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September 19, 2018 1 comment

(A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5779/2018)

Once, a young disciple went off to seek a great teacher. The old master had been hiding in exile for many years. Very few people even knew where he was. But the disciple was persistent. And when he did finally find the sage, the old man gave him a task to perform. One that seemed impossible. The task of lifting a heavy object using only his mind.

The disciple was sure that it couldn’t be done, but not wanting to disappoint the old teacher he skeptically held out his hand and tried to concentrate hard on moving the object. Of course, he failed. He turned to his master and declared, apologetically, “I can’t.” At which point the master reached out his hand in the same manner, and the disciple watched in awe as the object majestically rose out of the swamp and landed gently on the shore.

The young man peered down at his wizened old master and said, “I don’t believe it.”

To which Master Yoda replied, “That is why you fail.”

(You were expecting maybe the Baal Shem Tov?)

270.jpgWhat better way to start Yom Kippur than with one of the world’s great stories of spiritual growth. We all know that Luke Skywalker will go on to become the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy, fighting against the Dark Side and ultimately defeating the Emperor. But at this point in the story, he is so full of self-doubt that he seems destined to fail.

So how does Luke go from “I can’t do it” to guardian of peace and justice in the Republic? Well, as Yoda tells him, he needs to “unlearn what he has learned.” He needs to shift his mindset to believe in his own capability.

Luke believes he can’t do it. But Yoda knows that he just can’t do it yet.

We can all relate to Luke in this story. That sense that there is a task in front of you and you just can’t do it. And maybe this time of year most of all. Yom Kippur is a day of Cheshbon Nefesh, of honest self-accounting, where we look back over the goals we had set for ourselves, and assess how we’ve been doing. Where we judge ourselves for our capabilities and our accomplishments and our failures,

We’re often quite hard on ourselves at this time of year. We have high standards, and frankly we don’t always meet them. We spend these ten days focused on the ways that we’ve fallen short – in our work, in our relationships, in our personal lives.

But the truth is, we don’t need Yom Kippur to be hard on ourselves. The psychotherapist Roni Susan Blau writes,

“Since when does anyone need an excuse to beat up on oneself? We are all too familiar with our critical voice — the inner critic who is always willing to offer negative comparisons. Regrets. Should haves and not good enough.”[1]

We are all our own worst critic. And It’s hard to enter into the new year feeling like a failure. It’s hard to feel like you didn’t live up to your own standards and plans. But what if it doesn’t have to be that way. What if we could take a page our of MasterYoda’s playbook and adopt a different kind of mindset. What if we could know that it’s not that we can’t do it; we just haven’t done it yet?

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the giant of Orthodox Jewish thought, believed that this was possible. He wrote that our faults, and our failures, and our “sin[s are] not eradicated… but [rather] awaken a creative force that shapes a new and loftier personality.”[2]

Our past failures can be the driving force in our future success.

According to Dr. Carol Dweck, having a growth mindset can change everything. Growth mindset is “the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through efforts, strategies, and help from others.“

How-to-develop-a-growth-mindset-A lot of us tend to believe that our basic qualities are fixed. Some people are really smart; others, less smart. Some people have musical talent, or artistic ability, or are good at sports. And other people…not so much. How often do you find yourself saying things like “I’m just not good at financial stuff.” Or “I’m not really a math person.” Or “I can’t spell to save my life.“ We say these things all the time, usually without really even thinking about it. But it turns out that believing them actually makes them true. If you think you can’t do something, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say I decide to take up basketball. I get out on the court, and I’m dribbling around. I shoot a three pointer… and I miss – wide by several meters. A terrible shot.  (Those of you who’ve seen me play basketball know that this is not an unrealistic scenario.) What do I do? Well, if I have a fixed mindset, I’m likely to tell myself that I’m just bad at basketball. I’m too short, and I’m not in great shape, and anyway I’m Jewish – Jews don’t play basketball. And with all those thoughts in mind, I’ll abandon my efforts and move on to something more appropriate – like handball, or bridge.

But there is another possibility. What if, instead of the deciding that I’m simply not cut out for basketball, I decide that the problem is that I have a lot more to learn about it. Then what will I do? I’ll ask myself what I need to learn in order make that shot. Then maybe I’ll ask a friend for help. Maybe I’ll read up on technique. And maybe, most importantly, I’ll spend lots of time out on the court practicing. With all that, I’d say I have a decent chance of getting better at basketball. I may not ever become Michael Jordan, but maybe I’ll make that three pointer.

Our mindset influences our actions, and our actions affect our outcomes.

That is the difference between having a fixed mindset, and having a growth mindset. And research shows that it doesn’t only apply to our performance in sports. It applies to everything we do.

What do the voices in your head say?

“I’m not smart enough to take my career to the next level.“
“I don’t have the talent to learn to play piano.“
“I’m a disaster at relationships.”
“I just don’t know how to connect with my daughter / son / parent / sibling.”

Can you imagine a world where, instead of beating ourselves up for our insufficiencies, we saw them as opportunities to grow? Where instead of feeling ashamed of the mistakes we’ve made, we took a step back and asked, “What do I need to learn in order to do this better next time? Can you imagine that world?

Well, it turns out the Torah already did.

In the Torah portion we read tomorrow morning, the people of Israel are just about to cross over into the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering. But did you know that this is actually already their second attempt?

In the middle of the book of Numbers, we read a parashah called Sh’lach Lecha, which says that the Israelites reached the Promised Land the first time very quickly after the Exodus – a journey of only months from Egypt. There – and many of you know the story – Moses sends a group of spies to scout out the land. The spies enter the land of Israel, tour the whole place, and come back to the rest of the Israelites with a mixed report. They say that on the one hand it is indeed a beautiful land, but that on the other hand the people in it are big and strong and scary. The Israelites rebel out of fear, begging Moses to take them back to Egypt and back to slavery. And God punishes them for it, condemning them to wander in the desert for 40 years before they can finally enter the Promised Land.

We usually understand this as a punishment. The commentators say that the people were faithless and stubborn, that they deserved to die in the desert for rebelling against God. But there is another compelling view that says that it wasn’t a punishment at all. That the Israelites just weren’t ready to enter into the Promised Land yet. We were slaves, and we were still thinking like slaves. We still had a lot to learn. In that view, the wandering in the wilderness for 40 years wasn’t a punishment at all. It was the work we needed to do in order to grow into the task.

We all have a lot to learn. Think back over the goals you set for yourself last year. Maybe it was fixing a relationship, or advancing a project, or learning a new skill. Certainly some of our goals we have met, but we haven’t accomplished everything we set out to do. We haven’t yet reached all of our Promised Lands. If we look upon our failed attempts not with condemnation but with curiosity, then they become opportunities to discover what we still need to learn in order to be successful.

That’s not easy to do. It means shifting from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Shifting from “I can’t get it right” to “I haven’t gotten it right yet.” And we do that by shifting from judgments to questions.

Rather than a judgment: “I’m lousy at finances,” we might ask ourselves “What is it about finances that is holding me back? What skills do I bring to it, and what support do I need to get better at it?”

Rather than a condemnation, “I always screw up my relationships,” we might wonder, “What role do I play in creating relationship challenges? Why do I act the way I do? And what types of relationships do I find satisfying?”

Rather than despair, “I’ve gotten myself stuck in a job I hate,” we might ponder: “What skills am I gaining? How will my current job prepare me to get where I’d eventually like to be?”

A Chinese proverb says that “learning is a treasure that follows your forever.”

This is a deeply held Jewish value as well. As you know, Judaism prizes lifelong learning above almost everything else. We are told in the Talmud that when we learn, God’s presence descends onto us. We are also taught “Talmud Torah k’negged kulam” – that a life of learning is equal to all of the mitzvot, because it leads us to be able to fulfill them better.

In fact, the midrash even portrays God as learning – and as learning from mistakes. In Bamidbar Rabbah (19:33), the midrash on the book of numbers, it points out that there are three times in the Torah when God learns something from Moses, and God changes behaviour accordingly. One of them is the episode of the Golden Calf. Early on after their escape from slavery, the people – scared and unsure at the foot of Mt. Sinai – build and worship an idol. God is incensed and threatens to destroy them. But, according to the Midrash, Moses talks God down, “Whoa, God,” he says, “How can you expect anything different from them? They were idol worshippers in the land of Egypt. Why would they do anything differently here.”

And God essentially says, “You know, you’re right, Moe. Limad’tani – you have taught Me something. And I will change my actions accordingly. I will not destroy the people.”

This passage is doubly interesting for our purposes. Because not only does it portray God as learning and growing. But what God learns in this episode is that the people also need a chance to learn. How could they possibly be expected to be good monotheists when they’ve never been monotheists before? How can they be expected to worship God in this new way when they’ve never practiced it? How can we possibly expect ourselves to overcome our flaws and our faults and our failings on the first try – or the tenth try or even the fiftieth try? It takes a lifetime of learning and a lifetime of practice to reach the Promised Land.

You probably know the joke: A tourist gets out of a cab at Times Square and walks over to a musician who’s playing violin on the street. He asks the musician, “Excuse me, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
The musician looks up at him and says, “Practice.”

In the end, becoming the selves that we would like to be is a matter of practicing being those selves. A matter of trying, and learning, and trying again. Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi and philosopher, teaches us that this requires making a plan and walking it out. In the Mishneh Torah, he writes:

יהא אדם שם דעותיו תמיד ומשער אותם ומכון אותם – A person should examine their traits, calculate them, and direct them [in the desired direction].[3]

In other words, know yourself, know how you’d like to be, and make a plan for getting there. And then, he goes on:

יעשה וישנה וישלש במעשים – Perform these desired acts once, and a second time, and a third time, and do this constantly until they become easy.[4]

The more we practice something, the more it becomes second nature. Maimonides makes it sound simple, right? Just envision yourself differently, and act that way. But what he’s really saying is that it takes many, many attempts to make a change.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle would have agreed. He said that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit. “ And Albert Einstein, for his part, said, “It’s not that I’m smart. It’s that I stay with problems longer.”

I’m pretty sure Master Yoda would have agreed.

The most successful, influential people in history have all had one thing in common: they failed a lot. In that sense, we have something in common with Aristotle, Maimonides, Einstein, Babe Ruth, Steve Jobs. We also fail a lot. But that doesn’t make us failures. It means that we are learning and practicing. It means that we are on a journey – step by faltering step – toward the Promised Land.

The German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was once asked whether he was in the practice of putting on t’fillin during morning prayers. Rosenzweig was a liberal and a skeptic, and at the time of asking he did not wear t’fillin. So he thought about the question, and he answered: “Not yet.”

“Not yet” is an affirmation that there might still be meaning for us to make, things for us to learn, growth for us to achieve. It is a recognition that we human beings are always works in progress.

