I just finished reading a beautiful article by Rabbi Aryeh Ben David which talks about the challenge to merely contain all the brokenness, not even (yet) to try to fix anything. I was immediately reminded of the closing sentence in “The Unnamable”, the final novel of Samuel Beckett’s monumental trilogy, which I have borrowed for the title to this article. Although I haven’t read Beckett’s novels in at least forty years, they were among my favorites when I was in college. Unlike many of my friends at the time, I wasn’t attracted to Beckett because of the veneer of nihilism that, for many, was both the first and only impression they took from his work. Rather, I was always impressed by his courage, “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on,”. Even when life is reduced to crawling blindly in the mud, with no light ahead as either a goal or an aid, humanity, and each of us individually, always has the option to forge ahead, perhaps without hope, but with, maybe, the hope of eventually having a hope.
Traditionally, the emphasis on Rosh HaShana has been for each of us to confront our individual sins, both of commission and omission, grave and small, with an eye and intention to do better this coming year. Indeed, we do recite the catalog of wrong-doing in the plural, “Our Father our King, we have sinned before you”, but in many ways this is merely a technicality to free us from the embarrassment of publicly mentioning our own personal sins. In most traditional settings we might make a nod to the mess the world is in, but the emphasis is on ourselves, which might very well be the necessary first step, but it shouldn’t end there. Of course, there’s also the tack taken in the most extreme of the liberal denominations which only focus on world problems (but too often a very limited, politically-motivated subset of those crises), ignoring our own individual shortcomings in the name of protecting people from ever feeling bad about themselves, but at best that’s just an equally limited and inadequate approach to our challenge and opportunity of the Yomim Noraim, “High Holy Days”, but better translated as Days of “Awe” or, as I prefer, “Days of Awareness of the Consequences of Our Every Action”.
Anyhow, Rabbi Ben David confronts the difficult challenge to “merely” accept the brokenness of the world (and I think he includes both “Olam Gadol“, the greater world, and “Olam Katan“, each of us as individual microcosms). I don’t believe he proposes acceptance of problems as crises as an acceptable final step, but is pointing out that it’s necessary to just sit with the brokenness for a while, to feel its full impact, to try to see it in all its complexities, as a prelude to eventually developing a strategy to “go on” and work on these problems.
I’d like to propose a few tools we might employ for this difficult task. It seems that at least one thing we need is a way to protect ourselves from being so overwhelmed as to become paralyzed and impotent. Each of us, indeed, has more failings inside ourselves than we can, unaided, possibly face, and the crises that face our world baffle our greatest minds.
With the risk of sounding “pollyana-ish”, I believe that before a diet of unending problems, crises, disasters and disasters-in-waiting, we need to also take stock of our “assets”, of those good deeds we carried out in the past year, of the progress the world has made, even though those may be hard to see. We talk about חשבון נפש, Cheshbon Nefesh, an accounting of the soul, and as a friend/colleague pointed out, that includes both how we’re “in the black” as well as how we’re “in the red”. While we’re sitting with the problems, letting them percolate and process through our consciousnesses, even before we start to address possible solutions to propose and attempt, we need to see ourselves and our world as having true merit, of being worthy of going on. Rebbe Nachman‘s well-known emphasis on combatting fear and depression is much more than “feel-good” Torah, it’s an astute observation of the consequences of indulging our guilt-feelings and allowing ourselves to wallow in paralysis of self-pity and helplessness. Furthermore, we need to arm ourselves with the certainty that even though we can’t see how it will work out, that’s a product of our limited vision rather than a “fact” of ultimate reality (in other words, faith, Emunah, that whatever the crises, they’re not merely the result of arbitrary and random forces AND there is a way ahead).
Of course, our tradition teaches us that, ultimately, it’s only in the Hands of The Almighty. This should never, however, be mistranslated as calling for passiveness and defeatism. There’s the old joke of the Jew who prays everyday, “God, I only have one hundred dollars left. Please send me the money I need to survive and support my family….. God, I only have ninety-nine dollars left….. ninety-eight…… twenty-five……. five….. four…. three…. two…. only one single dollar!” When he dies he asks God why He ignored his pleas. God replies, “I gave you one hundred dollars, and then nine-nine dollars, etc. with which you could have invested, bought tools and materials, or even just bought a single lottery ticket! I was waiting to bestow all this wealth on you, but you needed to use what you already had to invest in your own future!”
It’s important to see and accept the world and ourselves, for better or for worse, as it is. We do need to sit with these realities. But we also need to know that we, and the world, do have merits “in the bank”, assets we will be called upon to “cash in” and employ, that even while we might, at first, protest, “I can’t go on”, we will “go on”.