Rabbi Cohen’s Rosh Hashanah Morning 5777 Sermon – What Do You See? The Lenses of Our Lives

Rosh Hashanah 5777
October 3, 2016
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

What Do You See? The Lenses of Our Lives

I have discovered the blessings of reading glasses!

One day I was struggling to read something and I tried on a pair of reading glasses. It was an “I am healed!” moment! Really!?!? Why didn’t I discover these sooner? Yes, I wear contacts and sometimes my glasses, and I was always very proud of my perfect eyesight, that was up until Rabbinical school when the Hebrew just did my eyes in.

While there are those who say they have perfect eyesight, a reality is, no one’s vision is completely perfect. In many ways, we all see the world through many lenses. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church suggests that there are four pairs of glasses we each have in our drawers from which we see the world. There are the lenses of passion, sunglasses with a rearview mirror attached, a pair with scratched damaged lenses, and finally self-adjusting lens glasses.

Let’s start with our passion lenses. They are your favorite vibrant color glasses. They might have a bit of bling to them or an elegant design that you love to wear. And when people see you in them, they say, ‘wow!’, they take notice.

Passion is that which motivates us. It is that thing that energizes us to do something and challenge ourselves to reach higher because we either love what we are doing or are excited about the potential of what we can achieve. It’s that shot of coffee or protein that gets us moving. But don’t mistake passion with the easy path. Passion means taking risks to achieve something. And when you’re excited or passionate about something, those around you are passionate as well.

This year I became passionate about running. Matt and I participated in the Disneyland Half Marathon. This was going to be a huge challenge for us because neither of us are runners. We both started working out more concertedly to stay healthy, but then our friend Corie insisted we had to try the Disneyland Half Marathon. For six months we trained. I ran, Matt walked to protect and strengthen his back. This training became a passion for not only the race itself, but also because we both saw the benefits to both our body and mind. The risks were definitely there: we could have gotten hurt or we could have not finished the race. But the passion of loving Disneyland and setting such a goal outweighed the risks and now that we’ve completed this race, we’re looking for the next one; not just for the excitement of the race, but also to ensure that we continue to run and walk to achieve the next goal. Bring on Tinkerbell!

What’s it like to live life wearing our passion glasses? These lenses motivate us to listen to that which inspires us in life and drive us toward our future. What is your passion? What moves you and motivates you to get out of bed every morning? Consider your career; are you passionate about your work? Is it just a job in which you force yourself out of bed every morning, go to work and watch the clock till you can go home? Or how passionate are you about what you do? It’s not surprising to say that we are more satisfied, happier, healthier, when we are doing what we love. When we are just going through the motions to get from here to there, then our passion bucket is low.

It is each of our responsibilities to find our passion, feed that passion and keep our passion bucket filled. If you’re not happy with what is happening in your life right now, then it is up to you to make a change. And yes, that’s all easy to say and the risks are great when thinking about making huge changes in our lives. But the risk is better than remaining stagnant and unhappy. Take control of your own destiny. Determine what you want your journey to be and get on the road. Take a friend or two or three with, but be on the journey that you are most passionate about. Life is too short to not enjoy the ride.

Let’s talk about our next pair of glasses. Have you noticed the glasses bicyclists wear? They have a rear-view mirror attached to them so they can see what is coming up behind them. Quite cleaver, being able to see what is in front of you while at the same time paying attention to what you leave behind. Are we only paying attention to what we see behind us or are we able to look forward at the same time?

Always looking through the rear-view mirror we are comforted by seeing what’s behind us because it’s what we know, it’s not anything new. But then again, it can get so comfortable always looking behind that we get caught in, ‘but this is what I’ve always known or seen.’ It’s hard to look away from the past to the new. But if the cyclist is only looking in the rearview mirror, she will crash. We have to also look forward.

