Yom Kippur, 5781: Rabbi Greg Wolfe

Lessons Squeezed From Lemons: What Life Can Teach Us in Challenging Times

A beautiful lemon tree stands in our yard. Quiet and unassuming, this little tree produces more lemons that we could ever use, or even give away. The great irony, however, is that our lemons ripen in December! Hardly a time that you would want a nice cold glass of lemonade! If life made perfect sense, shouldn’t our lemons come into their fullness as the summer unfolds?!

Being a rabbi, I have discovered a hidden life message in this unfortunate misalignment of product and purpose: I have learned that when life gives you lemons, it is not always at the most desirable time. That is to say, things in life don’t always line up according to how we want or expect them to. Things happen at inconvenient times. We don’t even get what we want much of the time. Things can go horribly, devastatingly wrong. 2020, I imagined, would be a year of great vision. With 20/20 insight we would continue to bring transformation, hope and possibility to our world. It was to be a year of such potential and blessings! But it didn’t exactly turn out that way. I think I can safely say: Nobody saw this year coming!

If anyone had told us 7 months ago that we would be living our lives at a distance of 6 feet from one another, wearing masks when we went out, hoarding toilet paper, and bathing in hand sanitizer we would have thought that they were crazy or discussing some dystopian reality show. But far beyond the little inconveniences and annoyances that have been so troubling, our lives truly have been upended. And these disruptions have had a real impact on our physical, social, emotional, and psychological well-being. The grief and loss we are experiencing is profound.

And why shouldn’t it be? Our most basic human ways of interacting with each other—going out to eat, to the movies and concerts, to work and school; hugging, schmoozing, just being together—have been radically changed. Our spiritual community has been severely impacted, too, as we primarily pray together now from our little zoom boxes, even as we gather for these Holy Days. Our work lives have been dramatically disrupted as we balance care for kids, work- and home-life all while never leaving our houses.  Our educational system is under great strain to keep our kids learning and engaged while schooling online. And, then, there have been the emotional burdens: the fear of someone we love, or ourselves, getting sick every time we venture to the market or run an errand. The malaise that creeps in when we live with constant uncertainty, with no end in sight. The psychological toll of being isolated from one another, especially for the elderly and those who live alone, and those who don’t have access to their normal support systems. Vacations have been postponed, then cancelled. Joyous family gatherings abandoned or done via the internet. Graduations celebrated without the traditional pomp and circumstance. So many life cycles—births, birthdays, bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, weddings—now observed—still with great enthusiasm—but at a distance, without the normal and very important gathering of friends and loved ones.

Most of all, my heart breaks for every family who has lost a loved one to the virus, and for everyone who has lost anyone during this time … so often our dear ones died alone, unaccompanied by those they cherished. Families cannot be surrounded by loving arms, at the time of their greatest need or at their times of greatest joy. And if that weren’t enough, the tremendous challenges keep piling up, one on top of the other! Devastating fires have ravaged so much of the west coast. Most of us know people—friends and family—who had to be evacuated because of the fires. Some have lost everything, some were lucky to escape. All of us have been impacted in serious ways. The smoke and ash from the fires have even made it difficult to go outside on many days, and we yearned for the time when we only had to deal with the virus. There are huge economic challenges at every level, as well, for individual families, our state, and synagogues, too. And these losses are very real.  And, as if that were not already more than any of us could handle in a year, or ever, we must also contend with the tremendous societal upheaval and racial inequalities that plague our country. Many of us are just weighed down by a general sense of anxiety, depression and despair over the state of our world and, in particular, the state of our country.

So, when life gives us “lemons,” and we’ve certainly had enough to last a lifetime in this past year, what can we do? Where can we go for sustenance and support? I find that I often go back to my favorite inspirational teachers to see what kind of lemonade they are serving up to help me cope with my own frustrations, disappointments and sense of loss.

Some of the deepest wisdom I have received in facing life’s hardships comes from Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, a cancer doctor, counsellor and master storyteller. In her story, Pearls of Wisdom (from her book My Grandfather’s Blessings), she describes an unusual talent that the oyster has for dealing with the pain that it encounters in the course of its life. A talent that could serve us all well!  She writes:

And oyster is soft, tender and vulnerable. Without the sanctuary of its shell it could not survive. But oysters must open their shells in order to “breathe” water. Sometimes while an oyster is breathing, a grain of sand will enter its shell and become part of its life from then on.

