Kol Nidre 5780: Sustaining Ourselves and Being Renewed through Life’s Changes

Who remembers this old song?

Where are you going, my little one, little one,

Where are you going, my baby, my own?

Turn around and you're two,

Turn around and you're four,

Turn around and you're a young girl going out of my door.

Turn around, turn around,

Turn around and you're a young girl going out of my door.

 This song, written by the great Harry Belafonte and Malvina Reynolds, speaks to us of turning, which is also how we think of teshuva, repentance. But more to the point, during this season, when some families gather around sumptuous tables, and when other individuals are far from their families, when we sit in pews surrounded by the loving presence of absent parents and grandparents, or when we find ourselves in a new place with strange melodies and unfamiliar neighbors, when we open prayerbooks and hear the whispers of our loved ones—praying, questioning, kibitzing, or lamenting—during this season it is nearly impossible not to spend time reflecting on how our lives have turned, and how we have changed. We have grown up or we hope to grow up soon. We watch our children growing by leaps and bounds and our parents growing old. At this time of the turning of the seasons, we can’t help but wonder, what changes are yet to come?

 Several years ago, I gave a sermon about the lessons I learned about change when we had to replace the carpet in our house. From a mundane task, I mused about the ways we can experience change. But that was a well-planned change, something our family chose to do, and which we prepared for with eager anticipation and which was a source of pleasure.

 This year, I want to reflect on the changes we do not choose, that are not planned, and that are often a source of fear and worry.

I have in my phone a photo that epitomizes for me the drama of life’s changes:  my mother-in-law, unable to walk, sitting in her hospital bed this summer. In her arms, she holds my grandson, her great-grandson, both of them lovingly gazing into each other’s’ eyes.

 No great-grandparent ever held my own children. I myself had little to no contact with my grandparents. Two of them died before I was born, and the others lived far away, our conversations curtailed by the high cost of long-distance calls. My second grandfather died in New York City while I was in grade school far away in Kansas. I only have memories, from when I was seven, of a brief visit with him in a nursing home. The one grandparent I knew, my father’s mother, traveled from Florida to come to my bat mitzvah, and my last visit to her was during my college years. So the image of four generations together in one room struck me with profound joy and sadness all at once.

 What a marvel to watch my mother-in-law hold her five month old great-grandson: a miraculous bond between two souls, one opening to the world at an astronomical rate, the other desperately trying to avoid being shut off from the world. And I noted that in both instances, neither knows what changes lie ahead, or how straight or crooked the road will be to get there.

Many of us are in the mysterious and anxious stage of watching parents age, doing our best to make their lives comfortable and meaningful, some of us at a distance and others around the corner. Our parents are in hospice care. Our parents have suffered serious illness from which they have miraculously recovered or are deteriorating slowly. Some parents are active and independent while others are confined. Some of us see this from the other side. We are the oldest generation and we are part of that dance with those who care for us, perhaps our children, perhaps other relatives, or other caregivers. What we all have in common is that we do not know what will come next, but we fear that is more likely to be a crisis than a slow, peaceful end. We worry about the health and safety of our elders.

At the other end of the spectrum, many here are in the equally mysterious yet joyful stage of watching children of every age as they explore and discover the world and become the unique human beings that we can only hope will be loved and treated with respect. And we also worry about their health and their safety.

 A friend recently described the journey of raising children as like getting on a plane without knowing where you’re going to land. We don’t always end up at the destination we had hoped for.

 Truthfully, we are all constantly going through changes, living in the shadow of the unpredictable. And that is the heart of what I have been thinking about this past year. Change is inevitable. We try to plan for it. We seek to control it. Sometimes we are even fooled into believing that we have delayed it indefinitely. But whether we are caring for aging parents or for our children, or whether we ourselves are noticing the aging process in our own bodies and minds, the change is coming. In the words of the Israeli poet, Dalia Ravikovitch (translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld) in her poem, Pride:

 Even rocks crack, I tell you.

and not on account of age.

For years they lie on their backs in

  the cold and the heat,

so many years,

it almost creates the impression of calm.