Kol Nidrei v’esarei. All our vows and promises – tonight they pass before our eyes and God’s.

May we enter into the new year with compassion for ourselves. May we strive to look upon our stumbles not as failures but as opportunities to grow. May we replace our judgments with questions, our condemnations with curiosity. And may we hold in our hearts the knowledge that we are not standing still. That we are marching forward, learning as we go, keeping our eyes out for a glimpse of the Promised Land. Even if we don’t know how to get there….yet.

 


[1] Blau, Roni Susan. “Remember to Forgive Yourself.” Jewish Journal. September 11, 2013.

[2] Qtd in The Yom Kippur Anthology, p. ??

[3] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 1:4.

[4] Ibid 1:7.

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Sharing Our Home: Lessons from a Spider

September 19, 2018 Leave a comment

(Following is the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur morning 5779/2018.)

 

I had some help writing this sermon…from a spider. I’ll tell you about that in a few minutes, but first, a story.

The midrash tells of a group of people traveling together over the water. They were traveling in a boat large enough that each person had his or her own room, but sometimes resources were scarce. And so it was that one individual, deciding he needed more food, began to cut a hole in the bottom of the boat in order to catch fish from the water below.

His fellow passengers were horrified, “What are you doing?” they cried out.

And he replied, “This is my space, and I am allowed to do as I please here. I am not cutting a hole in your parts of the boat, only in mine.”

The other passengers knew, of course, that it doesn’t work that way. A hole anywhere in the hull would let water into the entire boat. So they reasoned with the man, all promising to share resources with each other, and thankfully they were able to stop him from cutting the hole that would have sunk them all.[1]

This midrash may well be the origin of the saying “We’re all in the same boat.”

 

Judaism does teach this idea that we are all in the same boat – that we need each other and that we are better off them we share and support each other. In fact, that is one of the central ideas of Jewish thought. Literally.

This afternoon we will read it from the centre of the Torah  – the central section of the central book of our holiest scroll. (It also happens to be my bar mitzvah portion, but that’s not really the point.) The middle of Leviticus is a section called the Holiness Code – because it tells the laws of living a holy life. Laws about worship; laws about giving tzedakah and caring for the poor. Ritual laws, ethical laws. Everything that goes into creating a fair and equitable and holy society. That’s what’s at the centre of the Torah. And that the centre of the centre is Leviticus 19:18:

וְאָֽהַבְתָ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָמ֑וֹךָ     – You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

There aren’t many things that all Jews agree on. (You’ve all heard the saying that when if have two Jews, you have three opinions.) But we pretty much all agree on this – it’s nice to love your neighbour as yourself.

We don’t agree, however, on what constitutes a neighbour. Many of the traditional commentators understand this passage to refer only to fellow Jews. Rabbi Gunther Plaut explains that “strictly speaking, rei-a refers to [a] fellow Israelite, rather than to a[ny] neighbour.”[2]

But in our modern world, we are much more inclined to see this passage as referring to all human beings. After all, we live in an incredibly diverse and multicultural society, and it seems to us to be an important Jewish value to treat all our human neighbours with respect, regardless of their religion or background.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if it might even apply a little further than that. Which brings me back to my spider friend.

What you need to know as background is that I have been deathly afraid of spiders ever since I saw the movie Arachnophobia at age 11. I don’t actually remember the plot of that movie very well – all I remember is that a big, scary spider stowed away on a flight to North America, where it and its evil spawn terrorized people for the next hour and a half while I held tight to the armrest and brushed phantom creepy crawlies off of my body. I was definitely too young to see that movie. And I’ve been afraid of spiders for almost 30 years because of it.

So you can imagine my reaction when, about two weeks ago, I opened my back sliding door to find a web, and a big brown spider right in my face. I must have jumped 2 feet off the ground. I slammed the door shut, and went to find a bottle of anything – some kind of chemical to spray on it and kill it. But by the time I got back with the Windex in my hand, the spider was gone.

IMG_2657So what could I do? I double locked the back door (you know, in case the spider could open the first lock). I turned on the TV, and proceeded to spend the rest of the evening once again brushing creepy crawlies off of my body and glancing over at the back door again and again.

Next morning, I broke the web down with a toy light-sabre, and went off to work, where there are no spiders to terrorize me. And that night, I noticed that the spider was back, and that it had rebuilt the web. I started to reach for the Windex again, but for some reason this time my curiosity beat out my fear. I started googling, trying to figure out what kind of spider it was, and I discovered that what I had here was a cross orb weaver. They are often brown; they live in Ontario. They are not poisonous to people. (That made me feel better.) And as I kept reading I discovered that this type of spider tends to pick a single location and build a web there. Then it hides all day long, before coming back out night after night to fix its web and to feed. In other words, this spider had chosen my sliding door frame as its new home. I had a new neighbour.

Over the last couple of weeks, that spider has become something of a fixture at our house. The kids have named it, not surprisingly, Charlotte. And I actually look forward to its appearance in the doorframe every night.

So when I say that the spider helped me write this sermon, what I mean is that this new – uh… – living situation has gotten me thinking about what it is to share a home with a neighbour. And in a larger sense, what it is to share our planet home with many neighbours – with the teeming multitudes of living things around us.

Now the fact is, we human beings aren’t very accustomed to thinking of ourselves sharing our home. At least, not sharing as equals. We tend to think of ourselves as the owners of this planet, probably in part because that’s what the Biblical tradition has taught us for thousands of years.

The Torah teaches that when God created the world, humanity was created last – on the sixth day of creation. We were created after light and dark, after water and land, after plants, birds, insects, and other animals. We were created as the culmination of everything, and we were given dominion over the planet.

וַיִבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְצַלְמ֔וֹ – God created human beings in the Divine Image. And God said to us:

פְר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻ֑הָ – Be fruitful, and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it. You shall rule over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth.[3]

That’s serious power put into the hands of human beings. Nachmanides, the medieval Spanish commentator, explains that: “God gave us the strength and the power on earth to do as we wish with animals and insects and other things that creep in the dust. To build, and to uproot what has been planted.“

And so we have. Armed with that knowledge, we have indeed וְכִבְשֻ֑הָ – we have “subdued the earth.“ We have remade this planet in our own image. Think about how we live today. We spend most of our time inside temperature controlled buildings. We drive fuel burning cars from place to place, hardly ever stepping outside except to walk across a parking lot. Our food comes from factory farms in other countries, grown in quantities we can’t even fathom for the billions of people on earth. We rarely see the stars – there’s too much artificial light in the city anyway. We spend far more time looking at screens than we do looking at trees. We have created an artificial world instead of living in the natural world.

We have become, you might say, devastatingly disconnected from the planet that we are living on. And the result for our planet has been devastating as well.

Even as we sit here today, people in the Carolinas, and people in the Philippines and Hong Kong, are beginning to try to rebuild their lives after being battered this weekend by the latest of what we used to call “once in a century storms.” These days, century storms come every year. Things on our planet are changing for the worse.

Ten years ago, in only my second High Holy Days as a rabbi, I gave a Rosh Hashanah sermon about the Jewish connection to the environment. (It’s a topic that has always been important to me – I wrote my rabbinical thesis on it.) So it was interesting in writing this piece to look back at what I wrote then. And what I found is that even in the last ten years, the rhetoric has changed quite a bit. Because the ecological crisis has worsened quite a bit. A decade or two ago, we were talking about what the effects of Global Warming would be if we continued on our path. Today, we know that we are living with those effects on a daily basis.

Last month, Vann Newkirk wrote in the Atlantic that we are living “in [a] new global reality, where each passing year is the hottest on record…” and where we are dealing regularly with “heat waves, droughts, storms, floods, and other extreme events.”[4]

This is our world. Every year, the hurricanes are getting bigger. Every year the summers are getting hotter. Every year’s wildfires seem to be the largest and most destructive on record. Food disparities are growing, especially in poor and vulnerable places. There is an island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean. And up to 150 species of plants and animals are going extinct every single day.[5]

In 2018, we are living on a planet that is changing on a daily basis, and not for the better. It is becoming less hospitable to human life. It is becoming less biologically diverse. We have taken the Torah’s idea of וְכִבְשֻ֑הָ – of subduing the earth – and we have turned it into our reality.

It is difficult to think that our Jewish tradition may be in some way responsible for shaping the attitudes that have led to this crisis. But that is the case. As Reform Jews, it is our responsibility to look back at our people’s texts and to understand what they meant and what they mean. In teaching us that we were the pinnacle of creation, our sacred texts gave us license to behave in ways that have devastated our world. I don’t believe that the writers of the Torah did this on purpose. But I do think that ancient people didn’t have a sense of the power that we humans would ultimately have to shape and reshape our environment.

But we modern people do understand that. And that makes it our responsibility to look back into the texts to find other ways to understand them. And specifically, to find a new way of framing our relationship to the earth and with other living things.

The good news is – if we look, it’s there to be found.

The midrash tells that when God created the first human being, God gave him the job of naming all the animals. One by one, God brought each animal forward and the man said, “This one is an ox (shor), and this one is a donkey (chamor), and this one is camel (gamal). And onward and onward until he had given a thoughtful name to every animal.

This midrash is part of a larger tradition in the second chapter of Genesis that says that other living things were created not as our subjects, but as our companions and partners.

The Torah says:

וַיֹ֙אמֶר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶהּ־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְנֶגְדּֽוֹ – “God looked upon the human being and said “It is not good for him to be alone. I will make a companion for him.”

And so God made wild beasts, and birds of the sky, and things that creep on the earth – to live alongside us and to share our world with us.

And the Rabbis teach that each creature matters. This is from Exodus Rabbah (and it’s one of my very favourite Rabbinic texts). It says:

Even those creatures you think of as being unnecessary in the world, like flies, and fleas and gnats, nevertheless have their allotted task in the scheme of creation.[6]

(In another version, instead of flies and gnats it says snakes and scorpions. You can take your pick!)

Here are the framers of Jewish tradition looking around at the world and seeing it as a beautiful and finely balanced system. And they argue that every creature – every tree, every plant, every animal – even the ones that we think of as pests – are reflections of God‘s wisdom. As it says in the Torah,

וַיַ֤רְא אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָל־אֲשֶ֣ר עָשָ֔ה וְהִנֵה־ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד – God looked upon everything that had been made, and it was very good.

This is a wholly different view of the world than the one that says our job is to subdue and conquer it. And it teaches us something different about ourselves as well. For that, I need to go back and finish the story.

After the first man had finished naming all of those animals, God went to the man and asked him, “What about you? What is your name?”

He replied, “The name adam – human being – fits me?”

“And why is that?” asked God.”

