Looking Up, Looking Down: Lessons on Imagination from 2,000 Feet

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Temple B’nai Tikvah, 2016/5777

By Rabbi Mark S. Glickman

eddie-and-lettieOur tradition encourages us to think about the big questions of life during these days, and one of the lessons it teaches is that, at least in terms of the big things – survival and death, health and sickness, happiness and despair – we don’t have a whole lot of control over our fate. We steer the ship in making some of our smaller decisions, of course – what to eat for breakfast, which shoe to put on first, what to wear to services. But whether we make it safely to work, whether we’ll live to dance at our children’s weddings, whether our deepest and most heartfelt prayers get answered – in answering these questions, we don’t steer the ship, we’re passengers. We can speak to the Captain, I suppose, and that may or may not make a difference. In the end, that ship is going to go where that ship is going to go.

I thought about this one day a couple of years ago when my wife Caron and I took a ride in a hot air balloon – a ride in a vehicle whose pilot can control only whether it goes up or goes down, not side to side. The side-to-side movement is up to the wind. When you go up in a hot air balloon, you see, you never really know where you’re going to land.

For years, Caron and I had loved watching hot air balloons in the sky. There are a lot of them where we lived in Washington State. They’re magnificent, and for years we’d always dreamed of riding in one. That’s why we were both so excited a few years ago when we finally got our chance. We made our reservations, and at 6:00 in the morning on the appointed day, we arrived at the appointed McDonald’s parking lot, where we met our appointed pilot, ground-crew, and fellow floaters, and drove to the launch-site. There the crew readied the two balloons that were flying that day. They attached the balloons to heavy wicker gondolas, and inflated them – first with cold air, and then with hot air. If you’ve never seen these balloons up close, it’s hard to imagine how breathtakingly glorious they look. Ours were literally at least a hundred feet tall when inflated. They were yellow and red and purple, and huge. It was awesome!

When the time came, we climbed aboard. Each gondola had a compartment for the pilot, and, perpendicular to it, two sections for the eight passengers. Caron and I shared our compartment a very nice, soft-spoken, friendly young couple in their late twenties named – and I’m not making this up – Eddie and Lettie.

The pilot fired the engines. Hot air screamed into the cavernous balloon, the ground crew released the anchor ropes, and, slowly – just like at the end of The Wizard of Oz – we began to rise.

It was at this point, I think, that I realized that I had a little problem. I realized that, yes, I have always loved seeing hot-air balloons, but I’ve always loved seeing them from the ground. For some now-unfathomable, reason I had waited until that moment to remember that I’m actually scared of heights!

As I came to this realization, the panorama grew large and vast. Beneath us, we saw the upturned faces of the ground crew grow smaller and smaller…and eventually we saw their tiny bodies walk toward the van…like a small group of bipedal ants.

We rose to 500 feet, 1000 feet, 2,000 feet. And as we did, I looked around, and began to…assess the situation. There we were…hanging in space…two thousand feet in the air…beneath a paper-thin balloon…in a little basket…made of straw. The other balloon hovered a couple hundred yards off to the side, but I didn’t want to look over there…because that other balloon was hovering in space, and I knew that’s how we looked, and I didn’t want to see it! I didn’t want to look up, because I was sure that doing so would make me lose my balance, fall over the edge, and plunge to my death…and for obvious reasons I certainly didn’t want to look down.

Whenever anyone moved, the gondola rocked. Slowly. Gently. Like a baby’s cradle. A terrifying, sadistic baby’s cradle.

I imagined what it would be like to fall – the moment of release, the floating, the ground rushing toward me.  Which would come first when I landed: the pain, or the darkness? I didn’t know. All I did know is that I was terrified, and everyone around me looked so happy – so psychotically happy! Didn’t they know what could happen???

