Rabbi Cohen’s Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778 Sermon – Who Are You?

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778
September 20, 2017
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

Who Are You?


Who are you? In many ways, this is a very easy question to answer, at least on the surface. You meet someone new, extend your hand and introduce yourself, ‘Hi, I’m Rabbi Cohen’ or ‘Hi, I’m Heidi,’ depending on the situation. Am I Rabbi? Am I Heidi? – Who am I at that moment? Well actually, I’m both. Sometimes, the two are very distinct and are dependent upon a given situation. When I am doing something with the congregation, I’m Rabbi; even laser tag with the teens. When the kipa’s off, I’m Heidi. And actually, when I’m at home, I’m Ima. Wow, this is actually more complicated than I thought. Who am I? Well, I guess it comes down to perspective, considering the many facets of my life; of each of our lives. And I haven’t even gotten to all the other names by which I identify myself and my life: I’m a daughter, sister, mother, wife, aunt, niece, cousin, granddaughter, teacher, runner – in so many ways, counselor, and friend. Identity is very complicated and while, perhaps, overly simplistic, one definition might be: “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.” Yeah, this isn’t much help either.

So tonight, instead of trying to fully define identity and solve the ultimate question of ‘who are you,’ we’re going to explore identity in the following ways: First, who are we as Jews? Who are we in relation to others? And, who are we to ourselves?

This seems like an obvious place to start considering tonight we begin a new year and are here celebrating Rosh Hashanah. Over the next ten days we are to examine our lives in deeper and more meaningful ways. We hear these questions each time we gather at this season, but they are nonetheless valid this year as last: What have we done this past year? What have been the challenges we needed to overcome? What have been our successes? And what have been our failures? What goals will we set for ourselves for the coming year? As this season serves as an accounting of our year and our lives, we must further ask, are we happy with the direction our lives are taking? and what changes do we hope to make as we move from one year to the next? This is a time for setting a new course. And perhaps the ultimate question: If you’re not happy, what changes are you going to make so that you can start to find your happiness?

As we are gathered together tonight, we do so as members of the Jewish community. But how is our Jewish identity shaped? For most of us, we are immigrants or, certainly, close descendants of immigrants. We’ve been in the United States for no more than a few generations at best, and as such, our Jewish identity has been shaped by a model of living as a minority group hoping to connect to one another to maintain the last vestige of those beautiful traditions our ancestors brought here (of course, giving to them new life and modern significance), but our hopeful purpose in connection to our faith is to not fully assimilate and lose the Jewish heritage ingrained within us. It was common that when we moved to a new community, the first thing we did was join a synagogue in order that we might create that Jewish connection. The hope, then, would be to observe even the most common rituals: personally observing Shabbat by lighting candles, attending Shabbat services, fasting on Yom Kippur, enjoying a Passover seder, and supporting Israel.

And while I’d like to presume that this is the case for most of you gathered here this evening, the fact is, in 2017 this is no longer the presumptive norm for how an increasing number of Jews express their Jewish identity. Many, when moving to a new community, do not look for a synagogue right away; or at all. We can see this here in Orange County where 85% of Jews do not affiliate with a congregation or with any Jewish institution. Of course, how we choose to identify ethnically and religiously is personal. We pick from an a la carte menu of rituals and observances that we understand as “Jewish” because we see them as Jewish things to do or aspects of life that can be done in a Jewish way. And even what used to be considered secular — donating to hospitals, symphonies, or universities — we have rationalized this as contributing to the enhancement of cultural and educational opportunities, and we have said, these are Jewish actions, this is tzedakah. And yes, while these are forms of tzedakah, they are not supporting our Jewish institutions.

We also define our Jewish identity at different times throughout our lives instead of throughout our entire life. Our Jewish identity is connected to important life moments. Many parents will finally join a congregation after they have children and they want to enroll them in religious school in order to put them on the path toward Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Or, perhaps, as our children grow up, leave us with that empty nest syndrome and we are left to struggle with our own search for spirituality. And, of course, when we are in the midst of major life cycle moments, such as the death of a loved one, then we seek out Jewish community to help us at that moment. We affiliate because at that moment, it meets our needs. We take what we need from the community, from the institution, from the professional, on our terms, according to our schedule, and only as long as we think we need it for that specific event… but no more, and without any personal commitment to give back so that those places and those people might be there to help others in their times of need.

