Last week Dan Kois had a column in the New York Times all about Top Ten Lists. The column shared a rather philosophical reason for our need to itemize our interests. He offers, that, “to make a Top 10 list…[is] to join in a great cultural conversation.” The conversation happens around the judging and compiling of information, as well as the inherent disagreement of order or inclusion. Ironically, despite how definitive it seems, the Top 10 list is really a conversation starter.
Kois also sees creating Top 10 lists as a sort of performance. He shares that: “In building a Top 10, you are also creating, in 10 increments, the person you want to be, the taste you wish to have.” You can be a mix of bold and classical, nutty and refined. Your personal nuance is on display.
Kois doesn’t mention it, but we also can’t discount the power of nostalgia. Mark and I found ourselves this New Year counting down the top moments of a significant year for us. There is something very cathartic about organizing your experiences into a manageable list that highlights every addition – giving each item the attention and honor your heart feels it deserves. It is calming, almost.
Ultimately, maybe this is why we create Top Ten lists. It makes life manageable yet meaningful. It gives each detail of our lives purpose. We look back on the year with pride.
With this powerful desire to list and rank our experiences, we fatefully meet this week’s Torah portion, Vayekhi. Jacob is on his deathbed. He gathers his children to provide testament of what will come of them and their families. He musters the ability to present it in a perfectly crafted poem, a poem that is essentially…a list. Son by son, Jacob draws out a brief truth of the man’s nature and what it will mean for the future. Each tribe is reduced to one essential characteristic that defines their whole nature. Ruben is strong but egotistical, Benjamin is aggressive, Judah is calm and kingly. This presentation makes them seem disconnected and at odds. Yet, as the Plaut commentary finds, the one thing that binds them is the sense of common ancestry and the memory of an old covenant with each other and with their father’s God.
Otherwise put: the brothers are individuals, but they are glued together by a higher purpose and deep, Jewish values.
And here is where we find our year-end Top Ten lists not looking so much like Jacob’s final farewell. The uniting element in Top Ten lists is nostalgia, not deep values.
Now, nostalgic thoughts are very powerful. They create longing for things, persons, or situations of the past. They are bittersweet, filled with love and loss at the same time. Interestingly, the word nostalgia comes from the greek word nostos, which means “a return home.”
Ah, returning home. Just saying it evokes feeling of warmth, security, cookies baking in the oven, family rosy cheeked laughing together after prolonged absence. A Norman Rockwell painting of yesteryear. That’s returning home.
Except when its not. Returning home can be less heartwarming. When college kids come home, they love it for a day until they complain they’re bored and all their freedom is gone. People return home from vacations to real life and real situations. There may be anxiety in that return. Others return home from the hospital and worry about what will happen without round-the-clock care. Returning home can be lonely or scary. Nostalgia can’t be trusted because it is romanticized and not always accurate.
We see this too in the parshah. After Jacob dies, the brothers go together to bury him in Canaan. When they return home, reality sets in. With their father gone, they ask one another, “will Joseph begin to hate us again? Will he remember all the bad things we did to him (y’know, like throwing him into a pit and selling him into slavery) and seek retaliation?”
Jacob’s presence is a security blanket. While dad’s alive, the family plays nice. But when he’s gone, what is bonding them? It is going to have to be something deeper than “do it for dad.” Nostalgia, an idealized, perhaps fictional memory of their childhood together isn’t going to be good enough.
Their bond, our bonds with our own families need to be rooted in common values and honest sharing. We have to share in experiences that we don’t glamorize. We have to accept that not all our encounters are positive, that we’ve lived through more than just “the good ol’ days.” Even painful memories of the past are essential because they motivate and propel us into our future together. While it feels good to countdown the greatest hits, we really need to look deeper for the glue that is binding us.
So, with that being said, I am going to present a top five list for our community – the Top Five Things Reform Jews Should Care About in 2012. This is a list that doesn’t look back, but looks forward. It reflects on the deeper values that motivate us as modern Jews. As Dan Kois said, creating a list like this is a sort of performance, acting out the type of people, the type of Jews we should be. We’re not going to rely on nostalgia. We should go into 2012 with an honest look at our world and ourselves.
So, here it is, the Top 5 Things Jews Should Care About in 2012
1) Baby Boomers. The largest segment of our population is growing older and dealing with myriad stresses. Grown adults are now caring for their aging parents while still caring for their own children. The economy doesn’t help this. Or much of anything. But despite all this, baby boomers are smart, capable, and deeply committed individuals. We must learn how to nourish your souls, not just your children or your parents, because you too are seeking meaning and comfort.
This leads us to the next item on the list:
2) Jewish learning and connecting. Our world is exploding with new learning opportunities, most of these assisted by the internet. We need to optimize the internet and technology - not just to say how hip we are but, rather, to connect the silos of human experience and share our knowledge. It is making it easy for us, let’s get on board.
3) Civil and Human Rights. This ranges from caring about the recent bias attacks in Queens where four firebombs were aimed at minority, mostly Muslim, institutions. This also means fighting against the slow stripping away of women’s rights here and abroad. We thought we left bigotry and gender bias in decades past. We must stay diligent in eradicating them in the future.
Related to this is:
4) Israel. I’m going to talk more about that later.
5) The Reform Movement. Many of us attended the URJ Biennial in December and came home with the observation that this generation of Reform Jews is thriving and motivated. We’re going to see the Movement change significantly with the leadership change (Rick Jacobs is coming on as the new President) but this new movement wants our input and is asking each individual here to become a co-producer of the Jewish future. How exciting!
There you have it, a very incomplete list of what’s on my mind going into 2012. This list is not meant to be definitive. Actually, I want you to disagree with me, I want you to add your own things to it. I really mean this; so these six months, I’m writing a blog where I’ll be posting my divrei torah and asking you to provide feedback. Go on, read up, and post a comment.
Whatever you add to this list, let’s make sure that this list is connected by one thing: the very Jewish refusal to let things remain as is. Our faith prophetically demands that our world meet our high expectations. Nostalgia has its place, but we are not meant to live within it. We Jews are meant to be realistic about our past and motivated for the future.
Kein Yhi Ratzon – may we build a future worth being proud of.
We just sang the words of Makom Shelibi Oheyv – the place where my heart holds dear, my feet will bring me near. It is quite possibly a nostalgic song of homecoming. But this song is not meant to be about a simple return home. It is mean to be a return home with purpose, a march rather than a stroll towards a world that meets our idealistic expectations.
Let’s not take it lightly that this is Woodlands’ community mantra. Yes, this is a place of comfort, warmth and love, but it is also a place of action and vision. May we look realistically to the future and return home, to a more beautiful world, together.