RH Morning 5772: The Head, the Hand, and the Heart
Over the course of my lifetime, I have attended a lot of graduations. As a student myself, then as a brother, a rabbi, a friend and a parent, I have listened to countless commencement addresses offered by a host of local dignitaries. Yet truth be told, with one exception, I can not remember a single significant detail from any of them. All of these speeches have been forgettable, including a couple that I only vaguely recall delivering myself. Graduation talks tend to offer tedious, clichéd formalities that only serve to delay the main event.
But oh, that one exception! I have contemplated it often since I first heard it almost fifteen years ago, and I continue to glean new insights every time I return to its wisdom.
Neither the school nor the speaker was famous. The speech got no coverage on CNN or NPR, or for that matter, Boise’s News Channel Seven. Although certainly deserving, it is not included in any anthologies of “Best Commencement Addresses of 1997.” Mine was the only Jewish family present for the event, and yet the words that defined it might have been drawn straight out of Jewish tradition—even though their author was Basque. The speaker was Miss Patti, the occasion: my daughter Tanya’s kindergarten graduation from Montessori House for Children. And her talk was entitled, “The Head, The Heart, and the Hand.”
With simple eloquence that masterfully moved both the six year olds and their proud parents, siblings, and grandparents, Miss Patti challenged us all to live well-balanced lives. She drew on Maria Montessori’s philosophy of education, with its holistic blend of intellect, emotion, and action.
“Use your heads,” she urged. Reflect on your past experience, plan for the future, develop self-awareness. Think about your choices and their consequences. This is the way we change and grow.
“Cherish your hearts,” she added. Cultivate kindness and compassion. Nurture your spirit. Acknowledge your full range of feelings and emotions. This is how we open ourselves to one another, and to the countless gifts the world offers every day, if we are receptive to its love and generous in returning it.
“And put your hands to work,” she concluded. Translate your thoughts and feelings and words into positive actions. Make a difference. Be quick to help others. Repair what is broken. Fix what is unfair. Create beauty.
That is why we are here and how we should live: by head and heart and hand.
I recall this speech every year when we chant Unetaneh Tokef, the prayer that is, perhaps, most emblematic of these Days of Awe. Little did Miss Patti know that her advice to her young charges and their families would always carry, for me, echoes of the most shattering, death-haunted poetry of the High Holy Day liturgy.
We’ve heard the terrifying and transformative words of Unetaneh Tokef earlier this morning. Were you paying attention? Their thunderous, raw language sounds a most disturbing wake up call:
Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day, for it is full of awe and dread. . .
You are Judge and Arbiter—You open the Book of Life and we pass like sheep beneath Your staff. . . as You consider and calculate, record and recount our every deed. . . and in so doing, decree the fate of every living thing:
Who shall live and who shall die. . .
Who by fire and who by water. . .
Who by hunger and who by thirst. . .
Who by strangling and who by stoning,. . .
Who will be tranquil and who will be troubled. . .
This chilling litany marks the chasm between Divine power and human frailty. It is, of course, metaphorical. God is not really a shepherd, we are not sheep, and the Book of Life is, as we would say, a virtual one. But the imagery relentlessly drives home the poet’s point: our lives are utterly fragile, and our fates are largely determined by forces infinitely greater than our selves.
And then comes the kicker, the phrase upon which the entire poem pivots:
“U-teshuvah, u-tefillah, u-tzedakah ma’avirin et ro-ah ha-g’zerah”
Repentance, prayer and charity temper the severity of the decree.
What does this line mean? What does it come to teach us?
One could take it as a promise of Divine reward for good behavior. According to this interpretation, sincere repentance, heartfelt prayer, and generous giving essentially buy us life, health, and prosperity. In other words, if we are virtuous enough, God will judge us favorably, enabling us to avert the decree for another year.
But such a reading does not hold.
To begin with, it is obvious that no one escapes the final judgment. No matter how radically we repent, how truly we pray, and how munificently we give, we will all perish. Pain and sorrow afflict every one of us; the only question is not “if” but how and when. The decree is irrevocable, issued, signed, and sealed at birth. And, alas, it is often anything but fair. Over the course of this new year, 5772, some of us will fall sick, many will endure difficult losses, and a few of us will die. That is not divine punishment; it is the way of flesh and blood.
To put it in the bluntest of terms: almost nothing we do, for good or for evil, will change the decree. There is no simple correlation between morality and mortality. To insist that doing mitzvot will assure long life and abundance—or that sinning will bring distress and death—is to deceive oneself. As the poet Mary Oliver puts it:
Above the modest house and the palace—the same darkness.
Above the evil man and the just, the same stars.
Above the child who will recover and the child who will
not recover, the same energies roll forward,
from one tragedy to the next and from one foolishness to the next.
Even worse, the illusory calculus of divine reward and punishment insinuates that those who suffer are themselves to blame for their unfortunate fate. The notion that God dishes out blessing and retribution according to our merits is therefore shortsighted at best, and, at worst, insulting. Our destinies are much more complicated, mysterious, and paradoxical than can be expressed in such falsely pious formulas. By any reasonable human reckoning, life is not fair—and while, repentance, prayer and charity are certainly virtues, they do not alter that fundamental reality.
Of course we are not the first generation to recognize this inequity. Life’s unfairness is not exactly breaking news. Our Talmudic sages lived in times and places steeped in much more death and disaster than our own. Women routinely died in childbirth. Many children never reached adulthood. Plague and pestilence decimated communities. Rabbis were tortured and killed for the crime of teaching Torah. And so our Sages struggled, at least as much as we do, to make sense of a world in which inexplicable afflictions strike down virtuous women, men, and children, while the depraved and merciless escaped unscathed.
