Rosh Hashanah Day One To Love a Rooster

09.27.2015

I’d like to revisit one of my all time favorite Hasidic stories, a story told by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. The story is told of a king and a queen who had a son who they loved very much. In fact, everyone in the kingdom loved the prince. He was intelligent, he was handsome, and he was kind to everyone he met.

But, when the prince turned thirteen, something strange happened. He became convinced that he was a rooster. At first, this was a minor annoyance. He would crow at dawn and wake his parents up, but other than that, he went about his business.

But, the prince’s rooster-like behavior became more and more pronounced. And, after several months, the prince stopped speaking. He took off all his clothes, he got under the table and he would only eat rooster food.

His parents were beside themselves. At first, they thought it was a passing phase and they tried to ignore it. But, when the prince’s bizarre behavior persisted, they became more and more worried. They called in experts from all over the kingdom.

They brought in the best psychotherapists in the land. They hired professional comedians. They hired an exorcist to perform strange rituals, believing that perhaps their son was possessed by a demon. All to no avail.

One day, a rabbi was passing through the royal city, and he heard of the prince’s behavior. He went to the king and the queen and said: “Perhaps I can help.” The king and queen were desperate. They invited the rabbi to try, and they said: “Rabbi, anything you need, please tell us. And, the rabbi said: “I don’t need anything, but I will have to move in with you for a few months.” Of course, the parents agreed.

On the first day, the rabbi went in to see the prince. And, the first thing the rabbi did was to take of all his clothes and to get under the table with the prince. The rabbi watched the prince carefully and did what he did. When the prince made pecking motions at the floor, the rabbi did that, too. When the prince crowed, the rabbi crowed, too.

The king and the queen were very upset. They said, “Now we have two mad people in our house, not one! What have we done?” But, the rabbi counseled patience, and having no good alternative, they decided to wait and see.

After a few weeks of pecking and crowing, the rabbi began to speak with the prince. He said: “you see, I am a rooster like you. But, sometimes roosters speak, as well as crow.” And, after a few weeks, the prince began to speak with the rabbi.

Months went by, and the rabbi put on a shirt. And, he said to the prince, “You see, I am also a rooster, and I wear a shirt. You can also be a rooster and wear a shirt. And, sure enough, the prince put on a shirt.’

Eventually, the rabbi got out from under the table and stood upright, and so did the prince. And, before you know it, the prince was behaving in a way that you and I and most of society would call normal. The king and the queen were overjoyed. And, the prince grew up to become one of the wisest and most popular kings in all of the kingdom’s history. And, every so often, when he was alone with his thoughts, he would let out a loud and enthusiastic crow.

This story is about the creative tension between acceptance and change that is part of our lives every day. What do I do if my teenager comes home with blue hair, or something even more unsettling than that? The Rabbi is able to help the prince because he accepts him for who he is. He doesn’t condemn him. He empathizes with him. And, because the prince senses that the rabbi likes him, even in his roosterhood, he responds to the rabbi.

On the other hand, the rabbi is not content to leave the prince in his roosterhood forever. The rabbi has a clear preference that the prince change his behavior and rejoin society. Somehow he is able to convey that to the prince without the prince feeling he is being personally rejected. So, the Rav Nachman story challenges us to ask the question: what should be the balance of change and acceptance in our lives today?

I read a book over the summer that engaged this question in a very compelling way. The book is called Ghost Boy, a book that Martin Pistorius writes about his own remarkable life. Martin Pistorius was born in Johannesberg, and for the first 12 years of his life, he lived a happy childhood with his family.

When Martin was 12 years old, he was stricken with a mysterious neurological disease that left him in a coma for four years. When he was 16 years old, Martin woke up. He could see, he could hear. He could understand everything that was going around him.

There was only one problem. Nobody knew that Martin was awake. Because Martin could not communicate in any way with the outside world. He could not speak. He had no control of his facial muscles or any of the muscles in his body. For all intents and purposes, he was paralyzed from the neck down and he had no way of telling the world that he was in fact completely alert and aware.

