My Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5778

Good Yontev.  It’s really important to have friends who will call you out on your stuff.  For example, I know that I can always count on Aaron and David to come up to me after a sermon and call me out on my sesquipedalian tendencies.  “Sesquipe- what?”  I can already imagine them asking.  Sesqui, the latin prefix meaning one and a half, most often heard in the word sesquicentennial meaning the 150th anniversary of that thing that happened 150 years ago.  Ped, the latin word for foot used in words like pedicure.  This should not be confused with pedo- the greek word for child used in words like pediatric.  Sesquipedalian, meaning characterized by using words a foot and a half long.  I can’t help it — I love words, especially obscure ones.  Bowdlerize is a good one.  It comes from Thomas Bowdler who, in 1818, decided that what the world really needed was an edited version of Shakespeare taking out the racy or objectionable bits so that Shakespeare could be read in front of families.  It did not improve things.  I mean, Shakespeare!  Thus the word bowdlerize, meaning to edit out objectionable material from a work of art.

But there are times when it’s appropriate to moderate what you say and where you say it.  For example, I really like my position here as rabbi and I want to keep it, so I can’t just get up and say anything I want to from the bimah.  Which is why I’ve struggled with how to describe a really wonderful and thought provoking show that I saw last year.  I’ve had to go for the bowdlerized version.  At Stage West in Fort Worth, I saw Randy in a modern version of Anton Chekhov’s play, The Seagull.  The modern play was called “Stupid… Bird”.  But it was the subtitle that I liked so much: “Don’t like your story?  Rewrite… it”.  Honestly there isn’t a single thing from the show that I can actually directly quote from the bimah.  It was awesome! 

And I loved the concept.  Don’t like your story?  Rewrite it!  Change it!  You don’t have to be tied to it!  It is the essence of Yom Kippur.  Don’t like the way your story is being played out?  Change it by changing who you are for the better.  It sounds so simple, but why don’t we?  Why is change so hard?  Why are we tied to the stories of our lives?  Randy played a character named Sorn, who was the emotional center of the show, the ballast of this storm tossed play.  Sometimes, it’s not that we’re tied to our stories, but that we’re just not paying any attention to what we’re doing.  At one point in the show, Sorn asks: “You ever have that feeling where you were just somewhere, and then suddenly you’re some other place, and you think… how did I get here?  And that’s bad enough when you’re just, you know, driving to the store or something… But when it’s sometimes years at a time… or a decade.  Like what happened to my 40s?  I mean, I know I was there, I can show you my tax returns.  But where was I?”  Where are we?  That is the question of this Yom Kippur Day.  The blast of the shofar is there to wake us up out of our stupor, demanding that we pay attention.  Where are we?  Why stay tied to stories we don’t like?  We are the authors of our lives — just rewrite it!

Sometimes change is hard because we act out of habit.  Think about how many decisions we have to make every day, from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to sleep.  I think that if we had to consciously make each and every decision, we wouldn’t make it through half of our days at all.  When I have things on my mind, I sometimes find myself driving to work, when I meant to drive to Trader Joe’s.  It was just habit that I turned left instead of continuing forward.  It takes conscious effort to break a habit and continual reinforcement.

Sometimes change is hard because we are following the path of least resistance.  Sometimes it’s easier just to go along than to put in the effort to change.  I hated my cable company.  They were expensive, had actively malevolent customer service, and I mostly watch PBS so I really don’t care about the other 399 channels.  But I didn’t want to change because that meant researching other choices, making a decision, staying home for a new installation etc. etc.  Nothing that was really hard, but more effort than zero.  Staying with them was the path of least resistance.  It was only when the malevolent customer service told me that if I stayed with them, I would have to change my phone number that I was motivated enough to make the change.  Making the change was worth the effort, even if I had to leave the path of least resistance.

Sometimes it’s not the effort we would have to put in, but fear that holds us back.  Will I make the right decision or a terribly bad one?  Will I be worse off if I make a change?  I don’t know what it will be like — what if I don’t like it?  Maybe things will get better if I just leave things alone?  Essentially, the fear is the fear of the unknown, the fear of what might be, the fear of loss.  Not every change is a good one.  But if you know that what you have is something you don’t like, then you have to make a change. 