To which the first man replied, “I shall be called adam, because I was fashioned out of adamah – out of the earth.” [7]

This is the other great lesson of the Torah. We’re not here to rule over and subdue the earth. We are here because we come from the earth. Far from being something separate and above creation, we are connected to all other living beings. They are our neighbours. They are our family.

Science teaches us the same lesson. Most people who have taken high school biology know that human beings share a common ancestor with other apes that lived around 5 or 7 million years ago. If we go back further in time, we find that we also have such common ancestors with every other creature on earth. Our common ancestor with rodents lived 75 million years ago. We diverged from dogs, bears, hippos, and whales about 85 million years ago. From crocodiles and birds around 300 million years ago. It was maybe 590 million years ago that we split off from insects, and in the billions of years ago that we diverged from mushrooms and plants and bacteria. And about 4 billion years ago that the first living cell – the one that would give rise to all life on earth – came into being in the primordial soup of our young planet.[8]

All life on earth is descended from a single cell. I don’t mean a single celled organism (though it was that), I mean a single cell. One cell – that divided, and divided again, and diverged, and evolved until billions of years later it had yielded the incredible diversity we see around us, The diversity that we are a part of.

In the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5), the Rabbis say that God created only one human being at the beginning of time so that no one could say to another person “My ancestors are better than yours.” Maybe that midrash ought to go back a few billion more years, to the single cell that gave rise to all of us.

Yom Kippur is a time of teshuvah – a time to consider our values, and to account honestly for our actions and their consequences. If we are honest, we will know that our sense of ourselves as rulers of this planet has had real consequences – for ourselves, and for every other form of life with whom we share it. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. We have not been good stewards of this planet. We have forgotten that we are all in the same boat.

In the Torah it teaches that God took Adam, the newly formed human being, and placed him in the garden ‏לשומרה ולעבודה – to work the land, and preserve it. Accordingly, what we are is not rulers, but gardeners – responsible for the upkeep of our world. In fact, we have a dual responsibility – both to do what we can to preserve the earth, and to live our lives with appreciation for what we have been given.

As you know, it is a common Jewish practice to say blessings. We say blessings over foods that we eat, and over things that we drink. But it is also traditional to say a blessing when we experience some beautiful or wondrous element of creation. There is a blessing for hearing thunder; and one for seeing the ocean. There is a blessing for seeing a rainbow, and one for smelling something sweet. And when we see an animal or plant or thing of natural beauty, it is traditional to say:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁכָּֽכָה לּוֹ בְּעוֹלָמוֹ. – Blessed are you, Eternal God, whose world is like this!

Imagine if, just a few times a day, we were to look around and find something of beauty, something to appreciate, and say such a blessing. Imagine if we spent our days aware of our power and our responsibility to preserve what God has given us

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that by saying blessings we’re going to save the planet. We have very big problems and they will require global solutions. But I do believe that shifts in thinking lead to shifts in behavior. If we can begin see ourselves as part of the earth – if we think of ourselves as adam who is born from adamah, then it can shift the way we relate to the planet and to other creatures. Maybe I’ll think twice about throwing out that plastic that may end up in the ocean. Maybe I’ll put more consideration into the source of my food and whether some other creature’s habitat was destroyed to produce it. Maybe I’ll shop and eat and consume goods differently than I do now. Maybe I’ll even let that spider stay on my back porch.

638831main_globe_east_2048.jpgThe great Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch once surprised his students by insisting that he needed to visit Switzerland. So he and his students together traveled take in the majesty of the Swiss mountains and valleys. And when their travels were over, the rabbi’s students asked him, “Why did you insist on traveling in Switzerland?” Rabbi Hirsch responded, “When I reach the gates of heaven, I will be asked many questions. And I will have good answers for most of them. But what am I going to say when God asks me, “Nu, Samson, did you see my Alps?” [9]

May we – creatures of the earth yet made in God’s image – be the ones to ensure that God’s Alps, and God’s oceans, and God’s rivers and valleys and plants and creatures will still be here for future generations to see.

May we remember that adam comes from adamah. That this is the only planet we have, and we have many neighbours to share it with.

And may we look around us and know that Hineh Tov M’od, that this world is good and beautiful and worth of preservation. And that it is our responsibility to do so. If not us, then who? If not now, when?

I think Charlotte would agree.

 


[1] Misod Chachamim.

[2] Plaut, W. G. The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition). Union for Reform Judaism, New York: 2005. p. 799.

[3] Genesis 1:27-28.

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/08/climate-change-global-climate-action-summit/568069/

[5] https://www.cbd.int/doc/speech/2007/sp-2007-05-22-es-en.pdf.

[6] Exodus Rabbah 10:1.

[7] Genesis Rabbah 17:4.

[8] Dawkins, Richard. The Ancestor’s Tale. Phoenix, London: 2004.

[9] Adapted from Martin Gordon, Journal of Jewish Thought, 1985, page 123, as quoted in Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Wisdom, 1994, page 230.

From Human Doing to Human Being: A Yom Kippur Sermon About Mindfulness

October 1, 2017 1 comment

I’d like to introduce you to the philosophical treatise that has most influenced my life: Calvin & Hobbes. You may laugh, but anyone who’s ever read Calvin & Hobbes knows that it addresses serious questions about existence and values and meaning…all through the eyes of the world’s most precocious 6-year-old and his imaginary tiger friend.

In one of my very favourite strips, the two of them are sitting under a tree and Calvin asks out of the blue, “Why do you suppose we’re here?”
Hobbes answers, “Because we walked here.”
“No, no…” Calvin insists, “I mean here on earth.”
The tiger responds, a little nonplussed, “Because earth can support life.”
“No,” Calvin is frustrated now, “I mean why are we anywhere? Why do we exist?”
Hobbes, looking perplexed at the question, replies, “Because we were born.”
To which Calvin sulks, “Forget it.” And Hobbes snipes back, “I will, thank you.”

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/46/dd/aa/46ddaa802056af2143de2d276e2cafd1.png

Yom Kippur is kind of like the Jewish version of sitting under a tree and asking, “Why are we here?” It’s a time when we are supposed to do Cheshbon HaNefesh – to take an accounting of our soul. Dr. Richard Sarason writes that “We are challenged to reevaluate our lives in the light of what really matters: our ultimate values, our relationships, and our limitations.”[1]

It is a peculiar choice to start each year this way. In our secular lives, New Year’s Eve is a time for parties, New Years Day is a time of hangovers, and January 2 we are back to work. But on the Jewish calendar, the year begins with a 10-day period of contemplation and preparation. With asking ourselves hard questions and making plans for what we want to be in the coming year. It you think about it, that’s pretty smart. Before you start anything new, it’s worthwhile to take time out and prepare for it. Alexander Graham Bell once said, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

Yom Kippur is our day to do the work of preparing for the coming year. But it’s not easy work at all. In fact, it goes against some of our most basic habits. Again, Dr. Sarason writes, “The pace of our lives today is very fast and only getting faster. We are often so preoccupied with the business of daily living that we don’t pause to consider the bigger picture.”

In another Calvin and Hobbes strip, the two of them are sledding downhill at breakneck pace, dodging obstacles and holding on for dear life. Calvin is once again asking philosophical questions: “Do you think people are basically good with a few bad tendencies or basically bad with a few good tendencies?” But Hobbes keeps interrupting him:
“Watch out for those trees.”
“There’s a rock up ahead! Look out!”
“Not so close to the ledge!”
“Aughhhh. I can’t look.”
Finally they crash into a tree and go flying. And then Calvin, buried in snow up to his eyeballs, grumbles, “It’s very rude of you to keep changing the subject after every sentence.”

That’s what life does to us – it keeps changing the subject after every sentence. We spend our lives busy, running around from one obligation to the next, from one achievement to the next. So much so that we begin to define ourselves by our obligations and our achievements.

The old joke goes that on Kol Nidrei night, the rabbi walked onto the bima, prostrated himself, and cried out, “Oh, God. Before You, I am nothing!” Then the Cantor was so moved by this demonstration of piety that he threw himself to the floor beside the rabbi and cried, “Oh, God!  Before you, I am nothing!” Then Chaim Pitkin, a tailor in the 17th row, prostrated himself in the aisle and cried, “Oh God! Before You, I am nothing!” At which point the cantor nudged the rabbi and whispered, “Hey, look who thinks he’s nothing.”

We’re always trying to prove ourselves. And unlike the people in the joke, who are trying to prove that they are “nothing,” most of us are busy trying to prove that we are something – that our lives are worthwhile, that we have something to contribute to the world around us.

Dr. Lissa Rankin writes that we ”wear busyness as a badge of honor. I’m busy, therefore I’m important and valuable.”[2]

I don’t know about you, but I have not one, not two, but six to-do lists! Aided by my iPhone’s handy-dandy list app, I keep lists for work, for home, for the grocery store, for personal things, clothes I need to buy, and house repairs. And while that may be my own special brand of neurosis, I don’t think most of us are so different. We evaluate ourselves based on how much we have to do and how much we have done.

But it’s not making us happier.

Dr. Brene Brown, the bestselling author and public speaker, says that busyness is a numbing technique that we use to ignore our own unhappiness, that maybe “if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.” All I know is that all of those lists and tasks don’t bring meaning to our lives. We may be busier, but we are also emptier. We may get more done more, but we feel less accomplished.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who is considered the giant of Orthodox Jewish thought, sees this conundrum between seeking achievement and seeking meaning as being built into the human condition. In his classic essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” he points out that the Torah has two Creation stories, and thus two different descriptions of the Creation of human beings. In the first account, the story of the 7 days, Adam is created as a striver and a doer, the pinnacle of all Creation. This is the version of the story that says we were created in God’s image – we are also creators and achievers, like God.

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/NeULhhnui1Y/maxresdefault.jpgBut the Adam of the second Creation account, the story of Garden of Eden, is very different. He is a gardener and a caretaker. The focus of this “Adam the Second,” as Soloveitchik calls him, is on “understand[ing] the living world into which he has been cast…. encounter[ing] the universe in all its colorfulness, splendor, and grandeur.”[3]

These are the two sides of our nature, the two pieces to what it is to be human: the achiever and the contemplator; the master of the world and the appreciator of the world; the human doing and the human being.

We need both of these sides of us. Without Adam the First, we wouldn’t build society or create technology. We wouldn’t have the drive to envision a better future and work toward it. But Adam the Second is the one who puts it into perspective, who searches for meaning, who strives just to “be” – and to appreciate the here and now. We are not always very good at cultivating that piece of ourselves. And the result is the busy, stressed-out lives that we are living.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the renowned creator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, writes that we spend much of our lives only “partially conscious.”