So, Martin heard his parents talking and he heard the doctors and the nurses speaking about him as if he were still in a vegetative state. And, he remained this way for nine years.

When Martin was 25 years old, a very perceptive nurse came to believe that Martin was trying to speak to her. And, she convinced his parents and the doctors to have him tested. And, when they tested him, they found out that she was right.

At first, the tests simply confirmed that Martin had the conscious intelligence of a toddler. But, eventually, it became clear that Martin was a brilliant young man, with a gift for understanding computer science, who was locked inside of a body that made it seemingly impossible for him to communicate.

Now, I wish I could tell you that Martin was cured of his neurological illness and he lived happily ever after. That’s not what happened. But, what did happen is no less amazing. The nurse that re-discovered him invited him to begin solving computer problems in the nursing home. And, over the next eight years, Martin worked with nurses, doctors, his parents, his sister, and computer scientists to figure out how he could communicate the wealth of his intelligence and personality to the outside world, so that he could live a full life.

He never learned to move his head or his arm more than a few inches. But, he graduated from the university. He became a world leader in the development of software that could help others like himself communicate with the outside world. And, he fell in love and married a wonderful woman. The book ends with his wedding day.

There are so many ways to appreciate this book. It is a story about courage and determination. It is a story about breaking through the isolation of human loneliness, a battle we all fight. We all have moments when we feel that the world out there doesn’t get us, doesn’t see us, doesn’t really appreciate who we are.

But, most of all, I saw Martin’s life as an exquisite blend of acceptance and change. For Martin to move forward the way he did, he had to accept what had happened to him. To rail against God for the unfairness of it all, to feel sorry for himself, to resent his suffering would have been totally understandable. But, it would have doomed Martin to live a horrible life.

And, the same was true for his parents. It was also critically important that his parents accept the loss of the child they once knew and the dream of the man they hoped he would become. We can’t begin to imagine how difficult this was for them.

But, here is the rub—here is the most important part. Acceptance of Martin’s current condition did not mean resignation. Within physical limits that were never going to change, Martin was able to achieve things that were absolutely unimaginable. He accepted what he knew could not be changed, but he never accepted things that he believed he could change through the sheer force of his will. And, he has become an eloquent champion for the disabled, shattering the limits of what most of us thought the disabled could achieve.

And this is something we often miss. The great mistake that we make all the time is to confuse acceptance of our limitations with resignation and defeat. In his book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, psychiatrist Adam Philips says much of our mental life is pre-occupation with the lives we are not living, the lives we believe we deserve, but for some reason, elude us.

Phillips says, if we are not careful, our lived lives can become a protracted mourning for the lives we were unable to live. Our actual life can become a protracted tantrum about the life we think we deserve. And, he says the problem is exacerbated by our culture which inflates our expectations of what we think our lives should be like.

One of my favorite movies of all time is an Israeli movie called Pick a Card. It’s about an auto mechanic in Afulah who has a dream of being a great magician. It turns out, David is a terrible magician, but he is a great mechanic.

As the story progresses, David hooks up with a first rate magician. One day, they are arguing in the courtyard and scores of neighbors gather around to watch. They find the argument hilariously entertaining. So, the two magicians turn their dysfunctional relationship into a national act, and they become national celebrities.

But, in the process of getting all of this attention, David neglects the most important person in his life, Batya, a woman who he loves and who loves him. And, as the film reaches its climax, he has to choose between what he thinks society says is a worthy life and what he knows deep in his heart will bring him happiness and fulfillment.

He makes the right choice. He marries Batya. He goes back to being a mechanic. He is very happy. And, in the last scene of the film, he is dangling his toddler on his knee and saying “pick a card.”

We are so afraid– that if we accept our limitations, we will be sacrificing some essential piece of our identity. But, the most glorious moments in Jewish history are splendid compromises between acceptance and non-acceptance. The State of Israel was born of such an artful balance.

