Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777: “The 6 Things I Learned about Life (and Teshuvah) from Losing a Binder Full of 18 Months Worth of Work”

You may know, as I have shared with you in the past, that I recently completed a program of study called the Clergy Leadership Program through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. It was an 18 month program designed to give Jewish clergy—rabbis and cantors—the tools they need to develop spiritually, both individually and as communal leaders.

It was an amazing program in which we explored mindfulness meditation, embodied spiritual practice through yoga, deep experiences of prayer which made use of niggunim (wordless melodies), intentional silences and multilevel text study. The program was built around four retreats, and during the interim period of each retreat we would continue our study through weekly sessions with a study partner.

The text study aspects were fascinating and opened me to a library of work I had only tangentially been exposed to in the past—the work of the Hasidic masters. Deeply spiritual texts, relating to the inner workings of the soul, the immediate connection between humans and the divine, we studied these texts in depth on retreat, and it was these texts that formed the basis for our weekly study.For each of the three interim periods between retreats we would receive a packet of texts, dated, that we were to study each week with our partner. And even though all of our texts were sent to us electronically, I—semi-neo-luddite that I am—printed out all the texts and put them in a big binder. And in that binder I was able to make lots of notes, observations, my own commentaries. And it was this thick binder that served as my resource and study text.

As the program wound down, and all of us were looking for ways to continue the work and the practice we have developed, my partner from the third interim period (we had rotated each time) and I decided that we should continue even after the program was done. My partner, Andy Vogel, a Reform rabbi in the Boston area, and I found we had compatibility and a great study relationship, and so we committed that once the program ended we would continue our weekly study. And we have, and continue to do.

As for what we would study, we decided to just go back and study all the texts again, from the beginning. Over 18 months, 4 retreats and 3 6-month long interim periods we had amassed a lot of material to study and taken a lot of notes. So each week I would go upstairs to one of the classrooms, since I wanted to get out of my office, with my laptop and binder and Andy and I would Skype for an hour or so.

One day this spring, on my way upstairs, I realized I could not find my binder. I looked all over my office, the work space in the offices and the room where we usually meet. Nothing. Puzzled, I began to think what I might have done with it, until I started to piece together that the week before the classroom was set up for our annual Blintzapalooza event in which we raise money for local charities, including a large used book sale. The classroom was full of used books for sale, and because I wanted to not be in my office for these calls, I had squeezed into a spot on a table laden with used books and we did our study.

Long story short—although this already sounds like a long story—I slowly came to realize that what I had done was accidentally leave my binder in the room, and it had gotten swept up in the used book sale. With help from some of the volunteer Blintzapalooza organizers I made a call or two to the people who take all unsold books, but nothing panned out. And that is when it hit me, I had lost my binder.

Each year, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, as is my wont, I take the opportunity to share with you some reflections about this season, about the personal work we are called upon to do, about the paths our lives might have taken. And I have drawn from my own life’s experience from the past year. I have told you what I have learned from having a child, the backhoe hitting my house, brain surgery (twice), hitting a car in a parking lot, the Seahawks, Legos, serving as a congregational rabbi and others.

And so, as we are here on this time, a time of confession, a time of humility, a time of reflection, I would like to share with you the six things I have learned about life and teshuvah, from losing a binder full of 18 months worth of work.

 

All loss is real

Ok, it was a binder, but I would be lying to say I wasn’t heartsick over it when I realized what had happened. I was sad, angry, frustrated—common emotions that we encounter when we are dealing with loss. The work that I had put into the past 18 months that was captured in that binder was gone.

Now I don’t mean to equivocate the loss of a binder with the loss of a loved one, for example. There are losses that are much more devastating, much more difficult to manage, make a greater impact in our lives. That I understand. And of course people are more important that things, grief with personal loss is harder and I didn’t feel what I was feeling when I lost loved ones.

And at the same time, losses come to us big or small. We are always navigating loss. And no matter the scope, we must acknowledge them, and grieve them.

For the binder had come to represent something more to me. It wasn’t just a stack of papers neatly three-hole-punched and placed in a big three-ring binder. It was the culmination of a long course of study. It was the journey I had been on to deepen my own sense of personal spirituality. It was the next stage in my evolution and growth as a Jew and as a rabbi. It was the development of a process of self-discovery.

