Don’t Wish Me a “Happy New Year”

Since Cool Shul hosts a Shabbat service only once per month, last Friday was our “New Year’s” Shabbat.  Hope you enjoy my talk for that Shabbat. 🙂

Love, Rabbi Di

Our Torah portion this week is Parshat “Bo”, which means come. During Parshat Bo, where we experience the final three plagues, God tells Moses to go (bo) to Pharaoh.  You may have noticed that I translated bo as go, even though I just said it means come.  Rarely does a translation say “come to Pharoah,” but that is what it actually says, and many have wrestled with the fact that the word is confusing in its use.  Why would God say, “Come to Pharaoh” rather than “Go”? It’s a fun puzzle to try to solve.

In my research, I found that most commentators agree that in God’s telling Moses to come, and not go, God is present with Moses during his interactions with Pharaoh, so God is really saying “come with me” to Pharoah.  Another idea is that God is hovering near Pharaoh all the time, so God is asking Moses to come to where God is already present.

Of course, I have another interpretation to add, and it fits perfectly into the New Year’s theme.  

Be it the secular New Year or the spiritual New Year of Rosh Hashanah, we often say to each other (when using English), “Happy new year.”  During Rosh Hashanah, however, when we greet one another in Hebrew with Shanah Tovah Umetukah, we wish each other a good and sweet year.  My question for you is the following: is good or sweet the same as happy?

To me, what may be good or sweet doesn’t have to come with the pressure of making us happy.  Depending on what has gone on in one’s life during the prior year, a good year or a sweet year may not necessarily lead to happiness, and it certainly won’t lead to happiness all the time.  Good or sweet might just be improvement or going in the right direction.  And what does being “happy” even mean? It’s not the same as present or content.  Being happy or not seems too black and white for me, too two-dimensional. Personally I think we all are often kind of happy and kind of not.

One of my students studying the creation story talks about the eating of the fruit in the Garden of Eden as taking away our happiness because we became aware of all of the problems and possibilities of our world when we ate it.  But, he asks, “Is it better to just frolic around the garden like a bunny… unaware and simple but happy?” To face our powers and weaknesses is, in many ways, to be unhappy. So he also asks, “Would we want it any other way?” And so there we are — happy and unhappy, but maybe content that way, and perhaps that state is even the key to the meaning of life.  So wishing each other a happy new year is asking us to move away from what might be a healthy state of being and setting each other up for failure.

Maybe the purpose of the inspiration for renewal at a new year, is not to become more happy, but to get a step closer to home… to being the people our natural states are asking us to be.  Perhaps we can make New Year’s resolutions not to go toward something we aren’t, but to come… or “bo” back to ourselves.

Returning to Moses, we have to remember that he grew up in the Pharaoh’s court.  While it’s believed that the Pharaoh of the exodus story could not possibly be the Pharaoh of Moses’ youth (and no one has figured out if there is a true Moses/Pharaoh relationship anyway), Moses’ return, at least in the story, is a march to his old home and to everything he left behind.  I think that the word “come” is used because Moses isn’t just moving away from his life, but he is actually coming home to a familiar place. As frightening as it would be to be put in the position of being the reluctant hero as Moses was, imagine how frightening it would be if we were also returning to our old homes, to a place we had to run from.  Moses is coming back to face a part of himself, his history, and his experiences within Egypt. He has to come to himself.

And so, with New Year’s, we can focus on those usual surface goals – like the ever present losing weight and going to the gym —  but so often those kinds of resolutions fall away and dissolve partly because the hope is to become something we aren’t rather than coming home to what we already are.  Perhaps we need to focus not on a product, but on a process, on “bo”, on coming toward ourselves and what can free us, just as Moses had to “bo” in order to be completely free from his past and be strong enough to free others.

If you’ve already made some New Year’s resolutions, it isn’t too late to retool them.  Let’s see if we can focus on our potential. Let’s see if we can focus on activities and expressions that create wholeness within us and for those around us.  Let’s see if the promises we make can be about coming and not going.

Gratitude and Mindful Judaism

This is a re-post of a Thanksgiving blog I wrote 4 years ago (with a few gratitude updates).   Enjoy!