What plagued me, I realized, was my imagination. While Caron and everyone else in the balloon were enjoying the beautiful view, I was besieged by a barrage of terrifying images storming through my head. Logically, I knew that the balloon was safe, but up there at 2,000 feet, well-reasoned logical deductions couldn’t hold a candle to the senseless power of the Glickman imagination.

My problem, I now realize, is not that I have a neurotic and irrational fear of heights. My problem – and I hope I can share this with you in confidence – is that I have a highly overdeveloped capacity to imagine.

Imagining all of those horrible scenarios like that was a little nuts, of course, but I hasten to add that in some ways, I’m sure you’re just as nuts as I am (I say that with great affection!). You see, we all have fears – some rational, some not – and fear is all about imagination. Fear needs imagination. Fear is what happens when we imagine a future course of events that we want to avoid – the more averse we are to our imaginings, the more afraid we become.

Are you afraid of the dark? Why? Are you just a little afraid – say, of bumping your shin on a chair, or knocking the old family pictures off the nightstand? Or are you scared of something far more sinister – of late-night intruders, or the boogeyman, or other such creatures of the night? And if it’s the monsters you fear, my guess is that you have at least an inkling as to what those creatures look like, and it’s that imagined image that you find so scary.

Snakes, deep water, public speaking…whatever your fear, you have a great phantasmagorium of images in your mind that would put even the best Hollywood terror movies to shame. Whether those images are realistic or not doesn’t make a bit of difference, because they conspire to churn your guts. And they succeed.

We don’t think about imagination negatively like this very often. We tend to think of imagination only in good terms. John Lennon sang about it. Barney the Dinosaur sang about it!  When we think of imagination, we tend to think of hopes, and aspirations, and dreams. But sometimes, as you know, dreams can be nightmares; sometimes imagination can terrify us.

These days, at this time of year, we Jews know the power of nightmares, and we know it all too well. As you know, when everyone else celebrates the December-January New Year, their major focus is on the party – on what’s happening around them right then and there: the hats, the horns; the sinking ball over the city square and the skyrocketing fireworks. The previous year and the year-to-come get only passing mention, because the primary emphasis is on the revelry of the moment.

When we Jews observe our new year, however, we wear hats and blow horns, too, but it’s different. Our celebration is joyous, but also solemn. We look to the past – not only to a year’s-worth of past, but to centuries and millennia-worth of past. And we use that past to help us imagine what the future might bring.

We read passages like this: “On the New Year it is written and on the Day of Atonement it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die.” (Try using that one on the night of December 31!) And if that’s not enough, our prayer continues not by giving equal air-time to each of the two possibilities – living and dying – but instead by focusing just on the “dying” part. It’s that imagination thing – the negative kind. We say “Who shall die by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast? Who by…(and here the rabbis go all-out): hunger, thirst, earthquake, plague, strangling, stoning, and”….oh my GOD, there are so many horrible ways to die in that prayerbook!

How’s that for imagination? We Jews are really good in the imagination department.

In fact, although we often call these days the “High Holidays,” in Hebrew they’re called the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. And let’s not sugar coat it here. In Hebrew, the word for Awe – yir’ah – is the same as the word for fear, and it’s the same as the word for dread. These are, quite literally, the awe-ful days. The days of dread. The days of fear. On these days, at the beginning of our New Year, we stand before God, imagining what the future might have in store for us, and we find ourselves in terror – happy New Year!

That’s why a lot of people hate these holidays – and that’s why many of our folks don’t even come to the synagogue to observe them. “It’s all such a downer,” they say. “Why show up at synagogue just to hear a litany of all the horrible things that can happen?”

Those critics, I think, miss the point. Yes, these are days of fear. But fear, is a product of imagination, and imagination is profoundly human. We come here tonight, in other words, to be afraid, which is another way of saying that we come here to imagine, which is another way of saying that we come here to be the people we really are. And we come here to do this – we come here to be human – together.