And so while I know that the physical binder wasn’t these things and these things still continue without the physical binder, losing it felt for a short time like a negation of these positive developments and a stumbling block to my continued path forward.

When we come to the High Holidays, and reflect back over our past year, we confront our losses, large and small. We look back at what we have gained over the past year, but we also look back at what we have lost. We are not the people we were a year ago and there is loss that is involved with that. Our plans, our vision for ourselves that we made last year may have changed, and we grieve what might have been.

And when we do teshuvah, the act of repentance, the biggest loss that we need to face is the loss of who we think we are. The work of teshuvah is the work of admitting that who we are now is not who we need to be. Or that who we have been is not a reflection of our true self. We get comfortable in a place, and the need is there to break out of that comfort.

We are here to change. And to change is to lose. And with loss, comes grief.

 

Forgive yourself

Yes, it was my fault. I know that it was my fault that I left my notebook in that classroom. I have a tendency to beat myself up at times for things done or not done, the casual term is regret. Full of the “if only”s…if only I didn’t study that day. Or if only I decided not to study in that room full of used books (for, as I thought, that if I had left it in the classroom on any other day, it would still be there waiting for me). Or if only I didn’t take the whole binder with me and just pulled out the few relevant pages we were going to read that day.

But I know that no matter how many “if onlys,” no matter how many times I replay it in my head, it is not going to bring the binder back. It was a mistake, it happened, and it can not be undone. And moving past losing the binder means forgiving myself of the carelessness and absentmindedness of which I accused myself.

In this case my “transgression” as it were had only one victim, myself. And for that it was easy to forgive myself. Regretting is in a way understanding what I may have done wrong. But any act of teshuvah involves some form of regret—of understanding what we may have done wrong—and really understanding the action and its consequences. And in a teshuvah process we can take those feelings of regret and heal them through a process of self-forgiveness.

We need to forgive ourselves first. Yes we are going to do things, intentionally or unintentionally. Those things may hurt others, or they may hurt only ourselves. Self-forgiveness comes with recognizing what we have done wrong and understanding the consequences of our actions.

But it can not stop there. Teshuvah requires that we then take that process of self-forgiveness and not only seek forgiveness from others in those cases we did hurt another, but also that we commit to change and grow and learn from the experience so that if we come across it again, we will act differently. Self-forgiveness comes with the recognition that we are human, that we are going to fall short and that we have the ability to change.

And part of this process of self-forgiveness is also trying to understand why we might have done something in the first place. Why was the loss of the binder so upsetting to me? It’s at those times we ask…was it really about the binder?

And for me what made the loss of the binder so upsetting was because it opened up things for me to consider. It was a careless act, am I generally careless and do I need to do something about that? Am I being pulled in too many directions and need to find a better sense of balance in my life?

I haven’t shared too much detail after my bout with meningitis three years ago, but I often wonder if I walked away from that, while mostly OK, somewhat impaired. I struggle sometimes with recall, mostly word recall, and perhaps by leaving the binder and not realizing it was an echo of this medical event, I thought to myself. I don’t know. But losing the binder reminded me of my vulnerabilities, of my limited capacity, and my humanness.

And that is why we are here. Because of our vulnerabilities, our limited capacities, our humanness. And that is something we can all forgive ourselves for.

 

Ideas are more powerful than objects

The actual notes are gone. Any attempt to recreate them would be futile. For it is difficult to recreate the original inspiration that led to the note, or the thought I had in the past that led me to underline a passage and put a star or a check next to it. Which is part of the feeling around the loss—what note might I have scribbled that would have turned into a great teaching. Or what idea jotted on the side of the page would have turned into a High Holiday sermon. (you see, I still did…) I won’t know, because those ideas are gone.

Or are they?

When I lost my binder, my initial thought was that all of those ideas were gone. But then I thought, if they really had staying power, if they really meant something to me, then, quite possibly, I would have them again. I could reread the original texts and be inspired in the same way. The note may not have stayed with me, but the idea may have. Good ideas are hard to lose, they make an impression.

Which reminded me that ideas are bigger than the paper they are written on. My thoughts are bigger than the binder was. That is important to remember in our creative lives, that our ideas have a life of their own. We come up with them, and the ones that make an impression have a kind of staying power. And maybe the things we do not remember were not worth remembering in the first place.

