Thursday, September 21, 2017

A Rosh Hashanah Letter to My College-Bound Daughter

First day of kindergarten
This summer at camp there was a family of birds nesting in one of the trees right outside the dining hall. There were a few days early in the summer when we were told to keep our distance — the baby birds were learning to fly and the parents were not thrilled with humans standing next to their tree. One morning, one baby bird plummeted onto the table where we were having a meeting. After some adorable and awkward hopping and flapping the small bird wound up on the ground in the bushes and throughout the meeting we would look over to see if it was still OK. Was it stuck? Did it need help? Where were this bird’s parents? I was worried about the baby bird.

You probably realized far sooner than I had what was really going on. In two days my oldest daughter, Mira, is starting college and leaving our nest. Many of you have been through this before; you know the combination of intense pride and happiness that comes along with a vague sense of loss. In the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca, made popular by the band Semisonic, “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” Things are changing, and while it is a good and welcome change, it is still a bit of a shock when your kid does the thing you have been talking about for the last 18 years.

So last month, when I called my sister to discuss in great detail the pros and cons of a particular beach towel I was buying for Mira, she listened patiently before pointing out to me that I was nesting again — that my disproportionate concern about the size and color of a beach towel relative to another almost identical beach towel was similar to how I prepared for her birth more than 18 years ago.

Beach towels and bath caddies are the easy things, but what I really hope I’m sending her off to college with is the Jewish wisdom that will sustain and nurture her as she continues to grow into adulthood. What I really hope is that Judaism will continue to guide her, as it continues to guide me.

And so, I wrote a letter to my daughter to pass along some of that wisdom — and realized that starting college has much in common with starting the New Year. There are moments when we can feel that changes are coming— when we can look at a date or pass a milestone and know that from this moment on, things will be different. Some transitions are happy and welcome, like the first move-in date for college, getting married, watching your children get married, the birth of child or grandchild, starting a new job, starting retirement, moving to a new house. Others are not-so-welcome, like the diagnosis of a disease, the end of a relationship, losing a job, friends moving away, the death of a loved one.

We are all sitting here tonight on the verge of changes — some eagerly anticipated, others with more trepidation. None of us know what this new year will bring. We are all starting something new and unknown, right here, tonight, on Rosh Hashanah. So, while I may be addressing my daughter, this is for you as well. 

Dear Mira,

You are about to go forward into the unknown, starting a new chapter in your life. Our tradition teaches us how to go forward into the unknown. Abraham and Sarah follow God’s command to go to the land God will show them — they do not ask questions; they just leave everything they know and head for somewhere they have never been before. This must have been terrifying, to start a journey without knowing the destination, and yet they go anyway. They have faith that the journey will be worth it despite any hardships, and that they will find meaning and purpose along the way. Their path is not easy, nor without trials and heartbreak, and yet Abraham and Sarah become the first human beings in the world to bless other people.

Your path may not always be easy or straightforward, and as with our ancestors it is up to you to create meaning and purpose in your life’s journey. Sometimes you will find yourself exactly where you thought you would be, and at other times on a path that is more wonderful than you could have imagined or one that you would never have chosen or expected; like Abraham and Sarah, look for blessings and find an opportunity to share those blessings with others.

You will make mistakes. Some will be small and easily repaired, like missing a deadline. Others will be devastating and not so easily repaired. There are some things that you will only learn the hard way, and it will be painful. Mistakes are a part of life and part of growing up and learning; and you can’t avoid them no matter how old you are. It is up to you to decide to learn from your mistakes. The lessons of the High Holy Days can teach you how to do tshuvah, to truly make repentance. First you must admit that you have done something wrong — and not in general, but in detail; you must recognize your wrongdoing, without downplaying it or making excuses for yourself. You may want to hide from your mistakes sometimes, but owning up to them is the only way you will change. If you hurt another person, you need to apologize. Not a generic blanket apology on Facebook, not a text, not an insincere “sorry, not sorry” but a genuine apology where you acknowledge your part in causing hurt. Yes, this might be an awkward conversation, but it is a necessary part of the process. In the words of Dan Nichols, “embrace the awkward,” and your relationships will be stronger. If you can learn to take responsibility and apologize for the small hurts you cause, you will have the tools to do the same for the harder ones. And then, forgive yourself. It is OK to make mistakes; you don’t have to be perfect. Don’t beat yourself up over your missteps — learn from them, so you can do better in the future.

The Talmud teaches “Either friendship or death,” and it is more than just a folk saying. Friendship can save your life. The friendship between the young King David and Jonathan led Jonathan to protect David and save his life. But there’s more than just anecdotal or metaphorical evidence — new research shows that friendships are literally life-saving for everyone. A BYU study of hundreds of thousands of people found that the biggest predictor of how long you will live is your relationships. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier; they're also physically healthier, and they live longer than people with fewer friends. Dr. Robert Waldinger, Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, has discovered that loneliness is toxic. “People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that…their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.”

