Rabbi David Evan Markus
“I beg of you: do not walk by without pausing,
to attend to this rather ridiculous performance –
It could mean something; it could mean everything;
It could mean you must change your life.”
These words, adapted for today’s Haftarah, are from the poem “Invitation,” by Mary Oliver. She calls us to pay attention, even to the goldfinches whose song celebrates life. Pay attention: open to subtlety, hone our focus, attune our senses. The seeming triviality of bird song, the subtlety of a quiet inner knowing – the “still, small voice” – each might have a big message for us.
“You must change your life,” says Mary Oliver, says tradition, our inner knowing, the “still, small voice” – but our most important and readily attainable life changes aren’t always big ones. Often they’re small ones, little choices we make daily about how we act, how we react, what we do, what we don’t do – things maybe we put on autopilot. That’s how our patterns form: one autopilot at a time.
We’ve been developing our High Holy Day theme of shalom and shleimut – peace and wholeness. On erev Rosh Hashanah, we explored how peace and wholeness are linked, how the storms disrupting our peace and wholeness also ask our focus… or in the words of Sophie Black, “whatever gets in the way of the work is the work.” On Rosh Hashanah’s first day, we explored how spiritual practice, especially hakarat hatov (seeing the good), helps build our capacity to make ourselves, each other and the world more whole.
Today, Rosh Hashanah’s second day, we explore our choices about what we pay and why we pay – and by “pay,” let’s broadly mean what we give in focus, attention, time, money and energy. In that spirit, my talk today is entitled “Paying Up.”
In the Mideast culture so influential on Jewish life, paying up means making whole – in Hebrew, l’shalem. Even an economic transaction, like buying milk, is a making-whole: the store gives you milk, and you make the store whole by giving money as value for the milk. In theory, paying money for value makes all sides whole.
Properly understood, everything we give (or don’t give) is part of making-whole (or not making-whole) the world around us. And in words I thought I’d never say, economists and spiritualists agree on this point. To an economist, the flow of value, which we call money, has a speed called velocity, the rate at which dollars circulate. The higher the velocity of money, the more transactions and usually the more vibrant an economy. To a spiritualist, the flow of holiness (in Hebrew, shefa) courses through our lives, and the speed, direction and blocks in the flow depend on our choices of action and attitude.
This time of year calls us to an exquisitely acute awareness that these choices matter. Our choices can hasten and expand the flow, contract it, redirect it or block it. So it matters greatly what we pay in attention, time and tzedakah (charitable giving). It matters what distracts our attention, what autopilot choices we make in how we think, how we spend our energy, how we spend our money, and how we spend the days of our lives.
Our spiritual economics matter greatly. Do they measure up? Put another way, what do we owe, what spiritual bills are due, and what must we pay up to be m’shalem, someone who makes-whole?
Our holy path of teshuvah (spiritual return) asks us to not only turn over new leaves by changing behaviors and patterns that no longer serve us or people in our lives, but also pay up for emotional and spiritual debts we incurred when we weren’t our best selves. We pay up for actions and inactions that left others feeling less than whole. We pay attention – raise our inner antennas, develop acute awareness – to what our pay-ups are. We pay heed to the signals, the “still small voice,” the spiritual flow, even the goldfinches, that might direct our attention to what we owe in our lives.
Maimonides taught this about teshuvah. We can confess from today until Chanukkah, we can sing Avinu Malkeinu until we’re blue in the face, but teshuvah gamur (full teshuvah) is possible only if we pay up for the spiritual debts we incurred. If we hurt someone, we must go to them – if it’s possible and safe, even if it’s hard – and pay respect, pay with our time and care, by seeking forgiveness. And if it’s not possible and safe, we pay by another way that helps make some repair in the world as close as possible to the ideal repair we wish we could make. Hopefully this idea makes sense, but the reasons are subtle and worth exploring.
The most poignant example that I saw recently came not from Maimonides but from a young man who’s learning with me toward his bar mitzvah. He’s a good guy – respectful, eager, smart and all-around nice – and at the seasoned age of 12, he’s unlikely to have a long list of missed steps to feel bad about doing or not doing. But we were learning about Rosh Hashanah and teshuvah, so I asked him if there’s anything in his life that he’s carrying around.
He looked at me earnestly, like he does, and he put his finger to the peach fuzz starting to sprout atop his upper lip. And he said quietly, “Well, my sister. She’s a pain. She’s such a pain. My gawwwwwd is she a pain! She’s such a girl. I guess I should be nicer to her?”
