So You’re Scared. What is that Your Business?!

Kol Nidrei Sermon 5780

The theme we’re focusing on this Yom Kippur is The Capacity to Change.  What a valuable theme.  What a challenging endeavour.  On a day that is focused on repentance, renewal and change, it is important to be honest about how difficult it is to change.  When we are wired for survival and the pull of self protection is strong and steady, it is very difficult to set up our lives against inertia, against what is inert, and to choose Life, to choose transformation in an ongoing and lasting way.  So I want to explore what is actually going on in your life, in my life, so that we understand what holds us back and we can grow our capacity toward the kind of change that our hearts deeply yearn for and that this world so deeply needs.

            Please ask yourself – where do you get stuck? Where are you asleep, choosing numbness or willful blindness?  Where do give up on yourself or on other people – deciding not to fight for something more real or true or alive? Where do you fall into the familiar habits of reactivity and suffering over and over, and causingthe same kind of suffering over and over?  Where do your actions not match the values you espouse?   And where in your life do you shrink from being big, morally daring and in the fullness of vitality? 

            Dear ones, you are broken.  So am I.  That’s not a terrible thing.  We are all broken.  Our world is so very broken.  This is just the truth.  And you know that you’re broken or you wouldn’t be here. 

            It is also true that all of us are brave and doing our best, working at healing and changing aspects of our selves and how we engage with the world. This is also true, or you wouldn’t be here.

            But in those broken places, it can be hard to tell that we want to change.  It can be easy to rationalize and decide – ‘this is just who I am, these are my limitations, at this stage in my life, I don’t really want to change, I’m good enough, and even if I wanted to change, I don’t think I actually can.’  Is that voice familiar to you? 

            But as soon as we turn a patient and attuned ear to our resistance to change, most likely, what we hear is the voice of fear.  I find it helpful that this is one of the core themes of Torah, of our guidebook for transformation.  Every time the Israelites are on the verge of change, being challenged to grow from their stunted, enslaved ways of being and to stretch toward maturity, liberation, courage and the gifts of mutual relationship and responsibility, they freak out!  They become terrified, they fall into habits of complaining about the food or picking fights with each other or with God and they want to go back to Egypt, back to comfortable, familiar suffering.

            In the language of Mussar, the practice of Jewish spiritual and ethical development, the capacity to change begins with identifying the meniyah, the specific hindrances that block our path to change and equally obscure our desire to change.

            When you imagine changing any of the ways that you are stuck or struggling, what are the fears that surface?  We might be afraid we’ll fail, we’ll make things worse, we’ll make someone angry or upset or they’ll leave us.  We’re afraid we’ll do it all wrong and be humiliated. We’re afraid of what we will have to face once we start dismantling the self-protective constructions we’ve created.  We’re afraid of how much work it will taketo undo decades of entrenched patterns and to be diligent about making different choices, not once, but over and over until it becomes a positive habit.  We’re afraid of all the uncertainty of what will unfold on the other side.  And we’re afraid of how unpleasant and uncomfortable the whole process will be.  It doesn’t sound like a good sales pitch for change, does it?

            You might know John Assaraf’s saying – “a comfort zone is a beautiful place but nothing ever grows there.”  Discomfort is essential for growth and change.  Mussar teaches that the only way we will be able to wade through the muck of a meniyah, a hindrance, is by clarifying and strengthening ratzon, desire.  Different from the more shallow wants that tug at us, ratzon entails the core desires of our souls, the essential desires for connection and closeness, for dignity and liberation, for love and transcendence.  The more we can awaken and feel specific expressions of these core desires, the more we will actuallywant to put our faces right into the fear and discomfort, so we can set them free.

            I’ve been practicing sticking my face right in this kind of fear and discomfort in some ways that are new for me.  I want to tell you a little about it as a way to make this all more concrete and to see what might resonate in your own process of change. 

            Even though I’ve been composing melodies for Jewish prayer for the last 20 years, sharing it in prayer services and in workshops in Canada and the US, Israel and Europe, and even though people have been asking for recordings of my music for years, I have been too afraid to record an album.  My reasons were clear – I don’t know how to read sheet music.  I don’t know how to work with professional musicians.  I felt clear that my voice wasn’t developed enough.  The music isn’t good enough.  I could lead song and prayer in the role of rabbi, but I’m not an artist.  Interestingly, these reasons didn’t feel like fear or resistance to change, they just felt like truth and I was fine going about my life not stretching beyond them. 

