You Only Have Yourself to Blame

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2014-09-25 – Happy New Year to my Jewish friends! L’shana Tova! To a good year!

Judaism celebrates two developmental tasks in the life of a person. The first is becoming an independent person. That is celebrated at Passover, which commemorates freedom from slavery. Becoming independent is not the end, however.  Tradition tells us that the slaves that were freed in Egypt were not quite ready to govern themselves. What followed were years in the desert.

The second developmental task is much more daunting: becoming a mensch. Taking control of your own life and being responsible for it. This task is celebrated now, in the 10 days from Rosh Hashanah (New Year) to Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).

In the Talmud, Rabbi Hillel is quoted as asking the following questions that seem parallel to these two holidays:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? [the Passover question?]
And if I am for myself, what am I? [the Rosh Hashanah question?]
And if not now, when?

So many people are stuck at Passover: teenagers who are perpetually fighting for their “freedom,” even after they have it. Slaves wandering in the desert. Blaming everyone. Never taking responsibility. The message of the Jewish New Year is that you only have yourself to blame.

No doubt, people are oppressed by others. That is a constant struggle. (Passover comes every year!) But what do we do with the freedom we have? Look for new masters?

Jewish tradition says that finding a new master is not the answer—even if the new master is God! It’s a strange thing for a religion to say, don’t you think? But Judaism makes people responsible for their own actions. If you do wrong to others, God says, “don’t talk to me.” You have to make peace yourself.

And so, Rosh Hashanah isn’t focused on whether you’ve worked on the Sabbath or eaten unkosher food. It’s focused on a person’s obligation to act with kindness and honor in dealing with other people.

I am not a believer, but I do see power in religious symbols and observances. Our society, Jewish or not, seems stuck at Passover: perpetually rejecting the shackles of real and imagined slavery. Never taking responsibility. Every Rosh Hashanah we say that we are going to take that next step, to become a fully responsible adult.

If not now, when?

Repentence, which is what we Jews do at this time of year, is called t’shuvah. T’shuvah literally means turning, as in “turning over a new leaf.” We turn away from the bad path to the good. But as with any kind of turning, we can just as easily turn back to the bad path. I think of all the times I walk my dog Lefty. He runs after cars. I give him a tug and he turns back. He runs after cars again (immediately). I give him a tug again and he turns back. This happens repeatedly and in quick succession so that, before long, he is literally spinning. Like a cowboy spinning a lasso. Like a child flying a kite in unstable gusts of wind.

We do this to ourselves.

* * *

In American tradition, we celebrate independence not just at July 4, but throughout the year. When do we celebrate our values? We’re all waiting for Diogenes Day, a day for truth, which we’ll be celebrating on October 1. Let your friends know. Find out more info by clicking the Diogenes Day link at the top of my blog page.

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