They don’t move, so the cracks can hide.

A kind of pride.

Years pass over them as they wait.

Whoever is going to shatter them

hasn’t come yet.

And so the moss flourishes, the seaweed is cast about,

the sea bursts out and slides back,

and it seems the rocks are perfectly still.

Till a little seal comes to rub against them,

comes and goes.

And suddenly the stone has an open wound.

I told you, when rocks crack, it happens by surprise.

Not to mention people.

 Unlike home improvement, most of the time changes take us by surprise. But the gift of being human is that we can prepare for how to respond to them.

 And isn’t that what these Ten Cays of Repentance are about? This time of turning, of trying to change ourselves can also be a time to consider how to respond to change, whether we seek it out or are surprised by it. As we retrace our steps, longing to discover where we went wrong, what we might have done differently, and how we might repent and repair, it’s also important to acknowledge that many changes arrive in a shroud of mystery. The answers, even in hindsight, are not always clear. How can we get past chasing our own tails, coming back to the beginning without reaching a conclusion?

 While health and safety are often paramount in our concerns, there are other important aspects of our changing lives, like developing resilience, creating and maintaining our unique identity, and sustaining our spiritual health that form the foundation for growing up and aging well. The Hasidic masters taught a spiritual response to change in three simple steps: Hachna’ah, yielding; Havdalah, discernment, and hamtakah, sweetening. Acceptance, exploration, and transformation.

 John Lennon famously taught us, “life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans.” He probably didn’t know the Yiddish expression, Mann trachut, un Gott lacht, man plans and God laughs. Acknowledging the inevitability that everything changes helps lower our resistance when it comes. Hachna’ah, yielding or accepting change, can help sustain us, whether we have lost our mobility, or are caring for a parent who is developing dementia, or embracing a child who has taken a different path than we had hoped.

 I like to call this step of acceptance “softening to reality.” Psychologist Marsha Linehan describes this form of acceptance as "the ability to perceive one's environment without putting demands on it to be different; to experience one's current emotional state without attempting to change it; and to observe one's own thoughts and action patterns without attempting to stop or control them." To soften to reality does not mean we give up, or that we stop feeling, or we pretend everything is ok. Rather, it means paying attention to those feelings as a way to understand ourselves. Knowing how we feel, we can begin to have compassion for ourselves, for our losses, and for our frailty. And I would add, all the more so when we are accepting someone else’s situation; we dare not try to change them or change their minds.

 In softening to a new reality, we can still ask questions. In fact, acceptance may even raise more questions than answers. What will I do now? Who will be there for me? What other changes may come from this? But there is one question that is not helpful in this situation, “why?” We can get stuck in the endless circle of why. Why me? Why now? “Why” can lead us deeper into our own dark place, a place of fear, anger, and isolation, while “what can I do now?” brings us back into the light. By softening to reality, we may find that instead of facing a dead end, we have been pointed in a new direction. The gift of hachna’ah, yielding, is that it allows us to continue to grow.

 When we begin to ask questions of the new reality, we can experience Havdalah, discernment or curiosity. Exploration and inquiry, whether into the situation or into our own thoughts and reactions, opens us up to see a bigger picture.  With discernment, we can replace fear with awe. We can channel our resistance into renewal.

 Years ago, my sister’s son, Chayim Zevi, was involved in a terrible accident. When he was eight years old, he was hit by a car and went flying into the air. He was rushed to the hospital with a cracked skull, a broken leg, broken nose, and broken jaw. It was terrifying. The doctors performed surgery to repair his broken leg and broken jaw. They also did a CAT scan, where they were grateful to learn that he had not had a concussion. But they did discover an undiagnosed brain tumor. After successful brain surgery, Chayim Zevi recovered fully from his injuries. Aside from needing regular MRIs, and an ugly scar on the back of his head, my nephew is now a healthy young man who celebrated his wedding three weeks ago. He is a remarkably joyful person, who lives life with gusto and a tremendous sense of awe and gratitude.

