Every year for the past 18 years, I have written an annual Yom Kippur greeting.
Prior to the holiday, we examine ourselves. We search ourselves for sins – sins to beg forgiveness for, sins to repair, and sins to eliminate from our futures. Our search can never be complete; our human memory is fallible, and we often succeed at hiding our greatest shortcomings from ourselves. Nonetheless, the search can guide us as we seek forgiveness. And it can guide us as we seek to improve ourselves.
Among other things, Yom Kippur is an opportunity to restart the clock and wipe away the mistakes of the past. However, the Yom Kippur prayers and fasting only serve as a vehicle to wipe away our sins against G-d. To clear away our sins against our fellow man, we must secure forgiveness from them directly. Because of this, it is a Jewish custom to ask those whom you may have hurt during the year for forgiveness. It generally takes the form of a short note or a brief question.
In my case, I have written a more involved letter – a meditation on the year past and the year to come. This is the 18th such letter. In Judaism, the number 18 literally spells Life. I’m sending this year’s greeting a little early, because it speaks about more the possibilities of the next year than the errors of the past.
As a note, I have found as the years have passed that the religious content of these letters has increased. Jews are forbidden from trying to convert people. So while there are religious aspects to what I’ve written, and while you might find it enlightening or infuriating, there is no desire to convince anybody of anything 🙂
My letter is below.
The man is picking through the trash when he notices me out of the corner of his eye. He looks up, pure joy emanating from his face. He’s clearly delighted to see me.
“I know who you are,” he says, bubbling with enthusiasm.
I nod my head. He does indeed know.
“Your name is–” he starts. But I cut him off.
Not by interrupting, but by running at him and shoving him into oncoming traffic.
I watch dispassionately as the first car slams into his body.
I turn and walk away.
There is mayhem on the street behind me.
Of course, nobody gives me a second glace.
I found a solution and my task is complete.
He was walking through Central Park in the spring when I first met him. He looked just like the file said he would. His hair was long and unkempt, his face pockmarked with the scars of life. His clothes look like an afterthought – they were mismatched, badly worn and barely adequate. He had nothing in his hands, nothing in his arms, nothing on his back. I knew he carried no wallet or identification.
But I knew who he was, and I was here to save him.
“Adam,” I said, softly as I approached. I didn’t want to upset him.
He didn’t notice me. His eyes were drawn to a bird, some kind of warbler, landing on a nearby tree. A string of syllables, unintelligible to me or the bird, came from his mouth. Gibberish it seemed. But he listened to himself, repeated the word and nodded in satisfaction. He pointed at another bird, another warbler, and repeated it. A pattern had been established.
“Adam,” I repeated. He continued to ignore me.
I needed to talk to this man. He was in my file.
And so I began to follow him. For hours, he walked from bird to bird, pointing at each one and speaking. There were patterns. Those with similar sounds or appearance ended up with similar names. But rarely identical ones. His memory for the made up words was fantastic. I couldn’t keep track of every association, but those I could remember he recalled perfectly.
Occasionally I’d try to get his attention but he’d ignore me. It was like I was just another bird in the park.
He stopped for lunch – a leftover veggie burger on a park bench. I watched him eat and he continued to ignore me.
I had his file. I reopened it. “Adam Jones, 23” it said. There were all sorts of reports in it. Transcripts. Excellent grades in mathematics. Declining grades in everything else. Eventually no grades in anything but mathematics. And then no grades at all. But he kept attending classes. And then he stopped doing that. Not long after, he’d had his first arrest for indecent exposure. But he didn’t face any charges. Then he’d been found to have schizophrenia. He’d been hospitalized a few times. But the meds hadn’t helped. Finally, he stopped speaking. He stopped making noise. Except, of course, in Central Park.
He finished eating and handed his leftovers to a nearby squirrel. He pointed at it, and named it.
The squirrel chirped happily and he smiled. A joyous, innocent and deep smile. Adam Jones didn’t have schizophrenia. But I was the only one who knew it.
He sat for a minute. His eyes shut. His lips moved and then the smile deepened beyond his face, seeming to enter his chest and his legs and the bench beyond his body. And then the park as a whole. The entire place seemed to light up with his spirit.