He writes: Because of [our] inner busyness, we are liable either to miss a lot of the texture of our life experience or to discount its value and meaning.[4]

Not long ago, I had a personal experience that taught me this lesson. On a visit to my parents’ house in New Orleans, I encountered a lizard sitting on a fence post. It was such an iconic scene that I wanted to take the perfect picture of it, so I took out my phone and started snapping pictures, looking for the right angle and trying to frame the shot perfectly. And then I was dreaming about all the comments I might get when I posted the picture on social media. And that was when it hit me, I wasn’t looking at or thinking about the lizard at all. I was looking at a screen while thinking about my Facebook account.

How much of the time are we really present? Try this experiment for one day: try to notice how you often your mind is focused on what is right in front of you, and how often it’s planning something, or worrying about something, or stressing about something that has already happened. We spend more of lives in the past and future than we do in the here and now.

https://i0.wp.com/lainiefefferman.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/shofarblowing1.jpgMaimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and physician, agrees that we spend much of our lives not fully conscious. And he believes that the High Holy Days are the antidote. In the Mishneh Torah, he writes sound of the shofar is intended to call to us “Uru yesheinim misheinatchem – Awaken from your sleep, you slumberers! Awaken and ponder your deeds!”

Have you ever done this? One day about a year ago, after having recently moved into a new house, I was driving home after Friday night services. I must have been lost in thought about something, because when I looked up I had driven – completely unconsciously – to my old house, almost 15 minutes away from where I was now living. I was so disoriented and confused that it actually took me a few seconds to figure out where I was. It was as if I had woken up from being asleep.

One of the tasks of Yom Kippur is to help us wake up, to help us cultivate mindful awareness and be present in the here and now. The idea is that for one day, the world stops – there are no obligations to attend to; the are no achievements to be made. There are only ourselves and the work we have to do.

Those of us who have spent Yom Kippur in Israel have witnessed the national manifestation of this. Almost the entire country shuts down – no one drives; no one goes to work; things are quiet. There simply is nowhere to be except here and now. Living in the diaspora we have to work a little harder to make this happen, by spending the day in thoughtful prayer and study. But the idea is the same.

And beyond this one day, this can be a larger model for our lives – a practice of taking time out to be in the here and now. Practitioners of mindfulness are familiar with what’s called the body scan – the practice where you lie still for a period of time (often 20 to 30 minutes), and attentively shift your focus from one part of your body to another. How do my toes feel today? What are my shins experiencing right now? When you do this, what’s amazing is that you often become aware of sensations or feelings that you hadn’t noticed before – things that you were actually experiencing, but that you were just too busy to take note of.

When we cultivate that kind of mindful awareness – on Yom Kippur or any day of the year – we become more attuned to our own experiences. And we become more grateful for them as well.

The Dalai Lama was once asked what a person should do in order to develop their own happiness. He answered, “Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life and I am not going to waste it.”

In fact, this is not so far from Jewish practice. Traditionally, we are supposed to start each day by saying “Modeh ani l’fanecha” – God, I am grateful that you have returned my soul to me this morning.” And then we continue with a series of blessings for seemingly mundane acts – opening our eyes, sitting up in bed, putting on clothing, taking steps. When we sanctify those little acts with a blessing, they aren’t little acts anymore. They are miracles.

Rabbi Seymour Rossel tells the story of a boy who ate a delicious sandwich and thanked his mother for it. But she replied, “Don’t just thank me. I only prepared the food.” So the boy went and thanked the baker who had made his bread. But the baker said “I only bake the bread; I don’t make the flour.” So next the boy when to the miller and thanked him, but the miller sent him to thank the farmer who had grown the wheat. And when arrived to thank the farmer, he was told “I only plant the seed and harvest the grain. It is the sunshine, and rain, and the rich earth from God that make it grow.”[5]

The Chassidic masters were particularly adept at cultivating that sense of radical amazement – the sense that everything in the world is a miracle. They believed it brought us closer to God.

I think it might also bring us closer to ourselves. All of the evidence shows that people who cultivate gratitude on a daily basis feel healthier and happier, and better equipped to weather life’s difficult moments.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains why:
Consider the mindset of a grateful person: ‘Look what [this person] did for me; he really likes me. Look how [such and such] helped me; she really cares about me.’ As we cultivate the feeling of gratitude, we also cultivate a feeling of being loved.[6]

When we feel loved, we can love others. When we feel cared for, we are more capable of reaching out to care for others. When we feel secure, we can live by our own values.

Return with me for a moment to Maimonides. In the Mishneh Torah he says that the Shofar calls to us:

עוּרוּ יְשֵנִים מִשְנַתְכֶם – Awaken from your slumber!
וְחַפְשׂוּ בְמַעֲשֵיכֶם וְחִזְרוּ בִתְשׁוּבָ – Examine your deeds and return in repentance.[7]

It is a not only a call to awaken – not only a call to awareness. But also a call to examine our deeds and consider our best selves. The shofar is an invitation to self-awareness.

Ultimately, the goal of this day – and really the goal of every day – is to live a life driven by our own values, a life that we are proud of and that reflects our deepest sense of self. This is something that you can start to plan for on Yom Kippur, but it has to be cultivated on a daily basis.

In mindfulness there is another practice called STOP. It is a short practice – about a minute or less – that involves taking stock at any given moment of the day. The word STOP is an acronym that stands for:

Stop
Take a Breath
Observe
Proceed

The idea behind this practice is to bring mindful awareness to what we’re thinking, feeling, and experiencing in a given moment. What is motivating our actions? What is causing us to behave in a certain way? When we are aware of our motivations, we have a greater amount of agency over what we do.

That’s exactly the work of Yom Kippur, the work of teshuvah – exploring your own motivations and actions so that you can shift them in ways that are in accordance with your values.

When we are just rushing around getting things done, likely to be reacting to whatever’s going on around us. But when we stop and consider, then we control your own destiny. As Stephen Covey writes:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Yom Kippur is that pause in the rushing river of life. It is the moment in which we stop to consider our actions and our choices, and whether they are in line with our own values. And it can be a model for the way we live our lives each and every day.

By slowing down, by cultivating a sense of gratitude and awareness, we open up that space to live our own lives, to focus on what matters rather than on what presents itself, to shift ourselves from frenzy toward meaning, from busyness toward happiness.

In the final comic strip of the Calvin and Hobbes series, the boy and his tiger step out the door to find a world blanketed in snow.

“Wow,” they say, “It really snowed last night! The world looks brand new! A new year… A fresh, clean start!” Then they sit down on their sled and prepare to shove off, and just before they do, Calvin looks at his friend and says, “It’s a magical world, ol’ buddy. Let’s go exploring.”

May we, too, spend the New Year exploring – exploring this extraordinary gift of a life we’ve been given; exploring our true selves and the selves we would like to become. And may this Day of Atonement – this day of awe and dread and aching and opportunity – be the catalyst that spurs us toward greater awareness, toward greater thankfulness, toward a greater commitment to serve others. Toward the happiness that we are capable of achieving.

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/3d/7e/15/3d7e157acdb594873738c8ac53729121.jpg

 


NOTES:

[1] Sarason, Richard. “Why Do We Need This Day of Atonement?” Mishkan HaNefesh, p. xx.

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/owning-pink/201404/are-you-addicted-being-busy

[3] Ibid 17.

[4] Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living. Page 10.

[5] Rossel, Seymour. When a Jew Prays. Page 48.

[6] Telushkin, Joseph. A Code of Jewish Ethics. Page 96.

[7] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:4.

Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: A Sermon For Rosh Hashanah 5778

September 21, 2017 1 comment

Does anybody else here remember the book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day?

It’s about a kid named Alexander, about 4 or 5 years old, who is not having a good day.  He gets gum in his hair, and drops his sweater in the sink, and gets criticized by his teacher, and loses his best friend, and finds a cavity, AND has to eat Lima beans for dinner. It is such a bad day, that Alexander spends a whole lot of it thinking very seriously about just moving to Australia.

Now obviously, this is a kids’ book, and it describes kids’ problems. But I think we can all relate. We have all had days like that, where everything seems to go wrong, where things just aren’t as they should be. And I believe that we also experience something like this collectively, as a society. There are moments in history when things feel harder, when things aren’t as they should be. And for many people, right now is one of those moments. We turn on our TVs and we see massive hurricanes; flooding affecting millions; the storms getting bigger and the world getting warmer. We see wildfires in western Canada, an earthquake in Mexico, white supremacists marching through the streets of Virginia, and world leaders posturing over nuclear weapons in Korea. And it feels like the pages of a very scary children’s book – like our world having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Actually, it feels like another book too – the one you’re holding in your hands. This morning when we read the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, did anyone else feel like they were listening to this summer’s newsreel: Who is going to be hit by fire, and who by water? Who by war, and who by hate?

Un’taneh Tokef is Judaism’s traditional answer to why these kinds of things happen. And it’s not a pretty answer: It says that God is sitting on high for the next 10 days and making decrees. It says that your fate is being decided for you:

‏כבקרת רועה עדרו – As a shepherd makes the sheep pass under his staff,
so do You (O God) consider every soul, and decree its destiny.

This is an image of almost absolute helplessness, where we are the sheep, and the very hard things going on around us are God’s decrees. It’s a really troubling idea – that God decides the measure of your suffering while you sit in the sanctuary begging for mercy, that we are essentially passengers in a world where forces beyond our control are deciding our fate. We struggle with this passage every year. Some rabbis just skip that paragraph. We don’t want to hear it. We reject the notion of being so helples

Which is ironic, because we often do feel that way.

Recent studies have consistently shown that our stress levels are going up. For example, teenagers in Ontario are feeling anxious and depressed more than ever before,[1] and the numbers aren’t so different for adults. A Pew survey found that large numbers of younger Canadians are feeling pessimistic about their future – especially about finances and about climate change.[2] And south of the border, millennials are reporting losing faith in the very institutions of Democracy. Meanwhile, we are being told by scientists that climate change is pretty much inevitable, that the best we can do now is to try to minimize the damage. And for good measure, we are all watching the nuclear war games going on in North Korea.

It feels a little bit like someone is sitting on high and decreeing our fate. I don’t get to control whether a wild fire reaches my house. I don’t get to control whether a hurricane floods my city. I don’t get to control what the leader of North Korea does, or whether China implements pollution controls, or the rise of white supremacy in Virginia, or the incidence of anti-Semitism in downtown Toronto. These are things that happen around me, that happen to me.

And in that sense, the Un’taneh Tokef prayer actually describes beautifully how many people really do feel. It taps into a deep seated sense of helplessness – a sense of being small and powerless in a big, scary world.

So what do we do about that? How do we dispel that sense of helplessness? Well, we can start by trying to understand it.

The psychologist Martin Seligman has written extensively about a phenomenon he calls “learned helplessness.” He discovered through much experimentation that people (and animals) became “passive in the face of adversity [after] experienc[ing] noxious events that they could do nothing about.”

