The Challenge of Doing Hard Things

Kol Nidrei 5779

Rabbi David S. Widzer

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In 1971, Pastor Wilbur Rees published a book of meditations and essays entitled “Three Dollars Worth of God.”  The title comes from the opening meditation, which is worthwhile for us to hear in full.  As I read it, notice how you react to the text:

 

I would like to buy three dollars worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul and disturb my sleep.
Not enough to take control of my life.
I want just enough to equal a cup of warm milk.
Just enough to ease some of the pain from my guilt.

I would like to buy three dollars worth of God, please.

I would like to find a love that is pocket-sized.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
Not enough to change my heart.
I can only stand just enough to take to church when I have time.
Just enough to equal a snooze in the sunshine.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want the warmth of the womb, but not a new birth.

I would like to purchase a pound of the eternal in a paper sack.
If it doesn’t work, I would like to get my money back.

I would like to buy three dollars worth of God, please.

I would like to hide some for a rainy day.
Not enough for people to see a change in me.
Not enough to impose any responsibility.
Just enough to make folks think I am ok.

Could I just get three dollars worth of God, please?[1]

 

 

I don’t know the reception his work got back in 1971 when it was published, but I will tell you that this poem has been rattling around in my soul for the six or seven months since I first came across it.  At first, I took it as an accusation, as if Pastor Rees was saying to me, “You say that God means something to you, that religion means something to you.  But are you serious about that?  Or do you really just want enough of God, enough of religion, to feel comfortable, like a cup of warm milk or a nap in the sunshine?”  I read it as very judge-y, and kind of condescending.  And I got defensive in my imaginary argument with the pastor from 47 years ago:  “There’s nothing wrong with religion bringing comfort.  And there’s something positive in a religious experience that heightens our joy or delivers ecstasy.  It doesn’t all have to be transformational or like a new birth.”   Did you react that way, too?  Did you find yourself thinking it was judge-y and getting defensive?

In 1902, the American journalist, Finley Peter Dunne, coined a phrase that I think may help us in our reaction to Pastor Rees’s poem.  Mr. Dunne was writing as an alter-ego commentator, sarcastically describing the role of newspapers to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”[2]  The phrase was apparently applied to journalism exclusively for about 85 years, until a Lutheran scholar named Martin Marty used it in a 1987 article talking about the role of the church in society.  It quickly caught on as a short-hand definition for what a pastor, or a religious organization, or religion in general, should do:  comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.[3]

Perhaps this is what Pastor Wilbur Rees meant.  Three dollars’ worth of God will get you comfort if you are afflicted and in need of solace.  Get any more than that and religion starts to cross over into its second purpose, and begins to afflict the comfortable, pushing us to dig deeper, taking us out of our comfort zone.

In truth, these twin goals are both valid.  Religion should bring comfort to people who are in need.  Faith is a restorative for the soul.  It provides experiences that are warm and cozy and feel good.  Being part of a faith community makes joys sweeter, and pain more bearable, by sharing them.  And religion should also challenge us, afflicting us with a call to do better, to be better, lest we get too secure as we are.  And whether that is in the realm of social justice, and our responsibilities and how we treat people who are different than us, or in our personal outlook on life, transformation and a new birth, religion can be a goad to our improvement.

And so I have come to see Pastor Rees’s meditation, not as a critique, but as a challenge.[4]  Judaism has more to offer than just one pound of values in paper sack.  Judaism has comfort for us, positive, enriching, fulfilling, experiences for us when we need them. We need these in our lives and, hopefully, they are easy for us to find.  Judaism ALSO challenges us, confronts us, and calls upon us to do more with those values, more with our relationship with God.  This can be harder, to know how to respond, to be willing to respond to the challenge.  On this Kol Nidre night, we are challenged not just to experience the parts of Judaism that are “easy” for us, but the “hard” parts, too, as together they can shape and transform our lives.

I recognize that this distinction of “easy” and “hard” parts of Judaism can be rather subjective.  What is “easy” for one person may be “hard” for another.   Some of that will be dependent on the knowledge we’ve acquired or the skills we have gained.   Some will depend upon what, if anything, was handed down to us, on our family experiences, or personal history.  We each have our own comfort level with various components of Jewish life, whether prayer or action, culture or holidays.  For some of us, marking moments in our lives with Jewish ritual, a baby naming, becoming Bar Mitzvah, a wedding, a funeral, is an easy and natural thing to do.  For some, our affinity for Israel comes easily because we’ve spent time there or feel connected to its ancient or modern history.  Some of us have a Shabbat practice of one kind or another, lighting candles or a family meal or monthly attendance at Family Shabbat or weekly Torah study.  For some, there’s an easy feeling of connection to other Jewish families in town, at school, in the neighborhood, at Temple.  I hope that, for each of us, some part of Jewish life feels easy.  I know that, for all of us, some parts of Jewish life also feel hard.

