Yom Kippur Day 5771
"When Everything Changes"
"When Everything Changes"
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
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Last week I spoke about how to deal with a chaotic world that seems to be spinning increasingly out of control. We’ve talked about some of the keys to dealing with this increasingly complicated world, including love, discipline and the need to structure our time.
Today we take another tack in dealing with the craziness, and in particular the accelerated pace of change. How do we cope when everything suddenly changes overnight? When black turns to white. When newspapers and books disappear. When jobs disappear. When loved ones get sick or die. When worlds come crashing down. The ability to adapt to change has become the basic survival skill of our generation.
This is also the question of the High Holidays. How do we deal with change? And this is as good a year as any to ask that question. There have been a number of changes here, some major, some less so. Each change has its own ripple effect. We stand when we used to sit and sit when we used to stand. The rabbi has a new kipah and the cantor uses a guitar. A new machzor means new translations and readings as well as adjustments in page numbers. We say goodbye to “xenophobia,” and “Our Father Our King,” even though the Hebrew words are mostly the same. And this year we’ve rearranged the honors, resulting in fewer ark openings.
Change, change, change. It’s no wonder that Woodrow Wilson once said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” But I think if President Wilson had been sitting here over the past ten days, he would think differently.
Teshuvah is supposed to reawaken something in ourselves, enabling us to create something new and beautiful, to see the old with new eyes, to encounter the old in new ways. To change.
That’s never easy. But it is so necessary. The old adage “Change is inevitable - except from a vending machine” no longer holds true. It’s more than inevitable now, and vending machines take credit cards. But when we can get our arms around the change, no matter how unwelcome it is, then we embrace life, and we enhance our potential to make a difference as human beings.
Every breath brings about change. It is said that the average adult takes between 12-16 breaths in a given minute, which translates to about 20,000 per day. And where does that precious breath come from? We get half our oxygen from trees, so you can thank a tree when you leave here today. And the other half, I am told, comes from plankton located far below the surface of the deep, in places like Long Island Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. We are seriously connected to those little guys. There is a flow of life, one living thing connected to the other. Every day of our lives, while asleep and awake, as the force of life is flowing though us, our hearts beat, 72 times per minute. Between 50 and 70 billion cells die each day on every human adult. So you think things don’t change? We’re changing dramatically by the second.
What’s a new machzor, when we’re replacing 70 billion cells a day?
When I was on the Island of Rhodes this summer, I saw a potter at his wheel. It was one of those side excursions they add to tours to give us a chance to buy at factory rates. But this was no factory, it was a studio, and after I had finished annoying people with puns about Grecian urns, I took a look at the potter – and I was astounded at how quickly a lump of clay became a beautifully shaped vase – less than a minute. A little touch here, a little there, and it was complete. And then, just like that, demonstration over, he took some wire in both hands and sliced the vase right down the middle like it was a piece of cheese, and both sides collapsed and it was smushed it into a lump again.
We read in last night’s liturgy that we are like clay in the hands of the potter. Constantly changing shape. Continually on a journey toward completion, but never quite getting there. One minute almost whole, the next, a clump of clay and we start all over.
That lovely piyyut also states that we are glass in the hands of the glassblower. God breathes life into us just as the blower shapes the glass – that divine breath is called Neshama. In Kabbalistic lore, that breath then takes a more human form in our bodies, invigorating us with life. The breath that we then exhale, projecting it back out into the world is called nefesh. The give and take of God’s breath and our own, neshama and nefesh, bespeak a very dynamic way of being human.
For we really aren’t human beings. We are human becomings. We are constantly evolving and growing. Evolving, growing and connecting to everything around us. There’s a little bit of each of us in that plankton and in that tree, and certainly in one another, and in every human being on this planet.
This year, the film Avatar captured perfectly this sense of our sacred connection with all creation, the trees living in harmony with those super evolved blue human-like creatures. The film resonates authentically with Jewish beliefs. And with three billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales, I think it’s a safe guess that it’s resonating out there as well.
Kids today are much more prepared then the rest of us to embrace rapid change. The ten year olds among us have seen more technological change in a decade than our great grandparents saw in an entire lifetime.
