Practice Makes Practice (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning 5775)

 

The 20th-century American writer Dorothy Parker famously said, “Writing is the art of applying the tush to the seat.” (She didn’t say “tush,” but the word she used isn’t exactly appropriate to the bimah; you can extrapolate.)

This is one of my favorite aphorisms about the writing life. Writing isn’t, or isn’t only, a matter of talent or genius or having great ideas. One can have all of those things without ever writing a word. Writing requires perseverance. It requires showing up, day after day. It requires putting fingers to pen, or in my case fingers to keyboard, when the inspiration is there and also when it isn’t there yet.

Over the years I’ve learned a variety of techniques for times when I don’t “feel like” writing. Sometimes I promise myself a treat if I manage to write something. Other times I give myself a set period of time — “thirty minutes and then I can get up and do something else.” I can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What matters is that I write.

The only way to get good poems is to write a lot of poems, and to accept that although some days are going to be better than others, I’m committed to continuing to write.

This is how spiritual life works, too. There are days when I wake up with prayers on my lips, when I can’t wait to settle in to morning davenen, when I feel in-tune with the Holy One of Blessing from the get-go.

Those tend to be days when I’m on retreat. When someone else is taking care of the logistics of ordinary life, like meals and dishes. And childcare. And the to-do lists. And my responsibilities. It’s remarkable how easy it is to feel prayerful and connected when someone else is providing for all of my needs.

But most of the time I am not on retreat. My spiritual life mostly happens in the “real world,” where I have to juggle priorities, where I sometimes feel cranky, or get my feelings hurt, or make mistakes.

The best way to prime the pump for writing is to start writing and trust that some of what I write will be worth keeping. And the best way to prime the pump for spiritual life is to maintain my spiritual practices. There’s a reason we call them “practices” — because, like poetry, they require repetition, trial and error, showing up on the days when the spirit doesn’t necessarily move you. Spiritual life requires putting your tush in the chair.

But it doesn’t necessarily require putting your tush in the chair for hours on end. In fact, it’s arguably better if you don’t.

Here’s a question for you. You don’t have to raise your hands; just listen to the question and think about your answer. Have you ever tried to get in shape?

Maybe it’s when January 1st rolls around: you realize it’s midwinter and you’ve eaten a few too many latkes, and you resolve to start going to the gym, or to train for a 5K, or to return to yoga or aerobics classes. It’s a new year’s resolution! You’re really going to do it this time!

I can’t speak for all of you, but based on the sample set of the two adults who live in my house, I have the feeling that this happens a lot.

And there are a lot of ways that resolve can fail.

Here’s the one to which I am prone: I think about the effort it would take to go to a gym regularly, I imagine trying to squeeze workday and childcare around that extra commitment, and I give up before I even begin.

Here’s the one to which my husband is prone: he decides to get in shape, goes to the gym, lifts far too many weights, and is then in so much pain that he can’t do it again for days, by which time other life commitments have shouldered in and pushed the gym out of the way.

Both of these are the opposite of helpful. What we really need is something modest and sustainable. Over the years we’ve figured out that the answer, for us, is walking every day. It’s manageable, which means we actually do it. And the more we do it, the more we want to do it. It’s self-perpetuating.

Spiritual life is a lot like exercise. What we need is something modest and sustainable.

I love Yom Kippur. But I have to admit that it’s the opposite of modest and sustainable! Yom Kippur is a marathon. It’s long, it’s intense, and it features some of the most theologically and emotionally challenging liturgy of the year.

Showing up for our hardest day of the year is like going to the gym and lifting a whole lot of weights: it’s easy to overdo it, to come away feeling exhausted, to strain spiritual muscles we haven’t consciously exercised in a long time. This is not the way to get in shape.

Yom Kippur is also not great preparation for the other spiritual marathons in our lives, which — unlike today — may not have distinct endpoints. There are periods of depression, times when God feels distant and life feels unbearable. When our son was born and postpartum depression knocked me flat, I couldn’t find God anywhere. And I couldn’t imagine that life would ever feel different, would ever feel good, again.

There are periods of grief and loss. The loss of a job; the loss of a relationship; the loss of a pregnancy; the loss of a loved one. Even the anticipation of grief to come can be overwhelming. I have known times of waking up in the morning, remembering a reason for grief, and bursting into tears. I will surely know them again.

We never know how long these will last or how frequently they will recur. So how do we prepare for them?

We learn in Pirkei Avot, a collection of rabbinic wisdom, that Rabbi Eliezer used to say: make teshuvah one day before your death. But how do we know when we’re going to die? Ahh, well then, make teshuvah every day.

The same goes for preparing for life’s crises and curveballs. It would be great if the universe gave us advance warnings. But it doesn’t. The best way we can prepare to weather life’s storms is to develop practices for every day.

What might regular spiritual practice look like? One Jewish answer is praying three times a day, using the words in our siddur. I like that answer. But it isn’t always possible for me, and I know it probably doesn’t appeal to all of you.

Another Jewish answer is making blessings: over food, over a beautiful sunset, over a moment in time. Using the words we’ve inherited from our tradition, or using the words of our own hearts.

A third Jewish answer might be the bedtime shema: pausing at bedtime to say the shema and to offer a prayer which reminds me to forgive those who have wounded me, as I pray that those I’ve wounded will forgive me in turn.

Or perhaps you might like Anne Lamott’s practice of distilling all human prayer into three words: please, thanks, wow. Three words. Ten seconds, tops.

Or maybe the suggestion, from Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, that between hearing the phone ring and picking it up, we can pause to breathe. Three rings; time to set the intention of answering with compassion and kindness.

