High Holy Day Sermons – 5774

Rosh Hashanah Morning – Saving Our Spirits

Last night, I spoke about saving the world by saving a single life.  I explained the thinking of our rabbis of old—that every life is precious and that in every life there is the potential to create a whole world.  And I gave some examples of how we might save a life in the year ahead, through acts of tzedakah and g’milut chasadim—simple things like feeding the hungry, getting on the bone marrow registry or donating blood.  Bigger things like fostering a child, carrying an organ donor card or finding someone a job.

And I know, because some of you talked with me after the service, that there are some who plan to do some of these things, and that, indeed, we willsave lives in the year ahead.  But what surprised me most was the reaction I got to what I had to say about saving our own lives.  So, here is a reminder of what I said last night: 

“…finally, there is the matter of saving our own lives.  This is the time to commit ourselves to lifestyle changes that will contribute to our own good health and well being.  If you have not already done so, this is the time to stop smoking…this is the time to stop using non-prescription drugs…this is the time to lower your cholesterol….  Regular exercise, less stress, less chemicals in our food and on our lawns.  Whatever it might be that you have been flirting with to live a healthier life, this is the time. To save a life.  To save your own life.”

Now, something about this must have struck a chord, because after the service last night and before the service this morning, people began coming up to me, asking me about my cholesterol level (and my state of health in general) and telling me about the things they were doing to save their own lives, as well as the lives of others.

And so, for the record, (so you don’t need to ask…) my cholesterol level has come down over the past year to reach the target numbers, and I am right where I should be.  My weight is down, too, although there is still some distance to go with that. (Let’s talk again next year…)

During this past year I paid closer attention to my diet and spent many hours exercising and walking with Ricki and with Dinah, our dog, several times each day. And I have this to thank for my relatively good state of physical well being.  But even more, I have this to thank for the relatively good state of well being of my spirit.  For, in addition to the physical exercise we have done together, there have been hours of conversation about things that matter to us a great deal; thoughtful conversations about our society and its values, passionate conversations about politics, quiet conversations about our families, revealing conversations about the things that really matter to us; conversations about our work, about our hopes and our dreams.  Everyone should have such people in their lives, such moments and such conversations.  In the course of saving our bodies, I believe that we have found some ways to save our spirits as well.

You see, for the most part, we live in a society that understands physical fitness, but has very little understanding, or even regard for spiritual fitness.  We mistakenly believe that if we feel good outside, we’ll feel good inside.  We have come to recognize the rush of endorphins that makes us feel good after physical exercise, but we have not yet learned how to get that rush from a good spiritual workout.

I am both amazed and perplexed by the stories of dedication to physical exercise that have been shared with me by people who have talked with me about their physical fitness regime.  They seem willing to spend hours and hours in disciplining their bodies through grueling exercise.  Many of them get up early, so they can be at the gym by 5:30 or 6:00am, so they can do their daily routine, whether it is swimming or jogging or rowing or biking or the treadmill.  And then they go home to get the kids off to school, or to the office for a 9:00am appointment.  Some return to the gym at the end of their day. And the weekends are for hiking.

There are precious few, however, who get up early for study or prayer as a daily routine and return to it at their day’s end, even though this is the fitness routine that Judaism recommends for the spirit.

This is not to say that Judaism devalues the body.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  Shmirat ha-guf—protecting the body and its sanctity—is one of the highest regarded mitzvot.  There are rules against hurting the body in any way, which must be kept not only in life but in death as well, including the rules of kavod ha-met, respect for the body of a dead person.  The psalms say, “The soul is Yours, O God, and the body is your handiwork.”  The body is valued precisely because it is a vessel of our spirituality, evidence of a higher purpose.

There is a midrash in Leviticus Rabbah: 

“One day, the great sage Hillel was accompanying his pupils as they walked home, when he took his leave of them.  ‘Master, where are you going?’ they inquired.  “To perform a religious duty” he answered.  ‘Which one?’ ‘To bathe in the bath house.’  ‘Is that a religiousduty?’ they wondered.  ‘If someone who is appointed to scrape and clean the statues of the king that stand in theatres and circuses, is paid for the work, and even associates with the nobility as a result,’ he answered, ‘how much more so should I, who am created in the image of God, take care of my body.’”