This becomes the challenge– how can we change and meet the needs of a very fluid Jewish community? This is not such an easy question to answer and requires conversation between the institutions and the individuals. I know many have said, ‘there’s nothing there for me.’ Our challenge as a synagogue is, sure, we can create a lot of programming and we do, but if at the end of the day, people are still saying, ‘there’s nothing there for me,’ the question we have is, what are you looking for? What do you want? Again, the identity question is put back on the individual. We are not mind readers and while we can create programs, I’d rather build a relationship with each person and make sure that we create programs and experiences that meet everyone where they are at that moment. This means that we have to build communication avenues and be willing to enter into dialogue. If it’s only one sided, then it doesn’t work. How can we create Jewish moments for events that are meaningful today? Where are you in your life? What needs do you have? What are you celebrating? In what ways are you suffering? What are your talents, and how might you share them? What are your interests, and how can others help to nurture them?

So, who are you as a Jew? What do you need at this moment in your life? Let’s face it, we no longer live in an age where Jews are forbidden entrance to the general social scene. We no longer need our own space for dances and dinners and shows. We are welcome, thank God, everywhere. But does that diminish the need for the Jewish community to be together as a Jewish community? Or do we simply need to work harder at it because our needs have changed? How do you want to connect with others in the Jewish community? Is it small groups or larger events with lots of people? What are the conversations you want to have? How do you want to build your spiritual identity? I know there are as many answers as there are people in this room tonight, and I hope I get to hear as many responses. I want us to engage in these conversations together. And as you will hear at Yom Kippur, there will be opportunities for one type of small group conversations and we’re going to create more even at Starbucks, Coffee Bean or a microbrewery.

Jewish identity might be an easier question to tackle. So now, let’s tackle the larger identity question: Who are you?

Our identity, much like our Jewish identity, is shaped by our memories and our history. And while there might be moments in our lives that we would like to run away from, we know we can’t. Like Jonah, who we will read about at Yom Kippur, he tried to run away from his identity and calling. He fled on a ship in hopes that no one, not even God, would find him and he could live his life somewhere else. It was his hope that no one should know what he was destined to do in life and if he could only run far away, he could start over and the slate would be wiped clean. But we know from the story, we can’t hide from God or from our past or from what we are destined to do.

Unlike Jonah, we have to recognize that life is about knowing our vulnerabilities; it is about being transparent, about creating connections with others. Our success in life rests on our ability to be vulnerable and put ourselves out there. How willing are you to be transparent and let people know what your goals are in life? And what’s holding you back? What you’re working on? And what roadblocks you’ve hit along the way? Where do you hope to be in a few years? And why are you afraid you might not get there? Success lies in discovering our true identity – our inner selves – and unlocking the potential within to fulfill our life goals. And to do this, we must begin to build relationships. Too often, we believe we have to do things on our own. We don’t want to rely on others. We don’t like to feel incapable; we certainly don’t want others to believe we are. But if we open ourselves up to others and work to create a trusted bond with them, the connections we nurture might actually come to enhance our lives, enrich our journeys, and give meaning to our days. Building deeper relationships is essential to all we do and who we are as human beings. True, relationship building takes time and effort, but it can pay off in so many ways, not just in fulfilling our goals, but in filling our souls

As you develop these relationships, make sure to listen to the other person’s story. Every person has a story that is complex and meaningful, through good times and challenging. These stories build who we are and shape the direction we might move. Take the time to listen, take the time to cultivate these relationships.

Finally, our identity is shaped by how we care for ourselves. I left this for last because honestly, the final point is one that is best remembered. As we shape our identity, we have to consider who we are and how we are experiencing life.

Most of us are busy beyond busy. We are running at a pace more hectic than ever before and we are just trying to keep up with life and all we are expected to do and all the expectations we put on ourselves. We thought technology would help us stay more connected and accomplish more by making ourselves more accessible and our work more accessible. If anything, technology has added to the pressures of getting everything done at a faster pace than any generation before ours. But let me point something out… for all that technology has given to us, the one we fail to use more than any other is the pause button. It’s on nearly every piece of technology we own. We can pause a video, a slideshow, an editing session. We can pause a recording, a phone call, and even an online order. But we never think to pause…life.

What would that even look like? What would be our pause? I believe it could be the time we take to strategize, plan, evaluate, dream. But rather than pause, too many of us – too often – run our lives in fast-forward. Every responsibility placed upon us has become urgent; the to-do lists and emails that we feel must be addressed right NOW! This urgency has even replaced those basic bodily needs, you know, that feeling of, wow! I have to go to the bathroom but then something happens that we have to take care of boom, that urge is gone. It’s not until the end of the day that we realize, wow! I haven’t peed all day!