The history of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer reflects the Rabbis’ wrestling with this age-old quandary. Five hundred years before Amnon of Mayence is said to have composed the words that we recited this morning, the Jerusalem Talmud offered an earlier version teaching that “repentance, prayer, and charity m’vatlin—abrogate or tear up—the decree.” But this first draft did not make the cut. Our revision shifts the verb from m’vatlin to ma’avirin—from abrogate to mitigate. This modification changes everything. With it, the Rabbis reject the illusion that doing good ensures a long and happy life. They concede: the decree stands, regardless of the merit of our deeds.
And yet. . . our deeds matter. While our choices cannot shield us from sorrow, they can temper our suffering and ease our passage. Repentance, prayer and charity won’t cure a disease or restore a loved one but they may attract people who console us in our grief, and thereby restore a sense of community, meaning, and peace. Nothing can stave away sadness and loss—but we can all find purpose and possibility in the portion that, for better and for worse, is ours. In the end, we cannot change the decree. But we retain the power to choose life and blessing in the days allotted us.
In other words, Unetaneh Tokef reminds us, oftentimes we do not create our circumstances. But we decide how to respond to them—and the choices that we make define who we are and what we will become.
Who shall live and who shall die? Each and every one of us. The challenge is to make the most of the unknown parcel of precious time we are allotted, to live each fleeting hour with awareness, intention, and integrity. For in truth, some people are as good as gone even as they go through the motions of walking this earth, while others remain vitally alive even while confined to their deathbeds. The wisdom of Unetaneh Tokef cannot rescue us from illness or death, but it can teach us to number our days, and live well—lest we die spiritually while we are still here.
Which brings me back to Miss Patti and her sage advice to the young graduates of Montessori House for Children. Although she did not know it, her categories of head, heart, and hand correspond beautifully to teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah, the three activities that ease the decree’s severity.
Teshuvah is all about the head. It is the way of self-awareness, the radical notion that by focusing mind and will, we can improve ourselves, rise above our faults, and amend our failings. In the words of Rabbi Sharon Brous, teshuvah is the promise that: “You don’t have to be a static, stagnant being, dwelling in the mistakes of years past. You can affirm that life is dynamic and people change.” The process begins with a serious spiritual accounting, in which we weigh the consequences of our choices, good and bad. From there, we ask forgiveness from those we have hurt and grant it to those who have hurt us. And then comes hardest part of all: mustering and maintaining the mental discipline to stay on course from this new year to the next. It is difficult and demanding work, but the reward is great—for if we wish to be truly alive until we die, we must use our heads, to make teshuvah, to live the carefully and constantly examined life, to apply God’s gift of conscience and mind, to question, reflect, hope, and grow.
Tefillah is the language of the heart. It is the path of compassion and kindness, the power of emotion that gives the spirit wings. The truest prayer is our awe-filled silence when the world’s beauty takes our breath away. Tefillah is all that makes us sing and soar: candles, music, meditation, art, nature, relationship. It is about living and embracing mystery, about moving forward on faith when we are weary and cannot otherwise discern the way. Whenever we truly open our hearts, what they utter is a kind of prayer. Tefillah is the love that conquers loneliness; it is the heart’s miraculous capacity to both give and receive the comfort of community as we reach toward God and one another. This, too, is difficult work, and risky, for whenever we extend our hearts, we risk having them broken. But again, the reward is great—for if we wish to be truly alive until we die, we must, indeed, dare to open our hearts, to raise up our tefillah, our prayer, to receive and bless the countless gifts the world extends every day, and lovingly offer ourselves in return.
Tzedakah is the work of the hand. It is ethics in action, the way of renewal and repair. While much in life is inequitable and out of our control, tzedakah reminds us that our hands can make the world a little fairer. For Jews, this is not an option but an obligation. We must share our resources and give of ourselves. Tzedakah means standing hand in hand with our fellow citizens, living lightly on the earth, caring for the environment, fighting oppression, and recognizing that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Tzedakah is how we embody our Jewish values in the marketplace of daily life. Let us put our hands to healing, here in our local community, our state and nation, and in Israel, our Jewish homeland. As Talmud teaches, we need not complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it—for if we wish to be truly alive until we die, we must use our hands, to perform the sacred labor of tzedakah, to fix what is broken and sow seeds of justice and liberation.
On this first morning of the New Year, let us, then, affirm our holy calling, according to both Miss Patti and Rabbi Amnon of Mayence: teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah, the head, the heart, and the hand. For knowing that we will all die, our challenge is to live fully, here and now, embracing intellect, emotion, and action.
I conclude with the final paragraph of Ian Frazier’s wonderful memoir, Family. As the book draws to a close, he is sitting at his mother’s deathbed. Feeling the weight of her mortality—and his own—he recognizes in that sad and sacred moment what we live for. He writes:
Sooner or later I would die—I understood that now, clearly, the way you suddenly become aware of the sky and the diving board after the person in front of you has jumped—and my kids perhaps would see me off as I had seen my parents off, or perhaps not. And soon all the people who had accompanied me through life would be gone, too, and then even the people who had known us, and no one would remain on earth who had ever seen us, and those descended from us perhaps would know stories about us, perhaps once in a while they would pass by buildings where we had lived and they would mention that we had lived there. And then the stories would fade, and our graves would go untended, and the graves of those who had tended ours would go untended, and no one would guess what it had been like to wake before dawn in our breath-warmed bedrooms as the radiators clanked and our wives and husbands and children slept. And we would move from the nearer regions of the dead who are remembered into the farther regions of the forgotten, and on past those, into a space as white and big as the sky replicated forever. And all that would remain would be the love bravely expressed, and the moment when you danced and your heart danced with you.
Ken y’hi ratzon.