In other words, if something bad happens to you and can’t do anything about it, you tend to assume that won’t be able to do anything about it going forward either.

In one experiment, volunteers were separated into groups and subjected to an unpleasantly loud noise. One group was able to turn off the noise by pushing a button, while the second group couldn’t. Then, in part 2 of the same experiment, the volunteers were again subjected to the noise. Here’s the interesting part: those who had been able to turn it off in part 1 generally tried to do so again. Those who hadn’t been unable to turn it off in part 1 typically didn’t even try the second time around. They had learned from their past experience to feel helpless to solve the problem (Even through, by the way, they could have turned it off if they had tried.)[3]

https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/styles/full_width/public/thumbnails/image/1-bluemarble_west.jpg?itok=hRooa_1oIt’s not hard to see how that could generalize on a global scale. Problems like climate change, and racism, and nuclear war lend themselves – by their sheer enormity – to that sense that there’s nothing we can do. We might say to ourselves, “I recycle every week and I even bought a hybrid car, but the world is still getting warmer.” Or we might say, “I voted for the other guy, but I can’t stop this government, Chief Rabbi, this prime minister, this president from doing what they’re doing.

We feel a version of that all the time. But Seligman’s point is that the sense of helplessness is not actually related to the solvability of the problem. It is related only to past experiences. It is a learned response. And we can unlearn it.

The way that we unlearn helplessness is by shifting our thinking. By focusing on the things that we can change.

The business guru Stephen Covey says that each of us has a sphere of influence and the sphere of concern. There are a lot of things that we care about, and a much smaller number of things over which we have influence. And spending your time worrying about the things you can’t control is a recipe for feeling helpless, or dejected.

So what is our sphere of influence in a world that sometimes seems to have gone mad? Which things do we have control over? Interestingly enough, the Jewish answer to that is found in the very same prayer that posed the question. A few lines after “who shall live and who shall die,” we read:

U’teshuvah ut’fillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagzeira.
Repentence, prayer, and acts of righteousness temper the severity of the decree.

Sometimes when we read this line it feels patronizing – if you pray hard enough and vow to change your ways, then God might forgive you. But that’s not what it says. What it says is that there are harsh realities in this world, but that repentance, prayer, and righteous acts have the potential to mitigate them. It says that these are the weapons in your Tikkun Olam arsenal, so to speak. These are the things you have control over when you go to repair the world.

Teshuvah, T’fillah, Tzedakah – Repentence, Prayer, and Acts of Righteousness

The Chasidim tell that a Jew once came to his rabbi and said “I’ve tried so hard to repair the world but it’s still broken.” And the rabbi replied, “Before you can change the world, you have to start with yourself.”

Teshuvah, repentence, is the process of starting with yourself. It is the act of seeking to understand why we are the way we are, and how that influences the way things are around us.

And it turns out that teshuvah is good for your health. Literally.

A social psychologist named James Pennebaker conducted a series of experiments in which he asked people to write about upsetting or traumatic experiences, for 15 minutes for 4 days. There was a control group that was asked to write about something completely different. Then Pennebaker followed the participants’ medical records for a year, and get this – the people who had participated in the writing actually got sick less. They were literally healthier because of just 60 minutes of writing about challenging things they had been through. The catch was that only the people who had spent time analyzing and trying to make sense of the events had the health benefit. Those who spent the time venting, or writing about other things, saw no benefit at all. [4]

I don’t think the reason is mysterious. Those who have thought deeply about why things happen are more likely to seek support, or to try to shift things, and therefore more likely to feel better. We are better equipped to change what we have sought to understand.

The High Holy Days are a time to ask hard questions – about ourselves and about our world. And they are a time to find ways to change things. This is true every Rosh Hashanah and every Yom Kippur, but it is especially true when there are challenging things going on in the world.

Last week I was driving with one of my kids, listening to news about Hurricane Irma barrelling down on Florida. I come from a Gulf Coast family, so these things are personal – we worry about the people we love down south. My son and I were talking about how the storms seem to be getting more severe, and how scientists are telling us it’s related to climate change, and to human burning of fossil fuels. And then I pressed the accelerator and looked down at the dashboard of my gas-burning car, and I realized that I was contributing to that very problem even as we were talking about it.

That’s not a great feeling, but it is an opportunity for change. I don’t yet know how I might change my life as a result of that realisation – it’s hardly the first time I’ve realised it. But I think sometimes we need to realize things more than once in order to shift them.

Teshuvah – repentance – isn’t about beating yourself up. It isn’t about feeling ashamed. It is about making sense of our actions and our motivations, and of how they relate to what goes on around us.

And if teshuvah is the act of looking within ourselves for answers to hard question, then t’fillah, prayer, is the act of looking beyond ourselves.

There is a wonderful line in Fiddler on the Roof where the townspeople ask their rabbi for a “proper blessing for the Czar,” and the rabbi answers “May God bless and keep the Czar…far away from us.”

Prayer means seeking answers from something larger than ourselves. Sometimes it involves asking God to do things and change things. But often it’s more about seeking the strength we need to be agents of change.

Last month, as neo-Nazis were marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was a group of clergy and faith leaders who marched as well. Arm in arm, singing and praying and trying to spread a different kind of message. In some cases they actually held back the white supremacist marchers. And wherever they went, they brought a sense of hope to an awful situation. One of the participants wrote, “They had their guns and shields. We had our songs, our faith, our love. And we had each other.”[5]

Wherever we pray, whether in the chaotic streets of Charlottesville or in the safety of our sanctuary, it can help lend us strength to persevere through difficult times. And maybe equally importantly, it can bring us together as community.

There is a story in the Talmud in which a Rabbi writes a new prayer, “Eternal my God, guide me in peace and direct my steps.” But his colleagues object that it should say “Eternal our God, guide us in peace and direct our steps.”[6] There is a power in togetherness that can transcend even the most difficult moments in our lives.

Twelve years ago, when Hurricane Katrina devastated my home city of New Orleans, people were scattered across the south just before the High Holy Days (not unlike what we’ve seen this year). One of the first actions taken by rabbis was to reorganize their synagogues in exile. Bringing people together to pray allowed them to seek some measure of healing.

George Odell wrote:
We need one another in our defeats
And [we need one another] in the hours of our success.

But those clergy who gathered in Charlotteville weren’t just there to pray or to be together – they were there to demand tzedek, to demand justice and righteousness in society.

When tragedy strikes, one of our first impulses is to want to give. Whether it is a hurricane, or an earthquake like the one that happened yesterday, we want to know what we can do to help make things better. That is tzedakah.

But interestingly enough, the Hebrew word Tzedakah, which our prayerbook translates as “charity,” actually means something different. It comes from the word tzedek, justice, and is a command to work for a fairer world. This could encompass charitable giving, to be sure, but it might also include volunteer work, community activism, and other concrete steps we take toward Tikkun Olam.

In a sense, tzedakah results FROM teshuvah and t’fillah – when we clarify our values, when we come together with others who share our vision for a better world, then we are equipped to do things to actualize that vision. The haftarah for Yom Kippur afternoon teaches just that – that the High Holy Days aren’t only about what we do in this sanctuary. The real point is what happens after we leave these seats. The prophet Isaiah asks:

Is this the fast I desire, a day to starve your bodies?
No, the fast I desire is to unlock fetters of wickedness;
To share your bread with the hungry, and take the poor into your home. [7]

As we gather together on these holidays, we could ask ourselves as well about the larger meaning of what we do here. Do the prayers we chant here inspire us to go out and change things? Do the sermons we hear and the introspection we do send us back into the world ready to make it a better place?

The Reverend Alvin Edwards is Senior Pastor of Mt Zion First African Baptist Church in Charlottesville, and the creator of organization called the Charlottesville Clergy Collective. The group was founded in response to the 2015 church shooting in nearby Charleston, South Carolina. Rev. Edwards worried about what would happen if something similar happened in his community, and so he started to bring together clergy of different denominations to meet, pray, and cooperate on social justice. And when the time came, it was some members of that group, together with reinforcements, who marched arm in arm during last month’s violence. And beyond one difficult weekend, the group is making a regularly doing social justice work. [8]

It shows that there is still room in the world for people to make a difference. And I think we are doing similar work as a congregation. I’m proud of the connections we’ve created with Christian and Muslim congregations. I’m proud of our blood drives, and our work in feeding the homeless and advocating for refugees. I’m particularly proud of our emerging relationship with members of Canada’s Indigenous community – the work we are doing to put that issue front and centre.

https://i0.wp.com/www.chabad.org/media/images/157/Nezo1576755.jpgBut there is always more that we can do. I want to challenge us, as a congregation, to continue to focus on Tzedek – on righteous acts and building a just world. I’ll invite you to take a look at the work of our Social Action Committee, and to consider committing to one act of social justice this year. After all, if we don’t repair the world, who will?

King Solomon once challenged his advisors to find a magical ring – one that would make a sad person feel happy and a happy person feel sad. The advisors scoured the kingdom until they finally found what they believed the king had in mind. They brought it before Solomon who looked at it and smiled. For the ring bore three simple Hebrew words: Gam Zeh Yaavor – This too shall pass.

One of the lessons of Judaism is that things do pass. The way the world feels in one moment may not necessarily be the way it feels in the next. As Alexander says at the end of his terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day, “There are days like this, even in Australia.” And part of our job is to reach into our inner resources and understand that the world still can be better, and that we still can play a role in making it so.

This year, may we be agents for good. Through our prayers, through our honest introspection, and through our acts of justice and kindness may we bring light into a sometimes dark universe. And may we do Tikkun – may we strive to bring healing to our souls and to our world.

Amen.

——-

[1] https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/number-of-ontario-teens-with-psychological-distress-rising-at-alarming-rate/article31042541/?ref=http://www.theglobeandmail.com&

[2] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/only-37-of-americans-believe-todays-children-will-grow-up-to-be-better-off-2017-08-22

[3] Seligman, Martin. Flourish.

[4] Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 147.

[5] https://thinkprogress.org/clergy-in-charlottesville-e95752415c3e/

[6] Berachot 29b-30a.

[7] Isaiah 58.

[8] https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-church-leaders-in-charlottesville-prepared-for-white-supremacists.

“Not Very Religious” – A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5777

October 13, 2016 Leave a comment

It is told that once, just before the start of Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem Tov went up to a Jew in the back of the synagogue and asked him to lead the Kol Nidre service.

The man looked up at the Baal Shem and did what any of us might do in the situation: he tried to get out of it. He said, “Rebbe, I’m not a very religious man” But the Rebbe insisted.

So the man said, ““Rebbe, I’m sorry, I don’t know the prayers very well.” But still the Baal Shem Tov insisted.”

