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Enchanté: To Life with a Radiant Face
Rosh Hashanah Evening Service 5770 (2009)

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, Sinai Temple

 

I’m tired of Woody Allen. I loved the movie Bananas. Annie Hall was a fabulous film. Amidst the humor, there was that great scene in which Woody Allen’s character encounters a man and woman in Central Park. They are relaxed. They are laughing with each other.

But Woody Allen is disturbed. He says to them, “Tell me. How can you be so carefree when the world is so troubled?” They respond, “It’s easy. We’re shallow.”

How true and how perceptive that bit of filmmaking is!

Despite that, I am tired of Woody Allen. His anxiety and agita have become old news. That’s why I had no interest in his movie from this past summer. It was called “Whatever Works” and told the story of an unhappy, frustrated intellectual by the name of Boris Yelnikoff. I knew I didn’t need to see the movie because I’d already seen the same angst in 15 earlier films by Woody Allen.

Not so with another summer movie, “Julie and Julia.” I was very much primed to go see that film because I knew something different was going to happen in the theater. In case you missed it, “Julie and Julia” is the grand movie in which Meryl Streep portrays the chef, author, and early television personality, Julia Child. And it is decidedly not a Woody Allen movie.

Much of the movie is set in Paris where Julia Child, wife of an American diplomat, finds herself living in the early 1950’s. The opening scenes of the movie show Julia and her husband driving through Parisian streets looking for their new home. As the car progresses through Paris, we hear Meryl Streep portraying Julia practicing her French. She stumbles over various French words and phrases for everyday life until she comes upon the word that becomes her motto. In English “enchanted.” In French, “Enchante.”

Over time Julia does learn more French, but this one word serves her very well in approaching her new life. She finds Paris -- “enchante.” She goes shopping in the open air market. “Enchante.” She luxuriates in rich French food. “Enchante.”

As Meryl Streep presents her, Julia is so vital and exuberant about life that she herself is enchante.

It’s a far cry from Woody Allen, and it is exactly where I want to be this New Year’s Eve of 5770.

Enchante! On the one hand, you would have to be shallow (thanks Woody) to declare that this last year has been enchante. Only this last month we have seen casualties grow and grow in Afghanistan. Iran is close to a nuclear bomb. A former Israeli Prime Minister has been indicted for financial shenanigans. And here at home huge economic dislocation has been the theme. Everyone is hurting financially.

You would have to be “shallow” or quite blind not to recognize the pain and disruption of this last year.

But that’s not my focus tonight because tonight I don’t want to talk about economics, politics, or current events. I want to focus instead on how you and I respond to the world around us.

If the world is menacing, how do you and I go about living in the world? What personal resources do we summon or draw upon for surviving a frightening, depressing world?

That is where Julia Child or the Julia Child portrayed by Meryl Streep comes into play. It’s her response to life that means so much to me. It’s not what she (either Julia or Meryl) did. It’s how she greeted life with spirit, ebullience, with fullness of heart and spirit that matters immensely to me tonight.

Switch scenes: It’s Saturday morning, August 8, at Tanglewood, one of those perfect, blue sky sunny days in Lenox when you can attend the open rehearsal for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Yo-Yo-Ma is performing the Cello Concerto No. 1 of Shostakovich.

As you might imagine, the music is exhilarating and remarkable. But when the performance is all done, something else happens. I am sitting maybe forty rows back in the shed. It’s quite a distance, but I can see the extraordinary take place. Instead of simply walking off the stage when the rehearsal concludes, Yo-Yo-Ma puts away his cello, turns to the concert master, shakes his hand and exchanges a few words. But he doesn’t stop there. He does the same with others in the violin section, then the violas, cellos, and all the way down the line. He pauses, shakes hands, says a little something, and graciously, stylishly, sweetly leaves the stage.

Enchante.

For me, it is a grand instructive human moment. This world class musician virtually embraces the every day musicians of the orchestra. What a way to behave. What a way to be. Even at a distance, I knew I was watching a virtuoso performance in living.

I was reminded of the teaching in the Mishnah (Pirke Avot 1:15, 3:12). We are told there:



Greet every person with a pleasant face.


Receive every person with joy.


The Talmud (Brachot 17a) tells the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai. Yo Yo Ma sounds as if he might have been channeling the rabbi because we are told no one ever greeted Ben Zakkai first. Wherever he was, Ben Zakkai opened his hands eagerly to everyone from the high and mighty down to the simple. We’re told about a 19th century rabbi by the name of Aryeh. (Yitzchak Buxbaum, Jewish Spiritual Practices) When he met someone, he took that person’s hands in his own and held them in a loving, caressing way that was almost electric with holiness, sending God’s energy directly into the person’s heart.

