Sunday, 22 September 2019

High Holy Day Philosophy Courtesy of Shtisel

I attended a very cool panel discussion last evening featuring some of the cast and creators of the Israeli broadcast sensation, Shtisel. If you haven't already been swept up by this worldwide phenomenon, I suggest that you hit up your Netflix account post-haste and do not dare surface until you have binged the entirety of both seasons. (A third season is in the works and cannot come soon enough.)

The panel was sponsored jointly by Beth Tzedek and Beth Torah congregations here in Toronto and was the precursor to the midnight service of Selichot which marks the official beginning of the Yamim Noraim or High Holy Days. The Selichot prayers are those of repentance during which we Jews communally ask The Divine Spirit for forgiveness. The service is often a poignant and soul-stirring precursor to the Days of Awe. Having the Shtisel cast precede the service was a brilliant ploy on the part of the two congregations to draw in worshippers to a unique but difficult service, given the lateness of the hour. An enthusiastic group of Toronto Shtisel groupies packed the synagogue last night hoping to feed their fandom. For most, I am certain that Selichot services were deep in the dark recesses of their minds.

I will admit that Shtisel was the drawing card for me as well. Having led my share of Selichot services, the novelty of seeing the Israeli cast in person was way ahead on the depth chart of attending a midnight service for which I have tremendous difficulty in staying awake. I'm not certain what I expected of these actors but I certainly wasn't prepared to be dazzled by a true Yamim Noraim moment.

During a question about how she reconciles her abandoned Haredi wife character of Giti with a far more liberal interpretation of how we believe that women should react to the return of a wayward spouse, actress Neta Riskin was incredibly circumspect and, frankly quite brilliant in her answer when she stated,

"We tend to judge other people by their actions but we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions."

I was stunned by this bit of truly cogent modern philosophy.

We do judge others by their actions or, worse yet, their inactions but we tend to excuse our own inaction by what we consider to be honourable intentions.

What if we were to flip the equation? What if we tried to look beyond the actions of those we easily condemn with a keystroke or a flippant remark and instead we attempted to see the work behind what they have done or plan to do? Conversely, what if instead of holding onto our good intentions like life preservers, we finally put some of what we say we are going to do into concrete action? Obviously, it isn't a perfect idea. There are still those out there whose actions are inherently nasty or those who spout platitudes without backing up their rhetoric, but what if we judged others a bit more by their intentions and ourselves a bit more by our actions? Isn't it possible we might find a more balanced approach to the way we live our lives and perhaps a steadier manner to how we exist in a world fraught with emotional landmines?

We enter into the New Year with a great deal of anxiety. We are concerned by the lack of moral fortitude by our leaders and we see suffering coming from all corners of the earth. We are living in a time of schism and the chasms between us seem unbreachable. But what if, for a brief moment in time, we looked at those closest to us and tried to reach past what we perceive they have done and look more into their intents. And then, we look inward and move beyond our stated intentions and into concrete plans of action to back up our words. Couldn't we find a small measure of common ground with those whom we disagree?

In order for it to happen, we need to accept our own failings and apologize without hesitation or reservation to those whom we have caused pain, and we must accept the apologies of those who have failed us.

"For sins against The Almighty, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins of one person against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another."

Neta Riskin's Giti needed to move on from her philandering husband's actions otherwise she couldn't find true teshuva (repentance) for herself. She chose to see the intention of his renewed commitment to her and the family and to forgive his sin of leaving. It was the most difficult of paths but it enabled her to move forward.

Action and intention are truly two sides of the same coin. Let's enter into the year 5780 with both for ourselves and hope that others are trying to do the same.

May the coming year be one of health, commonality, love, life, and peace.

Shana Tovah U'metukah.

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