My great-grandfather, Papa Lou as we all called him, died two decades ago right before Rosh Hashana. As you might imagine, every year at this time I am thinking about him. One of the apocryphal stories about Papa Lou is how he came to the United States. In the story – that I remember him telling – the year was 1903. He was 6 years old living in a small town in Lithuania.
The story would alway be told in the context of how frightening their lives were. The most vivid detail explianing that fear was how he remembered hiding in his small town’s communal oven from the Russian authorities. His family finally decided that he would to take the treacherous journey to the United States.
In their exodus from that small village, he had to hide his departure. He was placed in the back of a hay cart, hiding among the bales of hay. There were many trying to leave, so during his escape, the authorities checked the various vehicles leaving the village. In listening to the story, I was always stuck in this detail, this moment. One scared, nervous 6 year old boy – the same boy who was now the wrinkled, shrunken old man sitting before me – trying to make himself small and quiet. Terrified about what might happen to him or his family if he would be found. I always tried to imagine it was me amongst the hay – willing myself smaller, trying not even to breath. I could feel the hay sharp and edgy against my body. It terrified me to imagine being so uncomfortable. It terrified me to imagine being so vulnerable.
As the New Year begins tonight, I would like for us to think a little bit more about being vulnerable. I would like for us to get bit uncomfortable.
Don’t worry … I am not going to talk about any of those things that one is not supposed to talk about in polite company. It is not that kind discomfort I want to talk about with you this evening. I am not going to begin a large group session of baring our souls to one another in this large, public space. It is not that kind of vulnerability that I want us to explore about this evening.
I want us to explore the kind of discomfort that is essential to the nature of the work we are challenged to do these 10 days of Teshuvah. I want us to explore the kind of discomfort that is fundamental to us learning, growing and realizing our greatest gifts. I want us to explore the kind of vulnerability that is the essential building block at every level of life: biological, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.
This exploration belongs with Ashley Hicks. Ashley Hicks is the co-founder of an Atlanta organization called Black Girls Run! She created this organization to tackle the growing obesity epidemic in the African-American community. Ashley was being interviewed about how she became a runner and how it impacted her physically and spiritually. When in Chicago, preparing for her 2nd marathon, she stopped in at a running store for new shoes. As it often happens, as she was trying on she shoes she told the clerk what she was training for and how she was feeling about the race. Ashley told him that, truthfully, she was not excited at all about training; she was nervous about reaching her time goal. The clerk, the guy selling the shoes to her in the running store, listens to her talk. He doesn’t suggest the perfect shoe to help along or the cool gear that might change her motivation. He tells her: the best thing for you to remember is: the blessing is outside your comfort zone.
I heard this first as a fellow runner … and intuitively understood it immediately. Somewhere in my muscle memory of fatigued legs and labored breathing, I also remembered increased speed and greater fitness. Somewhere in my emotional memory of wanting to quit and thinking I could go on no more, I also remembered discovering unknown reservoirs of strength and profound feelings of satisfaction. I knew this simple wisdom from the shoe clerk to be true: We find blessing outside our comfort zone.
And then, I heard it as more than a runner … I heard it as a husband, a father, a child, a sibling and as a friend … I heard it as a rabbi, as a citizen, as as human being. The comfort zone is not that easy, safe pace during a race, in which I do not risk pushing or straining myself, because I fear the pain or worse the failure. The comfort zone is that easy, safe place in relationship in which I do not risk more — more intimacy, more compassion, more love. The blessing is not merely a better race time or sense of accomplishment. The blessing is the kind of deeper and fuller relationship that heals, uplifts and makes life most meaningful.
Tonight, it’s time to get uncomfortable.
I believe that we all know that comfort zone. It is that way of being of interacting that keeps our anxieties at bay and makes us feel safe. The particular anxieties differ from person to person, but they all seek to meet the same end. They seek to keep us in that safe and secure comfort zone — where we feel no vulnerability to being rejected, alone or belittled. We all experience these uncomfortable vulnerabilities differently. Perhaps we share too much or too little. We assert ourselves too much or too little. We pay attention too much or too little. And while we stay safe and sound in that comfort zone, we miss out on the possibility of blessing.
This time of year – when we seek Teshuvah – we engage in a massive enterprise of examining the blessings we may have missed. We will name and review quite a collection of sins, shortcomings, mistakes and missteps these next ten days of teshuvah. The origin and catalyst for most of them will come from our reticence and avoidance of being vulnerable – from staying in the comfort zone.
So, tonight you see, it’s time to get uncomfortable.