So Mira, I hope you will nurture your friendships. It takes time to build trust with someone, to have the kind of friendships where you can share not just your joys but your disappointments and the things that embarrass you. You need people you can trust not to judge you and who will always tell you the truth. Practicing tshuvah, apologizing and making amends when necessary, will help you maintain those relationships over many years.

There will be times in your life when you are lonely. The Avot d’Rabbi Natan, a collection of teachings from about 1500 years ago, teaches us how to acquire a friend: by eating and drinking together, by studying Torah and debating with them, by spending time together, and by sharing private thoughts. I admit that I have not always been the best example of this, neglecting my own friendships at times. Don’t let other things get in the way; there will always be other things — classes or work or just the busyness of life — but you have to make time to nurture your friendships. Your life depends on it.

Mira, even when it seems like everyone in the world is a jerk, I hope that you will still be kind. Rabbi Mattia ben Cherish taught that you should be the first to greet every person — this is more than just good advice; it is good for you. The same study from BYU also found that the second biggest predictor of how long you will live is how much you interact with other people throughout your day. Rabbi Shammai taught that you should greet every person with a pleasant countenance; 500 years before the invention of cell phones Rabbi Obadiah ben Avraham of Bertenura understood this to mean not to offer things to your guests when your face is buried in the ground, because if you are not looking at them, it is as if you have given them nothing. If you are not paying attention to the person in front of you, if you are not present, it does not count. Treating everyone you come into contact with as if they matter sounds so simple, but acting on it can be very difficult. Remember that the rude waiter may be having a bad day and needs to be treated with kindness. Talk to the people you come into contact with; the cashier, other people in line, the girl who makes your coffee remember that they are people and that everyone has a story.

Stand up for what you believe in. If your relationship with Israel was a Facebook status, you would label it as “complicated.” For years you have been hearing about the dangers of anti-Zionism on campus. Make no mistake: anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. BDS, the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, is anti-Semitic — but they are attracting Jews, especially Reform Jews, by pretending to be a social justice movement. You have learned here at TAS how important it is to stand up to oppressors, to fight for rights and to make sure that all people are treated equally. BDS preys on that by telling you that if you really, truly care about social justice you will recognize Jews as oppressors and will stand against Israel. There are people who will tell you that unless you denounce Israel you can not have a voice in any other issues.

This summer Jewish groups were asked not to participate in the Chicago Dyke March because a rainbow flag with a Jewish star on it was considered threatening and against the values of the marchers. Similar things were said by the organizers of that city’s Slut Walk. There are people who will try to tell you that you can not be a feminist if you are a Zionist. They are wrong. This is anti-Semitism. Calling it anti-Zionism does not change the fact that it is anti-Semitism. Zionism is the belief that Jews are entitled to a nation in our ancestral homeland, Israel, and modern Zionism encompasses our values of democracy, pluralism, and equality. A love of Israel demands honesty and a commitment to the continuation of building a morally exceptional society — to be a light to the nations.

The good news is that your relationship with Israel should be complicated. Israel is not perfect. The Israeli government is not perfect. Just as we can love America without loving everything our government or leadership does, you can love Israel without loving everything its government does. The treatment of Bedouins and discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews are just two of the serious issues that are deeply problematic. Loving Israel does not mean you agree with everything; it does not mean that you will not have reasons to legitimately criticize — there are legitimate problems and you should criticize when it is called for.

To be an ohav Yisrael, a lover of Israel, you need to stay informed, pay attention to what is going on in Israel, read the news, learn the nuances of the complex issue of creating peace and establishing borders with our neighbors, when you criticize, do it from a place of love, and stand tall as a proud Jew and Zionist.

Mira, there is so much in this world that can break your heart, and you will get your heart broken. And I wish I could protect you from it, but that is not the way our world works. We often try to deny this truth, but on these Days of Awe, we call it out. We name it when we pray Unatana Tokef, conceding that terrible things will happen in life, things we cannot avoid. You will be hurt, you will experience loss, you will be disappointed. Life will not be fair; don’t expect it to be.

The message of this prayer is not that repentance, prayer and charity will keep you safe; it is that those things help make sure that the things that break your heart, don’t leave you broken. It is not that tragedy has a reason or higher purpose. I don’t believe that everything has a reason; it is that you can choose to find meaning in the things that would otherwise break you. Learning, reflecting and connecting with others is how you will heal. 

And yet, don’t let fear of failure or hurt stop you from reaching out to others and trying new things. Don’t let fear stop you from enjoying life to the fullest. Yes, there will be heartbreak and disappointment and sadness,  at times, but, there will also be love and friendship and awe and gratitude.

The Talmud teaches that every human being will have to give an account for all that they saw that was permitted to them, but that they did not enjoy. There will be much to enjoy in this new year, many new adventures, new friends, new experiences — you should take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy them. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal. ...To be spiritual is to be amazed.” As you begin this new chapter in your life, allow yourself to be amazed. Don’t be too cool for wonder and awe; geek out over the stuff you love, even if nobody else gets it; and let yourself appreciate all the wonderful things that are happening in your life. Embrace all the blessings coming your way; you deserve them.

May this New Year bring you blessing.
May the wisdom of our tradition guide you on life’s path.
When life is challenging, may you find comfort and strength.
May you always be an ohav yisrael, a lover of Israel.
May you always look for blessings and when you find them, share them with others.
May you have strong friendships that will sustain you.
May you experience all the joy that life has to offer,
in this New Year and in all of your years.

Shanah Tovah.

citations available upon request

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Praying with Knives in Wonder Valley

[This post was co-written with my husband, Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik, and is also posted on his blog, which can be found at Photos are courtesy Rabbi Rick Winer and Bill Leifer.]

It is always a privilege and pleasure to worship and create in a new community — making new friends, gaining new insights, and bringing new works of art into being. This past weekend was such an experience, when we joined Temple Beth Israel of Fresno as the scholar and artist in residence for their 2017 Shabbaton retreat (in Wonder Valley, California).

The heart of the weekend was “praying with knives” — meditating on the Saturday morning prayers and then using knife and paper to explore their meanings.

Providing encouragement and guidance

In our Shabbat morning worship Rabbi Shawna encouraged worshippers to choose a prayer that intrigued them, reflected a personal experience, or spoke to how they were feeling right then, and to focus on it during personal silent prayer: to read it more than once, to connect with the language, to read it slowly to pull out meaning, to imagine what words they would use if they were writing the prayer, to see what images came to mind when reciting the prayer, to meditate on the feelings that it invoked. And when our service finished, we began to pray with knives.

Isaac gives some drawing and cutting tips

After a bit of guidance from Isaac on approach and technique, and a little experimenting with their knives, the worshippers began to wrestle with their prayers — first sketching out some basic ideas, and than translating that idea to a papercut design.

Mark and Cindy, hard at work!

No two creations were the same, even when people chose the same prayer. Several people used rays of light in some fashion, but each time it was a part of a different prayer. A few people asked us to figure out which prayer they were working on based on the images they were trying to convey in their sketch, in a pictionary-meets-prayer sort of moment.

The prayer book was explored in its entirety — worshippers weren’t limited to the standard prayers that compose a service, but also explored psalms, readings, quotes and songs in the artwork. The lines that we often skip over because they are placeholders were sometimes the inspiration that reached out and grabbed someone.

Rabbi Laura Winer shares her papercut prayer.

At the end of the Shabbaton on Sunday everyone had a chance to share their artwork. Prayer by its nature is personal, and it can be a vulnerable moment to share a piece of artwork based on prayer, even among friends — but so many people wanted to stand up and share what they had created. The art and stories took prayer to a new level; for some they had a favorite prayer that they were excited to represent, for others something just caught their eye.

Side-by-side with the prayer that inspired it.

We so often think of prayer as written, as the recitation of words written on a page. But all written prayer started out as someone’s inner thoughts — as a spontaneous moment of prayer — and over the years became a part of our standard worship service. In Hebrew school we often begin by teaching prayers; mastering them in Hebrew is often a requirement for bar or bat mitzvah. But beyond familiarity with the words of others, prayer is our attempt to express our deep yearning or to articulate our gratitude or to help us shift our own perspective, and we are able to do those things through art. In their creations participants expressed gratitude, their dedication to helping others, their appreciation for the people in their lives, looking inward, creation.

The retreat coincided with the Torah portion Vayekiel, in which we learn that God assigned Bezalel to create the mobile tabernacle — the mishkan — and the objects that go with it. Bezalel is a craftsman skilled in many art forms, but we learn that each of the Israelites has something to contribute to the creation of the mishkan. God is the ultimate Creator — the Torah begins with divine creation, culminating in the creation of human beings in God’s image — but we have the ability to create as well, and when we do we are connecting with the Divine within ourselves.

[For more information on how you can bring "the dynamic duo" to your community, please contact Isaac via email:]

Thursday, November 17, 2016

How Women Lead The Fight Against Pharaoh

The women in the Torah know something about how to respond to a repressive Pharaoh.

In the time of our slavery, the Egyptian midwives Shifra and Puah are ordered to drown all the Israelite baby boys, but they refuse to do something morally repugnant, and they ignore Pharaoh’s command. Not only do they refuse to be a part of this immoral order, but they actively work against it in order to save and protect others. They could have given up their jobs and turned over the responsibility to people more willing to follow Pharaoh’s orders, but instead they continue to act as midwives, helping the Israelite women and then lying to Pharaoh about why the population continues to grow. Their action saves lives. These are women who do not follow immoral orders; they are at the center of one of the first acts of civil disobedience.  

Pharaoh’s daughter also refuses to follow her father’s commands. When she finds Moses floating in the Nile she knows he is a Hebrew baby; she is aware of her father’s order, and knows the only reason why a baby would be floating in a basket in the river. And yet, she picks him up. She brings him home and even allows his own mother to act as his wet nurse. She knows exactly what she is doing, countermanding her father, but she does what she can to save a life. No act is too small — in saving just one person, Pharaoh’s daughter saved an entire people.

Perhaps the most difficult act in times of fear is keeping hope alive; in this we have the example of Miriam and her mother Yoheved. There is a midrash which teaches that in response to Pharaoh’s cruel order, the Israelite men all divorce their wives in order not to produce any children, so that none of them would be in danger of being drowned in the Nile — but Miriam knows better. She tells her father that his decree is even more severe than Pharaoh’s; she tells him that he is condemning both males and females; Pharaoh’s harsh decree might not be completely realized, but by ceasing to have any children at all the Israelite men are guaranteeing that there is no future. Miriam is right. The people do not realize that redemption is on the way — Moses has not been born yet — but Miriam knows that you cannot have a future without hope. Her mother Yoheved also has faith; she hides her newborn son until she can no longer keep him a secret and then places him into a basket on the Nile. She makes it watertight to protect her son the best she can, because she has hope that he will be rescued. Miriam and Yoheved teach us how important it is to continue to live, to love, to raise children and to have faith and hope in the future. At a time when it seems as if there was no hope, these women do not accept that this is the way of the world; they act from their faith that things can get better as long as we don’t give up.

These women, both Egyptian and Israelite, working separately but together, teach us how we can bring about change in even the most challenging of times. These women teach us how to stand up and do the right thing, how to help in whatever way we can, and how to have hope for the future.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Sleepless in the Sukkah

The first year we had a home of our own our oldest daughter was only a year old and we built a sukkah in our backyard. It started small and we added a bit to it every year. When our kids were little we used to read bedtime stories in the sukkah — taking out the air mattress and pillows and blankets and cuddling up together to read before carrying the kids upstairs to bed. As soon as the kids were old enough, we tried sleeping outside in the sukkah — and it was a huge hit with the kids. The dogs were confused; they could not figure out why we would all sleep outside when there was a perfectly good house right behind us, but they curled up with the kids and waited patiently for the humans to realize that we were supposed to sleep indoors.

And so a family tradition began: every year at Sukkot we picked a weekend night to sleep outside in our Sukkah. We didn’t manage to do it every year, because some years it was just too windy and the sukkah could barely stand, and there was a year or two when the kids were on fall break from school and we were not home, but whenever we could we would all gather the air mattresses, the sleeping bags and blankets and pillows and all sleep together outside in the sukkah with the dogs.

Somehow it became the most important thing about Sukkot for my kids — what I always thought of as a nice treat when the weather allowed for it, became the thing my kids most look forward to. This year it was not looking good; Sukkot started out way too windy, and we had to take most of it down because it was blowing away. Once the weather cleared, the only night we would all be together to sleep outside was a school night and the practical side of me thought we would just have to skip it this year. But my three teenage daughters insisted that we sleep in the sukkah as a family. My oldest is applying to college this year and has been wondering if she will be around to sleep in the family sukkah next year… my 15-year-old is at a Jewish camp this weekend and did not want to miss sleeping outside with the rest of the family… and my youngest would have slept in it ANY night, windy or not. By Thursday night the wind had finally died down, so — school night or not — we were sleeping in the sukkah.

One of the lessons of Sukkot is about finding sanctuary in the temporary. A sukkah is, by nature, temporary and flimsy and does not make a very stable home — that’s why there are some years our sukkah practically blows away — but this year my teenagers reminded me of all that is permanent about a sukkah. It has become a part of their experience, a part of their memory and an important part of our family tradition. Our sometime-precarious sleeping-in-the-sukkah tradition has become ingrained into our children as one of the most important parts of the holiday. 

So, even though the practical side of me reminded me of why it was a bad idea — the air mattress will deflate in the middle of the night and it will be cold in the morning and we will all be up as soon as the sun rises — and despite knowing that nobody would get a good night’s sleep — not even the dogs, who still can’t figure out why we are all in the yard — I said yes to sleeping outside in the sukkah on a school night. I said yes, because Sukkot also reminds me that sometimes you have to just let go and enjoy what you can. And sipping a cup of coffee, tucked into a sleeping bag on a half-deflated air mattress is a great way to start the morning. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

No Regrets - Kol Nidre Sermon 5777

No Regrets
Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5777
Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik
Temple Ahavat Shalom – Northridge, California

The Maggid of Dubnow was once passing through a town and came upon an old, abandoned barn. On the side of this barn were 100 targets. And in the center of each target, was an arrow.  100 targets, 100 bullseyes. He was amazed. Immediately he went to the town square  and asked the villagers who was the marksman that had such amazing skill. They pointed to a boy,  sitting off to the side with a bow and quiver next to him. “Young man,” he asked him,  “how is that you are so skilled to have accomplished this incredible feat with your bow and arrow?” “It’s really easy,” the boy replied, “I shoot the arrows first, and then I paint the targets around them.”

If you draw the bullseyes after you shoot the arrows, you never regret a single shot.

American culture celebrates this “No Regrets” attitude. We hear it all the time, as if living life without regrets is the secret to happiness. Life is too short to live with regrets; don’t waste your time worrying about things that you have done.

On the surface it sounds ideal: “I have no regrets because I am happy with who I am right now. I have no regrets because I don’t waste my time dwelling on the past, I am focused on the future.” No regrets, no looking back, just moving on.

Perhaps Shakespeare put it best: “Things without all remedy should be without regard; what's done is done.” And it sounds like good advice for life… until you remember who said it. It was Lady Macbeth, advising her husband not to waste time regretting his past actions…like committing murder.

The sociologist and author Doctor Brene Brown teaches that living without regrets “doesn’t mean living with courage, it means living without reflection.” To live a life without regrets is to live an unexamined life, and Jewish tradition teaches us that that we need to be examining our lives, especially on Yom Kippur.

In our confessional, we pray these words: “Adonai, we are arrogant and stubborn, claiming to be blameless and free of sin. In truth, we have stumbled and strayed. We have done wrong.” It is the height of arrogance to come here on Yom Kippur and say that we have examined our lives and have no regrets. It is much easier to reflect on the year when we justify our mistakes as what we intended to do all along, when we shoot first and paint the targets later. But painting the targets after the fact does nothing to improve your aim, and we are here because we have missed the mark and have made mistakes.

It is not easy to admit to our regrets and failings, which is why we recite them together in the plural: Ashamnu, we have sinned, we have done wrong.

Our tradition teaches that regret is universal and both necessary and unavoidable and we have to face up to it.

Even God has regrets.

God regrets choosing Saul to be the king, telling the prophet Samuel, נחמתי “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned away from Me and has not carried out My commands.” God, who should have known better, made the wrong decision.

Later, in the book of Jeremiah, we learn that God regrets using Rome to destroy the Temple and sending the Jewish people into exile.  נחמתי “I regret the evil I have done to you”

And probably the most well-known instance of God’s regret is in the story of the flood. Not long after creating the world, God regrets doing so.  The Torah teaches that,

When Adonai saw how great was the wickedness of human beings in the earth, that the direction of their thoughts was nothing but wicked all the time, Adonai regretted having made human beings on earth, and was heartsick. So God thought, “I will wipe the humans off the face of the earth,  נחמתי I regret the day I made them.”
God’s regret is so profound that God takes an extreme action to try to fix it, tries to erase the mistakes made with humans and go back and start all over again. What started with good intentions —the creation of human beings — has gone horribly wrong. It is from a place of deep regret that God destroys almost all that had been created.

The Talmud explores God’s regret and there is debate about what exactly God regrets about creating human beings. As part of that discussion, Hillel and Shammai argue about whether it would have been better for human beings to be created or not have been created at all. In one of the rare instances when Shammai wins an argument it is determined that it would have been better had human beings not been created. However, the rabbis go on to say that since we already were created, it is our responsibility to examine our both our past and future deeds. This is what we are doing here tonight.

We come here to work on our souls,  to sit with the uncomfortable truth that we have not always done the right thing  and that we need to do better. Yom Kippur challenges us to name our regrets because that is the first step of Tshuvah — repentance — and how we become better. 

Regret is painful and uncomfortable. We cringe with regret. It forces us to face the worst in ourselves, the moments when we would like to tell ourselves that we were acting out of character, a momentary blip instead of who we really are. Yet it is those moments that we truly regret that teach us who we really want to be and how we could be better.

Part of the pain of regret is that  we have to take responsibility for our actions —we must admit that we had a choice and made the wrong one. We could have done something differently. We could have made a better decision. We could have exercised more self-control.  We could have taken the leap. But we did not. And it is frustrating to imagine  how things might have been better if we had only done something differently. Regret is the first step — that intense, emotional response to our self-examination that helps us to own up to our mistakes and change ourselves.

Doctor Brene Brown teaches that “Regret is one of the most powerful emotional reminders that change and growth are necessary…Regret is a tough, but fair teacher. To live without regret is to believe you have nothing to learn, no amends to make, and no opportunity to be braver with your life.” 

If you have no regrets, then you are not doing the work of Yom Kippur. That is what really would be a waste of time — to spend all these hours in prayer and contemplation and not leave this place changed. 

The Talmud teaches that one who has no regrets —who says, “I will sin and repent and then sin and repent” —that person is not truly penitent. Tshuvah is about recognizing what we have done wrong and learning from it, so that if we were to face the same circumstances again we would do something different.

Brown says something similar to the Talmud based in modern psychology: “There’s a power in… saying, ‘I do regret this decision. What can I do differently? How can I grow? How can I change?’ It is an uncomfortable but really important reminder to learn to do things different next time.” Regret is painful,  but if you let it, regret can be the motivation to act differently in the future. 

Reflecting on the last year and on our lives, our regrets come in all sizes.
Some of us may have big regrets —things that were life-altering and continue to unsettle us —but most of our regrets are smaller, more ordinary occurrences. We fail to act kindly. We pretend not to see someone in need so we don’t have to stop and offer a hand. We pass up opportunities because we are afraid. We intentionally misunderstand a cry for help so we don’t have to answer it. We don’t take a chance,  sticking with what we know instead of trying something new. We are silent when we should speak up. We say the hurtful thing because the other person deserved it, or because we were justifiably angry, or just because we were hurting and wanted to offload it onto someone else. These moments happen all the time. Perhaps this is why we want to ignore them and pretend that we have no regrets.

Our Yom Kippur liturgy and tradition are clear: we are supposed to remember and regret all of these things. We confess our sins over and over. In case we are tempted to say we have no regrets, reciting Al Chet and pounding our chests reminds us otherwise —it reminds us of everything we have done wrong, categories of sin we may have forgotten about until we recite the words together.

“What we regret most,” says Brown, “are our failures of courage, whether it’s the courage to be kinder, to show up, to say how we feel, to set boundaries, to be good to ourselves.” 

Our regrets can help teach us to take that chance, to speak up, to be kinder.

Our regret can remind us to refrain from hurting someone just because we can, to refrain from the revenge that feels good in the moment, to hold back the hurtful words that are truly better off unsaid.

Perhaps the reason regret is so painful is because it forces us to acknowledge that there are some things we can not fix. There are some mistakes that we can not undo, chances we can not go back and take, words that we can not unsay, there are things that are irreversibly broken.

God regretted creating human beings and tried to start over, but we know that you can’t go back and erase mistakes, and what God did next is equally regrettable, destroying the earth and living things in an attempt to wash everything away. 

After the flood waters recede God seems to regret destroying the world in anger and promises to never again cause such complete destruction.Knowing that humans still have the capacity for evil and concerned about the temptation to once again send rains, God creates a reminder in the form of a rainbow, a promise to stop the rain and not let floods again destroy the whole earth.God learns through experience and regret.

Later in the Torah, the Israelites have escaped Egypt into the wilderness, only to panic and build a Golden Calf. God is ready to destroy them and start over with Moses as the new father of the Jewish people.

Moses reminds God about the promise to Abraham,Isaac and Jacob that their offspring would be numerous and would populate the promised land. Moses asks God to repent from the plan to wipe them out.God listens to Moses and here uses the same word for “repent” as was used to express regret over creating humans: נחמתי nechamti, I regret. God has regrets and repents, and does not act on the impulse to punish the people by completely destroying them.God is learning, and changing. 

When later faced with a similar situation, God makes another choice, and does not act in anger. This is true repentance: choosing not to repeat the action that you regret. 

An admittedly-fallible God seems at odds with the theology of Yom Kippur. Instead of being all-knowing and all-powerful as portrayed in our prayers. 

An all-knowing God would not make mistakes, our Torah teaches that God does not know everything; instead God feels sorrow and has regrets. An all-powerful God could go back in time and change things, but our Torah teaches that even God does things that can not be undone. 

Rabbi Brad Artson teaches that: “A timeless, changeless God cannot regret. Regret means being different than you were a moment ago…Over and over again the Torah emphasizes a God who expresses emotion, a God who is always meeting people in relationship, and changing because of that relationship.”

God’s regrets are a lesson in Process Theology, a theology which teaches that God and the universe and everything in it are constantly changing together. Process theology understands that God is not a static and unchanging being, but instead is growing and evolving, alongside humanity.

If God is capable of regret and repentance and change, then these things are woven into the fabric of the universe and we too are capable of regret, repentance and change.

