Yom Kippur 5772/2011
Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
A rabbi was walking down the street when he came upon a few boys from his synagogue about 10 years of age, surrounding a dog. Concerned that the boys were hurting the animal, he went over and asked them what they were doing.
One of the boys said, “Rabbi, this dog is an old neighborhood stray. We take him home with us sometimes, but since only one of us can take him home we’re having a contest: whichever one of us tells the biggest lie can take him home today.”
Of course, the Rabbi was a bit upset. “You boys shouldn’t be having a contest telling lies!” he said. He then launched into a 10-minute sermon against lying, beginning, “Don’t you boys know it’s a sin to lie?” and ending with, “Why, when I was your age, I never told a lie.”
There was complete silence for about a minute while the boys all looked at each other and lowered their heads. And just as the Rabbi was thinking to himself, “Wow I really got through to them,” the smallest boy gave a deep sigh and handed him the leash. “Alright, Rabbi,” he said, “You win. You can take him home.”
We all stretch the truth from time to time – but this day, this service is the time each year when we challenge ourselves to face the truth – the truth about ourselves and who we are and who we have been.
We gather together each year to recount our sins and seek repentance and renewal and change. We beat our breasts or tap our hearts and say alhet shehatanu lifaneha… “For the sins which we have sinned against you” and then we list a whole host of sins for which we seek forgiveness.
But this year I finally realized what the biggest sin of all might be. It’s a sin that every one of us commits and some of us every single day of our lives. It isn’t just that we sometimes hurt others, or are insensitive to their needs, or say words that cause discomfort or embarrassment to others which of course we also do from time to time.
No, our biggest sin, the sin that most of us are guilty of most of the time is believing the most powerful lie of all – that there is always more time. Our real sin is not truly living now – it is waiting for life to begin. I have heard so many of you say it so often in so many different contexts when life is hard, or challenging, or the economy crumbles, and you can’t sell your home, or you are confronting an illness or almost any challenge - this is what I hear.
“I know that my life will really begin when I have more money… my kids grow up… I have a child…I fall in love…I find a husband, or a wife or a partner to share my life with…I get well again…my child gets over her illness, I sell my house, we move to the city of my dreams,…my dreams come true,…I sell my business…I sell my screenplay…I get the job I always wanted….I win the lottery…I get divorced…I get my driver’s license…I graduate from college…I pass the bar…I get out of medical school…I get a new phone…I get the new ipad…I get a faster computer…I go to therapy….I stop going to therapy���I meet a man…I meet a woman…I have another child…the stock market goes back up….I retire from this job I hate…I just lose 10 pounds…I eat a healthier diet…I go back to exercising…I get another degree…I finally get the promotion I deserve….”
And the list goes on and on and on and on and on. “My life will really begin when….” It is what I call “Having a Near Life Experience” – because you are waiting, waiting, waiting for your life to really begin.
Perhaps that is why our most sacred, holy writings teach us that who we are as a people was forged in the rugged wilderness of Sinai, a ragged mixed band of former slaves escaping the degradations of our past by trudging along the sand dunes of life, encountering the divine in a burning bush, or a mountain top ringed with lightning and thunder…with wisdom carved into the sides of stone to remind us forever of what is possible even in the midst of life’s despair – baking under the oppressive heat of the sun, forever trudging along the dusty path towards a distant “promised land” looming somewhere in the future.
We are a people whose revelations were so fearful and thunderous and terrifying that we begged Moses to go up to the mountain alone. We were certain that if we gazed upon the ultimate Truth of life itself it would destroy us in a moment and leave our dusty bones behind in the wasteland of forgotten hopes and dreams of redemption.
So what was the real lesson that Moses taught us in those forty years of wandering? We all know the answer already. It couldn’t really have been about the Promised Land – since most of us never got there. We didn’t then, and we don’t now. We read the story year in and year out - the forty years of wandering, the powerful lessons that really matter and just as we are about to enter the land…..we start the story all over again and have to re-learn the lessons of our discontent, our dislocation, our struggle to hear that voice of God that terrifies us all. And so we wander, and we wander, and we wander in our own wilderness every single year of our lives.
Of course we already know the truth – that it wasn’t the Promised Land that mattered most, it’s never the destination that is the true goal in the first place, it’s the journey – that is the real lesson, and we learn it and relearn it year after year.
It is the journey of our own lives – every one of us – on the same frightening, insecure journey of life. Perhaps this is what we really mean by faith – the faith that each of us must have that somehow our own unique, individual, one-of-a-kind journey is the right one for us. That our journeys are where we are supposed to be. That our journey is the path to wisdom, the path to self-discovery, the path to finding the meaning and purpose of our lives.
What I know for sure, is that the journey itself is the destination and the true tragedy of our lives is that too many of us are not really alive at all. We are mere shadows of who we might be, hiding behind our fears, afraid to step out and take the chance we might fail. And so we are not really living. We are waiting. We are waiting. We are waiting to live. Having a “Near life experience.” Holding back just in case. Playing it safe just in case. Waiting for that one magic event, or person, or sign that will tell us now is the time, now we have permission to really live.
