This summer, I was officiating at a funeral for a member of “the greatest generation.” In speaking with his family, I came to appreciate those whose lives have changed so much in one instance. In one fell swoop, this man left Germany at age 16 with nothing but the clothes on his back, barely escaping the Nazis. He journeyed to New York, a place with a different language, a different culture, and different customs, with no financial resources. Yet he was resolved to make a life for himself, and he did so in the women’s clothing business.
Many of us have been blessed. We have not had our world changed overnight in such a drastic manner. Even with our struggles from COVID and even if we lost our job, moved cross country, or had a bad divorce, we still live somewhere with the same language and similar customs. While Florida is different from New York or California, or even from Mississippi, Vermont or Kansas, it pales in comparison with the differences between Germany and the United States. Yet when there is resolve to survive and to make a difference, what is not possible?
Many of us, myself included, can get stuck in a rut. We get complacent with our lives as they are and do not exert the energy and effort to make meaningful changes. We are comfortable with what we have and struggle to make the changes that would be beneficial for us. Daily habits are so strong and so powerful, so even when we take the first baby steps, we get pulled back into life as it was.
In a sermon seminar for the Miami Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Shai Held taught Maimonides Hilchot Deot indicating that Judaism is neither pollyannish nor naïve. One cannot just say “I give up” out of anger. Rather, as I was discussing last night, spiritual life is the place between what is difficult and what is impossible.
Rabbi Held brought in four points that apply to us today. First the idea of a fixed, immutable I, that “we are who we are” is a heresy in Judaism. While we might have natural proclivities in certain ways, being influenced is not the same as being determined. It is difficult but not impossible to overcome natural character traits.
Rabbi Held also stated that we are too married to our “fixed” identities. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t; we would rather be at peace with what we know about ourselves than open a Pandora’s Box to the unknown. How often do we say “I’m just the kind of person who…” or “This always happens to me”; in other words, I’m always the victim/culprit rather than the author of my own life. Rather than embracing a problematic identity, we must embrace our evolving identity, even if that means being uncertain about who we are at any given moment in time. This allows us to properly respond to an issue at hand rather than habitually react to it.
In addition, we need to be mindful of how difficult it is to change. Through doing the weight-loss program Noom and reading the book The Elephant in the Brain, I have become more mindful of the fact that most of our choices are unconscious or subconscious. We need to recognize the courage and determination it takes to change ourselves for the better. Sometimes life thrusts us into a situation where we need to change, to adapt out of necessity; more often it is a choice between remaining comfortably where we are at or recognizing that we need to do the hard work of Heshbon Hanefesh, soul searching, to become the people we want to be in our lives.
Finally, we recognize the importance of going in deep rather than remaining on the surface. The Netivot Shalom, Slonimer Rebbe, teaches us that spirituality is about going in deep into our areas of discomfort, as opposed to, in Rabbi Held’s words, playing “spiritual whack-a-mole.” It is about working on the foundations of our spiritual house with utmost gentleness, rather than ripping apart the foundation and building it from scratch. While we might believe that today, Yom Kippur, brings about a tabula rasa, (clean slate) we recognize that we are never starting from scratch but rather are influenced by all that we have learned up to this point. It takes great courage to enter our greatest vulnerabilities and fears in a deep, nonjudgmental way, being aware that what is true for us and what might be in our heads but does not reflect the reality in which we live or in which we want to live. As Gersonides (Ralbag) teaches, “We need to register our fears but make sure they do not have the last word.”
As we prepare for Yizkor this afternoon, I want us to think about the story I began with, the “rags to riches” approach of those who began with nothing but who made a life for themselves and to whom we owe a great degree of gratitude. We need to understand that while for the most part we do not make widespread, systemic changes in our day-to-day lives, we can adapt to almost any circumstance. If those who came before could quickly learn new languages, new trades and adapt to new customs and traditions, what stops us from doing it? I hope and pray in the year 5781 we will go deep into ourselves, getting a greater understanding of what makes us the unique people that we are. In so doing, let us do what we can to change ourselves for the better rather than getting stuck in a rut, and let us move one step at a time.
It would be a mistake not to acknowledge the over 200,000 people who have perished from COVID-19, all those who are in intensive care in hospitals, those who were victims of the fires in the West Coast and the Hurricanes in the Gulf. We need to be mindful of the fact that so many are suffering from this plague and from the consequences of global warming, which I had discussed last week. We mourn all the Israeli soldiers who were killed in battle, defending the Jewish State each and every day. We also mourn Yitl Ruhel bat Natan v’Tzirel Leah, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.
At the same time, as people of the greatest generation persevered despite the Nazis (Yemach Shemam) the greatest evil of the 20th century, how much more so should we persevere. Let us mourn those great souls who have been taken before their times yet let us also be grateful for all the blessings life has bestowed upon us. This afternoon we will remember our congregants who died this year as well as all the great people in the world who died. May we remember them for good and strive to live in accordance with the example they have set us-Anachnu Maaminim-we will believe in ourselves and in our futures.