I asked, “Well, what would it be like for you to apologize to her for not being nicer to her?”
“Me? Why should I apologize? She’s such a pain!”
“Maybe so, and you can’t control how she acts – but you can decide how you’ll act. That’s what part of what becoming an adult is about. Do you think you acted the best that you could?”
“No, I guess not. But what if she doesn’t accept my apology? Or what if she doesn’t care?”
“There’s only one way to find out, isn’t there? You’ll decide.”
At our next meeting the following week, I asked him what he decided to do about his sister. He told me that he went to his sister and apologized for not being nicer to her, and he promised that he’d try to be a better big brother. I asked him, “What’d she say?”
He struck a pose and answered in his best imitation of a California Valley Girl voice: “Like, whatever. She didn’t really care.”
“Okay, but did you care?”
“Actually, now that you mention it, yeah. I feel different. I had the courage to go to her. Maybe it didn’t matter what her response was. What’s important is my response, and how I feel better inside for coming clean.”
That from a 12-year-old.
The adult spiritual economics of teshuvah are more dynamic than our childhood dramas, but it’s telling that kids often understand intuitively what we adults tend to complicate out of proportion. When we try to make another more whole for our imperfect choices and behaviors, we also help make ourselves more whole. The soul longs for its own inner wholeness, like an itch we have to scratch, and when we pay up, we also pay toward our own soul’s repair.
The same goes for when we pay up through charitable giving, whether in time or money or both. Here economists and spirituality part ways. In the cold mathematics of money, altruism makes no sense: altruism makes no profit. But psychologists and spiritualists tell us what we instinctively know: altruism feels good. There’s a reason it feels good: we want to know ourselves to be people who pay up, who are giving and caring. While we might imagine that these are feelings money can’t buy, in fact these are feelings that being m’shalem – one who helps make whole – can buy with wise and caring use of our money, time, energy and volunteerism.
That’s one of three reasons tradition teaches us, no matter how rich or poor we are, to give tzedakah. First, tradition wants us to feel whole by being people who help make others whole: that’s the essence of Judaism, this journey to shalom and shleimut by being m’shalem. Second, tradition knows that we pay into our souls by paying toward fixing what we broke. There are no free rides in life: teshuvah, tefilah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zerah – repentance, prayer and charity can transform our lives. That’s how we change our autopilot choices – one paying-up at a time.
And third, the world needs us. We owe the world for sunlight and sky, caring neighbors and first responders. There’s not enough caring in the world for a world that needs all the caring we can offer. Mystics teach that the brokenness of the world calls us to become repairers, investors in the spiritual economics of tikkun olam, by paying up and paying upward. As below, so above: when we make repairs on this plane, we help repair the cosmos itself. As we pay-up below, so too do the heavens open and heal.
This, I believe, is the ultimate call of the holy, beckoning us toward becoming not only shalem (whole) but also m’shalem (one who makes whole). It asks our attention to what on our spiritual tab is unpaid, it asks our courage, it asks all we’ve got to give.
Which begs a question: in the ultimate existential spirituality of these days, is there any price too high to pay? The Akedah of today’s Torah portion imagines that the price God demanded for Avraham being whole was to pay with his son’s life. I’m not sure that’s right: it might be that God asked Avraham to lift up his son, not sacrifice his son. It might be God was trying to teach Avraham about justice, to talk back and draw lines, and Avraham failed the test by being too willing to pay too high a price by abdicating to an autopilot, even one with God’s name and voice. We’ve wrestled this story for many centuries, and maybe we’ll never know for sure.
But I know this: sometimes the price of our teshuvah is indeed high, because the repair we need to make is great. Sometimes the world asks much of us – and certainly these days, the world needs much from us. The Akedah puts in sharp relief the question of what price we’re willing to pay. That question is the question of this hour, this day, this week of meaning leading into Yom Kippur.
I believe that this question is holy, and that our answers – if they comes from the depth of our souls rather than from an auto-pilot habit – will be the right ones. Our answers will be most right, most whole, most shalem, if they come from our clearest intention to do what we know is right, to rebalance our lives, to become whole, to be m’shalem – in short, to pay up.
May the Holy One guide us to discern the wholeness of that truth, to summon the strength to be truly m’shalem for ourselves, each other and the world. And by that merit, may we make this year truly a shanah tovah um’tukah – a year of sweet goodness.
May we have strength