And then slowly, it all receded and returned to normal.
He never frowned.
I continued to follow him, watching him name things.
When I was ready, I pointed at a warbler and I repeated his string of now intelligible sounds.
Then, he looked up. As if confirming what I said he pointed at the same bird and repeated the same sounds. I nodded in concurrence and repeated them after him.
It wasn’t a complex language, just names of things. Even so, he seemed willing to communicate with me. I just had to speak his language.
That was how it started. Talking of things. Concrete things. Only concrete things. The man was simple and straightforward. He didn’t come up with new ideas or create concepts. And, even in his own language, he wasn’t a brilliant communicator. He thought, but not like other people. He was an observer, cataloging what he saw – recording it in his own strange way.
Amazingly, he assessed nothing. Nothing was good or bad. Nothing was beautiful or ugly. Nothing was surprising or particularly interesting. Things just were. People just were. They too were to be pointed at and named. But nothing more.
And after every found meal he sat, and glowed, and lit up the world around him, and then resumed his rounds of the park.
I walked with him for weeks.
I was waiting for something more, trying to inspire something more. But he was a happy man. A man at peace. What greater desires he might have had were perfectly tucked away.
He was satisfied with his lot. And he was pleased with his meditations. He lived a life without fear or risk.
There seemed to be nothing I could do to help.
Adam Jones wasn’t schizophrenic. He was holier than any man alive.
He was connected to G-d and to nobody and nothing else.
And then one day I came to the park and he was picking through garbage on the side of the street.
He was looking for food.
And he’d figured out who I was.
It was then that I pushed him into traffic.
Seven days later Adam Jones wakes up. He’d been hospitalized.
A woman is sitting beside him as he wakes. She’s a nurse. She’d seen him arrive. He’d been damaged, almost destroyed. But she’d seen him smile. She’s seen the power of his smile.
She’d read his chart, just as I’d read his file. And just like me, she knew he wasn’t schizophrenic.
She is a part of him and she loves him. But she represents something he repressed. Where he is satisfied, she is restless. Where he is content to observe, she wants to be involved. Walking through the park, naming things and feeding on scraps of other people’s food won’t be enough for her.
She needs more.
Nonetheless, when Adam Jones opens his eyes, she is waiting.
She will save him. He will see fear and risk and he will feel hunger. But he will also experience the joy of creation and of assessing the work of his own hands.
In his struggle, he will never again see the park as it was.
I can look at my work, and I can see that it is good.
The religious world has a tendency to define good as that which G-d chooses. In this rendering, nothing could be greater than living the life dictated by G-d. And nothing can be worse than stepping away from it. There are differences in this broad definition. For example, while Christians tend to see Eve’s eating of the Apple as the Original Sin, the standard Jewish interpretation is thatchoosing to do Good – which can only happen with knowledge of Evil – enables us to be greater than the angels themselves.
But is choice all that makes us greater than angels? Imagine the perfect choosing man. He knows the will of G-d and he is aware of Evil. But he has so connected himself to G-d that the possibility of choosing anything but the will of G-d is totally outside of his capability. He is a man who lives in peace and security and who is filled with the wonder of G-d.
What is this man missing?
The answer is clear to any of us.
This man isn’t using his own initiative to impact the world. He isn’t creating and assessing. He isn’t contributing anything new. He has entirely subsumed his character and his own unpredictable drive to create and add to the world.
This is not the image of G-d. G-d, the Creator, assesses Goodness after he creates. Man, in the image of G-d and filled with His spirit, is not complete unless he is creating and judging that which he creates.
Our perfect man, despite drawing himself close to G-d and despite living in divine peace, is not himself a doer of Goodness. He is very Holy, but he is not Good. This is Adam in the Garden of Eden. He has not sinned, he is living with G-d. But he has not created, and so G-d declares that ‘Man alone is not Good.’ And Adam detects, on some level, that something is missing. Unlike the animal species, he has no opposite.
Man in the garden needed, to quote my children, ‘a kick in the derriere’. And that kick is Chava (Eve in English). She makes man Good – a higher state than pure holiness. But it comes with a cost. Man is driven to create by the Evil of the world. Man is driven to create by fear and pain. We are forced create because we must plant and build and bear children just to sustain ourselves and our species. However, given that drive, we do create.
