Everything Changes – Cantor Katzman’s Yom Kippur Sermon

Yizkor Sermon 2014

Cantor Aviva Katzman

10 Tishrei 5775


Many of you know what my connection to the Institute for Jewish Spirituality has meant to me over the years.  My twice a year retreats with the Institute are deeply restful and restorative interludes that reinvigorate everything I do.  Rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators assemble to study, meditate, practice yoga, pray, sing, and have deep and honest discussions about their work and their lives.  We nurture mindfulness—the ability to see clearly what is happening in each moment without being distracted by fear, anger, aversion, or wishful thinking. This clear-sightedness liberates us from constantly replaying the same painful loop, obscuring the actual scene.

At IJS retreats, Jewish texts yield insights into living with more equanimity, gratitude, and acceptance and with less self-inflicted suffering.  While I’m away from hectic multi-tasking, an overstuffed schedule, and constant social media overload, my mind settles.  A safe space among my friends and colleagues on retreat has allowed me to grieve a loss. The quiet hours of meditation and contemplation provide answers when important decisions are at hand.  After a retreat, I dive back into my life with greater clarity.  I am far from perfect, but honestly, I’m a happier and calmer person today than I was 10 years ago.

Last year Temple Sholom struck gold when the Institute offered select communities a grant for integrating the study of Tikkun Middot, also known as Mussar, into our congregation. This ancient Jewish practice facilitates the mindful exploration and fine-tuning of traits such as humility, patience, and kindness.  The John Templeton Foundation funded the Institute’s development of a unique curriculum for use in schools, synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and colleges around the country. From now through next June, we will focus on a monthly quality, or middah. In this Hebrew month of Tishrei, our community’s assignment is to nurture openness to learning and internalizing that knowledge as part of one’s character. The IJS curriculum calls this quality hitlamdut / התלמדות. A Mitlamed / מתלמד is someone who strives to see how each situation and lesson can be transformative. Hitlamdut is the quality that enables us to grow from both good and bad experiences.

Almost 4 years ago, the Institute embarked on another exciting project, “Wise Aging.” I asked some good friends to assist me in getting it off the ground here at Temple Sholom.  Now in our 4th year of Mindful Jewish Aging, we meet regularly to examine “Life over 50.”  Together, we share insights, savor our accumulated wisdom, and relish our zest for life.

Two years ago another IJS project caught my eye.  I subsequently joined a cohort of Mindfulness Meditation Teachers’ Training. This fall we began a yearlong Jewish Mindfulness Meditation group that meets during Adult Education on Sunday mornings. Meditation is challenging. Meditating in a group is reassuring.  Even if you doze off and snore, as I suspect I have during retreats (though my colleagues were too sweet to tell me), the supportive company of fellow travelers is comforting.

In his book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice, A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser, Lewis Richmond relates:

I had come to a small Buddhist temple on a busy San Francisco street to hear a lecture by Shunryu Suzuki. At the time, Suzuki was in his sixties, and most of the people in the room were in their twenties and thirties. During the question-and-answer period, someone asked, “Why do we meditate?” Suzuki answered with a laugh, “So you can enjoy your old age.”  We laughed with him. We thought he was joking. Now I realize that he was being honest. He had been ill the whole previous winter and was still coughing and wheezing months later. Physically he hadn’t been feeling well, and yet his whole demeanor radiated contentment. He was clearly enjoying his old age. I now think that Suzuki was actually letting us in on a great secret… It is possible to find enjoyment in the gift of each moment and each breath, even in the midst of difficulty.

Richmond, Lewis (2012-01-05). Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser (pp. 6-7). Gotham. Kindle Edition.

Rabbi Laura Geller, Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, made a very moving contribution to a book published last fall entitled, Chapters of the Heart, Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives.  She was one of the earliest women ordained by Hebrew Union College and a member of the first group of rabbis trained by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. Just a few years older than I, she describes in Chapters of the Heart the mindfulness practices that helped her transcend past emotional wounds. She cites a teaching by Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg about the Hebrew word korban, meaning “sacrifice.”  Korban is a metronym, a word having two almost opposite meanings.  In the context of “sacrifice,” the word means, “letting go.”  Its root isקרב  which translates, “to draw close.” Rabbi Geller comments:

Meditation, spiritual direction, mussar work . . . it all helps me reflect with more clarity on my metronym; what does it mean “l’hakriv” [to let go and to draw close]… So I…turn to a story I have known for years…the story we read in Genesis 12. “And YHVH said to Abram, “Go forth from your land (lech l’cha) and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, and [you will] be a blessing” (Gen 12: 1–2). It is only recently that I really heard the truth of feminist scholar Savina Teubal’s insight that Avram and Sarai are not a young couple at the beginning of their lives, but rather mature adults beginning “a quest into the unknown at a later stage of life.” Savina used that story as the text for what she called a “croning ceremony” on her sixtieth birthday. I had the privilege of being there. For me the most powerful moment was when Savina donned a kittle, the white garment in which she wanted to be buried. That gesture connected this stage with the truth that undergirds it: there is less time ahead than behind; how can one find meaning and purpose in the time that is left?

