Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
Yom Kippur Sermon — 5777
Rabbi Adrienne P. Scott
October 12, 2016
10 Tishrei 5777
This past summer, many of us sat glued to the television as we watched the highly anticipated Summer Olympics in Rio. Athletes from around the world came together to compete in events like track and field, swimming and gymnastics. But what many of us remember most is the scandal at the end of the games involving the swimmer Ryan Lochte. Lochte’s gold medal was overshadowed by his reckless behavior. On this holiest of days, now is the time when we are mindful of our past transgressions and seek forgiveness.
Swimming is not only an Olympic sport, but it’s also wonderful exercise and it’s challenging. It’s easy on the joints, and it can be extremely therapeutic. As Houstonians, it offers an ideal break from the heat and humidity that fills so many months of our year. Our rabbis even had something to teach us about swimming. In the Talmud, we are taught that a parent must teach his child three things: Torah, a trade, and how to swim. (Kiddushin 29a). Really??! Learning how to swim ranks up there with teaching Torah and learning a trade? Yes it does. Let’s explore why that might be the case.
One reason is basic survival. Knowing how to swim helps us survive. Our rabbis knew this. Teaching our children to swim is like raising them to become independent and self-reliant. At each stage of our lives we seek mastery of ourselves and our actions. But, like swimming, we may flail a bit too. How do we find that balance between being comfortable and also challenging ourselves to being the best that we can? The answer is found in how we approach each phase of our lives — as young children, in our middle-ages, and during our golden years too.
First as young children, we may recall our initial experience with swimming. We might remember a parent who held our hand helping us with that first dip or plunge in the pool. Or maybe there was a teacher or coach who encouraged us from the sidelines. But today, it seems as though there has to be more. Society has demanded that we fashion our children into professional athletes before they have mastered how to swim. Too often, being seen as an average child is negative. And so, we trade play time for tutors, and we feel compelled to have their futures set before they finish elementary school. Why are we trying to get our kids into college before they even know the alphabet? Is this what the Talmud meant by teaching a youngster to swim? I don’t think so.
Now we do have to challenge our kids. We have to push them. And as parents we must guide them down paths that we hope will be for the best. But we have become so consumed with grades and test scores that we’ve forgotten that our first priority is to raise good, quality children.
A few weeks ago, Congregation Beth Israel had the privilege of hosting Rabbi Paul Kipnes, co-author of Jewish Spiritual Parenting. He spoke to parents of young children in our Miriam Browning Jewish Learning Center as well as parents of our Shlenker School. Through his thoughtful and engaging lectures, he taught us one way to appreciate the good moments throughout the day. We should cultivate times to intentionally say, “Shehechiyanu.” Thank you, God, for this wonderful day. Thank you, God, for giving me eyes to see the sun. Thank you, God, for the chance to read a book. Not once did Rabbi Kipnes say anything about praying to God so our kids would get high test scores and head to an Ivy League college. Many of our children will do those things and that is certainly something to celebrate. But, Judaism tells us to slow down. There is time. Watch your children grow. Appreciate the gifts they have been given. Capitalize on the attributes of character – of raising children who are self-reliant, compassionate and appreciative. Most of all, express gratitude.
Recently, a mother came to talk to me about her family challenges. Her children have nearly grown up and will soon be leaving the nest. She felt overwhelmed by college application deadlines, caring for her own ailing parents, and trying to cram as much good parenting into her children without suffocating them. The first thing I told her to do was to just breathe. There is no deadline on becoming a good parent. We are all constant works in progress, and we should focus on empowering our children to swim on their own. As parents we make mistakes, but we can pivot and redirect. In this season of renewal, let’s make an accounting of ourselves — a Cheshbon HaNefesh. No matter how old our children, we can all take time to breathe and express thanks for the beauty their lives have given us.
We are each created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. That is a special gift. This is a value that our children must learn at an early age. They have to see the fundamental divine spark that is part of their own souls. When we see the whole child and enable him or her to spread their wings, then we’ve created a child who can really be equipped to face the world. We can demonstrate humility and integrity in every aspect of our lives. More than a high mark on a test, this is a lasting and powerful sense of accomplishment.
Moving from infancy and young childhood, we focus now on middle age. As we continue to mature, there can be a lot of uncharted waters. We sometimes forget how to find our place in the waves that wash over us. For some, the years of child-rearing have ended. For others, it’s a time to focus on a new career or even return to school for another degree. There is no question that these are the years when we might find ourselves in need of new direction and purpose.
Harold Kushner is a familiar author to many of us. His book entitled When Bad things Happen to Good People helps us through many difficult times. But, he also has a lot to say on the topic of middle-age. In his work, When all You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, he explores the idea of not making ourselves into idols. It is at this stage of life, when we might be focused too much on what we have accumulated rather than on who we are spiritually. But, this isn’t a time when we can merely stop choosing to live meaningful lives. No longer are we living through our children, we are living for ourselves.
With the help of our Inclusion Committee, we recently began an empty nesters group. Our discussions have been engaging and eye-opening. We’ve spent time discussing both the ups and downs of having an empty home. I was touched by one member who commented to me that she enjoyed finding a new place for herself in the congregation. She remained committed to Jewish learning, even well into her adult years. Study was a meaningful way for her and her partner to feel connected and included.
Creating a mikdash me’at, a spiritual home, is an important part of living and embracing Judaism. Our homes should be dedicated to God, Torah, and the Jewish People. But often once the children have left the home, we feel like God has left the home too. Behind closed doors when no one is watching, do we still need to light the Shabbat candles? Of course we do. This phase of middle age creates an opportunity for us to be even more mindful of our relationship with God.