The body, however, is not enough to give our lives meaning.  At the beginning of the morning service we recite the prayer asher yatzarwhich praises God for the intricate workings of our bodies.  But that prayer, on its own, is not enough.  It is immediately followed by elohai neshama, which praises God for the purity of our souls.  At the beginning of this morning’s service, Ricki and I sang these two prayers together in counterpoint.  Body and spirit.  Spirit and body.  To focus on one without the other; to care for one without the other; leaves us only half-alive.

Popular culture and Surgeon General have taught us about physical fitness. Now we need to learn about spiritual fitness.

“I’m not religious but I’m very spiritual” people say to me.  I can’t tell you how many times I hear this.  But, I must confess, I just don’t get it.  To me, religion seems to be the container that we put our spirituality into. 

Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, a respected contemporary spokesman for modern Jewish mysticism once described those who want spirituality without religion as wanting “the cream without the milk.”  Spirituality, he suggests, is service to a goal bigger than yourself, a community dedicated to changing the world together, a daily regimen of exercises that take us closer to self-reflection and the action required to change a person’s bad habits and sagging spirits.  Omer-Man speaks of “systems of spirituality” and says, “If it makes you work, there’s a chance it might be a good one.  If not, it’s just another commodity for consumers.  It’s a gimmick.”

My friend and colleague who will be with us in January for our Scholar-in-Residence Shabbat, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, tells a story about a weekend she spent some years ago at Kripalu, an ashram in Massachusetts.  There she met a number of Jews who had chosen eastern spirituality.  Kripalu was their new home, and Mark had become Vishna and Ellen was Shona and they were chanting Sanskrit all through the weekend.  (Does any of this sound familiar?)  On Saturday evening, after a candle ceremony that reminded her of havdallah, Rabbi Goldstein asked these Jews, now dressed in white with turbans on their heads, why they had left Judaism.  “This is such a spiritual way to live,” they said.  “We have a special diet, special clothes, special rules about sex, daily special chanting in a special language…”

Well, have I got news for you…Judaism has all these things, too.  And they are a part of the Jewish system of spirituality, part of Judaism’s spiritual fitness program.  Only, you have to take it seriously, just like a physical fitness program, or it has no chance to succeed.  So, here is the program:

First, you have to join a Jewish spiritual fitness club (sometimes known as a synagogue).  You have to be a member.  You have to make a commitment.  You have to get to know the place and feel a sense of ownership.  You have to get to know the people you are working out with and feel a sense of community. 

Now it just so happens that we have one of the finest spiritual fitness clubs in the city right here. So for those of you who are not members—this is a “one-time offer” to join us.  Sorry, no mountain bike give-aways, although we do have some membership incentives, and a gift to share that came to us from a mountain. 

Second, you have to come out to the spiritual fitness club on a regular basis.  If I told you that I was planning to improve my physical fitness, and that my plan was to go to the health club twice at the beginning of September, and then twice more ten days later, and then not go back until the next September, you might think that I was not serious.  You might suggest that my plan was flawed, and that it would not work.  Well, it won’t work for spiritual fitness, either.  So if that is your plan, I’d have to suggest that you are not serious.  You cannot achieve spiritual fitness in that way.

I am always amazed that people are willing to ride a stationary bike or walk for half an hour on a treadmill that takes them nowhere every time, but they are not willing to study a text or participate in communal worship unless it takes them somewhere every time.

Those who come to the synagogue regularly, and make a place for the Jewish religion in their home and family life, find that it is possible to engage in a spiritual workout on a regular basis.  And just like the physical workout, sometimes you feel great afterwards, sometimes you feel tired, sometimes you feel nothing.  But your progress is measured in small steps, and you get better at it as you go, and your spirit, like your body, becomes stronger and healthier with each day, and you begin to miss the workout if you don’t make it to shul on schedule.

Third, you have to vary your exercises…in order to maintain your vitality, and in order to stretch different parts of your spiritual being, strengthen different parts of your spirit.  And again, like physical fitness, you need a regular routine to combine with different supplementary exercises.  And again, we have them here.

Communal prayer is the regular routine.  On Shabbat and Festivals, we gather here in this place.  If you want a daily routine, morning and evening prayers can be read at home.

Here are some supplementary exercises for you to consider:

1. Personal prayer. What might it mean to begin and end your day with a personal prayer?  What might it mean to get up in the morning and say “modeh ani lefanecha”—I am so grateful this morning to be alive and to have a new start, a new opportunity on this new day?  What might it mean to end each day with a quiet inventory of the day and a moment or two of self-reflection?  Did I act today with integrity?  Where did I fail?  How can tomorrow be better?  Followed by “Shema Yisrael”—I acknowledge my connection to the Jewish People and the unity and oneness of God and the universe as I drift off to sleep.