Judaism is a tradition of gratitude.

It is said, in Jewish practice, that we should say 100 blessings each day.  Jewish structure helps us reach that goal by providing blessings for when we wake, when we eat, when we pray, when we see beauty, light candles, wash our hands, drink wine… just about everything. Any child who gets a little Jewish education learns at least a few of these blessings, but rarely is it suggested that when one is uttered, what we are actually reaching for is our own gratitude.  Each blessing is intended to make us to stop for a moment, “press the enter key” (as Zalman Schachter-Shalomi would say), and remind ourselves to take intentional notice of all that is before us, around us, and within us, 100 times a day.

This is mindful living.

One often looks to other philosophies and traditions in a search for mindful living practice, but Judaism is actually wrapped around a nougat center of mindfulness with those 100 blessings at its core.  When we live mindfully, we don’t pass through our lives with blurred vision like a movie stuck in fast forward.  Living mindfully means we remain in the present in order to fully experience every bite of food we chew, every scent we inhale, every push on the gas pedal while we drive, every errand we run, every task we complete.  We take our steps with purpose, we dry the dishes with contentment, we pay the bills with joy.

Mindful living sounds great, doesn’t it? …Wish I did it.

There are always occasions when gratitude hits me.  When my children are making me laugh, or we can see a particularly fiery sunset from our balcony, or I’m taking a drive through the mountains, it’s easier to feel the miracles of life flowing through me.  But in my busy days, between getting kids to school, getting on the treadmill, heading to work, meetings, students, making sure everyone gets picked up, dropped off, teeth brushed, homework done, I often forget to be mindful or grateful.  How do we mindfully clean up the spaghetti we just dropped on the floor?  Or feel gratitude for being stuck in traffic?  I guess it’s all in how we look at it.  Yes, we dropped the spaghetti, but the blessing can be for the fact that there is more in the cupboard.  Yes, we are stuck in traffic, but the blessing can be for the fact that we are in a car, safe and comfortable, and not walking in the rain.  Perhaps, we all focus too much on our glasses being half empty.  I know I do.  Yet, Judaism points us toward appreciating our fullness by asking us, 100 times a day, to stop, live, be, notice, breathe, taste, feel, and express all that action and inaction through blessings.

Okay, readers, it is Thanksgiving.  It’s the season for gratitude.  Can we experiment with acknowledging as many mindful/blessing/gratitude moments as possible this holiday?  Can we take an instance of frustration and transform it into one of contentment?  Can we remember to notice the positives and negatives and remind ourselves that there are often blessings hidden in those negatives?  And if we can do all this, how do we register it?

We don’t need to say a blessing each time we have one of these “noticing” moments.  We could just make a mental note of each one.  I must say, however, there is a power in vocalizing gratitude.  If we feel the desire to say something out loud to acknowledge an experience, we could say: Baruch Atah Adonai /Blessed are you, Adonai (a more masculine, fatherly side of God), or B’ruchah At Shechina /Blessed are you, Shechina  (a more feminine, motherly side of God).  But we can also say just plain old, “Ooh” or “Ahh” or “Sigh” or “Thank you, world.”  It’s all the same.  No belief in God required for practicing Jewish gratitude or mindfulness.

Now, I don’t know if we can reach 100 blessings or “notice-ings” in a day, but maybe we can.  Let’s choose a day, and even write down our focuses of gratitude.  Let’s see if we can get to 100.  And if you like, share your list in the comment section.

Here is a starter list to get the ball rolling.

