Blog Post : Entitled to a Sweet Year

Entitled to a Sweet Year | erica.frankel | Sep 8, 2013

By Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi, Bronfman Center Reform Rabbinic Fellow and Scholar-in-Residence

[Erev Rosh HaShanah 5774, 4 September 2013]

Even though the Jewish holidays always seem to arrive either insanely early or ridiculously late, there’s something comforting and reliable about our lunar calendar and it’s cyclical but ever-so-slightly-shifting nature. The taste of apples dipped in honey might come on the heels of Labor Day—or it might instead arrive in the midst of the Hudson Valley apple harvest later in September. Undoubtedly, Rosh Hashanah always brings with it a sense of reliable tradition and much-needed renewal.

And yet… The blast of the shofar wakes us this year at a time when many of us don’t necessarily need awakening. We’re already all keyed up for a New Year—the new academic year. We’re excited and nervous… and many of you are still deciding whether you can skip class to be at services tomorrow morning. Maybe we don’t want to be reminded that the Jewish calendar runs counter to every other calendar that obligates us.

It’s maybe not the best time for apples and honey and the sound of the shofar.

The Jewish calendar is calling you to be awakened to a counter-cultural rhythm just as the secular calendar is pulling you into the daily grind of homework and seminars and internships and the constant work of resume building in an uncertain economy. I can imagine it feels disorienting, being pulled in two very different directions. It’s a feeling many of us understand, as Reform and progressive Jews—tradition pulls from one side, and the vast, speeding, secular world pulls from precisely the opposite direction. And we’re not sure to which post we can tether ourselves. We feel unmoored, off-balance.

And not to stress you out even more… but add to this the accusations railed against your generation I see all the time on Facebook and in SNL skits and on the pages of the Onion: “Generation Me,” “Trophy Kids,” “The Entitled Generation.” They’re not pretty labels, and they’re hurled against you before you even have a chance to prove yourselves in the adult world (whatever that is, in these days of so-called extended adolescence and supposedly “adult” politicians’ sexting scandals). You’ve barely arrived for a new semester and you’re already being told that your expectations for the workplace are unrealistic, that you are not as smart as you apparently think you are, that the universe owes you nothing.

Well, I’m going to tell you something different tonight. Because I think the fact of your very presence here means you’re seeking a way to find balance in an impossibly shifting world. I think the fact that you’re here tonight to welcome the Jewish New Year, and to usher in the Ten Days of Awe—a season not only of sweetness and celebration but of introspection and repentance—the fact that you’ve chosen to be here with this community, bespeaks how unfair those harsh labels are.

Public thinker David Brooks wrote just a few years ago that one of the most misunderstood challenges facing your generation is a newly-labeled phase in human development called “odyssey.” It’s a time of wandering, seeking, and searching. Other thinkers agree, noting that many young people today were raised in rigidly structured childhoods—safe and secure in their predictability—but become adults in a world that is increasingly uncertain. Nothing is permanent. Technology changes almost daily. Social norms change equally quickly. You’re in odyssey—you’re wandering—because no path is clear and all paths shift.

Some characterize this time as one of maximum freedom and minimal responsibility. You can do almost anything and face few consequences, or no consequences at all.

But I think all the negative press your generation gets tells us a more complicated truth. You enjoy freedoms unknown to previous generations, yes—but in some ways you’re free because there are no clear guidelines anymore. That can be liberating for some, and terrifying for others. You benefit from low responsibility, sure—but that can leave you feeling powerless. Perhaps the reason I’m always reading about “pestering” letters to potential employers from members of your generation is that you sometimes feel as though the world is judging you by arbitrary, capricious, and ever-shifting standards. Everything seems to keep moving around you, like the Jewish holidays—one day over here; and the next, miles ahead.

So where can you find some balance? I think the blast of the shofar is our hint.

I think we can find balance together in Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe—in the call to celebrate sweetness and in the call to accountability. I think we can find it together in the Jewish community and its counter-cultural rhythms.

During these Ten Days of Awe, we are encouraged to think of ourselves as both profoundly important—central to the world, in fact—and profoundly insignificant. We are reminded, on this, the birthday of the world, that God created the universe and on the final day of that creation, God made humanity. We call God Avinu, our parent—one who loves us unconditionally, and deeply individually. And we will be reminded on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, that “all flesh is grass”—that we, mere mortals, wither and fade away. We call God Malkeinu, our sovereign—one who rules over us strictly and impartially.

How will we find balance?

We can find balance together by heeding the words of Rabbi Bunim of P’shiskha—words often studied and preached during these High Holy Days:

Each person, Rabbi Bunim urged, should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: “I am but dust and ashes.” And on the other: “The world was created for me.” We reach into one pocket or the other. The key to a balanced life is knowing when to reach into each.

“The world was created for me.” I am important and unique—the refrain of the “self-esteem generation,” the lesson that many of us learned from well-meaning parents, or from schools who issued a trophy to everyone, just for showing up. The Talmud marvels that, though all human beings emerged from just one individual—adam, God’s original human creation—we are each unique. “A man mints many coins with one stamp, all of them the same as one another,” the Talmud states, but “the Holy One, Blessed be He, minted every person with the stamp of adam, yet not one of them is the same as his fellow. For this reason, every single person must say, ‘The world was created for me’” (Bavli Sanhedrin 37b). Jewish tradition tells us that, sometimes, we need to remind ourselves that we are indeed central to the work of this world. We are unique, and that uniqueness means we have a role to play.

“I am but dust and ashes.” The world doesn’t owe you anything. Its rhythms don’t follow your whims. In the Torah, Abraham declares in humility, “I am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18: 27). Speaking before God, Abraham acknowledges his own lack of power, deferring to God’s judgment even as he urges God to reconsider his harsh plan to destroy the innocent alongside the guilty in Sodom and Gomorrah. Jewish tradition tells us that, sometimes, we need to remind ourselves that we are small.

Balance lies in knowing when to turn to which piece of wisdom. Balance lies in knowing when to act on the knowledge that we matter, that we are powerful, that we have a responsibility to make the world into the kind of place where we want to wander. And balance lies, too, in knowing when to act on the profound truth that we are small in a vast world, a world in which we wander but temporarily amidst forces and rhythms far bigger than we.

This year, we can find balance together by learning what it means to be but dust and ashes, and living what it means to know that the world was created for each of us. We can find balance amidst a shifting world—even within a shifting Jewish calendar. We can find balance in the counter-cultural notion that we are each nothing and everthing—to God, and to this ever-changing world.

[Please see David Brooks, “The Oddysey Years,” The New York Times, October 9, 2007.
I am also particularly grateful for the teachings and insights of Rabbi Dan Smokler, which influenced my writing.]