The Work of Autumn

levitraby Rabbi David Zaslow
October, 2004
The spiritual work of autumn is to examine our inner lives. Springtime is all about changing the world. From a Jewish spiritual viewpoint we’d be better off holding elections in spring rather than autumn. Why? Because focusing on politics right after Yom Kippur can be a diversion from the inner work we need to do. An election in November can make us believe that we don’t even need to do inner work. We fool ourselves into believing that if the world was in better shape then we’d be better people. The teachings of Judaism, however, tell us that if we were better people then the world would be a better place.

The worldly, activist work of Passover is to topple the oppression of Pharaoh and deal with all the outer forces of liberation. The work of autumn is to deal with ourselves. The secret is for each of us is to learn when to focus on inner work, and when to focus on politics. Both inner and outer work depend on מוּסָר mussar, the Jewish ethical approach to everything we do. On Yom Kippur a few years ago I told the following story about Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, one of the great luminaries in Europe before the World War II, and a founder of the modern Mussar movement.

Rabbi Kagen, also known as the Chofetz Chaim, hosted many teachers and businessmen from throughout the continent. Once a travelling businessman noticed how sparse the Rabbis’ home was, and said, “Rebbe, you are such a great teacher, you could have anything you want. Where is your furniture? The Rebbe turned to his guest and said to him, “Where is your furniture?” The businessman said, “Rabbi, I’m on the road, I don’t have any furniture with me. I’m just passing through.” The Rebbe turned to his guest and said, “Me too. I’m just passing through as well.”

Judaism upholds the paradox of two contradictory views of the world. The other-worldly view of Autumn affirms that we are all just travelers passing through. The worldly, activist view of Spring and Passover affirms the necessity of toppling the oppression of Pharaoh. The secret is for each of us is to learn when to focus on inner work, and when to focus on politics. But always, the thread that holds these two views together is mussar

In a profound way we are all just passing through. We are the spawning salmon; the migration of geese; the trees whose season is over; the plants in our yards that are destined not to survive the winter. After Yom Kippur we each die a spiritual death. What need did the Rebbe have for furniture? He knew that his entire life was simply and magnificently an act of “passing through.” The root of the word עִבְרִית “Hebrew,” eevreet, means “passing through” or “crossing over.” The Jews are the “passing through” people.

In this season we empathize with all those who are suffering from hunger, poverty, and war. A piece of their pain is our pain. We feel a little bit of the pain of the families whose loved ones have been murdered by terrorists. We feel a little bit of the pain of the families of our soldiers who died fighting for freedom this past year. With empathy for others, something within us changes – we become better people, and our “passing through” gains meaning. Atonement occurs. Attunement occurs. At-one-ment occurs. This is the deeper meaning of autumn.

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