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Yom Kippur 2017: Yizkor - Up and Down We Go

02/10/2017 12:40:11 PM


Three twenty-five year olds recently died in a climb of the most daunting, 14000-foot mountain in Colorado called Capital Peak. They were experienced climbers, young, fit, and knowledgeable. They reached the peak but died on the way down. A friend of mine, Rabbi Hoffman, from Denver, who has climbed this mountain told me that the mistake they made was they focused exclusively on reaching the top, getting to the pinnacle and signing the register that’s kept there. Apparently most serious mountaineering accidents happen not on the way up, but on the way down. People put all their energy into reaching the goal and then they relax, become less careful. These three young individuals all chose to take a short-cut on the way down and tragically fell to their death.

In life as in mountaineering we often make the same mistake. We pour all our energy into reaching the top, striving for success and achievement. We neglect the recognition that what comes up must come down, that life, for the most part isn’t lived on the heights and peaks but in the ordinary plains and plateaus and sometimes in the dark and narrow valleys. And it’s there too that we need to tread gently and carefully and watch our steps.

Yom Kippur, this 14,000 foot 4,267,2 metre mountain, the summit of our year reminds us to readjust our moral compasses. Our culture prizes getting to the top, being on the crest, waltzing with the Kardashians, becoming Australian Idol or MasterChef, nabbing the bachelor or making millions as a CEO. Fame and prime time achievement are what it’s all about. We raise our children on the false and illusory belief that you can be whatever you want to be as long as you put your mind and heart into it…

Our emphasis is on the exceptionalism of the exceptional but reality, as opposed to reality TV, is about the exceptionalism of the ordinary. It’s about ordinary people who every day perform exceptional acts of love and caring. We do our children a disservice by urging them to always be on the top, outer-directed winning the praise of their parents, the adoration of their peers. Of course we are Jewish, we value education and accomplishment but not at the cost of our souls. Our tradition is about being as inner-directed as you are outwardly driven, it’s about exploring inner-space as much as it’s about conquering outer-space.

It’s about climbing down the mountain and off from your high horse as much as it’s about climbing up the ladder of success. Humility, love and compassion may not be on the school curriculum however they are the kind of things you learn when you live not only for yourself, when you recognise it’s not all about another selfie but about extending myself to you. As Yeats put it: “I have spread my dreams under your feet; tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

TV reality show, Australian Survivor despite its claims of encouraging participants to work with others is ultimately about survival of the fittest; double-dealing, duplicity and deceit. Jewish survival by contrast  is about decency, devotion and dignity.

Remember the story about the two explorers trying to escape a lion. One searches for a cave for the two to hide in and the other puts on his running shoes because even if he can’t outrun the lion he can outrun his partner. Jewish, if not human survival, is not about putting on your track shoes but about finding the sanctuary from the storm together. Recent studies on altruism are confirming this. To adapt King David’s words: “Though I may walk through the shadow of the valley of death I will fear no evil for you, my friend, are with me.” I can face anything if I don’t have to face it alone. We the people are always stronger than me the person.

Even though we need to look inwards to discover who we are, we do need to look upwards for direction and inspiration. We need the mountains because they encourage our focus and our aspirations. “I lift up my eyes to the hills” because that’s where my help comes from. You can’t aspire if you are always looking down.

That’s why Moshe climbed up Mount Sinai a second time on the very first Yom Kippur, to gain forgiveness and teach us that no matter how hard we have fallen, how much we have failed, we can start again. You can’t erase the past but you can look up, take charge and realign your life. If God could change his mind and forgive the people for their betrayal and pursuit of a golden fantasy calf, we can change.

And when things happen beyond our control like the loss of a job, an acute illness or death of a loved one, we can still look up. We can’t change the reality but we can change our attitude to it. As the psychologists put it you need to reframe, reorient your thinking, turn your failure and fear into opportunity. 

It’s what Cheryl Sandberg calls Option B. After her husband Dave dropped dead from a heart attack at 48, she felt shattered and convinced she would never move out of the darkness and desolation of her loss: “All I wanted was Dave,” but then her friend Phil put his arms around her and said: Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the hell out of option B.

A similar experience motivated young Jewish Melbourne woman Fiona Grinwald to create 2lookup, a platform to help people navigate through that often overwhelming sense of negativity.

Option “bet” is always there, it’s the letter of new beginnings, the promise that we can start again. It’s the first letter of the Torah and the first letter of its first word – Bereshit – the beginning.

Moshe taught it at Sinai, he also taught it earlier at the battle against Amalek when he stood on the hilltop. As long as he held his hands up, the Israelites prevailed, but when he let his hands down, the Amalekites prevailed. When his hands became tired, Aron and Hur held them up. Of course Moses’s hands weren’t miraculous but simply reminded the people to look up to heaven and remember that God was with them. This gave them the confidence and courage to win. Ralph Waido Emmerson said that “sorrow looks back, worry looks around, faith looks up.”

This is a fundamental principle of life and leadership. We can’t do it all alone, you can’t bowl alone or run away from the lion on your own. We need to reach out to others to help us keep our hands and heads high. We need to reach downward to pull others up. A leader must empower the team, give them the confidence that they can do it and succeed. But at times the leader too needs the support of an Aron or a Hur, a Board or a friend. Leaders, teachers and parents must occasionally silence their emotions and thoughts if they don’t want to demoralise those they lead.

Jewish history is a sustained tutorial on the themes of being sure to ascend but careful on your descent. A small people that in the face of difficulty always looked up and achieved great things. A tiny country that despite overwhelming odds has created a vibrant, innovative and forward looking democracy. But we are also a people who look out for others, who have a global eye on social justice and equality for all, being there in times of disaster to help other countries.

At Caulfield Shule we are committed to reaching out to the alienated of our community as we are to the future, building upwards, engaging tomorrow’s generation embarking on ambitious educational programs and recruiting new resources. We can only do it together.

I would like to end by telling you an anecdote that relates, not to the heights but to the depths, the ocean and a creature that lives there. It comes from a 91 second video produced in 2008 by Rabbi Abraham Twerski, at the time an 80 year old Chassidic rabbi and psychiatrist. It went viral and by last count it’s been shared by 1.7 million people.

The oddest thing about this video is the bearded Chassid expounding on lobsters. He explains how he was sitting in the waiting room of his dentist when he came across an article entitled “How do lobsters grow”. Now, he like any rabbi, thought what do I care about this?

But then he began to read how this soft, mushy creature lives inside a rigid shell that doesn’t expand. So how does the poor thing grow?

Well, as it begins to grow larger, it begins to feel more and more uncomfortable until one day it moves to a safe area under a rock and simply casts off the confining shell and begins to grow a new one.

The stimulus for growth is the sense of discomfort. The stress it feels is the activator. If it had no stress, it simply wouldn’t grow.

Times of stress, of pressure, of conflict are times for growth. Stress is a signal of change for the human heart. It pushes us to take risks, to go beyond our comfort zone, to create a new identity, to go out and climb up and down that mountain.

Lobsters have no choice, they simply have to shed their old shells. We, by contrast, have a choice. Are we going to stay the same, retain our comfortable old shells, or are we going to change; burst out despite the vulnerability? Are we going to feel the fear and do it anyway – make our ancestors proud of us, be a model for the new generation.

Memory, Zachor, Yizkor is about remembering who we came from and how they shaped our lives and aspirations, how they live in our hearts and our dreams.

Look downward to your reality, inward to your heart, outwards to others and upwards to your God.

Wed, 20 October 2021 14 Cheshvan 5782