Tag Archives: deja vu

Almost Cut My Hair

Actually my beard, and I did cut it.  After shaving my face clean I am beardless for the first time in many years.  It is an interesting experience to see my simultaneously recognizable and unrecognizable face staring back from whatever mirror I happen to look in.  I confess the lack of that all grey beard does indeed make me look quite a bit younger.  That being said I am already growing it back, because as I always say, it beats shaving.

It is an odd thing, how we see ourselves, how we understand our own identities.  It isn’t something we pause to think about all that often, but every once in a while it catches you and hits home.  A lot of it at the end of the day is surface level.  The clothes, the hairstyle, the beard (or lack of one!), the home, the car, all of the material items that become part of our image, even in our own minds.  But peel those things away and there is some kind of core, independent of all of the societally imposed images and ideas of who we are and who we should be.  Here is the thing, almost counterintuitive – that core is invisible, in some ways undefinable, untouchable, but it is stronger, more powerful and profound and true that all of the accoutrements.  There is a wonderful verse from I Samuel, chapter 16:  “God does not see the way people see, for people see the outward appearance, but God sees the heart.”

It is that heart that we should strive to see, both in ourselves and in others.  What was it that Polonius so famously said to Laertes in Act 1 of Hamlet?  “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

And so to ‘Almost Cut My Hair,’ the title of this post.  It comes from one of my all time favorite rock and roll songs, and is the title of the third track on the classic CSNY album Deja Vu, released in 1970.  In one of the great recorded rock vocal performances, David Crosby rants against the ever intensifying pressure to conform to expected norms.  ‘Get a job!  Clean up your act!  Dress like a normal human being!  And last, but certainly not least, get a haircut!’  In the end the song’s protagonist stays true to his own values, and makes the decision to walk his own path, difficult as that may be.  Here are the lyrics from the song’s first stanza:

Almost cut my hair/ It happened just the other day/  It was gettin’ kind of long/  I could have said it was in my way/ but I didn’t, and I wonder why/ I feel like letting my freak flag fly/  and I owe it to someone…

Every once in a while you have to let your freak flag fly.  You owe it to someone, and that someone just might be you.

 

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, clergy, music, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, Shakespeare, Uncategorized

Deja Vu All Over Again

This famous line from Yogi Berra captures a central concept in Judaism that in Hebrew is called חזרה, or repetition.  It is the idea of going over something again and again until you know it almost, if not entirely by heart.  This was a traditional form of Talmud study, and it is the way the ba’al korei, the Torah reader, learns what he or she will be reading from the Torah.  It is found in the yearly Torah reading cycle, year in and year out reading the same words and stories.  It is even tied in to the daily prayer services and their repetitive nature, with essentially the same prayers said three times a day to the point of memorization.

I was familiar with this idea long before I became an engaged and observant Jew.  For many years, from the time I was in 5th grade all the way through high school, I would read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy annually  (these days only every other year or so – I have a long reading list!).  And if you grew up in the 60s and 70s you probably have fond memories of spending hours upon hours with friends, a turntable, and the newest record from your favorite band, playing it over and over and over, until the grooves of the record literally began to wear out.

I’ve always believed that that type of intense repetition gives one a level of familiarity, even intimacy, with material that just can’t be achieved in any other way.  When I was in rabbinical school I studied with a professor who literally had the entire text of the Mishnah (all 6 orders) memorized.  Occasionally he would play a strange game of talmudic machismo with us, challenging us to read the first few words of a mishnah – any mishnah – out loud.  He would then complete the text from memory, as well as tell us what tractate, what chapter, and what number mishnah in the chapter we had asked about.  I never saw him get one wrong, and we asked him about mishnayot that were in the middle of long chapters.  Once, during a courageous moment, I asked him how he managed this seemingly herculean feat.  He simply said “I go through the entire mishnah every week.”  Then I asked him why.  His response was fascinating – “I feel this is the only way to know the text the way the rabbis knew it (meaning the Talmudic rabbis).  I suspect he was probably right.

The old story is that a young Talmud prodigy is being interviewed by a Rosh Yeshiva for acceptance into the school.  The boy proudly tells the older scholar that he has been through the entire Talmud, despite the fact that he is not yet bar mitzvah.  The teacher replies:  “I am not interested whether you’ve been through the Talmud – I am interested in whether the Talmud has been through you.”  One way things truly ‘get into’ us – into our bones, into our kishkes – is by going back to them time and again.  And it is a great blessing that we have so many things worth revisiting.  Each trip back brings us a renewed sense of wisdom, meaning, and faith.

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