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Friday, November 14, 2014

(Better Late Than Never)....Walking Down the Road Less Taken (the Wisdom of Robert Frost and Jewish Tradition), a Sermon for the Eve of Yom Kippur

I posted three sermons connected to the Yamim Noraim/Days of Awe last month, and I've been meaning to post this one as well.  Even though the holidays are long since over, I hope that you find this meaningful.




Last week I spoke about some of the implications of being human and being created in God's image. After all, there is a great deal of responsibility riding on our all-too-human shoulders. On Erev Rosh Hashanah I cited a midrash in which the angels argue with God about whether or not the first human being should be created and debate whether or not the creation of Adam will be good or bad for the world. In the end, the midrash acknowledged that human beings would act in both good and evil ways, make both war and peace and speak both truth and lies. And so we humans constantly must make choices in our lives.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, in my exploration of the musical Sunday in the Park with George, I spoke of the centrality of feeling connection to being human It is connecting with others and with all of creation which is the essence of the Divine Presence in the world. Connecting and living life to the fullest involves finding a balance which inevitably leads us to do good and to be partners with God in the ongoing work of creating the world. In order to find that balance we must make choices at every moment. If we do not choose, then we do not act. If we do not act then there is little difference between us and the two dimensional characters in a painting who can not act and who cannot really connect. We can't let fear of other's opinions or judgment, nor fear of making the wrong choice, prevent us from choosing and acting. For even not choosing is actually a choice. For we are choosing to let others choose for us.

The importance of making choices and maintaining balance are also woven through the themes of Yom Kippur. At the moment when we are portrayed as facing God in judgment we must make a choice. We choose what path we will take as we enter the new year. We choose whether or not to seek forgiveness and whether or not to forgive others...and ourselves...and even God.

In the Unetaneh Tokef, the prayer which perhaps most clearly expresses the dual meaning of Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe and the Days of Fear, we imagine God choosing “who shall live and who shall die.” But the prayer is really about us making choices. For to live an ethical and moral life, a life modeled after what we believe are the positive attributes of God, then we must make choices as each day we face new challenges. It is as if in each moment we are at a crossroads, though at this moment perhaps a more important one, and we must choose where our next step will take us.

These thoughts drew me once again to texts I'd never imagined using in a sermon, two familiar poems by that great New England “rabbi,” Robert Frost. As you're probably aware, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” describes the poet, having unexpectedly stopped in those woods, not only noticing, but experiencing and connecting with the woods, the snow, and everything around him. Even as he experiences and connects with the beauty of the woods he also acknowledges that they are not his woods. They belong to a not-quite-stranger who lives in the nearby village: “Whose woods these are I think I know.  His house is in the village though;   He will not see me stopping here   To watch his woods fill up with snow.” And yet, I couldn't help but think that in some ethereal way, the stranger will indeed know, or perhaps knows at that very moment, that the stranger is there. In truly experiencing the woods, it is as if he is somehow connecting with the not-quite-stranger. Just as when we connect with the world around us, we connect with the others who have enjoyed it's beauty. In this way we connect with the the owner, or creator, of our world. The not-quite-stranger, the not-quite-knowable entity or force we call God. For the Divine Spirit and Presence of God, the Shekhinah, is always present when there is true connection. We just might not realize it.

The poem famously concludes: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   But I have promises to keep,   And miles to go before I sleep,   And miles to go before I sleep.”

The woods, like life, are beautiful, mysterious and endless (or at least seemingly so). Like the poet, there are times when we want to simply get lost in the beauty and the mystery of the world and of life. He wants to stay where he is and share the beauty of the woods which have been presented to him, like a gift, by the mysterious, yet not mysterious, owner. And so too when we are able to connect with the beauty and mystery of the world which has been given to us as a gift as well. But being fully present in the moment as an important spiritual practice does not mean that we simply stay in the same moment ad infinitum, l'olam va'ed. For the truth is that moment no longer exists. Time moves on, things change, whether or not we want them to. So if we choose to try and stay where we are we simply get left behind.