So finally, the poor man didn’t know what else say and he blurted out, “Rebbe, I’m afraid!”

And to this the Baal Shem Tov replied, “When you can say what you are, you can lead the people.” And the man ascended the bima and led the Kol Nidrei prayers.[1]

 

It sounds like every Jew’s worst nightmare, right? That the rabbi will jump off the bima, hand you a prayerbook, and tell you to go sing Avinu Malkeinu. It’s like the Jewish equivalent of that dream where it’s opening night of a play and you don’t know any of your lines. Or the one where you show up to school in your underwear.

We’ve all had these dreams. We can all relate to that feeling of being inauthentic. We know it in our secular lives; we know it from our bad dreams; and we know it very well in our religious life.

The Kelemer Maggid, another Chassidic master, used to teach that Yom Kippur is actually Yom K-Purim – a day that is like Purim. How is Yom Kippur like Purim, he taught: On both days we wear masks. On Purim we masquerade as Esther and Mordecai. On Yom Kippur, we masquerade as the pious and religious Jews we are not.[2]

I very often have conversations that sound an awful lot like the one in the story, where people say to me apologetically, “Rabbi I’m not very religious.”

That’s our way of explaining why we don’t come to services enough, or we don’t keep kosher enough, or we don’t know enough: We’re not very religious.

And it usually comes with some kind of disclaimer:

  • Rabbi, I’m not very religious, but I’m looking for a community.
  • I’m not very religious, but I want my children to be Jewish.
  • I’m not very religious, but I’m spiritual. I meditate every day.
  • I’m not very religious, but I believe in Tikkun Olam – repairing the world.

I have to tell you, as a rabbi I don’t know any way to define “religious” other than to say that it involves seeking community, and building a spiritual life, and passing traditions on to our children, and working to repair the world. For people who are “not very religious,” we sure do a lot of religious things!

And yet too often we go through life feeling like we are dressed up as something we are not.

 

Two weeks ago, we held a Shabbat morning talk for Religious School parents about God. We started off by defining our own beliefs and experiences of God. People said amazing things – they talked about finding God in nature, in relationships, in their children, in their learning. And then we compared that to what we believe “Judaism says about God.” And we found a huge disconnect. Where our God was found in nature and relationships, the “Jewish God,” we believed, was found in supernatural miracles and ritual commandments.

I think that for far too many of us, there is Judaism on the one hand, and then there is us – our beliefs and our practices – on the other hand. We’ll say things like:

  • “Judaism says God created the world in 7 days, but I believe in the Big Bang.”
  • “Judaism says that Moses parted the Red Sea. But I think it was probably just low tide.”
  • “Judaism says we are supposed to keep kosher, but I only keep kosher style, and only inside the house, and not on vacation.”

We constantly we set ourselves up as outside of Judaism. As something less than the real thing. Somewhere in the back of our minds we still believe that there is an authentic way to be Jewish – that it looks like Orthodoxy, or it looks like our grandparents. Either way it doesn’t look like us. No wonder we feel like showed up at play practice without learning our lines.

We are not the first Jews to contend with this kind of inferiority complex. You can see that from the Kelemer Maggid’s little teaching about Yom Kippur and Purim. But even earlier than that, Judaism has always struggled with an idea called Yeridat Hadorot – the decline of the generations. This is the notion that each successive generation, as it moves further and further from Sinai, becomes a little weaker, a little more corrupted, a little less authentic.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Zera is quoted as saying: “If the earlier scholars were like angels, then we are mere human beings. And if the earlier scholars were human beings, then we are like donkeys.”[3]

And that was 1500 years ago. Imagine what that makes us!

This is a truly self-defeating way to look at the world. And it doesn’t actually represent how we feel about ourselves – at least not in the secular sphere. In 21st century Canada, we believe that we are living in the most diverse, most progressive society ever to exist. We believe that, far from declining with each generation, we get to make life more fulfilling as time marches forward, by learning about the world around us and applying that learning to our laws and our customs. That’s how we evolve as a society. So why can’t we also apply that kind of thinking to Judaism?

It turns out that in fact, the Rabbis already did. In fact, Judaism as we know it is built on just that kind of thinking. When the Temple was destroyed 2000 years ago, the Rabbis of the time began to meet to debate and discuss how Judaism would move forward in this new era. The Talmud records one of these debates in the form of a story:

It tells that that once, the great sages were gathered in the Beit Midrash arguing over a certain point of Jewish law. The specific point doesn’t matter, but what matters is that all of the Rabbis believed one way, and only Rabbi Eliezer disagreed.

Rabbi Eliezer declared: “If I am right, then let this carob tree prove it!” And the carob tree flew out of the ground and landed a hundred cubits away.

And then Rabbi Eliezer said: “If I am right, then let the stream of water prove it.” And the stream of water flowed backwards.

And so on and so forth with all kinds of miracles until finally, Rabbi Eliezer said to the sages, “If the law agrees with me, then let it be proved by heaven.” And a heavenly voice cried out: “Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer? His rulings are always right!”

But the other rabbis weren’t impressed. And the great Rabbi Joshua stood and said words from the Torah portion that we will read tomorrow morning: “Lo bashamayim hi. Torah is not in Heaven.”

At that moment, the sages say, God started laughing and said, “Nitzachuni banai, Nitzachuni banai – My children have overruled me! My children have overruled me!” (Baba Metzia 59a)

 

My teacher Dr. Mark Washofky used to call this story the “Declaration of Independence of Rabbinic Judaism.” This is the ancient Rabbis declaring independence from the orthodoxies of their time. Declaring independence from the idea that there was only ONE right way to be Jewish, and that we could never measure up. Instead, they declare that we Jews have the right – and the responsibility – to reinterpret Judaism in every generation.

And there are about a thousand examples of this. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the rabbis decided that you could pray in a synagogue anywhere in the world. When you could no longer bring a Passover sacrifice, they created the Pesach Seder based on Roman practices. The Jewish calendar, the wedding ketubah, the rituals of Chanukah, the medieval philosophical writings – all of these are examples of innovations and that made their way into Judaism because of the needs of the moment and because of the cultural context in which Jews were living.

Judaism has always been Reform Judaism. Judaism has always been aware of the world around it; has always offered multiple paths to fulfillment; has always been about making real meaning in the real world.

Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, who was one of the giants of early Reform Judaism, wrote about 100 years ago that “the very spirit of Reform that empowered [the early Rabbis] to declare the sanctuary of learning to be as holy as the Temple at Jerusalem, ought by all means to empower us to assign our temples the same divine holiness.”[4]

In other words, it is our sacred responsibility not only to follow the traditions, but to be ongoing interpreters of Jewish traditions.

It turns out that we are not at play practice without a script. The script is right here in our hands; and Judaism even gives us a pencil – to make edits and interpretations along the way. That’s also what the ancient rabbis did. It is the original, and the most authentic approach to Jewish life. It is the very definition of being a religious Jew.

I think that as Reform Jews, we need to work to reclaim words like “religious” and “kosher.” To define them based not on Orthodoxy or on our grandparents’ lives, but on what they mean in our context.

To be “religious” doesn’t just mean to observe a bunch of rituals; it means to thoughtfully learn about Judaism and about the world around us and to make meaningful choices based on that learning.

To be Shomer Shabbat – to be Sabbath observant – doesn’t only mean not to turn on lights on Saturday. It might also mean making the choice to drive to the synagogue or to friends’ houses, or gathering our families for movies or meals, or doing the gardening while refraining from paying the bills.

To keep kosher doesn’t only mean eating a certain hechsher or keeping 2 sets of dishes. It might also mean paying attention to the ethical impact of our food we’re eating – choosing local, or free range, or any of the other mindful choices that our Jewish values drive us to make.

These are real and authentic definitions of Jewish words. They are real and authentic ways to live as a Jew. And they place a real and authentic responsibility on us – to be active learners and to be active agents in building our own Jewish lives. Liberal Judaism is a religion of process, not product. It matters less exactly how you keep a given mitzvah and more how you came to that decision. In the principles of Reform Judaism it says:

We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.

That is not at all easy to do. Being a Reform Jew involves learning and choosing, and then when our beliefs or our circumstances shift, it involves learning and choosing all over again.

The danger of liberal Judaism is that when we don’t do that kind of work, it is easy to slip into something complacent. And then we become the fulfillment of our own insecurities about not being authentic enough, not being “religious enough.” When we say that, it’s not about whether somebody else approves of our standard of kashrut – it’s about whether we approve of our own choices.

And that means that those questions of the High Holy Days – questions about living our lives authentically, about whether our actions match our values – these are questions that we need to be asking ourselves every day of our lives.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that the process of teshuvah – of repentence – “must energize an ever-ascending spiral in [our] spiritual state.”[5] In other words, that the process of teshuvah can be a kind of springboard for the growth and authenticity we are seeking.

When our Jewish lives reflect honest reflection and real learning and mindful decision making, we become the most authentic versions of ourselves and the most authentic Jews we can be.

So that is the challenge of the new year, and really the challenge of every day. To pick up a new book. To learn something new about our Judaism and about ourselves. To ask ourselves hard questions: Does my Shabbat practice really reflect my what I believe about the importance of family and self-care and emotional health? Do my eating habits reflect my own ethical ideas? Am I putting effort into building the community that I need? Would I honestly define myself – not according to someone else’s definition but according to my own – as living the Jewish life that I choose?

 

Rabbi Akiva once said to his students: “God showed us love by creating us in the Divine Image, but God showed us even greater love by making us conscious that we are created in the Divine Image.”[6]

We are blessed with the consciousness of God – with the ability to come to know ourselves through learning and reflection. To build the life and the self that we wish to build, and in so doing to make the world a better place. There is no act more religious than this. There is no path more authentic.

In the coming year, may we challenge ourselves and our assumptions.

May we celebrate our choices and our values.

And may we work to see ourselves as the recipients and the embodiment of an ancient tradition, as guardians of an eternal and ever-evolving way of life.

Amen.

——-

 

[1] Based on The Yom Kippur Anthology p. 120.

[2] Ibid 123.

[3] B. Shabbat 112b.

[4] “Blowing of the Shofar on the Sabbath.” American Reform Responsa XXIII, pp. 182-3)

[5] Soloveichik, Joseph. “The Jewish Concept of Teshuvah.”The Yom Kippur Anthology. P 143.

[6] Mishnah., Qtd in Gates of Repentence p. 4.

“Think For Yourself” – A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5777

October 5, 2016 Leave a comment

“Think for yourself.”

It’s what every teacher and every professor ever said to us.

“Think for yourself.”

It’s what we hope for our children as they go out into the world.

“Think for yourself.”