Tonight, here in this room, we are afraid, just like everyone else. We are afraid because we can imagine. We are afraid because we know that the future can hold both good things and bad, and we don’t want the bad to happen. We are afraid because we love what is good, and we know that the good is all so very fragile…so very fragile. We who have smelled a baby just out of the bath, we who have had a first kiss, we who have heard a piece of music that sent us soaring to the heavens – we know the majesty of what life can offer. And we want life to continue affording us the possibility to live those great moments again and again and again, and never to allow tragedy to prevent them from recurring.

God has given us the ability to dream great dreams, and along with it we’ve become able to dream of losing it all. The higher we soar, the farther we might fall, and the knowledge of this truth is what makes life so glorious and so scary all at the same time.

That’s why we’re here in this room tonight. We can’t make the fear go away, so tonight we acknowledge it, and we acknowledge it out loud, and we acknowledge it together. Being afraid together, you see, can often bring us more comfort than anything else

No, come to think of it, having deep-seeded fears like you and I do isn’t nuts. It’s human. It’s just what happens to people like us who have a highly developed capacity to imagine.

***

After a few minutes up there in the balloon, the pilot joked that we had reached our cruising altitude. I could have looked down to check, but I decided I’d just take his word for it. Instead, I looked over to Eddie and Lettie, about ten inches to my left. They were having a little romantic moment, gazing into one another’s eyes and speaking quietly. So, respecting their privacy I tried to look away. But in such close quarters it was difficult, and I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation.

Very quietly, as he looked deep into her eyes, I heard Eddie say to Lettie “So, would you like to be my wife?”

Lettie nodded yes. They kissed.

I wanted to hoot and holler, but also I didn’t want to ruin their moment. So instead I spun toward Caron pulled her close and whispered as quietly as I could “He just proposed!!!!! He just proposed!!!!!”

Well, despite my efforts to keep things quiet, I soon learned that, in a gondola, news tends to travel pretty fast. Almost immediately, there were smiles, congratulations, and pats on the back….Somebody was heard to say “Mazel Tov”…. The pilot mumbled into his walkie-talkie, and from the other balloon a couple hundred yards away we heard, “Congratulations!”

Lettie looked thrilled; Eddie looked relieved; their faces beamed with joy.

I snapped a picture of the happy young couple – the first one taken of them after they got engaged. Later, I emailed them the photo from my phone, and, in the subject line of the email, I thumbed in the word “Fiancés!” At least, that’s what I meant to type. But then my friend Mr. Autocorrect stepped in, and in the end, that picture of the smiling, newly-engaged young couple way up there in the sky went out under the subject-heading, “Finances!”

It usually takes married people no more than about two seconds to start nodding their heads when I tell that story; and it takes divorced people about half that time.

As we all know, Eddie and Lettie would probably be fiancés for just several months at most after that. But because of what happened up there in that balloon – regardless of where life would take them in the future – they’ll be attending to finances for the rest of their lives. Fiancés today; finances tomorrow.

Most of us who are married know how great marriage can be. We know that at its best marriage involves deep commitment, support through difficult times, companionship during great times, and even romance. It gives you someone to play cards with; to binge-watch your favorite TV shows with; to take care of you when you’re feeling sick; and someone with whom you can just be yourself, knowing that being yourself is OK.

But even those of us who are in great marriages know that marriage can be difficult, too. There are financial pressures, and complex power dynamics, and extended families to ratchet up the pressure. There are bills to be paid, chores assigned, and schedules planned. There’s the difficult emotional work of figuring out how to be two selves and one couple at the same time, of keeping those things you once loved about your spouse from becoming things that you now can’t stand …and it can all be so difficult and complicated.

So if marriage is both great and difficult, why is it, I wonder, that that engagement announcements tend to be only happy?

