Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Monday, March 8, 2021

Meditations of the Heart

Delivered at 1st Reformed Church in Hastings as part of a pulpit exchange weekend.

As Pastor Emily pointed out this last Friday, each of our communities designates certain scriptural passages to be read each week. This week, our readings are linked through the 10 Commandments. In synagogues, we’re reading about the Golden Calf episode and exploring the Israelite’s transgression into idolatry. This morning, I want to tackle a different commandment.

Let’s start with the organizing principle of the decalogue. Rather than calling them the 10 commandants, we could rename them the 10 commitments, or the 10 relationship standards. The first half (roughly) are promises we make vis-à-vis God. We promise to respect God’s transcendent nature and create sacred moments in time as a way to honor God’s creation. The second half are agreements vis-à-vis people: honoring our parents, respecting life and livelihood, and the rules that make for an ethical society.

The 10 Commandments range in their feasibility. Don’t murder? Easy enough.  Don’t bear false witness? Achievable too, if you put some oomph into it. Honor your parents? Challenging sometimes, but do-able.

The most elusive commandment, I argue, is not to covet – that is, not to want what others have. In the other commandments, you might have the thought to murder, or to lie, but you decide not to act upon that thought and therefore keep your commitment to that law. With “do not covet,” we are told not to think the thought at all. That’s a tall order, especially for something so instinctive and natural to animals like us. Of all the commandments, this is likely the one we transgress the most.

Abraham Ibn Ezra, a great sage of 12th century Spain, wonders how God can legislate our feelings. He explains that “desire itself cannot be absolutely legislated but we can learn to condition ourselves as to what is realistic desire and what has to be confined to the realm of mere fantasy – for both moral and practical reasons.”

The general remedy, he says, is being content with what you have. If you take delight in what you have, it is less likely jealously and desire for more will creep in.

So the commandment is not so much “do not covet” as much as it is “practice contentment” and delight in what you have. This is where religious practice comes in. It helps us to work those muscles.

In Judaism, we tend to do it by telling stories:

We tell the story of Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol, for example, who lived in the area of Ukraine for most of the 18th century. He was a well-known tzaddik (a righteous person) and part of the great Maggid of Mezeritch’s inner circle. He’s known for his particularly progressive take on life.

For example, a man once visited the holy Maggid of Mezeritch and said he had great difficulties applying the Talmudic principle that "A person is supposed to bless God for the bad just as one blesses God for the good.” He just couldn’t wrap his head around it or practice it in his own life. The Maggid told the man to find the Rabbi Zusya and ask him for help in understanding. The man went and found Rabbi Zusya, who received him warmly and invited him to his home. When the guest came in, he saw how poor Rabbi Zusya’s family was: there was almost nothing to eat; the whole family, including Rabbi Zusya was beset with afflictions and illnesses. Nevertheless, Rabbi Zusya and his family were happy and cheerful. The guest was astonished. He said: "I’m here because the Holy Maggid said you could show me how is it possible to bless God for the bad in the same way we bless God for the good." Rabbi Zusya said: "This is indeed a very interesting question. But why did our holy Rebbe send you to me? How would I know? He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering."

Indeed, there are lots of stories of Reb Zusya’s contentment with his lot. Yet there was one moment in his life where his we learn how this came to be:

The story is told that when Rabbi Zusya was on his deathbed, his students found him in uncontrollable tears. They tried to comfort him by telling him that he was nearly as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham, so he was sure to be judged positively in Heaven. He replied, "When I get to Heaven, I will not be asked “Why weren't you like Moses,” or “Why weren't you like Abraham.” God will ask, “Why weren't you like Zusya?"

In this case, Zusya does not covet possessions or material things, he doesn’t covet the prestige of the great sages before him - he regrets the missed opportunities to self-actualize, to find all the unique ways he could draw the world closer to God. 

Yet Zusya’s great sadness exposes his righteous nature. His story teaches us that there are two ways to interact with God’s creation: on the one hand, we can consume it, take in as much of it as we can, coveting more and more. This is the thirst that depletes the natural world, our trust in one another, and our moral energy. This is what the 10 commandments warn of. Coveting, in this sense, is a form of idolatry.

The other approach, the one Zusya embodies, is to desire to add to God’s creation, to work as a partner with the Divine to fill the world with soulful acts. To fear that we’re not contributing enough means we acknowledge the greatness of it all. We hope to transform this into a sense of purpose. Indeed, if we are striving to produce more than we take, then we will find contentment with what we have. We’ll turn less to feelings of jealousy and the destructive behaviors that may result from them. Indeed, the sage Sforno says that the sin of coveting is part of the “big ten” because it’s dangerous; it is a feeling that easily leads to the other sins: stealing, lying, etc.

I think this is the Torah’s interpretation to what it means to live life with “no regrets.” It’s not so much checking off boxes on your “bucket list” per say, but knowing that the amount of blessing you brought into the world outweighs the ways in which you depleted the goodness already in it.

I think about this a lot in relation to my grandmother. She died three years ago on Mother’s Day, just days before her 92nd birthday. Before you’re horrified by that fact, that she died on Mother’s Day, you must know that it was so my grandmother to die on Mother’s Day. That’s because it embodies who she was: the matriarch of our family - revered, dignified, demanding, loving, and absolutely NOT a shrinking violet…a woman who wouldn’t concede her death to any other day but the one already set aside to honor women like her.

I had the blessing of sitting with her for three days while she was in hospice in Florida, experiencing some profound moments along the way. On Monday, she could hold a short conversation, on Tuesday she could respond with smiles and nods, on Wednesday, just a recognizing glance. 

Shortly after I arrived by her side, she mentioned how she was ready for death. She was ready to “flow out,” she told me. How could she be so sure of this? I wondered. “I have no regrets” she told me, over and over. 

Indeed, hers was a blessed life in many ways. But I don’t think she was thinking about the comfortable lifestyle she lived as much as she recognized the fullness of her days and the blessings that she birthed into this world. 

As her frail body thinned and faded, I believe she recognized the robust beauty of what she was leaving behind. Her muscles were no longer needed by this world, and even though they fought for another few days, they eventually conceded and went to sleep, letting the bodies of those she mentored and loved take up the weight of life’s purpose.

Psalm 90 encourages us: Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. When we take an account of our lives, “no regrets” should mean that we saw value in every moment and took the opportunity to churn out as goodness as our bodies and hearts can muster.

The commandment of “do not covet,” says Rabbi Ibn Ezra, has us condition our actions so that we can condition our minds. Prayer is but one way we practice this and learn to look in instead of gazing out. Instead of having eyes on what others have, we turn our attention to our own hearts.

Psalm 19, which we just read, ends with “y’hiyu l’ratzon…” May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer. I find it meaningful that the psalmist draws together our outward actions – the words of my mouth - and our inner feelings – the meditations of my heart. It is so natural for the two to separate. Yet the more we act for justice and work for peace, the more we will condition the natural inclination of our hearts into something acceptable to God – hearts full of a true desire to bless God’s creation, our families, and the beautiful communities we seek to form.