The hard parts of Judaism often are the ones that take us out of our comfort zone.  I know this by analogy with a different aspect of my life.  I don’t usually talk about this in public, but I am a soccer dad.  At one time or another, both of my children have played soccer: town rec, club, indoor, outdoor.  Our home calendar lately is filled with our daughter’s practices and tournaments.  Because of my congregational commitments, I don’t attend nearly as many games as my wife does.  Consequently, I know the other players and the other parents much less well than she does.  And so standing on the sidelines of a game is harder for me.  Don’t get me wrong – I love being there for my kids, and I can follow what is happening in the game.  But it is hard because I don’t always remember the names of the other teammates or the social dynamics among the parents.  I don’t have the depth of shared history from that game last month against Harrington Park or the Manalapan tournament last year.  It’s hard because I only am a soccer dad part-time.

I imagine that, for some of us, for many of us, being engaged in Jewish living can sometimes feel hard in a similar way.  No one likes to feel out of place.  No one likes to feel incompetent or stupid.   We like to feel good about ourselves, confident, able, well-equipped or prepared to handle any situation.  But if we try to follow along in a Shabbat service, but we don’t know Hebrew, or we try to tell a neighbor why we put a mezuzah on our door, or we try to answer a co-worker’s question about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or we try to explain to our children why their goldfish died, or we try to explain to ourselves how God lets bad things happen to people we love, and we don’t have the knowledge to share or the language to use, this feels hard.  Maybe we know other people in the congregation and can find a friendly face in a crowd to talk to.  But it’s hard if we don’t.  Maybe we feel comfortable asking questions or meeting people.  But maybe we don’t.  Sometimes we just wait for others to do the hard parts for us.  Sometimes we just don’t do the hard parts at all.

I have found this to be true for myself.  I majored in college in philosophy and in Judaic studies.  I love to learn and to think.  I am a classic left-brain, objective, logical, analytical, methodical, process-oriented thinker.  So along came an opportunity from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality to apply for their Clergy Leadership Program.  The Institute for Jewish Spirituality has as its purpose the cultivation of mindful Jewish leaders through engagement in Jewish spiritual practices.  The Clergy Leadership Program, over two years, incorporates text study of Jewish mysticism, personal meditation, yoga, prayer, and four multi-day semi-silent retreats where participants speak only from after lunchtime until bedtime.  This is NOT my usual kind of Judaism – way too “touchy-feely” for me.  I had never meditated before in my life.  I’d never taken a yoga class.  Prayer and text study I could do, but to be silent each day until after lunchtime?  Because this wasn’t my norm, I knew it would be hard and different.  I also hoped that it would be worth my while.  I applied and was accepted.  The first retreat back in January was a challenge.  I didn’t know many people, others seemed much more skilled at the mindfulness activities, and, from time to time, my rational, analytical side erupted with a “what are you doing?” internal eye roll.  But I’m proud to say that I survived that retreat, and the one in July, too.  Not just survived, but I have benefited from them and from my ongoing involvement in the program.  I’m not the greatest yoga student in the world, but I appreciate what it does for my body-mind connection.  Though sometimes I fear that my meditation practice is just sequential napping, I know that the mindfulness it teaches has helped me approach situations differently.  Being part of this cohort for this next year is a challenge to how I usually do Judaism, and it is hard.  But it is worth it because it helps me grow in finding different ways for Judaism to be meaningful in my life.

When we recently restructured our education program at Temple Beth El, we had the same goal in mind.  While we knew it would be difficult for some of our families, we hoped it would be worthwhile in creating a deeper connection to Jewish life.  The Peirot program reduces the amount of time per week in class in religious school from four hours over two days to two and a half hours on just one day.  Additional learning comes when each student, in conjunction with their families, selects learning activities from a list of options in different categories.  Families have the flexibility to do these activities based on their own schedules and their own interests.  We provide guidance and mentoring, but families are accountable and responsible, in exchange for the flexibility and personalization of the learning experience.

