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Where the Sidewalk Ends

If you’ve ever taken the time to glance at the streets around Shearith Israel as you leave the building, you’ve noticed just how stunning they are. On these warm late-summer days, I relish the 15 minute walk I have each Shabbat as I head home.

I walk past the magnolias and manicured lawns, pink Roman columns and royal iron gates, and get lost in my thoughts for a few moments of bliss – the only time each week when I truly detach from the world of worry, and tasks, and business.

That tranquility of my day-dreaming is only distracted by a game that I must play as I walk the streets of Douglas and Preston, a game which brings me rushing back from peaceful thoughts into the real world of zooming cars driving right at me.

You see, as I walk opposing the roaring zoom of traffic on my Shabbos stroll, I hug the curb, hoping that each car will see me as it approaches and change lanes, moving over so that I need not.

I stay there, in the gutter of the street, in stubborn stubborn defiance for as long as my nerves can manage as a car quickly approaches before hopping at the last moment into the dirt and planters to my side so as not to be run over. Each car comes, I stay on the street as long as I can muster. Most of the time I win, the car changes lanes and I stay put in my place, but often I end up walking in dirt.

Now, I play this game of chicken, I walk foolishly – I admit – in the street of a busy highway, because there is, literally, nowhere else to be.

When you walk out the doors of Shearith and turn right going down Douglas Avenue, you can follow the guided serenity of the sidewalk only until the end of our property. But once you pass the parking lot outside of Aaron Main Sanctuary, the sidewalk is no more. Our neighborhood is purposefully devoid of sidewalks – it was built that way to give it a more country-like feel!

Only a few yards from where we pray today is, quite literally, where the sidewalk ends.

Each time I walk this path, as I move from the security of concrete to the dark black asphalt beneath my feet, I am reminded of the old Shel Silverstein poem, the namesake of his most famous book of childhood poetry: Where the Sidewalk Ends.

The cover of his book, you may remember, is emblazoned with a drawing that so aptly describes the message of his poetry within – two children, peering cautiously over the edge of a sidewalk, itself hanging perilously over oblivion. Beyond is a chasm of emptiness, the very end of the world. They hang there, these two children, where the sidewalk ends, on the precipice of the unknown.

He writes:

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

We all know where the sidewalk ends. Right there.

All our paths lead to it. Cautiously, we move forward.

This is a poem about eking one’s way toward the precipice of the unknown. Of leaving behind a guided life and venturing out into the world of possibility, where the sidewalk does not direct us in only one direction, rather, 360 degrees of possibility exist. This is a poem about coming of age, of being an adult in a world filled with choices and options, of crossing the threshold moving from pre-determined certainty to open possibilities.

This is a poem about Rosh Hashanah.

That is the very nature of these holy days. We stand on the precipice, unsure of what lies ahead. Having reflected on the year past, we look toward the year to come and wonder what our fates may be. We anticipate only one week from now, Yom Kippur, as we stand in judgement before the Holy One.

Here is where the sidewalk ends. It ends now. But is there more road still in front of us?

That we have done wrong this last year is no question. Each of us has. But in one week’s time will we have done the work necessary to make amends for all the ways in which we have hurt others and distanced ourselves from God in the last year?

Now is our chance to course-correct.

B’rosh hashanah Yikatevun, uv’yom tsom kipur kehatemun, we read in the words of Musaf’s unetaneh tokef. On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

The eerie words of unetaneh tokef could not be more explicit about the content of the writing: kamah yavrun v’hamah yebar’un, mi yehiyeh u’mi yamut. How many will pass, and how many will be born; who will live and who will die.

But:

Tshuva, u’tefilah, u’tzedakah mavirin et ro’a hagzera. Teshuva, tefilah and tzedakah – repentance, prayer and justice – avert the evil of the decree. During these holidays our futures are put to paper, yet we have power to temper any evil within.

One may be tempted to conclude that the New Year locks us into a fate for the coming year – that our future is now pre-determined, written in the book of life and sealed away in ten day’s time – that after Yom Kippur we lose agency and control, autonomy, the very essence of our human nature.

No. I cannot, I will not, accept that read of the text.

We know we have free will. We know that the gates of heaven are always open to our hearts. God listens to our prayers.

Rather, the whole point of the text of unetaneh tokef is to push us to come to terms with that over which we have no control, and then assert authority over that which we do.

We cannot control the evil decrees that we will face. We cannot prevent them. But we can control and limit the severity of our experience.

Life is severe. Life is harsh. We live in an unpredictable world, with no concretized paths, no clear signs or guideposts. All of life takes place where the sidewalk ends, in this rough space in between two extremes, where the path’s contours are unclear. And it is precisely in liminal times like the New Year when we become more aware, more able to fully appreciate this significant reality of living.

All of us, at one point or another in our lives, this year, next year, God-willing not for many decades, will be faced with what feels like an unfair, severe, harsh, or even evil decree. We will get sick, cherished relationships will end, we will not get what feels like our fair share, we will die. That is the nature of being human. It will happen to all of us, sooner or later. Anything less than that and we would be gods.

So either we can spend our time focussing on the morbidity of this message – that these holidays become a time of marking our inability to inoculate ourselves from our own humanity, a time when we become petrified by the roughness of this place where the sidewalk ends – or, instead, we use this moment as inspiration to focus our attention on that over which we do have control.

We cannot avert unfair, harsh or evil decrees. They will, sooner or later, catch up with each of us.

But we can change the context in which they unfold in our lives, we can make our lives ones of meaning and focus, and kedusha – of holiness – of love and righteousness and menschlekite such that if and when these unfair decrees happen we have no regrets over the goodness, purposefulness and utility of the life which we have lived.

Isn’t this what Hagar does in today’s Torah reading – cast off to the desert and exiled from the only family she knows she still raises Ishmael to become the father of another great nation. Isn’t that what Abraham does in tomorrow’s Torah reading – facing the severity of a trial no human being should ever face – the command to sacrifice his own son – he holds his head up high and marches forward up the mountain.

We do not know what life will throw at us. Our tradition gives us tools for living a focussed life that is prepared to handle whatever may happen, whatever we may find when we reach the place where the sidewalk ends.

Three things, and three things alone, allow us to transcend life’s unpredictability:

Teshuva, tefilah and tzedakah.

Teshuva is about our individuality.

We spend so much time over these ten days apologizing and repenting for all the ways that we have missed the mark, gone astray, deviated from the path that is most true to ourselves and the individuals we strive to be.

Teshuva is that return, that course-correction. Returning ourselves to the path of our best being. The path that traverses this space where the sidewalk ends with the fewest bumps and deviations, the smoothest ride.

Look back at the path you have walked during the last twelve months, and then assess how far off that is from where you should have been. Don’t like where you’ve come? These holidays are your steering wheel to change direction.

Grab hold. Now is the time to change.

Tefilah is about the relationship we build with God.

Prayer is an exercise in pouring out your heart to the Divine, of opening up to the Holy One and admitting you do not have all the answers. It is a practice in emotional honesty, in reflection, and in contemplation.

Prayer is not something that we can risk relegating to two days a year.

Yes, prayer is difficult.

Let me say that again: Prayer. Is. Difficult.

Prayer is an entirely counter-cultural act. It requires patience, and trial and error. Prayer pushes back against the most basic of American values: individuality and idolization of the pursuit of happiness. Jewish prayer encourages us to join with community, to cede our own autonomy, and to focus not on what may seem most fun in the moment, but, rather, on what will most challenge us to be a better individual. Prayer runs contrary to everything that our society and lives tell us is normal, good and useful.

But in spite of its difficulty, perhaps even because of it, prayer allows us to transcend the temporality of the moment and connect with what is larger and more important.

Prayer pushes us to come to terms with ourselves, and our being, and our God. To open ourselves and our lives up to something greater than us. It forces us to be honest. To look ourselves in the mirror and see if God is standing next to us in the reflection.

Do you like what you see? Now is the time to change.

Take care of yourself first, yes – that is what Hillel teaches us – Im ein ani li, mi li. If I am not for myself, who will be for me. Focus on your teshuva, your return to yourself and to your path; focus on tefilah, on your individual pouring out to God. But Hillel’s teaching continues, u’kshe ani le’atsmi, ma ani? But if I am only for myself, what am I?

Tzedekah is about the way we interact with the world in which we live. The way we become more than a what, but a who. It is the way we spread Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice – to see the world as it is and then work tirelessly to mold it into how it should be.

Tzedakah is more than the charity of giving money – though that is crucially important. Tzedakah is about putting our tradition’s values into practice, about caring for the stranger and the impoverished and the lonely, and not resting until they are attended to. It is about leaving a legacy – about making the Jewish people truly an or l’goyim – a light unto the nations.

When you have course-corrected and returned to the path that is most true to you are and who you mean to be; when you have looked in the mirror and seen God standing there with you in the reflection; now look back at your last year, look back at your last month or week even, and be honest – did you make this world a better place? Did you remember that you were once a slave in Egypt and God brought you out of slavery so that you could care for those who had no one to care for them?

Did you fill this world with more justice, more righteousness, and, most importantly, more love?

Do it. Now is the time to change.

A life lived seeped in teshuva is a life in which we stay true to ourselves and the goodness we demand of our being such that when life’s uncertainty confronts us we have no regrets over the path we’ve walked so far. A life lived seeped in tefilah is a life in which our connection to God is strong enough to survive the hardships of trials, the ride through the bumpiness of the unpaved road. A life lived seeped in tzedakah is a life that has brought so much righteousness to this world, so much justice to the corners of our society without it that we have made our mark, and will have a whole world of those who love us to be by our side in our time of need.

Through these three tools we inoculate ourselves – like with any immunization – to the evil of life’s decrees. We cannot prevent all bad things from happening, but we can make our lives so purposeful and good that when they confront us we are content with all that we’ve done so far.

When we let these three things – teshuva, tefilah and tzedakah – guide our lives – not only during Aseret Yemei Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance, but year round – we cement our lives within Judaism’s three great tools for navigating the bumpy path of life.

Uncertainty is something we need not fear. Losing our conviction to move forward, slowly but surely, with our chin held high, despite all of life’s bumpiness, is.

Let’s move forward.

We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

We are already there. The sidewalk has ended. We stand on the precipice, a moment of choice. How we choose to move forward – in our lives, in our relationships with God, and in our interactions with the world at large – determines our ability to navigate the pits and black smoke ahead, our success in moving forward despite the sidewalk ending.

The path before us is not defined, but that need not prevent us from continuing onward.

The sidewalk is ours to pave.

May your year ahead be filled with sweet sweet peppermint wind, with moon birds and soft-white grass. May we all be blessed with a year of health and happiness, and a year dedicated to continual teshuva, to ongoing tefilah and regular tzedakah; shanah tovah umetukah, tikateivun.

Rosh Hashanah
September 2012

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