Such grains of sand cause pain, but an oyster does not alter its soft nature because of this. It does not become hard and leathery in order not to feel. It continues to entrust itself to the ocean, to open and breathe in order to live. But it does respond. Slowly and patiently, the oyster wraps the grain of sand in thin translucent layers until, over time, it has created something of great value in the place where it was most vulnerable to its pain. A pearl might be thought of an oyster’s response to its suffering. Not every oyster can do this. Oysters that do are far more valuable to people than oysters that do not.

Sand is a way of life for an oyster. If you are soft and tender and must live on the sandy floor of the ocean, making pearls becomes a necessity if you are to live well.

Disappointment and loss are a part of every life. Many times we can put such things behind us and get on with the rest of our lives. But not everything is amenable to this approach. Some things are too big or too deep to do this, and we would have to leave important parts of ourselves behind if we treat them in this way. These are the places where wisdom begins to grow in us. It begins with suffering that we do not avoid or rationalize or put behind us . It starts with the realization that our loss, whatever it is, has become a part of us and has altered our life so profoundly that we cannot go back to the way it was before.

Something in us can transform such suffering into wisdom. The process of turning pain into wisdom often looks like a sorting process. First we experience everything. Then one by one we let go, the anger, the blame, the sense of injustice, and finally even the pain itself, until all we have left is a deeper sense of the value of life and a greater capacity to live it.” (p. 139-140)

We learn from the sensitive oyster that we can’t change the facts of our lives or the harsh realities that we must often endure, along with the pain that comes with these experiences. However, we do have control over how we will respond to what happens to us. Will we become hardened and embittered? Or will we look for ways to create pearls of wisdom out of our experience? It is our life. We have a choice to make. If we want to remain soft and tender, compassionate and loving, open to life’s mysteries, we must live in this wide world where we are vulnerable and susceptible to loss and disappointment. Making pearls of meaning may be the only way we can live well.

Some of our most beautiful and inspiring teachings come from our traditional Jewish liturgy at the High Holy Days. U’netaneh Tokef, a central prayer during these Days of Awe, speaks to the heart of these days. With soaring questions—who shall live and who shall die?—this prayer gives voice to our deep liminal anxiety and angst as we await an uncertain future; something akin to pacing the hospital’s halls, awaiting the doctor’s prognosis. In most years, this prayer feels metaphoric—speaking in vague general terms about the vicissitudes of life—who by fire?, who by water?, who by plague? But this year, this prayer, these words touch us with such profound poignancy, hitting so close to home. So many have been lost to the pandemic plagues of our day—nearly a million souls lost around the world to the Coronavirus, 200,000 just here in the US. So many innocent lives lost to the fires. To the floods. To the racial violence. This prayer speaks to the deep vulnerability of our lives. In truth, this vulnerability is always there. But this year, all pretenses have  been stripped away and the reality of our lives has been exposed. We are at the mercy of so many things that are truly beyond our control. We like to believe that we get up, organize our day, go to work, see friends, make plans—that we are in control; that we have things under control. This illusion has been shattered, first by the arrival of the Coronavirus, which virtually shut down life as we know it and quickly shunted us into a brave new virtual world that many of us had not even known existed prior to the pandemic. Then there have been the plagues of fire, unbreathable air, racial prejudice, economic instability and political unrest.

But this prayer does not simply lead us to the edge of despair, leaving us wondering what horrible fates await us with nothing to hold on to. No! Despite the fact that so much in our lives is out of our control, we, again, have a choice as to how we will respond to what happens in our lives. The antidote to a world in chaos and crisis, according to this prayer, is: T’fillah, Teshuvah and Tzedakah, which I would like to think about not in their most traditional sense, but as attitudes for wise living in a challenging world. We might imagine T’fillah (prayer) as living with mindful awareness, gratitude and a deep sense of connection to life; Teshuvah (Return/Repentance) as a call to live in harmony and in right relationship with ourselves, others and the Source of Life; and Tzedakah (Righteous Giving) as a commitment to serving life with goodness, compassion and justice.