Thank you world for:

1. My husband
2. My children
3. My parents
4. My niece and nephew
5. My brother
6. My in-laws
7. My friend who made me laugh
8. My friend who made me cry
9. The memories of those I have lost
10. Morning toast and coffee
11. My new dog
12. The refrigerator
13. Clothing
14. My breath
15. Health
16. Sight
17. Touch
18. My heart and all my organs
19. Shoes
20. My work and the Cool Shul Community
21. Money
22. Yoga
23. The breeze
24. The shade
25. My children’s school and their teachers
26. My mentors
27. My education
28. Who I am
29. Who I want to be
30. A perfect salad
31. A piece of dark chocolate
32. A pet (don’t have one, but if I did, I’d be grateful for it!)
33. A comfortable bed
34. Running water
35. My car
36. Heat in the house
37. A drink of water
38. A glass of wine
39. My students who teach me so much
40. A good book
41. Music
42. Having the time to paint my nails.
43. The piano in my living room
44. My voice
45. Smoothies
46. My blog readers
47. A Parisian Baguette
48. A vacation
49. Airplanes
50. Creativity
51. A Simple dinner
52. Art
53. Time to play
54. Photographs
55. A day without pain
56. My soul
57. Laughter
58. The sun
59. The stars and moon
60. The sunset
61. Colors
62. Trees
63. Flowers
64. Mountains
65. Grass
66. Rain and rainbows
67. Renewable energy
68. That for today, I live in a land without war
69. Freedom
70. Community
71. My children’s friends
72. Sleep
73. Medicines
74. Windows With a view
75. A clean home
76. A trusted babysitter
77. Exercise
78. A song with great lyrics
79. Love
80. That my body can heal
81. A comfy blanket
82. The New York Times
83. My doctor
84. Swimming
85. Walking
86. Tasting
87. Smelling
88. Electricity
89. Curly hair
90. Tissues when I have a cold
91. Appliances that make life easier – even when they break
92. People we never knew who are part of our history
93. The earth and the Universe
94. Charities
95. Candlelight
96. The beach
97. KCRW
98. Kindness
99. Learning from challenges
100. Having 100 things to be grateful for.

I’m grateful you read all the way to here. 🙂

Happy Thanksgiving!!!!

Say the Shema WHEN (not if) You Vote

In the Jewish prayer book, morning and evening, we have a love trio.  The first part — Ahavat Olam or Ahavah Rabah — is about an everlasting and abundant love that surrounds us and is ours to access.  The last statement— the V’ahavta— reminds us to teach and act with love in all we do and see, when we are home and when we are away.  Sandwiched in between those two elements is the Shema. The Shema is open to lots of interpretations and translations that direct our hearts toward the nougat center of the meaning and not hang on the literal one.  At Cool Shul, we translate it as: Hear this, humankind, God is in all of us, and we are all called One. It is during the Shema in which we contemplate and process that abundant love coming toward us before we send it back out to our homes and to the world.

The spiritual love of the prayer book isn’t intended to be interpreted as a romantic love, though this kind of love certainly should be the basis of any romance.  This is a love steeped in listening and forgiving and acceptance.  It’s the kind of love that has an openness to all humanity — even the humanity of a perceived enemy, for the Shema (the center of our trio and the center of the Jewish people) asks for all to hear the message we are delivering… that we are all One.  

I was reminded of this love, based in listening and understanding, when I was on a group call with T’ruah, a Rabbis for human rights action group.  We were there to discuss how to help our congregations heal during these times. For some of us, we are trying to make peace in communities bitterly divided over the current political climate, while others of us are attempting to pick up the pieces for and with our communities that are so despondent over what is going on in our country, they are finding it challenging to continue with normal life. During this phone gathering, we heard from the organizer most of us know as “the woman in the elevator,” who confronted Senator Flake during the Supreme Court hearings.  Interestingly, she told us that her team didn’t really have a plan that day and had no idea if anyone might see them or listen to them in the small amount of time they had. Their presence was built solely on a sliver of hope. Her message to us was that the most important thing we can do to help our communities heal is to make sure their voices and their messages of hope are heard, by encouraging everyone and anyone to vote.  Most of us will never have a moment like she did, when an elected official has to face us and listen.  So, since none of us will likely find ourselves in an elevator with a senator, voting is our best bet. Yes we can be heard with bullhorns, through social media, through emails and phones calls, or maybe at a march or a rally, but the most powerful tool we have is at the polling place.   Marching without voting means nothing.

One rabbi on the call reminded us that the Shema is not only about listening but also about being heard.  And so the Shema says, “listen to me, this is important!” But if each us shouts, “listen to me!”, that means we also have to do a whole lot of listening.  We can’t only speak. This is perhaps why the Shema is placed between two liturgical pieces about love. Because there is no real love without the ability to listen and the ability to be heard.  Not with couples, not with families or friends, and not in government.