And Adam understood this.
Hashem says: “because you have harkened to the voice of your wife… unto dust you shall return.’ In the very next verse, the Torah records: “And the man called his wife’s name Chava; because she was the mother of all living.”
This seems to be the nature of humankind. Without risk, without fear, without Evil, we are not creative. Give people welfare and they will stop creating. They will devolve socially. Prop up whole societies and they will rot – demanding destruction to dampen their restlessness and pain. Wealthy societies and successful companies can suffer from the same effect.
The pained, self-destructive, restless, rich son is an image as old as civilization.
King Solomon, the wisest of men, lived a life so blessed that he could see almost nothing new under the sun, or understand that not all was vanity. It is not surprising that he turned to foreign women and idol worship. It is not surprising that he left a country on the verge of collapse.
On a more personal and banal note, I procrastinate because I seem to want to feel the pain of a deadline.
For many of us, the knowledge of Good and Evil is not a choice between two paths – it is a twin pack of motivation and action. Evil is a motivation even if the good is only a hopeless but beautiful protest against an inevitable reality.
But there are those who can create the Good without being beset by Evils.
In the past four Yom Kippur greetings, I’ve written about three such people.
The first was William Wilberforce. Wilberforce inherited great wealth and had Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister (at 24) as his best friend. Despite his good fortune, he dedicated himself to changing the social reality of an Empire while also doing more to end slavery than almost any man in history.
The second was Norman Borlang who fixated on feeding the world and created new crops than saved literally hundreds of millions of lives.
And the third was Nicolas Winton, a stockbroker who dedicated himself to saving Jewish children in 1939. He rescued 669 children, at least one of whom I have the honor of knowing.
There is a pattern that binds these examples together. The Torah says, “G-d blessed the seventh day and made it holy by resting in it from all his creative work.” Holiness is created by divine rest. But G-d does more than rest. He works for six days – he creates the Good for six days – so that the world may rest and be in a state of divine peace on the seventh.
To follow Hashem’s example, we should create not just to combat our own difficulties, but to enable others to create and to rest in holiness.
Borlang, Wilberforce and Winton lived in the image of G-d. They used their own blessings to assault hunger, slavery and murder and enable others both to experience some measure of peace and creation in their own lives. Finally, they did not deprive their beneficiaries of the need to create to sustain themselves. They did not reduce them to dependents.
In the past year, I made many choices that were neither holy nor creative: judging others without purpose, wasting time, not learning enough, and summarily dismissing the beauty, variety and value of others’ uniquely creative and holy souls. But I have done more than that. I have failed to do all that I can to support Goodness and Holiness in our society.
In considering my own talents and abilities, I have decided to begin to rectify the last of these shortcomings by writing a book. The first chapter is the story of Adam Jones. The book as a whole will be an exploration of how we can support goodness and holiness – personally, socially and politically. It will be an exploration of how we can use these objectives to bring purpose and satisfaction to our lives, to the lives of those around us, and to the lives of our children. And it will be an exploration of how we can extinguish evil.
If you are interested in seeing my work as it progresses, let me know.
If there are any slights or sins my family or myself have committed against you – whether known or unknown – we apologize and ask for your forgiveness.
And if you have committed any slights or sins, known or unknown, against us – you may consider them forgiven.
And may you have a year of health, a year of prosperity, a year of honor, a year of family and a year of joy. Last, but not least, may you have a year where you create the Good and experience the Holy.
p.s. For those wanting a New Year’s update, we have had a blur of a year. I’m working with WheelTug, Bec is with the VA. For the first time in a long time, we haven’t moved house. Nava and the Trips are progressing nicely. They are all going to school (Ma’ayan HaTorah) and, notably, Yitzchak can ride a bike without training wheels (at 3 and a half). Aside from freakish things like that, it is hard to say what is new about them because the timelines are so unclear. Nonetheless, we are continually doing our best to bring out the best of each of them and to help them learn, as they grow, to be creators in their own right. Thank G-d all are healthy. K’9 aHora it has been a good year.