As we gather on this evening of Erev Rosh Hashanah, as is my wont and practice, I wish to ease us in to this sacred time of reflection and renewal as I usually do, with sharing a list. I have used this time—on the evening of our first High Holiday service, to share something that has happened in my life, or the world over the course of the past year, and in a framework I learned from my teacher and mentor Rabbi Richard Hirsh, I give you a list of lessons learned, and observations made.
Over the years I have shared from many different experiences: having a garden, having a backhoe hit my house, having brain surgery, serving 10 years in the rabbinate, for example. Also from the Seahawks, Legos, and the election, to name a few more. And last year I shared 7 things you could do to save the world. If you thought I was going to share the 7 things I learned from being a sanctuary congregation, I’m sorry, you are wrong.
The first, the very first list I shared with you 18 High Holidays ago when I first stood before you, was the things I learned about life from having a toddler. I was then in my final year of rabbinical school, and the parent of a 2-year-old child. So parenting a young child was foremost on my mind.
And now years later, two weeks ago, we dropped off that then-toddler for his first year of college.
Wow, time does pass quickly. And as each moment is an opportunity for growth, each stage an opportunity for learning, I now present to you the 7 things I have learned about teshuvah, and life, from becoming the parent of an adult college student.
Ritual is important. In the spring we celebrated our son’s high school graduation, the first high school graduation I had been to in decades. And while I went into it expecting a series of pro forma presentations and having to sit through a long list of names, paying attention at least through the “G’s.” I was genuinely moved by the power of this ceremony.
The graduation ceremony is a ritual, a public ritual, a rite of passage that fulfills what all ritual is meant to do, to mark liminal moments in a meaningful way, allowing for framing and contextualizing what in many ways could be a technical transition: you did all your credits and you are done with school. You don’t need a graduation ceremony to finish high school. But the joining together as one community, with special garb, recognition by elders, powerful words and music, as well as action—this is what makes this moment special.
One thing in particular I noted about the graduation ceremony is how democratic it was—no matter what each graduate was planning to do after that day: college, the military, workforce, technical school, or something else—everyone went through the ceremony.
I deal with ritual all the time, and to experience it in this way, as a participant, as outside the Jewish context was tremendously meaningful. And here we are, at our own ritual to mark the liminal spaces, sharing powerful words and music and action. And also democratic, open to all who wish to embrace it. So I invite you, live into these holidays. Make the most of them. There will be parts that are powerful, and parts that are boring. It can’t be all one thing. But find the time that speaks to you. Embrace the ritual, for this is the way we add meaning to our lives and create for us the space to honor and reflect.
Life is full of loss. The day we dropped him off at college was exciting. Because of the number of students who move in at the University of Washington, there is a tight process and procedure. Each step of the way was exciting. And watching him unpack, settle in, make a new home for himself that was not ours, was palpable. We walked around, had an early dinner, picked up a few more things for his room, and then left. He was excited, and we were excited for him. He was happy, and we were happy for him.
And then the next day came, when he was still excited and happy and we were, well, back to our normal routine. Though it was not normal. That is when the sadness settled in. The dynamics were different; the absence was palpable. He doesn’t live with us anymore. His room was emptied, and now instead of 4 of us there were 3. Everything was going to change: how we did the laundry, what we bought doing the food shopping, how we organized our time. In our house he was part of our system, and now our system has been altered.
With change comes loss. And with loss comes grief. We all grapple with big losses, especially death, which is a theme during these holy days as well. But our life is punctuated and perhaps even defined by the fact that we are always dealing with loss, even at times, as in this one, when it is a change for the good, and benefit of another. There is always grief. It is not something to be avoided, but accepted. We would do well to honor all the losses in our lives—it recognize that it is a gift to know how to lose, and to survive, and to grow from that loss.
Life chooses for us. I remember my early days in college, particularly a class I took in macroeconomics. And my professor began the first class with a hypothetical question: say aliens came down to earth with the promise to inject millions of dollars into the economy. In exchange, the aliens would randomly kill 40,000 people a year. Would we make that choice? After some conversation, our professor said the question is moot, the choice was made for us. When the combustion engine was invented, paving the way to automobiles, millions of dollars was put into the US economy. However, 40,000 people die each year in auto accidents. Sometimes, the point was, the market, or society, chooses for us.
I thought of this lesson recently and not only because I’ve been getting nostalgic for my college days now that my son is starting school. But realizing that when one decides to have kids, you are not always thinking about what it means that they will one day leave you. Sure it is a wistful hope and an idealized notion, but when it actually happens, when they do leave, it feels like, well, this isn’t what you necessarily signed up for. But life has chosen for us.
Life is always choosing for us. That is one of the humbling admissions of these holidays. We come here with the commitment to do better, to grow, to change—to be active in making the life we want for ourselves and the world in which we wish to live. But we also come here with the admission that a big part of life is being reactive—to challenge, to illness, to pain, to separation, to political forces seemingly beyond our control. Yet in these too we do have agency in how we live, how we react, how we cope with the changes that life brings us. That is part of the commitment we make to ourselves on these days—how we want to act, and how we want to react.
Only you can do the work. Earlier this summer I attended parent orientation, and one of the key messages that was told to parents was that we are not there to solve our child’s problems for them. We have all heard the term helicopter parent, and the administration and faculty are working hard to move parents away from that mentality. We are in no way helicopter parents, mostly because we are usually too busy with our pulpits to remember that we have kids. But we very intentionally supported our kids while allowing them their space and their independence.