This is reflected in that latest fad that seems to have only intensified over the summer, Silly Bandz. Talk about trendy! I gave out dozens of Jewish ones to kids last week and when I came into the Hebrew School classrooms with it was as if Justin Bieber had just entered the room, with Miley Cyrus on his arm. So what’s so popular about them? They shape shift when you put them on your arm. And it’s the shape-shifting aspect of Silly Bandz that I find the most attractive to this elusive, perplexing, altogether strange new generation that we are producing, these post-millennials whose identities seem forever to be shifting like the shapes of the bands they now wear. Online transformations occur instantly. Doctor a photo. Invent a relationship. Create a whole past. For contemporary teens, perpetual transformation has become routine. Maybe that’s why vampires are so hot right now, even for adults.
Thoreau wrote: “Things do not change; we change.”
George Bernard Shaw said: “The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.”
Everything is constantly changing.
Judaism changes too. And it must. The answers that held true a few decades ago are often irrelevant in today’s context. People have made so much of the challenges of the Conservative movement. There is talk about changing the name. We shouldn’t fear that. “Conservative” doesn’t work anymore. Rather than conserving Jewish traditions, we should be breathing new life into them. That’s how you conserve things – by helping them to change. That’s why they call them MOVEMENTS. Because they MOVE.
We’ve taken that to heart here, in any number of ways. We know that we need to be more inclusive of interfaith families than Conservative shuls have been historically. We’ve done that. We know that we can’t expect people to come looking for us, the way Jews used to automatically join synagogues. We have to go out and find them. We have to make the case. We know we provide something that people need; we just have to convince them of that. What we provide here has to be authentic but refreshing, comforting yet absolutely compelling. It’s a very different world out there – synagogues need to change in order to survive. And we have.
Religion isn’t about preserving fossils. It’s not about staying the same. Each of us must adapt in order to grow. It is religion’s job to help us do that, to empower us to deal with change, to give us the sense of security and grounding to go out into the world and to change it. To take that first step into the Red Sea, as an unknown Israelite named Nachshon is said to have done –the midrash has it that he walked in up to his neck and only then did the sea split. Religion gives us comfort, but it also helps us to stake out our place in this swiftly changing world. Its job is to remove us from our comfort zone, so that we will snap to life – so that we will take advantage of every minute of precious life that we have.
So the little secret is now out: Judaism has a bias toward change. Yes, there are things that remain constant. We need an anchor. Some things never change. The Mets, for instance (sorry). And in Judaism, we have an eternal covenant with God – but while the Torah is unchanging and canonical, its interpretation always changes. The words stay the same, but the meanings revolve around them. They ebb and they flow.
Matzah doesn’t change. That’s absolutely true. Put matzah in a time capsule and fifty years later open it up, it will taste exactly the same. Yet Matzah is never left alone on the Seder table. It is constantly being challenged for attention by the wine. And wine is the very symbol of change, of fermentation. Lift the wine, cover the mitzvah, empty the cup, lift the matzah. It’s a game. And it seems like a level playing field. Except that at the end of the Seder the matzah’s all gone and only the wine remains. Once the last crumb of the afikoman has disappeared, we’ve still got two cups of wine to go. And then we add one for good measure for Elijah. The wine wins. Change wins.
And in the Sh’ma, in that second paragraph, where it talks about the connection between morality and our environment, three types of produce are mentioned, and all are symbols of transformation. Dagancha, v’tiroshcha v’yitzharecha. Wine, grain and olive oil.
The olive is like the Jewish people. The more you crush it, the more refined and valuable it becomes. The oil of the menorah transforms darkness to light. Olive oil, when poured on the head of a commoner can transform him into a king. When poured on the head of a leper, he was welcomed back into the community of the living. And the olive branch symbolizes the ultimate transformation that we all await – a world at peace.
Grapes also symbolize transformation. In ancient times on Yom Kippur afternoon, young girls would dance in the vineyards and find husbands for themselves. Just as grapes transform into wine, wine’s impact on the drinker is also instantly transformational. You would think that the rabbis would be suspicious of wine, but as I said, Judaism has a bias for change. The book of Judges states that “wine brings joy to God and man.” And what would Shabbat be without wine? Grapes have their own special blessing – boray pri hagafen. No other food can boast that.
The blessing over bread, meanwhile, is the one used for the entire meal, the motzi. As we say that blessing, we understand that the grain has undergone massive transformation from the time it is planted to the moment it appears on our table, through the divine human partnership.
