Friday, September 16, 2016

Themes of the High Holidays

This past March I Turned 40. I realized I hadn't had a full physical in a while, and I was starting to feel run down a lot, falling asleep on the couch before 8 more often than I'd like to admit. So I made an appointment with my doctor, who ordered all sorts of tests, the kind I hadn't had in years.

I don't know why but I was not prepared for what my doctor shared with me. She did not like all sorts of numbers, including blood sugar and cholesterol. She told me I was going to have to make a lot of changes to my routine, including my diet and exercise routine. I needed to cut down on this and increase that, and I'd have to come back for more tests to see how I was progressing.

I guess it surprised me because I thought I had been doing the right things; I was exercising daily, I ate pretty well. I mean, sure, I ate more when I was tired, and I was always tired. And in this line of work there's always cake. And don't we all gain a little weight as we get older? What could I really do about that?

Talking to my doctor was the outside perspective I needed to highlight what I was doing wrong, how I could make it better, and most importantly, that I COULD make it better. So I changed my diet. I started exercising even more than before.  And it's taken months to make work, and some real fear of backsliding. And I'm happy to say that, at least so far, in my 40th year, I'm in as healthy a place as since my son was born.

I raise all of this not to humblebrag; after all, I know many of us in this room have had similar medical experiences. Rather, I'd like to suggest that our experience with Tshuvah, that idea of turning we're supposed to be focused on in the month before the high holidays, is very much like this experience. No one walks around, I hope, saying “what a terrible person I am!” And if we do we go on medication. No, in our heads, we're doing the best we can, trying to avoid temptation while doing the right things. But it's hard, and it's hard, and because it's hard, we give up. We complain about our identity, our experiences, that we're bound to do what we're going to do, that there is no escape, no choice in the matter, that we'll always backslide. It's not that we're setting ourselves up for failure, it's that we're not giving ourselves the opportunity to do the real transformational work that Tshuvah demands.

So let's start by setting ourselves up for success. First, a reality check: real Tshuvah takes more than a month. Yes, we can use this time to make kapparah, to make atonement for our actions, to correct the wrongs we've done to others. But that act alone cannot clean the spiritual schmutz off of ourselves. That takes real work. Quite possibly a lifetime of work. In the same way we can't go to the gym once and then wonder why our muscles atrophy, it had to become a discipline. It takes a willingness to change behavior, not just actions. And it means getting outside of one's self. If we try to do transformational work ourselves we slide too easily into those constructed identities: I'm just angry, I'm impatient, I never said I was a good friend. We need that outside perspective who can tell us not that transformation is easy, but that it is achievable, even if it is hard.

And we need to embrace our ability to choose. Now, that sounds self evident: don't we make choices all the time? Well, do we? Do we really? Are we making conscious choices on how we're going to respond to a given situation, or are we just reacting, moving on autopilot, responding to stimuli the way we always have without really stopping to consider our actions? Is that really choosing? Was I choosing to have three or four slices of pizza or was I just reacting to stimuli? Am I choosing to flip off the person who cut me off on Broad St in Philadelphia or am I letting my inner cro-magnon respond? There is a moment between stimulus and reaction. I can breathe in that moment. Which means I can choose in that moment. I don't have to fall back on the old habits.

It's hard. And it would be easy to see it as impossible. But just because it is hard doesn't mean we get a pass on trying. When it's something like our health we respond: don't we owe it to ourselves to do the same for our spiritual selves?  

I'll leave you with this story: The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked by a student, “Who is a good Jew?” The Rebbe replied, “Anyone who wants to be a good Jew.” The student look puzzled and asked, “Who wouldn’t want to be a good Jew?” The Rebbe replied, “That’s easy, someone who thinks he is a good Jew already.” and I would add, someone who doesn't believe they ever could be. May we yearn to change, Roland believe we can change, so that we can begin the effort to change in this season of change.

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