Juliet Funt (humorist, author, and yes, daughter of Candid Camera’s Allen Funt) says that urgency is 100% exertion and 0% thoughtfulness. Think about those parts of our day that we spend on responding to email. We allow it to break up our day and before we know it, we’ve gotten nothing done!

If we don’t give ourselves the time to pause, then we commit ourselves to worshipping the false god of busyness. If we want to think and create, then yes, I know how counter-productive it sounds, but we actually have to create time for our minds to be idle.

Embracing the pause is going to allow us to fill our bodies with more oxygen, reboot our brain so that we can be more productive, be more innovative, and strategize more efficiently.

Pause is the whitespace in our day. But it is not: Meditation – this is a disciplinary exercise for your mind to focus for that hour. It’s not Mind wandering – when your mind slips away without your permission. And it’s not Mindfulness – when you take your senses and energy and put it all on one thing.

Pause is when we allow ourselves the space to think the unthunk thought! There are no rules, no goals for this activity, just that we take the time to do it. But this is a gift that is so hard to give ourselves. There are so many pressures coming at us that we don’t want to take this time for our own pause. These are pressures of tasks from work and home, the pressures of what is going on in our world, from the economy to natural disasters, to our government. But the greatest pressure comes from us! There are four main drivers that fuel our overload: Information, Drive, Excellence, and Activity. On the surface, each of these helps us to become our very best every day. Without any one of them, we might be lost – and, frankly, without purpose. But, at the same time, any one of them can turn on us: When “information” becomes over-influencing – and in our pursuit of massive quantities of data, we are no longer able to distinguish between fact and fiction. When “drive” becomes “overdrive” and we find ourselves pursuing an end-goal that is, simply, unattainable. When “excellence” clouds us into believing we need to be perfect. When “activity” becomes “over-exertion” and our bodies become taxed beyond healthy limits.

What are we doing to ourselves? How can we pause, take a step back, examine who we are, who we have become? How did we allow this to happen to us? And what can we do about it?

I have an idea… in fact, I’ve already given it to you:

  • Information;
  • Drive;
  • Excellence;
  • Activity

– I. D. E. A. What IS the big idea?

We can turn these drivers around and not allow them to control us if we just rethink them: consider whether there is anything I can let go of and then… let it go. Decide when you’ve already made something good, and then, stop trying to perfect it. Ask yourself what information you really need to know? And consider what activity truly deserves attention?

In shaping our lives, we sometimes get so overwhelmed and buried under all the work that we forget what is really important in life. We miss out on sacred and holy moments – time with our family, with our friends, with our community – because we think our identity is anchored by our success.

I recently heard a story about a woman who was working so hard on all the projects she needed to take care of over the weekend, before the next list of projects was put on her desk on Monday. As she worked, she got a call from her parents who invited her to join them on a drive to the country. She told them she was too busy but she encouraged her husband and kids to go and spend time with the grandparents. Everyone had a great time. They went out to the country, found a great place to eat, played and laughed, and came home exhausted later that evening from a wonderful time spent together. A couple days later, the woman’s phone rang, it was her mom. Her dad had a sudden heart attack and died. She was obviously devastated by losing her father so suddenly. But what she realized was that she missed out on a moment. She made the choice to work and not go on the drive with her family. Sure, she got her to-do list down some, but she missed a sacred moment that was more important than she could have ever expected, and there was no getting that moment back.

How many of us have missed that ride? How many times have we said, I have too much to do and stayed at our office, at home, or online in order to get it all done? How many of us let the work overtake us so much so that we fail to pause? We have to build more white space in our lives so that when the ride comes to our door, we go and don’t miss a moment.

When Moses asked God, how am I to tell Pharaoh and the people who you are, God replied: Eh’yeh, asher, Eh’yeh, I am that I am, or even, I am that I will be. As we are created in God’s image, we are all that we are. Our identity is based on our history and connections to our past. Our identity is connected to our memories that we can’t run away from. Our identity is inextricably tied to our connections to our Jewish and spiritual self and to our Jewish community. And our identity is connected to what we do in our lives and how we live life. Do we create enough moments to pause? Do we insert enough white space in our day to allow us to think the unthunk thought? Do we create enough space to allow ourselves to say yes to the ride when it comes?

Who are you and how are your actions shaping your identity. There is only one you and you are the only one who can shape your identity and your future. What are you going to do with it this year? It’s Rosh Hashanah and once again the shofar has sounded to awaken us to the realities of life. We have an opportunity to begin again, it’s not too late.

So… who are you?

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