Now, I have never considered the Shema as a prayer to say while voting.  There are other Jewish prayers that are prescribed to say when fulfilling a civic duty (for example, “blessed is the opportunity to pursue justice” or “blessed is the opportunity to engage in the needs of the community”).  But how fitting it would be to invite the Shema into the polling place as we do our duty to be heard! And perhaps we can also say the Shema when we do anything that helps create fairer elections, such as fighting against voter intimidation, driving people to their polling places, or making sure our employees have time to vote without penalty.  Because when we do any of these, we are fighting for all voices to be heard, not just the ones that align with ours. That is listening and being heard.  That is the heart of the Shema: Hear this, all humankind, we are One.

I’ll see you at the polling place on Tuesday.

vote image

Shooting in Pittsburgh

This morning in Pittsburgh, people entered the Tree of Life synagogue to hear Parshat Vayera…  The portion in which Abraham teaches us to welcome the stranger… The Torah portion in which Abraham is prepared to sacrifice his son, and an angel of God STOPS him.  

This morning’s Torah tells us life above all.  No murder. No sacrificing. Break all the rules, every rule, in order to save a life, even if the “voices” you hear tell you to do otherwise.  And it teaches us to welcome, feed, and protect the “other.” How tragic, that the people who were at the Tree of Life community to hear this text, and to share in the joy of new life with a bris, were surprised by a shooter while praying.  Several are dead.

There is a new tone in the air of this country and around the world.  We can’t deny it or ignore it. Hate crime is on the rise. Racism, anti-semitism, sexism, homophobia is now more “acceptable” than it once was.  And we all know why.

How many mainstream candidates must we have who refuse to separate completely from those with ties to organizations that are openly racist?  How many try to explain away violent instincts? How many rallies can we have where “body-slamming” someone is applauded? And how many young people, by watching bullies and “grabbers” reach the highest levels of government, are taught that their own racist, sexist and violent tendencies are okay?  Today’s shooter spoke on social media against HIAS, the Jewish organization that aids refugees. He is anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, anti-stranger.

And as I write, I just heard on CNN from our president, that it would have been different if there had been weapons inside the synagogue. “The results could have been so much better,” he said.  That’s his answer… Guns in our houses of worship. He also spoke about how hard these moments are for him. I’m sure he’s having a bad day, but not bad enough to cancel today’s rally.

After 9/11, President Bush had the decency to say, “When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world.  Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that’s made brothers and sisters out of every race—out of every race.” He helped us remember the humanity of each other.  I am grateful to him for that. That’s Presidential. And proof that my feelings are not about politics. This is about morality. This is about human rights. This is about being who we are without fear. This is about the basic decency and empathy we used to expect from our elected officials.

And so, with just a few days before the midterms, I beg you, all of you, Jews, and Christians, Republicans and Democrats… vote for peace.  Vote for understanding. Vote for gun control. This is our moment to take our country back and make it just one step safer for all of us… All faiths.  All genders. All colors. All people.

We are all so tired of being afraid.  But it isn’t too late. If you feel the pain I feel today, stand up.  Let’s use these last ounces of strength to say, no more. March. Call.  Write. Pray.

And above all, vote for peace.

Newton’s Law and the Binding of Isaac

The story we read on Rosh Hashanah morning, the story of the binding of Isaac, just came and went in our annual Torah cycle, so I wanted to share the sermon I gave Rosh Hashanah morning for those that missed it.  After all, isn’t every day a potential New Year? It’s up to us to choose today as the first day of the rest of our lives and call it day 1.

Enjoy!

It was supposed to be an ideal trip.  10 days, mostly unplugged and unreachable, trucking through Alberta, Canada in an RV.  We planned to spend every night sleeping with the trees, after days full of hiking and discovery in one of the most stunningly gorgeous parts of the world.  We were to ride down the river in Banff, go on a scenic cruise in Jasper, and row our way around Lake Louise. We were to visit the quaint towns that hosted each natural treasure and soak in all of that Canadian kindness we all envy these days.  