Ideas have power, and in this case, beyond the binder that I lost. But how often do we find that ideas are running up against not binders, but those things that are meant to contain them. For we have the way things are, and oftentimes ideas come to show us the way things could be. And those don’t always go together, especially when there are institutions and frameworks that serve as the vessel, or the container.

This happens in our personal lives, in which ideas or visions of ourselves may need to transcend the place that we find ourselves. But it is also the case on the communal level as well—we have communal institutions that are containers for how things are, but sometimes ideas come to show us how things could be.

There is an extended conversation going on now, for example, in the Jewish world nationwide about the future of synagogues, about how synagogues are to be organized and funded in response to societal trends of affiliation and communal identification. Trends from which we here at TBH are not immune. We need to be mindful of these ideas and ask how the institutions can be transformed by them, and not how we can put them aside for the sake of the institution.

And in the realm of social justice, we are continually being confronted by new ideas, new ways of thinking to confront past wrongs and envision a new future. Sometimes the way things were can not always be the way things will be. Existing institutions confront new ideas, and it will always be the ideas that win out, because ideas are more powerful than objects.

 

Acquire a friend

One of the things that made the loss of my notebook easier to take is that when I shared the news with Andy, he understood. He had been through the program as well, and understood the depth and breadth of learning that was contained within the binder. That fact that I was able to share what had happened with someone who was not only generally sympathetic as my friend but someone who shared a similar experience and so could understand that experience more deeply was helpful and healing.

And reminded me of the importance of friendship. The power of friendship took on renewed meaning for me this past year, in many ways. Friends occupy a specific role in our lives, and so it is important to cultivate and develop these relationships.

Friends occupy a different position than our life partners and family. Our family of course we do not choose, our lifepartners we perhaps make extra effort to choose and build relationship with. Friends fall somewhere in the middle. We may come across potential friends based on circumstance, but with whom you develop a friendship with is an active choice. To develop deep and meaningful relationships with those outside your family, and in addition to a chosen life partner, is so important to our well-being. Connections with people with whom you share interests or experience or circumstance, people who know you and support you, is so important.

There is the story in the Talmud about a guy named Honi. Now Honi is somewhat famous in our tradition especially with our school kids and especially around Tu Bishvat, the festival of the trees. For we oftentimes tell the story about how Honi happened upon a man planting a carob tree. Incredulous, he said, “are you really planting a carob tree? Don’t you know that a carob tree will take 70 years to bear fruit?”

“Yes,” says the man. “But just as my ancestors planted trees for me, so to do I plant trees for those who will come after me.”

It’s a great story, an important story. But the story in the Talmud goes on. For Honi then falls asleep and wakes up 70 years later. He sees an old man harvesting carob. “Wait a minute,” he says, “didn’t I just see you planting this tree?”

“No, it was my grandfather who planted this tree. I am his grandson.”

But the story then goes on. He goes to his house, where he is rejected. They don’t recognize him. He then goes to the study house, where he is also rejected. He then dies, but before he dies he cries out, “O hevruta o mituta”—“Friendship or Death!”

Extreme. Perhaps. But perhaps not. Recent studies have shown that loneliness and social isolation can have extreme negative health effects, even leading to increased mortality. O hevruta o mituta indeed. And its not about the size of one’s social network, it is about the ability to have even a few quality relationships with people who know you, who care for you, on whom you can depend.

And while friendship itself is important, spiritual friendship is also important. Andy is not only my friend but my hevruta—the term used in traditional Jewish life to describe a “study partner,” a word that is built upon the root of chaver, friend. A hevrutah is one with whom you commit to a course of study, and the study takes a particular form: the classical model of study in which two people engage back and forth, usually over a text, raising questions, challenges, ideas. Study is not a solitary enterprise, but one that must be taken in partnership. In that way we are not content to rest with our own ideas and views and assumptions, but we necessarily take them up with another to refine our thoughts, to be challenged and to grow in our learning and understanding.

Part of what makes this so powerful is that we are then accountable to another, We are held accountable to another, and therefore we are more successful in our undertakings.

The lost binder came about because of this hevruta relationship, and its loss was made more palpable because of the hevruta relationship.

