Nitzavim-Vayelech: The Choice is Yours.

This High-Holiday season, I will again, B”H, have the opportunity to lead services aboard a cruise-ship. (Where better to practice self-denial/to “afflict my soul” by fasting?)  

The cruise line’s “Instructions to Guest Rabbis” contains a particularly challenging directive: 

“Messages with political themes or judgment-based commentary regarding people’s behavior of any kind are unacceptable.”  (Italics in original!)

Given this emphatic restriction, it’s a good thing that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, due to space and scheduling limitations, will likely be shorter than in most synagogues, with little or no time for proper D’vrei Torah (sermons).  Which “non-behavioral” things are appropriate to discuss during the awesome Days of (behavioral) Judgment?  Which apolitical topics are timely this year, when, as of this writing, our people are lining-up (more or less, lines in Israel being a loose concept) for gas masks as our sworn enemies – with tens of thousands of missiles at the ready– again threaten our annihilation? 

The commentary restrictions are completely understandable from the cruise ship’s perspective.  It wants paying passengers to have a wonderful time, to relax, and to be care-free.  Chesbon hanefesh (Conducting an accounting of the soul) isn’t on the daily entertainment schedule.  Exotic port tour packages don’t include revisiting sins and mistakes of the past year.  

Jews on board will certainly want to have a good time, even during the High Holidays, but from my past experience, that is not all they will want.  If so, cruise lines would not arrange for rabbis.  Many, perhaps most, Jews on board will feel the need to hear the shofar blasts, experience the power of Kol Nidre and of Unetaneh tokef, and to recite Al Chet and Ashamnu along with their fellow Jews.  They will come, not just for “religious services,” but to feel part of the Jewish people, even at sea, bonding with fellow Jews of temporary acquaintance by taking spiritual collective responsibility for the behavior of the Jewish people.   

It’s perhaps ironic.  They will have come on a cruise to “get away from it all,” as the cruise line ads promise.  Yet, “getting away from it all” for a time, whether on vacation, on a spiritual journey into the desert, or on an ocean voyage, is precisely what we often need in order to truly reflect upon and perhaps resolve our deepest conflicts.   (In the book and movie Life of Pi, the carefully chosen name of the Japanese cargo ship and thus of Pi’s lifeboat is “Tsimtsum.” Contrary to what most readers/viewers might assume, this is not a Japanese word but rather a Hebrew one taken from Jewish mysticism.  It refers to a space – our world -- from which G-d withdrew so that free will might exist within it.  In that lifeboat, Pi wrestled with his fears, his will -- and with G-d). 

The concept of free will is central to Judaism.  According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “Judaism so opposes the belief that human beings do not have free will that one can state, without exaggeration, that it stands or falls on this issue.”   (A Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol. 1, 28.)  This theme is never more conspicuous than during the coming High Holy Days – as well as this week’s Torah portion, in which we are bidden to “Choose Life” by choosing to follow the miztvot (Deuteronomy 30:19). 

My fellow Jewish cruise ship passengers who attend services will exercise their free will to pause from having a “wonderful time.”  They will leave the dining room, balcony, theatre, or card room to hear our ancient “judgment-based commentary regarding people’s behavior” and ponder their own.  G-d willing, we will also share positive political news about what is not happening then in the Jewish homeland (where I will head, B”H, for Sukkot). 

Will you also find a space, be it in synagogue or otherwise, to “get away from it all,” to reflect, to resolve, and to exercise your free will to strive to correct your path this coming year?  If so, your High Holidays will have been successful.

May they be, and may each of us be inscribed for a year of blessings and sweetness in the Book of Life!  L’shanah tovah u’mtukah!  

 

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  • Nitzavim-Vayelech: The Choice is Yours.

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb