When did I become a cranky old man?
I suppose, given sufficient length of days, it’s the inevitable state of a cranky baby. I can already hear a few friendly voices of disbelieving supporters protesting that I am being much too hard on myself. I thank them. I know I can be mirthful, charming, silly, childlike, funny, loving, and joyous. Those are all great qualities. However, that’s not the whole story and it’s not what spoke to me as I awoke from a dream yesterday.
It’s Elul, the month of preparation before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is the time to reflect on what one can do to become a better person in the year ahead. It sadly reminds me of coming home after receiving a lousy report card in high school and swearing that I would turn over a new leaf in the quarter ahead, and then compounding that lie by swearing I would turnover a whole new forest. In that context a leaf would have constituted significant improvement, but even that was often beyond my reach. It is so easy to give lip service to change. Real change seems so hard to do.
I mentioned my dream. In it I stood in the backyard of the house in which I was raised. In West Hempstead of the 1950s and 60s, unlike my neighborhood in Palo Alto, there was much more openness between adjoining properties, not the cloistered yards that we have here. Our next door neighbors, the Santis had a short open-wired fence that one could easily see through and over. The Santis were a mostly friendly, sometimes cranky, retired couple. Mrs. Santi in particular seemed prone to complain—and I can hardly blame her—such as when she was trying to take an afternoon nap as I tossed my Spalding Hi-Bounce ball repeatedly against the brick exterior wall of her bedroom. The Santis were not in this dream. Instead, I saw and heard a small group of people engaged in animated conversation in what would have been the Santis backyard. This time I was the old person lodging the complaint. I walked over, placed my hands on the steel pipe serving as the top rail of the metal fence, leaned over and respectfully asked them to keep the noise level down. I calmly told them I had called the cops before, and I would do it again if necessary. Next I turned my head and saw my brother, of blessed memory, sitting among the party goers with a big grin on his face. “Jeff, what are you doing here?” I asked with astonishment. (Just a side note, this may be the first, at most the second time I have dreamed of my brother since his death a year and a half ago, so I ask myself, “Why now?” We’ll have to come back to that.) Then for some reason I felt obliged to comment on his weight, even though I had certainly seen him heavier throughout the years. He just smiled, and offered no response.
I awoke. The entire scene was that brief, but very deeply felt. I extricated myself from the warmth of my bed, pulled on my slippers in the dark, walked down the hall to the bathroom, flipped on the light, gazed in the mirror, and that’s when I had to ask the question I posed at the top of this page, “When did I become a cranky old man?”
I know that a cranky old man is not all that I am, but I am afraid that it is a part of me that could gain the upper hand if I allow it to. It’s a piece of me that I would love to extricate. I add quickly that only a couple of days ago I posted a blog in which I accepted the premise that light and dark must co-exist. So the boyish, delightful side of me needs to make peace with the cranky decrepit side of me. How do I do this? How do I do this in a way that allows what I admire in myself to reveal itself more, and leads that part of me that I find troublesome to at least play a less active role, bearing in mind that it cannot be extinguished, and it will only rise in protest if I try to snuff it out all together.
In Judaism we work to improve our performance in life, without expecting to be perfect. Perfection is unattainable for us mortals. The High Holy Day prayer book uses the word “sin” to describe our failings, but even the use of that word fails to be perfect. The Hebrew word that is typically translated as “sin” is the word chet. Every year we are reminded that a chet is not literally a sin. It is a term that comes from archery meaning “missing the mark.” When one has missed the mark, it is possible to improve one’s aim and get a bit closer to the bull's eye the next time—with awareness, with concern, a little practice, and perhaps some coaching. It is not a sin to fall short of perfection. The only sin may be a failure to recognize these misses, a failure to acknowledge them, to make amends for them, and a failure to look for ways to improve upon them.
With the introspection that Elul prompts, a number of questions arise to which I have only embarrassingly poor answers. What gets me angry and why? Why am I so keen to react to the trivial trespasses of others—whether it be noisy neighbors, as in my dream and occasionally in reality, lousy drivers who always seem to be on the road around me while I glide innocently (and perfectly) along, waiters who don’t keep my water glass filled, or inanimate telephone recorded voices offering me a menu of irrelevant dialing options. What about these annoyances captures my passion? More importantly, why do I often raise my voice at insignificant issues and more often sit mutely in the face of genuine offenses? There are things in life that truly demand anger. There are social injustices toward which I sadly turn a blind eye. If I can find answers to these questions perhaps I can live more as a discerning wise elder and less as a cranky old man.
Getting back to the dream for a bit, I still wonder why my brother was sitting there serenely among the noisy neighbors? My best guess is that the change I seek is something that he, at least in part, achieved in his waning months. No, he did not altogether eradicate a lifetime of his shadow crankiness, but he did shine in a new light, an or chadash in Hebrew, in which he saw love everywhere and conferred blessings on everyone. Perhaps seeing the end of his days gave him that insight. Yom Kippur is said to be a dress rehearsal for the end of our days—we abstain from food, water, sex, and wearing leather as ways to separate ourselves from our normal physical world. I am among the few in our congregation who wears a kittel, the shroud-like white gown in which one day I will be buried. Such an encounter with mortality gives me the opportunity to see what is truly important just as my brother did—to love and to bless.
Ken y'hi ratzon--may it be so!