During our weekly Torah study class, one participant recently commented on how much his connection to Judaism was renewed upon returning from Israel. A trip to Israel has this way of cultivating a greater appreciation for amcha, our People. He felt a much deeper connection to the rest of the Jewish world upon his return. He felt responsible for learning as much as he could about the issues affecting the Middle East and the history of the land and the people of Israel. With more time to appreciate his Jewish heritage, he dove deeply into greater commitments for himself Jewishly. He became active in the Israel Advocacy Committee and he attended the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC.
Learning to swim upstream in the Jewish world is no easy task. Our commitment to pluralism challenges us to see Jewish life in all its varieties and complexities. The more we are exposed to different traditions, rituals, and perspectives, the more we will find ourselves and what Judaism can offer us. After all, the Torah understands water as a metaphor for life itself. When Moses was placed in the river as a baby, when Noah was protected by the ark in the Flood, when Miriam found wells in the desert, the people were saved by water, and God’s protection was restored.
In Genesis, as we read the story of creation we see God’s master plan. After Creation is complete, God hovers over the universe. Our sages help us see that this is God’s way of extending the Divine presence upon each of us. Much like a parent or caretaker who must learn how to relinquish some power during the relationship, God also makes room for us to make our own choices. This doesn’t mean that God forgets about us once the world is created. Instead, God touches us in many different ways, but we must be mindful of that touch.
This holy day reminds us that God is present in our lives. Often, that relationship needs to be tweaked or re-discovered. Becoming engaged in Jewish life now is important because otherwise, it could be too late. As the sages teach, “Don’t say when I have leisure time I will study, because perhaps you will never have that leisure time.”
In an age where we busy ourselves with the mundane, let’s be sure to also spend some time focusing on the sacred.
Sacred aging is, in fact, a buzzword in the Jewish world today. It helps us to appreciate our golden years. We’ve experienced the choppy waters of life as well as the relative calm of the sea. We have plunged into the depths of the ocean and also waded in the streams. Knowing how to swim is like choosing life. We seek ways to live with grace and dignity. But the golden years are still opportunities for new adventures and new experiences.
In the best-selling work, Being Mortal, Dr. Atul Gawande details the benefits and challenges of the aging process. He profoundly notes that this phase of life “is about perspective, not age, that matters most.” (Gawande 99) Finding a purpose for living can seem unbearable, especially after the loss of a beloved spouse or parent. How we keep living is the greatest way we bring honor to those whom we have lost. These are new waters of uncharted territory. It can be frightening and overwhelming. But, we aren’t alone. We have the teachings of our faith to guide us, and our congregation to support us.
Over the summer, I met with a congregant. She and her husband enjoyed a loving partnership of more than fifty years. All too quickly, it ended, and he died. While she certainly acknowledged all of the blessings of her marriage, she also had regrets. With her husband, she had found love, devotion and comfort. But she was sad. Every time she looked at her wedding band, all she felt was loss and grief. But she didn’t want to simply remove it. Because she received that same ring under the chuppah as part of her beautiful Jewish wedding 50 years prior, she longed for a similar ritual to mark this time of transition and separation.
So together, we crafted a meaningful ceremony. We celebrated the love she had once shared with her husband. We acknowledged her strength in choosing life — not only for herself, but for her children and her grandchildren. She shared personal words after which, she removed her wedding band. It was a spiritual time of closure that brought her a newfound sense of inner peace. In the months since that ceremony, she has found a way to look at her marriage with a deeper appreciation for what was. Through her sadness, she has come to understand what her marriage truly meant. Her sage advice was captured in a letter that she wrote to me. It read: ‘Don’t take for granted the time you have with your loved one. Once you know that death may be imminent, speak the words that fill your heart. Let your loved one know, especially at the end, what their devotion and support means. Don’t shy away from sharing your innermost thoughts before it’s too late.’
This New Year is ours to craft and shape. We have the privilege of using this time to renew our relationships and really think about what we want to change in the coming year. It is up to us to use this time in a productive and meaningful way. To practice repentance is to return to our best selves. We shouldn’t blame ourselves for our past deeds. We shouldn’t worry about mistakes we made in the last year. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up for how we raised our children. Today, the slate is wiped clean. By making small changes, we gain a new perspective, a new focus, and a new chance to swim through the sea of life.
There is so much in our days beyond our control. We can spend them worrying about what may be, or we can take a firm hold on what is. Being present in the moment is important. As we age, mature, and reach our golden years individually, we also do it together. Our community is by our side — always within reach.
Wherever we may be on our own personal journeys, Judaism has much to offer. Whether we dive head first into Torah study, or glide through a year of new Jewish rituals, Beth Israel is here to guide you on your own spiritual path.
Our goal for this year should be to focus on gratitude, appreciation, and cultivating meaningful relationships with others. At the end of our days here on Earth, it’s not about how much we have, it’s about how much we’ve given.
The Psalmist teaches that we should number our days in order to achieve a heart of wisdom. The Psalmist does not say that we should live through others. We shouldn’t become so caught up in the activities of those closest to us that we forget our own goals and aspirations.
How lucky are we that we are a part of this faith and this tradition. Let us take hold of this gift firmly as we enter the coming days with greater patience, appreciation and gratitude for all that we are destined to become. May this day of renewal and forgiveness help us see our best selves and inspire us to make the most of every day we have left here on Earth. By doing so, we will become a greater source of blessing to ourselves, to our community, and ultimately to God.
Ken Yehi Ratzon, May this be God’s will.