Turn to Breathe in Life – Rabbi Conover’s Yom Kippur Sermon

Turn to Breathe in Life

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover

Yom Kippur 5775

Nature writer Barbara Brown Taylor once shared this experience[1]:

Several summers ago I spent three days on a barrier island where loggerhead turtles were laying their eggs. One night while the tide was out, I watched a huge female heave herself up on the beach and dig her nest and empty her eggs into it. Afraid of disturbing her, I left before she was finished. The next morning I returned to see if I could find the spot where her eggs lay hidden in the sand. What I found were her tracks leading in the wrong direction. Instead of heading back out to sea, she had wandered into the dunes, which were already as hot as asphalt in the morning sun.

A little ways inland I found her: Exhausted, all but baked, her head and flippers caked with dried sand.… I fetched a park ranger who returned with a jeep to rescue her. He flipped her on her back, strapped tire chains around her front legs, and hooked the chains to a trailer hitch on his jeep. Then I watched horrified as he took off, yanking her body forward so that her mouth filled with sand and her neck bent so far back I thought it would break.

The ranger hauled her over the dunes and down onto the beach. At the ocean’s edge, he unhooked her and turned her right side up. She lay motionless in the surf as the water lapped at her body, washing the sand from her eyes and making her skin shine again. A wave broke over her; she lifted her head slightly, moving her back legs. Other waves brought her further back to life until one of them made her light enough to find a foothold and push off, back into the ocean. Watching her swim slowly away and remembering her nightmare ride through the dunes, I reflected that it is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down.

As many of you know, long before our family left for Israel this summer, a year ago this past June to be exact, our life was turned upside down.  That was when my brother Tony was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  I know that as I tell you this this morning, there are many, many of you here who have experienced your own losses.  This has been a tough year for many.  After a short, grueling illness, Tony died near his home in Janesville, Wisconsin the Monday after Thanksgiving.  As the Polar Vortex descended upon the region, we all– especially his wife and two sons– wanted to hibernate in our grief.  Yet, we were determined to follow the words of Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell…. keep going.”[2]

We were determined to put one foot in front of the other to keep going.  In Chicago, to do this, we embarked on doing bold acts of kindness in Tony’s memory.  The first, and I still believe the boldest of all: my sons, husband and I went outside in the depths of winter and served hot chocolate to our guests waiting in line for Temple Sholom’s soup kitchen, the Monday Meal, to open.  To those of you who might be thinking: Well that’s kind– but is it bold?  Let me say this: We served the hot chocolate to these rabid Bears fans, while wearing hats with large letters that spelled out my brother’s beloved team: Green Bay Packers.  My brother, the eternal Cheesehead, would have been proud.

We continued our trudge through winter- with our directive ringing in our heads: keep going! Then, on February 13, my father was felled by a devastating stroke, rendering movement on his right side and any speech nearly impossible.  He spent several days in the ICU.  From winter to summer, I traveled to my hometown of St. Louis many times trying to do what little I could to help my mom, my dad and our family to keep going.

During my first visit, I was in the car with my mom late at night with the radio dial turned to NPR in the background.  We had missed a Ted Talk in which Krista Tippet had shared her 18 minutes of brilliance and insight with the world.  Yet, the host of the radio show invited us to stay tuned for a conversation with her when they would delve into the concept of “thin places.”  Ordinarily, my mom and I would have stayed in the car for our very own “driveway moment.”  However, we were just too exhausted. That day we had moved him from ICU to acute rehab.  Now it was time to tuck ourselves into bed.

Yet, this phrase “thin places” seemed to fit my life so well.  I had never heard it before– but, I felt stretched in so many directions that every place felt thin. In the coming week, I would play the phrase over and over in my head as I simultaneously lived and analyzed my life.  I thought of the synapses in my father’s brain– thin, fragile, broken.  Back home in Chicago, I was reminded of the term when I succumbed to the quality of my sleep– thinned to the point of a wisp of an idea– interrupted by mid-night calls from the room of my young sons.  Later in the week, we went to Florida to visit my 90 year old grandmother.  Just before we arrived, she had fallen.  It became clear that she needed to go to the hospital.  While looking at an x-ray of my grandmother’s legs, again the phrase seemed apt.  I marveled at my grandmother’s graceful bones, thinned and thinning with each year.

We all have been stretched thin, thin, thin…Aging ourselves prematurely, we can feel like Bilbo Baggins who said: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”[3]

Still, I have tried to help my family continue to do what we have learned to do– to keep going.  We can get through this.

It wasn’t until I returned from Florida that I had the opportunity to research the meaning of “thin places.”  A quick google search yielded a New York Times Travel article in which Eric Weiner defined “thin places” as “locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent.”[4]

While most attribute this term to Celtic mythology, one rather vociferous blogger[5] explains that this term and tradition predate the Celts. And we can imagine how the pagans living in Ireland happened upon this notion, surrounded as they were by stunning vistas of wind-swept isles, lush green hills and blue-green ocean.  As historian of religion, Mircea Eliade concludes about experiences of the holy in certain places, “where the sacred manifests itself in space.”   He writes: “the real unveils itself…it affects a break in plane, that is, it opens communication between the cosmic planes (between earth and heaven) and makes possible ontological passage between one mode of being to another.”[6] We know of this in the United States– in the energy vortexes amid the red rock formations of Sedona; in the four paintings of The Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole where an angel of God– sometimes distant, sometimes near, manifests in stirring images of nature.