Each of these attitudes offers us a path to help us keep our hearts open even when the heartbreak, disappointment, challenge and, sometimes, despair threaten to overwhelm us. These three attitudes offer ways to transform our pain, our very real emotions into life lessons that can enrich our lives with meaning and a deeper sense of purpose. The oyster does this by creating pearls. We can do this too! We can learn to wrap the challenges, disappointments and hurts of our lives in layers of meaning and insight, creating pearls of wisdom that will guide us going forward towards the light.

One of my favorite teachers, Rabbi Larry Kushner, offers us Rules for the Game of Life in his book, Invisible Lines of Connection. These rules parallel the ultimate message of the u’netaneh tokef prayer and the lessons from the oyster: The most important decisions in our lives are actually in our hands!

Rabbi Kushner’s first rule says: Life in and of itself is filled with mystery and uncertainty. “We don’t get to decide when to start playing the game of life. One day, out of the blue, we just realize that we are playing.” We may not get to decide when we start in the game of life, but we do get to decide how we will fill our days as long as they are ours to live. But how will we fill our days? Is the goal of life to fill it up with possessions? Whoever has the most toys at the end wins!? If there is one thing that we have learned in recent months, it is that, often, less is more. Meister Eckhart (a 14th century German mystic) said it well when he wrote: “the spiritual journey has more to do with subtraction rather than addition.” When we strip our lives down to the most essential things, we discover that our most beautiful blessings are multiplied in the simple joys of life and the unexpected surprises that arise when we are forced to do things in new ways. Our most important things in life, in fact, are not things at all! Our health, our family, our friends are truly our greatest gifts. We have gained a deeper appreciation for those who are dear to us. Many of us have had more time just to be together, to be with our kids, to enjoy quiet moments, undisturbed by the usual “busy-ness” that drives our days. We have had to discover new ways to connect with family and friends, and more families are actually meeting together more regularly now than ever before, thanks to the miracle of zoom! People from all over the world have joined in celebrations that they would have never been able to attend in person before COVID struck. This new awareness of what is truly important in our lives is the essence of the path of Tefillah: living each day with gratitude and appreciation for our blessings, small and great. I hope and pray that, as we move forward, we continue to learn how to re-create ourselves, our lives and our community in such a way that we keep discovering the many silver linings of even the most challenging times.

Kushner’s second rule says: “No one gets out alive. There is no way ‘to win’ by staying in the game forever. One day, out of the blue, sooner than anyone expects or wants, The game is abruptly over. But the good news is that dying does not mean that you lose. It’s what you do before you die that determines whether or not you win when you die.”

The measure of our success, then, what gives our lives meaning is based on how we touch and impact the lives of others during our lifetime. It is not the length of our days that matters, but what we do with each day in that life! What we do makes a difference! We have learned very clearly during the time of the pandemic that the smallest steps, the simplest actions can actually save lives. When we wear our masks, when we observe physical distance, when we wash our hands, we are exercising a strong sense of communal responsibility. We understand the power and importance of protecting one another and being considerate of others’ health and well-being. This is the message of the path of Tzedakah: living with openhearted generosity towards others is the essence of a life well lived. I hope and pray that, as we move forward, we discover each day that the best way to bring meaning into our lives, and alleviate a sense of helplessness and despair, is through giving and sharing the blessings of our lives with others; making the world better in any way that we can.

Kushner’s third rule posits: “Every player receives random undeserved gifts and handicaps throughout the progress of the game. Figuring out why you got the package deal you did transforms all the disabilities into gifts just as refusing to figure it out transforms the gifts into disabilities. Some get dealt a full house; others, a pair of twos. The question therefore is not whether you deserve the hand you were dealt, but how you choose to play it.” Rabbi Kushner teaches us that it is futile to question why something befalls us. We win when we figure out how to use all of our gifts—whether they are strengths or shortcomings.  We discover our blessings not when things come easily to us, but when we face each challenge to the best of our abilities. When we confront obstacles in our lives, uncomfortable and even painful moments, these become the occasions for us to grow into our best selves, to grow in wisdom.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a well respected psychiatrist and chasidic rabbi, teaches us that we can learn the following important lesson from the lobster! (Btw, This may be the only High Holy Day sermon that you’ll ever hear in which your rabbi draws upon two unkosher crustaceans—the oyster and the lobster—to teach important lessons for living!) Rabbi Twerski explains that the lobster is a soft, mushy animal that lives inside a hard, rigid shell. So, “If that rigid shell does not expand,” he asks, “How does the lobster grow? Well, as the lobster grows, the shell becomes very confining and the lobster feels itself under pressure; it gets uncomfortable. So, it hides itself under a rock, to protect itself, and sheds its old shell and grows a new one. That’s fine for awhile, but as the lobster grows the new shell becomes uncomfortable again and the lobster goes back under the rock and grows another new shell. This process is repeated over and over during the life of the lobster!” Rabbi Twerski underscores this point: If the lobster never got uncomfortable, never was squeezed and challenged, he would never have shed his shell in the first place and been able to grow. It is the very discomfort that the lobster experiences that enables his growth. It is because the lobster is uncomfortable that he is able to change and develop in new ways. What is true for the lobster is true for us, as well! These trying times have been very uncomfortable and challenging, and yet they have also forced us to cast off old ways and have challenged us to be more resilient, creative and flexible. In doing so, we have developed new coping mechanisms and discovered new strengths and talents that we didn’t even know that we had.

