Seeking A New Path

Kol Nidre
September 13, 2013
Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

Gut Yontif – G’mar tov – Shabbat Shalom

Have you ever been driving when you heard something on the radio you absolutely had to remember, but there was no way you could stop to make a note? (How many of you made a note anyway?) In early August, while driving home from the Berkshires, I was listening to a podcast in which the speaker read a poem he introduced as, “Autobiography In Five Chapters.” At 65 miles an hour in the dark I could not write myself a note to look it up. So I spent the rest of the trip home chanting – “Autobiography in 5 Chapters,” as if it were a mantra. No sooner had I exited the Pike here in Newton, than I quickly pulled into the parking lot at the Hess Station on Comm Ave, and pulled out my phone. Of course, in a matter of seconds I had the poem. Looking at the screen on my phone, what I felt when I first heard the podcast was confirmed: “Yom Kippur” material. Here it is:

Chapter 1) I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I’m in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in… it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter 4) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5) I walk down another street.

That August evening I thought to myself, if that doesn’t scream Yom Kippur and teshuvah, I don’t know what does.

Now it is Yom Kippur and we have gathered anew. We have come to reflect, through prayer and introspection on our lives. Already tonight, and several times more tomorrow, we will recite the Viddui – our liturgical confessional in which we recite and chant, in several different ways, a litany of misdeeds. It’s our liturgical way of taking stock of those holes in our lives of which the poem speaks. None of us is personally culpable for the entirety of that litany. Nevertheless, we recite it — together, and in the plural. This leaves no one standing alone as they face their imperfection. I have also long thought that the recitation serves as a reminder for us to reach for the best we can be in the year before us, as we hear anew the litany of holes into which human beings are capable of falling. Our tradition is crafted to remind us of life’s fragility. It places us face-to-face with our own brokenness, in the hope that we can make a turn, that we can do teshuvah as we begin filling a new page in the book of our lives.

Today is not about the world around us. This day is specifically about us – each of us facing ourselves, facing our brokenness and facing God. It’s about trying to find the strength to honestly reflect on the bumps (or potholes) of the past year. Did we instantly declare, “it’s not my fault?” Did we pretend not to see things about which we might have been able to do something? Did we walk with our eyes closed or shielded? After all, if I don’t see it, can I be held responsible? Did we walk down paths which were wrong choices in years gone by and yet we repeated the choice; did we repeat words we knew had been hurtful in the past? And what changes will we make because of this Yom Kippur day? Will this merely be a day of reciting long litanies of misdeeds as we repeat the viduui again and again and will we then simply return to the same path and keep doing the same things? Or will we face ourselves, and our lives with honesty, truly opening our eyes so that we can enter this New Year committed to walking around the holes into which we have previously fallen? Will we look up, open our eyes, and accept responsibility? Where necessary or possible, will we choose a new path? Which of the five chapters will be our starting point in this New Year?

One of the goals I set for my Sabbatical time this summer was to try a new path, to do something out of the box, something out of my own comfort zone. While I always find new things to experience in Israel, by and large, my time in Israel is familiar territory. I knew that part of my time would be spent in the Berkshires so that I could be with Laura, and some of our children, who were spending their summer at our URJ Eisner Camp. But I wasn’t going to be part of “camp” in a formal way. So I set out to find a learning opportunity that might be available. The Berkshires are full of wonderful opportunities. I figured there just had to be something out there for me. With a bit of cyber-exploration back in the Spring I found what I thought might fit the bill – a seminar at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge.

I’d heard of Kripalu before. I know that there are many of you who have spent time there. In late July they were offering a seminar entitled Whole Person Well-Being. Sounded interesting – even sounded sabbatical-ish. Why not? Yoga – I could try that. Meditation – couldn’t hurt. It’s near camp. I can even leave each night and sleep in my own bed. Out of the box – for me, let’s do it.

I was unprepared for the impact that week was going to have on me. Whole Person Well-Being, along with the Kripalu Yoga and the Meditation practice I experienced turned out to be one of the most powerful “learning” experiences I have ever had. It reinforced the sense that I have articulated after other out-of-the-box experiences, that if we are willing to open our eyes, our ears and our hearts, there is “torah” everywhere. In the words of Dr. Peter Senge of MIT, “Learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we re-perceive the world and our relationship to it.”

