Tilly’s High Holiday Sermon
Tilly’s Sermon – 5778
Finding Meaning in the Ordinary
I’ll start with sharing that I have a lot of trouble watching and filtering the news these days. I find myself turning on CNN or NPR, and then turning it off immediately because I just can’t handle the story of the moment.
In an effort to support journalism and free press in this moment, and to give me some sense of control over what news I was taking in, I subscribed to the New York Times. This way, I could balance the news of the day with other important items of interest, like searching the wedding announcements for Michigan alums, or seeing America Ferrera in a compassionate moment over wine with Hillary Clinton (that picture is up in my office if you want to see it), or reading about the importance of photographing my failed omelet for the sake of history. The last article had me smiling over brunch when I read it a few weeks ago while enjoying the Labour Day long weekend. And, whether intentional or not, it offered some really profound insight into how to lead a meaningful life.
The article was written by culinary historian, Laura Shapiro. Now I’m a sucker for culinary history. A documentary about the history of salt would have me enthralled for hours. This article was called “Instagram Your Leftovers: History Depends on It”, so of course it piqued my interest. Shapiro wrote about how Instagram is overflowing with glamorous images created not by professional photographers, but by ordinary people out for dinner and in kitchens around the world. But she calls for a revolution, for the sake of history. She considers that this time period will be judged by these glamorous images and we will fail to document, well, what we really eat.
She asks us to “do a huge favor for culinary historians and offer a glimpse of the ordinary….” She writes, “Show the mess, show the kitchen flops, show the dumb choices we all make when we’re standing alone at the refrigerator. You can even skip the filter. A hundred years from now scholars will be riveted to your images of the everyday, and you — or at least your Instagram handle — will be immortal.”
I loved this. I loved the idea of presenting to the world the ordinary foods that bring me joy. But I loved it even more when I dove into the paper further and found the article mirrored another about life in college.
September is full of articles about millennials starting school, and journalists sharing their thoughts, and at times disdain, regarding what is happening on college campuses today, usually lamenting how in their day things were so different. But there were several that day in the Times that claimed wisdom for the start of the new school year that didn’t reduce students to the size of their iphones, but instead, seemed to really look at students through an empathetic lens.
One, ironically, seemed to mirror the article about instagramming our leftovers. It was titled “You’ll Never Be Famous, And That’s Okay”. Like our amateur photographer home chefs and restaurant goers seeking instagram fame, this article talked of students’ desires to be known for doing something extraordinary and to portray that extraordinary life publicly. It noted how even though seeking fame or success are typical, idealistic aspirations of youth, today, social media conflates purpose and meaning with glamour, so the extraordinary life looks like the norm.
The article went on to explain, much like our culinary historian’s advice, that perhaps we would be better served in these platforms by a portrayal of the ordinary life. It cited study after study that revealed that a sense of meaning is met through the most ordinary acts, like doing chores or cheering up a friend, because these acts are a reflection of our caring relationships and our contributions to family and community. Its concluded that a life of meaning is about “connecting and contributing to something beyond the self, in whatever humble form that may take” and that the most meaningful lives are the ones lived as ordinary ones with dignity.
The conclusion, in both articles, was to find real meaning and impact in ordinary acts, ordinary food, living ordinary lives in connection with one another. When we returned to campus, I found the same themes in the writing of some of our own students who had just returned from NELP – the New England Literature Program. NELP is a 6-week technology free environment, filled with taking in nature, reading Thoreau, and building community. If you’re not caught up on your Michigan Daily’s, both Rebecca Tarnopol and Sam Rosenberg have been exploring how they found meaning in the ordinary at NELP and their attempts to keep appreciating the simple moments of connection and mindfulness while on campus.
While we don’t all have 6 weeks to explore in this way, I’ve always appreciated that the High Holidays provide us with a pause and moment of separation as we’re starting a new school year. Just a few weeks into the school year, we can use this time to stop and ask questions of how we are doing through this holiday of reflection and repentance.
When we speak of teshuvah during these days of Rosh Hashanah leading up to Yom Kippur our association is often with the word repentance – repenting for our sins, asking for forgiveness. But the root word of teshuvah is “shuv” – to turn, or return. To what are we returning? Throughout our texts when we see “shuv” most commonly associated with going back to our original state or natural place or turning from evil towards good. Leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we read repeatedly about our turning. It is in the moments when we remember our covenant that we turn to G-d and G-d, in turn, turns to us. And in the moments when we forget our covenant, forget who we are and forget how we are to be in this world, that we turn away from G-d, we turn to sin, and G-d turns away and hides his face from us. Ultimately, teshuvah is about remembering who we are. It is about a turning or a returning to ourselves and who we are intended to be, and G-d, in turn, turning towards us.