Some of our families had a harder time with this program than others.  Some of the challenges were structural, in how we designed and administered the program.  As a pilot and an experiment, we said from the beginning that we were open to feedback and tweaking the program along the way, which we did.  Beyond that, however, some of the families were challenged by the shift in responsibility.  We asked them to be more present as partners and co-curators of the educational activities.  It wasn’t just “drop off the kids at Temple” Judaism, but needed active involvement at home.  This required intentionality and planning to include Peirot activities among the myriad of sports, dance, drama, and other family commitments.  As a parent, I will agree that it was hard to do and do well.  And yet, despite the challenges, so many of our students, so many of our families, succeeded.  They read books and made videos.  They cooked meals and drew comic strips.  They visited museums and interviewed grandparents.  They played instruments in old age homes and raised tzedakah with lemonade stands.  Despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, they found new ways for Judaism to be a meaningful part of their lives.  (I’ll add, by the way, that our new Temple Educator, Anat Katzir, has evolved the program into Peirot 2.0, which I am confident will be even more successful this year!)

It isn’t easy, but I think it is immensely worthwhile to try to do the hard parts of Judaism, whatever they may be for each of us.  Take a class in reading Hebrew or prayerbook basics.  Try out having a family meal for Shabbat.  Read a book on different understandings of God in Judaism.  Find a new way to put your values into action with a social justice project.  Come to a Temple event and meet new people.  These can be hard things.  We each need to be willing to step up to the challenge, to learn, to try.  Certainly, as a community, we have faced challenges over these past few years.  But we did not remain with the easy and the familiar.  We pushed forward into new models, new modes, new ways of thinking about our Jewish community.  And, while we are not yet done (is anyone ever done growing and learning?), we are stronger because we tried to do the hard things.

That is truly the secret of this challenge.  It is not about whether or not we accomplish the hard things we choose to undertake.  It is that we are willing to make the effort and try.  Our rabbis knew this long ago.  The second century sage, Rabbi Tarfon, taught, “Lo alecha ham’lachah ligmor; v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibateil mimena,” “You are not obligated to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”[5]  We have to try, even if it is hard.  And we know from tonight, of all nights, that Judaism won’t penalize us for failing.  The namesake prayer of this evening, Kol Nidrei, is a legal formula that allows us to nullify all of our vows, oaths, and promises, if we find, after honest effort, that we are unable to fulfill them.  It’s not the doing, the accomplishment, that matters most.  It is the trying.  It is the challenge to do hard things.

Trying to do hard things transforms us.  It’s how we grow.  Repeatedly lifting a barbell that is easy to lift isn’t going to build your strength.  That comes in lifting weights that provide resistance.  Going down the “bunny hill” time and time again won’t make you a better skier.  We have to try to do what is hard in order to push our boundaries farther out and grow.  The rewards and benefits can be enriching and transformative.  When I was a camp counselor, I taught swim classes to the youngest campers and the newest swimmers.  One little boy, Michael, began the summer hardly able to put his face in the water.  Going underwater terrified him.  But he was determined to swim, and so we worked day after day at swim period.  By the end of the session, we had made enough progress that he climbed himself up the ladder and jumped off the diving board.  When camp ended, he was sad to leave his friends, but, he told me, he was so excited because he was going to visit his grandma – and she had a pool!  Learning to swim had transformed how he saw himself, and he could hardly wait to show that off.  Doing hard things can change and shape our lives.

As we gather on this night of nights, let us rise to the challenge presented.  Let us want more than three dollars’ worth of Jewish experience.  Let Judaism comfort us when we are in need, and implore us to grow in fulfilling ways.   Let us find “easy” ways to be engaged in Jewish life and let us pledge to try the “harder” ways, too, for both can shape and transform our lives.

Let all of our deeds be signed and sealed in the Book of Life, for a good new year.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

Shannah tovah!

 

 

[1] The poem appears online in a shorter form in several places (see, for example,  http://faith-forward.org/three-dollars–worth-of-god.htm), but the full text can be found at http://sjwaff.blogspot.com/2013/11/3-worth-of-god.html.

[2] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Finley-Peter-Dunne; https://www.poynter.org/news/today-media-history-mr-dooley-job-newspaper-comfort-afflicted-and-afflict-comfortable

[3] https://www.dictionaryofchristianese.com/god-comforts-the-afflicted-and-afflicts-the-comfortable/; http://baptistsearch.blogspot.com/2017/02/god-comforts-afflicted-and-afflicts.html

[4] My gratitude, as always, to my best editor and truest partner, my wife, Karen, for helping me see this more clearly.

[5] Pikei Avot 2:16.