It is interesting that these three agents of change, found in the Sh’ma, also appear on the Shabbat table. The wine, the hallah and the candles. All come from products vital to sustaining life.
It is interesting that these three agents of change, found in the Sh’ma, also appear on the Shabbat table. The wine, the hallah and the candles. All come from products vital to sustaining life.
And that verse from the Sh’ma also appears in the mezuzah, at the entrance to every Jewish home. It’s as if our homes themselves are agents of change – and wherever we turn, we are being told to embrace it. And pray that God will protect us on life’s incredible journey.
Judaism indeed has a bias for change.
Judaism indeed has a bias for change.
Even God has evolved, at least our conception of God; it’s shifted dramatically from the warrior sky God of the Bible to the Rabbis’ concept of ha-Rachaman – the womblike embodiment of love. This is also, by the way a Muslim name for God. Maimonides looked to reasoned Aristotelian thought for his God, while the Kabbalists added a sense of balance, of yin and yang, to their mystical eroticism. Art Green, whose new book, “Radical Judaism,” I’ve been citing this week, writes, “The Oneness of God, for the Kabbalists, is dynamic and flowing rather than static and unmoved.” God is flowing, emanating, unfolding, and so is Creation.
God is, in fact, breath itself - the life force embodied in breath. We actually have a prayer that says just that. NIshmat Kol Chai tevarech et shimcha Adonai Eloheynu. All who breathe praise You. To breathe is to testify to the march of life, the gift of constantly becoming, constantly growing. Even God’s very name mimics the act of breathing. Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey. Pronounce it and you get the sound of breath. It’s no accident. God is found in that flow of life, in the process of change, and we are created in God’s image. Kol Haneshama t’halelya halleluyah says Psalm 150. The mere act of breathing is a prayer.
I’ve had a renewed fascination with Darwin lately – partly because of the attention given last year’s 150th anniversary of his birth. Given the newest discoveries in DNA research, his theories on evolution have now been nearly universally accepted by the scientific community. The pope has even given his hechsher. The evidence of our evolutionary ancestry is written all over the human genome. Intelligent Design has been discredited – notably in trials in Pennsylvania and Ohio. But that doesn’t mean God is out of the picture.
There are those who are very concerned that accepting Darwin’s notion that humanity is an accident of nature would be a bad thing for morality. They claim that if you teach kids that they are evolved from apes they are going to behave like murderous animals.
Prof Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown and bestselling author, disagrees with the Creationists on this. The core of their argument is that evolution is driven by mistakes. And it’s true that evolution is driven by mutation. “But imagine an organism that never made these mistakes,” Miller says. “We think of mistakes as being bad, but if you have no mistakes, you have no mutation, you have no evolution.
What’s going to happen to an organism that replicates its DNA perfectly every time? It’s not going to survive. So by what standard are we calling these mistakes?”
In evolution, perfection is the road to extinction. The path to survival is the path of growth, of change, of shattered patterns.
Maybe evolution is not a mistake of nature, Miller suggests. Maybe it is, in effect, the “design” of nature. The way nature is supposed to work. Somehow, and we don’t know how, something happened that drove that first amphibian to take a big gulp of air and climb ashore. Somehow, at some point, something drove that first bird to flap its wings and soar. Somehow, at some point, a pair of chromosomes melded together – we know which ones they are, marking the evolution from ape to human. Maybe it was random, maybe it wasn’t, but either way, one can easily fit a model of God into this scenario, not a God who micromanages every detail of the universe, but who created a process of flow and change that we call evolution, which reflects the will of the Creator.
One could easily make the claim that evolution is simply teshuvah writ large. Just as we make mistakes and grow from them, so does DNA. So does the universe. So does God.
I think Einstein would agree. The universe, like Judaism, has a bias for change.
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote the following after a trial where the Kansas Board of Education tried to impose anti-evolution curricula on classrooms - and lost.
He wrote: “How ridiculous to make evolution the enemy of God. What could be more elegant, more simple, more brilliant, more economical, more creative, indeed more divine than a planet with millions of life forms, distinct and yet interactive, all ultimately derived from accumulated variations in a single double-stranded molecule, pliable and fecund enough to give us mollusks and mice, Newton and Einstein? Even if it did give us the Kansas State Board of Education, too.”