And so we must continue our journey moment to moment. We have promises to keep. We have tasks which need to be done. We have relationships which need our attention. We have commitments, for there is a world which needs us to continue to create and repair it. And so we must choose in this particular moment of Yom Kippur: Do we stay put in the place of regret, guilt, and certainty, or move ahead to do the work of creation, repairing and returning. We know that there are miles, days, weeks, and even more time to go before we may be able to rest, but do we let that fact keep us inert or do we see it as a challenge to us to move on and live?

The other Frost poem I would like to explore is “The Road Not Taken,” which begins: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler, long I stood. And looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth; Then took the other, as just as fair...”

Having chosen the road which appears less taken, though perhaps that was just an illusion, the poet imagines that some day he'll be able to come back, travel the other road and see what lies there. But then he acknowledges, “knowing how way leads on to way,” that he will never again return to this spot. And, imagining that he will surely retell this story in the future “with a sigh” the poet concludes: “ two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

The poet made a choice and that made all the difference, but neither the reader nor the poet knows what that difference is, for we never see where the other road leads. He has no idea if the life he might have led would have been better or worse than the one he did. But as mindfulness practice teachers, better or worse are labels which we create out of our own needs. They are totally subjective judgments and not objective truths. All the poet knows, all any of us knows, is what path we have taken and to where it has brought us at this very moment. To wonder what lay down the other path is to squander our time on a vain and fruitless endeavor.

Once again we come back to the unavoidable fact that we must make choices and that we can never know what the choice not made would have held for us. As the Sondheim lyric I quoted often last week states “I chose and my world was shaken, so what? The choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not. You have to move on.”

But what happens if, in moving on, we suddenly realize not that a choice was “wrong”, per se, but that it has caused pain to us or others or has done some kind of damage? That is when we engage in the act of teshuvah, repentance, return and repair. For this is what enables us to repair any damage which resulted from our choice, to seek or grant forgiveness and then move on with our journey. The late Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that the miracle of Teshuvah is that it can turn back the clock and give us a chance to make amends. Perhaps that is an apt metaphor. But it is not like an a science fiction story where we turn back the clock so that we don't have to seek forgiveness, as the act was never forgiveness. Rather, it is the reverse. Doing the difficult work of teshuvah with another person then allows us to turn back the clock of our relationship so that it is once again like it was before we acted wrongly. At that moment we may end up back at a seemingly familiar fork in the road again, but it's never really the same fork. And the the paths that lie ahead may look the same to us, but they never really are. And so we choose anew and continue our journey.

The message of the Kol Nidre prayer, which signals the start of Yom Kippur, can help us in this endeavor. This beloved, yet controversial, prayer states that all vows we make to ourselves or to God during the coming year are null and void the minute we make them. In a way this gives us a chance to turn back the clock before we even make a move or take any actions. Of course, this only refers to vows we make to God or one's self. Still, this prayer is based on the recognition that we human beings are prone to making vows or promises, often without fully considering whether or not we can fulfill them. That is why the Torah warns us against making vows and the ancient rabbis referred to the making of vows as a frivolous activity. And yet, though some vows and promises are indeed frivolous and to be avoided (the vows we refer to as New Year's resolutions for the secular New Year comes to mind) I believe some vows, or shall I say commitments, are an essential part of human existence. For these are the commitments which focus on creating, connecting, and repairing our world.

Believe it or not, this brings us back full circle to the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which is central to the High Holy Day liturgy. This prayer presents us with an image of God seated on a throne and judging us as we pass by, like sheep before a shepherd, who then determines who shall live and who shall die, and by what means . On this day each of our names will be written in the Book of Life or, God forbid, the Book of Death. But the essential part of the prayer which often gets lost as some of us struggle with those images is the statement that each of us writes in the book with our own hands. We seal, or create, our own fate. In other words, the road we are to take this coming year based on the choices we made this past year and, most important of all, the choice we are making in this moment.

The Unetaneh Tokef then ends with the proclamation that Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah can have an impact on the impact of the final decree. In other words, these three simple, basic acts can have a profound impact on our lives. Though traditionally translated as Repentance, Prayer and Charity, I would like to reinterpret and expand their meaning. Teshuvah means returning, but this is not only about repentance or forgiveness. It is about returning to our truest selves. Returning to who we are meant to be. And it is about returning to connect with family, friends, community and all of creation, and the Divine which is within each of us.

