorns, Richard Nixon being one of them. In my home, that was slightly worse than Satan being a Capricorn. “Not good,” I thought. Then I heard that Jesus was a Capricorn.

I became skeptical about the determinative power of morally indifferent constellations in the sky when I was born. By the time I was in high school, when people asked me what my sign was, I would say something like “Falling Rocks Ahead.”

I did not realize that my juvenile skepticism about this deeply held belief of others matched a struggle in Jewish thought. On one hand there is great animosity against fatalism in general and Astrology in particular in Jewish thought. Commenting on Genesis 15:5, where God “takes Abraham outside”, the Midrash says (Genesis Rabbah 44:12) that God took Abraham out of the world, above the stars, and had him look down, to see the starts from above. God says to Abraham: “You are a prophet, not an astrologer.” In essence, the Midrash there teaches that the constellations don’t rule the lives of the people of Israel. Maimonides, our greatest jurist, philosopher and mystic, reviled Astrology. On the other hand, there are many, many sources that teach about great scholars and mystics who were Astrologers. Honestly, I don’t get it.

As some of you might remember, I was a committed Existentialist by the time I was in 9th grade (too much Camus and Sartre, way too young). I was familiar with the idea of “bad faith”, disowning our freedom. According to Existentialism, we human beings take on faith systems that tell us that everything is ordained, everything is planned, foretold, God’s will, whatever, because the idea that that we are free, and therefore accountable, is too much to behold. We would rather consult the stars or blame something else for why we are the way we are, than face our terrible freedom.

Why are you as you are? Not the stars. Some mixture of four things: your genes (your personality), your childhood before language, everything that has happened since (from the family on out), and your history of decisions, conscious and unconscious. And especially this decision: what you decide you will become, starting tomorrow (I say this so can sleep on it). You won’t change by tomorrow. But you can start.

You become free when you take ownership of your decisions, when, as much as possible, you bring to light the world of unconscious habits, unconscious decisions, and own them. You are who you are because of the patterns within, not the patterns in the night time sky.

Deliberate, reflect, evaluate, and decide. Is some decision good for righteousness and inner well-being – yes or no? Confused? Decide to figure it out. The process of regaining freedom is slow and it is painful, but it is the path to authenticity.

Does God or fate play a role in any of this? Maybe, but only clearly in the rear-view mirror. People tell me that something was fated, or God’s will. “How do you know?” I ask. “Because it happened”, I am solemnly informed. “So, everything that happens is God’s will?” I ask. You can imagine how and where the conversation goes from there. Evil is the least of it.

Freedom is the most of it. Yes, sometimes, I do detect the light of God shining on a path before me, but I have to decide to take that path. And I might be wrong.

We would not have Days of Awe committed to Teshuvah, the path out of regret and remorse toward repair and righteousness, if we human beings always took the lighted path before us, or if everything were pre-ordained.

The High Holy Days, our Days of Awe, are rooted in the idea of radical freedom. On one hand, we are taught that there is a Book of Life in which our fate is inscribed, but then we are taught that “Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedakah” can alter the severe decree. There are many things outside of our control, but what remains, for most us, determines our quality of life. Your life is fated until you do something about it.

The Midrash teaches that we live above the stars. The light that shines into us is directly from the Divine. Live that light – be strong – and use these days to recover our freedom, into lives of righteousness and well-being.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tova!

Rabbi Mordecai Finley

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