The God I believe in is a God of change. Our lives are governed not by stagnancy but by flow. The only constant is change, and we need to adapt, constantly adapt to it. We need to Grow with the Flow. Like nature itself, we are not perfect. We make mistakes. But perfection is the road to extinction. When we become perfect someday, we’ll all have become robots. Perfection is not a goal to aim for; it is an illusion to dispel.
I love you. You’re perfect. Now change!
Perfection in fact is measured BY the ABILITY to change, to adapt, to learn from our mistakes, to shed old skins, to put on a new yarmulke from time to time, to heal after a catastrophe. As Reb Nachman said, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” Perfection is all about growing and not stopping until the moment we stop breathing.
Rabbi Dayle Friedman writes about someone who took that idea quite literally.
“As a spiritual caregiver to elders, I have often wondered if it is ever too late for forgiveness. Sam and his son and daughter-in-law, Irv and Deborah, taught me that forgiveness is possible until we draw our very last breath.
In the 30 years Deborah and Irv had been married, Sam never gave Deborah a break.
Imperious and harshly critical, Sam never acknowledged Deborah as a loving wife and mother. He never thanked her for shopping for him, for taking him to the doctor, or for remembering his birthdays. Now 95 and still crusty but worn out, Sam lay dying in the hospital.
Deborah and Irv were at Sam’s bedside when I arrived. I offered Sam an opportunity to say Viddui, the traditional Jewish deathbed confessional prayer. “You know I don’t believe in God, Rabbi,” Sam replied. I said, “Sam, I think this prayer is really an opportunity to talk to one another as much as to God. Maybe there are things that you, Irv, and Deborah would like to say in this last part of your lives together.”
Deborah went first. “Pop, I love you, I always have.” Irv stroked Sam’s hair and said, “Pop, I love you. I’m going to really miss you.”
With tears in his eyes, Sam turned to Deborah: “You know, I’ve been really hard on you. You have been good to me. I love you.” Deborah, crying now, too, replied, “I know you do, Pop. I forgive you.”
Together, we recited the Shema.”
The Sh’ma – the perfect transitional and transformational prayer. The one that helps us mark the change from evening to morning, from past to future, from lying down to rising up, from home to away, from childhood to Bar Mitzvah to parenthood, from life to death, from comfort to martyrdom, from periphery to witness, and all by uttering the name of God, Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey – the name that is breath, the One that is One, proclaiming that all life is, in fact one – as long as we are breathing. You WILL Love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. B’kchol nafshecha – with all your nefesh. As we learned before, that word nefesh means more than soul. It is that sacred breath of life, breathed into us by God, which we breathe back out into the world. To breathe is to testify to the gift of being alive, of constantly becoming, constantly growing.
The Psalmist exclaims, “Lo Amut Ki Echyeh” – I shall not die but LIVE, and declare the works of the Lord.
Tradition has it that this Psalm (118) was written at the shores of Red Sea, at the place where it appeared life would hit a dead end. Before Nachson made his leap into the water as the Egyptians closed in. Lo Amut ki echyeh! That must have been what the first amphibian said when it took the first step OUT of the water. “That’s one small step for a frog. One giant leap for the God’s unfolding, mutating plan.”
I’ve been speaking a lot this week about various journeys I’ve taken recently, in particular the trip to Poland last April, with the March of the Living and our local Kulanu group. Several of stories I’ve recounted have appeared before, as I’ve spoken and written about the trip quite a bit. But there is one story that I have not yet recounted until right now. I do so today with great trepidation.
Just two hours after my first visit Auschwitz, I nearly died of suffocation. Two hours earlier, I had set foot for the first time into the gas chambers, struggling to imagine what it must have felt like to stand there a generation ago, how I would have responded if crammed alongside a thousand others denied of breath. My eyes were transfixed by the victims’ scratch marks that can still be seen on the walls.
Still shaken from that close encounter with genocidal asphyxiation, two hours later, at dinner in Krakow, a soup crouton, no bigger than a pea - about the size of a pellet of Zyklon B - somehow got lodged in my trachea. For what seemed like an eternity, I couldn’t breathe.
The world was filled with clogged air passages that week. The group’s flight from New York to Krakow was delayed because of thick fog over Poland – the same fog that took the life of Poland’s president the next day. And the following week we left Warsaw for Israel just as the airways of Europe were being choked by the Icelandic ash cloud.
