Choose life. I have to admit, this is one of my favorite phrases in the whole torah. Choose life so that you and your seed may live. Who in their right minds wouldn’t want to choose life? Since this is not a verse about suicide prevention or martyrdom, what it is really trying to teach us? And why are we reading it today, on the day when we deny ourselves the pleasures of this world?
Last night I talked about forgiveness, and how it is good for the soul, good as a stress reducer and good for our physical health, all linked together. Choosing life is the over-arching theme of this health-conscious spirituality.
So how do we do it? How do we choose life?
Rabbi and psychiatrist Abraham Twerski, in his book Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Becoming the Best You Can be, offered ten commandments or steps to achieving spiritual happiness, many of which we’ve discussed over these Yamim Nora’im, these days of awe, which I think can be condensed:
1. Cultivate enjoyable spiritual experiences.
The Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud, the smaller, less well known version of the collection of wisdom of our sages, asks a question about choosing life: one of the rabbis suggests that when we die (remember today is our dress rehearsal, this time each year), we will be asked whether we tasted from all the legitimate pleasures of this world we live in.
19th century German Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch reworked this question: he imagined God asking us, “Have you SEEN My Alps?” or in our case, “Have you SEEN My Lake Tahoe?” Have you really seen the beauties of this world we live in? Have you, like Moses standing before the burning bush, taken the time to absorb how beautiful the crepe myrtles are in bloom, or the full moon rising over the Lake, or the difference between a golden crested ground squirrel and a chipmunk? Have you stepped off the whirlwind of your life, let the beauty wash over you — and given thanks for the opportunity to enjoy these pleasures? This is choosing life with your senses, with your soul, with your ability to experience radical amazement. As I discussed last night, we seem to have rediscovered this pre-eminent Jewish practice as a means to decrease stress and improve our health.
2. Become aware of our shortcomings and decide we want to become a better person. Remember the choice is ours.
A story about the 18th century Chassidic master Reb Zusya that most speaks to our Yom Kippur task: One night he woke up from a dream, scared and worried. His students asked him what the trouble was. He told them he had just appeared before the heavenly court. No they did not ask him if he had seen the Alps. And they didn’t ask him why he had not been more like Moses, or even more like Joshua. They asked him why he had not been more like Zusya. And that was what scared him.
How many of us spend our days not doing what we know is our path? We spend too much time on Facebook, or surfing the net, playing solitaire or gambling or Scrabble, or on the golf course, or reading People magazine. And we don’t do the things we know will make us the people we want to be.
What if we fritter our lives away and don’t get around to completing our life tasks, so that we are not more like ourselves?
How do we deal with the life killing aspects of our own mishegoss, our own particular craziness, that causes us pain, suffering, inability to have good relationships or injure the ones we love, or obscure our opportunities for emotional success?
Remember that the choice is yours, hard though that is to imagine. That’s what we’re here for today. It’s a moment to decide who you want to be, how to fix what you’ve done wrong… but it’s not the only moment. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.
3. Realize that change is a slow process, but be willing to persist, addressing each issue, one by one.
How many of us get to this time of year and think – YET AGAIN, I’d like to be more patient with my children, my brothers or sisters, my spouse, my parents. I’d like to say I love you more often. I’d like to handle my anger better. I’d like to treat my body better. I’d like to call my grandparents or parents more often. We may realize we want to change, we may know it’s our choice, but it’s still going to take time. The reason we keep coming back here is because that’s true.
If I want to stop yelling at my children (something I did want to do – and pretty much succeeded FINALLY—right, Olya?)—again, every time I start to open my mouth – at least in anger, I had to think about it. And in the beginning, it meant going back and apologizing, trying to fix it. Now it’s easier to recognize the anger and move myself away… and indeed the anger happens a lot less often.
But this did not happen from one Yom Kippur to the next, or, I’m sad to say, the next. For a period of time, we would sit at our pre-fast dinner, and express our apologies for harming each other. And our litany, like the ones in the machzor, would sound pretty familiar. And then, I would remember Maimonides’ challenge for teshuvah: the way you know you’ve really made teshuvah is when faced with the same situation, you don’t repeat your response.
How many of us have failed at that?
But it’s never too late. A dear congregant from my internship was a life long smoker; so much so that I realized that when I went to visit her, I had to wear wash and wear clothes because the cigarette smell would permeate my clothes. She had a stroke last year when she was 83. The doctors told her that she had to give up smoking. When I asked her, a year later, how that was going, she told me, had she known it would be this easy, she would have done it years ago. She chose life.
4. Related to this, work to keep setbacks from discouraging us. Avoid things that are soul-killing.
Choosing life is not just about blessing the good though. Sometimes, the Talmud teaches us, it is about blessing even the bad things that befall us.