(2013-10-30). Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives (pp. 152-153). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Last May, I celebrated my own 60th birthday.  Something stirred in me.  I hadn’t felt such a yearning since I was a teenager. The voice in my head said, “L’chi lach!  Go and learn something new.  Go exploring while you can.”  The voice becomes more insistent when my friends describe their exotic travels, enroll in a class on a totally unfamiliar topic, or embark on a new vocation.

The author Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot calls these conversations, “confessional moments.”

I am…talking [she explains] about moments when we manage to…make peace with the [aging face in the mirror] and refuse to be preoccupied with our chronic laments about aging or our sadness about our vanishing youth.  These are moments when our faces light up, when there is a palpable surge of energy and we begin to reveal stories about learning something new.  These are stories told most often by people who are…in the “Third Chapter” of our adult lives, the years between fifty and seventy-five, the generative space that follows young adulthood and middle age.  And these stories are recited with intrigue, passion, and self-discovery…

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, The Third Chapter, Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, pp. 3-4.

A large study at Stonybrook University polled 340,000 people on happiness, and found that people in their fifties are generally happier than those who are younger. The results revealed that “People’s overall satisfaction with their lives showed a U-shaped pattern, dipping down from the early thirties until about the age of fifty before trending upward again.”  [One] theory proposed that “older people might focus less on what they have or have not achieved, and more on how to get the most out of the rest of their lives.” “Happiness research” is a new specialty, of which the Stonybrook study is just one example.  Continued analysis has identified three factors that tend to encourage lasting happiness: “reframing” difficult experiences (looking at things in a new way…), generosity, and gratitude.

Described in Richmond, Lewis (2012-01-05). Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser (pp. 55-57). Gotham. Kindle Edition.

Have the “Happiness researchers” ever heard of Tikkun Middot?  “Reframing” difficult experiences and absorbing them in a positive way sounds suspiciously like Hitlamdut.  Suffering is part of the human experience. In addition to sharing many joyous moments with the Temple community, I have witnessed terrible pain. I don’t recommend it, but there can be growth and insight on the other end.  In healing, we can strive to recognize our strength and appreciate our resilience.  This is Hitlamdut—reframing—finding wisdom in the gift of each moment.  Growth continues throughout a lifetime.

As you all know, I have decided that as we finish studying our last middah at the end of June, I will retire as your full-time cantor.  It’s an anxious time.  We are used to each other!  Change is very difficult.  A learning moment, perhaps, but challenging.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro was intrigued with the Book of Ecclesiastes for decades until he wrote a new interpretation entitled, The Way of Solomon, Finding Joy and Contentment in the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes.  He asserts that this Biblical book is undeserving of its reputation for downbeat cynicism.  In his words,

What Ecclesiastes tells us is this:  The past and the future are out of our control, and the present is impermanent and fleeting.  If we are going to find joy in life, we cannot find it in the past or in the future. We must find it here and now, in the present.  And since the present is impermanent, we have to be fully attentive to it, if we are to appreciate it at all.  If we are daydreaming about tomorrow or agonizing over yesterday, we will miss whatever it is today has to offer.  Life is here and now. We must pay attention to it.  We must learn what we can from each encounter and, when appropriate, apply that knowledge to the next… Only when we taste the world as it is, respecting it for what it is and honoring its pleasures and pains as they come and go—only then can we partake of the joys that this world has to offer without souring them with the self-defeating desire for permanence.

Shapiro, Rami, The Way of Solomon, Finding Joy and Contentment in the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes (p. 123). Harper San Francisco.

An anecdote reported in Aging as a Spiritual Practice goes like this:

Once, after a lecture, someone asked Suzuki (we all called him “Roshi,” which means “old teacher”), “Roshi,…I can’t understand anything you are saying. Can you say one thing…that I can actually understand?” Suzuki waited for the nervous laughter to die down and then quietly said, “Everything changes.”

Richmond, Lewis (2012-01-05). Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser (p. 5). Gotham. Kindle Edition.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus taught a beautiful lesson on impermanence. “No man ever steps in the same river twice,” he is said to have stated, “for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Everything changes.  Children grow up and leave the nest, and sometimes elders do too.  Nothing is forever.  Not the good times, not the bad times, and not our youth.  But love remains, and my nearly three decades of serving this community will always be imprinted on my heart.  That imprint will forever draw me back as a fellow member of this congregation.  I can’t imagine losing that connection. In order to draw close to who I want to be in my Third Chapter—in order to open myself up to learning from life in this new phase, I need to let something go.

But not just yet.  My status won’t change until the end of June.  And we are together in this moment, right now, and there’s only this—no day but today.

Song:   “No Day But Today,” from the musical Rent by Jonathan Larson

There’s only us, there’s only this

Forget regret, or life is yours to miss

No other path, no other way

No day but today


There’s only us, only tonight

We must let go to know what’s right

No other road, No other way

No day but today


I can’t control my destiny

I trust my soul, my only goal

Is just to be


There’s only now, there’s only here

Give in to love or live in fear

No other path, No other way

No day but today


There’s only us, There’s only this

Forget regret, or life is yours to miss

No other road, no other way

No day but today


No day but today

(No day but today)

No day but today

(No day but today)

No day but today

(No day but today)

No day but today