            A couple years ago, the right partners reached out – funding came in, the right producer stepped forward and brought other singers and instrumentalists, and basically put in my lap all the conditions and support for this project to happen.  Well, crap!  The entire story I had in my head about the reasons I couldn’t move forward, evaporated!

            That’s when the real fear that had been holding me back all these years reared its head.  What was being asked of me was to show up fully and offer my whole being in a totally new way –  to show up, vulnerable, imperfect, beautiful and totally visible.  And that was terrifying and excruciatingly uncomfortable. 

            I would be in my voice teacher’s studio practicing, or at a gathering for the Jewish music fellowship I was part of, and I would suddenly be flooded with waves of fear – heart racing, unable to catch my breath, crawling out of my skin, tears running down my face, collapsed into the fear.  It dragged up dark and mean thoughts and feelings of worthlessness and shame.      

            This example might sound like it lacks the important moral implications that a Kol Nidrei sermon should have.  But as change started to unfold with the decision to record the album and to wade into the fear, I was starting to understand that anytime fear limits our ability to grow and change, it causes harm.  Fear tricks us into thinking that our contracted self is who we are and all that we can be.  That is a kind of self-harm.  I was living in a fear-body – defended, constricted, self-absorbed.  I was leaving part of my self in exile and I could tell that this same fear was holding other parts of my life captive.  It was preventing me from looking outside myself with the ease and responsiveness I thought I was committed to.  I wasn’t reaching out to people as lovingly and attentively as I could, and I was avoiding people who were creative and brave in ways I actually wished I was.  I could not locate a live desire to record the album.  But a deeper ratzon started to emerge, a core desire to participate in the flow of life in a way that is more energized, more connected and more free.

            I’m relieved that Moses, the greatest leader of the Jewish people, struggled with similar challenges. He had been living as a shepherd for years, far from Egypt and the palace he grew up in and fled, far from the enslaved people he is part of and was separated from.  

            He was living a seemingly comfortable life until he saw a bush that was on fire but was not consumed and, turning toward it, he heard the voice of the Divine conveying his mission, “I will send you to Pharaoh to free my people.”  Of course, recording an album is not quite the same as coming face to face with a tyrant and freeing a people from oppression, but this is the call of sacred aliveness and purpose, saying – ‘go to the heart of everything that terrifies you, everything that keeps you in Mitzrayim, in the place of mayztar, narrowness and constriction, and transform it into freedom.’  This is the fundamental Jewish journey, the mission we are all tasked with for ourselves and on behalf of others, and the capacity to change sits at its centre.

            Moses comes up with a list of reasons to avoid taking on this calling – He cries out – “Who am I that I should go?”  “Who shall I say sent me?”  “What if they don’t believe me?”  “I’m not a speaker.  I have a heavy tongue and a heavy mouth.”  “Please, send someone else!” 

              In order to do what God is asking of him, he will need to move right through all his insecurities and fears.  God does not give him the option to stay with the sheep and go back to his small life, but the Holy One gives Moses three instructions to enable him to change into the person this moment is calling him to become.  God tells him to: 1) take your brother Aaron – he will be your mouth;  2) gather the Elders and 3) I will be with you.  I find these to be very helpful instructions to draw upon.

            1) Take Aaron.  Aaron is the companion, the friend.  We all need an Aaron – someone who can walk alongside us, who doesn’t collude with all our fears, and can mirror for us what we are capable of; someone who holds us accountable, and partners with us to roll the stone away from the mouth of the well.  This could be an actual friend, a partner, a therapist or coach.  It can be community, like this one, where we can decide to truly practice together in an ongoing way, not just on Yom Kippur, so we support each other to change and grow, for the sake of decreasing suffering and amplifying moral vitality and wise compassion.  Now that’s a shul worth joining! 

            At the same time, we read the Torah’s metaphors into the workings of our inner lives as well as our outer realities.  Acting as Moses’ mouth, Aaron is that part of you that is able to turn toward the fear and speak to it, turning toward the inner tyrants that arise whenever we examine the ways we are stuck or whenever we dare something new.  People who are agile at growing and changing are people who know how to sit with, and befriend, discomfort.  It is the doorway to more of ourselves.  And when we grow the muscles to meet and observe what is unpleasant with loving awareness, we discover that none of it is solid, that it changes and shifts, that as we harmonize our breath with whatever is showing up, it loosens its grip and we can finally know ourselves as much larger and more resilient than it is.  I found this to be an essential practice.

