I have to do some teshuvah, some repentance. We are fast approaching the month of Elul, which immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah. During Elul, we are supposed to prepare ourselves for performing teshuvah so that by the time Rosh Hashanah arrives, we are ready to correct our mistakes. I’m starting a little early. That’s because, a few weeks ago, before our prayer of redemption, I made a joke about being redeemed from New Jersey, where I worked before returning to TAE. But the fact is, I enjoyed New Jersey and the congregation, and the many close relationships Sandy and I made. There is actually a great deal of beauty in New Jersey. So, I say to Cantor Perper in New Jersey, “In Thousand Oaks we used to have Shabbat services outside every Friday in July and August. Maybe we should try it here too.” He says, “Great idea. Let’s walk outside and find a place to hold it each week.” We walk outside and are hit with a wall of 100 percent humidity, temperatures in the nineties, and, perhaps most significantly, the din of a freeway right next to the temple. We held services outside, once, but the next week we were back in the sanctuary.
With all my continued affection for my former congregation in Mahwah, New Jersey, I am so pleased to be able to be back here and to see this beautiful hill that we face when we sing “Lecha Dodi.” As the sun sets, I love seeing the hill turn from beige to gold and then to pink. But from time to time, I can see another image in my mind’s fearful eye, of this pristine hill engulfed in flames. Perhaps it’s because of the terrible rash of fires that burned so much of Southern California this past December, fires that began on the day I was interviewing here. Perhaps it’s my childhood memory of my parents driving us to the Santa Monica beaches in 1970, where we watched the distant Malibu hills burn out of control. Luckily for us, back then, we were distant and safe; unfortunately, for those residents of Malibu and for us today, we are neither distant nor safe—maybe. If we really want to know how safe we are, we should probably speak with Jack Cohen. Jack is not a member of TAE. He doesn’t even live in California. Rather, he is a researcher for the U.S. Forestry Service based at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. If the news reporters are to be believed, Cohen says, fires come roaring downhill like a flood or lava, engulfing everything in their paths. But, Cohen tells us, that just isn’t true. What actually happens is that embers float up and over the fire, landing perhaps half a mile away or more. His research shows that firefighters often pour hundreds and thousands of gallons of water on the fire line, but the fires simply skips right over them. We often hear reporters and firefighters say, “It was an act of God, there is nothing we can do about it,” but Cohen doesn’t believe that and has the research to prove it. He says that much of our fire suppression efforts don’t work. In fact, they may make matters worse. Because we try to stop all fires, the underbrush continues to grow. When an inevitable lightning strike does start a fire, it burns more ferociously than if smaller fires had clear out the underbrush.
While fires may be inevitable, according to Cohen, he tells us not to despair. Quite the opposite. He says that the forests or hills around us may burn, but the way we design our homes and the areas around our homes can act like a protecting shield. We can protect our homes proactively by choosing the right kind of roof material, removing pine needles from our gutters, and moving wood and grass piles away from our decks and walls. These are all things within our control, and addressing them allows fires to burn our forests but not our homes.
You can imagine the thundering applause Jack Cohen received from the Forest Service when he first shared his research that much of our fire suppression efforts are wasted and should be redirected towards prevention. Let me demonstrate the reception … That’s right. Silence, indifference, and even anger. People want to see those helicopters and big jumbo jets dropping thousands of gallons of water. And many people do not want to go through the trouble of changing how they manage the area around their home. Cohen has made inroads on protecting homes from fires, but he has also created a powerful metaphor about how to help the emotional fires that may burn within the people living inside those homes.
Our rabbis talk about the desires and negative emotions that lead us to act badly and even sinfully. They call that collection of desires Yetzer Hara, the Evil Inclination, and they think of it as a fire burning out of control. While we may think that Cohen’s findings only apply to brush and forest fires, he also provides insights about controlling our own Yetzer Hara, our own negative emotions and desires that motivate sinful behavior. In the same way that forest and grass fires may be inevitable, the emotions we feel, which may lead to pain or despair or to performing shameful actions, may be inevitable, too. Greed and lust, avarice and indifference—we know the engines of our mistakes. We’ll soon be reading about those very desires during the High Holy Days. Often, we don’t even recognize those feelings burning within ourselves; we just automatically react to them to extinguish our discomfort or pain. We don’t realize we are jealous; we just snap at our spouse. We don’t realize we are scared and anxious; we just compulsively buy things without realizing why. But if we become aware that we are feeling those Yetzer Hara feelings, we often try to suppress them and keep them out of our hearts.
Some other religious traditions might say that the Devil is creating those feelings. Jack Cohen would never say that, and neither should we. Cohen says that the flames will come. Don’t try to stop them, just try to manage them better. Applying that to our emotions, we might say that rather than running from those emotional flames that burn within us, we are called on to feel them. We need to allow the negative feelings and even the emotional pain to take up some space in our minds and hearts. Rather than admonishing ourselves for having those feelings, we should simply recognize Yetzer Hara feelings within ourselves and describe those feelings. Inside ourselves we may say, “I’m feeling angry again. That’s interesting. I wonder why I’m so angry?” Rather than running away from our anger or trying to quench it with water, like a firefighter trying to stop a forest fire, we should just allow the feeling to burn through. Rather than being singed by our feelings, we should be curious about why we are feeling them now. When we can become curious about our Yetzer Hara feelings rather than fearful or ashamed of them, we then can prepare for the emotional sparks that will inevitably rain down on us. And when they do rain down, we can allow them to burn around us and not within us.
I believe that that is what the Torah describes in this week’s Torah portion. While they are standing on the shore of the Jordan River, ready to finally enter the Promised Land after forty years of wandering, God acknowledges to the Children of Israel that they suffered through the years in the desert. But through experiencing that Yetzer Hara feeling of suffering, they learned that they didn’t die, that they could experience hardship and not succumb to it. Like soldiers in basic training, God let the Children of Israel go hungry and then fed them with manna. But the Children of Israel cried like the children they were; they didn’t know what manna was. It didn’t even feel like food. Imagine eating Styrofoam and being told that it would nourish you. They turned up their noses at this strange stuff and complained that this is not like the Wonder Bread we knew in Egypt. But they allowed their negative feelings to burn through them; they survived those negative feelings, and manna became one of their foods, and God said, “See, humanity does not live by bread alone.”
We will feel the flames of struggle within ourselves. We will feel embarrassment and anxiety and envy and hatred. We will feel an alphabet of woes. So, when we do, let’s not fear the emotional struggles. Let’s not protect our kids from failure or bemoan the heartaches and setbacks that we will all face. Instead, let’s remove the flammable wood-shingle roofs that cover our hearts and the dry grass growing around our souls. When we do, we will not fear the emotional embers that will inevitably fall.
All this is easier said than done. But if living in this way is of interest to you or if you already live your life in this way, then please reach out to me so that we can learn from one another and support each other as we work to live a sanctified life.