At least that is how it was supposed to be.

Okay, I have to admit that our kids weren’t as thrilled as we were about the idea of us being stuffed into an RV together for 10 days, but we figured we would barely spend any time in the vehicle.  Days would be out exploring, and evenings would be spent sitting around the campfire, making up silly songs, roasting marshmallows and trying to figure out how to make the jiffy pop really pop. And with our daughter heading off to college in two years, we realized this was probably our last chance for such a memorable experience.  However, the kids must have known something we didn’t, for this trip was definitely not meant to be.

It all started out okay other than the grumbling from our kids about… well… most things. But then we ran into a few issues.

First, we were told we weren’t allowed to use our stabilizers, so anytime someone walked around the RV, we felt nauseous and like the world was wobbling.  Annoying, but nothing to write a sad song or a sermon about. Then we were told that there was a ban on all fires in the campgrounds. That meant no songs around the crackling fire, no cooking dinner on open flames, and worst of all, no s’mores.  Okay, that stank, but we could always sing songs anyway and make s’mores on the stove, right? But then it started to rain. A lot. Which brought the mosquitos… which meant meals inside instead of at the picnic table. In fact, my husband slapped one with his lightening fast eye/hand coordination (which, by the way, has been clocked at astronaut level speed) and blood went running down his leg.  Gross, but we carried on.

Did I mention my daughter got a cold, then I got a cold, then my son got a cold?  But we were fine enough. Did I mention that the hoses started leaking? The water coming in and the water (and other things) that had to run out were not, well, secure.  Kind of wasteful in one direction and kind of disgusting in the other. But fixable, so we carried on again.

But then, the phone started ringing.  We weren’t even sure if we would have any cell service in the campgrounds, but, unforunately, we did!  First was a minor work emergency for Andy. Nothing scary, but it took some phone and internet savvy directions to get what needed to get done, done.  Then a day later the phone call was something positive, but something that had to get dealt with that left me and Andy reading documents on his phone. But a day after that, it was something big.  An emergency that had to get dealt with right away, which left my poor husband not only having to deal with driving the RV, having hoses leak all over his shoes, but also spending most of his time talking on the phone to clear up an important issue rather than participating in all of our planned fun… which the kids and I also coudn’t do because he was the only one who knew how to drive the dang RV!

Sound fun yet?  Wait! There’s more!

While we were driving, the sleeping level over the head of the driver started to sink.  The pin fell out that holds it up (okay, maybe we forgot to put it in, but we would like to think it fell out).  Next thing we knew it was totally lopsided and no longer usable. We were down a bed. We decided to find a hotel to spend the night and call the RV company to make the repair, which they did, and we intended to return to the vehicle. But while they were there, they discovered that the refrigerator had stopped cooling and that overnight all of our food had spoiled.  

We had had it.  Everyone was cranky, cooped up, and tired of dealing with problems.  So, Andy and I made a decision. We drove the RV back, found a hotel in Calgary (which by the way is a lovely city, especially in the summer), and spent three days being the urban people we are.

We actually had a wonderful time in Calgary.  We searched for the perfect bean bun at all of the bakeries in Chinatown.  We ate delicious omelets at a little French diner and grilled our own food at a Korean BBQ.  We went to Monster Mini Golf, a VR arcade, and an escape room. We took walks along the perfectly manicured park that runs along the river, and we went to a fantasic music museum where we learned how to sing Indian scales and heard a player organ demonstration.  We drank great coffee, we swam in the hotel pool, we slept in comfy beds… We made lemonade out of lemons (figuratively, not literally!), and although the trip ended up nothing like we planned, we at least had a few truly memorable days at the end.

And this all relates to the Torah portion we heard this morning.  

Personally, I have trouble changing directions once I am on a path, and I was definitely the most resistant to changing course on our trip.  If we were supposed to be in an RV, gosh darn it, we were going to stay in the thing and see it through. If we were supposed to go north, it stressed me to no end to switch and head east.  When there is a plan and a process, it fills me with great pain to break the plan and change the process. I am the human embodiment of the scientific principle that a body in motion stays in motion.  I have the feeling many of us probably are.