In recent years, my teacher Reb Zalman (may his memory be a blessing) frequently suggested the practice of talking aloud with God while driving in the car. He used to say that he imagined the Ribbono Shel Olam — which is to say, God — wearing bluejeans and sitting in his passenger seat, lovingly listening as he poured out whatever was on his mind and in his heart.

I suspect that Reb Zalman borrowed this idea from Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, the Hasidic master who prescribed talking aloud with God while walking in the fields. Here’s what I love about this: we don’t have to go anywhere out of the ordinary. Even driving-to-work time can be an opportunity for spiritual practice.

Our sages taught that within each of us is a good impulse and a bad impulse, the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra. My yetzer ha-ra knows how to talk me out of doing what’s good for me.

Sometimes it says: don’t pray in the car; listen to the news instead, and notice how broken the world is. Sometimes it says: You can’t pray the whole service with full attention to every word, so don’t even bother to try. And sometimes, when it joins with what I now recognize as the voice of depression, it says: you are broken, and the world is broken, and life will never be any different, so you might as well give in to despair.

Reb Nachman, the Hasidic master who prescribed chatting with God while walking in the fields, suffered from depression. And he had things to say about despair.

He taught that “Losing hope is like losing your freedom, like losing yourself.” And he also taught that “No matter how far you have strayed, returning to God is always possible. Therefore, there is absolutely no place for despair.” Here is his prayer:

God, I stand beaten and battered by the countless manifestations of my own inadequacies. Yet we must live with joy. We must overcome despair, seek pursue and find every inkling of goodness, every positive point within ourselves – and so discover true joy. Aid me in this quest, O God. Help me find satisfaction and a deep, abiding pleasure in all that I have, in all that I do, in all that I am.

One of our tradition’s best tools for overcoming despair is teshuvah, turning ourselves in the right direction again. Teshuvah means there is always grounds for optimism, because we can always be forgiven.

I try to make hope one of my core spiritual practices. But during times in my life when I’ve wrestled with depression, I haven’t been able to live in hope at all. I’m not there now, thank God, but I remember what being there was like.

When depression whispers its insidious vitriol into my ears, I fall back on my spiritual practices. I rely on them to help hold me up while I reach for the secular tools at my disposal, including regular exercise, therapy, and antidepressants. I make a bracha over my antidepressants every morning. Torah study, prayer, singing, making blessings, saying thank You to God: these have helped me defeat depression when it has risen up to engulf me.

One in ten Americans is suffering from depression at any given moment. That’s one in every minyan. I know that some of you are in that narrow place. If hope feels impossible right now, the rest of us will hold it for you, lovingly, until you are able to claim it as your birthright again.

If you are struggling with depression in any of its forms, I hope that you will come to me. I will listen to you with love, and I can help you get the help you need.

The great 20th-century rabbi and scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “the greatest heresy is despair.” In this he followed in the footsteps of Reb Nachman. Reb Nachman saw despair as the greatest sin of all, because when we despair, we give up on the possibility of healing and redemption. And as Jews, that’s exactly what we are called not to do. Despair is an aveirah, a sin, because it is antithetical to hope.

The hope for a better tomorrow is central to Judaism. For centuries that hope was expressed through messianism, the belief that moshiach would walk among us heralding a transformed creation. For some Jews today that belief has been transmuted into the hope for a messianic age in which we will each have done our part in healing the world. Whether or not you think in terms of a messiah, the hope remains.

As Jews, we’re called to hope that after every week will come Shabbat; that after every sorrow will come joy; that after every shattering will come wholeness. No matter how dire the circumstance, cultivating hope is a Jewish spiritual practice.

I began this morning by saying that the writing life requires keeping one’s tush in the seat, and so does the spiritual life. You’ve all done something extraordinary this morning: you’re here. You took the leap of putting your tush in that seat. Now your challenge is to show up again tomorrow.

Not to show up here for another day like this, because oy, who among us could handle that?

(Though you could show up tomorrow at 2 to help build our sukkah.)

My hope is that your tomorrow will contain a little pearl of spiritual practice.

Not a marathon, but a short walk. Walking works for me because I already know how to do it, and I can do it as I am. Spiritual practice can be like that too. You don’t have to master Hebrew, or purchase a set of tefillin, or change who you are, in order to have spiritual practices. Spiritual practice can be as simple as saying “Thank You” to God, day in and day out.

Every day is a chance to write a new story in the book of our lives; a chance to say please and thanks and wow again; a chance to make teshuvah again. A chance to walk on the treadmill again, both literally and metaphorically.

Faced with this kind of repetition, we have a choice. We can say “ugh, you mean I’m not finished — I have to do this again?” Or we can say, “wow, I’m a work-in-progress — I get to do this again!” The circumstance is the same either way. The difference lies in how we receive the circumstance we’ve been given.

We can choose to practice gratitude and hope. We can choose to practice forgiveness; to practice mitzvot; to practice teshuvah. We can choose to practice counting our blessings, hearing every ringing phone as a call to consciousness, talking with God in the car. Saying thank You. Remembering that we didn’t make the universe, and that our inability to control everything isn’t a flaw in us — it’s a gift.

When we embrace these little spiritual practices, day in and day out, we become grounded in habits which will help us stay steady and whole.

They say that practice makes perfect. Here’s another way to think about it: practice makes more practice. As long as we are alive, there is opportunity to practice. That’s what’s perfect: the fact that we can keep trying.

What matters isn’t the destination, but the journey. Not the end of the song, but the singing. Not being “finished” with the work of perfecting one’s character, but the practices which make up our lives along the way.

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