A few months ago, a couple of my colleagues mentioned using an app called Ten Percent Happier, by former ABC news anchor Dan Harris, for meditation and mindfulness. No, he’s not paying me to talk about the app, or the benefits of meditation, and even though one of his parents is Jewish, I doubt it ever crossed his mind that some rabbi somewhere would use his app as a jumping off point for a Rosh Hashanah sermon. He may not even be aware of a connection between mindfulness and our high holy days, even though some of his teachers, and some of the world’s most famous meditation gurus, are Jewish, like Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg. The teacher known as Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert in Boston, Massachusetts.
Now before you panic, thinking that I’m going to ask you to sit here with your eyes closed chanting a mantra for the next hour, take a deep breath and allow your lungs to expand, and let go of some tension as you exhale. Then just continue breathing as you have been.
Meditation and mindfulness aren’t easy practices to cultivate, let alone to practice on a regular basis, and if you have one, kol hakavod, that’s great.
When I was in rabbinical school, people would often lead meditative services and programs, and when the meditation was over, you could hear a collective, “aahhhh.” And in my mind? “huh?” I had a hard time with it, especially because I always worried that I wasn’t doing it right. One time, our teacher, Rabbi Jill Hammer, was leading a meditation that involved being in the woods and coming to an opening where there was a stone staircase going down. She said something to the effect of, “You come to a staircase, and being going down.” In my mind I was happily skipping down the steps, when I heard, “You take the first step.” And I thought, “Oh shoot,” and went running back up to the top. Ok, maybe I didn’t say “shoot.”
It took a lot of time before I realized that being mindful and meditating aren’t easy, and there’s a reason they’re called “practices.” Hearing experienced meditators say that they often got distracted and had to bring themselves back to watching their breath, or whatever, was incredibly helpful and empowering.
You might be wondering, “why is the rabbi talking about meditation on Rosh Hashanah?” Good question. The Torah tells us that this day is a sacred occasion, one on which we don’t work at our occupations, and when we sound the shofar, or shout, depending on how you translate the word teruah. Unlike Passover or Sukkot, there’s no historical connection to the day, and it doesn’t specifically coincide with any kind of agricultural harvest. In fact, we’re not even sure what else the Torah wants us to do on this day!
Because it’s 10 days before Yom Kippur, when we fast and atone for the times we’ve fallen short of being and doing our best, our ancient sages saw this day as an opportunity to formally begin the process of teshuva, of returning and repenting. We start the process now and build up to Yom Kippur, praying that the God of Justice will behave justly.
Our goal during these 10 days, with our thoughts and our prayers, is that we will move God from kisei din, the throne or seat of judgment, to kisei rachamim, the throne or seat of compassion. But how do we know if we’ve been successful? Because we make it to the break fast? The sky doesn’t fall in? And what about the guy in Denver many years ago who was struck by lightning getting into his car after the breakfast? He did survive, but it does make you wonder.
In the 21st century, how many of us are convinced that the Kadosh Baruch Hu, The Holy Blessed One, is sitting in front of some humongous ledger putting our good deeds in one column and our sins in another? Do we really believe we’re facing Divine judgment?
To be honest, I’m not so sure about the ledger, but I do believe that God is mindful of me, and all of us. However, I don’t worry about it. I worry more about how I might be judged by other people, and how I judge myself. Ha Rachaman, the Merciful One, is much more forgiving than people are.
That brings me back to mindfulness, and its connection to Rosh Hashanah. We need to cultivate the ability to be mindful every day, to be aware of our thoughts and actions, and the impact they have on others. I can pretty much guarantee that God will be back in shul for next year’s high Holy Days, but a person who wasn’t happy with the service or a sermon I gave, might not be.
And I might never know why.
As we move through Rosh Hashanah and the coming days, take time for mindfulness. Stop and think before you speak or act, or before you respond. Be aware if you’re judging yourself harshly, and most likely, unfairly. More importantly, since Rosh Hashanah celebrates Creation, and especially since today is also Shabbat, can we be mindful of the many blessings that surround us? Watch a bumblebee flitting from one flower to another, spend time in nature taking in the sights and sounds, even take a deep inhale when you open the canister of coffee or tea in the morning. It only takes a moment to experience awe if we’re open to it, and simply paying attention to where we are and how we’re feeling can help us ground us.
Since I began using the app in June, I’ve logged 65 mindful days, 85 sessions and 1522 total minutes. Not exactly consistent, and this kind of practice won’t get me to Carnegie Hall. However, I’ve noticed a change in my reactions to things. I was recently told of something I did nine years ago that affected how I was perceived as a rabbi. I don’t remember the incident, but I’m not ruminating over it and beating myself up. I’m not sure that would have happened six months ago, so I consider this a win.
I invite you to take a moment now to take a deep breath, close your eyes if you’d like, and just feel yourself sitting. As Joseph Goldstein says, “sit and know you’re sitting.” Feel your feet on the ground, the air around you. Just be. Over the next two days, and on Yom Kippur, take moments to be mindful of the words in our prayers, how they might make you feel, and how your body feels sitting or standing. Feel the energy when we sing and pray together.
The Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, shouldn’t just be about fear and reverence; they should be opportunities to remind ourselves that the world is an awesome and awe-inspiring place, and so are we.
May we be blessed in the coming year for a life of health and happiness, blessing and prosperity, peace and alm. Shana tova norm