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What Changed Your Life This Year?

posted Sep 25, 2017, 3:08 PM by Heidi Hoover   [ updated Sep 25, 2017, 3:11 PM ]

Erev Rosh Hashana Sermon 5778--September 20, 2017

Life is about stories. The stories we tell about ourselves and others, the stories we tell TO ourselves. For millenia, Jews have passed on stories about what God’s relationship is with us, and what our relationship is with other human beings and with the natural world. The central mission of Passover, our most-celebrated holiday, is to tell a story to our children.

When I think of the stories I tell, there are many that include the phrase: “…and it changed my life.” The fact is, every decision we make, every thought we have, changes our lives, whether we notice it or not. Sometimes it’s more noticeable than other times.

You’ve heard me say lots of times that there are many ways to think about God, many ways to imagine that God is. I just want to note that I use the word “imagine” here NOT because I think God is imaginary or not real, but because I believe God is so much past our understanding that we can only imagine what God might be like—we can’t really know.

One of the ways to think about God is called panentheism. Panentheism is the belief that everything is God. God isn’t separate from us; there is nothing but God. So God is you, and God is me, and God is the ark, and the Torahs inside the ark, and God is the hole in the ceiling, and God is that thought you just had about how you’re not connecting to what I’m saying, and that it’s too hot in here—or too cold, depending on how your body works, which is also God, and God is our every feeling and thought and decision and object and plant and animal and everything. And that means that God is always changing, because every new animal, object, plant, thought, decision, every everything becomes part of God and changes God. In this understanding of God, we change God’s life, every second.

Here are some of my experiences that I recognize as having changed my life:

·               My decision to go to Carnegie Mellon University and not some other college: I shudder when I think that if I had gone elsewhere, to Smith, or Gettysburg, or Syracuse, I might never have met Mike Rose, who has been my partner for more than 27 years.

·               The moment at the very beginning of rabbinical school, when Rabbi Brad Hirschfield taught that the most important thing is for us to be at peace with everything about ourselves, to be okay with ourselves, because then we’re not threatened by anyone different from us, and I thought, “YES,” and it became my life’s goal, which I’m continuing to work on.

·               Hosting Israeli teens last year for their year of service between high school and the army—I met Naomi and Shira, Yonatan, Omer, and Hadar, and I love them. They changed my life so I feel more connected to Israel, because of them I’ve been studying to get better at Hebrew, and I’m looking at life in general in a different way.

Those are all positive examples, times when my life was changed for the better. Of course, negative experiences change our lives too. My mom had cancer when I was 11 years old, and I thought she was going to die. That changed my life. She did die of cancer eventually, in 2006, just weeks before I began my internship here. Recently we recognized the 16th yahrzeit of September 11, a terrorist attack that changed many of our lives and changed our country, too.

There are those who say that everything, positive and negative, happens for a reason. That doesn’t work for me, though if it works for you, that’s great. For me, I believe we can learn from what happens, we can find meaning in it, but I don’t—I can’t—believe that there was some kind of positive reason that my mom died—that’s the most glaring example for me.

I do believe that I understand people’s experiences of losing loved ones better, having lost my mom. But I don’t believe that whatever I have learned as a result of losing her when I did will ever lead me to feel grateful that things happened as they did.

Regardless of whether we are able to find positive meaning in the difficult events of our lives, part of what we do at the High Holidays is to look for the meaning in the events of our lives. We assess the past year. What decisions that we made turned out to be good? What decisions that we made turned out to be hurtful to us or others? What decisions did we make without thinking, without even realizing we were making a decision, and what impact did those decisions have?

How were our lives changed in the past year, either for good or for bad? To what extent were we able to impact those changes with our decisions? What changes do we want to make to our lives—or what actions and ideas to we want to pay more attention to or make more deliberate—to increase the likelihood that our lives can change for the better?

The High Holidays are also about recognizing that we are not in control. We could make every decision right. We could do everything we’re supposed to, and it could still go wrong. After she was sick when I was a kid, my mom ate her broccoli, exercised daily, and was about as healthy as a person can be. The cancer still came back and it still killed her. Would it have come back sooner if her lifestyle had been less healthy? None of us can know the answer to that.

Those in the path of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma so recently, those being battered by Hurricane Maria right now, and those affected the flooding in Bangladesh and the fires in the Pacific Northwest of our country, and those impacted by the two major earthquakes in Mexico, know that there is power in this world that is beyond us. I don’t believe that God brought those disasters—as a punishment or for any other reason. We don’t know why they happen, exactly, except that we do know that our weather is becoming more severe due to global warming.