This is the essence of the path of Teshuvah: Living in right and honest connection with others, ourselves, and the Holy One. As we figure out just what our unique gifts are, we must also accept and embrace all parts of ourselves, the noble and not so noble. Only then can we live and grow into our truest, best selves. I hope and pray that, as we move forward, we discover each day how we can transform any disabilities we might have into gifts and learn to play the cards we are dealt, with grace, humility and love. May we always be able to shed those things that no longer serve us and grow into our new selves with delight and curiosity.

Kushner’s fourth rule: “The only way to accumulate points is to discern the presence (or signature) of the Creator and then act in such a way as to help others find it too.  The signature is not just in things but in actions, thought and feelings; not just in happiness and sunshine, but in agony, struggle and death.”

Here, too, the spiritual practice of tefillah invites us to notice God’s presence everywhere in the world around us, especially in the challenging and disturbing parts.  What we have learned from the virus is that which is invisible to the naked eye is still mighty and possesses awesome power. We should never underestimate the impact of those things that we can’t see on our lives. While this is true for the virus, we should also remember that this is equally true about other important aspects of our lives, such as love, faith, hope, and resilience. During these difficult days, we are sustained by our ability to cultivate and manifest these invisible qualities. We can’t see them, but we feel their impact deeply and they are essential to helping us overcome times of loss, frustration, and anxiety. I hope and pray that, as we move forward, we discover each day the inner-resources, naked to the eye, but alive and sustaining within us, that provide the guiding lights to navigate our way through foreboding, uncertain times.

Rabbi Kushner’s fifth and last rule is: Everything is joined together by invisible lines of connection in one “luminous organism of sacred responsibility.” We are all in this life together, with the good and the bad, the shining moments and the troubled days. Just as we must all work together to win a very difficult battle, so, too, no one will be able to transcend these difficult times alone. Most of us know the 3 natural responses to a threat: fight, flight, and freeze. Lesser known is the 4th F: flock!  This, I believe, is our most powerful response! When we see that we are all connected together, we begin to understand the power of our community, the strength that comes from being a part of something larger than any one of us alone.  Particularly at this time, we can provide for one another a wonderful network of love and support to help us cope with the challenges of our day. When we flock, we are able to tap into the deeper shared wisdom and strength of our community! The incredible support of our beloved community has been so heartwarming and inspiring during this time. I feel so blessed by the way so many have continued to support our congregational community so that we will always be there for each other.  In so many ways, the Covid crisis has shown us just how precious our community is. And, I hope and pray that, as we move forward and emerge from these challenging times, we may find even more comfort and happiness in this community that we have created and strengthened together.

In the year that we have just had, where things seemed to go from bad to worse to abominable, we have needed, and will continue to need, all the tools we can muster to manage our emotional, spiritual, physical and psychological health. As we learn to embrace the life we are given, lemons and all, we squeeze precious meaning out of every moment when we realize that it is the choices we make in response to our circumstances that make all the difference. May we all become sacred containers of wisdom as we join our lives together into a strong and vibrant fabric of community. May we come to know that we have the power to make a difference in each others’ lives in ways small and great. May we perceive, each and every day, the mysterious presence of invisible forces that sustain us—love, faith, a sense of the Holy. And, when we begin to see that challenges can lead to opportunities to grow and transform our lives, then we will have empowered ourselves with the ability to navigate these difficult days with grace, patience, hope and joy, and most of all, wisdom.

Ken y’hi ratzon!