Every year for the past 17 years, I have written an annual Yom Kippur greeting. Yom Kippur is one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar and part of our New Year cycle.
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 YomKippur 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 17th such letter.
In the Five Books of Moses, the lives of the great from Abraham to Esav to Aaron and Moshe – are all ended in the same way. They are ‘gathered’ to their people. The Hebrew word, from the same root as my name, Yosef, is often used in another context.
It is used to describe the gathering of sheaves of wheat.
To me, this is a beautiful and haunting image. An image of souls being harvested at their peak – to be joined with the other sheaves of their peoples.
The Torah (Bible) speaks of sheaves and of harvesting in many other contexts. Of particular note, it speaks of ears of corn and kernels of wheat being left in the field – as gleanings for the poor.
We know the achievements of a Lincoln – but consider the possibility that the soul of an anonymous childhood neighbor lives on through his actions. Consider the leftover kernels of that soul still spreading through our world.
With Yom Kippur in our minds, we must ask: how can we accomplish this with our own lives? How can we create souls worth harvesting – whose gleanings can sustain those who come after us?
An answer starts with the story of a man who knew a thing or two about harvests.
In 1937, the man was a graduate student. He had an undergraduate degree in Forestry and had worked as a Forest Service officer on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River – where my parents would later live and where my eldest three siblings would be raised. He’d lost his job and returned to school. One day that year, he attended a lecture. The event itself would seem unremarkable. The lecture was given by Dr. Elvin Stakman – an expert in the identification and treatment of diseases in wheat. During that lecture, Dr. Stakman stated that “[science could] go further than has ever been possible to [end] the miseries of hunger and starvation from this earth.”
With that statement, the student – by all accounts a tremendously caring person – found himself drawn to a concept. A concept by which he could help hundreds of millions of lives.
With that chance encounter, the student, the teacher, and our entire world were forever changed.
The student’s name was Norman Borlang. And in the following decades, Dr. Borlang revolutionized farming – particularly in the Third World. He led the Green Revolution.
In the process, he saved many more lives than Hitler ever took.
It is worth noting that we often remember the people who have committed great evil, but forget those who have done great good.
Dr. Borlaug died in 2009 – one of only six people to have received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. He is the only one of those six to have been inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
His story – like the stories of many other phenomenally productive people – carries within it an answer to my question.
In today’s world, people are consumed by the unplanned negative. Fundamentally, life is unpredictable and we live in fear of the unexpected. Death and illness are always lurking. And with our tremendously poor economy, a fear of the loss of income lingers constantly.
We try to avoid such things – we try to plan around them. But we exercise only the illusion of control.
Dr. Borlaug’s life, like the lives of so many other great people, teaches us that the unexpected need not be negative. In fact, a great life almost always involves the unexpected – the positive results of seemingly random encounters. Examples abound: from Moses killing the taskmaster because he decided to walk among the Hebrews to Dr. Borlang being inspired because he decided to attend a lecture.
We can easily avoid these sorts of unexpected events. We can avoid them by hiding from the world. But we can also cultivate them. We can cultivate them by interacting with our world. We can raise the odds of the positive unexpected occurring.
Jews are commanded to impact our world in a positive way. Because of this, there are no Jewish monks. Instead, we must walk within our world, we must learn and teach daily, and we must open ourselves to the unexpected. And when we interact, we must open ourselves not only to teaching, but also to learning.
As we examine our lives and our paths in this season, we must keep the lessons of a Dr. Borlaug in mind. In life, we have countless opportunities to change and develop the souls of ourselves and others. We can transfer bits of their essence to ourselves and bits of our essence to them. We can transfer bits of knowledge. And we can transfer bits of inspiration. And through this, all of us can grow and be strengthened.
We can do this as individuals – and we can do this as communities. And through this we can only bring great light to the world – we can eliminate the dark spaces where evil can grow unencumbered by the souls of the righteous.
Failing to do this – failing as individuals or as communities – is wasteful. It is wasteful of our lives and wasteful of the lives of others.
There is a time at which we ripen – and are ready to be gathered. We may be young or we may be old. But if we fail to grow, we may find ourselves cut down before we are meant to be taken. We may find our souls discarded where we could have joined the beautiful sheaves of our peoples.
Through the inspiration they provide, people like Dr. Borlaug can do more than create bountiful crops of wheat and corn and soy. They can create bountiful crops of people – beautiful souls yielding a better and stronger world. We must be open to that inspiration and the opportunities it can provide.
As I examine my past year, this has been my failure: I have failed to seek out interactions within my communities and beyond them – and I have failed to seek out and grasp the wisdom of those I have interacted with.
I ask for your forgiveness.
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.
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 of blessed serendipity.