Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur 2018 (Tishrei 5779)
As a rabbi, I am prepared at any time to talk about Torah, politics, pastoral care, even the tuna fish at kiddish. But this past year – in shul, in the aisles of Whole Foods, at CVS, at Lifetime Fitness, at weddings, bar mitzvahs, at funerals – my conversations seem to begin with the one thing my rabbinic training had not prepared me for: a compliment.
There’s the guilty compliment: “My goodness, I need to get to shul more often. I barely recognized you now.”
There’s the mathematical compliment: “How much weight exactly have you lost?”
There’s the holistic compliment: “Wow, you’re a completely different person!”
I always thank people for their love and support, which is what they are offering and how I receive their words.
But at the same time, the implicit premise – that there is a “before” me and an “after” me, and that the old me, “before,” is very different from the new, thinner “after” me – is something I have been struggling with all year.
At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to you, especially now, about why this gave me disquiet. After all, everybody’s high holidays are about them.
I do not want to give a sermon where, when you get home for lunch today and your relatives ask, “What did the rabbi talk about?” you answer, “She talked about her weight loss.”
But then I remembered a sermon my colleague Rabbi David Wolpe gave about ten years ago. He shared that he had read an address by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who eloquently exhorted the graduating class of Harvard Divinity school in 1838, saying:
“I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more… He had no[t] one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it… The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life – life passed through the fire of thought.”
In other words, a preacher is a human being, and their humanity must somehow color the words they share in such a way that others can use the preacher’s lens to better see their own lives. So, I want to share with you today this part of my life in hopes that it might shed light on yours.
The truth is, like any card-carrying member of the yo-yo diet club, I have been immersed in “before” and “after” tales nearly all my life. On every newsstand, in pop culture shows like “The Biggest Loser,” on every billboard at the gym each week, the “before and after” narrative pervades our culture, our ideas, and our ideals.
There’s a script to the tale, a rigid format. And, lest there be any doubt, there is a vivid visual value statement – a statement so compelling it can be captured in a single side-by-side shot.
On one side is a flabby form, shleppy and sad – the “before.” On the other side, toned, tan, and smiling, stands the glowing “after.”
No one wants to be the “before.” For most of my life, I was.
Fast forward to this spring. Standing in my thousandth nutritionist’s appointment, she snapped a photo of me. At the end of our meeting, she stepped out and came back beaming, handing me a piece of paper. On the one side, a significantly larger me in a long black suit, looking heavy and heartsick. On the other side a smiling slimmer me now in form-fitting Lululemon.
Looking back and forth between the “before” and the “after” was a shock – just not in the way I had imagined. I know I was supposed to thank God that I was no longer that sad person on the “before” side of the page, but I was overcome instead with how little of my story those photos told.
They didn’t capture the satisfaction I had felt the day my “before” photo was taken from having helped a bereaved family through a hard time – the reason why I was wearing the long black suit on that particular day. They didn’t capture the joy I had later that evening putting my littlest one to bed.
And they certainly didn’t capture the wistfulness I feel today recalling those moments and the immense joy of a season which is no longer mine now that my boys are too big for cuddle wars.
The “before” picture didn’t tell my story. Neither did the “after.”
Moreover, the gym clothes on the “after” side weren’t just what I happened to be wearing at that moment; they are the uniform of my “after.” They are thousands of hours of sweat and work that has to be done again each day.
Looking at those side-by-side photos, it hit me: There is no after. Every day I wake up and my step counter is back at zero.
The same is true for each of us in every part of our lives. That mythical place where we think once we get there, everything will be perfect, is exactly that – mythical. There is no after. There is always just waking up and putting in the steps.
That is true with our bodies. It is true with our learning. It is true with our work. And it is certainly true with our relationships. We are never there. There is always more work to do.
Our tradition has a particularly poignant way of expressing this. When you say goodbye to someone in Hebrew, you say, “Lech L’shalom” – go toward peace. Until the day we die, there is no “Lech B’shalom” – go in peace. There is no getting there until we die. Happy Rosh Hashanah!
This could be a depressing message. But it is actually empowering. Why? Because Lech L’Shalom means we are always in process. We are always becoming – sometimes in a healthy and wholesome direction, and sometimes slipping backwards or to the side. We may be doing great on one axis but sliding on another. There is always more to each of us than what is seen, always more than one dimension to each life.
What if we could let go of the idea that once we had the right figure, the right car, the right job, the right partner, the right home… then everything would be great?
What if we could embrace the imperfections at every stage and every phase, before, after, and everywhere in between?
What if we could really integrate the message of our prayers today, that what we have is HaYom (today)? There is here and there is now. And that, we can do something with.
In many ways, the High Holidays are the ultimate praise of Sisyphus. The story of Sisyphus, of course, is that ancient, tragic tale about the man who was punished by being forced to roll a stone up a hill all of his days. Every night, just as he nearly reached the top, it would roll back down – the ultimate in futility.
Where our persistent struggles are concerned, it is easy to feel like Sisyphus – punished. But there is so much positive power in his tale. After all, aren’t we all Sisyphus?
There is a contradiction at the core of the High Holidays. We are here to repent, to change. And yet, every year we come back to the same words in the same book repenting for the same sins as the year before.
At the core of our Jewish experience, at the core moment of the Jewish year, is an expectation that we will try, and we will fail, and we will be back here to try again.
Whatever our battle is, whether body, heart, mind, or soul, we have another chance today to put the work in for tomorrow. Some days will be easy. Some will be hard.
Maybe for you this year brought great success. You are not done. Maybe for you this year brought great setbacks. You are not done.
The key insight of the Jewish New Year is that there is no one point in our lives that we are stuck as only a “before.” There is no place we will attain that is eternally an “after.”
No matter where we are, our lives are a circle, with opportunities to change and grow never behind us, but coming back around to us each day. Which means that today we can choose to love the empty step counter because it invites us to imagine what activities we will fill it with. Today we can learn to love the struggle, the times we succeed and the times we don’t, because there is another opportunity coming in the next moment to choose again.
A friend I spoke with at a rabbinic conference this summer shared with me that when her son was young, she used to sing “Puff the Magic Dragon” to him. He loved it. It was his favorite song. He would hum it in the car. He would sing along until he knew all the words.
Then one day mid-sing, he stopped and said to her, “Whoa, this song is super depressing! Why have you been singing this to me my whole life? It starts with such a beautiful friendship in a magical land filled with joy and ends with a devastated dragon who can no longer play, who can no longer feel, or find that magic, because his friend is gone.”
The before is beautiful. The after, not so much.
My friend did not know what to say. Her son had a point. It just so happened that Peter Yarrow, who co-wrote the song, was in her town soon after. So, she took her son to ask him.
After sharing what big fans they were, she nudged her son to ask his question. “Why would you end the song with such sadness? I don’t like that it ends there.”
Peter Yarrow smiled and said to the boy, “You don’t like it? So, write the next verse.”
Like my friend’s son, we all have a choice to see a “before” and an “after.” Or we can see our lives as a song that never stops – with never-ending opportunity to get up to write the next verse.
I do not know if or for how long I will be having conversations like the ones I have had this year. But I do know that I am no longer waiting for the “after.” Because there is no after – just the holiness of starting again each day.
In this New Year, as in every day, our step counters reset at zero. If you weren’t waiting for your “after,” what would you fill your spiritual step counter with today?