Impermanence – King Solomon, the Dalai Lama and the High Holy Days

I love my work, and the days I love most are the busiest and most intense. Recently one morning I joined in song with a young couple celebrating the bris of their newborn baby in their home, “Siman tov and mazal tov and mazal tov and siman tov!” I then drove to our cemetery to see a family I had sat with listening to stories the night before. Those stories could now only be memories as we lowered their loved one into the earth while reciting our tearful sacred prayers, “A time to be born and a time to die. Adonai has given and Adonai has taken.” I washed my hands at the cemetery fountain (as is the Jewish custom when leaving a cemetery), took a deep breath and made my way to officiate under a wedding chuppah at a sparkling downtown hotel. I found the bride and groom with wide-eyed smiles looking towards the future. When they were finished adorning themselves with jewels and flowers, I gave them the traditional blessing, “May God bless you with all the good things in life.”

An occupational hazard (or rather an occupational honor) of being a religious leader is that we guide people through it all. From married to buried, the highest highs and the lowest lows. On days like these as I drive from one lifecycle to the next, I can’t help but be reminded that everything in life is always changing. The rug gets pulled out from under us swiftly and slowly. To express this universal concern we all find ourselves saying, “Life is fragile!” But medical doctors will tell us that life is anything but fragile. In the words of Rachel Remen, author and physician: “Life can change abruptly and end without warning, but life is not fragile. There is a difference between impermanence and fragility … the body is an intricate design of checks and balances, with elegant strategies of survival layered upon layer… there is a tenacious will to survive present at the intracellular level.” Survival is written into the very fabric of our being. We have a built- in will to live. Life is not fragile, it’s just not permanent … nothing is.

The High Holy Days ask us to contemplate our own mortality. The words in our prayer books require of us to admit to our own impermanence. As we carve out moments for introspection, we observe our place and purpose in the world, reflect on how we have changed and watch who we are becoming. In quiet contemplation, we realize that everything is in process and we can train our minds not to identify exclusively with only the snapshots of life – to see an oak tree within an acorn or a peaceful mind in the midst of turmoil. Nature is the most accessible example of constant change. Flowers fade and wither and new life blooms again. Yet we tend to see our own selves as fixed, exempt from the natural world. By recognizing the “bigger picture” we gain a more expansive view of our own lives, and the wisdom to appreciate them unfolding.

Eastern religions claim that our frustrations, fears and disappointments come from being too attached. We try to hold onto our expectations or set ways when the truth is that everything is changing. As a college student, I went to see the Dalai Lama speak. I’ll always remember one thing he said that was quite beautiful. He said we should attempt to be like the calm water beneath the deep waves of the ocean, hearing and feeling the movement and roar above us, but living in the stillness and calm below the crashing of the waves.

When I open my Shabbat siddur I read a similar, perhaps even more ancient expression of my own (Middle) Eastern ancestors. Every Friday night we chant Psalm 93, “The rivers may rise and rage, the waters may pound and pulsate, the floods may swirl and storm. Yet above the crash of the sea and its mighty breakers is you The Source, Adonai.” The sages of old give us instructions to view life from a vantage point that doesn’t get taken away by change but rests comfortably in the awareness of its truth. That view is clear in the story of King Solomon commissioning a royal ring. He instructed his most loyal servant to engrave upon this lavish ring words he could utter at any moment in life. He sought to look upon his ring and utter these words during his greatest celebrations as well as during his darkest nightmares. When he was the happiest he would ever be, he wanted to celebrate with this ring; when he was sobbing, he wanted to seek its comfort. For months on end his servant searched for the perfect phrase. Finally one day, King Solomon’s loyal servant presented him with the new royal ring. As the king placed it upon his hand, he read the Hebrew letters etched upon the surface, Gam Zeh Ya’avor … This Too Shall Pass.

As we approach this year’s new beginnings may we all be blessed to rest in the awareness of life’s constant transformation. Shanah tovah u-metukah, a sweet new year.

Rabbi Bradley Greenstein is the associate rabbi at Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland.

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