Socrates said that, “to find yourself, you must think for yourself” And, Christopher Hitchens wrote that, “[If you} take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you…”

There may be no greater virtue in our individualist, post-enlightenment world, than the ability to think for yourself.

But I wonder if we really do.

 

I want to show you a cartoon that I’ve always loved. It’s from Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.” And it’s about what you might call an “individualist penguin”:

 

penguin

If you’ll notice, all of these penguins look just alike, but the one in the middle – who looks like all the others – is singing out: “I gotta be me. Oh, I just gotta be me.”

 

I think in some way, we are all that penguin. We strive to be ourselves – to live authentic lives based on our own choices and our own values. But at the same time, we are social creatures. The ways that we think and the ways behave are influenced by the thinking and the behaviour of those around us.

 

It turns out thinking for yourself isn’t so simple after all.

 

Maybe the starkest example of this comes from the darkest period of our history.

 

In his book, Hitler’s Willing Executionists¸ the historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen writes about the cultural influences in early 20th century Germany that led to the Holocaust.

 

He writes that for a whole variety of social, historical, economic, and other reasons “the German people [of that period] were more dangerously oriented toward Jews than they had been during any other time ….”[1]

 

In other words, even the Holocaust was, in some sense, a cultural phenomenon. People’s thinking, people’s willingness to act, was influenced by social and cultural factors around them. And to drive home the point, we need only look across Germany’s northern border to Denmark, a country which – wholesale – refused to deport its Jews. In fact, on Erev Rosh Hashanah of 1943 – exactly 73 years ago yesterday – the Danish people smuggled nearly the entire Jewish population of their country across the sea to safety in Sweden.

 

Two countries, two sides of a border, and their collective responses were like night and day. Of course, there were exceptions. There were Danes who turned in Jews. And there were Germans – many thousands of them – who risked their own lives to save Jews. But on the whole, the social and cultural climates of the two countries moved their citizens to think and behave in wildly different ways

 

SO what happened? Was one country made of good people and one made of bad people? Or was this an example of how our collective values and circumstances work together to construct a culture, and how that culture in turn shapes each of us.

 

In 2016, we are fortunate not to be living through such terrible times. But our world is also not simple. And many of the issues that we deal with also relate to group identity and affiliation: On a personal level, how do we build community? How do we establish a safe and supportive environment for ourselves and our families? And on a much larger level, how do we welcome refugees from other countries? How do we build bridges of understanding between communities that look and talk and pray differently?

 

Do our own religious and national and cultural affiliations impact on the assumptions we make about other people?

 

Of course they do. That’s part of being human.

 

Aristotle already said 23 centuries ago that “Man is by nature a social animal.” And much more recently, Atul Gawande, a physician and writer, added more recently that “simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.”

 

We are wired to seek out being part of a group. And we are wired to take on certain assumptions and tendencies of the group. That’s what Hillel means in Pirke Avot when he says “Al tifrosh min hatzibbur – You can’t separate yourself from the community.” Our sense of self is, in some way, tied up with the communities and groups that we are part of. And that means that when we think we are thinking for ourselves, what we’re often actually doing is applying the norms and assumptions taught to us by those groups.

 

By the way, that’s not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a thing – it is a feature of the human experience. And this shaping of our psyche starts very, very early.

 

Research out of Stanford University[2] has shown that a person’s native language – the language we start learning at birth – can be a powerful shaper of worldview. For example, speakers of Russian are often better able to differentiate different shades of blue, because their language has more words for different shades of blue. And speakers of Japanese and Spanish are less likely on the whole to be concerned with fault or blame, because their languages describe things reflexively: “The vase broke itself/was broken” rather than “Such and such broke the vase.”

 

And interestingly enough, people who are bilingual have been found to think or feel or react differently depending on which language they are speaking at the time. (So the next time my kids ask me why I’m driving so aggressively in Israel, I’ll just blame the Hebrew language.)

 

Our cultural influences are constantly shaping our thinking and our worldview. As much as we are individuals with free will, we are also products of the societies we grow up in, the families we come from, and the groups we choose to affiliate with.

 

It has to be that way. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as what we call “Jewish values” or what we call “Canadian values.”

These things are real, even if we can’t always agree on what they are. Because we are Jewish, we tend value education, and community, and social action. Because we are Canadian we tend to value diversity, and consensus, and winter sports. It’s not that 100% of us share these things. And it’s not that they necessarily make us different from anybody else – non-Jews also like books; non-Canadians also like hockey. But our values are formed in part because of the groups we are part of.

 

And when we look at the world around us right now – the weary, fearful world around us – we see a great deal of concern about what happens when our values come into contact or come into conflict with someone else’s. Whether we’re talking about exiting the European Union, or working to curb interfaith marriage, or screening immigrants, or building a great wall, these things are born out of a fear – a very real and palpable fear – that someone else’s values might be dangerous to ours.

 

Judaism places values at the centre of our lives. And it places community affiliation at the centre of our lives as well. And it teaches us that we don’t need to live in fear, because we have the ability – we have the power – to be carriers of values. We get to build culture. We get to lead those around us.

 

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks to the Jewish people about our mission on earth. He says:

 

נָקֵל מִֽהְיֽוֹתְךָ לִי עֶבֶד…. וּנְתַתִּיךָ לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם

 

“It is not enough that you should serve Me (says God). I will also make you Or Lagoyim – a light to the nations.”[3]

 

In other words, God gives us a mission to transmit certain values and ideas beyond ourselves to the world around us.

 

This has sometimes been interpreted as being about proselytization– that we should actively work to teach our values and our religion to the rest of the world. I don’t think that’s what the prophet is saying at all. I believe that this passage represents a call to each of us to share our values with those around us by living them authentically.

 

“Think for yourself,” says the prophet. It’s true that you are part of a group. And it’s true that you are the product of a culture. But you also get to create culture through the way you live your life.

 

The Bible tells that the in ancient times, there was one leader who truly captured the hearts and allegiance of the Jewish people: and that’s King David. David wasn’t the first King of Israel, and he wasn’t the most powerful. He wasn’t the founder of Judaism or the father of the Jewish people. And yet, he was beloved perhaps more than any other leader in Israelite history.

 

What was it about David? He marched at the vanguard of the troops. He danced with incredible public joy in front of God’s ark. He worshipped with sincerity, and he owned up to his failings. David publicly embodied the values he wished to convey. And he was beloved for it, and he was emulated for it.

 

Anyone who has ever been a parent or a boss or really a person knows that modeling is the most powerful way to convey values. We see this in our own lives all the time, both in little ways and in very big ways.

 

For example…

 

  • If I, as a parent, model for my kids (the little cellphone addicts) what it looks like to put down the device during meals, then we get to open a conversation about the values inherent in that action.
  • If we, as a congregation, model what it looks like to truly welcome the stranger and build a culture of warmth and openness, then we get to participate in a conversation about why that matters.
  • And if we as a nation model what it is to be a society built on tolerance and diversity, then we get to lead that conversation amongst the nations of the world.

 

To be a carrier of values means most of all to live authentically. It means to focus not on what frightens us about others or the world around us, but rather to focus on what we want to be in the world.

 

And that’s why we’re here on the High Holy Days. This is the time of year when we think about what we want to be in the world. We do so as a group, and we do so most of all as individuals.

 

Interestingly, the High Holy Day prayerbook actually acknowledges just how central our group affiliations are – how our communities help shape our selves. It does so by making teshuvah – repentance – in part a communal activity. When we say “Ashamnu bagadnu gazalnu – WE are guilty, We have sinned, We have done wrong,” we confess each other’s sins. Because in some sense, the collective “we,” the culture we build, the assumptions we promulgate, contribute to the actions we perform.

 

But Judaism doesn’t let us off the hook. On these Days of Awe, each of us stands alone before God. Each of us stands alone in judgment before ourselves.

 

The Hasidim tell that the great Rebbe Zusya once came before his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him: “Rebbe, what’s the matter?
And he told them that he had had a vision. He said, “I have learned the question – the terrible question – that the angels will ask me when I enter Olam Haba – when I enter the next world.”
The Rabbi’s followers were puzzled. “But Rebbe Zusya, you are pious and wise and humble. What question about your life could possibly be so terrifying?”
Zusya sighed. He said, “When I enter the next world, the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ And they will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Joshua?’ They will not ask, ‘Why weren’t you Maimonides or Rashi or Rabbi Akiba. Rather, they will say to me: ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'”

 

The project of the Days of Awe – the task that is before us during these next 10 days – is to ask ourselves what we we wish to be, and to challenge ourselves to live it even more authentically than we did last year.

 

And our tradition believes that when we do so, we have the power to to reshape worlds, to shift cultures, to start the right conversations, to be Or Lagoyim – to be a source of light to those around us.

 

Mahatma Ghandi is said to have once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Actually, he never said that. It’s just a bumper sticker. But what Ghandi really said is far more powerful:

 

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change… We need not wait to see what others do.”

 

This is the power we have – no less than the power to change the entire world by beginning with ourselves.

 

If we want to be part of families who prioritize and make time for each other, then we can start by making the time ourselves.

 

If we want to live in neighourhoods where people smile at each other and know one another, then we can start by learning the names of the people who live on either side of us.

 

If we want to be part of a congregation that truly takes care of one another and truly makes everyone feel welcome, then we can start by greeting the next unfamiliar face who walks through the door, or by attending the shiva service of someone we didn’t know, just to support their family.

 

If we want to live in a country that feeds the hungry and cares for the poor, then we can start by making sure that we are really giving what we can afford to give.

 

And if we want to live in a world that treats everyone with respect and dignity, where people no longer fear each other based on race or religion or accent, then we have to start by examining our own preconceptions, our own biases, our own prejudice.

 

A Jew once came to his rabbi in tears. He said, “Rabbi, I feel so paralyzed. I’ve tried so hard to repair the world and the world is still as broken as ever.” The rabbi embraced the man and told him to have hope. He said, “Before you can change the world, you have to start with yourself. And when you change yourself, you change your community. And when you change your community you change your nation. And that is how you begin the task of repairing the world.”

 

When we strive to live as our most authentic selves, our influence extends far beyond ourselves.

 

May these next ten days be for us a time of honest reflection, in which we work to accept our own faults, and challenge ourselves to be our best.

 

May we learn to view ourselves as carriers of values, as architects of culture.

 

And may we know that within us lies the power to bring healing and light and goodness not only to ourselves, but to others around us, to our communities, and to our world.

 

Amen.

 

——-

[1] Goldhagen, Daniel J. Hitler’s Willing Executionists. Knopf; New York: 1996. P. 79.

[2] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703467304575383131592767868

[3] Isaiah 49:6.

Al Tira – Do Not Be Afraid: A Sermon for Kol Nidre 5776

September 24, 2015 1 comment

What are we all so afraid of?

