Narrowing the Gap + The Art of Stillness
Erev Rosh HaShana 2015–5776
Rabbi Joseph M. Forman
Shana Tova. Happy New Year. It is wonderful to see all of you tonight, and I hope that this New Year brings the blessings of health, of prosperity, and of purposeful living to us all.
As you probably know, the past few months at Or Chadash have been relatively quiet, as the summer season usually is. That gentler pace gives Cantor Kathy, Betsy, our leadership and me time to recharge ourselves and begin planning for the New Year.
What you might not realize is that as much as we appreciate the quieter days, we also miss the excitement of having you here, and so we look forward to having you back for the High Holy Days and our many fall programs. Welcome home. And welcome to all of you joining us for the first time.
As summer can provide an opportunity for us to relax and enjoy the outdoors, as I do, or spend time traveling, seeing new places or perhaps old friends, catching up on our bucket list, or our To-Do list, the High Holy Days are a time for something quite different. The words in our Machzor, our High Holy Day prayerbook, urge us to declare:
“Chadesh Aleinu Shana Tova – Renew us for a year of goodness.”
And indeed renewal is a vital goal for the New Year. And perhaps, for many of us, that is why we return to Or Chadash, to renew our spiritual life and to re-engage with our Jewish community and reconnect with the highest of our Jewish values.
But the New Year and these high holy days are meant to to be something more.
They are meant to jar us out of our normal way of going about living. The Book of Leviticus calls Rosh Hashanah Yom Teruah, a Day of Loud Blasts – not just to blow the shofar for the sake of ritual, but to be called to action by its sound.
The purpose of Rosh Hashanah is not to be restorative, but to be transformative. Rather then us seeing the New Year as a time to renew our spirits or imagine that the return to synagogue involvement is a chance to reacquaint ourselves with our sacred past, we are to mark these days that we might change; that we might better ourselves.
How often in the course of our lives do any of us harbor thoughts of what we might do had we the time, the strength, the freedom, the will, the opportunity?
Our tradition calls this self-reflection Cheshbon HaNefesh, taking an inventory or accounting of our very being. And when we look closely at ourselves, we might find that in some arena we are nowhere near the person we hope to be. We are not quite the parent or friend we wish we could be. We have not invested the time in doing the things we really want to do, being with the people who matter most to us, exerting the self-control we know a better us might have done. When we look critically at ourselves, we see all too readily that there is, for every one of us, a gap between who and what and how we are, and who and what and how we would like to be.
And what we need is not more time to achieve our goals, but time better spent focusing on where we ought to be headed. Like the suggestion on the hand-made scratch-off we sent to all of you: List the things that make you happy. List the things you do. Compare and adjust accordingly.
The Jewish New Year, then, offers us a gift. A challenge – yes; but a gift!
These days of awe – no longer meant to frighten us with divine judgment, are meant to inspire us to adjust our lives for the better. These days of awe can be a blessing that our tradition gives to us, really a blessing we give to ourselves to confront the reality of our lives, examine the places we know we have come up short, and then, with strength and purpose, narrow the gap between who we are now and who in the New Year we wish to be.
In his most recent book, the Road to Character, New York Times op Ed columnist and author David Brooks writes of this very task. He speaks of narrowing the gap between our ideal self and our actual self.
Brooks, poking a bit of fun at himself as a pundit and columnist, writes: “I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am.” (RTC, p. xiv).
And other than the getting paid for it part, he could be describing anyone of us who wishes to see ourselves as smarter, better, more confidant and authoritative than in truth we are. But he goes on to address the nature of human character in all its forms – sharing beautiful stories of the lives of others that at times reveal deficiencies of kindness, patience, love, and tolerance.
Our task, he reminds us, is to move the needle.
“Character is not innate nor automatic,” Brooks states. “You have to build it with effort and artistry. You can’t be the good person you want to be unless you wage this campaign [to better yourself].” (RTC, p. 12.)
But Brooks was not the first well-known Jewish writer to contemplate the nature of Character. In the 12th Century, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, born in Spain and then living in North Africa, wrote: “Do not imagine that character is determined at birth. We have been given free will. Any person can be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam. We ourselves decide whether to make ourselves learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly. No one forces us, no one decides for us, no one drags us along one path or the other; we ourselves, by our own volition, choose our own way.”
The scratch-off calendar everyone received for the New Year offered several activities to move us a bit closer to a better version of ourselves. One scratch-off suggested that we sorely lack the time to contemplate our own lives. These high holy days give us a fantastic excuse to be a little bit self-centered and encourage us to focus on ourselves – not just doing more of what we do, but examining what we do with the time we have.
So what prevents us from doing this on a regular basis? The British-born essayist and novelist, and now a TED-Talk speaker, Pico Iyer, gives one answer.
“The more ways we have to connect, the more we seem desperate to unplug. In our madly accelerating world, our lives are crowded, chaotic and noisy. We need permission to be still!”
In his book The Art of Stillness Pico Iyer goes on to say: “In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still. You can go on vacation to Paris or Hawaii or New Orleans three months from now, and you’ll have a tremendous time, I’m sure. But if you want to come back feeling new – alive and full of fresh hope and in love with the world – I think the place to visit may be nowhere.” (TAOS p66).
Stillness, he writes, is what we need to transform ourselves.
I can share my own experience with this, highlighted during my Bikram yoga practice. Over the course of 90 minutes in 105° heat, we engage in 26 poses. In-between each pose we rest, ideally, motionless. Savasana, literally “dead man’s pose”, is considered the most difficult posture to master. It’s less than a minute, and we are all hot and exhausted.
You would think it would be easy to not move. You would think after exercising in that heat and getting your heart racing, every one of us would lie still as a stone.
But no. Somehow, stillness is the most challenging of the poses. We cannot stop moving. Every tick, every need to wipe sweat from our brows, is indulged. And some cannot even be silent. They need to groan and whisper. Stillness, in far too many of us, is a lost art.
In the Book of Kings (I Kings 19:11-13) the prophet Elijah sought to experience the reality of God. The text tells us: Elijah stood on the mountain and felt the wind blow the rocks. He saw that God was not in the wind. And then the mountain shook, an earthquake; yet God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake, a fire. But God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice.
That quiet voice is the voice within each of us. We need to be still in order to hear it! We need to turn off the blowing of the wind, the shaking earth, the rattling noises, the burning desire to do every activity that work and school and friends and family and community propose to us.
We need – for our own sake – to hear the still small voice that can help us reach toward the divine that resides within ourselves.
And that is perhaps where the spiritual New Year, this Rosh Hashanah, finds purpose. Yes we sing and pray and stand and sit and listen to melodies historic and new. And yes, we declare tonight that the world is now 5776 years old, despite our awareness that in truth it is 4.5 billion years old and its origins are far more dramatic than the authors of Genesis could have conceived.
But tonight, as a sacred Kehillah, a holy congregation, united in our desire to give meaning to our time on this tiny planet, tonight we come together to be reminded that our sacred calling for the New Year is to transform ourselves.
How we go about this — that is ours to determine.
Whether we will succeed, is now our challenge.
And who shall join us in our struggle, those decisions remain our private ones.
But together, as a Jewish community, tonight we begin this journey to narrow the gap between the person we are and the one we hope to be, between the life we have today and the one we can imagine in our dreams. May this New Year find each of us, in stillness, moving closer to that ideal.