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Judaism’s Message in the 21st Century: Restraint Rosh Hashana Day One

“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet…. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal?

And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?”

With those words, spoken to a crowd of 35,000 in Houston, Texas, President John F. Kennedy kicked off the American space race.

JFK continued:

“We choose to go to the Moon! … We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win …”

 

That speech was given at the midpoint of one hundred years of unbelievable accomplishments and advancements. The world changed in those years so drastically that our great-grandparents could not have even dreamed of life in the 21st century. From cars to radio. From television to the computer. From refrigerators to cellphones. From plastic to the internet. From travelling to the moon to travelling to Mars. We accepted that challenge and so many others and we never looked back.

And in the wake of all of our accomplishments and advancements, we have rewarded ourselves like never before; we live in the most comfortable era known to mankind. We have an endless array of food available to us. And amazingly, something that would truly shock our grandparents, this is true for Jews as well. Remember when Manischewitz was the only kosher wine available? I grew up with Kedem 144. That was a big deal, it was a real step-up; you know, it was just a liiittle less syrupy than Manischewitz.

And now? Go to your nearest wine store! It’s mind-boggling how many quality Kosher wines there are! And in case you’re not sold on wine, Baltimore now has Season’s! Mazel Tov!! What more can we possibly ask for?!  

Not only do we eat really well, we live in absolute comfort. From central air to the clothing we wear – I’m sure you’re all familiar with jeggings. Right? Jeggings are jeans and leggings in one. They’re pants, mostly worn by women, made of spandex and cotton and they are the most comfortable pair of pants ever made. If you’re older than forty, you may think they are pajamas – they are. But in 2017, everyone in this room can wear jeggings to work and get away with it – except for me. Jeggings are a hallmark of our generation; a generation that’s into comfort food, a comfortable workplace, and clothing far more comfortable than man has ever worn.

We are masters of the planet; technologically, gastronomically, and with endless pleasure and comfort. And you know what?

It’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a very good thing. Some may say that we have become too ostentatious, too ambitious, too hedonistic. And I’m here to tell you that I disagree.

 

Five thousand seven hundred and seventy eight years ago to this day, according to Jewish tradition, the first man with a Divine soul was created. Adam and Eve were given instructions on the very first Rosh HaShana, not the instructions they teach you in Hebrew school. Before the whole tree debacle, G-d said to Adam and Eve: פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ, the very first words uttered to man are, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the world and conquer it.”

You know what it means to conquer the world?

To conquer the world means to fly to the moon, to conquer the world means to create the internet, to conquer the world means to achieve, to accomplish, to not sit still until we are masters of every natural resource available to man. G-d imbued us with the capacity to be creators, to be powerful, and He wants us to actualize that power.

What should we do with that power, you ask.

G-d continues, in the very next directive, הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם” Behold I have given you, all the herbs, trees, fruit, לָכֶם יִהְיֶה, לְאָכְלָה, Everything is for you to eat.” For you to enjoy.

So yes, build another Kosher supermarket with finger-licking take-out! Buy yourself a luxury carassuming you could afford it! Build a colony on the moon – just because we can. These things are not only allowed, but yes, according to Judaism, there is genuine value in taking President Kennedy’s challenge to heart; in ambition, in actualizing every bit of opportunity on this planet and beyond!

 

But there’s a catch.

 

There is a third directive given to Adam and Eve. This is the one you all know: מִכֹּל עֵץ-הַגָּן, אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל. Eat from every tree. וּמֵעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע–לֹא תֹאכַל, מִמֶּנּוּ – Eat from every tree, except for one.

All of a sudden, in what seems to be an about-face, G-d demands of man to hold back; to not accomplish, to not consume, to not enjoy everything the world has to offer.

So which one is it? Which path does Judaism promote? What is G-d teaching man on this first and fateful day of creation?

Explains Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the foremost thinkers of the 20th century: Together, what these introductory instructions are conveying is that we are to be masters, we are to vanquish the world, but – when we reach the pinnacle, when the prize is in our hands, we are expected to hold ourselves back, to exercise restraint, because this! G-d is telling Adam and Eve, is what it means to be human. To be a dignified and heroic human being is to have the world at your fingertips but the self-control to hold back. Mastery not only over the planet, but mastery over oneself.

 

Think about the first Biblical wrestling match. An all-powerful angel attacks Jacob. And you thought Mayweather and McGregor was a mismatch?

Here was a mortal man, all alone, who was left to fight an angelic being. And somehow, from somewhere deep within, he mustered up the inner strength and fought back. And he fought valiantly. To the point, that in the final round, it was Yakov who was clearly going to be victorious.

But here’s the part we forget.

As the sun is rising, just before the KO punch, the angel pleads with Yakov to let him go. And Jacob, in a moment of thoughtful restraint, acquiesces. This is what our Sages meant when they said, eizehu gibbor¸who is strong? Hakovesh es yitzro, one who exhibits restraint.

There is raw power and there is strength. Unbridled ambition and tempered control. In Hebrew, koach and gevurah, and they have to be balanced.  Those were the instructions given to Adam and Eve and this is the essence of Judaism. Other faiths have holidays like we do, other faiths have communities like we do, other faiths have places of worship like we do. But Judaism has a code, it’s called Halacha. It is a code and ethic of power and of restraint. It teaches us how to engage in this world, how to not be shy of accomplishment, of confrontation, and of power, but how to humble and control ourselves when we get to the top of that mountain.

That’s a lot of theory. What does it all mean? How does one practically live a life of power and restraint in the real world, outside these doors? Allow me to share with you just a few examples.

