D’VAR TORAH / SERMON
RABBI DAVID BENJAMIN FAINSILBER
1 TISHREI 5782 // SEPTEMBER 7, 2021
“Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep!
O you slumberers, awake from your slumber!…
Do not be like those who miss reality…
and waste their years in seeking after vain things…
Look well to your souls and consider your acts.”
These iconic words of the great sage Maimonides,
written about the shofar’s blast,
capture the essence of these ten days of teshuvah.
Through the intense practice of listening to the shofar,
and throughout all of these days
of returning and repentance
from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur,
we are called on to get out of the habits which hold us down,
and to consider what makes us feel fully alive and thriving,
as we seek to become more true to ourselves.
This year and a half, too, has been something of a wake up call,
for our society and for our personal lives.
Because of the intensity, the tumult, and the loss,
COVID has, in many ways,
made us recognize what’s truly important to us.
We have not seen family and friends,
not been in community,
we’ve seen neighbours and local businesses
broken by economic downturn,
and we have learned how interconnected we are—
that our very breath can make the difference
between life or death for others.
Through isolation and quarantine, mask mandates, death and illness—
many of us have been pushed to the breaking point,
while for others, it has been a more gentle challenge.
Over the course of the year,
time and again we have each been given the opportunity—
through learning hard-earned life lessons—
to awaken to what is essential:
to family and community, to basic needs and health for all,
to the importance of life itself.
On this Rosh Hashanah, consider with me
the Torah of the pandemic:
In the face of adversity over this past year,
how have you been able
to embrace what is most important in your life?
What habits do you put your energy into,
chasing after things that don’t really matter to you?
Or when have you stayed true to your wellbeing,
adopting habits that you want to bring with you
into the new year?
“Awake, sleepers, awake from your sleep!”
Are you satisfied with this one, short life that you live?
Even though we are far from being out of this pandemic,
there is a tremendous opportunity right now.
We who are lucky enough to be here today
can begin to take what we have learned
over this past year and a half,
and to inscribe new habits into our daily lives—
our habits at home and away,
on our own or with friends and family.
Not to go back to ‘normal’ as it once was,
but instead to go towards a ‘new and transformed normal’
that integrates the lessons learned.
Easier said than done.
How many times have you felt your own call to action,
based on lessons learned from the past,
and when faced with a decision that impacts your life
this time will be different.
This time, I will be different,
but then after a day, or week, or month,
you revert back to old tendencies.
What holds us humans back are our habits.
We so naturally tend to revert back to the status quo,
often to patterns that do not serve us.
I find motivation to be a fickle thing.
One minute it’s there.
The next, you’re watching another episode on Netflix… again.
We say we want to be more present for our families,
we want to volunteer more,
we want to do more acts of chesed, of lovingkindness,
we want to read more, learn more,
work on our relationships,
do more for sustainability—
whatever your goals are—
yet human nature is difficult to change.
This is why Judaism prioritizes
setting up reminders throughout our day,
including right in our most important prayer, the Shema:
V’ahavta et Adonai Eloheicha—
Don’t just love G-d with all your heart, soul, and strength,
you must take these words
repeat them again and again to yourselves and your children.
Say what is important to you over and over again,
when you are home and when you are away,
when you are heading to sleep, and when you get up.
Put them on your arm and between your eyes, as tefillin.
Uchvatvam al mezuzot beitecha—
And when you walk in and out of your home,
be reminded with your mezuzah.
The ketubah on your wall,
the traditional foods on your table,
the candle-sticks to light on Friday nights…
integrated into our lives, all of these are small reminders to:
“Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep!
O you slumberers, awake from your slumber!”
To effectively change ourselves and the world,
we need to change our habits
because our actions have a profound impact
on who we are at our core.
In the words of James Clear,
author of “Atomic Habits”:
“What you repeatedly do
(i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day)
ultimately forms the person you are,
the things you believe,
and the personality that you portray.”
Jews have always cared more about what we do
than what we believe.
This may be the single most important
Jewish contribution to the world.
COVID or no COVID,
this is why each year, we spend these days in self-reflection.
