Me & Ben & Choices (Yom Kippur Remarks || 2019)

This past year, I started a love affair with a man who isn’t my husband.

We have a lot in common. We went to the same summer camp. I spent a summer in Israel with his sister.   His family is deeply invested in Jewish values and supporting the wider Hillel movement. He speaks often about Jewish topics, his memories of a vibrant Jewish childhood that shaped him into the man he is today.

But our love affair – like so many – is complicated, with a few bumps in the road. For one – I’m married and he happens to be interested in men. He’s a famous Broadway star, recording artist, one award away from a coveted EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) – I’m none of these things. We’ve never actually met, other than the evening on the Upper West Side a few months ago when we ended up together on the southeast corner of Amsterdam and 72nd Street. I tried to talk to him – about real things, like these aforementioned commonalities – but he was on the phone and likely fearing an attempt from some silly fan wanting a selfie – he brushed me off. We then awkwardly walked a few blocks together until he turned towards his destination and left me alone.

Tonight, I’d like to talk about Jewish choices. My love and I – I’d like to reflect on two of our choices made this year and what they have me thinking about as we consider our own choices, this Yom Kippur.

Last Spring, I found out this love of mine – let’s call him Ben – was coming to play a show in DC. In an absolutely bashert, meant to be kind of way, the show was on my birthday. The only wrinkle in this beautiful series of events was that the show was on Saturday night, starting a solid 45 minutes before the end of Shabbat. As I don’t travel on the Sabbath, I had a conundrum on my hands – should I go late? Should I not go at all?

Because I have the best husband there is, who was mostly sick of me fretting over this decision – he bought me tickets the day before the show. I did a lot of homework on the venue and their typical setlist routine, anticipated two opening acts, figured I would arrive just in time for Ben to sing, and fate would be on my side. Instead – long story short – we got there after his singing began, couldn’t find our seats, and thus ended up in the last row of the third balcony.

I’d love to tell you none of this mattered – that the show rocked my world, that I got lost in the music, that I didn’t care about my seat or shortened musical experience. But I’d be lying. I was bummed. I was distracted by the bar lights immediately behind us, by the ambient noise as people walked past to the bathroom.

I made a Jewish choice. Was it the right one?

The second choice made was Ben’s. Following this successful concert tour that swung through Washington, one last date was added. It was set to be the biggest musical audience of his career, bringing him back to one of the preeminent stages of the world – Radio City Music Hall – his first time back since winning the Tony there. The date? September 29th, the first night of Rosh Hashanah. Huh? Rosh Hashanah? My menschy boy, who goes on national television and repeatedly says he is looking for an NJB – a nice Jewish boy. Ben, who speaks in his shows about his trips to Israel, his family’s Bar Mitzvah revues, shiva for his grandparent?

Ben made a Jewish choice. Was it the right one?

This has all had me thinking a lot about the nature of choice in these ten days between Ben’s show and this moment. I’ve been pondering three aspects of our choices – first, the impact choices make on us personally, secondly, the impact our choices have on others, and finally – the complexity of us all as whole beings in possession of a multitude of choices.

First, let me say – I love Ben. I really do. I’m not here to judge him and I hope you aren’t here to judge me. I’m sure some of you might scoff at my Shabbat choice – why waste money on that ticket if you are going to miss half of the show? You spent 96% of the day in compliance with Shabbat – you can’t ‘cheat’ for 45 minutes? And as a Hillel professional, can’t I see that Ben might find a show a deeply spiritual experience? Despite my best googling attempts, I don’t know of Ben’s exact words at the show. But if I was a betting woman, I’m guessing Ben shared Rosh Hashanah memories and wished all a hearty Shana Tovah. I know my Ben.

We each make a series of individual choices everyday. Some are easier than others. Suzy Welch, an author and business journalist, speaks of the 10-10-10 rule she uses when making her own. How will she feel about the consequences of her choices in 10 minutes? In 10 months? And in 10 years?

On the surface, this is a straightforward exercise but I actually think it’s harder than we think. A student asked for my counsel last week on whether he should go to work on Yom Kippur at his new internship – he wanted to make a great impression and really cared deeply about the professional value in the experience; he wanted me to tell him what to do and I wasn’t going to do so. I asked him to apply the 10-10-10 rule. He felt that he may feel guilt in the short term, but in 10 months or 10 years, it wouldn’t matter that he missed services. But we flipped the rule to think about the long-term of the job – will the internship have any less weight on his resume, in 10 months, if he doesn’t show up on Wednesday? Will his employer remember him as a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ intern as a result of his choice made on Yom Kippur?

When we make choices for ourselves – me going to the concert, Ben holding a concert in the first place – we often get stuck in the short-term. My birthday, my bank account, my love of an album just released. Ben’s rocket ship that is currently rising to fame, his fear that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity may not be here tomorrow.

But taking a deep breath and sitting throughout Yom Kippur with the long-term impact of our choices is an exercise I’d charge us to all take on in the day to come. Which of your values are clearer when you view them played out across the months and years ahead? What is truly important in your life – and what just won’t matter tomorrow?

While individual choices like these are undoubtedly important, I’ll admit that what most captivated me about Ben’s Rosh Hashanah show was not the choice of an individual entertainer to entertain – but of the many who would be prompted to join him. Where were they not, because they were there? What family recipe was missed, what meaningful moment with a grandparent, what quiet moment denied because like me – they love Ben and wanted to see him rock Radio City?