Let’s begin with the realm of SPEECH: On the one hand, literacy is at its highest. 200 years ago, 90% of the world’s population were illiterate. Today, the numbers have been inverted. 90% of the world can read and write, which is truly amazing! Not too long ago, the public word was limited to the powerful, those who owned the newspapers could say what they want and everyone else was forced to listen. Today, anyone and everyone has a voice. All you need is a keyboard or a YouTube channel, and you can share your thoughts-your plight-your dreams with the world. These advancements and these tools have allowed for the voices of the oppressed to be heard, of the otherwise powerless to equalize the playing field.  

However – with all its good, we have perhaps become too comfortable with this new-found power. We are suffering, I believe, from collective verbal diarrhea. Politics aside, but it must be said, that this lack of restraint runs from the Twitter feed of the most powerful man in the world down to the man sitting on his couch trolling the comments section of popular news sites, and everyone of our Facebook feeds in between. Whatever is on people’s mind right now, with no forethought and no filter, is shared with hundreds, thousands and maybe millions, with a press of a button.  

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once commented, “All that is thought should not be said, all that is said should not be written, all that is written should not be published, and all that is published should not be read.”

He lived two hundred years ago! Imagine if he would be alive today! If you have a keyboard, you’re entitled to share your view. And you know what? You are entitled to share your view. But just because you could, doesn’t mean you should.

I don’t know about you, but so often, especially with the many complex issues that come up from time to time, it takes me so long to formulate a coherent view and opinion. It takes time until the other side or sides of a story become known. And yet, as soon as the news breaks, half the world is already experts! The few times I did comment on something right away, I regretted it.

Or how often do we hurt people by saying insensitive things in the name of ‘I’m just saying what’s on my mind’? How often do we engage in our voyeuristic tendencies of talking about others just because there’s nothing else to talk about? The sound of silence is one of the most beautiful sounds of all. It’s the sound of internal strength.

 

Or take SEXUALITY as another example –

According to Jewish Law, a bride and groom, on the night of their wedding, in the heat of their passion, after consummating their relationship, immediately become forbidden to one another. Talk about strength! It’s this sanctified self-control that drives the laws of family purity. It may be your spouse, you may be in love, but restraint is the crown of humanity; of a dignified man or woman. And let’s be clear, a healthy and vibrant sexual life is a Jewish imperative, but so is one of restraint.

And this is not limited to those who are married or of a certain age. We live in a world in which pornography may be legal, we live in a world where Fifty Shades of Grey is an acceptable movie in polite society. We have it all at our fingertips. But the ethic of gevurah, of being heroic, of being dignified, teaches us to look the other way, it teaches us to maintain our powerful sexuality for its sacred use, to be dignified.  

And how about other indulgences? We could eat whatever we want. But there is something dignified, something exalted in a code that demands of us to hold back from this food or that, even if it means we stand out from our friends or colleagues.

And perhaps in what is the biggest issue facing this country, and no, it’s not the political divide, nor is it North Korea. There is an opioid epidemic and we are not, as a Jewish community, magically immune from it. We, like the rest of American society have been indulging more and more over the past decades. I could tell you anecdotally that light drug use is today no big deal in good ol’ Jewish suburbia. And I believe they’re related because I wouldn’t call it an opioid epidemic, I would call it an indulgence epidemic. For example, in the past ten years alone, national alcohol consumption jumped by almost 20% (NBC News, 2015)! That’s a lot of alcohol! Just because you could drink as much quality Kosher wine, beer, and scotch as you’d like, doesn’t mean you should.

Because when your child sees you knocking back four, five, six l’chaims at a social gathering or even on a Shabbos morning, then I wonder what they will do when their friends are experimenting with heroin – as many middle and upper-class kids these days are doing. As unpopular a stance as it may be, as some of you know, I’m okay with a Kiddush Club, but I do lose sleep over what could so easily become a Gateway Club, for ourselves or for our children.

This is not about any single group. It’s about all of us. Every one of us has indulgences of our own that we do not restrain sufficiently, we all have passions that we know we need to curb, we all have emotions that we sometimes allow to run wild. That’s human nature. But we are supposed a light unto the nations and the world needs that light today like never before. The world needs a model of self-restraint, a model of people who could afford whatever they want – and don’t. Not because they can’t, but because they choose to live a dignified life.

Five thousand, five hundred, and seventy eight years ago, on this day, G-d instructed Adam and Eve how to live their life. He told them, it should be a life of ambition, of power, and of passion – and a life of self-restraint.

This is Judaism and the world needs its message ever so badly.

And this is our job. Whether it’s adopting one area of Jewish Law which until now we did not have the courage to take on, whether it’s working on developing better self-control in areas of passion or indulgence, whether it’s speaking with more forethought or just speaking less, whether it’s consuming less even when we can afford it, or whether it’s bringing some sanctity back to sexuality. Let’s be a light unto the nations! A brilliant light shining forth unto a world of instant-gratification and extreme comfort, and let’s show the world not only Jewish power – but Jewish strength.    

You and I have the world at our fingertips, we have made it well-past the moon! We are the most powerful generation of people and the most successful generation of Jews, there is nothing we cannot do!

And it is precisely here and it is precisely now, that we have the opportunity to choose to live and exemplify a life of inner-strength. To paraphrase JFK: We will do so not because it is easy, but because it is hard; because this goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because this challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

May He who has given the Jewish People the strength to survive, give us now the strength to accomplish and the strength to hold back; the strength to live a dignified, heroic life and once again be a light unto the nations. Baruch Ata Hashem, Ozer Yisrael Bigvurah. Blessed are you G-d, who gives Israel strength.

Shana Tova.

 

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