On the one hand, it was the refusal to accept reality that made the creation of the state of Israel possible. Three times a day, for 2000 years, we expressed the heartfelt belief that we would return to Jerusalem as rulers of our own destiny. It would have been logical, after let’s say 1000 years, for someone to say, “Get a life! This is just not going to happen.” But, we are a very stubborn people. And, our lack of a grasp on reality has helped us to achieve the inconceivable.

On the other hand, the State of Israel is all about acceptance.
• It’s about Jews not waiting for the optimal, Messianic moment to return to the land.
• It’s about Ben Gurion accepting less than half of the Biblical borders of Israel. It’s about Israel declaring itself a state in the face of danger and not waiting for more perfect conditions.
• And, it’s about the decision to live a joyous life in the face of overwhelming hostility, and not lamenting what we should have had and what we ought to have.

And, this tension between acceptance and change continues to play a central role in Jewish life today. When I was in Israel this past summer, I heard a young Haredi Jew, a young ultra-Orthodox Jew, say that when he went to the army, and he realized he could still be a haredi and be in the army, he realized he could encourage other ultra-orthodox Jews to do the same. This young man was able to make a huge change because he felt secure that on some level that he was accepted for who he was. No one was out to destroy his identity.

And, you know, not everyone agrees. Some say, if we allow Haredim to keep some of their Haredi-ness, we are endorsing their values. If we get under the table with the rooster, the next thing you know, we will all become roosters.

This is the great fear of many Palestinians. A few weeks ago, we had Kids4peace at the shul. Kids4peace brings together Jewish, Christian and Muslim 6th graders from Israel and the West Bank and America, and they go to camp here together for two weeks.

But, there are Palestinians who don’t like these programs for the same reason some Jews don’t want to allow Haredim to keep some of their Haredi-ness. The Palestinians call it ‘normalization.’ They are afraid that acceptance of individual Israelis (positive contact) will be an endorsement of Israeli policies. Or, in the words of Rav Nachman, if I get under the table with the rooster prince, I will become a rooster myself. I will forget who I am.

But, acceptance does not have to imply endorsement. We can love a rooster without becoming one. A few weeks ago, 60 minutes did a wonderful story about the strangest friendship in politics: President Barak Obama and Senator Tom Coburn. Tom Coburn entered the Senate at the same time as Obama and they became close friends.

We cannot imagine an odder couple. The President is a passionate liberal. Coburn was one of the most radical Tea Party spokesman in the Senate. No one did more to frustrate the president’s political agenda than Tom Coburn.

Yet these two men love each other, they admire each other, and they enjoy each other’s company. Neither one of them worried that their friendship would be perceived as an endorsement of the other’s views.

And, yet I can understand why we would think it would be. We all have a fear that if we accept a person we perceive as opposing our core values, we are going to lose a piece of ourselves. Pope Francis is struggling with this now. He recently said that women who have had abortions can be forgiven by the Church.

Many will see this as insulting. Frankly, that was my own first reaction. But, here is what I think the Pope is struggling with. How can I as a Catholic find a way to accept you without endorsing something which I believe is morally wrong? What the Pope is trying to say to women is “I see you. I recognize your humanity. I sympathize with your pain. I can even understand why you made the choice you made. Even though I don’t agree with it.”

Now for many women and men, this is not enough. They don’t believe abortion is a sin for which you have to ask forgiveness, nor do I. Can the Catholic Church go further and change its view on abortion without losing itself, without losing some essential piece of themselves, some essential piece of their identity? I don’t know. I am not a Catholic. Who am I to judge?

But, to acknowledge the humanity of the person we oppose, to see them, to say, “I can see why you would feel that way” and mean it–that is not insignificant. Because, it is so profoundly important for us to be seen, to be understood even by our greatest enemies.

Why? Why does it matter to us so much that the Palestinians recognize our right to have a Jewish state? Why do we care what they think? But, we do care. Because we are the Martin Pistorius of world history. How frustrating it is not to be seen, not to be heard, not to be understood—for thousands of year—and not only by people whose values run counter to ours—but by dozens of Western democracies that share our values!