Tefillah, is more than just the prayers in our siddur (prayer book) or Machzor (High Holy Day prayer book). Tefillah comes from a reflexive verb l'hitpallel, a verb which implies an action which has a direct effect on who we are. It is just as often prayer from the heart or other types of spiritual practice which helps us connect with the godliness within ourselves and others.

Finally, Tzedakah is more than just giving money, or charity. Tzedakah, in its broadest sense, means any righteous action which helps to repair our broken world and enables us to continue being partners with God in the work of creation. True acts of tzedakah are about more than just money.

This trio of actions also connects with another trio in our tradition in order to form a 6 pointed star, a magen David, to guide us. The rabbis wrote in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, that the world is sustained by three things: Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim. Torah refers not only to the 5 books of Moses, but to all types of learning. Avodah, refers to worship, originally animal sacrifices in the Temple, but eventually prayer, or sacrifices of the heart. I view Avodah, as all types of spiritual work we do to connect with God. But it essentially that these practices involve community. Though many prayers can be said individually, communal prayer is essential, as were communal sacrifices. The same is true for other spiritual practices such as meditation, chanting, yoga, dance, etc. We can and should practice them all in private, but as the Hasidim know so well, it is much more powerful when we engage in these practices in community.

Gemilut Hasadim, acts of abundant love and kindness includes all acts that we do to help other people and all of God's creation, including the animals and the earth. Our rabbis actually taught that Gemilut Hasadim can be seen as greater than the traditional understanding of tzedakah as a monetary donation, for Gemilut Hasadim requires giving of yourself, your time, and your energy and not just money.

And so Tefillah in the Unetaneh Tokef is intimately linked to the greater concept of Avodah in the Pirkei Avot text. So too with Tzedakah and Gemilut Hasadim. But how is Teshuvah related to Torah? Simple. If we truly do the difficult work of returning to our truest selves we must give it our all. By doing this we are learning from ourselves as well as from those with whom we are connecting in the process. We all become the study text, we become the Torah. We learn from and teach one another.

But it doesn't stop there, for all of these are lifelong processes. They are not just reserved for the Yamim Noraim. And so we must continue to learn from and to teach each other, we must continue to connect to God through spiritual practice and we must give of ourselves and, if we are able, of our money to make the world a better place through acts of overflowing love and acts which bring righteousness and justice into our world.

These are also the essence of what it means to be a Jewish community, whether we call ourselves a temple, synagogue, Federation, community center or, of course, Fellowship. These institutions are not just there to serve us once or twice a year, or when we are in crisis or celebrating a simcha. They are hear all year round for us and we should also be here for them. We do this by dedicating ourselves to the six points of the Magen David, the star of David: Teshuvah and Torah, Tefillah and Avodah, Tzedakah and Gemilut Hasadim. These are the ways in which we receive from and give to our community. And there are so many opportunities here at the Fellowship, at the Jewish Federation and elsewhere where we can fulfill what I consider to be the six obligations for us as being created in God's image. But we need to commit ourselves, we need to make meaningful vows, to participate in these endeavors. And what better time to do that, or at least to begin the process, than on Yom Kippur.

And so my assignment for tonight and tomorrow is for each us to think about what commitments or vows we can make for the coming year in order to not only better our own lives, but to connect us to God, our community and our world. How is each of us going to commit ourselves to learning and sharing knowledge, to returning to our best selves, to some kind of spiritual practice, individual and communal, or to bringing righteousness and overflowing love into our community, the Jewish people, the land of Israel, all of humanity and our world.

To return to a phrase from my first day of Rosh Hashanah sermon, think of all of us on this holiest of days as a blank canvas. There are so many possibilities. So many ways we can create, connect, and repair our world together. So many commitments we can each make and use to paint our own canvas. Don't worry about whether or not you're going to be able to fulfill your commitment 100%. Don't worry about doing it perfectly or how the end result may look. Don't worry about what others might think or if anyone else is going to join you. Just take the leap. Choose something. Begin to walk down a road you've never taken before, while also appreciating the beauty of the world. For if when the shofar sounds tomorrow night we each commit ourselves to even one thing, no matter how small it might seem, we can change the world, and not just ourselves. And that is what this day and this season are really all about.

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