Newton’s first law of motion says that a body in motion at a constant velocity will remain in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force.  In order to accelerate or decelerate or change directions, an outside force must be acting upon it. This is also true for people. In the Huffington Post article that considers the human embodiment of this law, “Why Humans are Goverened by the Law of Inertia Too,” the author says:

We can now see that people aren’t “stuck” as so many refer to themselves, when they are dissatisfied with their lives.  In reality, they are moving at warp speed propelled by multiple forces along their life path. As a result, small forces such as a modest insight, a brief ‘Aha!’ moment, or a nudge from a friend simply won’t provide adequate force to counteract those that currently drive us.  On the contrary, because of the great forces that are already controlling our lives, even greater forces must be applied if there is going to be significant change.

… People may feel helpless to change the course of their lives.  As much as they may want or have tried to, they just can’t seem to alter its trajectory.  And the reason that change is so difficult is that first law of human motion. If they’re going to change, they need to apply forces that are greater than the forces currently controlling the direction of their lives.  To slow down, change direction, and go where they want to go will take a huge amount of fresh energy.

So, let’s return to Abraham and the Torah.  The portion we heard this morning, in which Abraham is willing to sacrifice his beloved son because God tells him to, is so difficult to explain, so horribly out of the characteristics we hope for ourselves, that many communities have stopped reading it on Rosh Hashanah morning all together.  After all, are we to emulate a faith so deep that we would be willing to sacrifice a child because a voice told us to? Are we to keep secrets from our spouse about the fate of our beloved baby in fear she will hold a mirror up to us (Because you know Abraham’s wife Sarah would have stopped this!)?  Traditionally the interpretation of the Akedah, the binding, is that we are to admire Abraham’s relationship with God — a belief that ran so deep that he was willing to do what God said was needed (which, again is odd because at other times Abraham argues with God). Well, that doesn’t sit well for most progressive Jews, so instead we talk about the fact that Abraham’s life didn’t go so well after this incident, and that therefore maybe we are to learn that we should NOT listen to a voice that demands a passionate commitment so vast that we would be willing to harm another.  We also talk about the possibility of the portion being a historical source that included this story to direct its readers against human sacrifice at a time when it was still practiced by other religions.  Or, we preach that we have this story in order to consider our own tests and sacrifices.

Well, I have another interpretation to add to the long line of commentaries.  I think this portion is about Newton’s law of motion, and the first law of human motion described in the Huffington Post.  

In this story, Abraham, for better or for worse, believes he has to do this act.  For a moment, let’s not concern ourselves as to whether or not God in fact tells Abraham to do so as the story suggests or if Abraham is in fact hearing some other voice of direction.  All we know is that he is silently climbing Mount Moriah with his son with all intention of sacrificing him as he believes he needs to. Let’s picture Abraham… his son now bound to the alter they built together, his hand raised in the air with blade pointing toward his boy.  What kind of emotions must be heating up inside him, how much energy built up in the arm ready to thrust down to fulfill this most painful of all actions? Abraham is definitely a body in motion, physically and spiritually, so in order to change directions, it has to be one heck of a strong external force working on him.  So, what stops him? What has enough power to pull him off his course? Another voice. Traditionally it’s taught that it is the voice of an angel, an extension of God. But perhaps it is another person, maybe even Isaac’s voice Abraham really hears. Or it could be Abraham’s inner dialogue or an imagining of what his wife Sarah would say, that tells him to stay his hand.  No matter what the voice was or is, it’s so powerful, it stops him in his tracks.

It’s easy for us to judge Abraham for what seems like an insane act, but perhaps we should not condemn him too harshly.   I mean, Abraham, for reasons hard for us to understand, believes he is on the right path and is determined to see his task through.   If in the story there had been a boulder blocking him, I believe he would have found a way around it. If the story described blinding winds and rains, Abraham would have trudged through it in order to perform the act he thought necessary of him.  None of those could have been forces strong enough for him to change directions. After all, the voice he trusted most had given the directions to follow, and he was following… like so many of us do.

