Sign In Forgot Password

Sermon: Rosh Hashanah Evening, 9/29/19

10/01/2019 09:22:11 AM


Rabbi Charlie

L’shana Tova Tikateivu –I sincerely hope and pray that it is a good and sweet new year for you and me, for our families, for our community, and for our world!

I know that there’s a lot to be concerned about in our world… a lot of concern… But right now, I’m worried about you. After numerous conversations over the past few months there seems to be a general sense that whether its due to work or family or politics and many other things, life feels challenging or overwhelming right now and it doesn’t seem like we’re doing a good job of taking care of ourselves.

We’re not alone. Last year, a Gallup study found that two thirds of Americans experienced burnout on the job. Our government just issued a report that one in five adults and almost as many children experienced mental illness in 2018. And that does not include people who just went to talk with a therapist because they were having a hard time coping with the stress and anxiety of life.

The Kol Bo – a rabbinic work that goes back approximately thirteen hundred years – teaches that three things bring anxiety: great pain, long fingernails and ripped clothing (118:11). Ok… back in the seven hundreds, maybe that’s all they had to worry about. In the twenty-first century, we might be able to add a few dozen things that are causing us stress and anxiety. Which brings me to Satchel Smith…

Satchel Smith is twenty-one years old. He attends college at Lamar University and he works at the Homewood Suites down in Beaumont. Usually he’s at the front desk, but a couple weeks ago when Tropical Storm Imelda dropped over nine inches of rain in one day, no other staff was able to make it in.

For thirty-two hours, Mr. Smith went above and beyond. He became the maintenance man, the room service attendant, and did anything else that needed doing. He even became the hotel chef even though he was the first to admit that he’s not a great cook. He received help from someone staying at the hotel, and he was surprised when the food actually tasted good. During the storm, for those hotel guests, Satchel Smith was a hero. And in the aftermath, many more heroes are needed in Beaumont and in neighboring towns to support the recovery. (For ways to help:

For those thirty-two hours, in the midst of the crisis, Satchel Smith was amazing. It was a unique, intense, and challenging moment. And while they may not be as dramatic, we also find ourselves in moments of crisis far too frequently. We, too, are called upon to be heroes - At our jobs, for our families, when we volunteer, and in daily life. It can feel like it’s just one storm after another. There are times when it feels like there’s always another emergency - something else that needs our attention Right Now.

Fortunately, it’s not like that all the time. There are other times when it’s not about what we have to do – it’s about what we try to avoid…. You have to admit, it’s so much easier to binge watch a show than actually be responsible. Because we procrastinate, simple tasks can pile up and what would have been easy gets to be overwhelming. That’s not taking care of ourselves either. And for some, life can be a very different type of struggle where victory is defined by just getting out of bed in the morning.

Our life circumstances are diverse; our needs and our wants and our struggles are diverse. While every situation is different, what’s universal is that we need to take care of ourselves. Some people consider taking care of themselves to be selfish or indulgent, but Jewish tradition considers self care to be mandatory. Maimonides explains (Mishneh Torah, Human Dispositions 4:1) that staying healthy is what God wants and expects of us. To stay connected to God, we should strive to do that which is “healthful and life-imparting.”

Midrash offers the story of Hillel who teaches his students that it’s a mitzvah to visit the bathhouse. He explains that he is created in God’s image and so in order to honor God, he indulges in this way. So, for anyone who was looking for a Jewish excuse to go to the spa, that’s Vayikrah Rabbah, 34:3.

Even God takes care of God’s self. According to the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3b) God spends a little time each day playing with God’s pet sea monster – the Leviathan. I know how precious pets are to so many of you and what many of them do for your mental health. It turns out God needs that, too.

Believe it or not, self care is not just a Jewish thing. It’s a ten billion dollar industry (! There are so many books and classes and websites that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by trying to do self care. Absolutely ironic and it absolutely happens.

There’s a phrase from the Talmud (Yoma 80a):

תָּפַסְתָּ מְרֻבֶּה, לֹא תָּפַסְתָ

It literally means, “if you grasp a lot, you didn’t grasp.” In modern Hebrew, it’s an idiom, “if you try to do too much, you might fail altogether.” This applies to self help and it applies to many parts of our lives.

Many of us spread way too thin. We know that it’s important to be able to say, “no…” ( it’s just really hard sometimes. It’s actually really helpful to think about how we spend our time. For both adults and young people – it’s good to ask – am I filling up my time with the things that reflect my priorities? When was the last time we thought deeply about all of our various commitments. And when it comes to self care – it’s all the more important to start slowly and take one step at a time!

