Thursday, 10 Sep 2020

Written by Etienne Kerber

A Matter of Life or Death

“A Matter of Life or Death”, fortunately, is an expression not to be taken literary, especially as adolescence is the time when the expression is used disproportionately.

One of my memories to illustrate it is one that took place in February 2004. At that time, Pete Doherty, a young British Rockstar, from a band called The Libertines, came from London to Paris and gave a very private concert in a small café around Pigalle (this same worldwide famous district where you can find the Moulin Rouge). After learning this on Doherty’s blog, my brother and I, respectively 13 and 17 desperately felt the urge to go there. Needless to say, my mother, imagining her two sons going to Pigalle, at night, in the middle of a school week did not please her at all.

That day, life stopped for me and my brother. We spent the night chatting on Messenger with some other despaired fans.

As our mother passed in front of our rooms and saw us moaning so desperately in front of our computers, she started feeling bad.

“-Listen boys, I am sure he will play tomorrow as well. I am happy to take you there.

-You don’t understand ma’. It’s O-VER ! He played once and won’t play twice! We missed the best concert  E-VER.”.

I still remember that feeling of complete loss. And indeed, teenagers have the power/curse to be able to live life more intensely than any other age group. Any single word or event can lead to extremely strong emotions. And of course, rock’n’roll is the music that answers those feelings so well. And today, I always think about those moments with a sarcastic smile. My brother and I were drama-kings.

Having said that, let’s go back to the Torah portion of the week. It contains the very famous verse: “I have set before you life and good, death and evil”(Deut. 30:15). When meditating about this verse, I realize that though it used to resonate strongly in my soul when I was a teenager, it does not necessarily work the same now. Even more so, I cannot help but feeling a little bit uncertain about the verse’s meaning. And it makes me want to ask our precious Torah: “Is life really that simple? Are you telling us that life is nothing but a simple binary equation?”.

Indeed, it is common knowledge that to be an adult is to acquire maturity. And maturity is the capacity to understand that things are rarely that binary. Life is complex and it takes effort to understand its’ different sets of shades.

Therefore, precious Torah, is this verse addressed to children and/or young rebellious adults? Or should I still feel concerned by this statement?

And as always, the answer is the same. When it comes to Torah, my personal practice is the following: if I am starting to renounce interpreting a verse, it’s time to sit down, try to be humble, self-reflect and shake up my perspectives.

Indeed, if I feel that this verse seems destined for teenagers, my reflection could address how I/we perceive adolescence. If we think about it, there is certainly a wisdom we can learn from our biological changes. After all, this is the way God created humans. We all have to go through this period of hormonal fireworks distorting our understanding of reality. And instead of looking sarcastically at adolescence, it could be understood as a profoundly initiating experience. These neurologic phenomena that come with adolescence allow us to reach a special truth. The truth that everything that is happening, all the words that are said, and every single detail that surround us are matters of the highest importance. This lesson is one we continuously have to keep in mind: everything thoroughly matters. And, this is a point of view we tend to forget about with the years. As we learn to v new everything with a longer perspective, we stop being in touch with the intensity of the Here and Now and start looking (and very often worrying) about tomorrow.

However, if this health crisis has taught us something, it is that what we consider as tomorrow is partly a projection, a projection that relies on many factors we have no control over. And this is when the sensitivity we have acquired as teenagers may be of great help. And not just in time of crisis but on a daily basis.

And, if we remember our teenager sensitivity and start applying a little bit of it in our adult daily lives, we might open some forgotten but nevertheless precious doors, the adolescent urge to live. The urge to live every second and not miss a thing, precisely what our tradition says about how we should live by and read our precious Torah.

Moreover, choosing life only comes thanks to the awareness of what is at stake behind every minute. And this is exactly the kavanah, the intention that is we are encouraged to reach before Rosh Hashanah.

Because indeed, we need this Kavanah in order to access Teshuvah, the spiritual-psychological-philosophical concept behind the High Holidays. And if we take a minute to look at it from a different perspective, the word Teshuvah does include the notion of return. A return that can be interpreted as the return to the best side of our personalities, to our higher-self. And where do these qualities come from? Very often, they are located in the values that built us and we hung onto as children and teenagers.

Of course, it goes without saying that the wisdom we acquire once we are adult is all very precious. It is only thanks to this wisdom that one can access the complex meaning of “choosing life and good” over “death and wrong”. And I guess that this is the wisdom with which my mother approached her sons’ “matter of life or death”.

Because she was right. On the next day, there was another gig. And that second night, our mother understood that though this matter of “life or death” was a classic adolescent projection, she had to consider it almost as seriously as we did. Thus, my brother and I got our mother’s permission to go Pigalle, on the eve of a school day.

I will forever remember the excitement I felt after leaving the subway. All those neon lights leading us to this small coffee place, arriving by our own means at this small café, a concert filled with grace. We even got to have a little chat with “Pete”.

On my way to school the next day, my vision of life radically changed. Suddenly, there was more to it than I had ever expected. And that night drastically changed for the better the course of my brother and my life.

Which brings us to today. Thanks to this meditation around this precious Torah verse, I am able to recognize that those teenage feelings were real, true and precious, just as much as a Torah verse is. Torah is a book but, when we live by it, the word can be used to define existence itself. And at the end of the day, we should live as intensely as we can love a Torah verse. Plunging into the meaning of our lives is as relevant and holy as plunging into our Holy Book. As it is stated in Torah itself “(Torah) is close to you , in your mouth and in your heart” (Deut. 31:14). Torah is one and we are invited to davkka-bo (Deut 31:20), to be one with it*. And at the end of the journey comes gratitude. God bless my mother for choosing life that very special night. Wishing you a safe Shabbat Shalom !

Etienne Kerber LBC rabbinic student

*poetic translation from the author of the Dvar Torah

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.