At Yiskor—we say Rest in Peace. That’s the last thing I want from my ever-increasing crowd of beloved dead. I want them down there or up there resolutely on my side, cheering me on. The generations form a great wheel, constantly turning, always in change, but change is difficult as the wheel grinds on. I want my grandmother’s wisdom moving up through the ground and up the bones of my feet. I want my father’s humor and my mother’s wit coming to my rescue. That’s what’s so swell about tradition, the generations we think back on to give us a boost. I love progress, I just hate change. Maybe because of that, I tend to romanticize our ancient past. People need heroes, but the heroes we make stop being people. Witness King David, that combination of hero-monarch and tribal chief. We have worked him up into our tradition to give us pride as modern Jews. They have Elvis, we have David. Remember, he sang, too, maybe even in a band. Sampson was like the village headmen we see in Afghanistan today. David wasn’t a prophet like Isaiah, who had soaring visions of a future glory. David, if he did write those psalms, was totally present, fighting a war with his enemies and with himself. I love it that he lets us see both of his size thirteen clay feet.
Yes, we romanticize the past, but when did the future get so dark? The Hunger Games is only one set of futures among hundreds, all of which are hell bent on telling us that we’d be lucky to croak before they become the present. There must be something comforting about the hopelessness we are purveying to one another, but I can’t imagine what it is.
There is, in the 23rd Psalm, one of the Tanach’s seeming doubles. People tyhink that such doubling is a literary form, the eye has not seen nor the tongue expressed, the mountains shall part and the hills be removed, etc. That sunny little poem gives us, “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort us.” Rod, staff—what’s the difference? Well, the word for staff in Hebrew always means something one leans on, is supported by. The word rod is what one is beaten by. A rod is far too flexible for any kind of support. Is the psalmist telling us that a whip can comfort us? I think he is. A punishment justly deserved and justly given has a kind of comfort in it, even for the person undergoing it. We all know that while we chortle and get happily dizzy with relief at getting away with something, there is something creepy about it and that the creepy lasts longer than the giggle.
Fear of the future—I guess every generation samples hell from Medea’s mind to Gottedamerung, from the Halvermaal in Norse literature to the Armageddon in the New Testament. Stephen King postulates a hundred devils but no God. Never did I think I would look to Yom Kippur for encouragement. Yom Kippur believes in justice, in both the rod and staff, in renewal for everyone not just the plucky protagonists of our dystopian futures. The famous Jewish guilt is balanced by the famous Jewish hope.
When I was doing fire-rescue, our captain, hearing about our holiday, said, as I was leaving the firehouse, “Hey, Greenbeen, Happy Young Kippur.” “Thanks,” I said, and the same to all of us.