From Rosh Hashanah’s foods and family,
to Yom Kippur’s fasting and prayer,
we have ten short days, each moment a reminder to do teshuvah—
to think with depth and concentration
about how we have spent this past year,
and whether we are happy and fulfilled by our choices,
or whether we have a spiritual itch
that is hungering for more out of life.
Teshuvah is that reminder
to not just think about how we want to be better in this coming year,
but to tangibly bring godliness into our lives,
through acts of greater chesed to our bodies and souls,
in our relationships with others,
and in our connection to community and to G-d.
Sometimes teshuvah unfolds
like the jolt of the shofar—
to awaken us out of our routine complacency.
In the words of 20th century philosopher Martin Buber:
real teshuvah is when
“the will to decision awakens,
the cover of routine life bursts open,
and primal forces break through, storming heavenward.”
Kein yehi ratzon, may it be!
Yet, for most of us.
that feeling is only the beginning of teshuvah,
only the door opening.
We then need to walk through to the other side.
As the famous Hasidic master
Reb Nachman of Bratzlav writes:
By teshuvah one declares:
‘I am ready to exist as a person of worth.’
After teshuvah, a person understands G-d better,
and they know that their repentance was performed
in the light of their lack of understanding.
Hence, they must do teshuvah again
in the light of their greater understanding.
Again, one attains higher understanding,
which leads one to repent once more.
Thus, there is no limit to penitence.
For this reason, we pray day after day three times (in the Amidah):
Bring us back in perfect teshuvah to Your presence.
Blessed are You Hashem, who desires repentance…”
To Reb Nachman,
teshuvah is not a one shot deal.
It is an evolution through ongoing work.
It is the combination of daily habits and self-reflection
that help lift us out of our mundane routine,
to reach a higher and higher level,
one step at a time.
For many years, I had been telling myself
that I wanted to stretch more for more overall health.
Then, last year, I injured my back,
with the kind of pain that was excruciating to get out of bed.
Facing that adversity,
it made me realize it was time for a change,
time to do what I told myself I had wanted to do all these years.
Instead of trying to start
a 30-minute daily stretching routine I knew I would not follow,
I decided that every morning, before I did anything else,
I would do one stretch.
One little stretch.
Now, a year later, I now cannot imagine waking up without that one stretch,
and the several others that I have slowly integrated
into my morning routine.
This is not what Martin Buber would call the
“primal forces breaking through, storming heavenward.”
It is not a big deal that I do a couple stretches in the morning.
I mean, really, who cares?
Well, I do.
Because instead of reaching for my phone in the morning,
I connect with my body,
and that sets me up for better balance and alignment
throughout the rest of the day,
and it has a small, but significant ripple effect into the rest of my life,
both within my own self and also how I interact with others.
Because small changes like these
are daily reminders that habits can be broken,
including bigger habits that do not fulfill us.
They are reminders that each of us has agency over our lives.
Good habits and thoughts repeated throughout days, weeks, and months
can lead to others, and to another and another,
slowly, incrementally, until one day, we wake up,
and see that our lives are what we had been hoping for all along,
because what is important to us is built into the fabric of our lives,
or at least, that we can say that
we are more fulfilled each day along the journey.
Coronavirus is the ultimate teacher
that we lack much control over our lives.
But with that knowledge of our limitations,
we can embrace those parts of life that are in our control.
It’s one of the quintessential Jewish teachings that,
while some habits can hold us down and be dangerous,
yet they can also be the key to unlocking our true potential.
Think for a moment:
What is one habit—big or small—
that you’ve embraced over this past year
that you want to keep going with?
What is one micro-habit that
you can integrate into your daily routine?
>> Let’s take a moment to meditate on this.
One habit you’ve embraced,
one small habit you want to add to your life. <<
Today, we spoke about
small personal changes that demonstrate our engagement
with the cycle of teshuvah.
On Yom Kippur, I want to talk with you about the collective habits
that we need and want to change—
how our community and society
ought to adapt and change habits
to meet the challenges of this tumultuous 21st century.
In a moment, we will hear the call of the shofar.
Let us hear it as a wake up call of inspiration
and use these ten precious days
to consider how we wish to live—personally and collectively,
as we return to our true selves.
In changing ourselves, we change society slowly as well,
for our actions impact others, and thus the greater society.