Monday, October 6, 2014

Awakening - A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5775

Thanks to recent conversations with my doctor friends, I’ve learned a litany of jokes about anesthesiologists and rabbis. Here are a few:

What’s the difference between a rabbi and an anesthesiologist?
They both do the same thing, but a rabbi can do it to 1000 people at once!

Or how about this one:
What’s the difference between a rabbi and an anesthesiologist?
An anesthesiologist needs drugs to put you to sleep!

There’s one more:
What do anesthesiologists and rabbis have in common?
They both share the same motto: putting them to sleep is the easy part, waking them up is much more challenging!

As it happens, we tend to take the field of anesthesia for granted since it’s so routine today, but, up until even the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most patients regularly chose to take their chances over enduring the pain of a surgical procedure.  This has made our modern ability to diminish or even eliminate pain perhaps the most significant medical innovation of all time. 

But the challenge, as we all so deeply know, is that the pain we experience in life is not limited to the walls of the operating room, and, just like with physical pain,  it often feels too much to bear. The crushing conditions of our world can leave us feeling so overwhelmed, that we will do anything to numb ourselves to the distress they create.

Now sometimes, this is necessary. There is a reason people go into shock when something devastating occurs. It is our body’s way of protecting us from the otherwise too harsh impact, and it softens the blow. Although this sort of sedation is not meant to be a regular part of our daily existence, it is not hard to understand why it has become just that.

Take the ubiquitous 24/7 news feeds of the television, internet, and social media that on the one hand leave us no reprieve from the horrors of our world, but ironically, on the other, shorten our attention spans and ultimately desensitize us to whatever is actually happening. Remember Malaysian Air flight 370? Or the 191,000 now dead in Syria? Or closer to home, the state where the latest school shooting took place? It was North Carolina, 4 days ago. [ii]

In the 1960’s, psychologists explored our human tendency to habituate by measuring ordinary people’s nervous system responses to the repeated ringing of a loud bell. Although everyone reacted strongly initially, their reactivity became somewhat weaker for the second bell, and increasingly diminished, until finally they did not register any response at all.  It turns out that we can become so accustomed to our experiences that we reach a point where we just don’t notice them anymore. They just become imperceptible to us. [iii]

The truth is, out of self-preservation, we numb ourselves all the time. As a society, we know the destructive and unfortunately expansive nature of the disease of addiction. But no matter the method of distraction - with pills or alcohol, working non-stop or even with our faces lost in our hand-held devices and screens - we end up with the same sense of detachment.

Perhaps even more troubling is that we sedate ourselves even in anticipation of something that might hurt later. On some deep inner level, we humans tend to fear the fullness of our potential. We think that if we love deeply, we risk the possibility of that love not being reciprocated or one day losing that love. If we strive for our deepest desires, we might still fail, so we settle for the confines of our self-imposed limitations.

We numb ourselves too with our defensiveness, our guarded or half-apologies, unwilling to admit full accountability for fear that we might actually have to feel the weight of our hurting someone else. We do this as well with our withholding of forgiveness; frightened to make ourselves vulnerable for fear we might get hurt again.

And even in common conversation among friends, we tend to prefer dulled agreement to the discomfort of true dialogue and debate. We watch the news that matches our own opinions and belief, surround ourselves with like-minded allies, labeling anyone who disagrees as ignorant, or worse idiotic.  And by so doing, we protect ourselves against the uncomfortable confrontation of divergence and challenge.

But whatever the reason, willed or not, individually or communally experienced, what is certain is that this emotional blunting does not actually protect us. In an attempt to shield our hearts, we end up hardening them, and in so doing, we actually remove ourselves from our lives, relinquishing ourselves, our relationships, and our world to the currents of chaos.

The real world is full of heartache and despair.  Many say that the world of religion offers a reprieve, something to take us out of this world and into the world of heaven.  It is not a modern idea.  Two centuries ago, Karl Marx penned his infamous critique.  Religion, he said, is “The sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”[iv]

Even though Marx was a Jew, either he didn’t listen very well in Hebrew school, or perhaps he slept through the rabbi’s sermons. When it comes to Judaism, Marx couldn’t be more wrong. Judaism is not, nor has it ever been, a religion that reconciles us to the world as it is, that sets out to dull our experiences. Former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and all around brilliant teacher Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses this in his powerful book, To Heal the World. He writes: “In Judaism, faith is not acceptance, but protest, against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet, but ought to be…Its aim is not to transport the believer to a private heaven.  Instead, its impassioned, sustained desire is to bring heaven down to earth. Until we have done this, there is still work to do. ”[v]

Remember that motto from earlier? Putting them to sleep is the easy part, waking them up is much more challenging? Turns out it’s not just for anesthesiologists and rabbis. It is a fundamental and binding truth, not reserved only for the orthodox or the folks who come to services every Shabbat, but for any and all of us who call ourselves part of the family of the Jewish people.  I want you to hear that: this is for all of us.

