Rabbi Cohen’s Kol Nidre 5777 Sermon – A Radically Inspired Life

Kol Nidre 5777
October 11, 2016
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

A Radically Inspired Life


Many of us are familiar with Caring Bridge. If you’re not, it’s a website that allows for personal health story journals. It’s a place where, instead of having to tell the story of an illness or health issue over and over again, one can journal it once, invite friends and family to subscribe, and update the story only once for others to read and comment. It’s a wonderful online forum but one that unfortunately, when you are invited, know that there is a struggle happening in a friend or loved one’s life.

Unfortunately, I find myself currently following the stories of three friends and colleagues on Caring Bridge. One colleague has been active on Caring Bridge for a few years and updates her husband’s page regularly. They are mostly posts of close calls or updates after routine scans and every time there is a post, there is a moment of holding my breath waiting for the words – stable scan!

The other two, however, are not as positive.

One colleague has been down this road before. I was surprised to see an update, first on her website about her cancer’s return, and then reading her Caring Bridge full update with treatment plans and pictures of her losing her beautiful ginger hair again. She and her husband did a joint head shaving when the first clumps of hair came out in her hand and they both look inspiring and with purpose with huge smiles and bald shiny heads.

But then there was the September 11th message posted to my HUC-JIR Jerusalem class of 1993-94 Facebook post. One of our classmates from our first year in Jerusalem, Marcus, has been battling a rare form of sinus cancer and undergoing intense chemotherapy treatment. On September 11, Marcus’ husband posted to Caring Bridge that Marcus has entered hospice in an attempt to manage the pain and this final part of his life journey. Their hope is for all of his family and friends to take pen to paper and write him a letter and mail it to him. Hopefully, Marcus is being flooded by letters of love and support. How could we not.

I met Marcus on a June morning in Jerusalem. This medium framed body with an oval shaped head, always sparse hair, and big eyes that smile bigger than his mouth, which in itself brings warmth to anyone’s heart who sees him. Marcus was the even keeled, happy, go-lucky member of the class. If you ever felt down, just see Marcus and feel the embrace of this great soul and human being.

Over the past 18 years I’ve only seen Marcus maybe 15 times, about once a year at our CCAR conferences. But every time we connected it was as if we just saw each other the day before. We slipped right back into the conversation we ended the year before, laughing and sharing intense moments of reflection. And from the comments I’ve been reading on Caring Bridge, this was an experience so many have shared with Marcus over the years in the communities he has served.

How weird it is to think that even when we are only in touch maybe once a year a strong connection can be made and maintained. Yet, when we think about our lives and the moments we have with others, there is gratitude for our being able to enter right back into the conversation we left many months or even years before. This gives me pause to consider the gratuitous moments throughout life and how they are measured.

There are 365 days in a year, 8,760 hours in a year, and 525,600 minutes. If we figure on an average of 8 hours asleep a night, meaning we try to average out the many hours we slept as teenagers as compared to only sleeping 4-5 hours a night during the stressful years of our lives, we sleep about 2,920 hours a year, and with an average life span of 80, just for argument sake, please don’t throw things at me, we sleep about 233,600 hours over our life time. The question is, what are we doing with the other 467,200 hours we are awake?

How many of those hours are spent laughing and enjoying life? How many of those hours are spent being stressed with school, work and family? How many of these hours are spent working alone on projects and deadlines? How many of those hours are spent playing, having meaningful conversations with friends or just watching a sunset? How many of these hours are we paying attention to those moments for which we should be grateful?

I recently read the book, “On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life.” This is the story of John O’Leary, who at 9 years old was severely burned over 100% of his body after an accident that nearly destroyed his family’s home. That first night one thought John would not survive. When he asked his mom if he was going to die, she said to him, “that is up to you.” John spends the book describing his difficult journey of survival, recovery and rebuilding his life. His words are raw, uncensored, and real. He teaches that in all of our lives we have the power to change, solving our own problems and improving our lives. That in order for us to have a radically inspired life we have to embrace our story and celebrate the amazing miracle of our life.”

How often do we forget about the choices we make every day for being fully present so that we don’t lose any of the over 467,200 hours we have?