            For me, in the hardest moments of resistance and fear, when I couldn’t find the ability to befriend the cesspool of horrible that was surfacing, at the very least I could decide not to make it my enemy.  Aaron is also the peacemaker.  Bringing Aaron with us is a decision not wage war against ourselves or against reality because nothing changes by hating it and fighting against it.   

            2) Moses is told to gather the Elders.  Theirs is the voice of wise perspective, the wisdom of other generations.  The biblical Elders are Israelites.  They have been in slavery and so they can bring a much wider picture of what liberation needs to be, because they understand what is at stake and they are connected to the larger arc of transformation.  

            I gather in the wisdom of the Elders every time I study our sources, when I learn Torah or Hasidism, whenever I pray.  These are voices of insight and guidance that are so important in broadening my perspective.  As it turns out, I also received a very clear message from the Elders when I was in the bathroom of the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. I was in the middle of a music fellowship retreat and I was in the throes of fear and constriction, struggling to find my voice, struggling to move into new ways of being, and in the bathroom, I heard the voice of an Elder, clear as day, an Ashkenazi woman’s voice with a thick New York accent shouting out, “So you’re scared!  What is that your business?!”

            What a brilliant and helpful voice on the road to change!  So your scared.  What is that your business?!  You have a job to do in this life. You are a participant in a much greater endeavor that needs you but is vastly bigger than you.  Audre Lorde, the Black, womanist poet and activist brilliantly put it this way – “When I dare to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision – then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

            Maybe my music isn’t very good.  Maybe my voice is rough and unskilled.  SO WHAT?! I understood from the voice of the Elder that it was my job to make the album as good as I was able, but the album was the small project.  It was just the vehicle for growth at that time. 

            The bigger project is the daring, audacious holy job of becoming ourselves in the service of a greater unifying vision.  The bigger project is aliveness, liberation, living a life that pushes nothing away, that is available to everything and responds to it.  Because it is only then that we can really show up for each other in generous and loving service. 

            What is the concrete and specific project that will serve as the vehicle for your growth this year?  Can you throw all your weight behind it while knowing the voice of the elders, bonking you on the head when your view gets too precious and narrow, giving you a wide-angle view of the sacred project that is actually your business.

3)  God says – I will be with you.  Ani eheye imach.

            When Moses asks “Who shall I say sent me?”  The Holy One answers “Eheyeh asher eheyeh. I will become what I become.”  That’s my name.  Tell them, “Eheye/Becoming” sent you.  Forget what you think you know or believe or don’t believe about God.  In this fiery encounter with Moses, it is revealed that the very essence of the Divine is constant change.  Perpetual unfolding.  God’s name is not ‘I will be who I used to be’ or ‘I will be who I’ve always been.’ 

            How often do we hold tightly to an outdated idea about who we are?  The truth was that I was already singing and training and working with musicians, but my awareness hadn’t caught up yet with the ever-unfolding reality of my becoming.  What ideas and beliefs about ourselves, about others, about the world we live in need the revision of Eheye-consciousness?  When we believe the permanence of the obstacles and fears that keep us from changing, we are suppressing the Divine flow of life within us.  But the way an acorn already contains the entire oak, our capacity to change into the people we are meant to become is already in us.  When we open to it, when we ride the wave of transformation in all of its awkwardness and discomfort, in its exciting, fumbling, frightening, graceful magnificence, we inhabit Divine becoming and we become more able to participate in transformation toward wholeness everywhere we turn.

            On Yom Kippur, we deliberately sit in discomfort. We don’t eat, we don’t drink, we’re in shul all day, we listen to long sermons with multiple endings, we stand for long periods of time. With the vidui, the confession of our mistakes and willful harm, we sit in the emotional and psychological discomfort of facing our destructive tendencies and lack of awareness.  In an artificial way, we create the conditions to be uncomfortable and to stay with it, to turn toward it with the loving attention of Aaron, to expand around it with the widened perspectives of the Elders, and to awaken fresh, daring possibilities for Becoming in our own lives, for our society and for our planet.  May our capacity to change this year be fueled by enlivened ratzon, our deepest desires and daring vision of our souls.

Join me for a 4 part series of Mussar practice.  For more information – click here.

You can hear my album, Zeh HaYom – this is the day, at:

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