In the midst of a large hall filled with hundreds of teenagers, the adults in our group sat at a long table for an impromptu staff meeting, a fortunate thing since our staff included two physicians. I came back from the food line with a bowl of vegetable soup, being sure to sprinkle a couple of spoonfuls of soup nuts on top – the Israeli kind that I’ve always loved. A few gulps in, I felt something not quite right in the back of my throat. When a gulp of water didn’t clear up the problem, I began to get concerned. A few seconds later, I could feel the crouton slide an inch or two and my air passage was blocked.
I stood and began shaking my head. Someone near me asked me to try to breathe, but all I could do was let out a seal-like bark, loud enough to startle everyone, I think in the entire room, perhaps in all of Krakow. One of the doctors came up behind me, wrapped his arms around my diaphragm and pumped hard. I felt some air squeeze out, but the Heimlich didn’t work.
“Some air is getting in,” cried the other doctor, who was sitting across the table. “You’re going to be OK.”
I didn’t believe it. Frankly, I’m not sure what I believed at that moment. I’d be lying if I said I thought about the irony of choking HERE, in Zyklon’s backyard. I didn’t see how people were reacting around me. All I knew was that my mouth was wide open, my face a contorted Scream mask, but no air was getting in.
My time was running out.
I mentally clutched every molecule of oxygen still in me and begin to feel the compulsion to breathe again.
“Try to breathe” is what I heard. I did. Another deathly croak.
“Some air is getting through!” I heard the doctor, but began to feel dizzy and a full panic set in. Not here. Not now. Don’t black out!
The doctor behind me attempted one more Heimlich thrust. Hard.
I felt a whoosh. Something moved inside. It was the soup nut.
I sucked in my most significant breath since birth, the last time a doctor had slapped some air into me. I breathed in Neshama. I breathed out Nefesh.
And we all continued with our dinner.
Analogies are dangerous and I would never claim to have nearly become victim 6 million and one. I was no near-martyr, no Akiva or Anne Frank, just an unlucky swallower, one fortunate enough to have doctors around who were trying to save me rather than kill me.
But I will now be able to convey the martyr’s story with a unique empathy. The terror of dying by asphyxiation is one that I can now begin to understand. The horror of being cruelly stripped of all humanity: that is something I’ll never comprehend.
Ten days later, our plane home from Israel took a circuitous, southern route to avoid ingesting that volcanic cloud of Icelandic ash. Somewhere over France, I set my iPod to shuffle and up popped John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders.”
Corniest song ever written.
But maybe it was the lilting music, the lyrics or recalling Denver’s own untimely demise; it all suddenly hit me: the crematorium and the crouton, the overwhelming beauty and fragility of life, the enormity of what had nearly happened, my family still intact, it all took my breath away.
I cried some muffled tears, collected myself, and breathed deeply.
Did that incident change me? Well, I’ve stopped eating those croutons. I am very careful when I eat – at times I almost feeling like saying tfillat haderech ( the traveler’s prayer), for every bite of food that goes in.
As of today I’ve taken about three and a quarter million breaths since the one that seemed like it would be my last. My heart has thumped about 700,000 times and 9.6 trillion cells have been replenished in my body. Now, for the rest of my days, I’ll be doing literally what the Jewish people have been doing for the past 65 years: measuring my life by the number of breaths taken since Auschwitz.
It has changed me. I smile more. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I get angry less. And I thank God every day for the gift of being alive – and the chance to grow some more.
I know that so many of you are suffering out there, victims of these tumultuous times, or simply casualties of time itself. I hope you can gain some comfort from these words. And from the words of the Sh’ma, which is our greatest prayer for a reason. It is a prayer that has withstood the winds of relentless change over the centuries. Because it contains within it the source of those very winds – the breath of Life itself, the nefesh, and all the tools we need to cope with it, the grain, the wine and the oil.
On this Yom Kippur, I thank my lucky plankton for each of the three and a quarter million breaths I’ve breathed since last April. We turn to the Sh’ma, which bathes us in blessing twice daily, imploring us to live a life of love and discipline, to bear witness and to embrace a world of unceasing change. And I pledge, perhaps more than any Yom Kippur before, never to stop growing, until I breathe my last.
Lo Amut – Ki Achyeh….I shall not die – I shall live – to declare the works of the Lord.
May it be, for all of us, a year of unrelenting growth – a year of movement, of fermentation, of transformation and mutation- of trial and error – and giant leaps – a year of life. Amen.
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