While there may be ways to lessen the effects of global warming, and I hope there are, and I hope the political will in the world will take us in that direction, we as individuals facing these storms or witnessing them happening to others, can’t stop them, can’t control them. We can control our response, the decisions we make about how much we can give to help, and what the most effective way to do so is.

And this is what it comes down to. There is so much that happens in our lives that we can’t control. When we make decisions, we can’t always—perhaps even usually—see how they will change our lives. We are blessed if we can point to moments and say, “That changed my life for the better.”

Even if we can’t point to positive moments and notice how they changed our lives, and even when the bad moments feel hard and hurtful and meaningless, we sometimes can decide how we respond to them. I’m not by any means advocating denying our emotions. I am advocating recognizing our emotions as real and not judging them. If we are mindful, we can experience our emotions and work toward understanding of ourselves and our experiences so that we can learn and become healthier.

One of the things I love about Judaism is that I find it very practical. With Judaism, it is very easy to meet people where they are, I find. The Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the days that come before, between and after them, are intended to give us the opportunity to see what has changed our lives. What has changed our lives for the better, and what has changed our lives for the worse. Then we are charged with choosing what changes our lives for the better, and phasing out what changes our lives for the worse.

This is an invitation. It is Erev Rosh Hashanah, and it will be 10 days until Yom Kippur. I invite you to think about how your life has been changed in the past year. Who changed it? How? Which changes were easy to learn from? Which were hard to learn from? Which ones do you prefer to ignore? Which ones are you proud of? Which changes do you want to carry into the new year, and which ones make you want to pretend they never happened?

While every decision, every feeling, every thought, introduces some change, however small, into our lives, we can’t always choose, we can’t be fully mindful, and we definitely can’t know whether our decisions will ultimately lead to good change or painful change (or both).

The Days of Awe are a time when we paradoxically recognize our powerlessness and lack of knowledge and understanding, while at the same time committing ourselves to doing the very best we can in the coming year to make good decisions, to learn and grow, to take care of ourselves and others.

We will succeed. And we will fail. Because that is what being human is. And because we will succeed and because we will fail, next year we will be back here again, with the opportunity to assess and examine, to make amends and resolve, again, to do better. And again we will succeed, and we will fail, because we are human. And everything we do—success and failure—will become part of God, part of our own experience, and part of the universe.

Every decision we make is trivial and momentous at the same time.

In 2005, I was a rabbinical student, and I had a small job in Belle Harbor, Queens, where I led High Holiday services and a few other observances throughout the year for a small chavurah there. In 2006, they hired me for a second year. After I’d already agreed, I saw a job listing for a rabbinic internship in Brooklyn. I knew immediately that that was a job I wanted. I checked with the dean of students at my seminary to see if she thought I could do both, and she thought I could, so I applied. In the summer of 2006 I went to an interview in the home of a congregant, having studied hard to memorize the long name of the congregation. That interview was a conversation around Hazel Tishcoff’s dining room table that lasted two hours, I had a wonderful time, and I was so sure that internship was the right job for me. Deciding to apply for that internship, going for it, and getting it definitely changed my life, as I went on to intern here for 5 years as a student, and this is the beginning of my 7th year as rabbi of this community that I love so much.

Last June, this community collectively made a decision that will change the life of our community. On October 21, we will consolidate with Progressive Temple Beth Ahavat Shalom from Borough Park, and the new congregation we are creating will be in this building. We don’t know yet exactly how our life will change, which is both exciting and anxiety-provoking. Parts of it we can control, and a lot of it we can’t. I strongly believe the consolidation is good for both our congregations, and that it’s going to be work out, one way or another.

As we look back on the past year, and consider the ways our lives have changed since last Rosh Hashanah, let us notice that we made it to this day. Let us accept that we can’t control everything, and that things will go right and things will go wrong in the coming year. Let us accept both our excitement—which is easy to accept—and our anxiety—which is harder to accept—about what may come as normal, and not let either excitement or anxiety control us. Let us find meaning in everything that we do and experience. Let us go forward with compassion, courage, trust, and hope. And may the changes that come with the new year be good, so that the new year is a good and a sweet year for us. Amen and l’Shana Tovah u’Metukah.