Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Taylor Swift's High Holiday Sermon

EVERY NOW AND THEN, a song is released that resonates and speaks to you. Even if it doesn't necessarily address your particular feeling or unique predicament, you connect with it emotionally. And if the song's debut coincides with an important, significant, or auspicious event, that gives it even more meaning since Jews don't believe in coincidence.

That is how I felt when Taylor Swift released her new song, “Never Ever Getting Back Together” on a YouTube special presentation a few weeks back. As my High Holiday preparations were in full swing, Swift's song instilled within me a greater and heightened sense of God's presence, justice, and mercy. In some odd way, I believe that Swift wrote that song for me, not Jake Gyllenhaal.

I know what you must be thinking: what does this song have to do with God? Technically, you're right. The song details her repeated frustrations with a former boyfriend who let her down over and over again. He says, "Baby, I miss you and I swear I'm gonna change, trust me." And she notes, “Remember how that lasted for a day? I say, "I hate you," we break up, you call me, "I love you." He continues pledging to change and then reverts back to his unreliable and erratic self. Finally, Swift becomes fed up with his immature behavior and screams at the top of her lungs, “we are never ever ever getting back together.”

Here's how God comes into the picture: This song spoke to me in anthropomorphic terms. I imagined that the conversation related in the song was not between Swift and her boyfriend but rather, between me and God as I faced Him on Rosh Hashanah. Then, I thought to myself: every year I pledge to Him that I'm going to change. Unfortunately, after a few days, I often revert back to my old self. What if, after so many years of pledging change, this year's offer is turned down? What if God says to me, “Josh, we are never ever ever getting back together?”

Maybe I'm overreacting. Surely, God is more compassionate than Taylor Swift. After worshiping the Golden Calf, the Jews undoubtedly knew the seriousness of their sin and the punishment for their egregious transgression. Luckily, Moshe interceded on their behalf and evoked God's mercy and compassion to forgive the Jewish people for their actions. So why should I be so concerned? If I failed to make good on my pledges for the last 5 years and God didn't punish me for my inaction, than why might this year be any different? God will give me another chance.

Such a nonchalant attitude is definitely inappropriate. God doesn't hand out an endless supply of “get out of jail free cards” for our bad behavior. In fact, the opposite is true, as is apparent from a shocking verse in the second chapter of Samuel I, discussing the depths of corruption and immorality perpetrated by Chofni and Pinchas, the two sons of Eli the Kohen. When Eli urged his children to repent for their evil ways, the verse states that God did not want want them to change. Why would God prevent someone from changing? How could the “Av Harachaman,” the father of compassion exhibit such callousness? One of the answers given is that when a person's life has already been sealed in the book of death, nothing, at that point, can be done to change it.

That's a pretty scary thought. All along we have assumed that God was going to give us an unlimited amount of do-overs. The reality is that we have no idea how many chances we will get or when God’s patience with us will run out. All we know is that we have this chance, now, and it's within our power and control to make it count.

I don't have any desire to get together with Taylor Swift, but I really do want to continue living a happy and meaningful life with my wife, children, family, community, and the Jewish people. I'm guessing that all of you reading this probably feel the same way (except for the few out there who would like to get together with Ms. Swift). Either way, let's treat these next couple of weeks with utmost seriousness by pledging to change, improving in our relationships, and then acting on it. Otherwise, God may say those frightening words, “We are never ever ever getting back together. Like, ever."

Rabbi Joshua Hess is a dynamic Orthodox rabbi in Linden, New Jersey. He is co-founder of PopJewish.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiHess.