A mother goes into her son’s room one Saturday morning and sees that he is still in bed with the covers pulled over his head. “Allen, you’ve got to get up. It’s Saturday and you’re late for shul.” “Ahh Mom I don’t want to go to the synagogue, I don’t like it there.”
“Allen, you have got to get up and go to shul.”
“Mom, I hate going there. They all talk about me behind my back and they aren’t nice to me there.”
“Allen!” “OK, if you can give me two good reasons why I should go, I’ll get up.”
“Well,” said his mother, “first of all, you are 46. And secondly, YOU’RE THE RABBI.”
Now I’m not like Allen, I love to get up every Saturday morning…well there was this one time..but never mind.
Of course I had no trouble getting up this morning to come to services. Because every Rosh Hashana I ask the most difficult questions I can about the meaning of my life.
Like when do I feel that my life really matters? And what would I change about my life if I could? And if I can why haven’t I? Or if today were the last day of my life, what would I regret not having done? And ultimately, what are the things that matter most?
I have especially been asking myself those questions this year. Because this has been a milestone year for me as a rabbi – I was elected President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California – a board which includes 250 rabbis from every denomination of Jewish life, including Orthodox. And in the Spring I was given Doctor of Divinity degrees from both the Hebrew Union College and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in honor of celebrating my 25th year as a rabbi.
So there I was waiting to receive my doctorate with classmates some of whom I haven’t seen in 25 years. And in the midst of generally light shmoozing, we suddenly start asking each other “So what have you learned from 25 years of being a rabbi?” And I’ve been thinking about that question ever since.
So here are seven of the lessons I have learned (other than “what you say matters, what you do matters, and who you are matters), that I think might be relevant to your lives as well.
First, I realized that my greatest teachers weren’t found in the rabbinical seminary, nor even in those ancient Jewish texts that I love – the Torah, the Midrash, the Talmud.
The greatest teachers in life are the women, and men, and children who struggle to find meaning each day in the pains, and joys, and sorrow of their lives. You who have shared your frustrations and fears with me as you faced the unfairness of love and loss, the quiet terror of illness, and the longing for some simple way to make sense of it all.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “Life breaks us all – and when we heal we are stronger in the broken places.”
So second I learned that sometimes what matters most in life is just that – discovering that we are stronger in the broken places.
The daughter of two of our closest friends lives in Canada. We have been excited for months because Didi and I were scheduled to fly up to Victoria just a few weeks ago so I could officiate at her wedding. Instead, beautiful, sweet Erika, just 30 years old saw her wedding plans crushed by a rare malignant olfactory tumor that has already wiped out her ability to smell and taste, and still threatens to take her eyesight as well.
But sometimes we are stronger in the broken places. She and her finace have moved in with her parents while she undergoes radiation and chemotherapy. And when her parents realized that neither of them had been raised with any regular spiritual ritual in their home, they created one.
Now every night before they go to sleep they all gather in the bedroom, hold hands in a circle, and go around the room reciting the blessings they discovered in their lives that day.
“Do you know,” Erika told me, “every single day we find one miracle after another!” And she means it.
So the third lesson I have learned, is that it is possible to experience gratitude in the face of fear – miracles in the face of loss. That people can discover in the midst of life’s deepest trials, the things that matter most.
And fourth, that we have an almost limitless capacity to transform our lives by transforming our attitudes about life.
You have taught me that. Staring into the abyss of tragedy, instead of mourning all you have lost, so many of you, with such dignity and grace, quietly celebrate all you still have. Why does it so often take the crucible of life’s deepest traumas to remind us of the things that matter most?
It’s not supposed to be that way. This service is supposed to do it for us. “Zokhaynu lekhayim” we sing. It is the major theme of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. It’s usually translated “Remember us for life,” but I believe it really means, “REMIND US HOW TO LIVE!”
That’s what we’ve been doing every Rosh Hashanah for the past 3,000 years. Praying, longing, dreaming, begging, searching, hoping that something here will remind us how to live, so that not just today but throughout the year we remember what really matters most.
And we seem to need that reminder more than ever. More mothers are killing their children, more children are killing their classmates, suicide bombings and plunging stock prices wiping out fortunes with no bottom in site.
More and more of you sit in my study and ask, “What has it all meant, this endless pursuit of more “stuff”? “Even when I made tons of money,” someone told me just last week, “there was something that still felt hollow, empty, missing.”
I guess the fifth lesson that I have learned, is that in the end, the one who dies with the most toys, still dies. And no one looks back at the end of their life and says, “I wished I’d spent more time at the office making money.”
When Matthew Depew and 17 other students were trapped in a storage room off the school cafeteria the day of the Columbine High School shootings, he used his cell phone to call the police department where his father worked.
With bursts of gunfire in the background he calmly told the officer at the other end he was sure he was about to die. “Please tell my father I love him,” he said.
“Please tell my father I love him.” That was the final message Matthew wanted to give. Fortunately he survived and was able to tell his father himself. But with death literally beating at the door, Matthew’s main thought was his love for his father.
He wasn’t focused on a bank balance, or past achievements, or his failures. His focus was love.
And that’s the sixth lesson I have learned over and over again – that the most important things in life aren’t things. They are the relationships we have with the people in our lives.
But the seventh lesson is the most profound of them all. It is the power of ritual to transform lives. At birth, b’nai mitzvah, marriage, divorce, illness, miscarriage, life’s trials and tribulations, triumphs and successes, and even death. Ritual has the power to open our souls to experience the sacred in life.
And one ritual more than any other has been the secret of Jewish survival for the past 4,000 years. The radical innovation that Jewish civilization gave the world called SHABBAT.
It sounds simplistic, but it’s true. Celebrating SHABBAT – creating a sacred time to connect with the people and values that matter most has been the glue that held the Jewish people together for all these millennia.
On SHABBAT we not only reconnect with family and friends, we experience that powerful sense of belonging to something larger than merely self - something ancient, rooted, sacred.
So we are declaring this year: “THE YEAR OF CELEBRATING SHABBAT.” We are even introducing a new early Kabbalat Shabbat service from 6:15 to 7:00 PM one Friday night a month to allow you to come to services at KI and then go have Shabbat dinner together. With tapes, music, “how to” manuals, workshops, lectures, we will create every opportunity we can to make it easy for you to celebrate Shabbat both in your home and in the synagogue.
To kick off our YEAR OF CELEBRATING SHABBAT, thanks to the passion and generosity of Dr. Michael and Susan Norman, we are giving every member this video tape on how to make Shabbat in your home featuring Rabbi Lewart, Cantor Frenkel and myself. There is one tape in the foyer for every household in our congregation. Just find the one with your name on it and take it home as our holiday gift.
Watch it, use it, and take advantage of the weekly opportunity to bring spirituality, purpose, and meaning into your life through the simple, spiritual power of celebrating Shabbat.
And of course we are making them available for purchase through the KI office for non members or family or friends.
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism once said that “Judaism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, it is “IF-IMISTIC.” It tells us what we can make of our lives, IF we are willing to act on our dreams.
For there are laws in this rational universe you can’t ignore. If you want a harvest, you have to plant seeds. If you want good health, you have to take care of your body.
If you want friendship, you must act like a friend. If you want life to have meaning, you must live it as if it does. And if you want to experience the sacredness of time, a family that shares deep moments of meaning together, a sense of belonging to a spiritual community that truly matters – then seize the opportunity that Jewish tradition gives us EACH AND EVERY WEEK. The opportunity called, SHABBAT.
Once there was a father like so many others who worked as hard as he could to provide everything he could for his family. Unfortunately because of all the hours he put in working, he often missed baseball games, recitals, and school family days. He often worked into the night and missed dinners at home or tucking his kids into bed.
Of course he loved his family more than anything and that was why he was working so hard in the first place.
One Saturday afternoon he was working on some notes for a meeting coming up the next week, and his son came up and asked:
“Dad, how much do you make per hour?” The father was a bit taken aback. “What kind of question is that?” he said.
“No Dad, really, I’m just curious. Is it $10 an hour, $25, 50?”
“Well,” his father said, “I guess it’s more like $35 an hour.”
With that the son ran off to play and let his father continue his work. A few weeks later the father was again working at the kitchen table when his son walked in with a big jar filled with pennies.
He put the jar on the table in front of his father with a small thud. “What’s this?” asked the father. “$35,” the son replied.
So one day this week come home one hour earlier and spend it with your family. Or create time on Shabbat to be with friends.
The truth is, your time with your family and those you love, is priceless. That’s the real gift of Shabbat. What truly makes Shabbat holy. It’s the gift of sacred time
So this is my challenge to every one of you. In the year ahead celebrate at least one Shabbat a month at home; celebrate at least one Shabbat a month in the synagogue. And you’ll always remember the things that matter most.