After all, up there in the balloon, what I said was “Mazel Tov,” but just as honestly I could have turned to Eddie and Lettie and said “You’re gettin’ married? Whoa boy! Statistically, you know, you’ve got about a fifty-fifty chance of making it. And even if it does work, well, buddy, let me tell you what’s comin’.” And then I could have rattled off the list, and still been rattling long after that balloon hit ground. Eventually I could have concluded with the words, “And in the end, even if things do go great and you don’t get divorced, one of you is gonna die. Either way, there’ll be pain and loss. Have a great life!”

But of course, I didn’t say those things. I didn’t even think about saying them. And anyone who did say those things would have been acting like a real jerk. It was a great moment, and it was good that none of us ruined it.

Still, I wonder, why? There were a bunch of married people in that balloon. We all knew how complicated marriage can be, but we jumped for joy and celebrated, anyway. (Well, we didn’t actually jump.) It is odd, isn’t it? Why do we respond to a moment that we know will lead to such complexity with such unbridled joy?

One reason, I think, is that the promise to marry represents an awesome perspective on the future. When you promise to marry someone, you have no idea what that person is going to be like twenty, or thirty, or fifty years hence, but you make the commitment, anyway. In fact, you have no idea what you’re going to be like in the future, but nevertheless, you agree to take that awesome step.

Or perhaps, to be more accurate, you do know what might happen – you can imagine, after all – but still, what you decide to do is to take all of the negative possibilities of that complicated future and, if only for a moment, put them aside, and embrace only the good possibilities instead. You choose joy.

Most of our celebrations are just like engagements in this sense – weddings, brisses, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and so many others. We celebrate them because, despite the complexities of life, they allow us moments of sweet imagination – moments during which we choose to set aside all the dire possibilities and imagine only the good ones, instead. And these days, sweet imagination can be so refreshing, and so very energizing

And that too is why we’ve gathered here today. It is Rosh Hashanah – the first day of the Jewish year 5777. We don’t know what the future holds for us; we can imagine it being wonderful, and we can certainly imagine it being horrible. But at this season, we pray that God might make it good and sweet for us, we imagine what that goodness might be, and we pledge to do our part by transforming ourselves as best we can. Teshuvah – repentance, self-transformation – is hard work, but the whole thing is based on the assumption that we’re not necessarily stuck with ourselves and our world the way they are – that with the right kind of work and the right kind of determination, we can make ourselves and our lives and the lives of those who come after us really good. Yes, we fear what might happen. But we don’t stop there. Because this day is not only about awe and fear, but also about possibility. We acknowledge the potential of future darkness – we imagine it in vivid detail. But then we turn to the dreams of life as it might be when we’ve made things right.

In the end, like my fellow floaters up there in that balloon with Eddie and Lettie, we set aside the dark scenarios and look only toward the light – the light that we choose to see ahead of us. We imagine joy, because it is the promise of joy that makes life worth living.

Look ahead. There’s both darkness and light up there. You know it, just like the people sitting around you do. We in this room – we who have lived – we who have imagined – we know what each can bring, so we choose to head toward the light. It is that choice – that dream – which we embrace today. It is that choice, that dream, which we voice each and every time we turn to someone at this time of year, smile, and say “Shanah Tovah,” may this be a good year for you.

In that crowded gondola hanging beneath that balloon in the sky, I knew that oblivion was just six inches beneath my feet or right over the rail. But I also knew that inside the basket was something very different. Inside the basket, on one side of me was a joyous couple who had just pledged their futures to one another. And on the other, with her hand clutched in mine, stood the woman with whom I’m going to grow old and continue to share life’s greatest joys.

In some ways, I think, life is always like that. Terrible, horrifying possibilities surround us. They’re so close, those horrors, and we never know when they’ll grab us. We never know. Instead, all we can do is float in the small basket we call life, perilously and magnificently hovering between heaven and earth. Here, surrounded on all sides by an awesome, glorious, terrifying, spectacular panorama of possibility, we smile, we dread, and we hold on tight to the people we love. And that’s precisely what makes life such awesome, such an exciting, and such an incredibly magnificent adventure.

Shanah Tovah

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