For me, this new information was not just interesting.  It was revelatory.  If thin places open communication between earth and heaven, then maybe as life stretches all of us so thin, the answer is not to just keep going and going.  Instead, maybe we should follow the advice of famed meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein:  Don’t just do something.  Sit there![7]

I can’t help but notice the connection between the command to sit:

“Shev!”  “Shvi!” or “Shvu!”

And the command that permeates these Days of Awe:

“Shuv”

or

Turn…

In fact, the Torah portion that we read from this morning is from Parashat Netzavim– whose verses include Chapter 30 from the Book of Deuteronomy– repeats the the word “shuv” 7 times in that chapter’s opening lines.  “Turn and hear the voice of God…  And God will turn and rejoice…  when you turn to Adonai with all your heart and with all your soul…”

Seven times we hear the word turn– seven, that number that evokes creation, symbolizing hope and the ability to begin again.  I realized, if I just keep going, racing to move forward, I have no time to turn. A horse in a race with blinders, I kept focused on getting through the finish line that would take me away from this filament thin place.  Yet, I had missed the power that these thin places offer — the ability pass to another mode of being– getting still, paying attention, noticing the sacred made manifest in these situations.

I returned in my mind’s eye to the hospital room, where I spent hours with Tony before his death.  I recalled how warm he was to the touch, and soft, like a newborn.  I remember how gentle and kind he was to those around him, appreciating every moment, every gesture. His grace collapsed the distance between heaven and earth.

I hear now in the calls from my sons in the middle of the night, a Divine voice beckoning.  Treasure this time, you soon will be missing those little voices.  With attentive love, I nurture their needs even as I am awed by their growth.  In this growing I glimpse the transcendent.

To have a grandmother, wise, opinionated and strong, who, at 90 years old continues to enrich my life and the lives of our sons.  Her humor and perseverance unveils the real.

And my father…During his months at the hospital and rehab, the love between my parents allowed them to bask in the small, victorious moments that has led to major progress.  While he struggled to regain language and movement, the first full phrase he was able to string together came spontaneously one morning when my mom walked into the room.  He said: “You… look… very… pretty.”

My dad had lived by the adage: Always try to find something nice to say.  And it’s more well-known counterpart: If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.  Slowly, slowly, speech has become more accessible for my father.  Yet, his mind’s filters have remained elusive.  Just a few weeks back, at a mindfulness weekend at their synagogue, my parents studied a spiritual poem in a small group.  Various thoughtful remarks were made by participants.  My dad was quiet, so my mom asked what he thought. “Frankly, I think this is bull-s#!t.”

Through all of this, my dad continues to tell my mom—“This life’s still good.”

Their love breaks cosmic planes.  In so doing, it doesn’t just open communication with the Divine, it is Divine.

Sometimes turning to the thin places in our lives can be counter-intuitive…  When we are going through hell, it seems to make sense to just keep going.  Get through it.  With gratitude we tell ourselves: Gam zeh ya-avor– this too shall pass.  Yet, with our press to keep going, we miss the holiness in these very moments.

Shev- Still yourself.

Shuv!  Turn!

God assures us:

Shuvu Elai

Turn to me

V’yashuv elechem

And I will turn to you (Zechariah 1:3).

Not just to persevere or to grit our teeth and press on…

but to feel life and love amidst our pain.

No doubt, there are times when it feels as though life has turned us upside down.  Times when we have been dragged through the sand.  Times when it felt as though our necks were about to break.  Times when our patience for the hand we have been dealt has been stretched incredibly thin.  And yet, in these moments, nourishing waves of life wash over us.

We might even be so bold as to find blessings– not those trite thoughts about blessings:

that everything happens for a reason…

I tell you now, I think it does not.

Or that God only gives us as much as we can carry.

I don’t believe that either.

But when we still ourselves and turn to the present, we find the blessing of Divine Presence.

Poet Marge Piercy writes:

The discipline of blessings is to taste

each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet,

and the salty, and be glad for what does not

hurt.  The art is in compressing attention

to each little and big blossom of the tree

of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,

its savor, its aroma and its use.

Attention is love, what we must give

children, mothers, fathers, pets,

our friends, the news, the woes of others…[8]

 

What we must give ourselves and accept from others… as we are being dragged towards life.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah—May we find blessings as we turn to breathe in a new year of life.



[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Other Side Magazine March & April 2000

[2] From Winston Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister on May 10, 1940.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkein, The Fellowship of the Ring, Mariner Books; Reissue edition (September 18, 2012).

[4] Eric Weiner, The New York Times, March 9, 2012.

[5] Richard Rohr, “The Celts Didn’t Invent Thin Places.” Blog: http://www.thinplace.net/2011/03/richard-rohr-celts-didnt-invent-thin.html

[6] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, Harcourt, Inc., 1959, p. 63.

[7] Sylvia Boorstein, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There: A Mindfulness Retreat with Sylvia Boorstein, HarperOne, February 16, 1996.

[8] Marge Piercy, The Art of Blessing the Day, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, pp. 4-5.