Jewish practices are designed consistently to open our hearts and direct our awareness towards our world, each other and our souls. They stir us out of our everyday rhythms and unconscious living. Sacks again: “However free or affluent we are, on Passover we eat the bread of affliction and taste the bitter herbs of slavery. On Sukkot, we sit in shacks and know what it is to be homeless…To imitate God is to be alert to the poverty, suffering and loneliness of others. Opium desensitizes us to pain. [Judaism] sensitizes us to it.” [vi]

And make no mistake: these Days of Awe are designed to be the annual wake-up call for our hearts and souls. This is the whole point of why we blow the Shofar; its heart piercing call literally wakes us up to ourselves, our lives, our world. And as it turns out, we’ve been self-sedating for a long time.  Listen to the words renowned philosopher and commentator Maimonides wrote 900 years ago about the purpose of the Shofar that we still read each Rosh Hashanah: “Awake, you sleepers from your sleep. Arouse you slumberers… Do not be like those who miss the truth in pursuit of shadows and waste their years seeking vanity. 
Look well to your souls and consider your deeds….”[vii]

And if there was ever a single day designed to shake us out of the stupor of our everyday lives, it is today. Yom Kippur challenges us to snap out of our routine lives by literally putting us in the most raw and uncomfortable situation we can imagine. And it’s not just the fasting, intended to awaken our awareness of the pain of thirst and hunger. Or the beating of our chests, beckoning us to crack open our otherwise locked-tight hearts.  Yom Kippur, its rituals and liturgy all facilitate a process that is nothing less than a spiritual near-death experience. No sedation allowed. On Yom Kippur, we spiritually die in some way to awaken us to our lives as they are, so that we might, at the day’s end, re-enter our lives reborn, heart more open than ever before. Truly, Yom Kippur is meant to turn our lives and our world upside down.

The Talmud records a curious incident. Joseph, the son of Rabbi Joshua, fell into a coma. Everyone thought the boy wouldn’t survive, but one day, he woke up. And upon reviving, he said: “Olam hafuch ra-iti: I saw an upside-down world. The people who are on the bottom here were on the top there, and the people who are on the top here were on the bottom there.” His father, astonished at his son’s vision, declared: “My son, olam barur ra-itah, What you saw was the clear world.”[viii]

To be Jewish is to believe in the possibility of an upside down world, that there is a difference between the world-as-it-is and the world as it ought to be, and our lives-as-they-are and our lives as they ought to be; that the world-as-it-is is not a clear world, but it could be one day. And that, according to Judaism, is up to all of us, if only we can remain awakened to that awareness.

Consider this powerful story about the man who invented dynamite.  One day, his older brother died, but the newspaper printed his obituary instead, giving him the unusual experience of reading his obituary while he was still alive. The title read: ‘Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday….’ Like a cold bucket of ice water had been poured on his head, he threw down the paper.  “I’ve never thought of my life that way! That’s not how I want to be remembered. That’s not what’s important to me.”  And right then and there he decided to direct his entire fortune into rewarding people for bettering this world and bringing it closer to peace.[ix] The inventor of dynamite is the creator of the Nobel Peace Prize!  What is done cannot be undone – but we can be awakened, our hearts can be unlocked, and our wounds can be healed; our pain can even become the instrument for our healing, but for that to happen, we have to feel, even if it hurts.

For in truth, the angst we have about what might happen pales when we realize the unmet potential of our lives.

The fear we sense from withholding repentance diminishes when we understand that without real teshuvah, our lives and relationships are left in limbo, actually held in an anesthetized state.

The threat we experience when opposition confronts us abates when we awaken to understand that the Truth is only revealed when contrasting perspectives flourish.

We are not permitted to seal our hearts and abandon hope. When we see pain and suffering, we must not turn away; we must open our hearts and let them sense the echoes of isolation, fear, and despair that our eyes and ears cannot perceive. And then, we must dare to bring comfort and healing. In fact, it is our very experience with pain that actually gives birth to empathy, compassion and, true comfort!   18th century Chassidic teacher Reb Shlomo of Karlin once said, “If you want to raise a person from the mire and darkness, it is not enough to reach your hand down and pull that person up. You must go down into that darkness and with great strength pull yourself and your friend up.” True for healing the pain of our world; true for healing the pain of our lives.

When Yom Kippur ends this evening, we will sound the shofar one last time. The resonating and greatest blast of all, Tekiah Gedolah, will fill the vast air of this holy space and echo in our ears, hearts, and souls.   Did you ever wonder why we end these High Holy Days with the shofar? Why do we need to hear it again if the Holy Days are now over?  Because the real work of awakening is only just beginning.  When we return to our homes and ordinary lives, you can bet that the sedating ringing of our everyday existence will still be there, just as it always has been.  The challenge for us is to take our now open hearts, awareness and and yes, even our pain with us into the New Year, enabling us to act against and above the currents of our existence as-it-is, and by doing so, awaken and transform our lives and our world.

In this New Year of awareness, compassion and healing for us all. Shabbat Shalom. Shanah Tovah.

[i] This sermon is inspired by the life-changing lessons I’ve been taught by my teachers at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.  I am forever indebted to them for opening my eyes and heart to the most compelling and profound currents of Judaism and Jewish practice that I have ever known.
 [ii] Even Jewish legal principles have demonstrated this propensity to tune out or habituate to what was once only an exceptional threat of danger but has become the constant and thereby normative existential peril we face daily in our world. Previously, Jewish law permitted the overriding of normal legal and moral restrictions in the case of something called "hora-at sha'ah" - an exceptional moment. The age in which we live, with the constant threat of terror, forces one to essentially adopt the notion that every moment in every day is hora-at sha'ah. But making every moment an emergent moment essentially normalizes such urgency, thereby nullifying the entire exceptional purpose of hora-at sha'ah in the first place.
[iii] Lew, Alan. Be Still and Get Going. p.16.
[v] Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility. pp.18, 20. 27
[vi] Ibid. p. 28.
[vii] MT Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4
[viii] BT, Psachim 50a

[ix] As told by Rabbi Alan Lew in This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared

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