Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Mi Yichyeh- What will we choose for the year ahead?

With Rosh Hashana around the corner I suppose it’s normal for me to be pensive, but this year it’s particularly acute. Several recent events have me thinking about life and death to a degree that I usually don’t.

A good friend recently suffered a minor heart attack. Thank God, he is fine, but ever since he shared the news, I’ve found myself thinking about my own health. When I was a runner, I was in the best shape of my life and I was able to live with the illusion that health problems and even death were things that could happen to others, but not to me. Now, as I am unable, in some way that I can’t fully explain or even understand, to regain my health, life feels more precarious. It’s more than that however that has me thinking so deeply about the precariousness of life.

Since hearing about the news of the tragic passing of Jose Fernandez, who was a star pitcher for the Miami Marlins, and learning about who he was as a person, son, grandson (be prepared to cry) and teammate, I’ve found myself thinking about him, and how suddenly things can change, without any warning for any of us. The death of a person who seemingly had so much of life ahead of him, a person who touched and inspired so many lives on and off the field, has left feeling sad and empty.

I awoke today to the news of the passing of Shimon Peres. Unlike Fernandez, Peres lived a long and complete life. He served his people and country, and was recognized internationally as one who tried to do what was right. As perhaps the last of the surviving founding fathers of Israel, he was in many ways larger than life. It’s not his achievements however, which included being Prime Minister and President of Israel, as well as winning the Nobel Peace Prize which spoke to me so deeply. It was his ability to continue to be a dreamer, to reinvent himself later in life, and to not take himself so seriously, so that he could allow himself to do some out-of-the-box things to make people smile.

It is these latter qualities which link the passing of these two men who were different in so many ways, and who  most likely did not know about each other. For very different reasons they were looked up to, even idolized, by their respective nations. I know it sounds cliched, but both Peres and Fernandez took the challenges of their lives in stride, and managed to inspire and uplift so many people, often with warmth and humor.

It is here that I return to the upcoming Yamim Noraim. It is somewhat ironic that perhaps the most powerful part of the tefillah on these days is a prayer whose origin is shrouded in some degree of confusion. Over the years, as I’ve said U’Nesaneh Tokef, the words have hit me differently each time. I can still remember the first time I said the words “Mi yichyeh, u’mi yamus”, who will live and who will die, after the passing of my father. I struggled to utter the words, as tears poured down my face. This year, as I think about these words, I think about them differently. Yes, it is true that we do not know who will be with us at this time next year, but as we are constantly reminded, that is largely out of our control. What we can control and where we have a choice is mi yichyeh, who will live life in a way that they are truly alive. Will we inspire others, continue to dream each time life beats us down, and face life’s challenges with equanimity and whenever possible with a smile? As we head into 5777 on the Jewish calendar may we not only be sealed for life, but may we also choose to have a year of life lived well.

Ketiva V’Chatima Tova

Monday, September 12, 2016

Kippah-ing Us Together? - On uniforms, fitting in, and sense of self

This past Shabbos I did not daven in my usual shul. From time to time, I’ve been davening at a more yeshivish minyan which offers a change of pace from my usual davening experience. While I gain certain things from davening at this shul, I’ve noticed that with the exception of those with whom I am already friends, I have not really been welcomed by those who daven there. In thinking about the reason why that is so, I think the answer is fairly clear. While I take davening very seriously, don’t talk during tefillah, and learn during the down-time, I am not a member of the team. My lack of hat, as well as my kippah-seruga mark me as other. I am welcome to daven there, but I am clearly seen as an outsider.

It’s been more than two years since I stopped wearing a hat on Shabbos. At the time, I wrote about the reasons for my decision. Recently, I’ve again been thinking about religious symbols and what they mean. I know that if I dressed the right way, certain doors in my community would open up to me despite the fact that nothing of significance would change about who I am. Of course, it is not just in the yeshivish world where symbols matter. I remember walking one Shabbos with a friend of mine, who was wearing a shtreimel. A guy with a knit-kippah walking in the opposite direction said “Good Shabbos” to me, and with an edge in his voice, “Shabbat Shalom” to my friend. Seeing the “wrong” headgear, he instantly “knew” all sorts of things about my friend. My friend told me that this was not the first time something like this had happened to him.

Of course, what we wear is a way to let others know something about ourselves. In the past year, as I’ve further evolved in my religious outlook, there have been moments where I have wanted to change something about how I dress. These days, my black kippah-seruga feels a little too confining to me, as if I am trying to make clear that I am Zionistic but not off the deep end, frum but not a right-winger, YUish but  centrist, thank you very much, with a chassidish streak to boot. When I start thinking of alternatives, I think of how I’d be seen in my community, amongst my friends, and at school. I find myself wondering things like whether a guy living outside of Israel can pull off the big serugi look without seeming like a faker, which colors are simply too much, but mainly what the heck is wrong with me. Why am I making such a big deal about something so silly? Why do I need an external marker of internal change? If I don’t buy into this stuff, why I do buy into it so much?

This is not one of those posts where I finish off with a nice and simple answer, where everything is made clear. All I know is that I want these things to not matter to me and to others, although I know that they do. I’m not sure how to balance individuality along with a sense of fitting into a community. I also don’t know how to get rid of this feeling that I know someone before we’ve ever met, just because I see what they are wearing.