Jewish texts and history are filled with such examples of the impact one choice has on a multitude of others – Eve chose to eat the apple, Adam chose to blame her, and our time in the Garden of Eden ended. Miriam chose to send her brother Moses down the river, Pharoah’s daughter found him, and the ripple effects of the Passover story were felt for generations to come. Oskar Shindler felt the need to help others – and stories of Jewish life for some families were saved and shaped. Whether we like it or not, our choices impact others.

Dr. Erica Brown recently shared with me the story of Yasha the Magician, told in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘The Magician of Lublin’. The short version of the long story is that Yasha went out into the world and made a series of poor choices – he cheated on his wife, he lied, he stole. To make up for the error of his ways, he decided to build himself a tiny space – not even big enough for a bed – and to stay within it for the rest of his days. In doing so, he was isolated from making more mistakes and thus, his poor choices couldn’t negatively impact others.

Some might certainly view this as admirable. After all the pain Yasha had caused, wasn’t it good to not cause pain anymore? But if you’re like me, I thought this was a very sad story of a likely lonely man. Making choices that impact others is a reality of our daily lives – should we shy away from this fact or do the work required to own this truth?

We will beat our chests repeatedly over the day to come, reprimanding ourselves for all we’ve done wrong this year that has negatively impacted others – we’ve lied and we’ve cheated and we’ve been afraid of ‘the other’. I’ll admit I’ve never bothered to look beyond this reading of Al Chet – it’s an act of apology and of teshuvah, aiming to return to our best selves.

But the blessing of Yom Kippur is not just the chance to stop the negative but to affirm the positive. When I don’t lie, what truth can I tell to another to help improve their lives? When I don’t cheat, how might that make way for someone who honestly has striven to do their best?

This Yom Kippur, how can we not merely apologize for how our choices negatively impact others, but to affirm that we have the chance to make choices that can bring light and joy and goodness to the world?

Finally, I’ve wondered about Ben’s concert choice in light of how I feel about this love of mine. Is he not my guy anymore? Am I bumping him off my Spotify playlist, not tuning in to every Today Show interview he does anymore because of a single choice he made?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a judgmental woman living in a judgmental society.   I put people in boxes – I like you or I don’t. This Supreme Court decision is right and that one is wrong. This political party is my party – that one is not.

But what does it mean to re-frame our judgments of the whole into a judgment of individual choices? Google tells me that it’s estimated each of us makes 35,000 choices a day! What to eat, what to wear, what to watch, how to view another, what concert to attend or to host. I challenge you to agree completely with your best friend or favorite political candidate on 10 choices they have made, much less 35,000.

As a mother, it’s easy for me to grasp that the judgment of character and the judgment of choices must not be confused.   When my child misbehaves, I have become an expert in saying – I love you but I don’t like the choice you just made. And yet, I think we have a much harder time doing this with one another.

Rambam envisions our lives as a series of choices, being weighed on a scale of good and bad, of justice and mercy. We do not know the nature of how G/d is judging the multitude of choices we’re making every day. Does one good choice outweigh ten bad ones? Do I need to make 100 tiny good choices to outweigh the one massive poor choice I made 10 years ago?

In a beautiful reading of this unclear balance of the scales though, Rabbi Elazar says:

He hides away some sins and does not put them on the scale, allowing the merits to outweigh the sins. Rabbi Yossi, son of Rabbi Hanina, says: He lifts the side of the scale that holds the sins so that the merits outweigh the sins.

In other words, on this Day of Atonement, we do not fully understand the nature of the judgment of our choices. But we are led to believe in this commentary, that G/d is forgiving – that each day, our 35,000 choices are weighted against one another – and then we’re given the benefit of the doubt, the little extra finger lifting up the side of the scale that lets us be viewed more favorably.

What does it mean to look upon others – and ourselves – with the same sense of loving-kindness? It’s easy to say – I don’t like Ben anymore because of that one big public date on a calendar. But Ben made a lot of decisions that day, and the days before and since. He’s a human being and so am I.

The world feels enormous to me most days, filled with endless choices. Should I finish up with this email at work or hurry up to pick up my kids? Should I put this apple peel in the compost bin or cave into my laziness – because will it really matter anyway? What should I think of the white policewoman who killed the black man eating ice cream on his couch, the hug that came afterwards, how it all relates to the inordinate number of incarcerated black men in America? How should I consider impeachment – is it good or bad for this country? Was Demi Lovato’s visit to Israel a publicity stunt or good for the Jewish people? Is giving tzedakah to a gun control organization enough to make sure Pittsburgh or Christchurch or the shooting at the Walmart in Texas will never happen again?

I am but one mind and one heart in a sea of uncertainty. I approach Yom Kippur with a deep sense of how little I am in such a big world. But I believe in a G/d who is merciful and in turn, I must be forgiving of the poor choices I made this year and forgiving of the choices of others that I didn’t agree with. I must strive to not see others as good or bad, to not see myself as good or bad, but to view each of us as complex beings made up of endless choices, all of whom are trying to do the best we can with the day we’ve been given.  We will not get all 35,000 of our daily choices right today or tomorrow or the next – but the act of repentance and teshuvah, the cycle of our lives dictates that we must keep trying to get more right than wrong.

In the words of my love Ben, in his hit song “Hurt Me Once”, ‘You have all these choices.’ This Yom Kippur, may you think about how you can make good ones. May you know the challenge – but also the power – of how your choices can positively impact others. And may you be forgiving – of yourself and of others – for the wrong choices we have all made this year and hold great hope for the chance to get them right in the year to come.

G’mar Chatima Tovah

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