And at the same time, there is always an aspect of dependence in these relationships. And the parent orientation was full of information (not just about how to pay tuition): information about campus services, resources, policies, procedures, locations, etc. NOT with the idea that we will then be equipped to do things for our kids, but to help our kids do things for themselves. If we know about the mental health services or the writing center, for example, then we can help direct our students to them, but not intervene for them. We are to be supportive and empower them to take their own steps.
We can not do things for others, it doesn’t foster independent growth, and it puts on us a burden. There are times, of course, when we are called upon to be care givers. And part of caring for another is to take care of their needs. And sometimes, their need is to not be taken care of. Teshuvah, repentance, is that way, it is not something that can be done for you, but we all are here to support each other in doing this important work.
I can’t do repentance for you. Your neighbor can’t do repentance for you. This is something you need to do for yourself. I can however direct you to the tools at your disposal. You are here, right now. You are listening to the music, you are in this space, you are saying the words in the book, or you are alone with your thoughts. However you use these tools, is up to you. Use them in a way that is meaningful. Use them in a way that will foster your positive human development, for that is what teshuvah is all about. We do not do it for each other, but we do it with each other.
Have a growth mindset. One of the other ways we were told at the orientation about how we can encourage and contribute to our kids’ development is to help them develop a “growth mindset.” The psychologist Carol Dweck studied the idea of mindsets for the past 20 years, and determined that the type of mindset we have is what will determine how we live and whether or not we will become the people that we hope we can be.
The first mindset is the fixed mindset, the idea that who you are is who you always will be. That your qualities are fixed and unchanging, that you are this amount of smart, or this amount of funny, and that you have only these certain skills and talents.
On the other hand, she says,
“There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”
This second mindset is the one that is able to lead to personal growth. That through it we will develop a passion for learning and accept the ability to try, possibly fail, and change. As our kids are just starting out in college, we were told, they now have this new opportunity to exercise this mindset as they are finding a new way of being in the world, needing to organize and manage their time differently, holding on to new responsibilities. They can try new things, and possibly fail at them. But if we encourage a growth mindset, then they will succeed.
As for them, so to for us. This is something we all can relate to. Do we have a fixed mindset, or a growth mindset? Honestly, if the former, then why are we even here? The High Holidays are here to say that we should always have a growth mindset, an ability to grow and change. We are never fixed in who we are, but have the ability to try, fail, and move on from failure. That is teshuvah. How can you, over the course of these days, cultivate the growth mindset to become the person you want to become?
Live in the moment. And for this, I turn to the wisdom of my son. Having served as Senior Class President his last year of High School, he had the honor of speaking at the end of graduation—to share some words and lead the class in the tassel ceremony. We were proud of him for this opportunity, and went into the ceremony not knowing what he would say. And we were moved and blown away by his poise and thoughtfulness. Sharing an answer to a question posed by a teacher, “what advice would you give your freshman self?” he reflected on how effective that sort of advice would be:
My point is, the phrase “practice what you preach” is especially true when you think about what you would tell your freshman self, because what you think you should have done in the past, or what you think you should do in the future, is also probably what you should be doing right now. Don’t let trying to correct your past self get in the way of bettering your present self, I know my past self, and some of yours and I’m telling you, they’re real pieces of work, they don’t deserve your concern. Instead, offer your advice to yourself, make sure that whatever you are doing in the present is what you think your past self should have done.
What’s tough but true about the past is that it can never be changed, as much as I would like to give advice to my freshman self, I have to deal with that haircut for another two and a half years until I come to my senses junior year. And what’s crazy about the future is that it is never certain, You get asked what you want to be when you grow up, and there are endless unknown possibilities…So, because of this uncertainty of the future, and the unalterable nature of the past, the only thing you really have control over, the only time you can actually change with your advice is the moment you are living in right now.
Wow. How profound. And that is the point of these days. We can not change the past, so regret is not helpful. The future is unknown, so anticipation and worry can be wasted. Rather than think about what I should have done, take the answer to that question, and apply it to what you are doing now. That is what we are here for, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Doing teshuvah, repentance, is like giving your past self advice on what you should have done, and simply applying that to the present.
And learning this last point from my son leads me to my last, number 7:
L’dor v’dor goes both ways. When we say the words l’dor v’dor—from generation to generation—a phrase found in our liturgy, we are oftentimes thinking of the transmission of tradition, and wisdom, and communal connection from the previous generation to the next, the older to the younger, the generations past to the generations to come. But what I have also learned is that it goes both ways. The younger generation can teach the older, there is a collective wisdom of youth that is worthwhile for elders to heed, for while we may have more experience, our outlooks may have the tendency to be frozen and routine. We would benefit to listen to the perspective of youth—like Greta Thunberg, for example, speaking out most recently on climate change, and in this case my own child.
In the Talmud we learn, “Rabbi Ḥanina said: I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students I have learned most of all.” Our students, our children. L’dor v’dor. Both ways.
When we have our adult children, when we are sending them off in their next stage of life, and in my case sending them off to college, we call this time “launching,” as we send off our kids into their own lives, independent of us, ready to explore and create and discover their own selves. They are on the cusp of something new.
And as we gather here tonight, on this Erev Rosh Hashanah, entering into this special, powerful season, we remember tonight that we are always launching: exploring this ritual, facing loss and life, doing our own work, maintaining a growth mindset, living for the present, and learning from all we meet.
We too, in this moment, are on the cusp of something new.