So much of our year is outward facing – what we do for others, keeping up with others, how we present ourselves to others, watching the curated highlight reels of others through our social media. We can lose our true selves. We can forget who we are. We start to just follow – a word that has taken on a whole new meaning in this age of social media. We follow those we admire, sometimes for all the right reasons and sometimes for all the wrong reasons. We follow down a path of who we think we need to be in order to fit in or get into the Greek house we think we want or show we are better than someone else in our study group or put on a good face for Instagram when we’re really feeling lonely in this new place.
Maimonides sees the shofar as wakening us from our sleep walking through life. He writes, “Awake, you sleepers from your sleep! And slumberers, arise from your slumber! Search your ways and return to teshuvah and remember your Creator! Those who forget the Truth amidst the futility of the moment and are infatuated all their years with vanity and nothingness that will not help and will not save. Examine your souls and improve your ways and your motivations!” The shofar of Rosh Hashanah awakens us to remember, to look inward, to search who we truly are.
Rabbi Alan Lew writes, “Teshuvah begins with a turn, a turn away from the external world and toward the inner realm of the heart.” Lew goes on to say “the contents of our heart….are an open secret. We already know this secret. Often all that’s required of us is to be still for a moment, and the heart begins to disclose itself to us of its own accord.”
And Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg loosely translates Psalm 27 (the psalm we read throughout the High Holidays) and tells us “When I turn to face my heart—then everyone and everything is revealed. Let this truth not be hidden from me. If only I could remember always what seems so clear right now. Wisdom would guide my every moment.”
It is this time of year – even if it’s just sitting in this room together for a few hours or even just the thoughts that may wander into your heads during the 15 minutes of this sermon or the three minutes of listening to the shofar blasts – that gives us an opportunity to pause, to listen to what our heart is telling us and consider who we really are, who we want to present to others, and how we can bring the best of ourselves forward. We can use this time to ask ourselves what really matters to us, who do we want to be in this world, and how can we best present that both in our actions and in the highlight reel that we project to the world?
We are in a constant state of becoming ourselves. Let us use this time, this pause, this holiday to consider who we wish to be this year. The only way we can really look forward is to look inward and take stock of who we are today. Part of that taking stock is considering when, in the last year, our actions did not reflect our best selves. As I walked into this room today, was I my best self? That is the real, tough work of teshuvah. We can only know when we were not our best to one another when we have turned inward, listened to our heart, and identified who that best person truly is. We will never do the hard, active, outward facing work of teshuvah that this holiday challenges us to do – that work of identifying when we have wronged someone, turning to our friend, and saying “I’m sorry” – if we do not first recognize that our actions were inconsistent with the best selves we are here to bring into this world. And even if we can’t go back and fix things and change what happened, that moment when we are challenged to bring our best self forward will surely come again. Maimonides continued to teach us that “the unresolved elements of our lives – the unconscious patterns, the conflicts and problems that seem to arise no matter where we go or with whom we find ourselves – continue to pull us into the same moral and spiritual circumstances over and over again until we figure out how to resolve them.” We can only recognize that we are in that moment when it arises again and act differently, if we take the time to consider who we wish we could be in that moment.
This is the ordinary work of living a life of meaning. We can have all the riches, fame, and success in the world. We can present an image on instagram that tells the world our lives are extraordinary. But a true sense of fulfillment and meaning comes in the moments when we can sit quietly with ourselves, listen to our heart, and reflect on whether our actions reflect the best that we have to offer to the world.
There is a Hassidic tale of Rabbi Zusya who came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him:
“Zusya, what’s the matter?
He told them, “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”
His followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”
Zusya replied; “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ and that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?”‘
Zusya sighed; “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?’”
My hope for all of us, in this time together and in this coming year, is that we strive to know ourselves and to bring our best selves into this world in all the simple, ordinary ways that make a difference. In all of these articles – Rebecca’s, Sam’s, and the NY Times pieces – the same theme kept reappearing: find fulfillment in the ordinary and the beauty of expressing who we truly are outward through our actions and relationships. To remember, what we bring of ourselves into this world matters, not just to ourselves but to all those who we touch with kindness and compassion. It may not be glamorous. It may not feel instagram worthy. But it is not just important. It is, in fact, everything we have.