During Elul, I finally decided to read Rabbi Alan Lew’s famous book This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. This Is Real holds a sort of cult-classic status in many liberal Jewish circles as the one book you should finish in preparation for the High Holidays. It has been sitting on my bookshelf for several years now, so I finally began perusing it this August.
Rabbi Lew was an ordained Buddhist monk living in the hippie paradise of ’60s-era San Francisco before he eventually rediscovered his Judaism and became a Conservative rabbi. He actually founded the first-ever Jewish meditation center there. Rabbi Lew’s deep engagement with meditation and breathwork informs much of his extensive memoir writing.
With this dual influence of Torah and meditation, This Is Real argues that nothing in life is permanent, no matter how hard we try and change that reality. The High Holidays—and Sukkot, which follows them—bring to the foreground the continual process of birth and death that defines our lives as we live them. Rabbi Lew repeatedly alludes to Rosh Hashanah as the start of an important yearly time of reckoning when God prepares to review our lives: what we have done, what we have done wrong, and what we could do differently if we are lucky enough to be written in the Book of Life for the next year.
One of Rabbi Lew’s strengths as a writer is his ability to dramatize very vivid vignettes from real life to make his Torah come alive. I was struck by one passage in which Lew describes salmon jumping, essentially to their deaths, during a trip to southeastern Alaska. Basically, the salmon only start jumping in this magnificent way when they have completed their main life purpose. Lew explains: “The salmon rage up the wild rivers of Alaska to spawn, but the moment they do, they begin to lose their life force. They begin to die…You can see this happening before your eyes” (181). As their final act, these salmon “begin to jump out of the water, very high and very often. This is extraordinary to see” (182).
Lew compares the life arc of the salmon to our lives as human beings. Despite knowing that eventually everything we build—our careers, our physical homes, our families—will eventually be destroyed, we are designed to do this work anyways. We do what we are meant to do, create legacies in the process, and then we die. As Rabbi Lew puts it: “We rise up and we fall away. We express our unique and indispensable contribution to the great flow of life and then we pass on” (182).
Life is a cycle that necessarily entails a long interplay of death and rebirth. It can be easy to mostly ignore this cycle, and its deep reverberations inside us, in the busyness of our day-to-day lives. Yet Rosh Hashanah, and the days leading up to it, require us to stop and consider what has died and what has yet to be born in our lives. This period can contain an uncomfortably heavy energy of judgment, one that we may try to downplay and avoid. But the energy of judgment and reckoning is indeed there, and as with most things in life, you’re always better off confronting that energy directly, learning its lessons, and then releasing it, instead of pretending it does not exist.
On Rosh Hashanah, it’s not just the sins you have committed for which you are being judged. According to Rabbi Lew, you’re also being made accountable for all the good things you haven’t done yet with your life.
In this moment of being judged it’s easy to try and defend ourselves. We say: Well, I just haven’t done those things yet because X hasn’t gone my way, or Y hasn’t come into my life. But on an energetic level, one could argue that we ourselves have also played a role in avoiding these things. We have been afraid of change, we have turned down opportunities, and we have shown up in reality as versions of ourselves that don’t meet the moment. We have told God, in our own little ways, that we just aren’t ready yet.
Why would we do that? Rabbi Lew thinks that we don’t want to end up like the salmon in Alaska. He posits that “many of us are afraid to be who we really are, precisely because…we sense that once we have risen up, we will begin to fall away. Once we have spawned, we will begin to die. Many of us would rather try to keep our lives unexpressed, in potential, because we believe that if we don’t express our lives, we can hold on to them” (182-3).
When we don’t express our lives’ potential, we are engaged in a form of hiding. New York City, where I and many of my friends live, is a place to see and be seen, but it’s also a place to hide. It is a perfect place to be like a salmon that doesn’t want to jump up and die. Here, it is easy to swim in a direction that makes it look to the outside world like we are succeeding and progressing. There are glitzy people, and jobs, and parties, and clothes—everywhere!
Yet Rosh Hashanah comes along to remind us that, whatever external thing you’re hiding behind, while everyone else may have bought your story, God has not. And neither has your soul, your neshama. Because while you may think you are avoiding pain by going in the direction that isn’t your real life’s purpose—you may think you are cheating death—you are of course not.
It’s very painful to lose the things you have painstakingly built. Eventually you’ll lose everything. But seeking to avoid that pain by not trying to build anything at all is its own kind of slow and agonizing death. Hiding from your life’s real work is a chronic, heavy suffering, one through which you wake up every day knowing that you’re wearing a costume and you’re not really doing what you came here to do. You’re stealing joy from yourself first, before life can do it to you. Rabbi Lew puts it perfectly: “We remain weighted down by the burden of our unexpressed dreams” (183).
Reading This Is Real, I found it remarkable how personal this message must have been for Rabbi Lew. He actually died, very randomly and at a relatively young age, just a couple of years after publishing this book. He went out for a walk, and he never came back. Maybe he knew on some level while writing this book that he was doing his final jumps in the river.
On Rosh Hashanah, we get in touch with our underlying desperation to successfully complete our own jumps in the river. And as part of the holiday, we are obligated to hear the shofar blow. It is a wake-up call and something to take very seriously, to remind us that we are alive and that we have work to do here.
This coming year, we should all take steps to live lives that are full expressions of our potential. Shana tova!