What happened to Matisyahu in Spain is only the most recent example. In Spain!—the country that recently invited us back, 500 years after expelling us! Matisyahu, who isn’t even Israeli, he’s just Jewish, was initially barred from entertaining at a Spanish concert unless he signed a statement disavowing Israeli policies. Why?

It’s impossible to fathom the depth of hatred that could inspire this kind of a policy in a progressive country. All I can say is, this is what it feels like to be locked out, as voiceless and as invisible as Martin Pistorius felt. And, we rightly say to the world: you will not move us if you do not see us. If we are expected to take risks to change the status quo, we have every right to insist that we be acknowledged by those who wish to live side by side with us in peace.

At the same time, if you listen to Palestinians, it may seem odd to us, but they complain all the time that we the Jewish people don’t see them—that we came to the land of Israel, and we saw it as empty— Why should they care whether we see them or not? We are the enemy! But, they do care. I have met Palestinians who have plenty of issues with Israel, yet they clearly admire Israelis, and actually have a desire to be admired back.

I had a very small experience of this need a few weeks ago, when the Kids4peace program came back to the shul for Havdalah. When I spoke to the group about the meaning of Havdalah, the Israeli counselor translated into Hebrew for the Arab counselor who then translated it into Arabic for the Palestinian kids.

And, I said to them, “You know, I’ve spoken about Havdalah many times before, but this is the first time in my life that my words have been translated into Arabic. And, that is very meaningful to me.” And, the counselors said to me later, that when I said this, the eyes of the Palestinian children lit up. They were proud that their language was being acknowledged as being important. It made me a little sad, because I sensed how fragile their self-image was. But, it gave me a little hope. In that mutual need we have to be seen, maybe there is a beginning for us.

And, the fact that all this happened around Shabbat and Havdalah is significant. Because, as I was speaking about Havdalah to the group, I explained that even though the whole purpose of Shabbat is to overcome our differences, at the end of Shabbat, we celebrate these same differences. We say a blessing over Havdalah/over difference. The rhythm of Shabbat and Havdalah is the dance between acceptance and change that is so fundamental to Judaism.

Shabbat is about acceptance. It’s a day when I say I am just as I should be. I need no improvement. Nor does my wife need improvement. Nor does anyone in my community. On this day, if I have to get under the table and crow like a rooster to identify with my friend and to see his point of view, and to feel his pain and his joy, then my Tradition tells me I must do it.

And, by the same token, on Saturday night, I am equally commanded to get out from under the table, to put on a shirt, and to change whatever needs to be changed in myself and in the world around me. And, because I have been loved and accepted and forgiven for my imperfections on Shabbat, maybe I will have the courage to transform myself when Shabbat is over.

So, I want to suggest we do two things for the coming year. First, that we examine the balance of change and acceptance in our lives. What dreams, fantasies, disappointments, and grudges are we holding on to that are preventing us from living full, rich and happy lives? If we are great mechanics, why are we wasting our energies trying to be world famous magicians? Who says that’s a better life? How can we use the tool of acceptance to create change in our world?

And, secondly, I want to suggest we do this in a Jewish way. The rhythm of Shabbat and Havdalah is one of the most brilliant psychological tools ever invented. Burn the candle at both ends. Light Shabbat candles at the beginning of Shabbat and light a Havdalah candle at the end of Shabbat. But, don’t just light the candle. Think of what the candle means. Use this opportunity to think about the balance of acceptance and change in our lives.

We all have some kind of disability. But, we are all so much more than our disability. Shabbat is a time to see past our disabilities. Havdalah is a time to try to overcome them. If Rav Nachman can sit under the table with a rooster, then liberals can sit at the table with conservatives, charedi Jews can sit with secular Jews, and we hope that someday Palestinians and Israelis will find a way to sit together.

Here’s one thing we can all do in the coming year. Find a rooster to love. Then we will all have something to crow about.