The Life You are Meant to Live or discovering my very best self
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5778
My father in law passed away exactly one year ago. He had a life that was dotted with crazy antics, stories, and wild adventures, one of which was his desire to plan a 40th birthday 'funeral' for himself, complete with a pre-written obituary, and invitations set to send from an imaginary posthumous state. He thought it would be fun to hear what people would say about him, before it was too late to really hear.
This was funny, and quite a bit maudlin, true. But don't we all crave on some level to have an understanding of 'how we're doing' in this lifetime – maybe have the chance to press pause, change the disc, and reroute our destination if need be?
So, to begin with a true story, imagine the shock of Alfred Nobel, of Nobel Prize fame, when upon the passing of his brother Ludwig, sat in front of a newspaper to read his brother's obituary, and stared wide-eyed when he realized that what he was reading, was mistakenly written about him instead. He was actually reading his own obituary. And what he read, that he was the "doctor of dynamite, the merchant of death", shifted the trajectory of the rest of history. He wasn't a bad man, certainly not a doctor of death, he was a Swedish chemist and engineer, an iron and steel manufacturer, and holder of the patent for dynamite.
This uncanny turn of events caused him to peer through a window into his own legacy, the merchant of death? Of all his accomplishments, the businesses he started, the investments he nurtured, he would be known for masterminding murder. Following his brother's death, he decided to leave his massive fortune to do good, reward innovation that furthered the pursuit of peace, and for choosing life. A door of opportunity opened for him to make change -- and he did! We are all familiar with his name – and the legacy he eventually chose to leave.
It's the Jewish new year, if I stopped right now, you'd get the point of the story: Am I living a life of purpose, with relationships that are deep and meaningful, am I living the life I'm meant to live? And if I'm not, can I change? Is there still time to become my very best self?
The phrase we say, Shana Tovah, you say it so much you might not even really consider the relevance to its translation. Tov means good, so shana must mean... year. Have a good year. But shana is from the Hebrew verb l'shanot, to change, or better yet, l'hishtanot, to change yourself. We are supposed to change each year, we are meant, dare I say, expected, to evolve throughout our life and deepen the richness of our experiences as we journey along -- which is why we reward ourselves and encourage others by truly greeting each other with our wishes for them to have a 'good change'.
What if you don't want to change – that you are healthy, successful, happy with your lot? We'd say 'beautiful', but Judaism would also challenge you, and say that we are all obligated to maximize the gift of our lives by continuing to learn, study, evolve, and to contribute meaningfully to the world. So yes, you can be happy, but you still need to change.
But … it's hard to change, and to break a habit, even the negative ones, is truly difficult. We are willing to cling white-knuckled to our most destructive and annoying habits...it's human nature. But just because change is hard, does that mean we throw our hands into the air in despair and shrug - saying there's nothing I can do!
If I carry all of these burdens on my shoulders, you might say, how can I shed them and reveal my inner light, to discover the life I truly am meant to live. When the routines that trap us have to do with food, money, anger, self-image, chemical dependency, or relationships that are empty and emotionally draining - we can still shift what we want to change into something positive. And it's not just me that says so, the rabbis say so.
Without a doubt, Jewish tradition teaches us that we can change until the very last breath we take. In Hebrew, breath and soul are the same word, neshama, the soul that we are given needs to be tapped into to unlock our very best self. So Judaism gives us three principles to strengthen our resolve to make the change we want in our lives. But how do we get there, and what is it that prevents us from opening our imagination and talents?
Habits. They are deeply engrained and very hard to change.
When it comes to change, I want to first teach you another Hebrew word: heirgel.... habit.
The Sfat Emet teaches: "the opposite of habit is renewal." Your habits can make you into a rigid, fixed vessel... When you live in habitual ways, you cannot perceive or feel what is new. Habits lock you into perceiving only what you have always perceived. In order to perceive new things, you must change your habitual ways. " So change is rebirth and renewal.
First principle, change the way we behave.
Let's look to the Torah, when Moses turns his gaze aside to look at the burning bush, God tells him to "take your shoes off your feet, the place you are standing on is holy ground" (Ex 3:5) The Hebrew word for shoe is na'al, constructed from the same root as the word lock. This is the derivative of our word for the closing service on Yom Kippur, which we call neilah. Remember there is a relationship between shoes and locks.
Now look at the word for foot, regel, sharing the root heirgel, habit. God, instructing Moses to take his shoes off his feet, is simultaneously asking him to 'take the locks off your habits'. Moses is being prepared to receive divine instruction to free his people from slavery, and the statement of preparation by God is to first 'unlock your habits'. Before he could unlock the Israelites from their chains, he had to physically change something in himself.
If what we learned from the Sfat Emet is true, that the opposite of habit is renewal, then literally the key to a change of perception is to unlock old habits. Chasidic thought paints a picture of Egypt, mitzrayim, as representative of a place where there is no ability to perceive newness, the word mitzrayim means a tight, narrow place. To be locked in a world of unchanging darkness is the punishment. No freedoms, no sense of light or creativity, or love. Upon leaving Egypt, God gave the Israelites the gift of being able to perceive newness and light, what we call renewal - that's the sense of 'return' that we sing about during this time of year.
Second principle, change the way we think.