Our congregation is going to be 75 in 2018! It’s amazing to think about the longevity of the congregation. And we are definitely not the same congregation we were when we first began in 1943. There were varying needs to be met in 1943 that don’t exist today. Temple Beth Sholom was the only place in Orange County where Jews could freely meet and pray. Antisemitism and ignorance about the Jewish community was high and it was a time when, while we wanted to be a part of the larger community, Judaism and connecting with a congregation was the top priority for Jewish families. Today, our top priorities are not necessarily centered on the Jewish community, I know that. We want to make sure our children are in a good school, they are on the right sports teams that will help them excel. We our lives are busier and the demands are greater that making time for our spiritual self is put on the back burner. But when we dip our toe back in the spiritual pool, we want the water to be the same temperature it’s always been. We have memories and perceptions as to what the Jewish community and commitment was as children or when our children were younger. And then we struggle when things are different. Service times are different, tunes are different, liturgy is different, school requirements are different, programs, staff, and even the building are all different. We continue to look in the rear-view mirror wondering ‘why can’t it all just stay the same? Why can’t it be the way it was then? This is the way we always did it. This is how I remember seeing it.’

The reality, life is not the same as it was 50 years ago, 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. The demands on family, work life, school life, personal life, are different. And the fact is, we can’t nor do I believe we should, keep everything the same as it always was. Life is evolving and if we don’t evolve with it, then we become irrelevant. But sometimes the murmuring is too loud that we forget the foundation of what we do as a congregation and as individual Jews.

Consider how many parking lot conversations you’ve had. When something is new or different, listen to the conversation you might have had about services, school, and the building. It’s easy to have the conversations with a peer but to speak out, and not anonymously, takes courage. We can’t fix something or address a concern when something comes anonymously – we don’t know who we’re talking to. For example, our new Yahrzeit boards. Talk about a passionate topic.

You might have seen the new boards or you might have only heard about them in the communication to the congregation. Many people are passionate about the Yahrzeit boards, rightly so, because they are links to our loved ones. To see their names on the board brings comfort, especially in knowing that they will not be forgotten even long after the family is gone.

After this building was rebuilt there were a lot of questions about why we did not rehang the boards in the sanctuary. A comment made time and time again was, ‘the boards have always been in the sanctuary.’ The reality is, the boards had only been in the sanctuary for about six years before the fire. They were previously in the corner of the front lobby but we ran out of wall space when we needed to add another board, therefore, they were moved into the sanctuary. Then the fire and the boards were destroyed both because of the pitting from the chemicals in the air to being shorted out that we would not be able to use the lights again. Newly designed boards were created by the Living Legacy committee after a lot of research into what other congregations were doing as well as what existed for Yahrzeit boards. And hence the current boards were created and you can see them in the gallery leading from the Living Room to the Horwitz Family Chapel. And while the lights are not there, just as when you go to the cemetery, you can place a stone below your loved one’s name.

This is the season for admitting mistakes and we made some too with the boards – some names were misspelled or dates were wrong. We know that we lost the Hebrew names that were on some plaques. And the names are currently in alphabetical order and families would like their loved ones to be on the boards in family units. We’re able to make some of the changes to these boards because we will correct the spelling and date errors and by Pesach next year, we will move families together on the boards as we are able to reprint each board. As for the Hebrew names, we will soon have a monitor that will have a full listing of names on the memorial boards and through which we will be able to expand by not only having the name and yahrzeit dates of our loved ones but also include their Hebrew name, and I’m hoping, other personal information families wish to remember when they search for their loved one’s names today and in the future.

Our boards are not the way they always were, and change takes time to get used to, but it is only through open communication that we can understand why we do what we do. Parking lot conversations don’t help anyone and don’t answer questions. They only feed the flame of frustration and gossip and nothing productive comes of it except allowing us to blow off a little steam, which shouldn’t be discounted either. But this is also why, as we are calling this the year of Shema, listening, and why, as I mentioned last night, we created a census to help us start a conversation that moves from the parking lot to within the community. To have a conversation in which together we all recognize that saying, ‘we do things because that’s just how we’ve always done it,’ is not a way to move our community forward and be relevant Jewishly today. As we listen to one another and as we recognize that we sometimes look through the rearview mirror, we understand that there is a very strong base of Jewish values and laws by which we must live. Yet at the same time we must also look ahead, just as the Jewish people had to evolve from being wanderers in the desert, to having a Temple in Jerusalem, to moving to a prayer centric and individual relationship with God, to a modern sensibility of religion in our post modern world, we must understand that life is not as it always was and embrace the possibilities of how Judaism evolves in our lives today. This is going to take a lot of work on all of our parts. I can’t spoon feed it to you; it takes work, commitment and dedication to be Jewish. It is not being Jewish in name only, it is being Jewish in our actions and daily life. No one can do Jewish for you, but we can create it together as a community. I am working on sharpening my listening skills, as is the whole staff and board of directors, and now, we as a community need to sharpen these skills so that we not only look through the rearview mirror but also look ahead and see what is possible for us to achieve together.