When Andy Roddick retired from tennis earlier this month, the New York Times interviewed tennis legend Andre Agassi about Roddick’s career. His comments illuminate the virtue of blessing the bad:
“I’m sure he feels that he wishes one or two things could have gone differently in his career. But I’ve got to say looking from the outside, listening to him talk now, listening to his clarity and his decision-making, knowing him as a person, I also believe those hard times, those unfortunate moments, the losses and never getting back to what he had so early on, has really helped sort of mold him as a person. And I think ultimately that’s a greater gift than adding another trophy to the shelf, because he’s more prepared for the majority of his life as a result of that than otherwise. I assure you that those hard lessons they come with a gift.” (New York Times, 9/5/12/)
If Andy Roddick can do this, he will be choosing life.
Agassi’s description is another side of a 200 year old story told about a man who once came to the holy Maggid of Mezeritch and bemoaned that he was having great trouble applying the Talmudic saying that “A person is supposed to bless God for the bad just as one blesses God for the good”. The Maggid told him to go find Reb Zusya and ask him. The man did so and Zusya received him warmly and invited him into his home. When the guest came in, he saw how poor Reb Zusya’s family was: there was almost nothing to eat, they were beset with afflictions and illnesses. Nevertheless Reb Zusya was happy and cheerful. The guest was astonished at this picture. He said: “I went to the Holy Maggid to ask him how is it possible to bless God for the bad the same way as we bless Ribono Shel Olam for the good, and the Maggid told me only you can help me in this matter.” Reb Zusya replied: “This is indeed a very interesting question. But why did our holy Rebbe send you to me? How would I know? He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering.” Even in the face of obvious affliction and trial, he was cheerful and kind, because he did not experience his life as affliction.
What if we try our best, and still come in second or fifth or last? I hear one of our kids’ coaches tells his team that coming in second is being the first loser. REALLY? If we try our best, that should be good enough. If our task is to be an Olympic gold medalist, maybe the pushing is warranted. But most of us are not going to get that far, and learning to accept our strengths and challenges—to bless both the good and the bad, being authentic for who we are, being comfortable in our own skin is the more life affirming, life choosing perspective.
Another dear congregant from my internship lost her husband 2 years ago; at 86, she rebuilt her life, active in a variety of activities in her retirement community, from weaving to the art committee, to bringing a monthly shabbat program to their Jewish—and non-Jewish—members. She mourned her loss of a wonderful husband of many decades, but turned her pain into blessing.
5. Give serious consideration to the relative importance of things.
The haftarah we will read shortly, from Isaiah, addresses this question head on. Isaiah tells us that the fast expected of us this day, and every day, is to let the oppressed go free, share our bread with the hungry, care for the poor, clothe the naked and care for our families.
So before we think about buying the new iPhone 5, have we considered it against the needs of the ones we are supposed to care for? When we take our well-earned vacation, have we considered what kind of vacation it will be? When we buy our computers and smart phones, are we paying attention to whether the workers who make them are treated fairly? Are we sharing our bread with the hungry more often than Yom Kippur and the Holiday Food and Clothing Drive? Are we balancing doing these tasks God expects of us against tasting of all the legitimate pleasures of the world?
Have we set aside time to study, to learn about the world around us? Because if we don’t spend regular time each day learning, training our minds to search for the truth, seeing all sides, doing critical thinking, then we are wasting part of the gift of our minds. We make false assumptions, we could believe things that just are not true… If you are interested in learning Jewish traditions especially for this, please let me know!
6. Laugh more!
Twerski tells the story of a doctor who injected a muscle-paralyzing chemical into the muscles of the lower forehead that made it impossible to frown. He reported great success in relieving depression this way. Apparently, just the muscular activity of a frown can depress a person! On the other hand, laughing, good deep belly laughs, are also good for our health: the Mayo Clinic states that a rollicking laugh fires up and then cools down your stress response and increases your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling. They claim that on a long term basis, those of us who laugh more have strengthened immune systems, pain relief, and increased personal satisfaction. So make up a list of ways to increase your laughter, from subscribing to joke lists, or watching more Charlie Chaplin and Marx Brothers or Adam Sandler movies—or whatever works for you. But do make up the list. I was going to suggest we all try a good belly laugh, but realized it was Yom Kippur. At break the fast, maybe we will.
7. Finally, realize that there is never an end to spiritual growth.
Since none of us is perfect, there is always room to refine our character. The ancient and modern Jewish psychospiritual practice of Mussar trains us to look at our middot, behavior traits, on a regular basis. While we may have made some serious progress on say, patience, or humility, this time around, when we revisit it in a few months or next year, we might find, well, still have some work to do. That’s part of why we meet here every year. Celebrate it.
One of my teachers, Reb Mel Gottlieb, taught our seminary that any way is a way if you make it a way. If you have a technique that helps you to remember, to be conscious, to be aware, to think before you act, and it’s working for you, then more power to you, and I pray that you keep using it. If you have a technique that is successful when you use it, but… you don’t always remember to use it… spend some time today thinking about what the barriers are. And doing something about it.
If you are looking for a technique, let’s talk…