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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

“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.

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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