I loved my time studying at Hartman, I loved the many concerts I attended, the books I read, the Red Sox games with my sons, and the many other things that went in to making up my summer sabbatical. But without a doubt, it was the time I spent at Kripalu that left me a different person.

Our teachers in the Whole-Person Well-Being Seminar introduced us to the notion that “Optimal well-being comes not from fragmentation, but by integration.” Through integrating five realms of our lives, we can attain well-being. If I were to re-cast that in Hebrew, I’d say we can attain a greater sense of shalom – wholeness. I believe it’s the same thing we seek through the heshbon hanefesh, the accounting of our lives in which we engage during these Yamim Noraim. This pursuit of Whole-Person Well-Being is framed in five-dimensions of what my teachers call the SPIRE approach to living. In short, they teach that wholeness is enhanced by paying attention to and working on oneself in five core realms (SPIRE):

S – Spiritual well-being, in which we feel a sense of purpose and meaning, and our values drive our actions as we live mindfully.

P – Physical well-being, in which we demonstrate positive regard for our body; and maintain awareness of the innate ability of our body and mind to impact each other.

I – Intellectual well-being, in which we stretch and grow our minds by cultivating creativity and foster a love of learning.
R – Relational well-being, in which we intentionally contribute to and benefit from those around us in creating healthy relationships. We must also work to foster a healthy relationship with ourselves.

E – Emotional well-being, in which we work to increase our pleasurable emotions and cultivate the resilience to deal with our painful emotions.

Over the course of the seminar, we were led through an exploration of each of these five aspects of our lives; we were asked to assess ourselves in these areas; and by week’s end, asked to consider ways in which we might work on these dimensions of our lives as we make each and every day a part of the process of working towards Whole-Person Well-Being. Along with the yoga and mediation experiences, as well as quiet time for reflection and reading, I have to say that the Kripalu experience was for me a sort of personal High Holy Days – it was a Tekiyah Gedolah, it was a Viddui, it was a Heshbon HaNefesh. I left Kripalu just days before the beginning of the month of Elul, the month prior to these Holy Days, which is meant to be a time of spiritual preparation for these Holy Days. Day by day I set aside time to practice and work on some of what I took away from the seminar which was unexpectedly nourishing and full of joy. One of the challenges I have set for myself along with living what I learned at Kripalu throughout the year ahead, is to explore how I can integrate some of what I learned into my life here at Temple Shalom, and into our lives together here. I also believe that this SPIRE approach has what to say to a congregation as it seeks to define its mission and vision. Stay tuned.

As the poetry of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer says, “Each of us is a shattered urn. . .” We are each broken, imperfect beings. Our High Holy Days come to provide each of us with a Tekiyah – a call to “wake-Up.” And we each respond differently in our lives. For me, this summer’s sabbatical, and especially the Seminar on Whole Person Well Being was an opportunity to reflect on the Five Chapters of my Autobiography and to consider what I will “write” in this New Year. It was a reminder and a reorientation to the reality that the soul work of which we speak so intensely during these High Holy Days is, in fact, a daily, and year-round proposition.
I know that I will undoubtedly step into holes again this year. There will be mistakes, and paths I will wish I hadn’t chosen. Yet, on this holiest of days, I am awakened to the reality that I have the capacity to write some, maybe many of those chapters differently this year. We all do! What do you hope to write on your page in Sefer HaHayyim – The book of Life? How will you attend to your SPIRE:

S-Spiritual – what will you do to nourish your spirit?

P-Physical – how will you care for your physical being?

I-Intellectual – Learning helps us re-create ourselves. What do you wish to learn this year?

R-Relational – As the authors of the classic study on Jewish life in the Eastern European shtetl put it, “Life is with people.”

E-Emotional — what can you do to enhance your emotional well-being?

How can we, as individuals, and as a community ASPIRE and INSPIRE, so we can care for our own and each other’s Well-being in this New Year?

This day gives each of us a chance at a fresh start. May this year’s journey be filled with meaning, with health, with creativity and learning, with ever-deeper relationships, where it’s needed, with healing; with joy and resilience, and with all the sweet blessings life can bring. And may we embrace the many ways in which we can share pieces of the journey together, here in our community.

Gut Yontif – G’mar tov – Shabbat Shalom

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