The great medieval philosopher Maimonides, a self-proclaimed workaholic, physician to the Sultan by day, Jewish scholar by night, spoke at length to this. He taught that all of our character traits, the good AND the bad are shaped by frequent repetition. We know this from experience, Rmbm is not telling me to ignore my habitual sweet tooth or pretend that I don't secretly want to binge-watch "Game of Thrones", he simply suggests they get replaced with better habits. Over time, the repetition of an action, day by day, changes the internal balance of your desires and emotions, and begins to fundamentally change who you are, how you think and what you want.
He offers an example of how changing what we do can change how we think: Positive behaviors are not acquired by doing a few great acts, but rather the repetition of many smaller ones. For example, giving a thousand gold coins to one charity is wonderful, but it will not develop the trait of generosity, since it is a one-time occurrence, but giving one gold coin to a thousand different charities will. You see, it's about repeating the positive to change how you think.
In the book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg agrees that no one is condemned to a habit forever, our habits do not define our destiny. Once we unlock our habits, and pinpoint the rewards that we receive from these habits, we can begin to let go and grow. (which is our true purpose in this life) Some common rewards that we seek are love, companionship, approval, and a sense of purpose. Those are beautiful rewards. Let's not punish ourselves for trying to attain them – let's re-route our path and find a different method.
The rabbis teach that the two most important days of your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why. We all need self-reflective opportunities to contemplate what holds meaning for us, so that we can adapt our lives to reflect those priorities. That is a life of meaning.
Third principle, find yourself.
Sometimes our sense of purpose is hidden, and we need to cull through the noise of our daily life to find it. Some of you already have daily rituals built into your day to encourage self-examination for this very purpose. Some of you find rich mindfulness in a regular walk on the beach, or watching the moon at night as it waxes and wanes in the sky, some may meditate in a class, and some have their best insights come during the inner stillness on a golf course. Our lives crave a spiritual practice, my good friend Reverand Lea Brown reminds me that we are all spiritual beings having a human experience. For me, my spiritual practice is prayer. The repetitive action of a prayer ritual can help us settle into a practice of self-reflection, figuring it out by doing– so we can find ourselves amidst the noise and be our best selves?
Judaism's formalized prayer rituals give us an insight into the psychology of repetition. Traditional prayer practice occurs three times a day, imagine what can root itself within you by the discipline of ensuring a time and place for a period of reflection each day. A time where you simply and exquisitely pay attention to your experience. I know that many of you don't relate to prayer, because so many of you have told us your stories of prayer leaving you empty, or situations where you felt like an outsider. But I have seen your faces when we sing together, I can see the light in your eyes, and the glimmer of something touching you inside. Prayer has changed you! Don't shut yourself off to that – it tells you that you are alive and growing inside. And yes, if you think 'prayer' is for 'religious people' - than good for you, then we are all religious together. Because doing something religiously means that it is a regular practice.
Believe me, I don't pray three times a day, but I can appreciate the wisdom that it suggests. The act of daily rituals are designed to tune ourselves in to the wonder of what we consider ordinary, to find what we tend to take for granted as truly precious. In that mindful space of awareness and appreciation, we gain clarity about the changes we want to make -- The habit of Prayer, truly ANY form of self-reflection, is the great medium, which our tradition gave to man by means of which he can change himself.
I deeply believe that each one of us has a unique destiny, a 'very best self'. And while I don't know what yours is, I do know that until we chip away habits that limit our minds and opportunities, we can't blossom into the brilliant creative souls that we are meant to be.
So remember the three principles: we've unlocked our habits, we've changed the way we think, and we've carved time for reflection and honesty.
But there's a secret fourth principal: LOVE yourself first – and forgive yourself.
That's the message of this holiday, forgiveness and moving forward. Forgive yourself for a habit or a belief or a friendship that should have been let go of long ago. Forgive yourself and allow yourself to be the person you were meant to be. And then believe it. You don't have to be held back by a label that you yourself, or someone else gave you, it needn't define you, you're not too shy or weak or passive to go out and live the life you were meant to live.
We are all the pieces of our habits, but we are more. We are also all of our potential and hopes and dreams. And just because that was a piece of our life, doesn't mean that it is all of our life. Judaism breathes new possibility into our psyche every year because we forget that we CAN leave a cycle that isn't healthy for us, and CAN change the course of our future. There is support for us, there is love, there are people who believe in you, and will support that change to continue. You are not who you were yesterday. Our God fills us with light and love and possibility and the universal encouragement to change, to change safely and to change well. THAT is a shana tovah, a good change. You can be your best self, and fulfill the life you were meant to live.
I'd like to leave you with a story about the daughter of Rabbi Daniel Cohen, who designed a ritual for her ongoing gratitude and happiness. Every night before she goes to sleep, she writes down one thing she is grateful for, but she makes a point to have it be something different each day so that consciously, she is training herself to find new blessings in her life that she never realized she had before. So why do I mention this while talking about habits? When asked how many she was up to, her answer? 770, and every night before she goes to sleep, she reads 50 of them. How can she not be grateful?
I started my list two days ago, when will you start yours?
I am light, I am light (2x)
I am not the things my family did, I am not the voices in my head,
I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside, I am light. I am light.
I am light, I am light (2x)
I'm not the mistakes that I have made,
Or any of the things that caused me pain
I am not the pieces of the dream I left behind, I am light. I am light.