Rosh Chodesh Mar Cheshvan 5777
It is Rosh Chodesh Mar Cheshvan and we are just out of the starting gate of the new year. Still, it is useful to take a few minutes and review your goals from the workshop. Have you identified one or two kabbalot (small challenges) to give yourself for each middah on your soul curriculum? I chose only five middot – Emunah/Faith; Ka’as/Anger; Hesed/Lovingkindness; Anavah/Humility and Mahloket L’shem Shamayim/Constructive Conflict. These five are key in my advancing towards the three main goals I set for myself this year. I’ll be cycling through these five middot throughout the year. Now is a good time to set up your practice for the year (the order of your middot and kabbalot for each middah) if you haven’t done so already.
Here are a few thoughts about the parshi’ot of Mar Cheshvan and the new year:
We just read last week in Breisheet that humans are created in the Divine image. One of the compelling features of being made in the Divine image is that, like God, we have the power of free choice, Behira. Rav Dessler, in his essay on the Choice Point, points out that habit, education and desire limit the range of our choice, but choice as some point is always possible. This ability to choose and not be driven only by instinct and past experiences is a defining feature of our humanity.
Writer Adam Kirsch, in an insightful New York Times article speculating about Bob Dylan’s lack of response to his Nobel prize for literature, reflects on the power of choice. Dylan’s life and career has been about constant change and never being put into a particular box. As early as 1964 Dylan was quoted in The New Yorker as saying that he didn’t “want to write for people anymore” but rather wanted to “write from inside me.” Dylan has always been suspicious of awards because of how external recognition can freeze an artist in the public’s mind as a certain way and thus limit that artist’s growth. Kirsch writes, “To be a Nobel laureate, however, is to allow “people” to define who one is, to become an object and a public figure rather than a free individual. “ In fact, Jean Paul Sartre rejected his 1965 Nobel prize in literature because the prize, in its essence, defines the artist as the Nobel committee wishes him to be and prevents him from being truly free to recreate himself every moment.
This ability to recreate ourselves through new and fresh choices is the essence of what is means to be free. Sometimes lack of freedom comes from external oppression. Often it comes from within ourselves as we unwittingly bind ourselves into jails of our own expectations and reputations. External recognition and awards can strengthen these bonds.
The next several parshiot focus on the character of Avraham. Avraham models freedom and the ability to recreate ourselves. He questions the idol-worshiping practices of his family and society and embarks on a different path. He is an Ish Chesed, a man of great lovingkindness. This is his defining character trait. But, when the moment calls for Gevurah – restraint and discipline- he is able to respond beyond comprehension. While the Binding of Isaac story contains deep theological and ethical challenges, one fact is clear – Avraham is able to flexibly respond to God’s call in a way that is completely out of character. This is what real freedom looks like.
This kind of freedom can feel jarring and even disturbing to us. We get comfort and security from knowing what behaviors to expect from ourselves and the people around us. But these expectations can be a jail. Can we challenge ourselves to really be free and allow ourselves the possibility of not playing the expected role and responding to events in the same way. Mussar trains us to be flexible in the application of our middot. Real flexibility and choice mean allowing ourselves to be new and fresh in each moment. A tall task, but we have some vivid role models from the past and the present.