Rosh HaShanah Morning: Let it Rot

Calvin and Hobbes is a comic strip that features the conversations and adventures of a 6 year old boy and his sardonic stuffed tiger. One conversation reflects the theme of this time period. Calvin says:  “When a kid grows up, he has to be something. He can’t just stay the way he is. But a tiger grows up and stays a tiger. Why is that?” Hobbes responds: “No room for improvement.” Calvin says: “Of all the luck, my parents had to be humans.” Hobbes replies: “Don’t take it too hard. Humans provide some very important protein.”

Today is the second of the ten days of teshuvah – of return, repentance. It is also called Yom HaDin – the day of judgment. The message of the season is that our responsibility for tikkun olam, repairing the world, begins with tikkun hanefesh, repairing the soul.

Every year, the message seems to me to be:  work harder! Improve yourself! Change already! Try harder! This year, instead of motivated, I felt exhausted.

It can be easy to come to synagogue on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and feel that our tradition tells us that humans are very messed up and need to get our acts together. And we are, and we do. But that is not only what we are.

We read in the Torah reading this morning that God says at the end of every day of creation, ki tov, it is good, and after the 6th day, the creation of humanity, ki tov me’od, it is very good – as it is, without any need for “fixing” it, or doing anything.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we not take responsibility for our actions, fix what we have broken and repair our mistakes – we must, and I’ll speak more about that at Kol Nidre.

We are entering a Shmitah year – a time tradition commands that the land lie fallow so that it will renew itself. As the Torah says:

Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.

Recently, unwillingly and unplanned, we have seen a bit of what might happen when we let things rest. We had six months or so when much of the world was shut down. With less travel, fewer cars and airplanes, less shipping and trucking, and factories on hold, air and water quality measurably improved, animals returned to land and marine habitats, and ecology began to restore itself. It seems that what climate scientists have been saying (begging really) is accurate: if humans suddenly cease the activities that cause smog and other air quality issues, it turns out that those issues do improve. When the Earth lay fallow, it began to heal.

Businessman Tim Ferriss recently interviewed mycologist Giuliana Furci on his podcast. A mycologist is someone who studies fungi. She seemed to know about the importance of practicing Shmitah when she said: “I would really like to invite people to think about how important it is to let things rot.… If we don’t let things rot, then cycles don’t start, don’t flow.… We can’t decompose to be able to recompose. We can’t degenerate to be able to regenerate. I would really like to invite people to think about how even the most glorious moment of an old tree’s life is when that tree falls to the ground and starts decomposing and turns back into soil. Let’s not be afraid about decomposition. There’s a lot of hype around regeneration, and that can’t happen if things don’t rot. You’ve got to let it rot.” 

What if we, within ourselves, took a lesson from this? Might we also become richer, more nourishing, and able to provide sustenance for ourselves and others? Might letting ourselves just be help us grow as well?

Shemitah is difficult. Our inclination is to keep planting and reaping all the time. If we stop working, what will happen? How will we feed ourselves and our families? What would we do? Who would we be?

Despite the fact that we call ourselves “human beings,” a better moniker might be “human doings.” We are focused on what we do, not who we are. Or, what we do seems to be who we are. When we first meet people, we ask them: “what do you do?” as though that is the most important thing about them.  

After Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympics, she tweeted: “the outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.” We don’t need to be the GOAT, the Greatest Of All Time, to struggle to feel worthy in ourselves for who we are and not what we do. And what might we do, if we did not feel the need to prove our worth at all times?

But how do we make the shift? It’s not easy to silence the voices in our heads that we have received from this American culture that tells us that the busier we are, the less vacation we take, the better.

The Zohar, one of the foundational texts of Jewish mysticism, offers an answer. It says: Shabbat. Why? Because “When the Shabbat enters, She unites and separates from the Sitra Achra, the Other Side. All the judgments are removed from Her, and She remains united with the holy light and becomes adorned with many crowns before the Holy King.” (2:135a-b).

Shabbat, of course, means ceasing, and the Shmitah year is called Shabbat.

שַׁבָּ֖ת לַה וּבַשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗ת שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָאָ֔רֶץ

But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of Adonai

Shabbat rest and renewal allow us to separate from that critic inside our head that tells us we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not thin enough, not successful enough. Because the shabbat of the week and the shabbat of the years require cessation from productivity, we take a break from the voice that tells us that we need to achieve more, make more money, exercise harder, produce more. That we’re not worthy of love unless we do more. On these Shabbatot, we are invited to cease our effort.

Dinah and I recently saw a sweet Pixar film called Luca, about friendship and authenticity and courage. Luca’s newfound friend Alberto encourages him to adventure by silencing the fearful voice in his head by yelling at it: “Stop, Bruno!” I thought that was fun, and maybe useful to adopt, until I compared it to another approach taught by the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: when the judgments arise, we might greet them, “Hello, Old Friend.”

The רָזָא דְּשַׁבָּת, the secret is that with Shabbat rest comes the removal of all this judgment. The unification of Shabbat with the Oneness of the world allows no space for all this negativity.  There is no need to shout or to fight. We cannot beat ourselves into submission. We cannot shame ourselves into growth. Our teshuvah must be gentle – with ourselves, and with others. When we embrace and incorporate all that is, we find peace.

The word for this removal is מִתְעַבְּרִין and has something to teach us: it comes from the same root as “עובר”, a fetus. We weren’t born with these judgments — they are gathered message by message as we walk through life, layered upon us, slung at us, drenched in our culture, dripped into our subconscious. The aspiration of Shabbat is to take us back to that nascent state where we can just be and that is more than enough. Nobody expects a fetus to do anything except grow.

Perhaps this is the state we recall when we sing hashiveinu, as we will do shortly when we return the Torah: return us, Adonai, to you, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old.

We are weekly and cyclically invited to create space for rest, from which, naturally, comes renewal. Let’s let the soil of our souls lie fallow. Let’s let things decompose to be able to recompose, to degenerate in order to regenerate. Let it rot.


One comment

  1. Carole Bass · September 15, 2021

    Amen v’amen! Thank you for these words of insight and wisdom.


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