Human beings are notoriously bad at taking into account the long term consequences of our short term actions.  It is much harder to change when we see immediate short term benefits rather than the long term consequences of our actions.  I love this quip of uncertain attribution: If I knew I would live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.  But it’s not just things like smoking, over-eating, or lack of exercise.  Saving money when you’re young is the surest way to financial independence, but it always seems like there’s something more important to spend on now.  Too often we allow the immediacy of now crowd out the priority of the future. 

Some of the hardest change to face is when we have to change how we think of ourselves.  We all of us have a mental image of who we are and how we should be.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but I am follicly challenged.  When you are follicly challenged as I am, wearing a hat is a necessity.  Now I’ve never had a problem wearing a baseball cap in the summer, but once I became a rabbi and had to go to say, a cemetery in the summer… a baseball cap with a suit is just not a good look.  So I had to learn how to wear a fedora or a panama hat in the summer.  What’s to learn?  You put it on your head and you’re done.  Well, what I had to learn, what I had to change is my self-image as a person who would wear a fedora or a panama hat.  It was even harder when I first bought a leather winter jacket because in my mind at that time, only bikers wore leather jackets.  It’s all about our own self-image and changing how we see ourselves can be one of the hardest changes we can make.

It doesn’t help when people impose their outside image of how you should be.  We humans are social creatures and we crave acceptance within our social groups.  Achieving that social acceptance comes at the cost of living up to outside expectations.  Tell the truth now: if you live in a house, how much do you really care if your front lawn is lush, green and weed free?  If you’re really being honest, unless you’re a gardener, you probably don’t care.  But you do care what your neighbors think of how you keep your lawn.  Tell the truth now: how much of what you do is because of what other people would think of you?  Those outside expectations are sometimes the hardest things to overcome when we want to make a change in ourselves. 

Harder still is when we don’t want to change.  It’s so much harder to change when we like what we’re doing just fine.  I really liked eating anything I wanted until my doctor told me I had to completely change and limit my diet.  Other people really enjoy smoking and don’t want to give it up despite the health consequences.  I will grant you that nicotine is addictive and people who smoke might find they physically can’t give it up without extraordinary self-sacrifice.  But sometimes people just say, I don’t care about the consequences, I enjoy what I’m doing and don’t want to change.

There are some people who desperately want to change, but simply don’t see how it would be possible.  They don’t see the alternatives or any way out.   There is a beautiful story told in the Talmud [Berachot 5b].  Rabbi Yochanan heard that his student, Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba fell ill and he went to visit him.  Rabbi Yochanan asked Rabbi Chiyya: is your suffering dear to you?  Meaning do you like being sick?  Is this working for you?  Rabbi Chiyya replied that he didn’t enjoy being sick nor did he want the heavenly reward for his suffering here on Earth.  Rabbi Yochanan said, give me your hand.  He stood Rabbi Chiyya up and miraculously healed him.  One day, Rabbi Yochanan fell ill and Rabbi Chanina went to visit him.  Rabbi Chanina asked Rabbi Yochanan: is your suffering dear to you?  Rabbi Yochanan replied that he didn’t enjoy being sick nor did he want the heavenly reward for his suffering here on Earth.  Rabbi Chanina said, give me your hand.  He stood Rabbi Yochanan up and miraculously healed him.  Why, the Talmud asks, didn’t Rabbi Yochanan simply heal himself?  Because, the Talmud answers, a prisoner cannot free himself from prison but depends on others to release him.  People who are stuck and can’t see any alternatives to where they are, need outside help, an outside perspective to help them change.

Yom Kippur is meant to give us that outside perspective, to show us that we can change for the better.  It’s true that there are many reasons for why we don’t change our stories, even when we don’t like how our stories are turning out.  Ignore the reasons.  Walk past the excuses.  Now is the time to rewrite our stories before they are sealed in the Book of Life.