Let’s look at ourselves.  How many of us are walking along a path that may seem necessary, listening to voices inside or outside of us that we believe we must obey, but we have a nagging feeling it isn’t truly the correct path or at least not the ONLY correct path?  How many times do we march around boulders and trudge through wind and rain, because we are sure this is where we need to be and the direction in which we need to go, even if we hate that path as much as Abraham must have despised his? How often do we keep our heads down and carry on, sure not to look up for fear we might see our own suffering reflections in a loved ones eyes much like Abraham must have avoided the gaze of his wife?  How much outside force do we need to take a fork in the road or even turn around?   It may not be a literal sacrifice we are heading for, but do we not sacrifice ourselves for what we think others expect?  Are we any less stubborn about what has to happen? Do we, also, need to be affected by an energy as strong as a voice of a god to listen, ignoring the more likely whispers telling us to head toward something else?

I think about the old joke about the man who is stuck on his rooftop in a flood, praying to God for help.  In case you don’t know it… This man is trapped in a flood, and another man in a rowboat comes by and shouts, “jump in, I can save you.”  But the man on the roof replies, “No, it’s ok, I’m praying to God and He will save me.” So, the man in the boat moves on. Next a man in a motorboat comes by and offers the same.  The man on the roof replies again that he is praying, and that God will save him. The motorboat moves on. Finally, a helicopter comes by and drops a rope to lift the man to safety. For a third time, the man refuses, and says God will save him.  The helicopter flies away. The water keeps rising, and, of course, eventually the man drowns. When he reaches heaven and gets to discuss the matter with God, he is extremely upset that with all of his faith, God allowed him to die. And God replies… “I sent you a rowboat, a motorboat and a helicopter!  What more did you expect??”

Perhaps the man on the roof in the joke read the Akedah, our Torah portion this morning, too many times.  Perhaps nothing more than an angel or a voice of God could convince him to change directions. But we can’t take the voice literally.  We have to keep our eyes open to the warning signs that are often silently blinking and standing in our way or we will be too stubborn to see or hear the forces nudging us toward our new paths.

When we were leaving our RV, I told my 16 year old daughter that a sermon was forming in my mind about our experiences on that trip.  I gave her a quick summary of what, in fact, this sermon is about. She said to me, “Sometimes a broken refrigerator is the voice of God.”  She was kidding, but she’s right. We have to read the moment and be like water, ready to flow as needed rather than stuck in one direction.  As my husband’s mentor used to say, “Grab an oar and row.”

Well, here we are on Rosh Hashanah.  Every year we ask why this of all Torah portions is designated for this day.  And yet, this time, it all seems very clear to me. This is the day we change directions.  This is the day we plant a seed and make a plan for the next 10 days and the year ahead. This is the day we throw our mistakes into a body of flowing water (or for us, the promise of a body of flowing water) and tell ourselves we are ready.  No hand of God or angel of God or voice of God is going to tell us which elements of our lives are ripe for a change of direction. It will be a gentler nudge, a whisper, a breeze. And although scientifically it is an outside force that must work on us for us to embrace newness, it has to be an internal recognition of that outside force to make it so.  

Yes, change is hard.  It’s easy to tell someone else how to change, but it is extremely difficult to tell or allow ourselves to change.  So, let’s observe keenly the actions and hints offered by the people and situations around us. It may be the words of a spouse or a friend offering advice that we know deep down is sound but is still difficult for us to hear. It may be obstacles in a path that at first feel like tests but start feeling like true roadblocks.  It may be our own inner pain. But let’s not be so stubborn, as I often am, that it has to be a kick to the head as monumental as a holy voice for us to pay attention.

Today is the day to begin that journey toward renewal.  Abraham just told us so. We don’t have to change everything about ourselves or our lives.  But there is at least one path that each and every one of us is on that is begging for a fork in the road or a U-turn.  So let’s pay attention. The cue may be a man in a boat, or a broken refrigerator, or a voice from within or without, but let’s listen.  Today, and for the next 10 days, let’s hear, watch, think, and see as Abraham could eventually see.

Today is the first day of the rest of our lives.  

body in motion