Ask yourself, how are you living life and handling the challenges thrown at you? It’s easy for us to be overwhelmed by life’s moments that we want to throw our hands in the air and say, ‘that’s it! I quit! I can’t do this!’ and find another path as fast as we can. There are some things we can’t change; bills, taxes, and job stresses that are just the reality of life. But how do we surrender to the things we can’t change? How do we just recognize those moments, accept them as ones that we must face and know that we can move forward from them? We do this through accountability, meaning we take ownership for our own life. We take responsibility for changing our own lives, solving our own problems and improving our lives. It is so easy to say it is someone else’s fault or a circumstance put us in a position that brings us unhappiness. And while there are situations not in our control, our own happiness and satisfaction in our lives are, as John O’Leary suggests, in our control. We have a choice to be negative and feel like the whole world is against us, or to find the positive forces that can guide us toward support and lifting us out of life’s greatest challenges.

John O’Leary could have succumbed to his injuries and just given up to either death or a life bound to a wheel chair or bed. Instead, he found the freedom in his life to know that it was his to live, no one else’s. He says, “it’s not just about action and fixing. Accountability also provides the power to let things go, to surrender things you can’t change, to forgive events and people that have burned you in the past.” An important lesson on this Kol Nidrei, and tomorrow as we recite Unetaneh Tokef; to balance between what we can’t and what we can control – the balance of fate and the ending of bringing in teshuvah, getting back on the right path, tefilah, prayer, and tzedakah, charity.

Yom Kipur is sometimes called, Yom Ki Purim – a day like Purim. But rather than putting on masks, it is imperative on each of us to remove our masks and take a close look at who we are and recognize that we are priceless, that we are important.

Once we uncover our true selves, then we ask, what is our purpose in life? Each of us have these ‘why am I here? moments:’ Do we live life as if it matters? There are moments in our days when we feel like we are going through the motions just to get through the day. “Do we let the mundane, the ordinary, the challenging, the boring, suck the marrow from our life?” Living means taking risks and opening ourselves to yes, getting burned. But without taking risks, then can we move forward and accomplish anything?

During World War II, Victor Frankl was in four separate concentration camps and over three years he, like so many others, would lose every person he loved. He was starved, beaten and knocked down to the very core. Yet, after his release he returned to his psychology practice in hopes of helping others make sense of their lives. His book now titled, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” was originally titled, “Nevertheless, Say Yes to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camps.” While today’s title is more catchy, the original title says it all – “Say Yes to Life!”

Viktor Frankl taught, “when you know your why, you can endure any how.” While he was stripped down literally and figuratively in body and soul, Frankl never lost making the important choice to say yes to life and fight beyond the mundane day-to-day existence.

O’Leary tells us that, so often “we forget why we work, why we parent, why we serve, why we love, why we risk. Even why we strive to stay alive.” But everything we do matters and our lives are sacred. Finding our purpose breathes life into all we do and into our very own existence. While there are the dark moments when we ask, “why me?” we search for strength and the reassurance that we do what we do because of a passion we hold and not continually searching for our purpose.

Life is too short to get caught in the moments of wondering ‘what if something happens before I fulfill my passion?’ What if I fail? What if I’m too old? Too weak? What if I’m out of time? Now is our time to start dreaming and growing. To recognize that while it feels like we are overstretched, we are capable of doing more and our actions not only effect us, but may inspire others to make a difference in our world. And life is too short to live in fear rather than with love. It’s easy to slip into stressing over things that may never happen or hide from the unknown around the corner. The time is now to embrace the love of life and feel the excitement of searching out for the unknown and open our hearts to others.

We only have, 700,000 hours in our lifetime and not all of them are while we are awake. What are we doing with them? How are we living them? How many hours remain? For Marcus who loves hot fudge sundaes, especially with his husband and daughter, how many more will he have? Unfortunately, it does not look like many more from the most recent post.

How many more times will we see a sunset in to the ocean and the little green flash they say accompanies it as the sun goes below the water? How many visits will we have with our parents or a relative? How many more times will we have dinner with the whole family during the High Holy Days? How many new lessons will we learn and grow from?

It is up to us to create a radically inspired life, no one else can create it for us. We have to do the work and honestly, life is too short to hold on to grudges, frustrations, and anger. Tonight, as our fast begins and we enter these intense moments of reflection remember, only you can create this moment for yourself. Yom Kippur is the blank canvas placed before you, but only you can paint the picture of your life. Only you can create the change you want to be fully present and only you can make change to your life that will ultimately bring fulfillment and change our lives and hence our world for the better.

What do you choose?

I pray we choose life and blessing.


One Response to Rabbi Cohen’s Kol Nidre 5777 Sermon – A Radically Inspired Life

  1. Rosemary October 19, 2016 at 10:40 am #

    I am profoundly moved…..