One of the most fascinating things I found when researching this sermon is based in the Hebrew we use for these concepts that shows how they are woven together. The Hebrew word used in Torah to describe God’s regret — נחמתי nechamti — and that God later uses to mean “repent” —is the same word used elsewhere by the prophets to describe God’s offering of comfort. It may seem odd to use the same word for regret and repent and comfort in Hebrew, but this is the real key to Yom Kippur. Reflecting on our deeds and learning from our regrets is ultimately where we will find comfort. Regret, repentance and comfort are tied together. And comfort is an important part of the process: first an examination of our deeds, then regret for our mistakes —both big and small — then repentance, and finally the comfort that comes from learning from our regrets. Yom Kippur is a reminder that we can change, we are constantly changing  and we can change for the better.

You can come away from Yom Kippur with a sense of comfort and satisfaction with who you are now and everything that has brought you to this point —not because you have no regrets, but because you have learned from them.

 Regret is a powerful teacher.
May wrestling with your regrets teach you to learn from your mistakes.
May you find true repentance and may you change for the better.
May your repentance lead you to forgive yourself
and give you the wisdom to act differently in the future.
May you continue to grow and change.
May we all be able to say nechamti — I regret.
Nechamti — I repent.

Nechamti — I have found comfort.

Reshuffling Life - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777

“Reshuffling Life”
Sermon for Erev Rosh HaShanah 5777
Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik
Temple Ahavat Shalom – Northridge, California

What if you could arrange the events of your life in another way? Perhaps you wonder how different your teenage years might have been if only you had the knowledge you have now… or maybe some of us wish we still possessed the optimism and energy of our youth. We might imagine reordering entire days or years of our life.

Author David Eagleman imagines a different way to organize the events of your life. In his vision of the afterlife you relive all of your experiences, but similar activities are grouped together. He writes:

You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Once you make it through, it's agony-free for the rest of your afterlife. But that doesn't mean it's always pleasant. Eighteen months waiting in line.  You can't take a shower until it's your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower. Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy.  Three months doing laundry. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.

At this time of year, we envision a metaphorical Book of Life — a clean slate where our names might be written for another year of life and blessing. Now try to imagine another book… another type of ledger… where how we spend every second of our time is written down and calculated.

Eagleman’s numbers are based on averages — so you might spend less time sleeping, or more time doing laundry, but as estimates go they’re not too far off. That said, he leaves out an important category I know many of you are wondering about: how much time have you spent in High Holy Day services? According to my calculations,  the average Reform Jew will spend about 33 days over the course of a lifetime, more if you stay for the whole day on Yom Kippur. I hope you've got a comfortable seat.

It’s surprising to realize how much time we spend on all of these activities. Organizing every second into categories, the way Eagleman does, certainly gives us a different way to look at how we spend our time. Which is exactly what we are supposed to be doing here tonight, and over the course of the next ten days. Thinking back over the year that just ended, reviewing our choices... reviewing how we spent our time. Were we engaged in the things we wanted to be? The things that matter to you? Or were you wasting time? Rosh Hashanah is an annual reminder that life is short, and so much of our time is taken up by such little moments: laundry and showers and waiting in lines. It seems impossible in one lifetime to fit in everything we want to do. We have limited time; how will you use it?

The Psalmist was acutely aware of how finite our time is when he wrote, “The span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years; but even the best of them are trouble and sorrow. They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness… Teach us to count our days, that we may obtain a wise heart.”

The Psalmist knew that wisdom comes from knowing that our time is limited; it is precisely because we have only so many days that we are forced to examine them.

If you had an infinite lifespan, there would be no urgency to focus on important tasks, or to fix your mistakes —you could waste time on unimportant things until you were ready to live a life of meaning, and still have an infinite stretch of years ahead of you. The Psalmist is not telling us to count our days, but telling us to make our days count. It is up to us to find something meaningful in every day. Life will be difficult, there will be trouble and sorrow;  it is how we respond to difficulty that matters. 

Our patriarch Isaac knew better than anyone how short our time is. Rabbi Bradley Artson teaches that Isaac had a near-death experience when he went under the knife, about to be sacrificed by his father Abraham on Mount Moriah, and from that experience he gained clarity about what is truly important in life. Like many who have faced their mortality when staring death in the face, Isaac’s new understanding of life’s brevity leads him to reorient his life, to focus on what writer David Brooks calls “Eulogy Values.”

In his book The Road to Character, Brooks posits that there are two types of values: Resume Values and Eulogy Values. He explains that Resume Values are the skills and talents you have that you bring to the marketplace. Eulogy Values are just what they sound like: what people will talk about at your funeral — things like “whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful.”

Isaac is frequently thought of as the least of the patriarchs. He is not the communal leader that his father Abraham and his son Jacob are recorded as being; he is often viewed as a mere link in the chain between generations. He is not a warrior or public figure; he does not have a huge family; he is not known for his wealth or his skill in negotiating with others. Isaac, perhaps because his own life flashed before his eyes as he thought he was dying,  goes on to lead a very different life from the other patriarchs. His priorities are different. He spends more time focused on Eulogy Values than on Resume Values.

