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Bereishit: Passion & Complacency

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A Post-Simchat Torah Open Letter
to both my Frenzied & Rational Friends

Fervent, zealous, fanatical frenzy.
Rational, calm, serene.
Which one would you like to be?
Here are selections from my post-Simchat Torah diary.

Simchat Torah, Sunday, September 30th

Had the unique opportunity to see life in its full glory play itself out right before my eyes, with its multi-paradoxical flavors and nuances.

First I see a group of my friends finish dancing at 9:30 PM, walk home with their spouses – how sweet! – with their cleanly pressed clothing and self-satisfied faces.

Pathetic! For years on end we saw the Rebbe dance until the wee hours of the night, in a never-ending surge of energy. How can you now complacently walk home and go to sleep before curfew?!

Good news is that this first group is quite small.

I then see, on the other end of the scale, thousands of Chassidim celebrate with frenzy in an intoxicated dance that stretched hour after hour into the night, and then some, continuing into the morning. Yes, frenzy. I had no idea where it was coming from, but as I saw multitudes reach an infatuated fervor, I hear the skeptic inside of me wonder: “what distinguishes this passionate fervor from those of brainless cult followers?”

The first were normal, the second crazy. The first balanced, the second radical. The first calmly walked home, the second probably forgot about their homes.

Which way of being is better? Is there an in-between option? Can a soul be on fire and remain grounded?

These and many other questions roil my mind as I recognize how these two extremes reflect the spectrum of life all over. Which is better: raw, untamed energy of youth or the balanced experience (resignation?) of seasoned adults. Are we doomed to embrace one or the other?

This struggle also captures the troubles plaguing our religious communities. Reminds me of the words I always speak when I visit the Carlebach Shul in the Upper West Side of Manhattan: “There are no perfect communities and shuls in the world today. In some places Rosh Hashana feels like Simchat Torah, and in others Simchat Torah feels like Rosh Hashana. Some synagogues celebrate Purim very well, and others specialize in Tisha B’av (saddest day in the year)… Some have love without discipline; others discipline without love.

And finally on the political scene, extremists seem to always take center stage. Left and right. Chesed and gevurah. Tiferet – the center path – is a rare and elusive commodity. Balance and harmony of both extremes fused together is hard to find. We have ‘centrists’ that are ‘weak in the middle’ and uncertain or vague, they either don’t take a position or take a weak position, or they straddle the fence and ‘tantz oif aleh chasunas’ (‘dance at all weddings’ – a favorite Yiddishism expressing insecure ambiguity). Tiferet is the strength to synthesize passion and control. To reach an equilibrium between tension and resolution. Rotzo and shuv. Reaching, reaching, reaching upward – the fire of Simchat Torah, and then drawing, drawing, drawing downward.

All these thoughts whizzed by me as I watched the two different groups celebrating Simchat Torah.

Yes, for several hours unrealizingly I sadly became an observant Jew – observing events instead of creating them. Until I caught myself and surrendered my ego, throwing myself into the impassioned frenzy.

So here’s my open letter and plea to both my friends:

Oh rational ones, inject yourself with some passion, even frenzy. Learn from your brothers how to break out of your smug attitudes and self-imposed boundaries. Get out of your mediocre structures, let loose and dance, truly dance.

Oh frenzied ones, ground yourselves. Study and internalize your passion. Build something. Take all your frenzy and passion and channel it into a productive spiritual revolution.

Let us recreate the world anew – as we begin the new Torah reading cycle and read: “Bereishis boro Elokim es hashomayim v’es ha’aretz” (In the beginning G-d created heaven and Earth) – a new world order, radically different than the one we lived through last year. Enough complacency. Let us set the world on fire – the fire of spiritual passion that transforms rather than destroys.

Together let us create a true revolution: Passion with poise. Using structure to defy structure

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