August 19, 2019

The Poem That Leads Us Backwards

I would like to introduce you to a great poet. The poet’s name is Jonathan Reed. He won second place in AARP's U@50 video contest launched in 2007 for his video, Lost Generation. Contestants were asked to create a two minute video describing their vision of the future — what they believed that their lives would be like by the time they turned fifty.

This is a poem by Jonathan Reed.

I am part of a lost generation

and I refuse to believe that

I can change the world

I realize this may be a shock but
“Happiness comes from within”

is a lie, and

“Money will make me happy.”

So in 30 years I will tell my children

they are not the most important thing in my life

My employer will know that

I have my priorities straight because


is more important than


I tell you this

I will live in a country of my own making

In the future

Environmental destruction will be the norm

No longer can it be said that

My peers and I care about this earth

It will be evident that

My generation is apathetic and lethargic

It is foolish to presume that

There is hope.

Jonathan Reed’s poem is a pessimistic monologue about this current generation, about the fears that our own children and grandchildren harbor within themselves.

It is the voice of surrender to the future. It is the voice that says: I am not going to make a difference. We are not going to make a difference. There is no reason to even try. I will simply pursue a high status job, which I know will force me to sacrifice time with my children.

Or, not: Perhaps I will simply work at menial jobs, or at something that will allow me to express whatever is left of my creativity. It will not matter anyway, because the earth itself is doomed to ecological catastrophe.

And when you read that poem, do you have any doubt why there is such a spiritual hunger on the part of so many young people, who are tired of cynicism and who are searching for something that goes beyond themselves?

Is there any doubt why so many young people are coming to synagogues and churches, in a new way, with a new sacred agenda – to study sacred texts and to find meaning in their lives?

Now, perhaps, we can understand: why many young Jews find social justice to be the most appealing part of their own Jewish identities – because they don’t want to become the person in that poem.

In fact, Jonathan Reed actually intended for his poem to be read not only forwards, but backwards.

Here goes:

There is hope.
It is foolish to presume that my generation is apathetic and lethargic.
It will be evident that my peers and I care about this Earth.
No longer can it be said that environmental destruction will be the norm.
In the future I will live in a country of my making.
I tell you this – family is more important than work.
I have my priorities straight because my employer will know that they are not the most important thing in my life.
So in 30 years I will tell my children “money will make me happy” is a lie,
and “happiness comes from within.”
I realize this might be a shock, but I can change the world!
And I refuse to believe that I am a part of a lost generation.

You thought that life was meaningless? Wrong. Life is meaningful. You thought that we were stuck with the world as it is? Wrong. We can change the world into what it could be.

We come to synagogue looking for inspiration.

But that is because we are a people that has aspiration.

As Jews we cannot afford to simply look at the world and say: Oh, well. Whatever.

Jews don’t say: “whatever.”

Jews say: “what if?”

This evening of erev Rosh Hashanah begins the season of teshuvah.

We usually translate teshuvah as “repentance.” It means to feel a sense of contrition, to confess, to apologize, and to change. It means to go forward in your life.

And that is certainly one definition of teshuvah.

But I would like to offer you another definition of teshuvah this evening.

Perhaps teshuvah means: not that we move forward in our lives, but that we move backwards.

Because teshuvah comes from the word shuv, which means to return. To see where you are, and to feel a sense of discontent about where you are. It means to go back to the place where you once were – not geographically, perhaps, but spiritually. It means to retrace your steps. It means to go back to the inner place that really defines who you are.

It is like when you lose something. You lose your keys; what do you do? You retrace your steps, until you return to the place where you left them.

The same thing is true of faith. You lose your faith; you retrace your steps, until you return to the place where you left it.

And the same is true of your self. If you lose your self, you retrace your steps to the place where you lost it, and there you resolve to find it.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine in the 1930s, put it this way: “The primary role of teshuvah is for the person to return to himself, to the root of his soul, and from there to immediately return to God.”

Or, let me put it in quite a different way. There are times when our souls are so much in turmoil, that all we can do is (to use the imagery of the personal computer) hit control-alt-delete, and bring ourselves back to the way we were when we started. To return our souls to the original factory settings.

Or, to quote the Beatles, to get back to where you once belonged.

We are accustomed to thinking about the Book of Life. 

Now, imagine the Poem of Life.

Imagine that your life is a poem.

All of your life, you have been reading that poem going forward. And most of the time, that has worked out remarkably well.

But, perhaps, once a year during these Days of Awe, you don’t have to read that poem forwards.

You can read that poem backwards.

That could mean taking something negative, and turning it around, and making it positive.

Or, it could also mean: looking at your life; seeing where you are; not being entirely content where you are – and in your mind, going backwards.

Go back to the place where it was once all real for you.

Think of the ideals that you had.

Not the dreams, not the ambitions – this evening, just the ideals.

And go back to that place.

What would it mean for you to take the poem that is your life….and to read that poem backwards?

All of the good words of this sacred season are RE words.

Repenting of sin. Retracing your spiritual steps. Returning to who you really are. Renewing your faith. Renovating your sense of yourself.

And remembering: that this is the birthday of the world, and that it could also be the birthday of your soul.