Thursday, September 09, 2010

Happy New Year: Now Go and Get Out The Vote.

Rosh Hashona is my favorite holiday. I'm only a Jew when the wind sits nor' nor west, which is to say I'm the kind who routinely serves pancetta at my neo Shabbat dinners. Plus all the other holidays, famously, can be reduced to "They came. They tried to kill us. They failed. Let's eat." This works well with my general orientation towards cooking and serving large meals, but every now and then you need something a little different. I tend to need that especially as election season draws near. Today I went to High Holiday services with the Workmen's Circle. And I heard the Dvar Torah of one of my favorite people, Mitchel Silver. Mitch was head of Shul when my children were little, and is that classic Jewish combination of philosopher, rabbi, and stand up comic. His exposition on his deliberations on the fate of a box of Dunkin' Munchkins which fell, untimely, into the road while he was bringing them to the children on Sukkot was a masterpiece of Torah exigesis.

Today's Dvar Torah was its own little gem. Mitch began by arguing that Rosh Hashona, with its emphasis on the self and on repentance, isn't the favorite of radical and secular Jews. He said that he thought it was too individualistic and not communtarian or martial enough. He compared it to better loved holidays like Purim (when we are enjoined to get drunk because our nation was saved), Channukah (when we have a huge party because we had a military triumph), and Pesach (when we celebrate the liberation of an entire people and the death of our enemies). But, he said, although he didn't want to take anything away from drunkenness, warfare, or parties generally he like Rosh Hashona best: because, to him, it offered each person liberation from their own limitations--the person they were last year, with those failings and those griefs, and the person they could be next year, if they would only choose to move forward. This individualism wasn't in tension with community, but necessary to it since true equality can't exist without true freedom for the individual.

Its hard to do justice to the talk because it wandered in and out, but what stuck with me was Mitch's argument that the entire process of turning inwards and examining the self critically was always also an excercise (if we do it right) of granting ourselves the freedom to reject the past, even the past self, and fight to be the people we want to be. And this, in turn, is a form of radical hope. He compared it to the injunction that we expect the Messiah every day. That's our job, apparently (no one told me) and its a positive commandment that we do so. Expecting the Messiah doesn't mean expecting another Jesus, or Obama, to come and solve all our problems, or bring some kind of dreamy heaven 'n harps to earth. But to expect righteousness, justice, and equality for all. Right now. Today. And again tomorrow, when today has failed to make justice materialize. In other words we are commanded to hope against hope, hope against experience. For what has our experience been but that the Messiah never comes? In fact, in a typical bit of Jewish cynicism we are elsewhere (after Shabbatai Zvi) warned against anyone who actually proclaims himself the Messiah. Because really, how likely is it?

Mitch argued that the kind of radical believing/hoping against reality that "Expect the Messiah now" stands for lies behind an equally radical gesture, when we examine ourselves and determine to do better in the coming year. Both require a combination of hard headedness and fantasy. Yet only by continuing to believe--the triumph of hope over experience as second marriages have been called--can we dream of participating in a better life for all.

Well, what is that but the best definition ever of the political will--or the will to act politically? Hope over experience? Radical hope that this time, for sure, our door knocking, our fundraising, our precinct walking and our voting will finally bring about the arrival of some justice?

I always blast out of that service, the only time of the year that I gather with my co-religionists for anything of this nature, a true call to arms. One of the pieces that we finish with is this:

The Long Road
--Marge Piercy

Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can
take what revenge you can
But they roll over you.
But two people fighting
back to back can cut through
a mob, a snake-dancing file
can break a cordon, an army
can meet an army.
Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat a pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund-raising party.
A dozen can hold a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.
It goes one at a time,
its starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.

Here is one more thought, again from the service:

This is the beginning of the New Year
We have this year
to use as we will.
We can waste it,
or grow in its light
and be of service to others.

But what we do
with this year is important
because we will have exchanged a year of our lives for it.

The last year is now.
May we not regret the price paid for it.

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