For my personal self care, I needed to start where many people need to start. This area seems to top almost every self care list: sleep. Judaism supports a good night sleep – the better to help with your Torah study (Bereishit Rabbah 9:6). And even though the CDC recommends at least seven hours of sleep a night for the sake of one’s health and wellbeing, far too many of us don’t quite make it. I was getting more like 5-6 hours of sleep.

I know. It’s fine. I can function. But this isn’t just about functioning. This is our life! There’s copious research that really scared me. It shows how lack of sleep impacts our physical health, it impacts our mental health, it impacts our driving and our level of patience and our efficiency and so much more (one summary of the research: We don’t want to just go through life functioning… we can have a higher standard! If you have trouble sleeping or are addicted to staying up late – see a doctor – get help! So, if you were like me, one way to take care of yourself is to make sure to get more sleep!

Another way to take care of our self – get help! There’s a verse from Proverbs (12:25), “if there is anxiety in a person’s heart, they should yashḥena – which literally means, “suppress it.” But the Talmud (Yoma 75a) offers a different explanation. Instead of the word yashḥena, the same letters with different vowels can be pronounced yesiḥena, which means “to talk it out.” The idea is that if you’re stressed or anxious or annoyed or not satisfied or tearing your hair out, you should talk it out.

Having a safe place to talk about our problems or frustrations is an important way to take care of ourselves. Often times, sharing with family or friends is just what we need. And many times, it could be a little more serious or we need something a little more private, which is what therapy is for. In that situation, it’s possible that you might need to try a few therapists before you find the right one for you. Know this and know that your mental health is worth it. We have to take care of ourselves.

One final example of self care is to do it the Jewish way. I am a huge believer in Judaism’s original self care idea. It’s been tried and true and it’s worked for millennia. Everyone thinks it’s a great idea and it’s really not that hard. I’m talking about Shabbat, people! I greatly appreciate Rabbi Naomi Levy’s reflection on what Shabbat can be. She writes, “True rest gives us a completely different perspective on all of life’s difficulties. It allows us to heal, to reflect, to give thanks, and to face whatever lies ahead with a renewed sense of calm” (To Begin Again, p. 210).

You can have that! Every week, you can have that! Don’t think you have to do an Orthodox Shabbat. Do Shabbat your way – it’s a beautiful and important opportunity to help us take care of ourselves!

While I’ve known that self care was important, I gained new appreciation for this idea when I had the opportunity to learn from our brilliant Selichot Scholar, Dr. Joy Ladin. As she shared the story of her transition to becoming a woman, she discussed Hillel’s threefold questions: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? (Pirkei Avot 1:14).

“If I’m not for myself…,” this can easily be understood has self care. We have to be for ourselves. We cannot ignore our needs or our stress or our struggles or our desires. We matter. Dr. Ladin helped me understand that the second question, “If I am only for myself…,” is not just about caring for others. The two questions taken together help us understand that caring for ourselves profoundly impacts our relationship with others – for the positive and for the negative.

  • If we focus our time based on well thought out priorities – we’ll have more time to spend with the people we care about.
  • If we ignore our own health – it impacts us and everyone who will help to care for us
  • If we get enough sleep – we’ll be sharper at work, more patient with our children, more alert when we drive.

The bottom line – when we take care of ourselves the right way, it’s good for us, and it’s good for everyone around us. The only problem – we’re really bad at it. We have patterns and they’ve worked for us for a long time – even if they aren’t the most healthy patterns.

It means that we have work to do – the work of teshuva – repentance, to acknowledge that we need to do better, and make change in our lives. If we’re really going to take care of ourselves, a new year’s resolution isn’t enough. There are priorities to discuss, goals to set, and action plans to write down and follow. And we need to be accountable. As Chris Pineda from the Arbinger Institute writes, “To be accountable is to change” (

So, if you’re really committed to sleeping at least seven or eight hours – have a sleeping buddy! Not like that… a sleeping buddy – set your personal goals and then share how long you slept each night or each week. It could be a spouse or a family member or a friend. The same goes for doctor’s visits, prioritizing our time, exercise, diet, your spiritual goals, or any of your self care aspirations.

This type of teshuva is work – it’s hard. I’m not joking about goal setting and action plans. They don’t have to be complicated. Don’t try to do everything at once. Start slowly, but start somewhere. Prioritize! And don’t forget to reward yourself when you’re successful.

Just consider the story of the person who took care of themselves. They were the most capable at work. They were the most loving and patient and supportive with their family. And they were able to live the healthiest, longest, and most productive life possible. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to the people we love. Take care of yourself this year and every year. Your life is worth it!

L’shana Tova Tikateivu – May you be inscribed for a good year!

Sun, May 19 2024 11 Iyar 5784