Our classical texts speak of “acquiring yourself a friend.” In that it is an active choice to pursue and develop meaningful friendships. And it is important, in both senses of the word. If you want to live more fulfilling and enriching lives, we should find for ourselves a hevruta—which doesn’t need to be about Jewish text, or spirituality for that matter. It could be about a different exchange of ideas, or exercise, or reading, or whatever. Someone with whom you commit to do something that will allow the both of you to become enriched. And we need to find for ourselves friends as well.

 

Be open to messages from the universe, for you don’t know when or from where they may come

On these sheets, I took notes everywhere. On the margins, on top, underlining text.

It is ironic, or fitting, that I lost this at a used book sale because we have all had the experience perhaps of picking up a used book and finding notes in the margins, underlines, highlighting. For some this could be distracting, for others it could be illuminating. When you have these commentaries, these notes, you are witness to a conversation between reader and author, and across generations. It is almost like a traditional page of Talmud where the main body of the Talmud text is in the middle, and is surrounded by notes and commentaries.

The beauty of these margin notes are the messages they send to us, and I think now how perhaps my notes will be a part of this conversation across the texts. It’s not that I think necessarily that my notes were particularly wise or my ideas particularly profound, but they were my notes and my ideas. And the thought that perhaps one of these scribbles would inspire, or change a mind, is interesting and comforting.

But all this comes from the fact that we may receive messages from anywhere, and we may not know from where. A margin note in a book. A chance encounter. A conversation with the person sitting next to you on the airplane. A movie on TV. Any of these can have life altering impact. All of these can give you a message that you need to hear, or didn’t even know you needed to hear, but the key, and the challenge, is to be open to hearing it.

We can approach every opportunity as an opportunity for learning, for growth, for wisdom.

We have to approach that everyone has something to each us. “Who is wise,” says our ancient text, “one who learns from every one.” Well let us expand it: from everyone, from every experience, from everything we witness or hear or see or read, including a scribbling in a margin. Everything has something to teach us, we just need to be receptive to the teaching. If we approach every opportunity as one for growth, if we recognize that our hearts and minds are malleable, then we give everyone the gift of being our teacher, and ourselves the gift of learning.

We don’t know where messages will come from, sometimes from the most unlikely of places and so it is on us to carry with us the attitude of receptivity, the humility to know that we do not know all things, and the openness to receive what it is the universe is trying to tell us.

 

The margins are always blank

With the binder and my notes gone, I started over. Andy and I still planned on studying together so I took the time and printed out all the texts again and put them in a new binder. And when we sat down to study again I opened the book and there they all were, in front of me, bare. No underlines, no highlights, no writings in the margins.

And we began to study. And slowly I began to make new notes, new underlines, new observations.

That is where we stand right now. With a whole new set of sheets before us.

Tomorrow we will recite the paradigmatic liturgy of the High Holidays, the Unetaneh Tokef. This is the prayer where we find the image of the Book of Life. God sitting on high, all of us passing before the divine presence in order that our destiny, our fate for the coming year be inscribed in the book of life. Who shall live and who shall die, the prayer reads.

It is this image of the book of life which carries so much power for these days. It is why our standard greeting, the classical greetings, is l’shana tovah—for a good year, which is really a shortening of l’shana tovah tikateyvu—may you be inscribed for a good year.

May you be inscribed. May you be written.

And yet, while we carry this image of God on high with the book of life, we must realize that it is really us doing the inscribing. We write the story of our lives.

At the end of the Unetaneh Tokef we say teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah—repentance, prayer and righteousness—will avert the decree, with the classical understanding. But we can also understand it to mean that intentionality and mindfulness, self-examination and repair, and compassion and reaching out are ways we can write our story for the good for the coming year.

Sometimes we know, we don’t have that control. Parts of our stories are written for us. Sometimes for the good. And sometimes for the bad.

It is in these instances that we write in the margins.

Because it really is about the margins, isn’t it? For we must be honest and say we don’t always get to write our full story anew each year. For some there are still the same obligations, the children to raise, the job to maintain. Illness, hardship, death sometimes fills up the pages for us.

But we always have the margins. How we deal with what life gives us, our own personal notes to a larger story.

So here we are. The book of life, open before us. The old binder is lost to the ages. The new one lay open before you. The texts are the same, but the margins are wiped clean.

And now, in front of this page, you just have one question before you: what will you write?

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