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Letting Go, Choosing Life

Erev Yom Kippur • Yom Kippur Eve

October 11, 2016 • 10 Tishrei 5777

Rabbi Bridget Wynne


If only I'd taken that job...

If only I’d visited him more when he was sick …

If only my parents had been different…

If only I'd married someone different...

If only I'd known then what I know now...


We’ve all been here, haven’t we? Wishing we could rewrite the past, go back and change decisions we made, perhaps even the family we were born into or the person we were born as.


It’s understandable. We want to free ourselves from pain -- over losses, hurts, dreams unfulfilled, not having lived up to our own or others’ expectations … So we imagine how much better life would be if we had made different choices, or hadn't been dealt a particular hand of cards. We think about the “if onlys,” yearning for a different past that would have led to a less painful present.


Besides “if onlys” about the past, there are the stories we tell ourselves about other people.


If only I had a job like his

If only my children were successful like theirs

If only I’d bought my house at the right time, like she did

If only I was as healthy, attractive, wealthy as they are

If only my life was as easy, carefree, happy as theirs


The New Year is a perfect time for these thoughts, since it invites us to reflect on our lives: how they could be different, how they could be better.


I’ve had my share of these fantasies, but they have never changed my past, or my present. In fact, trying to free ourselves from today’s burdens through dreams of a better past, or of living someone else’s life, can trap us in a cycle of anger, jealousy, guilt, and self-recrimination that distracts us from changing what is or will be.


What might we do instead? I want to share two teachings with you this evening: letting go, and choosing life. First, letting go. We can pay attention to the “if only” stories we habitually tell ourselves, looking to see whether any of them serve us. Then, we can consider letting go of those that are not helpful. That could mean facing the pain, the loss, the hardships that the stories are meant to take away, but chances are that they weren’t a cure anyway.


We turn to face what is painful in our lives not to make ourselves miserable, but to acknowledge what is, and to let go of the anger, judgment, and self-loathing we may have carried along with the fantasies of “what if.”


Here is how poet Alfred Huffstickler describes it:


… Let the pain be pain

Not in the hope it will vanish

But in the faith that it will fit in,

And be then not any less pain but true to form.


Because anything natural has an

inherent shape and will flow towards it.

And a life is as natural as a leaf.

That’s what we’re looking for:

not the end of a thing

but the shape of it.


Wisdom is seeing the shape of your life without

Obliterating, getting over, a

Single instant of it. *


Accepting the reality of the difficulties in our lives, we can then choose, if we wish, to seek acknowledgement and comfort for them. We can work with what is, and what comes next.


Letting go of “what ifs” can help make room for the second teaching I want to share, choosing life.


I bet you’ve heard the Jewish way of offering a toast, “l’chaim,” “to life.” It’s so simple and familiar that I rarely think about it, but the words we read from the Torah on Yom Kippur morning, bring it into focus. They describe how the Israelites, our spiritual ancestors, stood together at Mount Sinai, a few months after fleeing slavery in Egypt, to receive the teachings that would help them build a new community.


“You stand here, all of you, today, before the Holy One … heads of tribes, elders, officials, men, women, children, even the strangers within your camp, from those who chop wood to those who draw water … [and] I, [the Holy One] have put before you life and death … choose life, that you and those who come after you may live …” **


Is our tradition telling us to decide whether to live or die? No, it is affirming that every choice we make matters. These choices range from how we treat our loved ones to how we spend money; from how we define success to the ways we respond when we see others being hurt, from how we choose our food to how we remind ourselves of our deepest values.


What do these decisions have to do with choosing life or death? Listen again to the end of that quote: “choose life, that you and those who come after you may live …” Every choice our ancestors made, every choice we make, has an impact not only on us, but on others, and on our world. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” ***


Letting go … of the “what if” stories we tell ourselves, of the hope that these stories will take away our pain, turning, instead to find our place in the network of mutuality, to weave our lives, choice by choice, into that single garment of destiny.  


Our ancestors stood together at Mount Sinai and heard the call. Today and tomorrow, we are here, together, to reflect on the stories we will let go of, the choices we will make, so that when we say, "l’chaim," we will know what we mean, and how each of us, in this New Year, will choose life.


* The Cure, from “Wanda” Walking Wounded

** Deuteronomy 29:9-10; 31:19

*** Letter from a Birmingham Jail


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