Have you ever met someone like that - someone so present, intense, alive?

Have you ever thought about the fact that some people do seem to jump off the page – not forced, not overpowering, but sweetly, honestly, and simply.

And it’s not only how they literally greet you – b’saver panim yafot/with a pleasant face. If you look carefully, you realize there are some people who greet life as a whole – b’saver panim yafot/with a pleasant face.

Or better still, let me tell you what Fran Scheckter, our Temple member, suggested last year when we were talking about this notion of having a pleasant face. I had translated “panim yafot” as “having a pleasant face.” Some of you will recognize that “panim” in Hebrew sounds like “punim” in Yiddish. You may remember that phrase “Shayne punim,” which means having a beautiful face.

Well, Fran had a terrific insight as she thought about various “faces.” She remembered another Yiddish phrase. Sometimes, she told me, you can compliment a person by saying they have a “lichtige punim.” That’s l-i-c-h-t-i-g-e. Play around with those letters slightly and you’ll soon get the English word l-i-g-h-t….light!

So what’s a lichtige punim? It’s a lit up face. Or try this translation. A lichtige punim is a radiant face.

That’s what we’re talking about: people who approach life with a radiant face. People who are radiant. Or, take it back to the French: We’re talking about people who say to life: Enchante!

Here’s an admission: One of my favorite opportunities as a Rabbi involves meeting with couples before their wedding. Most of the time these days these are men and women in their late twenties and early thirties.

And here’s what makes that meeting so delicious: these couples have “radiant faces.” They are totally alive.

Now I know why that’s so. These young people are bubbling with life, at least in part, because they haven’t lived all that much life. For the most part, they haven’t lost anyone too dear to them. For the most part, they haven’t encountered major setbacks. For the most part, I’m talking about young people who haven’t yet become parents. They haven’t assumed the awesome responsibility of caring for and loving another human being. There’s great joy in parenthood, but parents also worry about their children and the future in ways these brides and grooms can’t fathom.

That being said, these wedding couples do still possess an ingredient worth bottling. They shine. They glow.

And this Rosh Hashanah evening, that is my wish for you and for myself. Not to be twenty or thirty. Not to do the impossible and roll back time. No, my wish for you tonight and this year is that you find the strength and wisdom to shine, to see the world and life with fresh eyes.

Of course, there are reasons aplenty for despair. Life can be exhausting and enervating. Who isn’t tired through and through?

But there’s tired and there’s tired. There’s tired physically. Sometimes I don’t sleep enough. Sometimes I work way too many hours. That results in a certain sort of tired that I fix with a good night’s sleep.

It’s the other tired that concerns me. This is the tired that takes the glow out of our eyes. It’s when our soul and psyche feel sapped. It’s when we can’t greet people or life itself with that radiant face described by the Mishnah.

That’s the sad tired I want to wish away tonight. I want to ask you to refocus if you can, to open your eyes, breathe deeply, remember and recapture that glow you once had.

Look up from whatever it is that consumes you daily.

Look up from your computer screen.

Look up from that Blackberry PDA that monopolizes you twenty-four/seven.

Sit up every once in a while. Stretch more. Take your pulse. Feel the blood which courses round your body every second and keeps you breathing, seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, and touching.

*****

Two years ago right after the High Holidays, another Temple member, Carolyn Mernoff, gave me a delicious cartoon. It ran two panels. In the first, a little boy stands beside his grandmother in the attic. She is unpacking a trunk full of memorabilia from her High School yearbook to old phonograph records. The little boy says, “Grandma, why do you keep all these souvenirs and stuff from the past?”

In the second panel, Grandma hugs the little one and explains, “I keep it to prove to myself it wasn’t all just a dream.”

Friends, it isn’t just a dream.

Life is not locked away in your attic. Life is available every second.

To paraphrase the Mishnah, our job, our challenge, our privilege, is to greet every moment as much as we can with a radiant face, with a glow, with hope.

Yo-Yo-Ma, Julia Child, Meryl Streep.

In this New Year, why not you? Why not me?

As our tradition puts it, L’Chaim – To Life.

As the French would have it, Enchante! Enchanted!

Absolutely!

And…oh, yes….Bon Soir, mes amis.

Good evening, shana tova, my friends.

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