Saturday, October 8, 2011

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Kol Nidre 5772




I do not read Men’s Fitness magazine. Maybe I should. But I leave it to my sons, who lift weights and have the buff physiques like the models on the cover. So I was curious when my older son said to me one day, “Abba, I think you should read this.” It was the editor’s column from the February 2010 issue. The editor was Roy S. Johnson. The column was entitled “Today is Not Tomorrow.”

Several weeks earlier, Roy’s young wife had suffered a debilitating stroke. His wife was in rehab, paralyzed on the right side and unable to speak. Roy was trying to persevere with his school age children.  Roy wrote:

So every day, and usually many times a day, I say quietly to myself: Today is not tomorrow.

Our current circumstances—no matter how grim or painful—is not a life sentence.

It’s not even a “day” sentence, unless we allow it to be.

Each dawn announces an opportunity for new progress, for new moments, new strength.

Roy went on to acknowledge a painful truth of life:

Setbacks do not discriminate. They happen to the nicest people. To the strongest guy in the gym. To the seemingly happiest couple. To you.

But they are [often] only temporary. Bodies heal. Hearts mend. Careers turn around. Though not by themselves. And not if you believe today will be tomorrow, if you let today prevent you from taking the steps—baby steps, if that’s all you can take—toward a renewed tomorrow.

Roy concludes with these words:

I heard someone say today that a setback is just an opportunity for a comeback. Now that’s a tomorrow to believe in.

Yom Kippur is the day of the year when we reflect on the shortcomings and the setbacks of our lives. We may think about these things on many of the other 364 days of the years as well, but on the Day of Atonement we give it unique attention. We reflect on our role in these painful occurrences. We ask for forgiveness. We seek strength. We try to make sense of that which can be understood, and make peace with that which cannot.

We have suffered setbacks, big or small, in body or soul. We have suffered disappointments, major or minor, at work, at school, at home. The hardest questions concern our relationships. The ones we love—family. The ones we trust—friends. Setbacks do not discriminate.

I do not know Roy S. Johnson, and I have no reason to believe he is Jewish. But amidst his own tragedy Roy has hit on a central theme of this most holy of days: the power of the second chance; the ever present possibility of healing and transformation; the belief that today is not tomorrow; the hope of renewal. 

Speaking of his wife’s rehab, Roy wrote that, “she is now taking baby steps in a marathon in which no one knows the ultimate length of the race.”  And then later urges us to take those same tiny and uncertain steps, one at a time, toward a renewed tomorrow. The notion of self-choice and self-empowerment; that every step and every action helps shape our destiny…  this too is part of the remarkable Jewish sensibility of his words.

Just look at the key verse of the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning that we proclaimed earlier:

See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity…  choose life.

Someone once said:  Look at the middle two letters of life: “i-f”. Life is full of “ifs”. In fact quite a number of verses in the Torah begin with the conditional clause, “if you observe this commandment, then…[such and such will happen].” Every choice carries its consequences toward life and blessing, or the opposite direction.

These teachings prompted Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan to observe that “Judaism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic; it is iffistic.

Two thousand years ago Rabbi Akiba taught that, “all is foreseen but free will is given.” We know that certain elements of our life and fate are out of our control. Yet at the same time we have tremendous power to shape our destiny. Such is the paradox we call life. Such is the iffistic nature of things.

By the way, you know the Hebrew word for life, also four letters. Hayim. Chet, yod, yod, mem. What are the middle two letters in Hebrew?” “Yod, Yod. ” The shorthand for Adonai, God.

Life is full of “ifs.” But if we choose well, life is full of God.

We all know the story of the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. And we all know what happened to that first set of tablets that Moses was carrying down the mountain. Moses hurls them to the ground in a fit of anger. While he has been away the people have betrayed him. They have turned to the idolatry of the golden calf. They have lost faith, and in his moment of anger and despair, Moses in turn loses faith in them. Instead of an inspirational moment of revelation, all we are left with is a despondent leader and a smashed set of tablets.

The broken stone reflects Moses’ broken heart. To call the golden calf a setback for Moses is an understatement. Betrayal, from those we cherish no less, is devastating. We explode in anger. The fury rages, subsides then often flares back. In the meantime, the realization of what we have lost begins to sink in. Grieving takes place. We are the walking wounded, staggering between anger and sadness.

