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It is Not Too Hard
Erev Yom Kippur • Yom Kippur Eve
September 29, 2017 • 10 Tishrei 5778
Rabbi Bridget Wynne
I sat with a group gathered around a dinner table. Each of us took a turn speaking briefly about an object we’d brought that helped remind us what really matters in life. When it was my turn, I pulled out a photograph. “This is my brother Adam when he was about 12 years old. He died when I was a young adult, after several years of illness.”
Why would this sad story remind me of what matters most? When my brother became ill and died, I lost someone important, close to my age, far earlier than any of my friends did. At a time when we were just starting our lives, I became painfully aware of how fragile life is, of how, unexpectedly, in a moment, everything can change.
I mourned my brother, who was a kind person with a great sense of humor. Eventually I also realized that his death probably jolted me into focusing on what really matters in life at an earlier age than I might have otherwise.
Illness, an accident, may bring the purpose of our lives into focus. But wouldn’t it be better to experience a sense of urgency, a reminder of the finitude of our lives, and be able to respond to it, without having to wait until we face the threat of loss?
Yom Kippur is meant to do exactly that, every year. It’s traditional to wear white this evening and tomorrow, like the plain shroud in which Jews are buried. Throughout the holiday we are asked to put aside the activities of our ordinary lives, and to refrain from what is most physical -- eating, drinking, bathing, sex. There is a Memorial, or Yizkor service, a time to remember those we’ve lost. And we read prayers about who will live and who will die in this New Year.
Our tradition is calling us to wake up, to realize that, though we don’t usually experience this reality, each of us, every day, lives on the precipice between life and death.
This is not meant to depress or frighten us. It is meant to remind us of what we can do, of the choices we do have, of our potential to make t’shuvah* –- and, that we do not know how long we have.
Psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross put it this way, "… when you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes easy to postpone … things; … when you fully understand that each day you awaken could be the last you have; you take the time that day to grow, to become more of who you really are, to reach out to other human beings.” (Death: the Key to the Door of Life)
If we are reminded of the urgency of living in accord with what matters most, that leads to the next step in the Yom Kippur message, which is perhaps even more challenging. How do we actually change?
Each year most of us make resolutions that sound similar to those of past years. To be more patient. To let the people we love know that we love them. To use our skills and our time to make a difference in the world.
Yet, as Mark Twain said, “It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it a thousand times.”
Resolving is simple. Actually changing is much harder.
Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher from about 1,000 years ago, described the challenge clearly. We can tell that we have made t’shuvah when, in identical circumstances, we behave differently.
This sort of change takes work: sustained, focused effort. Persistence despite setbacks. The prospect can be daunting. How do we begin to shift our deeply ingrained behaviors?
Fortunately, some of the rabbis of our tradition who faced this same challenge looked deeply into the workings of our inner selves –- what they called our souls. They developed a spiritual and ethical practice that can help us become better versions of the unique people we already are.
That practice is called Mussar.
Mussar teaches that we all have the same traits. Each of them exists along a continuum, from one extreme to another, such as from greed to generosity. Both ends of the continuum can be destructive. We can easily see how excessive greed can lead to all sorts of wrongdoing. Excessive generosity can also be a problem. It might lead us to give away so much that we cannot take care of ourselves.
Mussar does not call on us to get rid of any of our traits. Perhaps you’ve heard the slogan, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” Qualities that may sound negative, like anger, are crucial to act on as long as we choose to direct them in constructive ways.
Mussar asks us to examine where we fall on the continuum. Then it offers practices we can use to adjust our perspective and our behavior. Some of us might need to increase our generosity, so we can make a real difference in the world and in the lives of others. Others might need to decrease our generosity to help us have sufficient means to sustain our families and ourselves.
Besides offering us an understanding of what it calls "soul traits," Mussar teaches us to work on only one at a time. Any more is too much for real change to take place.
How do we do this? The key is that we cannot do it alone. Mussar offers us practices that create structures of support and accountability. Here are five brief examples:
First, you might select an encouraging text, song, or prayer to keep close to you, and to read or sing regularly as a reminder of your goal.
Second, you might write down, each day, the times when the trait you are working on came up, and how you chose to act on it. This practice often works best if you attach it a daily routine, such as every evening when you brush your teeth.
Third, you might make a physical change that draws your attention. One person moves his wedding ring to a different finger each day. It feels strange, and that draws his focus to the trait he is working on.
Fourth, you might arrange to have a Mussar buddy you speak with regularly so each of you can share your progress and problem solve with one another.
Finally, meditation of various sorts is another important Mussar practice.
We at Jewish Gateways also offer activities of many sorts to help one another to wake up, again and again. The dinner I described a few minutes ago, at which each of us shared an object that that reminds us of what really matters, was one of our Friday evening Shabbat celebrations.
On Yom Kippur, our tradition reminds us, in concrete ways, of the urgency of living the lives we mean to. It acknowledges how hard it is to carry that awareness into our ordinary lives. It offers us the spiritual and ethical practice of Mussar, that teaches us to value each of our traits, to focus on one change at a time, and to draw on its practices to create support and accountability.
Tomorrow, at the Yizkor service, I will remember my brother, and the far-too-brief time we had together.
For now, thinking back on the teachings I have shared this evening, I acknowledge that it is hard to stay awake, it is hard to change -- but our tradition reminds us that it is not too hard.
I close now with the beautiful words of encouragement that we will read from the Torah tomorrow.
"Surely, the teachings I give you this day are not too hard for you. They are not beyond reach, not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who can go up to the heavens and get them for us, so we may do them?' They are not beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who can cross the sea and get them for us, so we may do them?' No, these teachings are very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, and you can do them.” (Deuteronomy 30:11–14).
* T'shuvah is a core task of the High Holidays. This Hebrew word means return, turn, and response. We might "make t'shuvah" by returning to our best selves, our deepest values, the Source of Life, those we love, those from whom we have become estranged, our tradition, and more. We might turn to live in a different way -- with greater compassion, with the courage to work for justice ... We might choose to respond to people or circumstances with greater patience, or determination ...