Isaac has a deep sense of empathy. He is the only one of the patriarchs to plead to God on behalf of his wife when she is unable to get pregnant. He dedicated his life to Rebecca, and never takes another wife or concubine to prove his virility or to ensure that he will have heirs. Isaac is also the only patriarch to be described as loving his wife — and he remains in love with her throughout their lives. Isaac at one point tells King Abimelech that Rebecca is his sister, thinking that his wife is so attractive that someone would want to kill him in order to have her for themselves.

This is decades after they have met — they have adult sons! —but he still finds her irresistibly attractive and assumes everyone else does too. They don’t. Nobody else is interested in Rebecca; it is only Isaac that continues to see her as beautiful as the day they met. And in that same story we also see their playful intimacy with each other; it’s abundantly clear that they have a deep and lasting relationship. Isaac’s focus is on love, connection and partnership.

Isaac is more concerned about peace than material wealth. When he is challenged about the wells he has dug, he willingly hands them over to the Philistines instead of going to battle. Isaac does not put others’ lives on the line to gain or preserve his wealth; he is aware that accumulating a larger fortune is not worth risking the safety of his family or others who depend on him. Isaac is a peacemaker; he knows that not every battle is worth fighting and his restraint results in a harmony between him and the surrounding people.

Isaac stays in the land of Israel all of his life; unlike Abraham and Jacob he never sets foot in Egypt, and is the first Jew to practice farming — planting and staying in one place until the harvest; showing his dedication and patience. 

Isaac is shocked at the point of a knife into an awareness that his life is fleeting and he learns not to take life for granted.

Isaac is the often-overlooked patriarch because he does not have the prestigious resume and outward success that Abraham and Jacob do, but his life is an example of what it means to cultivate Eulogy Values — to live a life of meaning, loyalty, devotion and peace, focused on relationships and faith. 

The ram caught in the thicket granted Isaac another chance at life. We have such a moment as well in these Days of Awe. As the ram was Isaac’s salvation, the call of the shofar is our wake-up call — a reminder for us not to take life for granted either. It is in this moment that we let our own lives flash in front of our eyes. All of the good and all of our sins.

David Brooks suggests that the theologian Augustine offers a good working definition of sin — that when you sin it is because you have your loves out of order. “We all love a lot of things. We love family, we love money, we love a little affection, status, truth,” Brooks says. “And we all know that some loves are higher. We know that our love of family is higher than our love of money. However, when those ranks begin to shift, that’s when sin comes in. Our love of truth should be higher than our love of money. [But] if we’re lying to get money, we’re putting our loves out of order.” If a friend tells you a secret and you share it at a dinner party, you are putting a love of popularity over your love of friendship.

This definition of sin is also a way to organize a cheshbon nefesh, an accounting of our soul; how we spend our time is an indicator of what we love and what we value the most.

On Rosh Hashanah we ask ourselves, “how did we spend the past year?” If you were to reshuffle the events of this past year, does the way you spend your time reflect your values and what’s most important to you?

The reality is that we can’t spend every moment doing something that we love, or only the things that bring us joy — we need our sleep and it is impossible to avoid pain. But there are many, many hours that we do have control of — and on Rosh Hashanah we are reminded that it is up to us to determine how we will spend those hours.

When we try to imagine our lives reshuffled into orderly categories, all of our pain and heartache all at once, it seems unbearable. Eagleman points out that it is because we experience all of these things in small amounts that they are manageable. 

In reflecting on the past year, when we think about our moments of pain, we also remember the moments of comfort — the kind word... the friend that reached out… the hug when we needed it. How often in the past year were we that source of comfort? How often did we make someone else smile?

We have choices in how we respond to the world around us, how we respond to the inevitable heartbreak that none of us can avoid, how we respond to the challenges that test our abilities. The average person spends five months of their life complaining. We can choose not to spend our hours that way. We can stand up for others. We can take responsibility and make amends. We can nurture our friendships and love deeply. We can help bring peace to our homes, our community and our world.

As we begin the New Year, we take stock of our lives. Are you living the way you want to be remembered? Are you living a life that reflects your values?

If not enough of your hours are spent doing things that are meaningful to you, if your time does not reflect your values, you can start by changing just one hour: spending one more hour a week doing something that matters to you — something important that reflects who you really are and what you value. Just one more hour a week. Only eight and half minutes a day. And it adds up — by next Rosh Hashanah that’s 52 more hours working on your eulogy values, two more days spent doing the things that matter. Let the call of the shofar wake you up and remind you to make your days count.

Our lives are made up of so many little moments.
May your moments be filled with joy,
May your hours be filled with contentment, 
May your days be filled with meaning and 
May your years be filled with purpose

And may you find blessing in this new year.