Rabbi Eli's Yom Kippur Sermon, 5777, Rolling With It
Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.
These words have always graced the home I grew up in, as they do my own home today. Acceptance – such an easy word, and yet such a difficult journey. “Easier said than done,” as the expression goes. “Just roll with it,” as another expression goes. Living in the moment. How do we tap into that Divine flow that indeed flows all around us? Living in the flow. Let go, let G-d.
Years ago, while studying the sefirot of the Qabbalah, those emanations of Divine energy in our mystical tradition, it occurred to me that the only thing that is eternal, other than G-d Herself, is the Present Moment. All else is gone or yet to be. Only the Present is Forever. Being in the Moment.
I am fortunate. I often can get to that place of saying “It is what it is,” and mean it! And yet, just as often - not. When I do, everything seems to fall into place. Because really, what else is there? There is just what is, and we can choose to accept that.
Perhaps that's why one of the earliest and most important names for G-d in our tradition is Que sera sera. And I am not joking. In Hebrew, it is Ehyeh asher Ehyeh – I will be what / whom I will be. The name revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush. Ehyeh asher Ehyeh – I will be what / whom I will be. What a revelation! G-d as the unfolding of possibilities. Whatever will be will be. The future's not ours to see. Que sera sera.
When I was a just a little boy, someone had given me a packet of Morning Glory seeds. I put them in a little plastic cup and set them on the fence to our back yard, hoping to plant them the next day. But when I went to the yard the next morning, I found the plastic cup had been blown down by the wind and the seeds scattered. I was heartbroken. But months later, we had beautiful Morning Glories in our yard. The future's not ours to see. Que sera sera.
So G-d, grant me the Serenity to accept things as they come to me.
In Pirke Avot, the sayings of our sages, it is asked, “Who is rich? S/he who is satisfied with what s/he has.” And yet, is this not simply a place of complacency? Are we not simply being asked to accept the status quo? The power structure that says just be happy with what you have? And worse, be happy with what others have... or have not. This is how it is. Does not our sense of justice call to us to not be happy with what is?
And have we not our own hopes and aspirations? Do these not account for the rest of our lives? Where is the place, then, of Kavanah – intention? Setting your sights on an intended or hoped for possibility?
There is a tension, a dichotomy, between complacency and taking charge of your life. A balance between acceptance of what it is and courage to make a change.
The High Holy Days themselves hold this tension: they remind us that even one intention, even one deed, good or bad, can affect the whole year and even our whole lives. What we intend, and what we do, indeed matters. And yet, we are not asked to be in a place of paralysis, but rather to take that leap of faith, that leap of action. To do the pirouette of teshuvah. To have the courage to make the change that needs to be made.
And there can be an intensity in all this as well. Do it now!!! Well, how can I do it now if I haven't been able to do it all year?! Do it now. Turn in teshuvah the day before you die, say our sages. Well, when is that? It could be any day. So do it now. OK, we had all year. But we only started thinking about it during Elul, this month leading up to the New Year. Maybe. OK, maybe we only started really thinking about it at Rosh Hashanah. But that only gives us ten days. If we really are doing the work of the Ten Days. But I only half-thought about it, if at all. That just gives me Yom Kippur. OK, I'm thinking about it now. Hurry, the gates are closing! But do I just give up? How can I ever make the changes that need to be made?
And life reminds us, all the time: Things can turn on a dime. Our lives are so fragile, so uncertain. As we were preparing to take a couple of days to focus on the Holidays and perhaps do some reflection and some writing, literally as we were walking out the door, we found out that my stepson was in a serious accident and in the emergency room. We had no other news. We waited by the phone, holding that space between fear and just maintaining an equilibrium. Should we rush to LA? Should we cancel our plans? Things can turn on a dime. Thank G-d, though the car was totaled, he was OK. Grief and gratitude all rolled into one.
Many of you know that I recently lost my Little Grrrlie - sixteen and a half years of loving canine companionship. At the end, we just couldn't do anything for her. I literally had to hold her back end up so she could crawl on the lawn to relieve herself. It was a horrible last night of distress, before she collapsed and was peaceful for her last few hours. And then she passed. Grief, and gratitude all rolled into one.
Baruch Dayan Emet, we say on hearing bad news. Only G-d can truly judge. Only G-d has the full picture. None of us have the broad perspective we need to truly see a situation in its fullness, to know whether seeds scattered on the wind will yet come to flower.
And so maybe that's why there is this tension in life, between trying to fix a situation, and accepting when it cannot be. Shimon Peres, the former President of Israel who so recently passed on, once said, “If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact – not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.”
The tension in life: between trying to fix a situation, and accepting when it cannot be; between accepting what is, and knowing when things can be changed. And then there is also the tension in knowing that when things can be changed, that you really can do it. For me, then, the most important part is the Wisdom - not just to know the difference between what can and what cannot be changed. But also, what are those things that even should be changed.
Reb Zalman, z”l, used to teach that one way to make such decisions is to ask yourself if and how this serves the Shechinah, that sacred Presence to be found in all things and at all times. In other words, simply put - is it for the Good? I know that this could and likely would be answered differently by each of us, let alone by those who might be very different from ourselves or with whom we are in conflict. Is it for the Good? And yet, is this not a helpful question nonetheless for each of us to ask ourselves?
And so we ask for Wisdom to know not only the difference between what can and what cannot be changed, but also what are those things that should be changed. Help me know when to just be happy with what is, with what I have, with how things are. To know the difference between being satisfied with what I have, with what is. And when to work for a change - in my life, in the world.
Ba'avur avotanynu, we read each morning before the Shema. For the sake of those who came before us.
She-batchu v'cha, who trusted in You.
Va-t'lamdem chukay chayim, and to whom you taught the laws of life.
Ken t'chonanynu u-t'lamdaynu, so be gracious to us and teach us.
Ham'rachem, rachem alaynu – Compassionate One, have compassion on us. And teach us.