 As Rabbi Heschel has taught, “The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.” (God in Search of Man) Exploration helps us cultivate awe and wonder, opening us further to new possibilities.

 Then we come to the third step, which can only come after softening to reality and discernment. That step is hamtakah, literally, sweetening. Like putting sugar in your tea, sweetening what is bitter holds the possibility of transformation.

 Sweetening can begin by telling ourselves a new story, opening a new chapter that changes direction from what came before. A child we hoped would go to college and get a degree has given us new eyes to see that her path is right for her. She has taught the value of patience. The experience of illness has allowed us to accept help from others who we did not realize were so kind, devoted, and capable. It has taught gratitude. Losing a high-paying job has opened our eyes to how miserable we have been, and given us the prospect of more meaningful work, despite the financial impact. It has taught abundance.

 When faced with the helplessness and despair of an unexpected change, we have the uniquely human capacity to awaken new ways of thinking. As we age and lose some capacities, we can ask ourselves: What can I still do? What do I enjoy? What do I have to look forward to? What wisdom can I share, what stories do I have to tell?  Our lives can become sweeter with the gifts of gratitude, of creating and nurturing our relationships, and finding pleasure in the here and now.

Throughout Yom Kippur, listen for the prayers for “chayim tovim.” Not just life, chayim, but chayim tovim, a good life.  It’s not enough to be written in the Book of Life to survive. Commentators often suggest that the image of God writing our fate in that Book is a metaphor which we can understand in a different way. As Maimonides teaches, people can be considered as dead even in their lifetimes because they do not understand what it means to be truly alive. When we read “Choose life!” in tomorrow’s Torah portion, it is a reminder that we have a choice about how to live. We may not have a say in why things turn out as they do, but we can choose to see a different path, to learn a different way of being, to tell a different story.

 Here’s another secret to responding to changes:  the more we cultivate these practices throughout our lives, the better off we will be when the rocks crack open. In explaining the biblical verse to follow the Torah and mitzvot in order to live, Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk teaches: “Do not wait to become pious when you are old.” Like learning to read and write, practices that lead to openness and resilience are tools that needs to be developed over time, beginning with early childhood and continuing as a life-long practice. Those who come to understand that we are not in control more easily navigate life’s changes.

 As Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal describe in their book, Wise Aging, “[people who have aged well] have learned to be patient and trusting, though not passive—allowing events to unfold more slowly, accepting other people’s foibles and not rushing to judge or blame them. They are joyful, though not necessarily ebullient, so they find more to celebrate in the day.” (p.172)

 I have known many people with those qualities, and many of you are sitting here in this room tonight. You may be struggling with all kinds of worries, limitations, or challenges. You may live with a chronic illness, have suffered a terrible loss, or find a new challenge every day. Yet you find a way to see the world with eyes full of wonder and gratitude. You may observe Shabbat and pray regularly, or perhaps you don’t consider yourself religious. You might be the kind of person who when asked, “how are you,” responds “never better.” You have a gift. You are a joy to be with and an inspiration.

 And I know others who feel hopeless. You have suffered unbearable trauma. You may be laboring with unspeakable challenges. We dare not blame or judge you. Instead, on this Yom Kippur, praying together for chayim tovim, our words include all of us, and truly all of humanity, in that prayer, the prayer for a good life, that we might find a path to make the most of each day.

 As my teacher and colleague, Rabbi Richard Hirsh has written:

“Life is broken into discrete pieces, often experienced as a series of moments whose only connection is that they follow one upon the other. … We go through good years as well as difficult ones; we have some moments when we soar and others when we crash. We age, and as our experiences accumulate and the decades pass, we increasingly sense an urgency to tie it all together, to see the patterns emerge, to connect the dots. We seek meaning, both the meaning we create and the meaning we can discover.”

 Sometimes, when answers evade us, we are blessed to find meaning: the meaning we discover as well as the meaning we create. Through all of life’s changes, unpredictable as they can be, may our lives be sustained each day, with a sense of purpose, possibility, and meaning.         Ken yehi ratzon.

Posted on October 10, 2019 .