2. Torah study. There is a tale of a man who brings his son to the rabbi to study.  “Why do you want him to learn Torah?” the rabbi asks.  “So that he can teach his son Torah” was the reply.  “Better you should come to study Torah so that when your son sees you study, he will want to study also.”  So many Jews think that Jewish learning is for children.  If you have studied anything as an adult, you know how profoundly serious and deep Judaism is; it is not pediatric, although we have forced it to be “fun di kinder.”  Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the Past President of the Union for Reform Judaism, liked to compare it to an oxygen mask in an airplane: if you need oxygen, you are always instructed to place your own mask on first, and then place one on your children.  Torah is an adult Jew’s oxygen mask.  You need to put it on yourself first, and then you can put it on your children.  Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was once asked why all the pages of the tractates of Talmud start with page 2? (There are no page 1’s in the Talmud.)  He replied, “However much you study, you should always remember you haven’t even gotten to the first page yet.”

3. Tzedakah. A lovely way to practice gratefulness each day.  Set aside a can or a jar as a “pushke”, and at the end of the day throw our pennies or loose change into it.  And as you do, think about the fact that there may be someone somewhere who needs that change even more than you do.  At the end of each month or two, take the money and decide what you want to do with it–perhaps thematically.  At Sukkot, festival of the harvest, you might use it to buy food for a food bank, or donate to Mazon or other food-related charities.  At Pesach, festival of freedom, you might contribute to the Religious Action Center, or other organizations working toward freedom or civil rights; or to Ma’ot Chittin, which provides kosher-for-Pesach food to people who cannot afford to buy it.  At Shavuot, festival of learning, you might choose to support schools or organizations dedicated to teaching and study.

4. G’milut Chasadim – Acts of kindness toward others. Mishnah Peah, which we read in the morning service, reminds us of some of these: visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked.  For many years in Toronto I was involved, together with a number of members of my congregation, in volunteering for StreetHelp—a mobile response to homelessness, in which we provided food and essential goods (blankets, sleeping bags and clothing) to homeless people. And those who shared in the experience could tell you that, in addition to saving the lives of others, it was for us an exercise of the spirit.  Indeed, our souls were touched and none of us are now who we were before.  Volunteering at the food bank, walking to raise money for the homeless, blowing the shofar at a seniors’ residence, visiting someone in hospital or at home, are examples of G’milut Chasadim that I have done here in San Francisco with, and on behalf of members of BIJ.  These, too, are exercises of the spirit.  We need to choose some of them and do them.

5. How and what we eat. Perhaps the most difficult discipline to control is what, when and how we eat.  Judaism elevates the very banal and somewhat animal act of eating by offering a regime that includes a special diet and the offering of blessings of gratefulness both before and after eating.  Distinguishing between permitted and prohibited foods and which ones may or may not be eaten together, is a simple ritual that reminds us that not everything is available to gratify our desires, and that we have choices to make in all matters of daily living.  Having to figure out whether the foods we are eating grow from the earth, on vines or fruit trees, in order to make the right blessing, helps us to remember that the grocery store is not the ultimate source of our nourishment.  Remembering to thank God for the bounty of nature’s goodness and for our sustenance and good fortune is crucial to our spirituality. We are, after all, reflections of God’s grace and lovingkindness.

6. Celebrating Shabbat. Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov said, “A human being who does not have a single hour for his or her own every day is not much of a human being.”  We instinctively know this already.  We are so exhausted by the end of the week.  Can you imagine 24 hours without the phone ringing? Without e-mail? Without your iPad or your smart phone? Just peace and quiet?  Shabbat forces us to take a moment, an hour, a day for ourselves—for refreshment and renewal.  If we are more than our bodies, then certainly we are more than our jobs and our daily routine.  So on Thursday we should prepare: set the menu, make plans to be with friends or family on Shabbat afternoon.  On Friday we should clean—ourselves andthe house; Friday night, no more eating fast food in the den, or leftovers in front of the open fridge.  With candlelight and wine we can feel like mentshcen again.  The body gets to rest, and the spirit gets to breathe. Our spirit gets to rejoice.

This is the program, and these are the exercises.  They are the offering of this Jewish spiritual fitness club, and they can make a difference in your life, if only you will “get with the program.”  Oh, and did I mention… membership here is for life! 

May yours be filled with all that is good, from this Rosh Hashanah until the next, may we reach it in peace…