Elul 4 – Choose
This year, I’m making choices. For years I’ve said, “I don’t have enough time for that” and “I don’t have enough time for this.” I read something this month however that said, “I don’t have enough time” is synonymous with “This is not a priority for me.” That is a very different way of looking at the universe.
“I don’t have enough time to contact my friends” sounds believable, and almost valid as an excuse. “These people are not a priority for me” – that’s different. “I don’t have enough time to go hiking or canoeing or camping or enjoy any physical activity at all” – that’s just a bit sad. Poor thing. She doesn’t have enough time. If only time had been nicer to her. “Hiking, canoeing and camping aren’t priorities for me” however, sounds horrifying. Of course they’re priorities! What? What kind of life am I building here?
Every day, I have the same 24 hours. What will I fill it with? How much time am I losing to activities I didn’t choose, activities I “fell into” because of lack of time? It’s a bit scary to think that every little thing I do – from taking a drink of water to typing this very line is a choice of how I spend my time – a choice of what my priority is. And Judaism tells me I should think hard and deliberately about that choice. Judaism is big on acting with intention. There’s a whole word Kavana for acting and praying and doing whatever you do with intention. We are supposed to put all of ourselves into what we do, not simply skim the surface.
Sometimes, I need a rest! A break! And here too I have choices. I can pick breaks that meet my priorities or breaks that don’t, that waste some of those 24 hours. It’s easy to go on default – heck, not going with the flow, not going on default – that takes brain power and focus. (For most of us, walking along to the musac in shopping malls is automatic, it’s breaking that pattern that’s the challenge – for me, well, let’s just say that thing doesn’t work for me when it comes to music. When it comes to activities, however…) I get tired of that too and so I fall into patterns in which I’m doing things that are easy rather than things that are important or fun.
So, this year, I want to push slowly but firmly to change those patterns. I want to create new patterns in which, when I look at what I’m doing at any given time, I can say “this is a priority; this is exactly how I want to be spending my time.” That way, when I say “I don’t have time for this” I’ll be able to add “because it’s not a priority” without flinching. That way, I know I’ve made the choice and not whatever random dude picked the musac playing at that shopping mall.
I always intend to do the right thing. I never mean to be behind on anything, to forget anything, to be mean to anyone, or to otherwise miss those important marks that an adult is expected to hit. My intentions are solid, really. However, the more I teach the more I realize that everyone’s intentions are solid. Most people I meet seem to want to do the right thing. Kids in particular. But intentions don’t count for much – they’re important and thinking and feeling a certain way is definitely necessary sometimes for doing the right thing – but they’re not key. Actions and results are what counts.
It’s hard to explain that to kids – they say “it was an accident” and don’t ask themselves the questions of “why did the accident happen?” and “what could I have done to prevent it?” Kids have trouble admitting responsibility for something when it’s obvious and there’s no other way to interpret a situation. Those cookie crumbs on the face didn’t get there by magic! It’s a tricky step to go to even further and think about the responsibility that comes from poor planning, inaction, or innocent but risky action. “How could I have known that bouncing the ball in the middle of the living room would cause the vase to break? It was an accident!”
When one gets older, that sphere of what a person should be able to predict and be responsible for and act on gets bigger and bigger. Tikkun Olam says we’re responsible for the whole world. Jewish teachings say that seeing a neighbour in trouble, it is our duty to help. With electronic media, the world becomes our neighbours – we see people in trouble in all sorts of places. Our hearts ache to help and we truly intend to do the right thing, whatever that might be.
But now, the number of ‘potential accidents’ have spread too. “I didn’t mean to run up that huge debt. How could I have known that buying that one little whatever-it-was and that other thing and I’m not sure what else would have led to a negative balance? It was an accident!” Sounds extraordinarily pathetic, even more so than the kid with the ball does. We are expected to know, to predict, to think through consequences, to care and to act. Some days, I can’t imagine a way to live up to the level of competence the average person is expected to attain. (For my big kids: yes, the song “I hate being a grown-up” still applies, even in one’s late 40’s.) I intend to get it right – I just don’t always succeed.
So how do I bridge the gap between intention and action? Mostly, I don’t. Sometimes, I can do it by breaking it down into very basic very small activities and checking each of them against intention. Sometimes, I do it because of input from others, the words of a prayer or song, something I read in a book. Sometimes, I do the right thing because I write about it first! Putting my intentions into action is terrifying – but as I take each action that matches my intention, I feel like I’m finally reaching adulthood. Today, I will try to make my intentions and actions at least somewhat connected.
This hasn’t been a year in which people see clearly, it just hasn’t. In this year, so many people have yelled “can’t you SEE that…” that we’ve become jaded. But being jaded is not safe. We must see what is actually going on. We must be aware and we must be careful about our choices.
These days, one of the sins I am working to do Teshuvah for is the sin of pride and self-righteousness. Because I have spent a lot of this year thinking – and mostly not saying, I’m neither that dumb nor that nasty – “can’t you see how wrong you are???” to tons of people.
First, all those people on the right side of the political spectrum who preach intolerance and hate for others while asking for tolerance and acceptance for themselves. I don’t get how they can make that kind of mistake – how they can miss that mark so badly. Surely you see that you are using the same words to say “for us, people must make allowances; and anyway we’re better than that; and we deserve decency and equality and kindness and support and a humane place to be and …” but “for them, they are bad to the bone and there’s no allowances to be made, and they are evil, and think they’re better than that but they’re not, and they need to be limited, to be restricted, to be kept from acting out, to be treated as they deserve and sent to where they belong and…” Can’t they hear their own words? Can’t they see what they look like? Why not?
