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“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.

The Toolkit: A Reflection for Rosh Hashanah 5776

September 17, 2015 Leave a comment

Once, there were two builders – one wise and one foolish. They were on a journey to a jobsite in a faraway town, and each one carried his tool belt with him as they made their way. As night approached, the builders felt weary and stopped at an inn to sleep. Since they were afraid of thieves, they placed their tool belts under their beds for the night. In the morning, they woke up at daybreak and quickly made their way down the road toward the jobsite, forgetting to take the tools with them.

They only realized their mistake several hours later, when they were already close to their destination. What to do? Well, the foolish builder said, “Quickly! Let’s press on, for we have so much work to do today.” And he continued down the road toward the jobsite.

But the wiser of the two turned back. He said, “What good will it do us now to hurry, since we are empty handed? The more sensible thing is to find our tools, so that we may build successfully.”

We spend our lives building. Building families, building careers, building communities and relationships. Building ourselves. Each year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we come to the synagogue to gather the tools that we will need for that work. It’s a challenging and heavy season for us. But it’s also an exciting season filled with the possibilities of spiritual fulfillment and renewal.

The High Holy Day liturgy speaks the language of renewal. Over and over again throughout the holidays, we will sing the final line of the book of lamentations. It says:

Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuvah.
Return us to You, O God, and we shall return.
Chadeish yameinu k’kedem
Renew our days/Make our days new as they were in the past.

It’s a very strange phrasing – “Chadeish yameinu k’kedem.” Chadeish comes from the Hebrew word chadash, which means “new.” And kedem is the word for ancient or old. So the verse literally asks God to make our days, make our lives, make us into something new…. that we used to be. That doesn’t really make sense. If something is new, then it is not what it used to be. And if something is as it used to be, then by definition it has not been renewed.

And yet, we repeat those words throughout the holidays.

I think it’s intended to teach us something about teshuvah – about repentance. It teaches us that the process of teshuvah helps us to become both something new and something very, very old. Our task during these Days of Awe is not to envision ourselves as an entirely different person. It’s not to reinvent ourselves. Rather, it is to return to the self that has always been inside of us. To get in touch with our own essential nature.

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?'”

Are we living our lives according to our own values?
Are we choosing our actions based on what we really believe?
Are we taking responsibility for the choices we make?
These are the difficult questions of the Days of Awe.

Judaism teaches us to see our lives as a product of our own choices. Anyone who’s ever been hiking or climbing knows that moving forward is a function of the choices we make. Where will I place my foot? Which path is the right one for me? Which rock should I hold onto?

And everyday life is the same. We make a thousand choices a day: Eggs or shredded wheat? Shoes or sandals? Homework or coffee with a friend? Should I speed up or slow down at the yellow light. Should I finish up this paperwork at my desk, or make it home for dinner? There’s not always a right and wrong answer, but our choices reflect our priorities. And in the end, our lives reflect the choices we’ve made.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “One’s philosophy is …expressed in the choices one makes.”

That means that the task of teshuvah – the task of becoming our best selves – is actually a task of trying to make choices that are in line with our beliefs and values. One by one. A thousand times a day.

Alan Morinis, founder of the Mussar Institute, writes that “Strengthening your ability to choose expands your capacity to exercise free will, which [is] a defining feature of being human.” (Everyday Holiness, p. 38)

To be human is to be created in God’s image. To be created in God’s image is to recognize that we are choosing beings. That no matter the circumstances, no matter the behaviour of others, there is always a choice.

On the High Holy Days, we are tasked with nurturing and developing our most human and most divine characteristic – our faculty of free will. We are tasked to consider our own values and ideals, to create a road map for living and choosing according to them, and to take that map out into the world with us.

So, it turns out that the tools we need for the coming year are inside of us. Unlike those builders from the story, we cannot leave our toolkits under our beds or by the side of the road. We carry them with us wherever we go – our values; our beliefs; our sense of self worth. Our capacity to connect with others, to do for others, to repair the world, to repair ourselves.

In the coming year, may we have the strength to do the hard work of teshuvah.
May we have the patience to allow ourselves to falter.
And may we recognize that everything we need to become our best selves is already inside of us.

Amen.

A Meditation for Selichot

September 6, 2015 Leave a comment

On this night of forgiveness, we think about the wrongs that have been done. There are people we have wronged. There are people who have wronged us.  

Our tradition teaches us to be like God, to be “rachum v’chanun erech apayim v’rav chesed v’emet” – compassionate and gracious, forgiving and slow to anger and filled with loving kindness.  

Sometimes it’s easy to forgive. Sometimes we can think about the things people have done, and understand their motivations, and find a place in our hearts to make it ok.  

 But there is one person whom we often find most difficult to forgive: ourself.   

The High Holy Days are a time to try to understand ourselves. To delve deeply into our own souls, to think deeply about why we are what we are and why we do what we do. To admit our own frailty. To admit our own humanity. To try to find a place in our hearts to forgive ourselves for being human.  

We are imperfect beings. We have done wrong, and we will do wrong. Admitting this is not the same as excusing ourselves. Rather, in admitting our imperfections, we take upon ourselves the responsibility to try to do better in the coming year. It is the task of the High Holy Days. And it is a task that begins this very evening. 

 Rabbi Leo Baeck said: “To seek God is to strive for the good. To find God is to do good.” 

 On this night of forgiveness, during these days of awe, and all throughout the coming year, may we strive to do good, and may we strive to bring the holy and the Godly into the world. 

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