(Rosh Hashanah Remarks: 2018)
As we Jews like to do on Rosh Hashanah, I’ve been thinking a lot about the year that was.
I’m unaware of just how we got into this mess, We got so aggressive. I know we meant all good intentions.
So pull me closer. Why don’t you pull me close? Why don’t you come on over? I can’t just let you go.
Oh baby, why don’t you just meet me in the middle? I’m losing my mind just a little.
So why don’t you just meet me in the middle?
Despite my best intentions, I have become a minivan mom. And any good minivan mom, in a deep desire to not completely lose her sanity or sense of self, refuses to add children’s songs to her listening repertoire. Instead, my children and I rock to local radio stations and this summer, on repeat, we sang The Middle by Zedd and Maren Morris. Nothing like a nearly three year old singing about losing his mind just a little! But beyond the amusement in little children singing grown-up lyrics, my five year old daughter again asked one of her favorite car questions:
‘Mommy – what’s this song about?’
The obvious answer, to anyone like me who hears the song 27 times a week, is that it’s about a tortured love affair. Plates smashing, pull me closer, share admissions regardless of objections. There’s love and anger, there’s a need for personal strength and a desire to be taken care of so one doesn’t have to be strong anymore.
The song, my dear five year old, is about compromise. But is that the middle?
In a Jewish context, as we start this beautiful and challenging cycle of life once again, the song speaks to the concept of Ben Adam L’Chavero – mitzvoth between human beings and other human beings. The commandments, for example, to love your neighbor as yourself, to act fairly in business, to honor your mother and father – all fall into this category.
We all know, dwelling in Washington, DC and witnessing this unique moment in history, that meeting in the middle is something that is both out of style and simultaneously, something we should all be doing. It’s trite DC talk to say we all need to reach across the aisle, to find common ground and build bridges to a brighter tomorrow! Sounds great, right? Or these days, does it sound empty?
The tough part of this whole ‘reaching across the aisle’ thing is that rarely is the aisle split perfectly down the middle. If there are 51 Republicans, 2 Independents, and 46 Democrats in the Senate, why meet in the middle for a simple majority vote? Last time I checked, 51 beats the band out of 100 every single time. What is the middle in this scenario? We’re all losing our minds just a little.
Ben Adam L’Chavero’s oft-mentioned partner is, Ben Adam LaMakom – between a person and G/d. Mizvot like Sabbath observance or prayer fall into this category; I shouldn’t care if you pray three times a day or turn the lights on and off on Saturday morning or eat bacon til your heart’s content – that’s between you and the good Lord up above.
Whether an atheist or a deep believer in G/d, the MIDDLE is even more tricky when viewed in this framework. I am a woman of faith and I have daily chats with G/d. I think G/d helped me have babies when I struggled to have them, helped me find a job of such deep personal meaning, helped lead me to a partner in this world I could not live without. There is no meeting in the middle; G/d creates the ultimate super-majority in my life. What I believe I need of G/d and what I think G/d needs of me are both important but not standing on even middle ground.
The same could be said for a proud Jew that doesn’t believe G/d exists. How can there be a middle when there’s no party to bargain with?
My grappling over the middle though really reaches a peek in a framework I can’t quite find a Jewish context for – the middle I seek within.
I meet with students all the time – holy, smart, menschy students – who struggle every day with their inner voice. Should I pursue that internship to build my resume or should I focus on my school work? Should I eat those extra potato chips or should I go to the gym? Should I hang out with that potential partner or friend because I don’t want to be lonely, or should I trust my gut that this person isn’t the one for me?
I struggle with this myself, on a daily basis. When I leave work early to get my kids and beat the traffic and go to my holiest job of them all as a parent, I feel bad that I’ve left my colleagues behind. When I work long hours or travel up and down the Northeast Corridor to raise money for a new building we hope to open soon, I feel guilty that I’m not home with my kids.
My professional coach calls this our inner captain and our inner saboteur. We all have both within us. Our captain says we rock! We can do anything! We have all the capacity in the world to be anyone we want to be! Our saboteur says – NOT SO FAST. You can’t do that because of X, you shouldn’t do it because of Y.
Reaching for the middle with other people? Reaching for the middle with G/d? Reaching for the middle within ourselves?
To my dear daughter, and to all of you, I may have some bad news about that pesky song that keeps playing. I don’t think we should be trying to meet in the middle.
I’m sure you paid close attention recently to the commemorations of the life of Senator John McCain. I thought that the memorials to him were incredibly honest about his feisty temper and mistakes made. Just like us, he was not perfect. I never met the man but from all I’ve learned, I’m guessing that if you asked him what his proudest accomplishments were he would NOT say – when it all went down, 50/50, when I met my friends in the middle! Much was said the week that he died about difficult conversations and friendships forged out of differences. He did not pursue the middle. He pursued values, and the hard work it takes to get a sense of equilibrium and compromise. He pursued difficult conversations where a shared victory didn’t mean 50-50, but instead meant grappling with difficulties and finding a place where all would give and all would take and that be the goal and not a disappointment.
We’re living deeply in a world of black and white these days, and college heightens that. The world is disordered so we want to put it all in boxes that help us organize our thoughts. She is a Republican and he is a Democrat, he is gay and she is straight, I don’t like her but I do like them.
This year, may we pursue the difficult work of the mess. May we be comforted by a sense of something far greater than ourselves. May we go to bed each day not celebrating the victory won, but the process that it took to get us there and the compromises we had to make along the way. May we not beat ourselves up when our captain and saboteur battle.
From my family and our whole team at GW Hillel, I wish you a year of compromise and blessings, of learning and growth. Shana Tovah!