Then, the people on the left side of the political spectrum who preach intolerance and hate for some while asking for tolerance and acceptance for others. I suppose that’s better on the surface – they’re doing it for someone else. They intend well – but the road to Hell is still paved with good intentions. (Of course it’s a Jewish saying! Yes, they attribute it to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, but everyone knows he got it from Shmuel, his tailor, who was just paraphrasing Proverbs 14:12 😊) They are Rah-Rah-the Revolution people.
As someone who came from the result of a revolution – please, people, try to see where you’re going? Try? When you preach tolerance, but say violence is OK, but only against those vicious people who attack others, when you say that intersectionality is fantastic, but some people are more intersectional than other people, when you exclude certain groups first because you find their talk offensive, and then because you find some symbolism of theirs offensive, and finally because they’re the type of people who…you remind me of the communists in my old country. They too wanted equality and tolerance for the people. They were only against the rich – those bourgeoisie who lived off the sweat of their workers. But that meant they were against anyone who owned land or a small business, and so Farmer Joe and Aunt Bessie with her small bake shop were both in trouble – they were petty bourgeoise. What? It won’t get to that point? You’re sure it’s not like that? Rah-rah-the-revolution?
People, this year, someone was kicked out of a Pride parade for wearing a Jewish Star of David because stars of David are on the Israeli flag and that makes people uncomfortable (I hope to heck they kicked out anyone wearing a crescent moon, a sickle, a hammer, or heck, stars or stripes or the maple leaf – because all of those make some people uncomfortable; hey, I know! Let’s cut down all the maple trees! Then the offensive maple leaf need never be seen by those it makes uncomfortable…)
Me, why should I care? I haven’t been to a Pride parade for years. I haven’t felt comfortable. Because I’m Jewish, and visibly so (I wear a kippa at all times,) Pride parades became, for me, a time of being jeered and poked and questioned and threatened. There was a clear assumption that I was, if visibly Jewish, a Zionist, pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian, against free speech and in favour of violence. And I thought I was just going to celebrate Pride with my kids. I have become the petty bourgeoisie of our times. I don’t fit into the ideology. I have to go. So much for intersectionality. Doesn’t look like it includes me. Who else will you exclude, people? Why can’t you see?
And that’s when you are all acting from the best intentions ever sold at a paving store. Do you really think that’s going to last forever? How long will it be until your fervor and naivete are co-opted by a man as evil as Stalin? Open your eyes – please! It’s never going to happen, you say? Of course not! Long live the Revolution. Rah!
It’s enough to make a woman cry. Which is another way of blocking sight so I can’t see. The best I can do today, though blinded by tears and a feeling of being squeezed – of being trapped in the center of Satan’s plot – the best I can do today is pray. I pray that all those who live with prejudice and fear in their hearts, with impulsive decisions and propensity to violence on their tongues would open up their eyes and see how God really wanted them to be. I pray that I too can see more clearly, to avoid the pride and self-righteousness that cause me not to see my prejudice and fear and impulsive decisions and propensity to violence. May God let all of us see…
I’ve never trusted intentions. I kind of agree with that saying about the road to hell being paved with them. Seriously, the number of students I have who totally intended to get all their homework done and to really study before that test can only be matched by the number of times I earnestly intended to accomplish something important, and then didn’t.
And that’s just people who don’t fulfil their intentions. It’s even worse when well-intentioned people do the cruelest things just because they think their intentions let them get away with it. Ugly things get said and done with the phrase “it’s for your own good” thrown in. Without being aware of the consequences of the actions one takes, one runs the risk of seriously hurting someone in the name of helping out. Psychological studies have been done that show most people are well-intentioned and have perfectly good explanations for the things they do – even when those things are truly horrible. It seems that people don’t go around saying, “how can I be a real evil, no-good, scumbag and hurt others?” Many people have lovely, positive intentions for all that they do.
In Judaism, there is more of an emphasis on proper action. One way I would explain the difference between Judaism and Christianity to those who asked me (when I was young and thought I knew stuff and didn’t have as much of an understanding of the consequences of actions or good intentions) was that in Christianity, one is asked to love aunt Sadie. In Judaism, one is asked to act in certain appropriate (and there are books that spell it out) ways with aunt Sadie, whether one loves her or not. This is, I have since realized, about as accurate as explaining the difference between Canada and the US by saying that Canadians say “eh” and Americans say “youse”. However, it does touch on the Kavanna (intention) versus Keva (action) debate, that the Rabbis have had such fun with.
We all agree that best would be to have both. If you act in good ways and you have good intention, bingo, you win! The question is, in an imperfect world, what does one focus on? Both have issues – Keva without Kavanna is like body without soul, says one Rabbi. And as for Kavanna without Keva – well, the road to hell continues to be paved with that! Society veers one way, then the other. Sometimes, everyone focuses on form and laws are written and expanded upon and clarified and codified. Over time, the laws take over, and bureaucracy rules, and find themselves stifled and limited. There are those who take advantage, and find loopholes and do horrible things which are technically within the letter of the law. So people break away, throw out all the laws, put flowers in their hair and dance freely through the streets, which works really well until one realizes that no one is washing the dishes and no one is being safe and just as many horrible things are being done in the name of love as were being done in the name of law. So, someone draws up a chore chart to let the dishes get done and puts in a few rules and slowly those rules build up into law and society veers the other way again.
There is no way to succeed without both. I want to scream that sometimes at the politicians currently trying to convince us that they are either well-intentioned and will help us live in a lovelier place or that they are serious about good law and government and will help keep us functional and safe. Both, people, I want both!
I’m big on order. I like my traditions, and I’m happy with the same thing happening day after day, so if I had to make a choice, I’d say I’m more on the rules and laws side of this fence. Nevertheless, I recognize the importance of acting whole-heartedly. So, I try to act more on the side of intention. I hope to one day achieve that balance of action and intention that actually means I’m doing it right.