And then there are the last two lenses: the scratched, damaged lens and the self-adjusting lenses.

There are the moments when the frames of our glasses are fabulous but the lenses are scratched causing us to see life and our world in a distorted manner. Unfortunately, there are times when the only lens we know is the scratched lens. These scratched lenses do not allow us to see clearly, and when we can’t see clearly we might not even know what we are missing, even if it is right in front of us.

Life happens so quickly that it passes by in a blur. And in the midst of that blur, we miss out on some of the most important times in our lives. Unfortunately, there are no do-overs in life, but there can be make-overs. This is the critical message of the High Holy Days. Teshuvah, it’s about getting ourselves on the right path and be able to clearly see where we are going.

When our vision is blury, our balance is off. So too in life, when we are moved in too many directions, our balance is off and our priorities are out of focus. Just a few weeks ago, Dahvi and I went out for lunch and some mother daughter time. I told her, “text Aba, tell him I’m going off line for a few hours and if he needs us to contact you.” I put my phone in the center console in my car and out we went. There were a few moments of twitching, wanting to check my email because there is always something to do with work. But I have to tell you, it was an amazing afternoon of being able to focus on Dahvi and not my phone. And you know what, everyone survived and the world did not come to an end because I chose to focus on my daughter alone and not have the noise of everything else in the background.

If we don’t take this time to clear off our scratched lenses then the demands of life are compromised. Eventually, when we are remembered will the vision be one in which we are remembered as “she was a hard worker,” or “he was very committed to his career.” I think we would rather our life story be more clear and our legacy be “she was an amazing mom,” or “he was a caring and present friend.”

Once we are able to clean our lenses, repair the scratches, then we can adjust to a new vision for ourselves, our families, and our future.

And this takes us to our final lenes, the self-adjusting lenses. You might have seen these glasses on the news in stories about some countries where getting a pair of eyeglasses is too costly. However, there are these very cool self-adjusting glasses that have two nobs on either side and allow the wearer to simply turn the nobs until everything is in focus. Each pair costs about $40 and is priceless in helping bring the world into focus for so many people.

How awesome would it be if we had a pair of glasses that were self-adjusting? At different points in our life, how great would it be to easily readjust our life pace with the turn of a dial? We are always readjusting life goals, sometimes for the better and sometimes out of necessity. Sometimes we readjust so quickly that our goals are not always met and sometimes we don’t know why are making adjustments at all except that someone else told us to.

As we are making adjustments, we are reacting to how we are either reviewed by others or review ourselves? First, the word “review” sends chills up most our spines. No one ever really likes to be reviewed because we don’t like to put ourselves under a microscope for fear of seeing something we might not like. Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the New Year, this is a time for review. This is a time for us to make some readjustments in our lives. How do you measure your life? Are you thriving? Are you taking new ground in fulfilling your own personal goals or are you in a healthy place of maintaining a comfortable pace? Or are you losing ground and not moving in a direction you wish you could? Everyone wants to do their best and be the best person they can and sometimes this takes making small adjustments to our lives that can have the potential to create great change in your life, the lives around you and even in the world.

As the Book of Life is open before us, look through the lenses in your life: What is your passion? And if you are not passionate about something, find it! Life’s too short to not have a passion. Make sure to not only be looking in the rearview mirror and watching what you’ve passed but make sure to see the amazing road that lies before you. If something is scratched and unclear in your life, then recognize that and take action to make a change and fix the view. Just talking about it doesn’t create change, only taking action and speaking out can help create change. Look at each moment in your life and when things seem out of focus, adjust the view and get inspired.

We may not have perfect sight, but may we find the lenses that can help us create a clearer vision for today, tomorrow, and our legacy for the next generation that each of us can be proud of.


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