May 1, 2021

Author(s): Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz,

Listen Watch

Parshat Emor
May 1, 2021 — 19 Iyar 5781
by Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz
Temple Emanuel, Newton, MA


We’ve known this for a while, but suddenly the realization that you only live once has taken on a fierce urgency.  The acronym YOLO, you only live once, was popularized by the rapper Drake in 2013, but as we are emerging from the pandemic YOLO has a new energy as a call to action.  Last week New York Times writer Kevin Roose authored a piece entitled “Welcome to the YOLO economy” about how many millennial workers, as they emerge from the pandemic, want to make real changes to their lives because you only live once.

            There is the lawyer who had an intense big firm job who observed: “I realized I was sitting at my kitchen counter 10 hours a day feeling miserable.  I just thought: What do I have to lose? We could all die tomorrow.” YOLO  He is leaving his big firm partner position to start a much smaller firm with his neighbor.

            There is the reporter who had lived in Brooklyn and covered the pandemic, which had left her drained.  She left Brooklyn, left her pandemic beat, and moved to Sarasota, Florida where her parents live so that she can paint and kayak in the sunshine. YOLO.

            What does Judaism have to say about YOLO?  How does our tradition intersect with this growing sense that, after seeing so much frailty, fragility, and finitude, we should not necessarily just do what we’ve always done, but should bring fresh eyes, fresh energy, and fresh possibilities to the question of what do we do with the rest of our lives?

            When the Israelites left Egypt, the Torah says vachamushim alu vnei yisrael me’eretz mitrayim.  The Israelites went out from Egypt armed.  The word chamushim here means carrying arms.  But there is a midrash that sees in chamushim a double entendre related to the word chamesh, five.  This midrash teaches that only one-fifth, one in five Israelites, chose to leave Egypt.  Fully 80% preferred to remain slaves rather than risk the insecurity of freedom.

            This midrash gets at a central truth.  As my father in love puts it, more than we know what we like, we like what we know.  We like what we have.  We like the patterns that are. Inertia weighs a million pounds.  It is very hard to escape its gravity.  

            The point of this midrash is to be critical of  the 80% who stayed put and to encourage us to be like the 20% who took a responsible risk.

            Which raises the question: what is a risk worth taking?  From the biblical story we can deduce three guideposts.

            A risk is worth taking if it points to some noble goal.  The Israelites braved the uncertainty of wandering in the wilderness for a noble goal: their freedom.   They were slaves. They wanted to be free.  

            A risk is worth taking if it is not only about you.  When the Israelites left Egypt, it wasn’t only about them.  It was about their covenant with God and transmitting that covenant to the next generation. 

            A risk is worth taking if it alters the arc of your life.   Leaving Egypt altered the arc.

They had been slaves to Pharoah. Now they were a covenanted people to God.  

            When we think about taking a risk to change up our lives, we have these three guideposts.  Noble.  Not only about you. Alters the arc of your story.

            Let me give you an example. A woman named Jessica Bruder was a newspaper reporter and a teacher of journalism.  She was living a comfortable life in a comfortable home doing a comfortable job of writing and teaching.  But there was a restlessness growing within her.  She was writing stories.  But she didn’t want to just write a story. She wanted to be a story, to experience a story herself by living it, and then bring it to life for others from the inside out.  There was one issue that captured her attention—nomads in America.

An increasing number of Americans were living in their vans, driving thousands of miles, parking in random parking lots.  And a question called out to her: was living in a van glamorous or grungy?

She saw social media posts of people who claimed that living in their vans gave them the ability to shape their own daily existence, their van parked on a beach, their toes dipped in the sand, the sun shining. No boss. No email. No zoom. Freedom!  But she could not help but notice there was also a dark, even terrifying side, to living in a van.

An increasing number of Americans, particularly as their working years ended and they entered retirement, lost their house, lost their job, and lost the lives they had known. They took up a nomadic lifestyle because they had no choice. They lived in their van because they lost their home. Jessica Bruder wanted to know how it felt when your house is your car because you have no house.

            To answer that question, she took a risk.  She left the security of  the known for the

insecurity of the unknown.  She spent three years living in a van, fully occupying the life of a nomad.  She drove more than 15,000 miles, from coast to coast and from Mexico to  Canada.  She worked alongside her subjects at low-wage jobs.  The result was her book called Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, which was the basis for the movie, which this past weekend won three Oscars for best picture, best director, and best actress.  We know now that the story worked out stupendously well for Jessica Bruder, but she did not did not know that at the time.  She did not know how it would work out when she was working at an Amazon fulfillment center trying to make ends meet on a modest hourly wage.   She did not know how it would work out when the police knocked on her door, in the middle of the night, it was terrifying, telling her she was parked illegally, she had to leave right now,  even though she did not know where she was going next.  She, and other van dwellers, lived with a constant dread that their van would be towed or impounded for being parked illegally, leaving them with nothing but their desperation.   

            In the face of all this fear and uncertainty, Jessica Bruder easily could have been like the 80% of the Israelites who did what they always did because they always did it.  She could have written and taught and lived her familiar and comfortable existence. No fearsome knock on the door. No being impounded. A steady paycheck. Tempting. Very tempting.

            But she emulated the 20% of Israelites who took a risk because there was a bigger story that claimed her that she just had to tell.  

            Noble. Not only about her. Altered her arc.

            We’re not journalists who inspire Oscar-winning motion pictures.  But we all do have one important thing in common with Jessica Bruder:  We only live once.

            What are you living for? Shabbat shalom.