Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thinking about the important stuff

It's just a matter of hours before Yom Kippur begins. There never seems to be enough time to mentally prepare for this awesome day, but sometimes one is lucky enough to get reminders of the things that one should focus on at this time of year: living life well, maintaining healthy relationships and reminding ourselves that we are here to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

All of these points are illustrated well by the "last lecture" of Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University here in Pittsburgh. He is dying of pancreatic cancer, and on Tuesday, he delivered an inspiring, upbeat lecture about his life and the importance of fulfilling childhood dreams. I did not attend the lecture, but have watched parts of it on YouTube. You can read about Pausch here.

And while you think about living a good life, I present my monthly column:

Pondering life's questions on Yom Kippur

In the late 1980s, singer Edie Brickell and her group, the New Bohemians, produced a song, “What I am,” that mocked the shallowness of American culture and our reluctance to be educated, thinking people.

“Philosophy, is the talk on a cereal box,” sings Brickell in the 1988 release, “Religion, is a smile on a dog.”

The implication is that empty aphorisms and superficial experiences have replaced profound ideas and beliefs.

The song continues: “Chuck me in the shallow water before I get too deep.” In other words, “don’t let me get confused by more complicated ideas.”

The phenomenon that Brickell mocked in 1988 is even truer today. With a culture that is saturated by so-called reality television, flashy images and an emphasis on instant gratification, there is even less incentive to think deeply about life, or even to think at all.

The trouble is, no matter how deafening the sound on one’s MP3 player, we can’t shut out life’s complications and complexities. Eventually the music stops and we are left alone with ourselves, wondering why things happen the way they do and what it all means.

For Jews, the High Holidays are an appropriate time to dip our toes into those deeper waters, to consider the fragility of life, the awesomeness of God and our responsibility to live ethical lives.
At the end of all of our searching, it is entirely possible, even likely, that we will emerge with even more challenging questions, and fewer answers. And that is precisely the point.

We enter this season with the audacity to believe that our prayers can somehow affect our fortunes for the next year, but conversely, one of the themes of the High Holidays is that God’s actions are beyond our comprehension.

A person who believes in God must wake up every morning and wonder why a merciful God would allow there to be so much pain in the world. The existence of evil is not proof that God is not there, but a challenge to humanity, both to grapple with the difficulty and to do our part to alleviate the world’s injustices.

The High Holidays bring this dilemma into stark relief.

As we pray for good health, sustenance and peace, we simultaneously acknowledge that there is sickness, poverty and war in the world, and that while we personally may be safe, healthy and well-fed, there are others in the world who are suffering, and it is hard to understand why this is so.

By the end of Yom Kippur, when we triumphantly recite the Shema and declare God’s oneness and sovereignty, we believe that we have done all that we can to secure a good new year. But the doubts don’t end there – Yom Kippur is not a once-in-a-lifetime event, but an annual phenomenon that we need to keep us religiously centered and aware of life’s unanswerable questions.

By the day after Yom Kippur, it is tempting to set aside the big ideas and to go back to our sugar-coated comfortable lives, bombarded by silly catch phrases and frivolity. But if our prayers are to truly have an impact on the coming year, then we have an obligation to continue pondering life’s difficulties, and not just relegate them to three days of the year.


Post a Comment

<< Home