We learn and grow, we discover the most about ourselves when we allow ourselves vulnerability. Albert Einstein suggested that: “A ship is always safe at the shore – but that is NOT what it is built for.” We miss experiencing our potential and discovering what skills, talents and resources we possess. The ship that is the human soul can surely get by in its proverbial harbor, but it is built for so much more.
The Alter of Novardok was an late 19th century rabbi, who was a teacher in the Mussar tradition. He deeply believed in what was to be found beyond this comfort zone and in the midst of the anxiety of vulnerability. So much so, that the Alter would regularly send his students two hundred miles from the yeshiva on a one-way train ticket. Their only instruction: find your own way back. He literally transported them out of their comfort zone. The Alter challenged them to confront what frightened them — and open their hearts and minds to what blessings lay beyond.
It is easy to talk about getting uncomfortable, doing it is quite another story. Even in terms of our original context – the runner and her race. The runner probably has training and fitness as a foundation for the race. It seems easier to make that leap, if one can at least intellectually know that the foundation for thriving outside the comfort zone exists. In the midst of the vulnerability, of the pain and anxiety of discomfort the runner has something that she can trust.
So do we.
Today we begin the process of Teshuvah. While often translated as repentance, it is a bad translation. Repentance is only one of the outcomes of the process of Teshuvah. Teshuvah is about return. Traditionally and literally, we return to God. For those of us not as comfortable with the traditional or literal … we return to our essence, our true nature in all of its purity and possibility.
The 18th century mystic, Rabbi Dov Ber, the Magid of Metzrich taught us about this aspect of Teshuvah. The command to return in Torah reads: וְשַבְתָ עַד יְהוְה אֱלֹהֶךָ –– ‘Return to “Adonai, Your God”’. Rabbi Dov Ber saw in this simple line an implied word: UNTIL. So, the text does not read ‘return to Adonai, your God’ … it is ‘return to Adonai (UNTIL Adonai is) your God.’ ‘Return to Adonai – the transcendent aspect of the divine UNTIL that transcendence becomes the immanent power to which which you personally relate and resonate. In other words, ‘You shall become aware: That which (you think) is beyond (your) nature is also your own nature.’
In this returning or Teshuvah we remember of what we are made and of the vital nature of that construct. We remember that we are made of divine stuff … and the nature of that divine stuff is boundless. Returning is remembering that even when we feel most uncomfortable or vulnerable, we’ve got what it takes to be uncomfortable and vulnerable and discover what awaits us on the other side. We remember that we find blessing outside our comfort zone.
I love the story of how Chuck Yeager became the first human being to break the sound barrier. Prior to Chuck Yeager a few pilots had unsuccessfully attempted to cross that barrier. Just as each of those pilots reached the threshold, the plane became a very uncomfortable place. It rattled and shook violently – as if it might tear itself apart. At that point each previous pilot experienced a moment of profound vulnerability. In that moment, each previous pilot pulled back on the throttle and returned the plane to a more comfortable zone.
In his successful flight, Chuck Yeager faced that same threshold. He confronted that same violent rattling and shaking. However, instead of returning to the safety of the comfort zone … instead of being paralyzed by his vulnerability, Chuck Yeager went full steam ahead into the discomfort of that threshold. He increased the speed and velocity of the plane … and BOOM! – the sound barrier was broken. And Chuck Yeager found himself flying forward in a peaceful and calm trajectory.
I don’t there is any way to break the barriers we would wish break; or cross the thresholds we wish to cross … without experiencing discomfort and vulnerability.
I assume that even when I began the story about Papa Lou that you knew the obvious conclusion. After all, I stand before you tonight telling you the story. So, you probably guessed, that my Papa Lou – in that profoundly vulnerable moment – crossed an important threshold. I bear witness that many blessings followed.
I am in awe of what it took for my great-grandfather and his family to make the decision they did. I know that life was difficult, but everyone did not leave that small village. They wanted a better life and chose to make themselves vulnerable. I am sure there were blessings that they envisioned that might follow such a risk. However, I doubt they could begin to fathom me, standing before you tonight, telling you this story.
There are blessings to be found outside our comfort zone – ones we can imagine and ones beyond our wildest imaginations. I pray tonight, that all of us welcome the opportunities in New Year – to be uncomfortable, to be vulnerable. I pray that we find ourselves in the emotional or intellectual equivalents of being 150 miles away from home; piloting violently rattling jet planes or hiding in hay bales. I pray that in those moments we are able to trust the divine nature in each of us. I pray that beyond our vulnerability and our discomfort we encounter an abundance of blessings.
Tonight, let us begin to get uncomfortable.