Moses is unsure how he can go on. He is physically and emotionally exhausted. His own brother caved in to the people’s wanton demands. The revelation at Sinai was not supposed to turn out like this. Life was not supposed to happen this way.

He says to God, “unless you go in the lead, do not make us leave this place” (ex. 33:15). He says to God, “show me your presence!” (33:18).

God does respond. According to the Torah, God reveals his presence. God speaks with Moses. God reassures that He is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness.”

And with that Moses finds it within himself to take a new step forward.

The Torah says: “So Moses carved two tablets of stones like the first, and early in the morning he went up [again] on Mount Sinai” (34:4).

According to Rabbinic tradition, Moses’ second ascent of Mount Sinai began on the first day of Elul. The Torah records that Moses was up there forty days and forty nights.

If you do the math, that means that Moses descended from the mountain a second time on the tenth of Tishrei.

Today is the tenth of Tishrei. An often overlooked aspect of the holiday is the connection to Moses and the second tablets. Yom Kippur is a day of second chances.

Even a Moses made a big mistake. But God is saying, “today is not tomorrow.” Get up and go up, again. The mountain of revelation is still there to climb. The promised land is still there to ascend.

And God says: I will help you. You are not alone. You have suffered betrayal and you have reacted in anger. I understand. I’ve had anger management issues myself. Well, now you are older and wiser. So I will be your partner. This time, instead of just giving you an inscribed set of tablets, you carve the stone, you do the writing, and I’ll work with you on the content.

I want you to own those tablets. Even when things get rough; especially when things get rough, I want you to affirm the ideals of Torah, not destroy them. Especially when things are stormy I want you to remember the vision of your highest self. Especially when it is dark, I want you to remember the light.

Here’s another illuminating teaching about Moses’ second ascent of Sinai. According to ancient Rabbinic legend, Moses is told to keep the shattered remnants of the first tablets with the second set. Both the broken, and the whole, together, in the Ark.

Now that’s odd. Why would God want people to see the broken with the whole. Aren’t they a reminder of Israel’s darkest hour of idolatry and Moses’ deepest display of frailty?

Maybe that’s the point. To be reminded of the messy reality of life… and at the same time, its infinite potential.

As Rabbi Laura Geller writes: “We are still carrying both sets of those stone tablets with us on our journey. The hope for wholeness and the truth of brokenness exist together in each of us. None of us is perfect. Each of us struggles with limitations and weakness; each of us has broken promises and betrayed what we have loved.

“But in spite of this,” Rabbi Geller concludes, “forgiveness is built into the deep structure of the universe. God’s essence reveals itself, and it is compassion.
Before concluding, let me acknowledge, from personal experience, and professional, how challenging it can be to take even the baby steps from the grip of today to the potential of tomorrow. Truth be told, the open road holds both promise and peril. We leave behind a past that may be problematic, but is at least known. We face a future that is hopeful, but uncertain.

As the writer Anatole France has observed, “all changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.

When we leave a job, or exit a relationship, we are likely to experience the twin emotions of both liberation and loss.

At times we will be greatly optimistic; at other times deeply pessimistic.

At times we will say: this had to happen; at other times we will ask:  Why did this happen?

At times we will be elated with hope, at other times we will be depressed to the point of despair.

The past represents the familiar, the routine, the proven. The past represents your expertise, your station, your status.

Conversely, the future, though a blank slate, represents the new, the unfamiliar, the unproven. We must establish ourselves all over again.

At times, the Israelites pined for the fleshpots of Egypt, despite its slavery. It is hard to let go. The clenched fist is more normal than the open palm.

On this Yom Kippur we look for the strength to face the future. We are inspired by the faith of our forebears and all who affirm in word and deed that today is not tomorrow.

We carry the broken and the whole together, aspiring to compassion and forgiveness, and on to holiness.

Yes, a setback is an opportunity for a comeback. I think it was the Talmudic sage Wayne Gretsky who once said that you will miss 100% of the shots you never take. So it is time to take the next shot. With faith, fortitude, and maybe a little luck, we will hear the announcer say again:  He shoots…  He scores!

How sweet it is. Shanah tovah.





No comments:

Post a Comment