About 40 years ago, in the mid 1970s, a psychologist named Roger Hart did a study on the playing behaviours of children in a small town in Vermont. He documented their activities; he interviewed all 86 children in the town about the places where they played. And he discovered that those children had an incredible amount of freedom. They essentially played wherever they wanted; they traveled together through neighbourhoods and even to the edges of the city. In his words, “they had the run of the town.”

That was then. Thirty-something years later, in the mid 2000s, the same psychologist went back to the same town, to learn about the next generation – the children of the children he had originally studied. He asked similar questions and looked for similar behaviours. And he documented a completely different picture. A generation ago, kids had roamed all over creation, but now they had almost no radius of freedom. Their parents knew where they were at all times. And far from traveling to the edges of town, many of them hardly even left their own property by themselves. They just weren’t allowed to.

Something has shifted in our society over the last 40 years, and this story is a part of a larger picture. People are more afraid, more worried, more anxious. When the residents of that town were interviewed about what had changed, they cited the increased threat of violent crime toward their children. But statistically, there is no increased threat of violent crime – not in that town and not in Canada and not in North America as a whole. There is only the fear of increased threat.

What are we all so afraid of?

Most of us don’t live our lives in constant fear of violent crime. Most of us aren’t afraid to leave our own property. But we do live with fear – maybe now more than ever before.

Alan Morinis, founder of the Mussar Institute, writes about the scary world that we live in:

This world can appear so unpredictable sometimes. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires….. Your life can suddenly be overturned by illness or accident or financial setback.[1]

And whether we know it or not, all of that fear is affecting us. Diagnoses of anxiety are on the rise. Hospitalizations for eating disorders in Canada increased by a third in the last 25 years.[2] Some 43% of North Americans take a mood-altering medication on a regular basis.[3] We are living with stress in a way that our grandparents never did and in a way that their grandparents never even imagined.

What if I get sick?
What if the stock market takes a dive?
What if my grandchildren aren’t raised Jewish?
What if my failings at work are discovered?

The funny thing is, we seem to be reasonably good at dealing with the threat of terrorism and nuclear annihilation. But when you live a life of anxiety, it’s the little fears that get in the way.

The fear of failure that keeps us from taking risks.
The fear of rejection that stops us from reaching out to form community.
The fear of uselessness that keeps us running, working, filling our lives with things we need to get done.

Like those children who never venture beyond the safety of their own yards, our fears – large or small – have the ability to overwhelm our thinking. As we make our way through life, they separate us from our best selves.

On Yom Kippur, we work to become our best selves. And Jewish tradition has long been aware that our fears are a barrier. That’s part of why we’re here. During these ten days, we come together to pray, to repent, to confront the pieces of ourselves that we are most afraid of. And to find the strength we need to live in a scary world.

The prayers for this season address that challenge. It’s traditional during the month of Elul to read Psalm 27 twice every day. It says:

יְהֹוָה אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי מִמִּי אִירָא  –  When God is my light and my help; whom should I fear?

יְהֹוָה מָעוֹז חַיַּי מִמִּי אֶפְחָֽד:  –  When God is the stronghold of my life, whom should I dread?

It is a central theme of the High Holy Days that when we are in a supportive religious community, we have less to be afraid of. When we are surrounded by others and surrounded by God, we can find the strength to confront what may come our way.

Part of confronting our fears is separating between what we can and cannot control.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the true story of a man and woman he met in the back row of an airplane. They were a wealthy and influential couple, on their way to New York for a fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria. The King and Queen of Thailand, they said, would also be at the event. Rabbi Kushner wanted to know why a couple like that would travel in the back row of the plane! Why not first class? The husband replied, “My wife is more comfortable in the last row. She’s read about planes that have crashed, but she’s never heard about a plane being rear-ended.”[4]

There’s only so much that we can be in control of.

Many of us are familiar with the Serenity Prayer that’s often used in 12-step programs:
God, grant me the courage to change what can be changed
The serenity to accept what cannot be changed.
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Those words are not Jewish in origin, but they do find expression in the origin of the Jewish story. Early on in the book of Genesis, Avram – who is not yet called Avraham – fights a brutal war against 5 kings in Canaan. This was before Avram had entered into covenant with God, before he had fathered any sons, before he had really secured his place as ancestor of a great nation. It was a moment of great uncertainty in Avram’s life.

And just then, God comes to him and says:

אַל־תִּירָא אַבְרָם אָֽנֹכִי מָגֵן לָךְ – “Do not be afraid, Avram, I am a shield to you.(Genesis 15:1)

It was an invitation by God to enter into covenant. An invitation for Avram to put aside his fears and be in relationship with the Divine.

It doesn’t seem like a very reasonable request: In the scariest moment of your life….Al tira – just don’t be afraid. The Rabbis want to understand how God can ask this. So they analyze Avram’s fears. Nachmanides, the mystical Spanish commentator, says that there are two things Avram was afraid of in that moment:

  1. He was afraid that the kings might rise back up against him, and drag him back into war.
  2. He was afraid that he might someday die childless, since that he had no sons.

Those were very real fears. Either of those things really could have happened, and Avraham had no way of knowing that they wouldn’t. But – and this, I believe is Nachmanides’ point – he also had no way of knowing that they would.

What is Avraham afraid of? One thing from the past, and one from the future. A war that he’s already survived, and a childless death that may or may not come someday. But what’s in front of him is an eternal covenant with God.

When we live our lives paralyzed by fear of the past and the future, we miss the blessings of the present. If the patriarch had remained focused on what he was afraid of, he would have missed the opportunity to enter into covenant.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive; our eyes can still see the beautiful sky; our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.

When the Torah says “Al tira­ – Do not be afraid,” it doesn’t mean that the things we’re afraid of aren’t real. But it does mean that we can strive to see the blessings of the present amidst the anxieties of the future. And it means that we can have faith in ourselves that when challenges do come our way, we will have the strength to weather them.

Earlier this month, we marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Much has been made over the years of the special courage and strength of the “Greatest Generation,” of their ability to weather fear and terror, and to come out stronger on the other side.

One famous example is found in the residents of wartime London, England, who lived through the German Blitz. Between September 1940 and May 1941, London was bombed 71 times. It was a campaign that should have paralyzed the city and its residents with fear. But it didn’t. The more London was bombed, the more its residents were emboldened. They spent time outdoors. They drank in pubs and attended cricket matches. An entire network of wartime psychiatric clinics had to close down because their they weren’t being used! (NEED REF)

The Canadian psychiatrist J. T. MacCurdy has explained this by saying that Londoners were learning, one bombing at a time, that they could survive and thrive in those frightening circumstances. In fact, he writes that after a while, it gave them a “feeling of excitement with the flavour of invulnerability.”[5] The more they lived with danger, the less fear they had. Because they knew from experience that they as a people were capable of making it through.

Most of us don’t live our lives under attack, but there is something to the idea that experiencing what we’re afraid of actually makes us stronger, more confident, maybe even more capable.

Losing a job is an awful experience, but it can also be a learning opportunity and a chance to reinvent yourself.
When a loved one passes away, our world is shattered. But life does go on, and in fact, our work on earth becomes even more important.

When our worst fears become reality, we often discover strength we didn’t know we had.

Judaism embraces the idea that our fears can motivate us rather than paralyzing us. The philosopher Franz Rosenzweig writes that “All knowledge of the universe begins in the fear of death.”

All knowledge. All learning. All accomplishing exists because we know that we will die someday.

If we weren’t afraid, says Rosenzweig, then we would have no reason to get anything done. No reason to learn anything or to teach anything or to pass anything on. Our own mortality – and our profound awareness of it – is what makes us most creative and most human.

In that sense, we are at our most human on the High Holy Days. During these Yamim Nora’im – these Days of Awe and Fear and Dread, we are most aware of just how big the universe is and how small we are within it.

Our prayerbook reminds us of this when it says: Untaneh Tokeif k’dushat hayom, ki hu nora v’ayom – Let us declare the holiness of this day, which is frightfully awesome and full of dread.

In Hebrew there are two words for “fear.” One is pachad, which means mortal fear. The other is yirah. That’s the root of nora, of Yamim Nora’im. It means reverence or awe. It means the inspired awareness that there is something larger than me.

This summer, I spent a week as faculty at Camp George, our regional Reform Jewish camp. I got to watch Jewish kids enjoying the great outdoors. They hike, they sail, they watch sunsets and count stars. At one program, we asked the youngest campers – 7 to 9 year olds –to describe their “Yirah Moments” – the moments when they felt a sense of awe or amazement at the world. One camper described looking up at the stars at night. Another talked about looking out over the lake during Shabbat services.

Many of us have had similar experiences – looking at a starry sky or witnessing the magnitude of the Grand Canyon. There is a certain fear that comes along with the knowledge that we are so unbelievably small. But the Yom Kippur prayerbook reminds us that small doesn’t mean insignificant, and it doesn’t mean powerless.

In fact, the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, which begins with fear and dread, ends by empowering us with responsibility: Teshuvah, tefilah, tzedakah – Repentence, prayer and charity. These are the ways that we effect change in the world. These are the ways that we respond as Jews to what frightens and overwhelms us.

Repentance, prayer and charity make a difference because they stem from humility. Because they are born in the notion that the only constructive human response to a frightening world is to try to repair it.

Once, a little girl was walking along the beach after a storm, and she noticed a starfish that had been washed up on shore, So she picked it up and threw it back into the ocean, saving its life. A few steps later, she came upon another starfish, and she did the same. She made her way down the beach, picking up starfish and throwing them into the ocean. A man came up to her, and said, “Little girl, do you realize how long this beach is? Do you realize that there are thousands of starfish stranded on the shore. You’ll never get to all of them. How can this possibly make a difference? The little girl looked at him. Then she picked up a starfish and threw it into the ocean. She answered, “It made a difference to that one.”

It is perhaps the most deeply held Jewish belief that every one of us has the power to make a difference. No matter who we are, or how small we feel, or what we are afraid of.

Untaneh Tokeif k’dushat hayom– Let us declare the holiness of this day.

This day of fear and dread.
This day or awe and inspiration.
This day that reminds us that we are so small and yet so powerful, so fearful and yet so capable.

And when we rise from our seats at the end of Yom Kippur, may it be with the motivation to go out into the world. To confront our fears; to challenge ourselves; to do the hard work of Tikkun Hanefesh – repairing our souls and Tikkun Olam – repairing our world.

Amen.

—–

[1] Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis, p. 209.

[2]http://www.mooddisorderscanada.ca/documents/Media Room

[3] http://www.anxietycentre.com/anxiety-statistics-information.shtml

[4] Conquering Fear, Harold Kushner, pp. 12-13.

[5] David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell, p. 129.

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