Mark Twain once said, “There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.” But many of us don’t believe that about our lives – it’s only everyone else whose is interesting, whose life has drama, whose life matters. But the magnificent truth is that every one of us is a living, breathing, complex miraculous being filled with drama and delight, trauma and tragedy, joy and mystery, and the unlimited potential to transform the world in miraculous ways.
I know that for certain. I see it every day. Right here in our own community, in our own congregation, Jews and non-Jews, young and old. People doing quiet miracles that change the world, by touching one life here, another there, the hungry, the homeless, the disabled, the broken of heart or spirit, or body, or bringing love and renewed life to abandoned or abused creatures of all kinds, or simply giving of themselves in a thousand different private mitzvah moments that uplift the world and fill it with more light.
I see it every week as a bar or bat mitzvah undertakes a mitzvah project that draws their entire family into a cooperative of caring that lasts long after the ceremony and celebration have become a mere memory. I see it in those of you who walk to find a cure for diseases of every name and kind, who make dinners for the homeless, who bring clothes to those who shiver from the cold of rejection and loneliness, or who tutor children who have no one else to turn to and who would otherwise be lost to learning and intellectual success, and a thousand other nameless givers and doers among you.
This is the day, the moment to believe that who you are matters and the choice of who you really are, who you become this year is really up to you.
The greatest sadness of being a rabbi, is how many times I have stood at a funeral and heard those two gut wrenching words… ”If only.” I stood beside the grave with a grieving family and listened as with tears in his eyes, the deceased’s brother said to me, “I loved my brother, rabbi.” “Yes of course you did,” I replied. “No, you don’t understand,” he said. ‘’I really, really loved my brother…and once I almost told him.” And once I almost told him. There are too many “almosts” in all of our lives.
Tony Campolo, a professor of Sociology at Eastern College in Pennsylvania wisely wrote, “What you commit yourself to be will change what you are and make you a completely different person. Contrary to what most people think, it’s not the past but the future that conditions you, because it is what you commit yourself to become that determines what you are more than anything that ever happened to you yesterday or the day before.”
So today I ask a very simple question on this holiest of days – What are your commitments? Where are you going in the year ahead? What are you going to be? Show me someone who hasn’t decided yet, who hasn’t made a commitment to something yet, and I will show you somebody who is having a near life experience, never quite fully living.
Frankly, the single most powerful lesson I have ever learned about life is simply this- you become what you think about, and you do what you decide to do. Period. Choose, or life will choose for you. Decide your own path, your own journey, your own results or you will simply drift afloat on the sea of life, battered and tossed randomly from one port to the next, at the whim of every other person in the world who has decided, who has chosen where they want to go.
One day about 26 years ago I decided that I would have a book published – actually at that moment I decided that I would have at least five books published. It’s not that I had a particular passion to write about something specific – in fact I didn’t have any idea at the time what I would write about, and I had never taken a writing course or knew anyone personally who had written and published books. I simply decided, “I’m going to have five books published.” I realized that writing and having books published would be a concrete symbol of my own ability to give direction to my life and would remind me over and over again of the transformative power of choosing who I am going to be every day of my life. I realized that the quality of my life is a direct result of the quality of my choices, and that every single day I wake up I have another opportunity to choose who I am going to be all over again.
Many years have passed since the moment I made that decision – and this past month Roman & Littlefield has just published my fifth book – BECOMING JEWISH. Being willing to make a decision changes your life. Remember this - anything that anyone ever created, from having a child to splitting the atom began with a simple decision. That is also the power of this sacred season and these High Holy Days - for making a decision about who you will be, what you will accomplish, what you will create in the days ahead is the single most important choice that you have to make this year.
So make a decision today. Make it right now as you sit here. Or make it when you go home tonight without fear of what others will say or how you might be judged for the choices you make.
Just remember this: The Gettysburg Address is considered by many to be the most eloquent oration in US history. And yet the editor of the Chicago Times, a prominent newspaper of its day, ridiculed that address delivered by President Lincoln the day after he delivered his famous speech with these words: “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, fat and dish-watery utterances of the man who has been pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”
It’s easy for others to criticize your choices, deride your decisions, belittle your efforts in life. Your job is simply to choose. Your challenge is to make a decision, and the decision itself will then give direction, meaning and goals to your life.
In a famous football game between Michigan State and UCLA, the score was tied 14 all with only seconds to play. Michigan State’s coach sent in place-kicker Dave Kaiser who booted a field goal that won the game. When Kaiser returned to the bench, Coach Duffy Daugherty clapped him on the back and said, “Nice going, but I noticed that you didn’t even watch the ball after you kicked it.”
“I know, coach,” said Kaiser. “I was watching the referee instead to see how he’d signal it because I forgot my contact lenses and I couldn’t even see the goal posts.”
Make a decision, and then have faith that all that is left is for you to follow through on the direction that decision takes you in life. You may remember the story of a young man who was eager to make it to the top so he went to a well-known, successful businessman and asked him, “What’s the number one reason for your success?” Without hesitation the successful business man answered, “Choosing to work hard.” After a pause the young man asked, “Is there a number two reason?”
Make a decision. Choose what you will become this year. Choose to live fully this year. Choose to let go of your near life experience and embrace the life you were meant to live. There is a reason that every single year we read these words in the Torah – “See I put before you good and evil, life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life. Choose life. Choose life.”
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