March 25, 2021

 

3.26.2021 Weekly Torah Portion

A friend of mine recently asked me, “What’s your five-year plan?”

I gasped.  “Five-year plan?!  I don’t think I’ve ever planned for anything beyond a year.  Do people actually do that?”  It was what seemed to be an innocuous question.  A simple question; my friend just wanted to know what my hopes for my future are.  Where do I see myself down the road?  I laughed off the question and blamed Covid: “Can we really plan anything anymore?” I retorted.

But her question kept me up at night.  Not only her question but my own resistance to planning.  Why have I always been so reluctant to set long-term goals for myself?

Which brings me to Passover, which starts this Saturday night.  There is a very famous line in the Passover Haggadah that, to me, is the quintessential work for us all to reflect on, not only during the seder but continuously.

In each and every generation a person is obligated to see oneself as if he or she had personally  left Egypt (Mishnah Pesachim 10:5).

Each of us is commanded to leave slavery!  We are not meant to be serving false gods and pharaohs; we are meant to be free individuals serving a Higher Power and Higher purpose.

In fact, the text should not read in each and every generation, it should say, each and every year.  This year and every year, we must ask ourselves, “What am I enslaved to?  How am I still stuck in the narrow straits of Egypt?”

Which brings me back to my friend’s question. The truth behind why I don’t plan or set long term goals is that I’ve always believed I was going to die young.  I don’t know exactly where this narrative came from.  What I can recall is watching a movie about the Hall of Fame baseball player Mickey Mantle when I was ten.  The movie chronicled his success on the field and also showcased his escapades off the field, particularly his alcoholism.

Mantle’s father and grandfather both died at a young age and the actor playing Mantle admits to a friend, “I’m gonna die young.”  Maybe it was my naïveté.  Maybe it was me being a huge baseball fan, but I remember thinking, “Me too, I’m gonna die young.

And if I’m still holding on to that lie, then the result of that thought is someone who doesn’t plan for five years.  The result of such mental slavery is someone who has a tendency to destroy whatever he has built in order to stay flexible and can flee whenever is convenient. The result is someone who takes more risks and seeks more thrills or highs and doesn’t necessarily take the best care of his body.  “Exercise, what’s the point?!”

That thinking doesn’t lead to planting seeds and fortifying roots.  It doesn’t help lay a foundation for kids or potential grandchildren to grow.

So why is this year different from all other years?  

I believe this year struck me partly because I turned forty.  Part of it is that I now have two kids that I’m responsible for.  And of course, part of it is that the pandemic forced me, and hopefully all of us, to reflect more on what is truly important in our lives and helped clarify our values.

And I want to be around to see them have their own kids.  I want to be able to play soccer with my son without feeling pain in my body.  Yes, I’ve always known this and wanted this, but my actions haven’t always aligned.

And while I know that the future is not guaranteed; that death can come at any moment; that uncertainty and chaos run rampant at all times – I mean hasn’t this year exemplified that?!  Still, I must plan for the future.  I must leave behind an old story that no longer serves a higher objective and walk into the new story.  Namely: to be a strong and healthy old man.

That’s my liberation story for this year!

Part of the beauty of the Jewish calendar and holidays is that they build off each other.  The holidays are extremely intentional for us, as a community, to grapple and live a similar experience.

On the second night of Passover, we begin counting the Omer, a forty-nine-day offering that leads to another major pilgrimage festival: Shavuot, where we receive and accept God’s Torah.  If Passover is our liberation from slavery, the omer constitutes forty-nine days of spiritual revitalization – turning us from slaves into truly free individuals.  Each day, according to the kabbalists, has a specific valence and attribute that potentially unlocks part of our slave mentality and prepares us for the long road to the Promised Land.

It is a forty-nine-day slavery detox and spiritual workout!

Each day is its own stepping stone, its own step on the spiritual stairway to heaven, and it begins with hesed she’behesed (loving-kindness within loving-kindness) and ends with malchut she’bemalchut (kingship within kingship).  In other words, in order to fully embrace God’s Torah on day fifty, we have become our most regal versions of ourselves, our most dignified versions.  Only then can we truly make the choice to be in covenant with a Higher Power and accept sacred obligations.  In order to get there, we begin with all-encompassing love and compassion for ourselves and others.

As the Mishnah above continues:

Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise, laud, glorify, raise up, beautify, bless, extol, and adore Him who made all these miracles for our fathers and ourselves; He brought us forth from slavery into freedom, from sorrow into joy, from mourning into festivity, from darkness into great light, and from servitude into redemption.  Let us say before him, Hallelujah!

God transforms us and then we transform ourselves.  From serving false gods to being in connection and covenant with the One-ness of Being.  From slaves unable to dictate how we live our lives and how we plan our calendars, to kings and queens of God’s palace.  And if I’m gonna live like a king, then I need to begin planning how my garden and future are tended.

So what’s my five-year plan?  That’s one of the questions I’ll be mapping out this year!

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Joseph